GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – This link might be more techy-babble than non-tech readers like, but it’s the first sensible analysis I’ve read of Yahoo’s purchase of Summly. This matters, because we’re about to see the media world turn on a dime again, thanks to developments in the mobile world, and most journalists are still crying about the losses of the past decade (salaires, perks, power, etc.).
Whether Yahoo gets its money’s worth from Summly or not, we’ll all feel the heat from efforts to summarize and shrink news content. All = IT people, news content makers aka journalissts, news consumers.
Here’s the link to Emin Gün Sirer’s post; he’s a hacker and Cornell professor.
Fellow journalists, here is the paragraph that caught my eye because he’s hit on one of my biggest gripes as an editor. The nuts and bolts of a news story go at the top, in the first sentence! If no one is reading your stuff, consider his comment:
“For 95% of the news I read, that can be done with a regexp that slices out the first sentence. Very rarely, the first paragraph contains what journalists call a ‘hook,’ and the infamous 5-W’s are embedded in the second paragraph. So if it worked perfectly, Summly would eliminate one extra sentence 5% of the time.”
Advice I would like to share, from Jordan Bonfante, my Time magazine news bureau chief in Paris several years ago: always assume 90% of readers will never bother to go past the first 10% of your new story. Get the stuff that matters there, then allow yourself time to expand on it, for that 10% of readers we love.
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – News just in from Utah: the 25,000 security breaches of US social security numbers at the state health department’s Medicaid servers turns out to be 280,000, reports Computerworld/CNN.
A month ago I wrote the sentence below, then didn’t get around to finishing the story. Now I wish I had.
You don’t have to be conspiracy theorist to be more than a little concerned about stories cropping up that people are asking for information you don’t need to give them, notably social networking log-ins and US social security numbers.
Worse are illegitimate requests for American social security numbers because many of the requests are borderline legitimate. Employers need them in the US, and some government offices need them – the case in Utah, where hackers managed to get in through a back door and steal the numbers.
So, any point in protecting them? If you believe there is some point in trying to protect your identity, then yes, definitely. If you’re throwing in the towel over privacy protection, read no further and start posting your bank pin codes on lamp posts and the Internet.
For the rest of us: a US social security number doesn’t need to be given out until a contract is signed. Credit companies and insurance companies don’t always need them although some employees are convinced, wrongly, that they do. But the numbers are printed on some health insurance cards, for example, making them less than private. The US Coalition for Sensible Public Records Access, in a 2008 paper on public documents, points out that you can’t have it both ways: data cannot be both public and private. The group has some helpful reflections on the bigger picture and what states in the US, for example, should be doing.
Here’s what the US Social Security Administration says, the official poop on the SS numbers and your rights:
“You should treat your Social Security number as confidential information and avoid giving it out unnecessarily. You should keep your Social Security card in a safe place with your other important papers. Do not carry it with you unless you need to show it to an employer or service provider.
“We do several things to protect your number from misuse. For example, we require and carefully inspect proof of identity from people who apply to replace lost or stolen Social Security cards, or for corrected cards. One reason we do this is to prevent people from fraudulently obtaining Social Security numbers to establish false identities. We maintain the privacy of Social Security records unless:
- The law requires us to disclose information to another government agency; or
- Your information is needed to conduct Social Security or other government health or welfare program business.
“You should be very careful about sharing your number and card to protect against misuse of your number. Giving your number is voluntary even when you are asked for the number directly. If requested, you should ask:
- Why your number is needed;
- How your number will be used;
- What happens if you refuse; and
- What law requires you to give your number.
“The answers to these questions can help you decide if you want to give your Social Security number. The decision is yours.”
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – I just deleted the Chicago Sun-Times “Zurich update” news feed from my Twitter account after seeing Zurich basketball games that didn’t have much to do with Switzerland. I recently got rid of another news feed about Geneva, Switzerland because too many of their posts were about Wisconsin and Illinois weather and crimes.
Last week I sent a number of nasty notices to someone who was illegally picking up GenevaLunch posts and republishing them on several sites that encourage the visitor to think they are legitimately about and from Switzerland. These are posted from Florida and have nothing to do with Switzerland. At least a real human being replied to my threats about their theft.
