Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Twit or Else...

Dick Costolo was in full flow. The chief executive of Twitter – installed after a brief power struggle in the autumn of 2010 – was outlining his unifying vision for the company's product at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February. "Our mission," he said, "is to instantly connect people everywhere to what's most meaningful to them."

As mission statements go, it is up there with Microsoft's "PC on every desktop" and Google's "organise all the world's information and make it useful". What Costolo did, in an impressive talk, was to pull out examples of how Twitter is used socially by everyone. He put up a picture of a sunset posted by a user who had added the comment "What a day … in more ways than one". What does that mean? "Maybe a friend or loved one knows that there's more meaning than that in it," Costolo noted. The idea that tweets can carry more information that what is simply encoded in their 140 characters – that they have extra value to the user through their context – was powerfully made.

Injunction application

If anyone needed reminding of that, the timing of thousands of tweets mentioning Ryan Giggs earlier this month – curiously just as the law firm Schillings went to the High Court over an injunction taken out on behalf of an unnamed footballer – should have disabused them. Costolo's case is proven: tweets are social. And Twitter has been proven to have enormous power. Though the odd point is that the company doesn't wield it in its own right; it can only go where its users go. The flock decides the tweets' direction.

The tough question Costolo now faces, as Twitter looks back at a month where its UK audience leapt by 20%, as people logged on to the site to try to find out the details of so-called "superinjunctions" (more accurately, anonymised injunctions), and where the company's name has had the invaluable free publicity of being on every news bulletin and newspaper front page, is: how can he turn that into a thriving, profitable business?

It's now five years old, and has an estimated 300 million registered users worldwide, with new signups running at about 600,000 per day.

By the time Google was five years old, in 2002, it was making more than $430m per year from AdWords – the automated system that lets advertisers bid to appear beside specific search results. It had introduced the system in 2000 – though it was hardly innovative; serial entrepreneur Bill Gross and another company, LinkExchange, had both had the same idea in 1998. AdWords is the money machine that powers Google.

Twitter hasn't had the same benefit of bootstrapping itself to income on pre-existing ideas, and doesn't seem to have the same money machine, at least, not that it has revealed.

It has some deals to generate income: Google and Microsoft's Bing search engine buys its real-time feed to go into the search results. Advertisers can buy "promoted tweets" (which appear on users' pages, in the hope of going "viral") and "promoted trends" in the list of "trendings topics", and simple AdWords-like ads that appear when users search on topics.

But none of this looks like enough to make a really vast and scalable business in the longer term, says Ross Taylor, group digital director at the London-based marketing services company Creston Group.

"A few years ago, before Twitter, we did look at the opportunities for using the leftover space in text messages – which is typically 80 or so characters – for sponsorship and ads," Taylor says. "But it fell apart because there's no real value or need for it for the consumer."

Contrast that with Google's AdWords, he says: "80% of transactions begin with a search, so you can see how Google makes money. For social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook, you can see the possibility for brands to get into the space and benefit. The point is that people are using Twitter in a different way from how they're using LinkedIn and Facebook. It's not social, it's a small way of sharing small fragments of news."

Certainly journalists know that: in the words of Neal Mann, a freelance producer for Sky News speaking at the News Rewired event on Friday: "If Reuters is your example of a solid news wire, Twitter is Reuters on acid, crack and cocaine." The ability to query a huge number of people all at once from locations all over the world – or as locally as you like – is utterly addictive.

But that's not the same as being crack (or cocaine) for advertisers. "I love Twitter, but it's like a piece of plumbing," says Taylor. "I can't see how they're going to be able to generate significant revenues from the type of clients that I work with, for example." (Those clients include Walkers Crisps, for which Creston has run Facebook and Twitter campaigns.)

He thinks there might be some value in the "data sale" model: "understanding and collecting how people are sharing things is going to be valuable. But it isn't going to be as valuable as Facebook's opportunity to sell space to brands. It's an adjunct to a total experience, rather than driving total engagement."

There's something else too. Twitter represents, perhaps better than any (legal) internet company so far, the collision of the digital age and the sovereign state. It's an almost perfect enunciation of John Perry Barlow's 1996 "Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace", which (ever so pompously) begins "Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone".

