Ads, damned ads and online advertising

October 22, 2016

This week I heard a fascinating interview with Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu on NPR’S Fresh Air. An open Internet advocate, Wu is increasingly worried about the direction in which the World Wide Web is heading – advertising just keeps getting heavier and heavier and heavier. Wu has just written a history of advertising: The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble To Get Inside Our Heads.

Many of the founders of Internet were utopians. According to Stewart Brand, we owe it all to the hippies:

Forget antiwar protests, Woodstock, even long hair. The real legacy of the sixties generation is the computer revolution

But as time has gone on it has gone what has taken place has diverged from this vision. The internet has lost its innocence.  Yes, a lot of content is free, but this comes at a price. We are constantly being bombarded with advertising. Not only is it ubiquitous, it is becoming increasingly difficult to close. We like the idea that that we can get stuff for free. This is a notion that is particularly prevalent on the internet. Newspapers are caught in this dilemma. Going behind a paywall doesn’t seem to be a particularly viable option. You lose a lot of influence this way; newspapers have traditionally wanted to be at the heart of the debate. But giving everything away doesn’t work either. Advertising just doesn’t bring in enough revenue for newspapers. There are some companies making money from online advertising – the Internet powerhouses Google, Facebook and Twitter.

Wu describes Google as the most profitable attention merchant in the history of the world. They began as a very idealistic company, but what they didn’t have was a business model. Their route to wealth would be with advertising. What is particularly ironic about this is Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin actually hated advertising, which they thought would corrupt the goal of the search engine, which is to try to give you the most important information, not what someone paid to be there. They wrote all this in a paper, The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine, which they wrote while studying at Stanford in 1998.

We are in what is known as the attention economy. Human attention is indeed a scarce commodity. As we have such digital overload, companies struggle to get into our brains. To attract interest one of the online marketer’s most potent weapons is clickbait. Merriam Webster defines this as:

online material (such as headlines) designed to make readers want to click on hyperlinks especially when the links lead to content of dubious value or interest.

The earliest citation on the Wordspy website goes back to 1999. In reality what they are doing is using many of the techniques perfected by tabloid journalists. All we have is a 21st century version of The Sun’s notorious Freddy Starr ate my pet hamster.

Wu’s central idea is that if we really care about content, we should be willing to pay for it. He gives food for thought. An ad-free version, he claims, would cost $12 a year. I don’t take such an alarmist view. True, it can be irritating when you are on the mobile phone. But I don’t find Facebook ads particularly irritating. I see it as a reasonable trade-off. I’m still in awe at everything that you can get on the web. There has been a loss of idealism, but I have never been a cyber-utopian. I know that they are looking to find my weaknesses, but I don’t think that we are such passive victims.

20 Diversion Tactics Highly Manipulative Narcissists, Sociopaths And Psychopaths Use To Silence You

October 22, 2016

No, you’re not going to learn these diversion tactics. This is just clickbait, which I got from the ContentForest clickbait generator I found online. Here are some others:

People Are Tweeting Their Most Awkward Moments And It Is Cringingly Hilarious

The pope’s lunch plans tomorrow are exactly why we love the dude so much.

Auto Mechanics Hilariously Recreate Renaissance Paintings

A Woman Is Posting Feminist Messages Written On Period Pads All Over Her City

16 Things We Forget To Thank Our Moms For

24 Pictures That Will Make You Feel Better About The World

A Scottish boy couldn’t stand a preacher’s homophobic rant, so he whipped out his bagpipes.

26 Poses Every Single Person Will Immediately Recognize

Corgi Puppies Running In Slow Motion Will Overwhelm You With Cuteness

Young Couple Aged 70 Years With Make-Up To See If They’d Still Love Each Other

A Dog, 8 Birds And A Hamster Are The Most Unusual Best Friends Ever

This Is For Everyone Suffering From Freezing Office Syndrome

Remember that pizzeria that was feeding the homeless? See what happened when you shared their story.