All of these are picking up news feeds and just republishing them, what I called stirring the news rather than creating it. And many use multiple feeds that simply look for words like “Zurich” then dump basketball from Illinois with art exhibits in the Swiss town, as if no one will notice the difference.
A plea from this editor: please help us to continue producing real news by scrapping the frauds from your feeds, on the Internet, Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere. If you are looking for information about Swiss rail passes, train tickets, hotels and chocolate, for example, please be sure the site you are visiting is the real thing and not just a lookalike, so that the information you get is accurate and up to date, and the frauds don’t have your visits to count.
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – This is an appeal to intelligent readers, and I know there are many out there, to at least reflect on the other side of the story if you’ve read the New York Times editorial published Friday 10 February on US pressure on Swiss banks.
It’s a remarkably trite piece of writing, with generalized and inaccurate remarks like “the Swiss banking industry refuses to exit the business of tax evasion” which are an embarrassment to more honest journalists who spend time researching, interviewing and pulling the threads that make for balanced reporting.
Our goal is to inform the public so public opinion can help drive negotiations to be based on understanding and fairness rather than acrimony; the NY Times appears to have another agenda.
For a start, look at the Reuters story today on Swiss banking and business industry suggestions, run by the Chicago Tribune, although I would have liked to see a suggestion that US banks in Florida ask for proof of tax payments from Latin American clients, just to put the comments about proof of payment difficulties in perspective.
The Economist can’t be accused of coming down soft on the Swiss, but its story this week provides better balanced reporting than that from NewYork.
Ironically, one of the people quoted there seems to admire the NY Times editorial but in the way you love a football team whose weaknesses you’re willing to overlook. You just want them to win.
The NY Times editorial has at least six factual errors (I got tired of counting after that), mostly just slight exaggerations, but they undermine any credibility the writer had at the outset. One of the errors is this: “The United States would like details of all secret Swiss bank accounts used by Americans to evade taxes”, as if every American who has a Swiss bank account is hiding money and evading taxes.
No, either the writer should say that within the scope of these negotiations the US is asking for help with data from 11 banks out of the 325 that provide wealth management or he or she should say bluntly that the US is asking for details of all Swiss bank accounts held by all Americans. Both of those statements are accurate. Most of the US accounts are not Jame Bond-style numbered accounts and they are not “secret” in the sense that Americans who live in Switzerland routinely file reports from their banks when they file Swiss taxes.
Americans at town hall meetings in Switzerland in the past two years, and more recently in Canada, have been objecting to the new Fatca rules because they object to the underlying principle the US follows, the only major country in the world to tax on the basis of citizenship rather than residence. Participants have said it forces them to bear a heavier burden than Americans who live in the US. Others object to the unfair treatment of double taxation, the case for Americans who are retired in another country, for example. And yet others object to the high cost of filing US taxes they don’t owe.
Fatca, the tool for obtaining this information, is part of the current US-Swiss negotiations, for a good reason. It will place a huge financial burden on Swiss banks, as well as banks elsewhere, with its extra-territorial legislation, and the ramifications of this go beyond the current situation where Swiss banks are refusing American clients, to the dismay of Americans who live in Switzerland.
The NY Times would have us believe, taking the American bully approach of bluffing, that it’s just a question of the Swiss government dragging its heels: “There is no need for the United States to accept this sort of arrangement. If Switzerland stonewalls, the Justice Department can indict banks that benefit from tax evasion and seize their assets in the United States, moves that could put them out of business. At some point, the Swiss government will find that result a lot more costly than handing over information on American tax cheats.”
The negotiators for both countries are perhaps wiser, well aware that Swiss banks, and those elsewhere, could also recommend to clients that they pull out of US securities investments, a move that would be dire for the US economy. Switzerland has a far larger chunk of offshore private banking than the US, a business American banks would love to get their hands on, particularly in Florida. And Americans are just a small part of that Swiss wealth management business, so losing that group won’t put Swiss banks out of business.
