Sunday, August 23, 2009

Understanding Myanmar

Following Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's trial as a Burmese made me mad, hopeful, happy and sad all at the same time. I regularly follow stories about Myanmar but I've paid special attention to this story since it broke in May. I wanted to see more news analysis, coverage, and understand the issues behind it before the verdict. I couldn't really find proper posts or articles that gives the big picture and puts the story in context. Disappointing -- yes, but not surprising. Coverage surged after the verdict because of the reaction of world leaders.

Myanmar is a country that exists in a glass dome. Isolated from the world, it almost has its own laws of physics. "Burma experts" are an entirely different species even in the academic circles. The country's laws, rules, customs, and culture is not easy to comprehend. Add to that, everyone has their own notions or opinions of Myanmar. I know a lot of you are saddened and angry at the verdict but for those of us who know the country, this is no surprise. Here's a break down of what happened.

The Context
Myanmar is in the midst of government led 'reforms'. Assemblies have been drafting the constitution since I was a kid in the '90s. That constitution was voted in as a referendum in May, 2008. Miraculously, it was approved with 99% votes in the middle of the the biggest natural disaster in the nation's history. Because of this referendum, we now have a constitution, which means the election process can start. The elections are scheduled for 2010. If Suu Kyi runs for the election, or even help the NLD it can mean chaos in the nation. Technically, she can't run because she was married to a foreigner. We've all known about the clause in the referendum since the late 90s.

John Yettaw
There's a lot of people who are angry that some American came out of the blue because of a 'vision'. Most Burmese will not say it out loud because they're polite, diplomatic, or don't want to taint relations with Americans. The timing's so perfect that conspiracy theorists are saying that it might be all planned. He's a perfect instrument for the government to use so that there's a rift between the pro-democracy movement and their American supporters. Most pro-democratic funding does come from America and Europe. Dropping him like a hot potato was no surprise either. We don't want attention, and worse yet, with his fragile health, we don't want him to die in captivity. Besides, we can't treat him for his PTSD, bi-polar, or anything else he might have. Releasing him was the best solution for all parties involved.

The Law
No matter how ridiculous it may be, the law for reporting overnight visitors is very clear, and very serious. You're required to report overnight visitors with proper ID etc. at the ward or township offices because it's a risk. It's a way to deter harboring terrorists or rebels. Besides, anything can be a 'technicality' in a political case. If the government can outlaw an entire constitution, what is a small section of a law going to do?

The Trial
August is a hot political month for Myanmar. BBC reported that there were in-decisions within the leadership, the matter is not as simple as that. The historic 8.8.88 uprisings happened in August, which placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest to begin with. If the verdict was held anywhere near that date, the government had uprisings to worry about. A lot of twitter folks were surprised that she was found guilty. Do you really think they'd let her lose in the middle of a highly anticipated election? Were we surprised that she got it easy. The whole deal about clemency was the government's way of saying to the world: "We hear you, but we're not going to bend our ways just because you want them to. We still run our own country."

The Coverage
I was surprised to see BBC reporting live, having in-depth commentary and making it into their feature story. Folks online really didn't care until UK came online. That's the only reason why "Aung San Suu Kyi" became a trend on Twitter. It wasn't trending when the story initially broke because people were still getting out of their beds. UK is #2 country that use twitter most, with London (where a lot of activist organizations are headquartered) being the top city. I was expecting only a couple minutes on the headlines. I was disappointed however, that the Indian media almost missed it. It came on the headlines only after it became a popular news story, and only for the 15 second headline blip spot. I don't blame the TV producers for it, it was those dissidents who were in cities like Delhi or Kolkata who should've been more prepared. They should rely less on the west and start concentrating on having the message heard in the east and global south more -- especially in ASEAN nations. If any change is going to come, it needs to be with the help of these nations. We have the closest trade and diplomatic ties with them.

If you want to read more of my rants on Myanmar here's another post.

Use Social Media to Fight Plagarism and WIN!

Dark ComputerI wrote about plagiarism and how it is so common in the work place a couple of weeks ago. Sure enough there was another big story on the horizon. There's a very popular food blog in Delhi, Eat Out in Delhi that's run by Hemanshu Kumar. We've heard about it because we've read the reviews in Time Out Delhi. Being big foodies, we love reading, watching, and talking about food. I personally love the fact that the Delhi National Capital Region has more things available (which are even delivered to your doorstep).

