Thursday, July 23, 2009

What Customer Care 2.0 Should Be

Web 2.0 will save us
I have a bad habit of typing whatever there is on my head on Twitter. I'm not as 'chatty' in real life as I am online. If you know me, you know that I'm actually a quiet person. I don't talk much. I spoke very late in life, so late that my mother thought I was a mute kid. This week I've been rambling off about my wishes on Disqus, and a new TV commercial of Sula Wines. I actually said something bad about Sula Wines. I thought no one was listening. @sulawines immediately replied and said that I should try their premium wines. If they didn't call me on it I wouldn't know that they had premium wines. I'm willing to try it out now even though I haven't liked their older wines. Some of my expat friends drink Sula. I just haven't developed a taste for it but their new line might make me change my mind.

As for Disqus, there was something wrong with the connection and a comment got posted twice. I wanted to delete it. It was more of a wish to be able to delete your own comment than a complaint. It was cool that @disqus got back to me immediately. I'm so used to complaining about Airtel or electricity that I didn't expect reaction from the Twitterverse. They were both nice pleasant surprises. Now I just wish more companies, especially from India are on Twitter and are listening. It can boost their brands to another level and gain not just customers but brand ambassadors as well.

Airtel are you listening? Stay tuned for my next post on my Airtel nightmare experience.

Graphic by: Ben Sheldon

Reading Newspapers - A Lost Art in America?

stack of newspapersI watched Obama's inauguration with two American friends in Kolkata. I think we watched it on BBC because we didn't like the commentary on CNN or something. All of a sudden, the news presenter mentioned Howard Dean. Both of my friends passively asked, "Who's Howard Dean?" Shocked, I stared at them for a moment and asked with my accusatory tone, "You don't know who Howard Dean is?" I didn't wait for their response, "He's the chairman of the DNC, which is like the governing committee for the Democrats."

"Well how are we supposed to know that!" was my friend's reply. Then she said, "We have three people here and the only person who knew about Howard Dean is a non-American. That just tells you how much we know about our country..." Sometimes it is true that people outside America know more about what's happening in America than the average American. We often joked about how rickshaw wallas in India read newspapers everyday and knows what's happening around the world. For some taxi drivers in Kolkata, they make it a habit. Even if they can't read in English they'd read the newspaper in Bengali. There would be boards on the street with papers posted so that people who pass by or folks who can't afford them can read. Usually these are posted by party cadre of a particular ward.

For those taxi drivers who can, they would read the paper in English. In the beginning it surprised me to see an English paper in a cab, but later it became almost a norm. It's also one of the ways I can identify whether the taxi driver is from West Bengal or new from Bihar -- a state in North India that has the most migrant workers. Never mind how accurate or not the paper is, what matters to them is that they learn how to read, practice their English, and are in constant contact with the world at large.

I made my dad subscribe to New York Times and the Nation when I was in high school. It was one of those things I just had to do as a nerdy, goodie-two-shoe student council kid. But my paper reading habits have been really bad since I left New York (and I'm no longer 'goodie-two-shoe'). I have a feeling my attention span is also shorter -- thanks to social media. I still read NYTimes, but it's all online. I'm trying to get back into the habit of reading newspapers but it's been tough. We subscribe to two papers here -- Times of India (which I don't really like but it has Soduku, and a relatively reliable schedule for movies), and Economic Times (because that's the only paper that seems to edit their stories, and it has Dilbert and the exchange rates). I'd also recommend Hindustan Times. I'm more into magazines because I like the style of writing. I prefer in-debth coverage to run of the mill regurgitated press releases. I've heard more than once from folks who write press releases of how "journalists are lazy" -- well you should come here and really see to what extent it can get. Case in point: a recent coverage of the American in Delhi blog. The reporter almost copy-pasted an entire post and did no leg work. She wrote whatever it is that she found on that blog. The blog isn't hard to find, it's #1 on Google for... you guessed it: "american in delhi".

