A case of suspected fraud

I had an odd experience a few weeks ago, related to the conference I just attended. The Australian organizers had volunteered to book my Boston-London flight. Then one afternoon I got a call from Charlotte, a travel agent who works in the U.S. branch of the organizers’ Australian travel agency. She thought the booking was probably fraudulent, and cited three reasons:

  1. The booking was issued in the name of one of the organizers, but I was listed as the traveler.
  2. The fare was unusually high.
  3. The email address, which concatenated the organizer’s name with the name of the travel agency, seemed odd to her.

She: “I’m pretty sure this is bogus.”

Me: “How would it be in someone’s interest to fraudulently book me a flight?”

She: “Who knows? It could be anything. When you’ve seen as much of this kind of thing as I have, you give up on trying to figure out people’s motives.”

Suddenly the whole thing felt wrong to me. I recalled how sparse the conference website had been when I’d last visited it the week before. The keynote speakers, including me, were listed, but everything else was placeholders. So I went back to the site and…nothing was there. Holy crap! Was it conceivable that the whole deal was some kind of malicious prank? That unlikely conclusion began to seem disturbingly likely when I googled around, found the organizer’s site and an affiliated academic site, and discovered that they were dead too.

Finally I found a page listing advisory board members, and called the person who lives closest to me, an academic in New Jersey. She verified that the company and conference were real. When I went back to recheck the websites they were up and running again, and the suspiciously sparse schedule was now fully populated.

My post-mortem analysis of this strange combination of circumstances raised a couple of interesting points:

Eyeballs on transactions.
After things got sorted out and the flight was booked, I had a long conversation with the travel agent. It seemed unusual that she had personally reviewed this transaction and, on her own initiative, flagged it as suspicious. Was that company policy, I asked? No, she said. The company mostly uses an automated system. It just happens that, in her remote branch office, Charlotte sees all the bookings, is motivated to review them, and brings substantial energy and intelligence to that task.

She told me she catches real fraud attempts every week or so. To the company at large, this is just spoilage. It gets written off as a cost of doing business. We assume that eyeballs on transactions are uneconomical. But is that really true? After this experience, and in view of my conversation with Paul English about the practicality of human-intensive customer service, I wonder if we should revisit that assumption.

Locality of trust.
This was an international conference, and the members of the advisory board live all around the world. The one I chose to contact, though, is the one who lives closest to me. Of course I’d be unlikely to call overseas first, because of long-distance tolls and time zones. But there were various folks in the U.S. I could have called, yet I picked the person who lives in New Jersey. Why? In retrospect I believe that’s because New Jersey is closer to my home than Illinois or California. Of course it’s completely irrational to trust a New Jerseyite more than a Californian for that reason. And yet, at a moment when nothing seemed certain, I acted out that irrational behavior. Trust shouldn’t diminish as the square of distance but, in our unconscious minds, I think it probably does. I’ll bet Jim Russell would agree.

All’s well that ends well. The conference organizers turned out to be really pleasant folks. (I’m downplaying their identities here, though you could triangulate them if you wanted to, because they’re naturally a bit embarrassed about what happened.) I enjoyed giving my talk, I met interesting people, I got to see Cambridge for the first time, it was a good trip. But for a couple of hours on that afternoon in December things were really weird!

Future tailors

I’m at the Technology, Knowledge, and Society conference in Cambridge UK, where I spoke this morning on the theme of network-enabled apprenticeship. It’s a topic I began developing last fall for a talk at the University of Michigan. I don’t feel that I nailed it the first time around, nor this time either, but it’s provoked a lot of interesting and helpful discussion.

My argument is that for most of human history, in tribal life, village life, or farm life, it was common to be able to watch people do their daily work. Kids who grew up on a farm, for example, saw the whole picture — animal husbandry, equipment maintenance, finance. They understood more about work than kids who only saw dad go to the office, do nobody knew what, and return at the end of the day.

To the extent that we now find it culturally acceptable to narrate our work online, in textual and especially in multimedia formats, we can among other things function as teachers and mentors. We can open windows into our work worlds through which people can find out, much more than was ever possible before, what it is like to do various kinds of work.

I claim this will help people, in particular younger people, sample different kinds of work and, in some cases, progress from transient web interactions to deeper relationships in cyberspace and/or in meatspace. And I suggest that those relationships could evolve into something resembling apprenticeships.

There are plenty of holes in this argument, and James Governor, whom I met for the first time yesterday in London, drove a truck through one of them. It’s nice to have loose coupling and lightweight affiliation, he said, but apprenticeship was always a durable commitment that involved submitting to a discipline. It wasn’t about window-shopping. Point taken.