How was it for you?

April 10, 2016

How we became obsessed with rating, ranking, reviewing and measuring.

As a Harvard undergraduate, Mark Zuckerberg could have been expelled when an early version of Facebook, which ranked girls on how hot they were, brought down the university’s server because of the high level of traffic. He was accused of breaching security, violating copyrights and violating individual privacy by creating the Facemash website. After a disciplinary board hearing the future billionaire was put on probation and required to see a counsellor.

We love ranking things. In his first novel, High Fidelity, Nick Hornby tapped into this obsession. The protagonist, Rob Fleming, was obsessed with making top-five lists: most memorable split-ups, in chronological order, Best Films of All Time and even Bands Or Musicians Who Should Be Shot If It Came to the Musical Revolution. But now thanks to the IT revolution we have all become like Rob Fleming. We rate, we rank, we review, we measure and we also track. We do it to ourselves, our friends, the companies we purchase products from and also the places where we eat, drink and sleep.

The growth of e-commerce in particular, has led to an explosion of rating. The online auction and shopping website, eBay was one of the pioneers of this way of ranking people. It was obviously important for the fledgling website to establish trust; you were buying from complete strangers, so you wanted to know if you were you going to ever see your money again or get your package delivered. And in the sharing economy of Airbnb and Uber trust is a vital component too. Indeed, the Uber rating system isn’t one-way. Customers also get rated. You’re more likely to be a courteous passenger if you know getting a bad score might result in you being cut off from the convenience of Uber in the future. These systems don’t always work well. The Uber driver who went on a random shooting spree that killed six people in Michigan last month had an Uber rating of 4.73. However, this phenomenon is not limited to the online world. Dr. Harold Shipman, who may well have been murdered more than 200 of his patients, was described as a wonderful GP by many of the families of his patients.

Research carried out by Consumer Business Research at Deloitte UK has shown that 81% of consumers read the customer reviews, on e-commerce and websites. This is not just a passive activity. 40% of consumers post reviews. I don’t tend to write reviews. Recently I bought an e-reader from the Spanish company Energy Sistem (sic). As well as coming without a built-in dictionary, it had serious battery issues. I just took it back to the shop. I didn’t write one of those scathing online reviews recommending that you never buy any of their awful products.

Companies have become vey needy in recent years. You go to IKEA and as you leave the store, they have this smiley-button based system:

ikea smiley

Buy online and you are asked to rate the experience.  A similar thing happens if you phone you telephone company. It’s all too much. As Anne Karpf pointed out in the Guardian: “If I have a transcendental experience with a bin liner, my supplier will be the first to know. But otherwise, forget it.”

One thing is writing reviews about products, but the rating is invading the personal sphere. Peeple is a mobile app allows you to rate people. The slogan for this app is “Character is destiny” and according to its website, the objective is to turn character into a new form of currency.  There are three criteria for evaluation: professional, personal and dating. After a storm of criticism about potential cyberbullying and harassment when the company announced the plans for the app in September 2015, the service became opt-in; people could only be rated if they had registered with the service. The five-star-rating system also went to be replaced by Positive, Neutral or Negative. You can write a negative review, but unless the person on the other end approves it, it won’t appear on their profile. The app was finally launched just over a month ago, and is available for download in the US and Canada.

China has a more sinister use of rating people. Sesame Credit trawls data from social networks and online purchase histories, to give people a score for how good a citizen they are. In reality this seems to mean how obediently citizens follow the party line. As the video above explains, “If you post pictures of Tiananmen Square or share a link about the recent stock market collapse, your Sesame Credit goes down. On the other hand, Share a link from the state-sponsored news agency about how well the economy is doing and your score goes up.” Users whose friends have low obedience scores could also lose points.

We need to put all this into some kind of context- less than sixty years ago China was in the grip of the Great Leap Forward, which was followed soon after by the Cultural Revolution. Nevertheless, there is something insidious about this attempt at promoting social obedience.