These distinctions are important for an intelligent debate to take place and for negotiators’ efforts on both sides to be understood at home. The Swiss, contrary to the image US media perpetuate, don’t love crooks. The income tax non-compliance rate in Switzerland, which uses the carrot more than the stick to get its citizens to pay, is estimated to vary from 12 to 35 percent a year. It hit the peak abruptly in 1990 as non-compliance in the cities of Basel and Geneva soared, then rapidly dropped again by 1995 to 21 percent, according to a study in 2007 by Lars Feld and Bruno Frey.
The IRS said in a 2006 report that non-compliance in the US was “low”, at an estimated 26 percent.
To balance out the debate a bit, here is what the Swiss government says in a report published Friday 10 February, “Report on international financial and tax matters 2012″:
“Switzerland has been holding talks with the United States on unresolved tax issues for more than a year. These talks relate to the US investigations into alleged infringements of US tax legislation by Swiss banks and the potential handover of client data. Under Swiss law, client data may be handed over as part of an administrative assistance
procedure at federal level, but not directly by a bank. The objective of the negotiations with the US authorities is to find a solution that is compatible with Switzerland’s current legal framework.
“The cases of the directly affected banks are to be dealt with through requests for administrative assistance: in the case of tax fraud in accordance with the existing double taxation agreement (DTA) of 1996, and in the case of both tax fraud and tax evasion in accordance with the new – but not yet ratified – DTA of 2009. Under the existing DTA, requests for assistance are possible even without the provision of specific names or personal details, as long as an alternative form of identification is supplied. Applications on the basis of specific patterns of behaviour should also be possible under the new DTA without the provision of specific names or personal details. However a decision has yet to be made by Swiss parliament in this respect.
“At the same time, a global solution is being sought that will apply to the entire Swiss financial centre and thereby put the past to rest. Another development geared to the future is the US “Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act” (FATCA), which was passed by Congress in March 2010. This legislation is designed to ensure comprehensive worldwide reporting on US taxpayers who hold bank accounts and assets with financial services providers outside the United States. The US authorities have set out a staggered timeframe for the implementation of this Act (expected to apply from 1 January 2014 onward).
“Given its significant international activity, particularly with the United States, Switzerland will be greatly affected by this legislation. FATCA envisages the imposition of a withholding tax of 30% on all payments of dividends, interest, sales proceeds, etc. from the United States to a foreign financial institution, irrespective of whether the financial institution in question is accepting payment on behalf of a US taxpayer, another client or indeed itself. To avoid payment of this withholding tax, a financial institution must sign an agreement with the US tax authority (the IRS) in which it accepts comprehensive reporting obligations with respect to all clients who are liable to pay US taxes. This will involve a substantial amount of administrative work. After the Federal Council instructed the FDF to initiate discussions, SIF made it clear to the US authorities during a number of different meetings that the implementation of FATCA had to take account of the concerns of the financial institutions that would be affected. Modalities for a simplified implementation of FATCA will be sounded out within the scope of talks on general financial issues.”
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – A coincidence? In the process of researching Barry Callebaut and Magnum ice cream this morning for a business story on the new long-term partnership between the Zurich chocolate company and Unilever I visited the Magnum Facebook page. Wow! 2.5 million people like the page. That is impressive, no matter what they have done to achieve it, but equally impressive is the thought that of that much ice cream being eaten regularly enough to turn them into fans.
I went to my freezer to see if by any chance we had some, but no luck. I fancy trying out one of the new Ghana chocolate ones, mmm. A 10-minute walk up to the local gas station and back probably burns off enough calories to offset half of one of these; I’m willing to check it out tomorrow.
And then a few minutes later I had this spam message, and I wonder if Facebook stats are headed in the same manipulated direction as too many web site stats: “Buy 2,000 guaranteed Facebook fans worldwide. Process completed in 1-2 days. All fans are 100% real Facebook users.
Ah, my friends, I thought I knew ya.
I’m hoping the Magnum fans are really real.
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – I agree with the Wikipedians, all 1,800 who voted that the English version of the site to which they contribute should be whited out, blank, tomorrow, 18 January. In the name of saving the Internet and its honest users, the US Congress is considering laws that, if passed, could take on a life of their own and might one day well have the opposite result, reducing the freedom of information online.
If the voice of Wikipedia, added to criticism by the White House over the weekend, can stop the legislation in its tracks, that is good news for the rest of us using the Internet right now.