That's certainly how Twitter seems to have been reacting since the high court began considering a court order that would demand to know the identity of "person or persons unknown" who posted details on it which claimed to blow open a number of anonymised injunctions relating to footballers and other celebrities.

Predictable effect

A number weren't right, but the idea that the injunctions could be breached so blithely had a predictable effect: the judges were outraged. Lord Judge, the lord chief justice, asked (rhetorically?): "Are you really going to say that someone who has a true claim for protection perfectly well made has to be at the mercy of modern technology?"

To which one refers M'Lud Judge to the case of Barlow, 1996.

In fact Twitter, with its ability to work even on "feature" phones, is exactly the sort of internet phenomenon that can delight and dismay governments of all stripes. China bans it. Its ability to rapidly spread information had some limited effect after Iran's disputed elections in 2010 (so much so that the US State Department asked its engineers to delay scheduled maintenance), and arguably during the "Arab spring" uprisings. Western governments were Twitter fans in these instances; it's only when its snappy bursts intrude into the bulwarks of their own establishment that governments stop liking it, and begin murmuring about "legislating" and "controlling" the internet, as Nicolas Sarkozy did last week at the G8 summit.

But will Twitter really be able to defy local legislation? Its terms of service include the key boilerplate that: "You may use the Services only in compliance with these Terms and all applicable local, state, national, and international laws, rules and regulations."

If the person who posted the supposed injunction-busting tweets is based in the UK, they could be in trouble. If, however, they are in the US, things get more complicated: local law there might ignore English injunctions.

Global business

Nick Armstrong, a partner in sports and media at the law firm Charles Russell, thinks that becoming familiar with the legal landscape is going to be part of the process of maturing for Twitter.

"It doesn't matter whether you're providing a way for people to gossip or making cars or cigarettes, each jurisdiction has different sets of rules. But any global business faces this any day of the week. It's particularly difficult, I suppose, if your raison d'etre is giving people a platform to say whatever they want."

For Twitter, a key moment may be whether, and how, it complies with any court order to reveal what it knows about the identity and location of "person or persons unknown" who tweeted those supposed injunction-breaking identities. That could be crucial to how it is perceived publicly: either as a tool of the judiciary, or as an organisation that protects itself and its users. A confrontation with English courts was probably not what Costolo, pictured left, was expecting when he planned the year ahead, and just as the company sets up shop and sends its first executive, Tony Wang, to the UK.

But for every growing company that hits an inflection point, there comes a time when something unexpected happens: how you react can make or break you. The next few weeks could be crucial to whether Twitter is seen as an internet hero – or villain.

Monday, May 30, 2011

India & Kashmir

Many years ago, I met two journalists from India in London and we found ourselves talking about Kashmir. Mostly, they listened patiently to my impassioned tale of what goes on, but the moment I touched upon the brutal counter-insurgency methods employed by the Indian security apparatus in the disputed territory – among them notorious "catch-and-kill" operations to execute suspected militants – they looked incredulous, made a quick excuse and left. Later, I learned that at least one of them believed that Kashmiris liked to exaggerate the excesses of the Indian armed forces.

In the reaction of those two men, I had witnessed the frightening success of India's policy of denial and misrepresentation on Kashmir. India's decision to censor the Economist last week, following the publication of a map that shows the disputed borders of Kashmir, represents two unsurprising but ominous things: that the country's age-old intransigence over Kashmir still runs deep; and its willingness to curb freedom of speech over what it sees as sensitive matters of national interest. On Kashmir India continues to behave as a police state, not as the champion of democracy and freedom that it intends to be.

There is nothing astonishing or new in this. For decades, India has not only been unwilling to solve one of the world's most tragic conflicts but has scuttled any attempt at meaningful discourse on the issue, both internationally and within the country. The ultimately pointless attempt at censorship by asking the magazine to paste stickers on a representation of areas controlled by India, Pakistan and China is, sadly, in line with its inflexible and deeply flawed Kashmir policy. To come good on its insistence that "Kashmir is an integral part of India" – and it does lash out at any attempt to suggest otherwise – it maintains the world's largest military presence in a single region, to suppress the revolt that erupted against its rule in 1989. An uprising that continues in the form of a civilian resistance.