If you are interested in this subject, check out this ABC Radio National podcast, Future Tense, Rate, rank, review and measure.

Technological Solutionism

April 10, 2016

Evgeny talks to Tom Standage of the Economist about technological Solutionism, the belief, prevalent in Silicon Valley, that every problem has a solution based in technology. His latest book is To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism

Here he is at the RSA talking about his previous book, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom.

Stationery – a couple of videos

December 13, 2015

Here are a couple of videos on the stationery theme:


Everything you didn’t know you wanted to know about stationery

December 13, 2015

For some people (myself included) buying new stationery is a joy. Visiting a stationery store, you are surrounded by potential; it’s a way of becoming a new person, a better person. Buying this set of index cards and these page markers means I’ll finally become the organized person I always wanted to be. Buying this notebook and this pen means I’ll finally write that novel. James Ward

For me, going into Ryman’s [stationery shop] is the most extreme sexual experience one could ever have. Morrissey


Writing a book about stationery has its downsides. James Ward, author of Adventures in Stationery, aka The Perfection of the Paper Clip in the USA, knows this. I recognise the feeling too. Whenever I try to explain the rules of cricket or the appeal of trainspotting to my Spanish students I can see a glazed look coming over their eyes. Ward refers to one kind of interviewer he would come across on the promotional tour for the book. Basically, they were out to take the piss. One interviewer was particularly obnoxious:

What? And you’ve got a girlfriend? Seriously?”

 Ward is the man behind the Boring Conference, which the website defines as “a one-day celebration of the mundane, the ordinary, the obvious and the overlooked”. Topics under discussion have included toast, discontinued IBM tills, domestic inkjet printers of 1999, car park roofs, the sounds made by vending machines, the carriage numbering system on the London Underground, the Shipping Forecast, barcodes, yellow lines and the history of dust. The talks tend to sell out very quickly, so maybe they are not so tedious after all. You can see a video of Mr. Ward below:

Ward’s particular fixation with stationery began as a child and has continued into adulthood. He even has a “Stationery Club”, which is modelled on those reading groups that have become quite popular in the last couple of decades. Before each meeting, one member nominates a piece of stationery, and then all the other members use it for a week and then discuss it in groups.

Adventures in Stationery begins with a long disquisition on the evolution of paper clips. Other topics include paper, pencils, pens, glue, business cards, correction fluid, staples, post cards and filing cabinets

I loved the story of Bette Nesmith who was according to Ward, not a very good typist. These mistakes would help this divorcee from Dallas to come up with a brilliant idea. Doing overtime one Christmas she noticed a man in the bank, painting a sign, and she realized that every time he made a mistake, he just painted over it with the background colour. She thought why not do the same thing with paper? You will just need to create a solution which is paper-colour. Then, whenever you make a mistake, you can paint over it and type it again. Nesmith would gradually perfect her typewriter correction fluid, which later became known commercially as Liquid Paper. Over the next 25 years she turned the Liquid Paper Corporation into a multimillion-dollar international company. In 1979 she sold the business to Gillette for $48 million. Her 13-year old son Michael, who had helped her to fill hundreds of bottles each month using squeezy ketchup bottles on the miniature production line in their garage, would later go on to become one of The Monkees, a band created for a TV show. A few months after selling her company, his mother died in 1980 at the age of 56. Michael Nesmith inherited half the fortune from Liquid Paper, much of which he ploughed into PopClips, a precursor to MTV. In the words of Ward, if video killed the radio star, then it was funded by correction fluid. In Europe the most familiar brand of correction fluid is Tipp-Ex, which like Liquid Paper, was developed to help correct typing errors.

Then we have Dr. Wolfgang Dierichs. A researcher for German manufacturing company Henkel, Dierichs was sitting on a plane when he had an idea that would go on to revolutionize the world of glue. He saw a woman carefully applying her lipstick and then he realised that you could apply glue with a similar mechanism. Using a thin twistable tube would be cleaner and more convenient. There would be no more pots, and brushes; all you would need to do is remove the lid and apply as much adhesive as you needed. I have to say that this idea would have occurred to me but Dierichs spent his working day surrounded by adhesives and it just came naturally.