As of April this year, according to New York Times, circulation numbers have been dropping in America. It's because of budget cuts and the fact that people are moving online to read papers. One thing about online reading though is it's up to the user. They'd choose which sections to see via email or RSS feed and completely disregard other sections. News is more funneled and gets viewed only when it becomes popular. It's up to to the user now to figure out to what extent they want to know about the world. So if you just follow popular celebrity news, you might be an expert on Michael Jackson but won't know what the heck ASEAN is or even think Burma is a province of China. (Oh believe me, I've come across those people more than once.)

I don't blame them. I don't usually get mad either, I just find it funny. Occasionally I'd retort, "Well, it's almost like a province of China." (But that's an inside foreign policy joke.) I also have my own weaknesses -- just because I know who Howard Dean is doesn't mean I know every famous or semi-famous American. I don't know all the governors in all the states. I also wouldn't be able to identify American Idol contestants or winners. An average American might be able to identify Linsay Lohan from a mile away. I wouldn't, whether she's naked, clothed, running, walking, sober or high. I can't even spell her name right the first time.

What about you? Do you still read physical newspapers or does your life revolve completely around the Internet?

Photo by: DRB62

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

What's the Meaning of a Solar Eclipse In Burma?

Bad luck. Burmese society is extremely superstitious. Folks take unusual disturbances in nature or heavenly objects to be 'a sign'. Historically, it's always been bad. Take 1988, there was a solar eclipse in March. Elders often talk of the fact that the eclipse was some how a warning for the 1988 uprising and bloodshed. From then onwards, the country became pretty much isolated from the world. There's not a lot of stuff written online about Burmese culture and solar eclipses but I found this Burma forecast from an astrologer. Astrology is a BIG DEAL in Myanmar. Children are named according to the day that they were born and their characteristics determined. Star charts and various rituals are preformed for almost every phase of life. The people who rule the government are extremely religious and adhere to strict rituals as well.

When Cyclone Nargis hit, it coincided with the voting for the national referendum on the new Constitution. Rumors spread throughout the nation that it was "god's punishment" or disapproval. People often joke amidst the destruction on how even the storm wanted to vote for "their election". Miraculously however, there was a 99% vote on the approval of the referendum.

In a couple of hours there will be another solar eclipse -- an eclipse you can see from Myanmar but not Thailand. In two days time on July 24th, the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's verdict is supposed to be heard in court. Fascinating coincidences that we'll just have to brace ourselves and see what happens.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Spymaster: New Twist to Flames & Cyber Bullies?

Photo: Spy vs Nerd Wired CoverSpymaster is the latest sensational Twitter game that was just recently launched on Facebook as well. Ben Parr wrote on Mashable that, "Spymaster has become the standard in Twitter games." I got invited a while ago from one of the people I was following on Twitter. I didn't get around to try it out until yesterday. I loved the interface, the premise, and the connections that I can make to my friends. By this morning I was hooked. Just like I get into World of Warcraft or Westnoth (the open source, turn-based, tactical strategy game) I started carrying out espionage tasks as much as I could.

I left my Twitter followers alone though. I figured there would be a ton of auto-tweets and messages if I played it. I know to what point my obsession can run with RPGs. (And no, I'm not too old to be playing games, thank you.) I lucked out that the Facebook invasion was launched last week. My Facebook posse (though weaker spy ring) is more tolerant with game messages since they also play games. They're also friends who I've met, who can control what they see as opposed to the Twitter crowd who I talk to mostly for professional exchange of ideas.

So today I explored other parts of the Spymaster universe. I read the Directorate's blog and signed myself to the Spymaster Fan site, which is using the Ning custom social network platform. There's also a Spymaster Fan group on Facebook if you want to network with other spymasters.

What I saw in the forums at the Spymaster Fan site didn't surprise me. There was a woman who said she'd be quitting because another spy master had been assassinating her, winning, and getting her assets. She equated her losses to be a case of harassment and bullying. Those who replied to her SOS post (including me) wanted to gang up on the fellow and assassinate him in return. After all, making and helping allies is a part of the game.

Apparently picking on certain spy masters as target to be assassinated on a schedule is used by some as game strategy. It's not a bad game strategy, but it's a boring strategy. It takes the fun out of the game. I've picked on lower level newbies from time to time but never the same target. That's just really really boring. Plus we have the whole of Twitter and Facebook universe to explore, which means two hundred million or so potential spy masters are out there.