The US is not alone in trying to create legislation that reaches beyond its own borders, but I am concerned about growing American public acceptance of the notion that the tentacles of the American legal system can and should reach beyond US borders. These laws are too often created by politicians keen to please hometown voters who know precious little about the rest of the world.
I’ve covered the new US-Swiss double taxation treaty and watched US pressure on Switzerland build, to obtain bank data, in recent months. It’s done in the name of virtue and protecting honest taxpayers. Most of us are probably on the side of these (not to mention that we’re probably mostly pro-democracy and anti-terrorism, two more US political buzzwords) but there is a more sinister side to this bullying behaviour and I’ve concluded that a rambling American bureaucracy can too easily take advantage of laws made in a different time and for different purposes. The result in this case shows little understanding of and respect for Swiss laws.
Why would Internet laws that are widely viewed with skepticism outside the US as censorship be any more respectful of other nations’ legal systems than tax legislation? Those who write the laws don’t interpret and enforce them.
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – The great tech war of 2012 is warming up, writes Fast Company, meaning that four biggies are stepping on each other’s toes and pretty soon the slug fest will begin, featuring Amazon, Apple, Facebook nnd Google. “There was a time, not long ago, when you could sum up each company quite neatly: Apple made consumer electronics, Google ran a search engine, Amazon was a web store, and Facebook was a social network. How quaint that assessment seems today.” [bold added by GenevaLunch]
I like Fast Company, a magazine that produces some well-researched and well-written material. But even here, we can’t call it a magazine, in these days of amorphous companies, including amorphous media.
Media is still a line of business, the question is whose
Here’s how Fast Company, what I would call an online news magazine, describes itself; if you look hard you’ll find the word media in there, and note the lack of italics, which are generally used to denote the name of a publication: “Fast Company is the world’s leading progressive business media brand, with a unique editorial focus on innovation in technology, ethonomics (ethical economics), leadership, and design. Written for, by, and about the most progressive business leaders, Fast Company and FastCompany.com inspire readers and users to think beyond traditional boundaries, lead conversations and create the future of business.”
If you’re one of the sticklers who still wants to know why GenevaLunch calls itself an online daily newspaper when we don’t have a print version, I can only say a) I usually shorten it to “we’re an online daily” to avoid the debate and b) at least we produce news and that’s our main business. We’re part of a shrinking industry, with newspapers trying to hold on to that part of what they do while looking elsewhere to make money. We’re staffed by volunteers, in answer to your unasked question, what’s our business model.
Make way for quasi-news
The latest development in the news industry is the quasi-news business, with two branches. The first is smaller social media tacking on news services to make their sites sticky. At first glance this looks like a smaller, shadow version of the big upcoming tech wars, but that’s an illusion. They mostly stir around the news rather than producing it themselves, they have no editorial team overseeing news although they sometimes hire a reporter or two, hapless freelancers. These groups are a target for the second branch of this new business, companies that produce and sell “news” cheaply to other businesses which want to pitch their own news service without going to the trouble of manufacturing the news themselves. I am getting several calls a week from these new companies, most of which claim to be in London (I have my doubts). Their news packages are a mix of public relations rehashes and re-arranged aggregated news.
This only seems to upset people when the subject is politics and government power, but the quasi-news industry makes sure there is plenty of celebrity stuff to keep interest high. I was told in a call from London last night that they can give me any mix I like of Lady Gaga and what’s happening to the euro.
I turned down the offer.
ProPublica (journalism in the public interest) carried an article in May about the implications of “PR up, journalism down”. Author John Sullivan noted that “the Pew Center took a look at the impact of these changes last year in a study of the Baltimore news market. The report, “How News Happens,” found that while new online outlets had increased the demand for news, the number of original stories spread out among those outlets had declined. In one example, Pew found that area newspapers wrote one-third the number of stories about state budget cuts as they did the last time the state made similar cuts in 1991. In 2009, Pew said, The Baltimore Sun produced 32 percent fewer stories than it did in 1999. Moreover, even original reporting often bore the fingerprints of government and private public relations.”