Last year, in what we now remember as Kashmir's bloody summer, its paramilitaries and police killed more than a hundred protesters, most of them young men and schoolchildren. Among those killed was Sameer Rah, a nine-year-old boy from Srinagar, who was bludgeoned to death and his body dumped by a kerb. The image of his bruised, purple body is now permanently etched in the collective consciousness of Kashmiris at home and across the world, and may haunt India's political and intellectual elites for a long time. In response to this brutalisation of a people – the Kashmir valley remained in virtual siege for weeks – a cogent narrative of what I call "new dissent" began to evolve in Kashmir and India, scripted by Kashmiris themselves and by some of India's bravest public intellectuals, writers and journalists.

However, both the central government and its clients in the state tried everything to suppress this new wave of dissent; they introduced draconian measures to silence the voice of Kashmiris and their supporters in Delhi. TV channels were forced off air, newspapers were not allowed to print for weeks, text messaging was banned, and later on, in India's capital, a lower court even charged Arundhati Roy with sedition. But the urge to report to the world what was unfolding in Kashmir was ultimately unstoppable. Kashmiri youth turned to social media to get the word out.

And it did get out, aided by India's fascinatingly diverse intelligentsia and those sections of the Indian media that have of late started to look at Kashmir with new understanding and empathy, and not through the disingenuous prism of national interest.

The Economist's map on Kashmir – which must have received many more page views than had it not been declared contraband – contains nothing that contests historical facts or misrepresents ground reality. Essentially, the magazine has produced a graphical account of geopolitical status in the region – namely, Kashmir is a disputed territory, with India and Pakistan as the main contestants, but Kashmiris as the central party as it is their future that has been a point of dispute. A dispute that the UN recognises as such in its charter of 1948 – and in its maps. I have found maps produced by the UN to be the most accurate and impartial.

When, and why, do states censor maps? Mostly when the operating principle seems to be denial and obfuscation. For years, the Indian state has attempted to delegitimise people's aspirations in Kashmir, either by raising the bogey of Islamism or lumping together the challenge to its authority in Kashmir with the US-led war on terror. For most of the 1990s and the early years of the new millennium it succeeded. Ironically, as a consequence of the emergence of "new India" and the burgeoning of the country's affluent middle classes, the Economist – a magazine previously considered the preserve of business elites – is now selling more copies in India. It is seen as influential, and capable of altering opinion – hence the kneejerk reaction to the map. The Indian government is doing a huge disservice to its democratic credentials by trying to confiscate the truth about one of the world's most tragic, intractable and dangerous conflicts.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Andes Don't Believe In God

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Apocalypse Now!... Maybe

Good news for Rapture lovers! The world is going to end after all – only it's going to take a little longer than predicted.

Harold Camping, architect of Saturday's dramatic events in which Judgment Day came and went without so much as an earthquake, has revealed what went wrong. He took to his show on his network Family Radio to reveal the simple truth: the Apocalypse was imminent, he'd just been out by five months. So now the world is going to end– really and truly this time – on 21 October.

Camping was disarmingly honest about the impact the world's inconvenient continuance was having on him, after he predicted 200 million Christians would rise to heaven by 6pm on Saturday followed by the destruction of the Earth in a massive fireball.

"I can tell you when 21 May came and went it was a very difficult time for me – a very difficult time. I was truly wondering what is going on. In my mind, I went back through all the promises God had made. What in the world was happening. I really was praying and praying: 'Lord, what happened?'"

Many of Camping's followers might be asking similar questions, particularly those who gave up their jobs or donated some of the $100m (£61m) believed to have been spent on billboards and RV trucks advertising the arrival of doomsday. But then, there's no consumer protection legislation when it comes to Armageddon.

Among the disappointed, though still living, Rapture groupies were Robert Fitzpatrick, who spent all his life savings of $140,000 spreading the word of the world's end, and Jeff Hopkins, who erected a doomsday sign on top of his car and has spent the past few months driving from Long Island to New York city to publicise it.

