Archive for review

Long time no post…

It’s been quite a while since I posted anything on this site but for the last couple of years I’ve been very busy moderating and replying to comments. Most of these have come from people who have been conned by one of the many scams that I’ve looked into on this site.

‘Misleading contract’ business directory scams

A huge number of these people have been victims of ‘business directory’ scams. These trick people into signing a ‘contract’ for roughly €3,000 and then follow up with demands and finally threats from so-called debt collectors (in reality the same people as the scammers). Something like 4% of people snared pay out of fear or desperation. Given the sheer volume of these entrapping forms sent out each year, that’s millions of euro every year just for bullying people over the phone and with a few letters.

The good news is that my posts about these scams are high up in Google meaning that people who have got caught in the trap can find this site and in doing so, read and contribute to the thousands of comments from other people like them. The even better news is that this body of evidence shows that no-one has ever been taken to court by any of these scams. That makes for reassuring reading.

Another neat thing we achieved was to put our warnings about the fake ‘debt collection agencies’ these scams use high up into Google. As soon as someone receives a scary demand from – say ‘ICAA Cyprus Ltd’ on behalf of Expo Guide – they find this site and all the reassuring comments BEFORE they find ICAA’s own (rather 1-dimensional) website.

‘Prize draw promotions’

I can report that – as of the last couple of months – there has been a marked drop-off in ‘prize promotion’ activity. In these thinly-disguised scams, people receive letters telling them they have won a confirmed prize and should contact the company to claim. These promotions are designed to make the ‘lucky winner’ pay to get their prize. On average, the ‘cost’ to claim the prize has been around £15 (extracted through a range of methods such as premium-rate claim lines and insurances). In many, many cases people who paid that money received nothing. Where they did, it was often a throwaway Chinese digital camera with a value of about £2.50.

This scam was designed to appeal to people who are vulnerable and whose judgment is impaired whether through youth, naiivety, mental or other health problems. Finally, in February of 2011, The Office Of Fair Trading (OFT) finally got the UK’s #1 operator of these rip-offs into the High Court last year. Ross-on-Wye based McIntyre & Dodd Marketing Ltd was found to be operating unlawfully and ordered to stop the practice. To our surprise, these people (part of DM Plc) carried on mailing their letters for a couple of months after this ruling – judging by the comments that still regularly arrived in waves to coincide with each new M&D direct mail-out.

The good news is that – for the last couple of months at least – M&D appears to have stopped the mail-outs under the usual sounding names like ‘Community Awards Register’, ‘NB – Botification Bureau’ and ‘Unclaimed Prize Register’ etc etc. The traffic for those titles and for ‘McIntyre & Dodd Marketing Ltd’ has dropped right off – I’m pleased to announce. Let’s hope it won’t start up again under some other guise – although, to be quite honest, I fully expect it to at any moment.

Peter Popoff and his ‘Miracle Debt Cancellation’

This US ‘preacher’ was exposed by James Randi as being a complete and total fake. I was surprised, therefore, to see him sometime in the last year or two on UK TV (on ‘The Gospel Channel’ from Iceland) peddling his wares. A quick Google search for ‘Peter Popoff’ will show you just how much hatred this nasty con man has aroused. Google’s ‘popular searches’ feature tells a clear story: peter popoff prison / peter popoff miracle water / peter popoff fake / peter popoff false prophet.

“Peter Popoff is a mother fucker” says one non-fan on his blog. “Born again but still a religious fraud” says another. “Peter Popoff, back to his old tricks” is yet another. Even RipoffReport has a feature on this toad. Why isn’t he in prison, asks a chunk of the internet population. I’ve no idea – sadly, and there’s no sign of him stopping yet.

TouchLocal

There is still a constant trickle of traffic into this site for the heinous keyphrase “touchlocal sc*m”. Why? Because someone out there isn’t happy with what they’re getting from TouchLocal. Nothing unusual about that but a couple of years ago it bubbled over into a bit of a problem. By publishing unhappy customer comments here, TL were forced to communicate with those customers. A very small number were resolved (better than none) and – under threat from TL – I agreed to take the thread down. Immediately after, TouchLocal tried to play some games to stuff the top of Google search with their own copy for the keyphrase – with the result that they looked like a business with something to hide.