The chapter on business card features a couple of internet sensations. He refers to a 2008 video featuring “infotainer” Joel Bauer called Your business card is CRAP!, which has had nearly 2.4 million hits.  After dissing every other business card in the world he shows the only card which cuts the mustard, which just happens to be his:

You see that card? This is the most impressive business card I’ve ever seen. It’s mine. It took me twenty-five years to design this.

Another similarly modest man is Chen Guangbiao, the Chinese recycling entrepreneur, whose business card proclaims:

Most Influential Person of China

Most Prominent Philanthropist of China

China Moral Leader

China Earthquake Rescue Hero

Most Well-Known and Beloved Chinese Role Model

China Top Ten Most Honourable Volunteer

Most Charismatic Philanthropist of China

China Low Carbon Emission Environmental Protection Top Advocate

China’s Foremost Environmental Preservation Demolition Expert

The story of the accidental discovery of the Post-it note is quite well known. Spence Silver of the adhesives department was trying to produce a really strong glue. He ended up with exactly the opposite. Luckily for him a colleague, Art Fry, found an alternative use. Fry was in a choir and would get frustrated when the little bits of paper would fall out of his hymn book. What he needed was a weak glue to stick these bits of paper in the book. And so the Post-it note was born.

There are many more fascinating stories in the book. Pencil cases are apparently less popular in the USA because everyone has lockers. We discover that Day-Glo paints and dyes that allowed U.S. planes to fly night missions from aircraft carriers during World War played a fundamental role in the development of highlighter pens. And did you know that Norwegians wore paper clips as a symbol of resistance against the Nazis, or that the British tape manufacturer Sellotape makes half its annual sales during the three-month run-up to Christmas?

The name Sellotape’ came from Cellophane. As this was at that time a trademarked name, its inventors, Colin Kinninmonth and George Gray, changed the “C” to an “S” so that the new name could be trademarked. In America they say Scotch Tape. This product, another one from 3M, was being tested in car bodyshop. According to 3M legend, one car painter complained about how tight the company was being by applying glue only to the edges and asked “Why be so Scotch with the adhesive?” As well as perpetuating negative cultural stereotypes about the supposed stinginess of our friends from north of the border, they were also using scotch instead of Scottish to refer to the nationality. Be that as it may, the name stuck and Scotch Tape has become another money-spinner for 3M.

What about the future of stationery? It will surely play a less central role in our digital world. However, it will not disappear altogether. The paperless office is just a pipe dream for the time being. But even in the world of computers, the internet, e-mail, smartphones, and tablets, we will have skeuomorphic design. In computing Skeuomorph is an element of a graphical user interface which mimics a physical object. The word comes from the Greek skeuos (meaning container or tool), and morphê (meaning shape). Steve Jobs was a big fan. The digital world is full of these visual metaphors: magnifying glasses, envelopes, scissors, pencils and rubbers all feature on the Microsoft Word interface.

Ward is convinced that stationery is not on the verge of disappearing. He concludes with an impassioned defence:

And so people who rush to announce the death of handwriting or those tech-evangelists looking forward to the singularity, the moment when artificial intelligence outsmarts human intelligence, should not get too excited. Stationery is not about to die. It’s been around since the dawn of civilization and it’s not going to let some plucky upstart like the Internet kill it off without a fight. And besides, a pen doesn’t suddenly stop working just because you’ve gone into a tunnel; no one has ever needed to borrow a charger because the battery on their pencil has died; and if you’re writing in a Moleskine, you never need to worry about having a bad signal or it crashing before you’ve had a chance to save your work.

The pen is not dead. Long live the pen.

I don’t fetishize stationery in the same way that Ward does. I don’t believe in its miraculous powers. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and I am sure that I will never look at paper clip in quite the same way again.