"I've been mocked and scoffed and cursed at and I've been through a lot with this lighted sign on top of my car," he told Associated Press. "I was doing what I've been instructed to do through the Bible, but now I've been stymied. It's like getting slapped in the face."

Camping, who predicted the Apocalypse would come in 1994, appears to be impervious to the kind of knocks that would floor a lesser man. He spent Saturday night cowering in a motel to avoid the media onslaught, but has recovered his composure soon enough.

Tune in to his radio show, Open Forum, on 22 October to find out whether he can bounce back yet again. Assuming, that is, the world hasn't ended by then.

We Are Eating The Planet

Driving To Jail

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Happy Day...

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Picture Of The Day

Friday, May 20, 2011

Microsoft - The Other Guy

MIT at 150

The Social Animal

Rape is Rape

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Picture Of The Day

Cartoon Of The Day

OBL - The Diaries

14 August 2009

Watched TV for a few hours to see if there were any stories about me. Nothing today. I did see that temptress Sarah Palin on CNN though, practically naked as usual – wrists showing, ankles, hair, everything. Oddly enough, she was talking about death panels. I have always advocated them as a quick and efficient way to punish people for stealing fruit or shaving, but she seemed very dismissive of the idea. At one point she actually said "Obama's death panels" instead of "Osama's death panels", but the interviewer didn't pick her up on the mistake. Stupid woman.

11 September 2009

Fired into the air a few times, but everybody said it was a bad idea. "Too much noise, Osama. You'll draw attention to our hiding place." Cowards, all of them. Not really in a holiday mood, anyway. Nobody celebrates it round here.

19 January 2010

Spent the morning planning new attacks on major American population centres. You have to keep yourself busy in a place like this, otherwise you'll go mad. We need to stage more mass killings – lots of small killings will do nothing to change US policy. They have small killings almost every day there – I doubt they would even notice. Also, I'm big on trains these days. And attacking on dates sacred to Americans: 4 July, Madonna's birthday, the Vanity Fair Oscar party, Lindsay Lohan court appearance, etc. To paraphrase those fat cooks from the BBC, it's time to take killing to the next level.

When I was finished I called everyone into the safe room to tell them my new plan to defeat the infidels: we are going to attack the public transport network of Los Angeles, bringing this modern-day Sodom to its knees. Someone laughed and said, "good luck with that". Then I said, "Jihad does NOT get tougher than this!" and we all laughed. It's good to feel at the centre of things again.

26 April 2010

Saw myself on TV, in an old clip from who knows when, exhorting followers to exterminate western imperialists. So young! What happened to that dashing, smoky-eyed, full-lipped fellow? He is sat here hunched in a shawl, eating seeds and watching Larry King. Sigh.

5 June 2010

Very hot. Spent afternoon in the courtyard, reading and thinking. It is lonely here, but also very peaceful. At times like these, war and death and western imperialism seem a world away from this little seat under the olive tree. If next door's ball comes over that wall one more time today I'm going to put a bullet in it before I throw it back.

15 August 2010

Courier came today: secret messages from al-Qaida, more AA batteries for the remote, copy of Newsweek, Ikea catalogue (they send me two, every time, even though I have never ordered anything) and a pirate DVD of Finding Nemo. Watched it, laughed a lot, condemned it afterwards.

Tonight is book-club night, and everyone in the compound is angry with me because I have picked the Qur'an again. They all say they have read it before. I say, but have you memorised it? They say, you always hijack the discussion! This is true, I suppose. Abu says it is his turn to pick. No way, I tell him. Never again, not after Angela's Ashes.

3 November 2010

Can't tell whether to be pleased by US election results. Their system is so complicated! Two houses of legislature, president, cabinet, judiciary – as far as I'm concerned it all adds up to one great big Satan. I guess the Republican win is bad for healthcare reform, and therefore good (more Americans dead, no extra work for us) but I'm finding it hard to feel pleased.