The story of plagiarizing EOiD blog started with a classic Indian outsource scheme. SpiceJet outsources its content needs of their in flight magazine, Spice Route to Maxposure, which then outsourced it to Hirak Gautam, who is a freelance writer, who happens to be a 'chef' at a Delhi hotel (I'm assuming it has some stars). The supposed author, instead of doing his own homework searches reviews on Google (or directly went to EOiD site) and manufactured his own version of reviews, et voila, there's an article made! Easy right? After all, what are the chances of people reading 'print' on a flight reading 'online' articles or blog posts?

Last week, a regular reader of EOiD found the article on Spice Route. It was practically copy-pasted from the EOiD blog, without credit to Hemanshu or EOiD. The reader then took a picture and informed Hemanshu. He posted the story on EOiD and there was an immediate out cry in the Indian twitterverse. With comments going up on EOiD post about the case. Hirak Gautam, the so-called "author" was forced to set up his own Twitter account and reply for his mistake. The excuse? He was on a deadline. A representative from Maxposure also commented on the EOiD post saying, "strict action will be taken on this issue". The next day, Mail Today published a story on EOiD about the SpiceJet fiasco. According to the article, Hemanshu is demanding compensation and a published apology. You can read more about the story here.

We were all excited and spoke about the case extensively at the Gurgaon tweet up last night. We were more excited because we watched the story happen and tweet and spoke about it to our online friends, and twitter followings, in a sense we WERE part of the story and community.

The three lessons I take from this sorry mess:
1. Plagiarism gives freelancers a bad name. It gives India a bad name. It gives outsourcing a bad name. There's a lot of talented writers, chefs, and Indians out there and they all write their own original pieces. Not everyone is a horrible lazy writer (aka douchebag). If you are, you should change your profession -- I don't care if you're a kickass chef with connections. You should just remain a chef. (No offense to my kickass friend chefs who write their own pieces, you know who you are.)

2. Editors in India need to be proactive. Spice Route does have editors ya? What were they doing? Don't they check facts or check the copy? Stop being cozy in your 9 to 5 job and start checking the damn copy for real. You're as accountable as the guy who copied it. The article would've never gone to print if the so-called editors were doing their job. There IS a "job" attached to the title you know. (Frankly, I'm surprised that EOiD was as polite and peaceful as they've been in handling this. If it happened in my friend circle, the people/companies involved would've been flamed, torched, and burned left and right.)

3. Things can change, they have. And yes we can! As consumers of social media, it is our job to inform the community when we spot stuff. If the reader who was on the plane didn't inform EOiD, the story would've never gotten out. We can use the power of social media to improve our world.

Jeanne said last night that, "As consumers of social media, we shouldn't be tweeting for tweet sake but help bring about awareness and change." This is what open web should be doing.

We're still waiting on how this story is going to resolve itself. The ball is in Maxposure/SpiceJet's court now. Keep your eye on @eoid for updates.

Photo by: Rebecca Jackson

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

What makes your readers click through?

Reading the Newsweek article about a study on how being right handed or left handed affect our decision making process had me thinking about placing buttons and links on a website so people click. There is a reason why people click on certain links and not others. Take a moment and think of those annoying pop-up ads. Have you ever clicked them by accident then realize a moment later and go, "DOH!" -- that's when your brain automatically takes over because you're so used to clicking certain messages on your computer. Of course, the word that you're linking counts, too. Read this Copyblogger post to know more about that.

When I took over the newsletter department for a job, increasing clicks was one of the biggest challenges. I had been managing blogs and knew nothing about email marketing. Our boss wanted a huge increase in clicks, my immediate boss, a veteran in the industry thought it was near impossible. Both of our jobs were on the line. I had a theory that colors played an important role in click psychology, not just words. For the demographic I was working with it was easy to know what colors will get most amount of clicks, all I had to do was look at magazines like Martha Stewart Living. Proving my theory to both my bosses was another challenge. Working with a legacy template, I had to literally cajole tech to track individual links so we knew what each link was doing. Or else we would be flying blind for any changes done to the template, no matter how subtle it seems to the end user. I went under the radar, hand coded each newsletter, stripped legacy junk coding that got the email stuck in filters. Sometimes you have to fly under radar to get the job done.

