Getting right the name

My name is Phil Thane, if you want the whole thing it’s Philip Alan Thane. I’m a freelance writer and editor of a small magazine. In the last few weeks I’ve had emails addressed:

  • Dear Editor, Phil
  • Hi Phil Thane
  • Hi
  • Dear philthane (my username on some websites)
  • Hi @pthane (Twitter handle)
  • Hi Thane!

Sometime way back in the last century marketing departments discovered an unholy alliance between databases and wordprocessors and started sending mail-merged letters. For a while we fell for it and really thought someone had written to us. Then we wised-up but for a few years were impressed that we were dealing with a company so advanced that it could do this, with computers.

50 years later marketing departments are still doing it. These days with email, SMS and a host of social media systems, but they are doing it worse.

In the early days of mail-merge companies had their own lists of customers and suppliers built up over years of trading. Some poor soul had to type the lot into Lotus 123 or Excel which was a lot of overtime but if the lists were accurate and you employed a decent touch typist the data would be accurate and in the format the company wanted.

Then we got Big Data and everyone wants more. More raw data, more tags, more categories, subdivisions, links to other data points, more ways of extracting value. The simplest way of accumulating data is to buy it. Or swap it or merge all the data belonging to companies you have acquired. That data was collected over years by different companies for different purposes and stored in different formats. It is difficult to merge nicely and errors creep in. Then it is passed on to another company, merged again, separated when a division is spun-off, re-merged following a takeover and so on. A lot of Big Data is a mess and because it’s such a Big mess no human ever tries to put it right.

The naming thing is just an indicator of how bad it is, but it’s important because if you get someone’s name wrong they realise immediately they are dealing with a company that has poor data and doesn’t care who knows it. Not a good way to win friends and customers.

My own name is fairly unusual but most British people would realise Thane is a surname even if it’s not one they are familiar with because Phil is obviously an abbreviated first name. But of course no humans are involved in data any more and some of the transformations this data has been through may well have been held in the form NAME, First name. My contacts in France do that all the time. At some point in all the data manipulation something hasn’t matched up properly and first and last names of some people have got muddled. You might try to write an automatic data processing routine to sort that out by comparing with lists of first and last names, but in a connected multi-cultural world that’s not going to help much. Even in the Anglosphere Thane can be a first name, especially in the US. In India it’s a city.

Some names would baffle even human native speakers. James Alexander, or JAMES, Alexander? Gender too is a minefield, Mr Robert Lesley or Ms ROBERT, Lesley?

There is a simple solution. Stop using the conventions of an earlier age in modern business practice. No-one is impressed by ‘mail merge’ these days. When it’s right it’s unnoticeable when it’s wrong, as it often is, it’s an irritant. Make your business communication impersonal like flyers or posters, don’t try to emulate the letter form, most of your contacts are too young to remember it anyway.

Marketing, data and forgetting the human

We (or more specifically, my wife) changed our energy supplier yesterday. This morning she got a text message from our former supplier, ‘ We are sorry to lose you…’. She snorted and moved on. It happens all the time, change a supplier, unsubscribe from something and moments later your phone pings with a personalised message. But why?

No-one in the developed world who has used any IT in the last few years still believes that these messages come from an actual person who actually cares that you’ve cancelled. We know the message comes from the cloud-based IT system of a multinational corporation that is foreign owned and has its HQ somewhere sunny and tax efficient. The code was probably written by a contractor concerned only that it worked, passed the scrutiny of his/her peers and was a step up on to the next contract. So why do it?

Do you think we’ll be so touched by your concern we’ll reconsider? Or is it a long-term investment, leaving on good terms so that one day when we once again face up to the hassle of finding another supplier we’ll remember your kind message and give you another try? Really? You think your customers that sentimental?

Or maybe it’s just because everyone else in your industry, every industry, does it, it costs little and requires no thought, so you do it too. Thus demonstrating to your customers, or to those that think about it rather than just ignoring you, that you are just as much an unthinking corporate behemoth as all the others. Well done marketing department, have a bonus.


