Google Bug Mis-categorizes Users: The joys of bear-beiting

You wouldn't know it from where you sit, but I am writing this post in German. I can demonstrate what I mean with an image:

I am actually writing this post in Scotland and I don't sprechen Sie Deutsch. So why are the Blogger menu items in German? The answer is a bug in Google's slightly too clever system for presenting users with geo-appropriate versions of itself and its applications. I first noticed this when visiting England earlier this year. One of my browsers has set as the home page but clicking the Home button in that browser took me to You might not think that is a problem, but when you search for something like a Sony Viao via you get offered the best deals on Vaios in the UK, which is not what you want if you live in the US and plan to buy your Vaio there (for one thing laptops generally more expensive in the UK, and for another, their keyboards are significantly different from US models).

However, getting the UK version of Google is a relatively minor inconvenience compared to getting the German version, which is what has been happening on my trip to Scotland. And it is not just Google search that is in German. All the Google apps, including Blogger, are in German and so far I have not found a way to 'make' Google sprechen Sie Englisch. What I have found is one explanation for this problem: Google uses the location of the ISP by which you are connecting to the Internet to determine what country you are in. Google then uses the language of that country in its menus. (What Google does in multi-lingual countries like Belgium and Canada I don't know.)

But how does this ISP-language link explain German Google appearing in Scotland? A quick traceroute showed that the ISP used by the hotel at which I am staying is based in Germany. They have a UK company but apparently the main servers are registered in Germany. Apparently the coders at Google had not considered that possibility.

The whole thing is a great example of the huge difference between physical categories and digital categories. Categorizing physical things is challenging. Read David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous and you realize how tough (for example, I had no idea there were two kinds of indexing specialists known as lumpers and splitters).

Weinberger ably demonstrates that one of the wonders of the web is the way it can break down categories. Search for a book at Amazon or anything on Google and the results will display its many facets. Search for "cycle" and you will see what I mean. Cycles of all kinds pop up: life, the sea, pedal bicycles, motorcycles, and so on. And your media choices include data, images, news, blog posts, etc. However, when you connect to the web you do so from a physical location. Google determines and categorizes that location for you, but not always accurately.

This whole Scottish-German experience has been quite educational. I think I might have found a new way to teach foreign languages. When you use a foreign version of a program that you know well, like Blogger in this case, you quickly recognize and translate foreign words, such as bearbeiten, which means edit. Actually, I'm rather partial to bearbeiten. Sounds much more exciting. Honey, I'll be there in a minute, I just have to do some quick bear biting.

Is Everything Miscellaneous? It often feels that way

Do you have a hard time fitting your life into categories? Is it hard to separate work from play, office from home, partying from networking, the obviously relevant from the maybe someday relevant? If so, fear not, apparently you are not alone. For a start, there's me. I'm with you. For several years now it has been getting harder for me to categorize things. At first I thought it was a lack of mental discipline, or laziness, or maybe even the onset of old age.
(Quick, before I forget, an aside about old age and forgetfulness: I recently told my mother that I was concerned because, since I turned fifty, I seem to be forgetting more things. My mother, who is nearly eighty, replied: "Don't be silly, I used to forget loads of things when I was only twenty.)
But this category problem, this blurring of the lines, turns out to be a trend, a sign of the times, as described and discussed is the book Everything is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger, one of the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto and a Harvard professor with a doctorate in philosophy (but a cheerful way of writing very accessible prose nonetheless). Here's some of the blurb from the book:
Human beings are information omnivores: we are constantly collecting, labeling, and organizing data. But today, the shift from the physical to the digital is mixing, burning, and ripping our lives apart. In the past, everything had its one place--the physical world demanded it--but now everything has its places: multiple categories, multiple shelves. Simply put, everything is suddenly miscellaneous.
And everything includes us. Or at least me. Think about it like this: Try answering the following three questions with a single word:

1. Where are you from?
2. What do you do?
3. Where do you work?

Some people can, but many cannot. My Dad could: Coventry/Engineer/Dunlop. I cannot. As regards question one: I was born and raised in England, but that included a spell in Canada and I have now lived in America for longer than I lived in England. I live in Florida now but also spend quite a bit of time in New York. I lived for more than five years in Scotland (which is different from England) and another five years in San Francisco (which is different from everywhere).

Question two: What I do is information security consulting, and privacy consulting, and film producing, and real estate development, but mainly what I do is write.