Once the figures came in though everyone was happy. Clicks increased, some weeks better than others but it was an upward slope. Eye balls and clicks means dollar signs in Internet marketing. Your content writer or web editor should be aware of what's going to bring in clicks and more visitors whether you're writing a web copy, email copy, or a simple blogpost. And if they make it work, they can not just recover the cost of your email marketing operations but can literally float their own salaries.

Same thing goes with social media buttons, where are you placing them so that you get more tweets, bookmarks, and eventually more traffic? Is it on the right hand side or left hand side? Bottom of the post or the top, or both? Are the colors, font, and images recognizable or is it becoming noise to the reader? Think carefully but don't put buttons everywhere and over do it. Sometimes too many buttons and too many ads can be a turn off.

Photo by: Jared

Monday, August 10, 2009

Blog Management: Managing Comments Pt. 2

Photo of Comment BoxComment management tools help you save time and weed out spam comments and spam trackbacks. Some tools also help you promote your blog across multiple sites like Twitter, Facebook, etc. They help you verify the identity of the person who comments by having them log in through OpenID or Google. If you don't already have comment management system on your blog and you're thinking of installing one, you should keep the following in mind when you're choosing a system.
1. Make sure you're familiar with the system because you're going to be the one handling it, unless a site admin does it for you.
2. See if the company you're going for is going to be there for a while and not shutdown shop a couple of months down the line.
3. If you're satisfied with the system that comes with the blogging platform you have, you don't really have to change. Just because everyone is doing it doesn't mean you have to do it, too.

Having said all that, if you want to still put them in your blog, here are the five tools that will help you manage your conversations. First thing I did was to check them against each other so that I know how popular they are. Here's a snap shot of what the figures say:Comment Management Tool StatsI encourage you to check their sites and play around before you change your blog. Don't forget to back up your blog before you change things!

1. Disqus
I use Disqus to manage comments on this blog. According to it's the most popular tool compared to the other four. It had a steady incline in traffic and seems to be doing very well. It works on most blogging platforms and it didn't take a lot of tech skills to get it installed on this blog. I like the fact that you can integrate a lot of services like Facebook Connect, OpenID etc. It gives my users a lot of options as to where they want to login or not and comment.

2. JS Kit
I found JS Kit through Jeanne's blog actually. It had a lot of visitors a couple of months back but it seems the traffic has decreased. Just like Disqus, you can login using your OpenID, or Twitter account to comment. It's tied up with one of the biggest blogger networks: Blog Catalog - which can explain why it's so popular.

3. BackType
I was really surprised that BackType isn't doing so well. I heard about it from Robert Scoble. I think the reason they're not getting a lot of visitors is because they're not compatible with platforms like Blogspot. I think BackType's developers are working on it though. Blogspot users tend to be folks who have been blogging for a long time, and those who focus on content rather than the bells and whistles of coding.

4. IntenseDebate
I've seen IntenseDebate here and there but mostly on Wordpress blogs. Besides the usual features of a good comment management tool, the have a neat little voting system so that the best comments are moved to the top. I thought that was interesting. Who wants to read 20 comments if you can just read the top best ones right?

5. coComment
I used to use coComment when I had to track a lot of blogs/personalities. It was the only management tool that I used then. Frankly, I'm surprised and disappointed that they're traffic isn't anywhere near Disqus -- but that can change depending on what kind of services that they're incorporating in the future.

Photo by: massdistraction

Tools for Your Blog: Managing Comments Pt. 1

Funny Blog comment Photo by Scott Beale/Laughing Squid
Comments and conversations are the building blocks of social media. They happen on any site you logon. They happen on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn. They used to happen as IRC, forums, MySpace comments, and blog comments. It's the way people interact, share stories, have flame wars, introduce themselves, meet new people -- and generate ideas. Conversations also build community, reputations, brands, and spread awareness of whatever that you're doing or promoting.

Comments are an integral part of any blog no matter where the conversation happens. Most of the conversation on this blog happens on Facebook and Twitter. No matter where your conversation ends up happening, the starting point is always your blog.

If you're thinking of starting off in building a community around your blog, here are 8 Steps to Growing Your Blog Community one Person at a Time by Ben Yoskovitz. It's an old post written even before MyBlogLog was bought by Yahoo. But the principles still hold true and you can apply them for Facebook, or Google. Fast forward to the Twitter age -- we still need conversations despite having them in 140 characters or less at a time. So how do we plug into the stream of conscious with all these sites and all these conversations happening at the same time? What if we don't have time to manage an influx of spam comments? Simple: get a comment management tool.