22 November 2010

Very tired today. Stayed up late last night with friends arguing about whether or not dishwashers were blasphemous. And you can't just say "yes" and be done with it. Everyone wants reasons. In the end I told them that, God willing, we should concentrate our efforts on eliminating bigger evils – America, Israel, music – and leave smaller doctrinal questions about household appliances to one side for now. Hassan says some of the new ones use less water than the old, non-blasphemous way of washing-up, but of course this is not the point.

Later, probably because I was tired, I had an accident with the beard dye. First, I used the Delicate Iced Chocolate instead of the Sensual Black, then I forgot to put on the gloves, then I left the stuff on way too long. I cannot make a video looking like this. It will have to wait.

8 March 2011


30 April 2011

Something weird going on in the neighbourhood. Can't put my finger on it, but there are some extra antennas on the roof over the road, and that white van on the corner has been there for, like, four days. I got so worried I called ISI, but they said I was just being paranoid.

by Tim Dowling

Greed is Good?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Microsoft buys Skype

Little more than a decade after the dotcom bubble burst, the internet business is once again partying like it is 1999. The frenzy of deal-making in Silicon Valley, which is turning social media entrepreneurs into multibillionaires, moved up another notch when Microsoft splashed out $8.5bn for the loss-making internet telephone service Skype.

Tuesday's buy is a record for the software giant and takes the total value of worldwide tech-related deals so far this year to $85.5bn (£52bn) – the strongest spell since the months before the dotcom bubble burst on 10 March 2000.

Analysts said the deal would give Microsoft a boost in its increasingly bitter battle with Apple and Google. Skype boasts about 170 million users every month and is adding 600,000 a day. But most calls are free and the service has struggled to make a profit. Last year it lost $7m.

Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's chief executive, said that with Microsoft's backing Skype would be able to build a future where "talking to friends and colleagues around the world will be as seamless as talking to them across a kitchen table or a conference room".

Buying Skype gives Microsoft a recognised brand name on the internet at a time when Google and Apple are both building up their internet phone and video services. "Google has Google Voice, Apple is building up Facetime, Skype is a great brand," said Colin Gillis, an internet analyst at New York-based BGC Partners.

Gillis said Microsoft was likely to add Skype to its Xbox video games system, Office software and its mobile and tablet software. "Skype addresses some major holes for Microsoft," he said. "If they don't screw it up."

Skype was founded in 2003 by Swedish tech entrepreneur Niklas Zennström and the Dane Janus Friis. The service has grown far beyond its techie roots and is already a mainstream product. The retail giant WalMart started selling Skype hardware in 2007. At peak times there are more than 23 million Skype users online.

This is the second time it has been sold to a big tech firm. In 2005 eBay, the online auction company, bought it for $2.5bn. But eBay struggled to integrate Skype and argued with its founders and management, eventually selling it for $2.75bn to a private equity investor, Silver Lake, in 2009 but keeping a 30% stake.

Friis and Zennström also backed the sale as part of a consortium that bought 14% of Skype. Just a year and a half later eBay has made its money back and the founders are sharing a $1.2bn payday. The Skype deal ranks as the biggest in Microsoft's 36-year history and follows multibillion-dollar strategic purchases by other tech giants including Intel, which bought the virus software specialist McAfee, and Hewlett Packard, which bought the handheld devices firm Palm.

Investors are also fighting over the new generation of tech firms including Facebook, Groupon and Twitter. Google is believed to have made multibillion-dollar offers for both Groupon and Twitter.

Private investors have fought to get a stake in Facebook, which is lining up a share sale next year that could value the firm at more than $70bn.

Lidia Gueiler (RIP)

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Jason Burke on OBL

North of Osama bin Laden's last hiding place is the town of Muzaffarabad, prime recruiting and training territory for groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT, the army of the pure) who have waged jihad for almost two decades against the Indian state in disputed Kashmir.

South and west are the lowlands where groups such as Jaish-e-Muhammad (Militia of Muhammad) have training bases and the semi-autonomous tribal areas, described by one MI6 officer as the "Grand Central Station" of international militancy. This is where Pakistani Taliban, Uzbek and other central Asian outfits, the networks led by the warlord and cleric Jalaluddin Haqqani, several Arab groups including Algerians, Libyans and Egyptians, and others are all to be found. Here are European volunteers too.