Let’s hope things are improving for TouchLocal’s customers, ordinary non-computer literate business folk just hoping for a little extra business…

PayPal

This one isn’t going away. We’re still getting regular horror-stories from people whose livelihoods are being ruined by PayPal when it freezes their accounts or does strange and, let’s face it, unacceptable-sounding things. My best advice at the time didn’t feel like much help even then – and I suspect that PayPal hasn’t got any more accountable (or regulatable) as it’s got bigger.

Amazon.com/co.uk

I’m pleased to be able to say that the all the traffic to this site for Amazon (and there’s been a lot of it) has shown that, apart from frustration at the company’s unwillingness to highlight its customer service phone number, most people are extremely satisfied with the quality of customer service they DO get when they get through to an agent.

This is exactly the experience I had in the beginning that prompted me to post. Keep up the good work Amazon – and why not make your customer service numbers more accessible? That way you’ll have even more advocates singing your praises worldwide.

..and so

It’s coming time to re-think this site and what I want to do with it.

What I’ve learned is that it is very satisfying to be able to help prevent people from being ripped off and save them from unnecessary worry and stress. In a cruel world that thinks its ok to rip people off because they didn’t see the trap coming, I’m pleased to have made some difference. But it takes a bit of effort and involves a bit of risk, too – so it’s time to consider where we go from here.

The Anonymous Review spells the end for online feedback, reviews and recommendations

Is the ‘Wisdom of the Crowd’ being destroyed by the anonymous review?

Of all the things that the internet promised, increasing transparency was in many ways the most promising.  Fans of ‘social media’ enthuse about how micro-blogging networks (like Twitter, Facebook etc) bring the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ to bear on big corporations and organisations – and force them to listen and change their ways.

The ‘user review’ is now an integral part of most consumer-related websites: from Amazon, to eBay, to TripAdvisor, to Plebble, to Unvarnished, to coworker.com and countless more. And if you read the statistics, it seems that the reviews we find there make a difference to what we choose to do.

The problem is that this dream is already turning sour – and for one reason: the anonymous review.

The backlash is already underway.  The reputation of TripAdvisor has been sliding downhill for the last year because it cannot (or will not) take more steps to ensure the identity – and accountability – of its reviewers.  The resultant misuse of the review system, as hotels attempt to gain an advantage over their competitors, has degraded trustworthiness of the site.  And in the news just yesterday, we heard of the UK history Professor who admitted to faking positive reviews for his own books at Amazon (at the same time as slagging off those of his peers).

Today, I did a quick test of Plebble.com – another of those apparently well-meaning ‘consumer review’ websites.  I signed up using an alternative email address and created a fake company called ‘My Imaginary Competitor‘ and then proceeded to review it  – see pic above.

Plebble.com’s system picked up that I used some potentially ‘defamatory’ words, but left me to make the choice of whether or not to continue and publish – which of course, I did.  But ask yourself: if I was hell-bent on damaging My Imaginary Competitor, would I care, hiding behind a hotmail address from my local Starbucks that my remarks were defamatory?

Now imagine if I’d just gone on and posted that review about YOUR company.

The first you’d know of it would be an invitation from Plebble.com to join their community. And that’s how it works – and how it’s going to be, more and more – as review sites like this use ‘user reviews’ to pull unsuspecting businesses into their worlds.

And if I had posted that review about your business,  do you think Plebble.com would respond to your requests for it to be taken down without you having to resort to legal threats? I don’t know but – if TripAdvisor is anything to go by – I doubt it. Their entire business model would collapse if they gave in to pressure to remove bad reviews, it’s as simple as that.

I’ve not singled out Plebble.com for any other reason than their MD followed me on Twitter today and that reminded me they existed. I was curious to see whether or not they had put in place any controls to ensure the veracity of what their reviewers post.  They clearly haven’t. In allowing anonymous reviews, they, like most (if not all) the other review sites guarantee their system will be corrupted by reviews designed to damage or gain advantage.

And before the guys at Plebble.com (or TripAdvisor for that matter) get prickly at having criticism levelled at them, they need to remember that by soliciting reviews from a businesses’s customers, they give that business no choice about whether they want to be featured or not.

Here’s the problem: while companies like Plebble put such a lack of accountability at the heart of their business model, it’s hard to imagine how they’ll ever be willing to be accountable for the consequences created by that business model.