I was going to write just one post on this but there's a lot of topics to explore. Next up is, which blog comment management tool you should be using. Stay tuned.

Photo: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Online Reputation Management Service RapLeaf Changes Features

RapLeaf Logo
When I checked my email this morning, I got an email from RapLeaf saying that they're phasing out one of their features on the 17th "due to low demand". They gave me an option to opt-out.

RapLeaf started out as a personal online reputation management tool and evolved into a service that gets information about people on the web for businesses and consumers. I signed on it reluctantly in June, 2008 because I didn't really have a choice -- they had my information up already without my permission. After I "claimed" my profile, I forgot about them until today. My first impression was that they were a bogus company since they just copied my information on LinkedIn.
I don't really like seeing my info up without my permission. These days it's pretty easy for a company to get or make a program that traverses the Internet and use it in their own service.

By December, 2008 RapLeaf changed their policy but my initial opinion of them remained, even though they had great press. Maybe a lot of folks who heard about them came through them the same way, maybe this is the cause of their low demand. It can also be that a lot of people are satisfied with having just a LinkedIn profile. Having a lot of profiles can be taxing on time and energy. If the user doesn't find a need to use the service, most likely they won't bother using it or even put up a profile on it.

New web services need to start thinking about harnessing people's profiles on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter and provide additional tools. It is crucial that the user understands a need or else it'll just be another clone site. Which tools do you use to manage your online identity, profiles, and reputation? Why do you stick with them?

Friday, August 7, 2009

12 Ways to Combat Twitter Withdrawal

Twitter Fail Whale CookieTwitter is down, slow, or not working and you're starting to get the jitters, twitches, or go New York on everyone you see...

Take a DEEP breath. Inhale all the way and exhale slowly through your mouth.

Calm down, it's not the end of the world. Here's what you can do to combat your Twitter withdrawal. Feel free to use one, all or just some of these tips, in any order that suits you.

1. Pick up a phone and talk to a friend. Maybe someone you haven't spoken to in ages.

2. Walk the dog or pet the cat. (You can talk to them too but they'd probably be thinking, "Oh no, there she goes again about Twitter.") If the dog sighs, I suggest you change the topic. The cat might just run away or wag his tail slowly, in anticipation of the end of the conversation.

3. Open a window or door and look at the sky.

4. Play on your PSP, Wii, or an iPod game.

5. Get to your record or CD collection and play something old. Remember that song you always listened to in high school? They didn't have Twitter then. (@epandu: not for you, since you tweet FROM school. Go do your homework or pay attention to the teacher.)

6. Cook yourself or your love something, even if it's just eggs and beacon. He'd still appreciate it. Or bake a cookie, she'd really love that.

7. Talk to your roommates (Even if they don't live on Twitter, they're people, too.)

8. Watch TV. It's ok, you don't have to tweet about it. Don't cheat and look for news about Twitter either.

9. Go out to a movie. You don't need to tweet about that either.

10. Buy yourself a little present like a box of chocolates or a new pair of pants. You'd be helping the economy anyway.

11. Read a book, newspaper, or a magazine -- anything on paper -- even the ingredient listings on cereal boxes would do.

12. Write something, a haiku, free write, describe your cubicle, room, computer etc. Remember that screenplay, treatment, article, or letter you always wanted to write but didn't have the time? Explore writing that is not bound by 140 characters.

Bonus: Write a blog post about how you combat Twitter withdrawals and share it with the world by linking to this post. ^_^!

Photo by: srqpix

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Dealing with Dirty Cops in India

Indian Police StandingIt's a big coincidence that BBC broke the story on police brutality in India yesterday morning because I was going to write about my experiences with them the day before. It's not news that police in India are corrupt. Offenses go from asking small bribes such as “chai money” to beating people and killing them. While it's understandable that police harass and ask for bribes because they're not paid properly, it is still annoying to the general public.

I would've let it go if it was a one time case but this is the second time the police picked on my driver. First off, I don't really have a great opinion of the police force in India. The only people I respect are the ones who are higher up officers – because they believe in justice and getting the perps to face consequences. I've also seen them in action on a stake out so I know how they behave. I've heard so many stories of what cops do to get bribes and have personally witnessed such things. It's really ugly and disgusting.

