My online replicant (with French accent and acne)

Picture 26-2What if you were replaced by a robot suffering from acne?

VirtuOz, a French company that normally makes smart bots for websites like the French Post Office and Railway (Answering questions like: “What is the nearest train station to Aix-en-Provence?”), just launched a free consumer version of their artificial intelligence robot.

Skaaz is an online avatar suffering from an oversized head and acne who answers questions you have pre-programmed explicitly or entered through a series game-like questionaires. For now, it is only available in French.

Why do I want this?

The idea behind Skaaz is a variation on the continuous presence theme. Instead of the instant feedback of Jaiku or Twitter that tells people “what are you doing now?”, Skaaz will tell people about your broader preferences. You could put in your favorite color, car or restaurant, for example. That way, a person interacting with the bot could get to know you, even if you are not online. By the time you do actually get online, people have finished all the chit chat with your bot and you can get into the substantive stuff. It is possible even to imagine that Skaaz bots could be programmed to seek other bots loaded with similar interests.

How do they make money?

Since Skaaz is a watered-down version of the commercial-strength system used by the French post office and railways, presumably they could offer more functionality at a price. This would allow more complex questions and and subtle interaction. Advertising could also be worked into the bots fairly easily when it comes to recommendations.

The lowdown:

While VirtuOz clearly has experience on the output side (answering questions) it will be a challenge to get users to input enough information to make the bots knowledgeable about their owner. There could be real strength in tying Skaaz to a back end like Facebook or Last.fm, where users have already expressed many views and preferences.

Due to the limited amount programmed into one person’s bot, the power of Skaaz might come more with crowdsourcing rather than from the knowledge of one bot. Imagine asking a large community of Skaaz bots to tell their favorite restaurant. This would turn the Skaaz technology into a search solution for personal recommendations from a large community.

Here is my Skaaz. Click here to chat with my virtual self.

Picture 27-1

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A Farewell to Reporting

Friends,

For those whom I did not have time to inform personally – things have been rather hectic – I soon start a new career as an Asia-based entrepreneur in new media.

After 12 years and more than a thousand datelines in the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times from dozens of countries on five continents at the cost of six laptops and despite one consistently dysfunctional email system, Friday was my last day at the newspaper.

The death and human suffering I witnessed in the war zones of northern Sri Lanka, southern Sudan and eastern Burma remain seared in my memory, along with the accordion-like collapse of fully occupied buildings during Taiwan’s largest earthquake and that disconcerting wobble of the Holiday Inn Express in Gulf Shores, Alabama as the eye of Hurricane Ivan passed overhead.

I live by the belief that witnessing and reporting improves the world. Good copy saves lives.

That said, I also treasured such hardship assignments as the Cannes Film Festival party column and always loved those urgent emails from the travel editor requesting me to go write about the best vacation spots I could find in Asia.

To the editors who sent me around the world, made my copy seem smart and captured the essence of my stories in so many pithy headlines, thanks. A few of them are in this video tour of the IHT newsroom.

A special thanks to my colleagues on the business side of the newspaper for making all that money in order for me to go spend it. Cheers, guys!

To those still in the back of the bus – my fellow reporters and photographers – keep the faith, humor and good luck with those editors. From the bomb-strewn Plain of Jars in Laos to the Republican National Convention in Manhattan, the stories are too numerous. (But I must say that hijacking that Kerry campaign pick-up truck across a state line was worthwhile, even if the bar we wanted – The Purple Grackle – was closed.)

Not all of us emerged unscathed, however, and some of remain in peril. A horrific number of reporters have been killed, injured and kidnapped in recent years. I think now particularly of Alan Johnston the reporter for the BBC who was kidnapped in Gaza more than 100 days ago.

Another daily contributor to our newspaper deserves my final and highest thanks: Local fixers and courageous sources.

Often motivated by the simple urge to show the truth to the world, they act in spite of government and other pressures.

Newspaper correspondents like myself travel with the safety of a foreign passport and backing of a high profile publication, but the fixers we hire do so at great risk to themselves and their families.

They place themselves in harm’s way by sharing information, arranging interviews and explaining complexities crucial to telling a story. Their lives can quickly become the collateral damage of journalism.

Thank you for taking those risks and thank  you for all the stories. I hope I did them justice.

-30-

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Video tour of the International Herald Tribune newsroom

I took my friend Loic Le Meur, who has the number one blog in France and with whom I blog in French, on a tour of the IHT newsroom.

Thanks for coming for a visit, Loic!

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Creating CNN for under $20

Picture 19

In the modern media age, can you create CNN for less than $20?

My idea is to use my Mac to create a personal TV channel where I can post video interviews done in person on my own (free) YouTube channel.

In order to conduct remote interviews, I want to record Skype video chats.