The demand for news is there, it’s just moved to FB
Farhad Manjoo, author of the Fast Company article, writes that “Facebook, meanwhile, is now more than just the world’s biggest social network; it is the world’s most expansive enabler of human communication. It has changed the ways in which we interact (witness its new Timeline interface); it has redefined the way we share—personal info, pictures (more than 250 million a day), and now news, music, TV, and movies.”
News is like any other product, with R&D, production, packaging, distribution
FB is a distribution channel for news. What does this mean? That someone still has to produce the news in the first place, a fact that quick sharing of news among friends, online, tends to blur. At a social media evening jointly hosted by the US Mission in Geneva and the Diplomacy School a young woman in the audience declared that like most of her friends she doesn’t get her news from news organizations, but from friends online and their links.
Duh, I was a little surprised that for a graduate student she doesn’t seem to have asked herself where the news originally came from, since I don’t think she was talking about citizen news and iReports, which were mostly a flash in the pan and are now used by media to make them appear connected and interactive. I don’t think she meant the Arab Spring with direct-from-the-battle-line reports or the boom in news moving around on cell phone informal networks in Africa. I’m pretty sure she was referring to the various bits and pieces of news shared by friends on FB, Linked in, Twitter and on local social networks, the stuff I see batted around by my friends, colleagues and acquaintances who somehow became online “friends”.
This is news without the packaging. Packaging is part of what magazines and newspapers and now online media offer. The friends distribution system is a free-for-all. The cost goes down as a result of this loss of packaging and distribution, a fact media are beginning to realize can work in their favour.
A nod to the brand
The danger is that the brand disappears. Fast Company is lucky because I made my source clear here, cited them and linked to them. A few hundred other unscrupulous people won’t bother and will rewrite some of what Manjoo wrote, never giving him the credit he deserves for a really interesting and rich article.
And while I’m being honest, I will admit that I found his article because one of my FB friends is The Browser, who makes me sit up and notice all kinds of interesting articles (thanks, dear Browser folks).
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – There are the products, the design, the packaging, the marketing, not to mention the financial success, and then there are the ads. Some will say Steve Jobs made Apple what it is today, but he had a little help from his friends, and Ad Age reminds us that the advertisements during Jobs’s reign were part of what made it all so fun.
Here are their picks, the 10 best Apple ads starting back in 1984, or “1984″, depending on how you see it.
Good luck Tim as you step into Steve’s shoes, and please keep those ads rolling.
The Guardian has 13 magical photos of the lunar eclipse, which some of us missed in the early hours of Tuesday 21 December. My favourite is the sheep in Country Antrim, who seem to wonder what the fuss is all about, although I suspect they were worried by the change in the light, as sheep are worriers.
I watched the beautiful white moon, first to my left, then to my right as I drove from Vaud to Valais last night, along the elbow of the Rhone near Martigny. But the eclipse, which I had forgotten about, occurred early this morning Swiss time, and apparently the moon dipped below the horizon just before the eclipse, leaving it to Americans, north and south, to watch the event. Flickr carries a nice collection of amateur’s photos from around the world.
Magical it was: the first lunar eclipse to come on the day of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, since 1378.
Tonight we have a full moon, bright and white and, we hope, bringing clear skies and thawing temperatures to help travellers make it home for the holidays.
G3 technology was a huge leap forward in telecommunications, maybe not quite the same as people landing on the moon, but it felt close. I remember the day I bought my first iPhone in Sierre, in canton Valais, and minutes later, riding up the mountainside in Switzerland (I wasn’t driving), I watched a clip my son had just sent from China, shots from a film he was making about riding a motorcycle across Tibet. The landscapes had a lot in common, and our so-distant worlds had just come together. It felt like a miracle.
So 4G should be the next great leap, right? Fourth generation wireless technology, that will bring us another set of miracles.
Not quite so, it seems. The ITU (International Telecommunications Union) in Geneva some months ago put out a tough definition of 4G, that next great leap, but the market players who had new products they were calling 4G didn’t make the ITU grade and there were no products on the market that could honestly be called 4G.
In the end, the market rules: US carriers kept saying in their advertising that they offered G4 and in early December, the ITU quietly backed down, according to David Twiddy, writing in the Kansas City Business Journal, and other tech watchers.
We consumers will have to wait a bit longer for the family video from the moon, in real time.