The vital questions in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death are do these various outfits pose a genuine threat to the west; and what strategic direction will they now take?

Though most of the groups in the Pakistani tribal zones have no formal link to al-Qaida, several have already shown signs of interest in the kind of international attacks and the global agenda that Bin Laden pioneered. The Pakistani Taliban were responsible for the training and commissioning of Faisal Shahzad, a young Pakistani who tried to kill hundreds in Times Square, New York, in May 2010. There is also Ilyas Kashmiri, a Pakistani who broke away from local groups and was revealed by Indian interrogation documents obtained by the Guardian to be behind plots in Denmark and elsewhere in Europe.

Also in the tribal zones – though increasingly squeezed by Pakistani military operations and drone strikes – are central Asian groups that have shown their desire to strike in Europe largely through the use of German volunteers.

Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of the biggest militant groups in the world, is based mainly in the eastern Pakistani province of Punjab. It is torn by fierce disputes pitting hardliners who favour waging war against the Pakistani government and other "hypocrite, apostate" regimes against those who hope to remain close to the Pakistani security establishment. These tensions in part led to the 2008 attack in Mumbai, India's commercial capital, in which more than 160 people died.

But the various affiliates of al-Qaida around the globe – with one exception – have shown little interest in pursuing the global agenda that was the raison d'être of Bin Laden's group. The most recent addition to the "network of networks" that he and his associate Ayman al-Zawahiri had woven together over the years were Somali militants. Last July they attacked restaurants in Uganda in their first international strike. But the reasons for the bombing – to deter Uganda from sending more troops to peacekeeping forces in Somalia – were local.

Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was formed in late 2006 and announced in 2007 by Zawahiri. The aim was to create a new alliance of existing militant groups along the north African shoreline and provide a springboard to Europe. In this it singularly failed. AQIM was dominated by Algerians who had little interest in reaching out to Libyan or Moroccan counterparts. Though some targets of attacks were international – such as the United Nations – most remained locked into a local dynamic. On 28 April a blast shook the southern city of Marrakech, killing 16 people including a Briton. The cafe that was attacked was a favourite among French visitors – representative of the former colonial power.

In Iraq too, the trend has been towards a more local agenda. Though proving itself more tenacious than had been thought, al-Qaida in Iraq is still limited to the north-western corner of the country and has shown no interest in launching attacks – even regionally, let alone further afield.

The exception is Yemen, from where al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has enthusiastically embraced a global agenda and launched several foiled strikes on American targets. A key figure in Yemen is Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born cleric who has used the internet to build a large international following. He was in touch with an American army major who in November 2009 went on a shooting rampage on a US military base that killed 13, and his sermons influenced the British student Roshonara Choudhry who in May 2010 stabbed a member of parliament.

Bin Laden's death barely leaves these "affiliate groups" bereft. Most had parted company, organisationally and ideologically, with al-Qaida central leadership a long time ago.

One group that will have to rapidly adjust is the Afghan Taliban. Bin Laden spent 15 years trying to convince Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the movement, and his followers to wholeheartedly embrace the global agenda. In this the al-Qaida leader had some success, particularly among the younger members who have risen to replace older men killed or captured.

However, on Tuesday, after the dramatic raid on Bin Laden's compound, a Taliban spokesman was noncommittal, merely saying that without hard proof either from the Americans or from the "closest [people] to Osama" that the Saudi-born militant was dead, the movement would refrain from making any comment.

Al-Qaida, founded by bin Laden in 1988, was only ever one of scores of militant groups, all with deep roots in the individual circumstances and histories of different parts of the Islamic world. Sometimes its leader succeeded in binding a few of these fractious and often parochial outfits together around a single agenda to fight a common enemy: the west. Now Bin Laden has gone the centrifugal forces that defined the chaotic world of Islamic militancy before al-Qaida's dominance are set to reassert themselves.

Loser Of The Day

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Severiano Bellesteros (RIP)

Friday, May 06, 2011

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Picture Of The Day

Running Of The Bulls

Align Centre