While it's not really nice to be picking on just one person because you know the odds are in your favor, it's not really the case of cyber bulling either. Cyber bully implies that you don't really have any choice and you're psychologically attacked. Here you have groups to turn to for help and other spy masters who are willing to help you. It's also the premise of the game. After all being a spy means you'd be at risk for assassinations and psychological warfare. You should also know that you've already agreed to notifications etc.

Here's a screen shot of the 'dossier' of the spy master who had been attacking the woman spy master. Judging from the messages, it has both the 'assassin' and the 'victim'. And maybe other spy masters as well.
Screen shot: spymaster dossier
In dossiers screen names don't come up like regular messaging boards because they're not supposed to be a wall or a messaging center. It's a heated discussion. There will be more heated discussions over wins and losses. And there will be wars between groups. I'm interested to see addition of new spy group affiliations other than the Russian, CIA, and MI6. Personally I'd like to see Mossad and RAW (Research and Analysis Wing - India).

As to controlling cyber bullies on Spymaster, ground rules should probably be developed. In certain games there would be ground rules or pre-defined system settings. But this is a spy game -- you ARE supposed to be killing each other. Maybe people are taking their role playing too seriously. (Another thing that is so common in RPGs or MMORPGs.) Maybe Spymaster should develop algorithms or "cooling off periods" in place for spy masters. What's your take on this?

P.S. If you are playing the game you can add me to your spy ring by sending me a friend request on Facebook. Send the message "Spymaster" along with your request. If you're on the Fan site, you can go ahead and add me as a friend. If you're in the CIA, you can join this group. ^_^!

Update: Here's a great post on Spymaster and why people play it. You'll understand more.

Photo by: Whiskeygonebad

Monday, July 20, 2009

Plagiarim: a National Pastime?

Photo by Esther_GBad writing is one thing, straight off plagiarism is another. I'm really tired of seeing this happen over and over, especially in India. And just because you give the person credit as a name doesn't mean you have the permission of that person to post it. You need EXPLICIT PERMISSION or some sort of an agreed license like the ones from Creative Commons.

Here's a bad case of copy-pasting that I came across recently:

On July 17th, a twitter by the name of @ruplal sent me a message a brand new site to take a look. The site was: I think I had been tweeting about my concerns of riots in Kolkata and how work would be interrupted that day. A lot to my friends are in Kolkata, a portion of that friend circle is in tech. I checked the site, which happened to be a blog that doesn't seem to be proof read. Indian English is fine, and typical, but then I saw a familiar name: Angsuman Chakraborty -- an acquaintance who runs a company in Kolkata. We've met a couple of times at BarCamp and other tech network/unconferences. I thought, well, it's about time someone starts writing about the Kolkata tech scene since it badly needs to start moving and growing.

I thought Angsuman was starting a new blog, but it was very unlike him since his core audience is not really Kolkata. He wouldn't limit himself for just Kolkata. (It's not economically viable.) I checked the other posts and it seems the blogger(s) has been "borrowing" content from other folks. I thought, maybe it's a syndicated blog of some kind. I sent @ruplal a message, checked profiles on LinkedIn of the co-founders of the site. And checked back with @augsuman on Twitter. I asked him whether it was a new site he was putting up or just random copy-pasting. I really didn't think it was. Angsuman replied this morning that it actually was a copy-pasting job using his name on a post about Google Chrome.

I wasn't surprised but I was a bit disconcerted -- 'pissed off' might be the term. Copy-pasting happens ALL THE TIME in India. I've seen a very unethical boss do it, colleagues do it, I see it on blogs again and again. There are instances where I've refused candidates to join my team after evidence of plagiarism in their sample writing. It's a sin that has no redemption. It gives India a bad name. It gives writers in India an even worse name. Plagiarism might not get you in court in India, but you're still breaking international law. If morals and ethics don't appeal to you, as a blogger you should know that Google will penalize the blog for duplicate content -- it will hurt you in the end. If you don't have the time, resources, or talent don't bother running a site.