As promised the server now runs Nextcloud and MySQL. Unfortunately Nextcloud was forked from the latest version of ownCloud and requires the latest ownCloud client on the desktop. Which wasn’t supported by my operating system a LTS version of Linux Mint based on Ubuntu 14.10. So I waited for the next KDE version of Mint to arrive, which it did in September. Now Nextcloud syncs everything with my desktop, which is fine except that the desktop is temporarily set up in the garage of our temporary accommodation. Until we move to our (hopefully) final destination I’m using an old (Bodhi Linux) laptop which runs the client fine, but I daren’t sync too much because the disk isn’t that big.

The other ‘interesting’ issue is remote access to the server which is being blocked somewhere. It’s fine via the LAN but not via the Internet. I’m beginning to wonder if my new ISP contract has something to do with it, even though it’s the same company. More on this when I get to the bottom of it.


I’ve blogged about ownCloud before, and written a couple of features about it for MM. Unlike a lot of software that I’ve installed, tested, written about then forgotten, ownCloud is in regular use.

My entire /home/phil directory is synced to an ownCloud server, which is just an old Athlon 3500+ desktop sat in my office, and I can access it from anywhere with an internet connection. It’s so convenient I’ve installed the client on my wife’s PC and use a folder we can both access for simple file transfers between our machines. Changes are afoot though some falling out between the majority of ownCloud devs and the management of the ownCloud company which markets the supported commercial version has led to the majority of devs leaving.

Being open source of course they left with a full copy of the source code which they have forked to create Nextcloud, and have just put out their first release with instructions for upgrading from ownCloud.

We’re moving house soon (-ish subject to lawyers) so the server and network is all going to be packed away. Once we’re settled I think I’ll stick a new disk in the server and install Nextcloud from scratch, and do it right this time using MySQL rather than the default SQLite.

It’s Cloudy again

ownCloud on my webserver works just fine. But the obvious snag is that web host companies charge for storage space, and generally charge more than a dedicated cloud storage provider. ownCloud have thought of this and provide a plugin to connect to external storage using various common protocols.

Given that I got into ownCloud because I want to avoid government snoops and US corporates selling my data I want a UK based cloud storage provider that allows access by FTP or SFTP. There are several issues.

A lot of companies with a UK website turn out to be branches of US companies who don’t disclose where there servers are. Many companies provide cheap, even free, storage but only if you use their Windows, Mac or Mobile client software. Won’t link to ownCloud unless you pay for the ‘Pro’ package which often starts at £10/month. I did find one exception, Memset which charges 4p/GB/month. Set up is easy and it links to ownCloud via FTP or SFTP. But I can’t make it accept files.

In desperation I signed up to a 30 day free trial with iWeb. It also uses FTP and connects to ownCloud just like Memset – but it works. This demonstrates to my satisfaction it’s not me or ownCloud at fault, so I’ve filed a support ticket with Memset. I hope they fix it, after 30 days iWeb gets expensive!

The long term plan is to mirror my entire /home/phil directory on ownCloud so I can work anywhere without needing to remember what to copy/backup before I go.


No More Google

I’m not paranoid, nor a conspiracy theorist, but I do like my privacy. I choose what goes on my website and it’s all business stuff, family life is off limits. Big business doesn’t work like that, they want to know as much as possible about everyone because they think it makes it easier to sell things to us. Google is way out in front on this, so I’ve decided to opt out of all things Google, no more Gmail, Google+, Docs, Maps or Play. Read the full story here.

ownCloud (2)

SSL certificates being expensive I discovered that my web host offers a ‘shared SSL’ system. Basically the hosting company pays for secure site on https, sets up pages for it’s customers, then forwards to the customer’s page.

So I got a secure link to my ownCloud free. Setting up was fairly simple, but then I’m a bit of a geek who enjoys fiddling around with anything techie, if you’re not, then stick with Dropbox or similar.

ownCloud has Contacts and Calendar apps that now sync with my (Kubuntu) desktop and Android phone and Tab. The calendar even syncs with my wife’s iPad so she can tell me what I’m doing.

There’s a ‘Docs’ app too that so far only allows you to edit .odt files, which is fine for me because I use LibreOffice on the desktop, but might bug MS users. There are plans to add other ODF formats such as spreadsheets and presentations in due course, and being open source there is a completely open API for developers to create their own apps.