I’m a great fan of feedback. It’s where we started out with our business – and where we’re coming back to in the work with online reputation. But feedback doesn’t work when it’s disconnected from the giver and the receiver – and that’s the mistake that the review site people continue to make. Why? Because meaningful accountability would seriously mess up the monetization process and we can’t have that, can we?

The issue of anonymous reviews is discussed in today’s Guardian here.

Spotify Premium: Review starts here

I’ve just given myself the gift of Spotify Premium.  This is my ‘as-it-happens’ review

I’ve been using Spotify off and on for most of this year.  In all of that time, it’s been a fun service to use firstly because it has been free (ad supported) and secondly because it gives me access to a million tons of music I would never have otherwise heard in the days of CDs and ‘physical music’.

Can’t fault the ad-supported version.  Yes, the frequency of ads increased over the year but even then it was a relatively small price to pay for all that free background music.  In the course of Spotify’s first year, it’s been my pleasure to help out rather a lot of people get free accounts (via this link here) many of whom, lets hope, go on to be fully paid-up Premium subscribers in turn.

So what’s the Premium experience like then?

Let me point a picture of me-as-Spotify-user first.  I’m 46, male, white.  Professional.  Critical technophile (meaning I love & hate technology in equal measures).  I don’t have a lot of music CDs.  I don’t follow any particular bands.  Live gigs bore me after 45 minutes.  These days, I’d rather hear lots of random stuff I don’t know than stuff I do know.  I’m as likely to listen to spoken word these days as music.  I don’t go to festivals :-)

There you have it: grumpy old bloke sets out to try out Spotify Premium.

Signing up for Spotify Premium

First thing is that I hate being signed up to a rolling subscription when I only want to try.  If you try to upgrade to Premium, it will assume you’re signing up month on month (leaving the onus on you to cancel).  My way around this was to ‘gift’ myself a 1-month Premium Code via a Spotify Premium e-card. £9.99 one-off card payment.

It worked – now I’m Premiumed up for one month. Thank you Sam. You’re welcome Sam. (BTW don’t bother seaching Google for an obvious phrase like ‘spotify premium gift card’.  It’s as if they don’t want you to find their e-card. Doh!)

Spotify iPhone app

Downloading the iPhone app is quick and easy.  Ignore the 1 star reviews from the muppets who have downloaded the app expecting to be able to use it with a free Spotify account.  Don’t blame the app because you couldn’t read the small print, folks.

Now, there are two things you’re going to want to test with your Spotify app: the offline playlist capability and the streaming on-the-go 3G connectivity.

Spotify offline playlist downloads

On the face of it, this feature is supposed to make Spotify available to you when you don’t have enough 3G bandwidth to stream it.  In theory, it sounds good but in reality how long a playlist takes to download will depend on the WiFi bandwidth you have available..

At home on my 450kbs broadband connection, downloading a 100 song offline playlist took several hours.  I can’t see myself having enough time to download playlists on a regular basis.

Another consideration here is that there doesn’t seem to be any indication of the size of the files that are being downloaded.  How much will my 8Gb phone take?

And finally: on the iPhone, it appears that playlists don’t download unless you open the app and start them (or let them re-start).  If I exit to do something else, the downloading stops.  I think it carries on when the phone auto-locks but, without any detailed progress indicator, I can’t be sure.

Spotify 3G streaming

At home in Devon even on a lousy 450kbs broadband, Spotify Premium streams pretty well on the laptop – with only the occasional drop-out.

At home, where the 3G coverage is also patchy or non-existent, the iPhone app gives up trying to stream altogether and reverts to any saved playlist.

Sitting in London with a chunky 3G signal the Spotify app works perfectly on the iPhone.  Right now, I’m listening to Elvis – the 68 comeback special. :-) I have no idea if / whether streaming Spotify tracks ends up costing on my O2 iPhone contract.

Spotify Premium verdict?

The downside

The usability of the Spotify app is only as good as the mobile 3G coverage and the WiFi access you have (see above).  If both are lousy you’re not going to get the most out of Premium because the fallback (downloading playlists for offline listening) can be a long-winded and impractical business.

In reality, though, fewer and fewer of us are stuck with both crap 3G and crap broadband all the time – and it’s a situation that will only improve.

A major downside to Spotify has got to be the inability to run the app in background mode while I do other things with my iPhone.  After all, iTunes can do it – so why not Spotify?  Is it a deal-breaker? I’ll let you know when my trial month is up.