Today on a walk in Cambridge I met Andrew Jackson, a bespoke tailor who’s just opened up a shop here, and we had a great conversation on this topic. Thanks to Thomas Mahon’s English Cut, which is a great example of work narration, I know a lot more than I otherwise would about this craft. When I asked Andrew if he’s having trouble bringing people into the business I touched a nerve. It’s a huge issue for him.

Maybe, I suggested, online narration of aspects of his craft would be a way to attract worthy apprentices. But he was way ahead of me. Among other things his firm trains tailors in other countries, and they deliver that training over the Internet, using video. That’s not the problem, he said. The problem is that young people just don’t want to do the work. They want to be rock-star fashion designers, not cutters and tailors, and they will not submit to the discipline of his trade. What’s worse, he added, is that little or no stigma now attaches to unemployment.

Andrew Jackson has a good job that nobody else seems to want. The same holds true, he says, for the guy who fixes all the lead-framed windows in Cambridge. He’s been doing it forever, he knows everybody in the town, he does lucrative and socially rewarding work, and yet he cannot find anyone who wants to help him and eventually step into his role.

So, back to the drawing board. I do think that online narration of work will be a necessary way to attract new talent. But it may not be sufficient. It may also be necessary to demonstrate the non-monetary rewards of doing the work. The window repairer, for example, may enjoy low stress and much autonomy, may see and hear a lot of the interior life of the town, and may enjoy pleasant relationships with long-term customers.

If he told you his story, or if someone else did, those rewards might become clear to you. Admittedly there’s no guarantee that outcome will occur. But if nobody tells the story, we can pretty much guarantee that it won’t.

A conversation with Graham Glass about the future of education

This week’s podcast is a conversation with Graham Glass, a software veteran who’s self-funding the development of edu 2.0, a web-based educational support system. It seems like a big change from Graham’s previous projects: ObjectSpace Voyager, The Mind Electric’s Glue and Gaia, webMethods Fabric. But not really, says Graham. It’s always been about the reuse of components, whether they’re software objects or learning objects.

Graham and I share a passion for project-based learning, and in the podcast he refers to an EdVisions video on that subject which you can find here. I also (again) referenced the extraordinary talk by John Willinsky which I discussed and linked to here.

I know that technologists always say that the latest inventions are going to revolutionize education, and I know that mostly hasn’t been true. Still, I can’t help but think that we’re on verge of a dramatic overhaul of education, and that systems like the one Graham is building will play a key role in enabling that to happen.

Trusted feeds

As several folks rightly pointed out in comments here, a community site based on tagging and syndication is exquisitely vulnerable to abuse. In the first incarnation of the photos page, for example, a malicious person could have posted something awful to Flickr and it would have shown up on that page. Flickr has its own abuse-handling system, of course, but its response time might not be quick enough to avert bad PR for elmcity.info.

My first thought was to attach an abuse-reporting link to every piece of externally sourced content. It would be a hair trigger that would — in a Wiki-like way — allow anyone to shoot first (i.e., remove an offensive item immediately) and enable the site management to ask questions later (i.e., review logs, revert removals if need be.)

I’m still interested in trying that approach, but not as the mainstay. Instead I want to promote the idea of trusted feeds. There are currently two on that photos page, one from Flickr and one from local blogger Lorianne DiSabato. I know Lorianne and I trust her to produce a stream of high-quality photos (and essays) about life in our community.

After reviewing the Flickr photostreams of the people whose recent photos match a Flickr search for “Keene NH” I decided to extend provisional trust to them, as well, so I put their names on a list of trusted feeds.

Then I restricted the page to just those feeds, and added a note explaining that anyone who sends an email request can join the list of trusted feeds.

Of course anything short of frictionless participation is an obstacle. On the other hand, based on my conversation with Paul English about customer service, there’s a lot to be said for a required step in the process that forms a human relationship — attenuated by email, true, but still, a relationship.

I think it’s even more interesting when the service, or site, is rooted in a geographical place. On the world wide web, I’m always forming those kinds of relationships with people I will never meet. But on a place-based site, I may already have met these folks. If I haven’t yet, I might still. Trust on the Internet has a very different flavor when the scope is local.

A couple of years ago I was on a panel of media types at a local community leadership seminar, where I was the token blogger. The topic was how the community gathers and disseminates news. NHPR’s executive editor Jon Greenberg said what needed to be said about blogging, which was helpful because it was more credible to that audience coming from him than from me. Even so, there was a lot of pushback. When it was suggested that people could consume a richer and more varied diet of news, they balked. “It’s your[the media’s] job to sift and summarize, not ours.”

Similarly, when it was suggested that people could produce news about the local issues where they are stakeholders and have important knowledge, the pushback was: “But you can’t trust random information on the Internet.”

I found that fascinating. Here were a bunch of folks — a hospital administrator, a fire chief, a school nurse, a librarian — who all know one another. What they seemed to be saying, though, is the Internet would invalidate that trust.