Since it was Tuesday, most of the markets and shopping centers in Gurgaon were closed. There wasn't much traffic on the street. I went to Galleria Market to run some errands and told the driver to pick me up after an hour. I called him up after I was done when I got to our pre-arranged pick-up spot. He said he was coming but I didn't see him at all, so I started walking the block and kept an eye out. In the distance, I saw a white car that looked like the car we came in and two cops surrounding it. Now, my eyes are not in a great condition – due to the over use of electronics such as the computer, iPods and PSP, I can't really see that far. And since my pup chewed both of my glasses, my eyes seemed to be working fine until two days ago. As I approached the car, I saw that it is really our driver and the cops are really talking to him. The driver was behind the steering wheel calling the guy who runs our car service.

Our driver happens to look Asian because he's from Sikkim a state in the Northeast part of India. We like him because he's on time, prompt and knows where he's going most of the time. If he doesn't he'd check with the guy who runs the service. We like this service because it's very efficient, and we have a great deal with them. They'd replace the car if the AC's not working, they get you to the place you need to go on time, and they're available for pick-ups and drops at odd hours like 1 am for the airport etc. The guy who runs it is flexible and it's pretty much a two men operation with two cars or so. They both don't speak much English but we get by. I like the driver because he's aware of security issues, protective and can maneuver out of bad situations. (More on that later.)

I immediately looked at the cops – a skinny tall one and a fat short one. I recognized the skinny cop with khaki uniform because he tried picking on us last week until I came out of the ATM and asked him whether I can help him. He said something about parking and let us go. This time again, I asked them what the matter was. One cop said he was on the cell phone, another said, it's because it's a no-parking area. The skinny one scrammed immediately right after that. I guess he realized it's no use dealing with me. He also had his name tag on his uniform. I tried reading it and tried memorizing it. The fat short cop, also in khaki didn't have a tag. He seemed like he wanted some money out of this deal and told me to sit in the car. I sat, put the bags that I was carrying away and assessed the situation. The fat cop then got into shot gun position and we drove three feet down the road where other cops where sitting.

There were two cops in khaki on a Gypsy (great little jeep car that's used mostly by police and government officials) and two traffic cops on plastic chairs in front of the Gypsy. I knew that already because I just passed by them. The fat cop got out and handed the papers to the traffic police. You can tell they're traffic police because they wear white and blue uniforms. I called Will at home and spoke to him about the situation. I just wanted to be on the phone and talk to someone about it. He asked me if I wanted him to come down to Galleria. I was a bit alarmed because this is new territory for me. I've heard enough horror stories of Gurgaon cops. At least officers in West Bengal spoke English. I told him that it was not necessary and that I'll be calling my lawyer friend soon. I got out of the car while I was still on the phone and walked over to the traffic police. I got off the phone, I lifted my sun glasses and told them, in English that he was on the phone because he's picking me up. I told them that I just passed by them and that they did see me. (I know they were watching me because I look like a foreigner. Nobody wears all black in India, especially not tourists.) Besides, people stare at people all the time here, especially if you're a woman and obviously a foreigner or worse yet, you're white. One of the traffic cops on the chair mumbled something about parking and looked at the papers. I looked at the cops on the Gypsy and they didn't seem to care about what's going on in front of them. Only the fat cop seemed eager to squeeze something out of the situation.

I walked back to the car to get my lawyer friend's number and called her up. She's handled mostly human trafficking cases but she's familiar with dealing with the police and procedures. I walked back in front of the cops while I was on the phone again. I spoke to my friend about the situation, and told her in front of them what has been happening. I made sure they heard me even though the conversation was all in English. The fat cop looked up, worried. Then they let us go, my driver called and I was back in the car as she was telling me what to ask for from the cops if they asked for money. They didn't even get to that part and let us go. By that point I told her that we're on the way and that they've let us go because I've been stern and have been on the phone a number of times. I also told her that this might be racially motivated since the driver is Asian and this is a second time we've been stopped in the same area. Indians are very race conscious and if you're white or Asian you tend to stand out.

My friend said that if they ever asked for money, ask for a slip or receipt of some sort. Tell them that you're willing to pay the fine but you're not willing to pay through illegal means – that you'll pay through the proper channels. She also told me to learn Hindi fast so I can yell at them properly. It's just another day dealing with dirty cops as far as I'm concerned. But it's a widespread and well known problem. What the Naureen Shah from Human Rights Watch said was right, India needs reforms for its police forces if they want to be a proper “democracy” and properly modernize the country.

Photo by: mvcorks