The upside

On the upside, Spotify does something that’s so different from any previous mode of music ownership: it encourages me to listen to lots of new things.  With Spotify, the musical world expands.  With my real-world CD collection (or paid-for mp3s), it seems to contract, encouraging us to listen more and more to the same things.

And Spotify’s search facility is everything you’d expect of a software that learned from iTunes, YouTube, Google and everything that paved the way before it.

All in all, I keep thinking “I don’t want to own music!  I just want to listen to it” – and Spotify lets me do that for £10 a month on my handheld device of choice.  I think that’s probably worth it.

The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz. Amazon and Audible should reclassify it as fiction

Slavomir Rawicz’s ‘The Long Walk: The true story of a trek to freedom’ was anything but, it seems.

So why do Audible and Amazon still sell it as non-fiction?

I just finished listening to this book, via my ’2 titles a month’ account with www.audible.co.uk.  I have to say, I quite enjoyed it (heroic second world war Russian gulag escape romp) up to a point.  The point being the party’s encounter with a pair of 8 foot tall Yetis.  Hmm, I thought.  I bought this thinking (not unreasonably, given the title and the marketing puff) it was a ‘true’ story.
Picture 1
Wrong.  The tiniest bit of online research demonstrates quite clearly that it’s credentials are, to put it midly, shaky.  No corroborating evidence; no trace of the others in the party, no historical records except those which contradict the story entirely.  Ah.

Ok, so I wasted £10.  But at least I got a chance to review it on Audible (let’s see if they publish my comment!).

The process of research was interesting.  Why? Because it took only a couple of minutes to surface the controversy over this book – a debate that’s nearly 60 years old.  The first clear indication was, of course, good old Wikipedia.   The second was the huge number of reviews on Amazon.com.  Note the number of reviewers who found it inspiring (and want to believe in it).  Note also the clarity of the critics’ arguments.  You can see that some of the critical reviews come from as early (in internet terms) as 2002.

All of which makes the Guardian’s 2004 obituary for Slavomir Rawicz seem mildy amusing – and makes the journalist involved look faintly ridiculous.  Alright, so in 2004 Wikipedia wasn’t up to much (started in 2001) but c’mon? You’re a journalist for God’s sake.

If you’ve arrived here after reading the book (which is more likely) all I can say is ‘Yep, you’re right.  It was too good to be true’ and ‘Come on, Audible and Amazon, you need to put a virtual sticker on the front of this one’ or else people will be asking for their money back.

“Truth” said someone a little while back “is information about which there is no serious dispute”.

TubeRadio.fm music video player – awesome and free

I’m 10 minutes into TubeRadio.fm and having a great time.  Now where’s the catch?

Picture 3A couple of weeks ago some friends came by and we found ourselves creating a soundtrack to the evening via YouTube.  You know how it goes; guitar out, dancing in the front room to a whole load of old tunes you could never admit to liking in everyday life.

For many people, YouTube is more a place to go for music than it is for moving image.  You can be sure – legal issues aside – that someone somewhere has uploaded your favourite music.  The only downside is the interface; a masterpiece of MySpace style chaos.

Then along comes TubeRadio.fm.  Think YouTube meets iTunes meets Spotify and you’re close.

Unless I’m sorely mistaken (and I rarely am) the TubeRadio.fm web interface is so entirely intuitive that you don’t even need to read the f****n manual.  How refreshing. You just start using it – and, providing there’s no unforeseen catch – you keep on using it.

I’ve no idea whether TubeRadio.fm is the future of music video listening but right here, right now, it’s most definitely the present.

Get over there yourself and try it out.  You won’t be disappointed.

Spotify Premium: review time (coming soon)

Ok, it’s time to review Spotify Premium and the iPhone App

Since I’ve benefitted from loads of traffic to my site since first blogging about Spotify back in January and giving out 600 free invites, I think it’s only fair that I finally give the paid version a go and report back here.

So long as it’s ‘easy in, easy out’ I’ll sign up when I get back from holiday, give it a full go and update this post.

Watch this space for the full ‘can-it-really-work-on-an-old-iPhone’ warts and all review from someone with truly rubbish broadband access.

;-)

Apple iPhone hands-free just works

The iPhone hands-free beats the tangled Sony Ericsson nastiness hands-down

Hands-free kits and me have never really got on very well.  I kept buying Jabras but just couldn’t get on with them.  All I can say is that I found them more trouble than they were worth.