Have you seen cases of copy-pasting and plagiarism? Do you confront it or just ignore it because it's so common?

Photo by: Esther_G

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Google will follow your link from here!

You Comment, I Follow Graphic modified by Yu Yu DinI've been a big fan of the 'Do-Follow movement' since I found out about it on the Instigator Blog back in 2007. Back then I wasn't able to concentrate on my own blog or personal projects so I haven't made any tweaks to any of the blogs that I was running. Now I have the time so I'm changing a couple of things on this blog. You'll probably notice that this blog has been undergoing some design changes. All the major design changes should be finished by Monday. But I'll still keep tweaking things here and there, but hey, that's just the way I am.

Just because I'm a Do-Follow blogger doesn't mean I don't have some sort of policy. It's pretty simple, there are three rules to you commenting on my blog:
1. If you comment and leave a link to your blog, Google bots will come from my blog to yours. (If you leave interesting comments, people will come too.)
2. I will check comments on a regular basis and yours will be deleted if you're spamming me.
3. Grow some balls and use a proper user name if you're commenting. Anonymous commenting is allowed but discouraged.

Now that the air is clear, let's get back on track:
The Do-Follow movement have taken off to a whole new level these days. It was started by Randa Clay design where you'll find great buttons to add to your blog. It doesn't matter whether you blog with Blogspot, Wordpress, or Typepad. Check out her post and you'll find guidelines for your platform. Plus you can get great buttons there.

Do-Follow blogs now have their own directories, in case you want to talk to fellow do-follow bloggers. You can either find them on, the Follow List, or Blogs That Follow directories.

Of course, the Do-Follow blogs are on Twitter too. Read this post by I.C. Jackson. Tag your tweets with #ucif and the Do-Follow bloggers will take notice.

Keep in mind, do-follow bloggers aren't a bunch of wussies afraid to kick your butt if you abuse the system. Read this Dosh Dosh post so you get a couple of ideas to get you started on how to go about commenting.

And don't forget to have fun. If you want the graphic post it note, you can download it here. It's modified from Peter's Post It Note under Creative Commons' Attribution-NonCommercial Share Alike License. Happy commenting!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Twitter Combats ID-squatting but is it enough?

Twitter Verified Logo
Any of us who use Twitter on a daily basis who get bogus followers and femmebots know what a pain in the butt fake profiles can be. On June 6th, Twitter announced on their blog about the Twitter verification process. It seems they've been moving through the celebrity tweeple for now because I saw it as I was checking out @wilw's twitter profile. (If you don't know who Wil Wheaton is, he's the actor who played the doctor's kid, who became an ensign on Star Trek Next Generation series.) I checked some other personalities like @WilliamShatner and his account was verified, too. I think they're moving through the twitter elite first before the program it's available to us mortals. If it's ever available.

With hacks, security lapses, and impersonations galore, folks will want to be verified. For people who work and live online, our identities are priceless. We take years building up profiles. Our accounts, data, and networks are very important to us. Brands or even fake personalities like Bruno wouldn't be able to market and pull off campaigns if there were others hijacking or using the names. ID-squatting can not just damage reputations but can lead to financial losses.

I use OpenID via ClaimID but it takes a while for an average user to figure out the system. Steve Rubel calls it "geeky". Right now, there's no real unifying process across all social networks unless it's passing info to that specific social network. New apps pop up every day and new sites come online. The average Joes and Janes are moving onto social networks to interact with friends and family. They're not going to think twice about protecting themselves online.

Privacy is an after thought, no one really looks for that little button that limits views of your profile. Case in point: Facebook and MI6: MI6 chief's wife posted family photos and details of their home. For ordinary people, that's a simple fun thing to do online. Everyone does it. But for an MI6 chief, it can be life threatening. Same thing goes for diplomats. And diplomats' wives do blog, if you know where to look or who to look for.

Social networks are moving so fast and becoming popular that governments, and companies can hardly keep up. There are no manuals on how to protect your online identity or even awareness campaigns on why we need to protect our IDs. We're also not developing tools fast enough to combat this problem. Once a system is in place, there will be less femmebots, fake profiles, and spammers. Just like ISPs and email marketers have come up with strong systems to block and punish those who abuse the system, there has to be a way to control it in the social media arena.