Question three: Where I do this stuff is all over. Mainly my office at home but sometimes at a client's office and basically anywhere there is power and bandwidth, which includes planes and trains and automobiles, which are not anywhere but somewhere between two wheres.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying my life is cooler than my Dad's. And I'm exaggerating a little to make my case. My Dad led a very interesting life, having served as an engineer in the Royal Navy during and after World War Two. He worked in Canada and 'the States' for several years before settling in at Dunlop in Coventry (but always as an engineer). And he was exploring new options (in engineering) when his life was tragically cut short at 50. However, I think you get my point. And his father could easily have supplied one word answers, as could my maternal grandfather.

But wait a minute, is this 'personal miscellanitude' merely or solely a result of things going digital? What about increased educational opportunities, fewer borders, greater social and physical mobility, cheap air fares? These have all played a part, as have changes in the workplace ethos, like big companies undermining job security and some of them screwing employees out of pensions (my mother still gets a widow's pension check every month from Dunlop but I know a number of people my age who have already lost pensions).

What I think is happening is that forces at play in the physical world are complementing the effect of digitalization. Infinite varieties of order, individualization of world view, these are possible in the digital world and they are reflected in the real world. If this sounds vaguely familiar from philosophy classes, think Hegel and his use of the term 'reflection.' The digital world initially reflects the physical but evolves according to its own internal reason. And the physical world takes on aspects of the digital, at least in our perception of the physical. It is at least worth considering that we are "being digital" when we feel like previously unrelated things in fact go well together or previously related things have no compelling reason to stay that way.

Cobb on Stamps? Maybe not, but your puppy will work fine

So I'm watching BBC America and I see an ad for Photo Stamps with the catch phrase: "Real Postage. Really You."

Yes! You can now print out U.S. out postage stamps with your own photos on them.

Right away I'm thinking great, I can make stamps that express my political opinions through the use of carefully chosen images. And right after that I'm thinking, "No way! They would never let you do that."

A quick trip to the web site confirms it. Here are some of the things you can't put on these stamps that they advertise as "Real Postage. Really You."

"Material that is obscene, offensive, blasphemous, pornographic, sexually suggestive, deceptive, threatening, menacing, abusive, harmful, an invasion of privacy, supportive of unlawful action, defamatory, libelous, vulgar, violent, or otherwise objectionable..."

Most of that is fair enough but "otherwise objectionable" is very broad. What about the photo of the nasty spider bite I got--I'd like to raise awareness of the dangers posed by spiders. Is that objectionable? And wait, there's more that won't be allowed on "your" stamps...

"Material that depicts celebrities or celebrity likenesses, regional, national or international leaders or politicians, current or former world leaders, convicted criminals, newsworthy, notorious or infamous images and individuals, or any material that is vintage in appearance or depicts images from an older era."

What if I myself am notorious? Does that include notorious for always leaving the bar before I buy a round? And what's this opposition to all things "vintage"? Some people think I'm vintage. And it doesn't stop there. Any attempt to push this vague but very tight envelope could cost you:

"If, in its sole discretion, determines that any material you upload may not meet these content requirements, may reject your order without explanation. reserves the right to charge a processing fee of $10.00 for each image, graphic or photograph that you submit as an order which violates our content restrictions."

And don't even think about complaining:

"In addition, in the event you violate these Content Restrictions and you intentionally publicize such violation, you acknowledge that will suffer substantial damage to its reputation and goodwill and that you can be liable for causing such substantial damage."

So, go ahead, express yourself on stamps. With just the right amount of flair. Or else.

p.s. Feel free to use the above photo on your stamps. We're pretty sure it meets the requirements and we hereby release it to the public domain.

Lively up your space with some really coool images

A new collection of fine art posters based on the amazing photographic talents of Chey Cobb (yes, we are related) is now online at Zazzle. Take a break and check out the miniature art show below. See something you like, click for a closer look, order the size and frame style you need.

Chey's Cobb's Fine Art Posters at Zazzle

Of Beatles, Brits, and the Slave Trade: History gets personal

If you are a history buff you may know that 2007 is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Britain. The British might have been big bad imperialists--okay, they were big, bad imperialists--but they had the decency to ban slavery before their American cousins gave it up. (In fact, it was not until 1833 that the ban on slavery took effect throughout the British Empire).

If you are a Beatles fan, and I mean a serious fan, you may know that the street name they made famous --Penny Lane--got its name from a wealthy eighteenth century Liverpool slave ship owner and ardent opponent of abolitionism: James Penny. (Liverpool ships transported half of the 3 million Africans carried across the Atlantic by British slavers.)