And when something you paid £80 for gets tossed aside just a couple of months after you bought it, something’s not right.

And if bluetooths don’t work for you, all you’re left with is a wired hands-free.  The one that came with my Sony Ericsson was rubbish from the start.

The earbuds are the wrong shape and too big.  It’s like trying to push a plate in your ear.  The whole hands-free tangles itself into a bird’s nest as soon as you put it into your pocket. But at least the quality’s good.

For some reason, I bought another Sony Ericsson hands-free the other day – this time the version with a jack plug half way down its length so it comes apart into two pieces – and it’s even longer!  More wire to get impossibly tangled – which of course it did the moment I bought it and seconds before my phone rang.

I’d started to think that – like a toilet seat that an ordinary human being can change successfully – a usable hands-free was pretty much an impossibility.

Until I got an iPhone a few days ago complete with a a hands-free that doesn’t tangle, sounds great and just works.

Wall-E movie review. Proof I’m mad.

Wall-E scored 96% in the Rotten Tomatoes site – with 208 good to 8 bad reviews.

Imagine what its like to feel almost totally alone in a world where everyone else has gone off in a different direction. I know how Wall-E must have felt, bless him.

These days, it has become fashionable to love everything new, shiny and CGI – particularly if it purports to have some important, timely message for us. Anybody who doesn’t love it (the mass hysteria goes) hasn’t got a heart.

Ah well. That’s me branded then.

I watched Wall-E with a desperate hope that – given no dialogue for 30 minutes, and given our ‘prowess’ in computer animation – I’d at least be treated to a visual spectacle worth sitting still for.

What I got – from the clumsily out of place opening music to the grating anthropocentricity of Wall-E and his attachment to cute objects – was another piece of Hollywood trapped in the cycle of media obsession and self-referencing that turned me off King Kong in as short a time.

I know everyone else in the human race loves Wall-E. I don’t. Given that CGI not only gives you the chance to create breathtaking worlds of the imagination but breathtaking ways of people and things interacting, did we get either? No. We got a world that was more of the same in every sense. And we got emotional gestures and interactions that were depressingly – maddeningly – familiar and tired.

Hollywood is trapped in its own limited range of ideas and gestures. Draw a gun, Eve! They do it in every movie! Blow things up, Eve! You just gotta.

CGI seems to have fooled everyone into thinking that you just change the skin of a movie and Presto! A new story.

I summed up my review for Wall-E in a text to a friend:

“Don’t worry, kids, we’re all going to get incredibly fat but then good technology is going to come along and save us from bad”

End. Ah, well. I suppose I’ll just roll back into my container with my bits and bobs, then.

Spotify – internet radio for the terminally lazy and nostalgic. I like it.

Despite the name – ‘Spotify’ – this is internet Radio at its very best, but….

Right now, I’m listening to some old 1980s reggae just as the playlist swerves from Bob Marley into the Sex Pistols ‘C’mon Everybody’. This is what makes Spotify such instant fun.

It’s either a personalised radio station (click the mood you’re in and the decade you’re hankering after and let the software do the rest) or its a ‘search for artist / track’ player.

In the ‘oh, I’m feeling dark and punk circa. 1981′ mode, this is great for just creating a mood and putting tracks in front of you that you’ve probably never heard before. This is perfect for those of us who like the sound but can’t be bothered to get all worked up by the band names…

In the ‘search’ mode you’ll encounter the limitations soon enough – by failing to find the most well known tracks, tracks that are obviously still making someone else more money elsewhere. But as Spotify is supported by EMI, Universal, Warner, AMG and Orchard (among others) there’s plenty to choose from – particularly if, like me, most of it is still in the realm of ‘undiscovered treasure’.

With a few (relatively) unobtrusive audio and banner ads and options for premium accounts, this is the broadband jukebox for me.

So what’s the ‘…but’?

Well, Spotify is currently in ‘invitation-only Beta’ mode.  This means that you can only get a free (ad-based) account through being invited by someone.  Since (as far as I can see) a free account doesn’t give you any invitation tokens to throw around, I can only assume these come with paid membership.

A good marketing model?  We’ll see.  How much more likely am I to pay £9.99 for a monthly membership because it gives me free invites to give out? Time will tell.

Meantime, you can find out more (and register your interest) here.