There has to be a balance, to let people have fun while protecting their privacy. What are your thoughts?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Re-Sparkling The Inner Writer Spirit

Photo: write by the trialI admit, I've been in a very bad rut as a writer lately. After writing a lot when I was working, I almost totally stopped writing after I quit. Then life got in the way like trainings for solar panels, travels, moving to a new city, not having time for/by myself, trying to fix Internet and electricity problems, battling Twitter withdrawal... you get the picture. You sink into that dark hole of uninspired procrastination that some writers call 'the block'. I can write a dozen excuses but that'll make me just more depressed. It's true, I get depressed when I'm not being creative. There are a couple of things to make me inspired again, maybe you can use some so here are my techniques:

1.Writing needs inspiration: take a walk outside and observe.
I live in a great place where I can see wild peacocks, woodpeckers, other birds Southeast Asian birds I can't name, cute squirrels, plus the occasional street dogs and cats. I usually walk the dog in the morning after everyone leaves. Go over to the park across the street and look at every little detail of grass, creatures, and plants all around. The bird songs and squirrel squeaks for cautioning their scurry are really amazing. When Grace and I walk into the park all the creatures go on high alert. They're not used to seeing a Greyhound and a short Asian woman roaming around. Being two feet away from a pair of woodpeckers hunting for insects makes me really happy, makes Grace (the dog) happy too because she gets to sniff the grass and roll around. When we have our fill, we head back home to write and Grace to move pillows around and become the queen of the bed. Sometimes being out and about, meeting new people and experiencing new things will inspire you to write.

2.Get in the writing mood: listen to music.
I got this tip when I was working with Trayce Gardner, the founder of Brooklyn Young Filmmakers Center. She works on her script or editing her students scripts with the perfect sound track in the back ground. It really worked for me later when I came to India and had to work in a very chatty office environment. We were elbow to elbow on our workstations (it's normal here) and the only thing that kept me sane and focused was my music. You can have playlists set up for different occasions and different moods you're setting up in your scenes, articles etc. Punk always wakes me up in the morning and techno/trip hop keep that energy level up. I transition into a more mellow Norah Jones, Ani Difranco type in the evenings and even venture into classical at night. Find the music that inspires you, put you “in the mood”.

3.Focus (which I don't do enough of) on the matter at hand.
I have too many ideas when I sit down and start writing. I always need an outline, formula or plan. I also tend to get back to the top and edit and re-edit. Half the time, writing is about sitting down and following a habit, practice or a discipline. Folks don't always see this boring side of writing. While editing is a good habit, you need to let go and have the writer in you do his or her own thing first before you start moving things around. (Yes, I'm writing this to remind myself.)

I think Syd Field wrote the best technique on how to deal with the problem of too many ideas. In his book, Screenplay, he wrote that a screenwriter will have another plot or film in mind when he or she starts writing. He said that you should take time and write out those ideas elsewhere then come back to your original story. Focus and do one thing at a time. Don't just write, write with a purpose and a plan. Don't get up until it's done, or until you're ready to look at something else, do something else and come back for editing. Once you're done with that go back to the other thing you had in mind and finish that off.

4.Find the right writing tools for you.
The fact that I've spent most of my adult life in trendy social media sites doesn't stop me from being an old fashioned writer. Plus I'm a huge pen snob. I have a particular brand of note pads, note books, and particular pens I write with. In India I found Nightingale and Matrix brand stationery to be the best to write long stuff in and small, blank paper note pads for taking notes and brainstorming. I carry that everywhere. You need to look for the tools that inspire you. Is it a slinky? Is it a Staedtler pen, or a Sharpie? A fountain pen, a ball point pen, mechanical pencil? Is it candy? Do you write best straight on the computer or are pens and papers better for you? You need to explore your options and pick the best tools for your own tool box.

5. Ask yourself hard questions about your writing.
What makes you stop? What makes you lose focus? Is it the way you fuss around with words? Retweeting or replying on Twitter all the time? Too many tabs open on your browser or too little? You're not getting enough time? Not the right environment? If you want to be a writer and stay focus, you need to ask these questions and make the environment right for you.