I am not for one moment suggesting that, in some weird way, the Beatles supported slavery. Indeed, I think it is safe to say all four of them were strongly opposed to racial discrimination of any kind and, through their music, did much to promote themes of equality and racial integration. What I am saying is that slavery was woven into the fabric of British life and, to this day, Britain reaps lingering benefits from past slavery. For example, it is my belief that the benefits of an affluent society that I enjoyed while growing up there came, in some part, from slavery.

When you look at England, a country much smaller than Greece or Romania, then look at the one fifth of the world's land surface that was called the British Empire, you have to wonder how they did that (I'm using England rather than Britain in this statement because the Scots and Welsh and Irish probably don't want to be included when it comes to the nastier aspects world domination carried out in their name).

You have to wonder where such a small country got the means to achieve that much power and influence. Okay, so Sir Francis Drake and his like made good money stealing treasure from the the Spanish conquistadors (who had stolen it from the people of Central and South America) but a big chunk of the wealth that funded the expansion of the empire was derived from the slave trade.

Which helps explain several things, including an entire web site devoted to marking the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. I encourage you to visit this site. It also explains the depth of sorrow expressed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York when they led a procession through London to mark the 200th anniversary of Britain's abolition of the slave trade. It may even explain why someone like me, born and raised in England but now living in America, feels drawn to issues of racial equality.

Wallhogs Rock: Where were you in the seventies?

What are Wallhogs and why do they rock? Read on gentle reader...

Recently I got an email from an enterprising young man I happen to know from a previous enterprise of my own, ePrivacy Group. His name is Kendall Schoenrock and he is one of those young people who were born to do business. I think he became a licensed real estate agent when he was 18 or something crazy like that. I know he still owns and maintains various residential and commercial properties. He worked a Budweiser delivery route in college, got his MBA from Villanova at an early age and, despite several other opportunities, chose to join, and invest in, ePrivacy Group. And this was at a time when it was the very definition of "a long shot."

When I watched him work ePrivacy Group's booth at ISPCON 2003 [I think it was that year] you could tell he was a natural pitch man, cheerfully engaging prospects in conversation, happily enthusing about a technology--SpamSquelcher--in which he believed [with good reason as it turns out, given that Symantec paid $28 million for it about a year later].

After selling SpamSquelchers for Symantec for a while [under the name TurnTide and later the Symantec 8100] Kendall struck out on his own and mucked around for a while seeking a fresh challenge. That's when he found Wallhogs.

Wallhogs are basically big plastic pictures you can put on a wall then later peel off and put on a different wall, as in dorm room wall, apartment wall, office wall. Check them out at

A variety of images are already available from which to choose, but one of the coolest features of the site is the ability to upload your own image and have it not only blown up, but cropped. So your photo of young Timmy making that great catch in softball can be cropped to just Timmy, then printed five feet tall if you like (presumably with some clever interpolation algorithm).

Of course, the basic technology of "apply to wall then remove and apply to some other wall" is also very cool. I could have used this back in the day when I was at university. I had about half a dozen posters that got moved from flat to flat in Leeds, serious expressions of my personally at the time, which got tattered at the corners from frequent application and removal of tape. Whether you want a blissful four foot wide sunset above your bed, or a funky art photo above your sink, Wallhogs has you covered. Even if you have to switch dorm rooms in a hurry.

Still Confused About US v. EU DST? Maybe this will help you

I made a small chart to help me with this problem of the time change changes between the US and the EU. I am working on a project for a British company right now and traveling between the US and the UK so I wanted a quick way to check when the time in London will be 4 versus 5 hours difference.

I printed it out small enough to fit in my wallet. Don't know if this makes me sound memory-deficient, but I am finding it really hard to keep track of this one.

I am certainly not looking forward to the week in the Fall where London will be 6 hours different. Or next Spring when the shift will last for three weeks.

At least I got all my hardware upgrades to handle the switch.

New Daylight Saving Time: Differences from US to EU and back

As you probably know by now, there will be a significant number of days this year in which the normal time differences between the US and the EU will be different (yep, time difference differences--makes you wish for a Difference Engine--sorry, geek joke).

For example, New York is normally 5 hours behind London. But it will be just 4 hours behind for some days in the Spring, and 6 hours behind for some days in the Fall.

Well, here is a good site for tracking this, and settling arguments with co-workers. It even let's you check the change dates out to 2099.

And for those who want to be really technical, note that EU countries don't change their clocks at 2AM like we do in America, they change them at 1AM Universal Time.