One cannot die a nicer death than by breathing hydrocyanic acid gas

November 8, 2015


Haber’s life was the tragedy of the German Jew – the tragedy of unrequited love. Albert Einstein

In times of peace humanity, in times of war the fatherland. Fritz Haber


Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister, Edward Jenner and Alexander Fleming are all rightly in the pantheon of science for having saved millions of lives. Then we have those unsung heroes. John Enders (measles vaccine), Karl Landsteiner (blood groups, which led to transfusions), Gaston Ramon (diphtheria and tetanus vaccines) and Abel Wolman (chlorination of water) should all be household names. However, there is one man, a bald, moustached chemist, who wore a pince-nez, whose contribution to saving lives dwarfs all of these. There is just one problem – he is considered by many to be a war criminal. Today I am going to tell you the story of this man.

Fritz Haber was born into a well-off Jewish family in Breslau, Prussia (now Wrocław, Poland) on 9th December 1868. His mother, Paula, died during childbirth and his father, Siegfried, was a successful merchant who dealt in dye pigments, paints and pharmaceuticals. His relationship with his father was distant and often problematic; Fritz was actually closer to his step-mother and his half-sisters. In 1886 he went to the University of Heidelberg, where he studied under Robert Bunsen. He also attended the University of Berlin and the University of Karlsruhe, where he met Carl Bosch, a fellow scientist, who would play an important part in his life. After university, Haber came back to Breslau to work at his father’s chemical business. The two did not get along well; they were constantly clashing and Siegfried finally accepted that they could not work well together.

Although Haber was born to a Jewish family, in 1892 he converted to Protestantism. Many Jewish scientists, for whom religion was not particularly important, went down this path. It was a way to help them advance their careers. Clara Immerwahr also converted from Judaism to Protestantism to further her scientific career. A chemist and the first woman Ph.D. at Breslau University She would become Haber’s first wife in 1901. She may have expected to share a full intellectual life with her husband, like the Curies. Alas, it would be very different. Clara Haber became a Hausmütterchen (little domestic matron), sacrificing her career. While Clara’s ambitions were thwarted, Haber thrived.

Haber’s great contribution, in collaboration with Carl Bosch, now an engineer from the chemical company BASF, was to discover a way of synthesising ammonia for fertiliser from nitrogen and hydrogen. The Haber-Bosch process made it possible to create huge amounts of fertiliser. It seemed miraculous, and was described as creating “bread from air“. The fertiliser went on to be used on a large scale, leading to a huge increase in crop yields, doping away with the fear of famine in large parts of the world. Haber would now be regarded as a hero if he had stopped here.

It was six years later that the dark legend of Fritz Haber began. World War I had been going for less than a year. It was 5 p.m. on the afternoon of 22 April 1915, and Haber and his select squad, known as Pionierkommando 36, were dug in along a four-mile front on the German lines during the Second Battle of Ypres. Facing them were French Canadian and Algerian troops. Haber and his scientists had more than 5,000 cylinders of chlorine gas in liquid form at their disposal. The order came to attack. The operators, who were all wearing protective masks opened the valves and released the entire contents within ten minutes. A strong breeze swept a blanket of thick green-yellow gas westward into no man’s land and then over the French trenches. The unprotected soldiers began to cough and vomit blood, their chests heaving as they struggled to breathe. This just made them suck more of the poison down their lungs. Those troops that were not suffocated broke from the trenches and fled, abandoning fifty guns. The German infantry were then able to take the abandoned trenches. By the end of the day 5,000 troops had died and 10,000 more were fighting for their lives in the field medical stations. Modern chemical warfare was born.*

The action was a clear violation of the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. Despite the success of the attack, Haber was said to have been disillusioned. He hadn’t wanted a mere experiment. He had called for an all-out attack with a far larger volume of gas, to deliver a knock-out blow. He would later complain that if the military had followed his advice and launched a massive attack the Germans would have won the war.