The Skype chats are the tough part, but – if solved – I have a broadcasting potential as big as the Internet itself.

Some useful programs I found for doing “on-air interviews”:

CamTwist – A fun program that allows you to add special effects to a Skype video chat. There are a wide range of effects including a CNN-like crawl along the bottom of the screen, a thought bubble, a snowstorm or halo over the head. Price: Free.

Ubercaster – A program that give you a complete editing suite for podcasts. Really impressive looking, but too expensive for my channel’s budget! Price: $79.

IShowU – Allows you to record a Skype video call off the screen. Price: $20.

Snapz Pro X – Allows recording of video off your screen. They have a 15 day trial period, so I will check that out. Price: $69.

Ecamm – Designed as a plug-in for Skype, it records Skype video calls. They have a 7-day trial. Price: $14.95.

I am not sure which of the three video grab programs are best, so will try both and post the results!

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Higher quality video calls on Skype

A very simple hack!!

I recently met Michael Jackson, the COO of Skype who explained how anyone can get high quality video on Skype calls on a Macintosh. I am not sure if this works on a PC.

After downloading the latest version of Skype (later than 2.5), quit the application and open the config.xml file associated with the account.

Navigate to the config.xml file via folders: home folder/library/application support/skype/yourskypeaccount

Open the file using Textedit and find the block marked <video> that might resemble:

Picture 14-1

Add height and width information:

Picture 15-2


Save and close config.xml, restart Skype and do a video call. The remote party should now see your picture in 640×480 resolution, instead of the standard quality 320×240.

Both parties need a fairly high-end computer (Mac or PC) to get good quality and framerate, plus a good Internet connection.
This should work, but more detail available here on the Skype developer blog.

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Eurovision, Wikipedia and Privacy

Ever wonder what telecom technocrats in Geneva think about?

Me neither, but thanks to Wikipedia’s “history” function, you can get an idea.

Sitting in a joint conference organized by the European Broadcasting Union and the International Telecommunications Union, I decided to see what Wikipedia entries people at this institution’s IP address decided to edit.

People using the EBU network (we do not know if they are employees, just that they used the network) have shared knowledge on Wikipedia by editing articles on:

Holidays and holiday destinations: Denmark public holidays, Sharm el-Sheikh (→SCUBA and Water Sports), Buncrana (a town in Ireland)
Bands: Rush, Wings, Guillemots
Films: Croupier, Blade Runner, The Smurfs
Authors: Irvine Welsh (author of Trainspotting)
Video Games: The Sims 2
Diseases: Sickle-cell disease, Diabetes mellitus
Food-related bacteria: Bacillus coagulans, folic acid
Dietary supplements: Probiotic
Mortality: Deaths in 2007
Shopping: List of toothpaste brands
Broadcasting standards: DVB, DVB-H, DVB-T, ATSC, Digital terrestrial television

My point is that people may have unwittingly provided information about themselves and their organization.

Google recently announced that due to concerns raised by European privacy regulators, it will reduce to 18 months the length of time before search data is made anonymous.

On Wikipedia, I have found some entries with histories dating back to 2001. Will Wikipedia be forced to make a similar concession on privacy?

Full list of EBU edits below

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Any questions for top UN officials on future of the Internet?

This Friday in Geneva I will moderate a panel of high level United Nations officials about their role in the future of the Internet.

The host of the conference, the International Telecommunication Union, is a UN agency that ranks among its goals to “promote the extension of the benefits of new telecommunication technologies to all the world’s inhabitants.”

Others on the panel include top officials from UNESCO, the African Telecommunications Union, the European Broadcasting Union, the World Intellectual Property Organization and the International Standardization Organization.

My focus: Are these organizations doing enough to promote and support the Internet?

Any sharp ideas or questions are welcome!

Details of my panel below, with link to full conference program here.

9.30am Friday Building the Information Society Together: What is the role of International Organizations in a convergent media world?

All organisations need goals, objectives, structures, and procedures. These are necessarily defined by the times when they are established. High-level representatives from international organizations will be invited to discuss how they are contributing to foster the convergence.

Moderator: Mr. Thomas Crampton, Technology and Media Correspondent for the International Herald Tribune

Panelists:
– Mr. Jéan Reveillon, Secretary General, European Broadcasting Union (EBU)
– Dr. Hamodoun I. Touré, Secretary General, International Telecommunication Union (ITU)
– Ms. Ruth Hieronymi, Member of the European Parliament, Committee on Culture and Education of the European Parliament
– Mr. Alan Bryden, Secretary General, International Standardization Organization (ISO)
– Dr. Akossi Akossi, Secretary General, African Telecommunications Union (ATU)
– Mr. Philippe Petit, Deputy Director General, World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)
– Mr. Mogens Schmidt, Deputy Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)