Now I assume that they trust emails from one another. Likewise phone calls, which are increasingly carried over the Internet. And if the fire chief wrote a blog that the school nurse subscribed to, there would be no doubt in the mind of John, the school nurse, that the information blogged by Mary, the fire chief, was real and trustworthy.

Until you join the two-way web, though, you don’t really see how it’s like other familiar modes of communication: phone, email. Or how the nature of that communication differs depending on whether the communicating parties live near one another.

If feeds begin to flow locally, it’ll be easy to trust them in a way that’ll supply most of the moderation we need. The problem, of course, is getting those feeds to flow. Bill Seitz asked:

So you think the “average” person will have Flickr and del.icio.us accounts in addition to joining your site?

No, I don’t, though over time more will use these or equivalent services. So yes, I also need to show how any online resource that’s being created, anywhere, for any purpose, can flow into the community site. It only takes two agreements:

  1. An agreement on where to find the source.
  2. An agreement to trust the source.

In the short-to-medium term, those sources are not going to be friendly to me, the developer. So I’ll have to go the extra mile to bring them in, as I’m doing on the events page.

Conceptual barriers

I’ve planted the seed that I hope will grow into the kind of community site that defines community the old-fashioned way — people living in the same place — as well as in the modern sense of network affiliation. The project has raised a bunch of technical, operational, and aesthetic issues.

Technical: Django is working well for me, but I haven’t invested deeply in it yet. Patrick Phelan, a web developer I’ve corresponded with for years, reminded me the other day that my reluctance is strategic. With any framework, buy-in cuts two ways, and you should never take unnecessary dependencies. Patrick noted that I am using WSGI, a Python-based Web Server Gateway Interface, to connect Django by way of FastCGI to my commodity hosting service. And he pointed out that a rich WSGI ecosystem is evolving that could enable me to proceed in the minimalistic style I prefer, integrating best-of-breed middleware (e.g., URL mapping, templating) as needed. If the preceding sentence makes any sense to you, but you haven’t heard about Paste and Pylon (as I had not until Patrick pointed me at them), then you might want to watch the Google TechTalk that Patrick recommends.

Operational: I’m doing this project on $8/month commodity hosting because I want to understand, and explain, how much can be accomplished for how little. Bottom line: amazingly much for amazingly little. For years I’ve supplied my own infrastructure, so I never had the experience of using a hosting service that provides web wrappers to: create subdomains; provision databases and email accounts; deploy blogs and wikis. Sweet! At the same time, though, I’m struck by how much specialized cross-domain knowledge I’ve had to muster. For example, the first service I’ve built on the site, a community version of LibraryLookup, relies on programmatic use of authenticated SMTP to send signup confirmation messages and status alerts. I figured out how to do that in Python, but it took some head-scratching, and my solution isn’t particularly robust. For me, spending an extra buck a month for a more robust solution (ideally delivered as a language-independent web service) would be an option I’d consider. For many people, though, it would be an enabler for things that otherwise wouldn’t happen. There’s a ton of opportunity in this space for buck-a-month services like that.

Aesthetic: For now I’m going with an aggressively Web 0.1 style, a la del.icio.us and craigslist. My wife’s first comment was: “So, you are going to pretty it up a bit, right?” I dunno, you can argue it both ways. The current arrangement has the advantage of being The Simplest Thing That Could Possibly Work. But virtuous laziness aside, it may be that craigslist, in particular, has validated the Web 0.1 aesthetic for community information services. Or it may be that my wife’s first reaction was correct, and I’ll have to look for a volunteer designer. We’ll see.

None of these issues are top of mind for me now, though, because they’re all trumped by a conceptual issue. How do I demonstrate methods of syndication, tagging, and service composition so that people will understand them and, more importantly, apply them?

Consider the version of LibraryLookup that I’ve built for this site. The protocol is, admittedly, abstract. It invites you to use your Amazon wishlist not only for its existing purposes — keeping track of stuff you’re interested in, registering for gifts you’d like to receive — but also as an interface to your local library.

Dan Chudnov thinks this is a questionable approach, and his point about interlibrary loan is well taken. But we don’t have through-the-web interlibrary loan in my town, and if we did, I’d still want to use Amazon as my primary interface to it. To me, it’s obvious why and how to wire those things together. To most people, it isn’t, and that’s the challenge.

To meet that challenge, I’m stepping back from some things things that have been articles of faith for me. For example, this service does not yet notify by way of RSS. Just email for now. Of course I can and will offer RSS, but in my community (as in most) that is not the preferred way to receive notifications.

Everything else about this service will be unfamiliar to most people:

  • That an Amazon wishlist can serve multiple purposes.
  • That LibraryLookup is OK with Amazon. (It is. Jeff Bezos told me so.)
  • That we should expect to be able to wire the web to suit our purposes.