6.Tackle your weakest links.
Once you've asked the questions and experimented around with answers, you'll be able to re-spark that kick ass writer in you. But being a writer doesn't end there. Keep exploring, keep reading about writers and what they do to keep going. Read Screenplay by Syd Field -- even if you're not a screenwriter. Download and read How to Motivate Creative People (Including Yourself) by Mark McGuinness follow Copyblogger's blog. Follow fellow writers on Twitter. Who's your favorite writer? What does he or she do to get the ball rolling?

I know first hand that being a writer is a lonely job but there's nothing like feeling accomplished and satisfied at the end of the day. Are you a writer? How do you keep yourself motivated and inspired?

Photo by: the trial

Friday, July 3, 2009

Indian Cultural Sexual Identity

Bangalore Gay Pride Parade By lighttripper on flickrYou probably heard about the landmark, historical case about decriminalizing the Indian Penal Code (IPC) Section 377. Where “India becomes the 127th country to take the guilt out of homosexuality,” according to The Times of India.

IPC Sec. 377 itself is a tricky law to tackle. I first heard about the gay rights movement and how Sec. 377 is a farce in an LGBT Film Festival in Kolkata a couple of years ago. Sec. 377 didn't just criminalize homosexuality, it criminalized penetration of any kind that was “unnatural” more specifically, penile penetration. That leaves out abuse by other means sexually (to children, non consensual etc.), it also left out the fact that 'hetrosexual sex', if it's not “natural” is criminalized. Sec. 377 is used throughout India by cops to pick up any suspicious couples, be it opposite sex or same sex to get bakshish or bribe money. It's a law that cops use to bully people into giving money. Once the bribe is given, you're let go. It's not like in the west back in the days when people would be arrested, jailed or assaulted. India has a different take on this all together.

India culturally, is very fluid. There are whole colonies of hijaras or transvestites/hermaphrodites throughout India. The way Indians view sexuality is different. The first thing that shocked me when I came here was seeing men hold hands in public. It doesn't make them “gay”, they cry and laugh and that's a cultural norm. It made me uncomfortable because I was conditioned differently. They also wear large flower prints, which I as a woman won't ever wear. The 'shiny shirt syndrome' is also rampant. Men and women have very fluid gender roles in India. The experience of coming out varies by family but it doesn't usually end up in psychotherapy or death. The Hindu scriptures themselves contain accounts of homosexuality. The ancient Kamasutra texts were believed to contain 'gay sex' as well, until the British came. That was also when they enacted Sec. 377.

For some in India, this is all about reversing what the west imposed and going back to the Hindu heritage. For others it is about India joining the 21st century. India is on the road to progress and prosperity. The government projects the economy to grow at 7% for FY10. It is a nuclear power, it's the world largest democracy, and it is trying desperately to be liberal just like Europe and America. So it is only natural to have liberal laws that allow folks to have their sexual freedom. I was talking to my friend Zaid Al Baset, who is a sociologist and a lecturer at Kolkata's prestigious St. Xavier's college two days ago about Sec. 377. I told him how some might see it as a trendy thing to do for India to decriminalize homosexuality. For the past two years, I've seen that it's been cool to be queer and folks are more open than when I first came here seven years ago. There is also a new generation, a more affluent and liberal young people enrolled in colleges. This generation tends to be more out going and accepting compared to the stay-at-home folks two generations ago. Zaid agreed with me about the trend. He's been studying literature and films that cover the subject of homosexuality and there has been a new wave that explores the subjects in the Indian popular culture. Even two days ago we both doubted the decriminalization. I told him that nobody wants to be remembered as the administration or the legal body that made “homos legal”. I was wrong.

This is only the beginning. There are religious groups – mostly Christian and Islamic, which are already objecting to the ruling and would be taking the case to the Supreme Court. It will be interesting to see what India does in terms of gay marriage and so on. And what would happen in practice in terms of health care and taking care of children? Zaid suspects that it'll be another couple of decades until India legalizes gay marriage. Then again, it might arrive a lot faster, too.

Photo by: lighttripper