Ten days after the chlorine attack at Ypres Clara committed suicide using her husband’s service pistol. The night before Fritz had celebrated his promotion to captain with a dinner party. The generally accepted theory is Clara could not bear living with a man who had perverted science in this way. But Fritz’s patriotism was more powerful than any moral qualms. It was Hermann, their 13-year old son, who heard the shots and discovered his mother’s corpse. Fritz did not even wait around for the funeral. The next day he was off to the eastern front to disperse his poison gas, leaving his grieving son alone to cope with the loss.

After Germany lost World War I, the Allies sought to bring Haber to trial as a war criminal. But instead Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for his ammonia discovery and he remained an important man in German science for more than a decade. He does not seem to have shown much remorse. He corresponded with the former Kaiser, who was now living in exile in Holland. Wilhelm had in mind the coming rematch with the Allies, and was especially interested in the possibility of the “total gassing of large cities”. Haber continued to defend chemical weapons as a higher form of warfare. It was Haber who provided the quote that I used for the title of this post:

One cannot die a nicer death than by breathing hydrocyanic acid gas.”

He was said to be rather melancholy, one of his friends describing him as seeming to be ‘75 per cent dead’. But this appears to have been because of Germany’s defeat. Under the terms of the Versailles Treaty Germany had to pay 20 billion gold marks by May 1921, and a further 132 billion in subsequent payments. This was apparently two-thirds of the world’s gold reserves. What’s more the Allies had declared the country’s patents, including the Haber-Bosch process, null and void, making it even more difficult to pay off the reparations.

Haber had a plan that would enable Germany to pay off its reparations. He would spend six years trying to extract dissolved gold from the oceans. He believed that a tonne of seawater contained several milligrams of gold. Accompanied by a team of 14 researchers, Haber set sail for New York from Hamburg in July 1923 on the ocean liner Hansa, which had a laboratory to test the waters for gold traces. He did successive voyages in the Caribbean Sea, the Pacific, the China Seas, the Indian Ocean, and the Mediterranean. He also had a research team testing some 5,000 samples of sea water in great secrecy in Berlin. Their conclusion that the actual concentration of gold per tonne was 0.008 milligrams, a thousandth of the original estimates, put paid to any possible commercial exploitation.

His other great project was more successful, an insecticide known as Zyklon A. A German chemical company, Degesch, tweaked his formula before WWII to produce an efficient second generation of the gas called Zyklon B. Within a few years the Nazis were gassing millions of Jews, including relatives of Haber, with Zyklon B.

Fritz Haber died in 1934 at the age of 65. The Nazis were in power and had no need for Jewish scientists. Although Haber’s war service exempted him from dismissal in 1933, he chose to resign his directorship. Having been offered the directorship at the Sieff Research Institute in Mandatory Palestine, he was on his way to the Middle East when he died of heart failure, mid-journey, while staying at a Basel hotel. It is in this Swiss city where you can find his grave. Shortly before passing away he asked that the ashes of his first wife Clara be placed in his grave. His wishes were respected.

What can we say about his legacy? The number of people he saved from starvation far exceeds the number of soldiers whose breath he took away. It has been claimed that as many as two out of five humans on the planet today owe their existence to the discoveries made by this brilliant German chemist. Haber’s process is one of the reasons why there are now seven billion people on the planet. Science writer Sam Kean argues that Haber cared little about fertilizers, and that what he was looking for was cheap ammonia to help Germany build nitrogen explosives. Be that as it may, it is impossible to deny Haber’s scientific contribution. Nevertheless, it is a cautionary tale of the dangers of blind patriotism and the power of science to do great good, but also great evil.


* According to Wikipedia: By the end of the war a total of 50,965 tons of pulmonary, lachrymatory, and vesicant agents had bee4n deployed by both sides, including chlorine, phosgene, and the infamous mustard gas. Some 1.3 million casualties were directly caused by chemical warfare agents during the four years of conflict. Of these, an estimated 100,000-260,000 casualties were civilians.