The lone familiar aspect of this service, I realized, is that once in a while you get an email alerting you that something you want is available. Everyone will understand that. But the rest is going to be hard, and I’ve concluded that evangelizing RSS in this context would only muddy the waters even more.

In other ways, though, I’m pushing hard for the unfamiliar. It would be an obvious thing to use Django’s wonderful automation of database CRUD (create, read, update, delete) operations to directly manage events, businesses, outdoor activities, media, and other collections of items of local interest. People are familiar with the notion of a site that you contribute directly to, and I could do things that way, but for the most part I don’t want to. I want to show that you can contribute indirectly, from almost anywhere, and that services like Flickr and del.icio.us can be the database.

I got a great idea about how to approach this from Mark Phippard, a software guy who lives in my town (though we’ve not yet met in person). Mark wrote to offer technical assistance, which I’m glad to receive, but I wrote back asking for help breaking through the conceptual barrier. How do I motivate the idea of indirect, loosely-coupled contribution?

Mark mentioned that one of his pet peeves is the dearth of online information about local restaurants. You can find their phone numbers on the web, but he’d like to see their menus. That’s a perfect opportunity to show how Flickr can be used as a database. If Mark, or I, or someone else scans or photographs a couple of restaurant menus and posts them to Flickr, tagged with ‘restaurant’ and ‘menu’ and ‘elmcityinfo’, we’ll have the seed of a directory that anyone can help populate very easily. Along the way, we might be able to show that Flickr isn’t the only way to do it. A blog can also serve the purpose, or a personal site with photo albums made and uploaded by JAlbum. So long as we agree on a tag vocabulary, I can federate stuff from a variety of sources.

And now, I’m off to collect some local restaurant menus. A nice little fieldwork project for my sabbatical!

A conversation with Paul English about customer service and human dignity

This week’s podcast features Paul English. He’s a software veteran who’s been VP of technology at Intuit and runs the Internet travel search engine at Kayak.com, but is best known for the IVR Cheat Sheet. Now available at gethuman.com, this popular database of voice-system shortcuts makes it easier for people to get the human assistance they crave when calling customer service centers.

The gethuman project isn’t just a list of IVR hacks anymore. It’s evolved into a consumer movement that publishes best practices for quality phone service and rates companies’ adherence to those best practices.

Although human-intensive customer service is usually regarded as costly and inefficient, operations like craigslist — where Craig Newmark’s title is, famously, customer service representative and founder — invite us to rethink that conventional wisdom. Kayak.com’s customer service was inspired by craigslist. Paul English says that making his engineers directly responsible for customer service has done wonders for the software development process. Because they’re on the front lines dealing with the fallout from poor usability, they’re highly motivated to improve it.

We also discussed web-based data management. The original IVR Cheat Sheet was done with Intuit QuickBase, an early and little-known entrant into a category that’s now heating up: web databases.

Finally, we talked about Partners in Health, the organization to which Paul English donates his consulting fees. The story of Partners in Health is told in Tracy Kidder’s book Mountains Beyond Mountains: Healing the World: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer. At the end of the podcast I mention that I’d added that book to my Amazon wishlist. The other day, while looking for something to listen to on an afternoon run, I checked my RSS reader and saw that the book was available in my local library in audio format. Sweet! Two afternoon runs later, I’m halfway through. It’s both an inspirational tale about Paul Farmer’s mission and a case study in how holistic health care systems can operate far more cost-effectively than most do today.

PowerBook rot

Back in 2003 I wrote an essay on the dreaded syndrome of Windows rot. As fate would have it, I am still using that same machine, and it’s been quite stable since then. In a year or so, we’ll start hearing opinions about the relative rot-resistance of Vista versus XPSP2. But meanwhile, I’m plagued by a different syndrome: PowerBook rot.

Both of my PowerBooks are afflicted. About six months ago, my 2001-era Titanium G4 began to suffer sporadic WiFi signal loss along with the kinds of narcolepsy and spontaneous shutdowns that many new Intel Macs have exhibited. I’ve tried all the obvious things, including reseating the Airport card and resetting the NVRAM and PMU, but to no avail. The WiFi is negotiable, I could try a different card or just use the machine at home on a wired LAN, but if I can’t fix the worsening narcolepsy and shutdowns it’s all over. Something’s gone funky on the motherboard, I guess, and this machine’s too old and beat up to justify replacing it.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, my 2005-era G4 caught the spontaneous shutdown bug. I wondered if it might be protesting my new job, but when I noticed half my RAM was missing, I diagnosed lower memory slot failure. So now that machine is away having its motherboard replaced, a procedure that appears to be suspiciously routine for my local Apple store.

It’s always dangerous to extrapolate from anecdotal experience, and there’s never good data on this kind of thing, but I must say that while researching these problems I’ve seen a lot of bitching about PowerBooks. Is it just me, or are these things not built to last?