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According to a Wired article today, a lawsuit has been filed that alleges Yelp “tried to get a Long Beach veterinary hospital named Cats and Dogs Animal Hospital to pay $300 a month — for a minimum 12-month commitment — to suppress or delete reviews that disparaged the hospital.”

But according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court (.pdf) for the Central District of California, the site manipulates the reviews, and therefore a business’ ratings, through an extortion scheme that offers to remove a business’ negative reviews or relocate them to the bottom of a listing page where fewer visitors will see them, if the business purchases a monthly advertising subscription.

Personally, I have no love for the site.  Outside these allegations, I believe they encourage an us-vs-them mentality among reviewers that puts small businesses at a significant disadvantage.  It’ll be interesting to see how this lawsuit plays out.

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I feel like I’ve been under a ton of stress this past week.  On top of an insanely full work schedule (meetings, lots of phone calls, etc), we’re going through some big transitions.  We acquired a competitor’s client list and I’m terrified that we’re going to lose many of them in the transition (despite our best efforts).

We also have a cash crunch at work.  All through December and January, our main work slowed to a trickle, so we’re drawing on reserves at the moment while new projects start to kick in.

Finally, my girlfriend is sick and has been out of work for a couple days.  I also have a school project coming up next week that requires I put some serious effort into it.

Ugh.  I’ll be happy when everything settles down in a week or so.

Over the weekend, I completed my first day as a volunteer with Habitat For Humanity.  I had a great time.  If you’re not familiar with the organization (which I’m still learning about), it’s goal is to use volunteer and donor contributions to construct housing at the lowest possible expense.  These savings are then used to help combat homelessness.  It has chapters throughout the US, as well as several other countries around the world (though it looks like just the Western hemisphere).

The main reason for joining up, as strange as it probably sounds, isn’t really an altruistic one.  Instead, I’m a DIY’er and I enjoy building.  I’ve worked on quite a few projects in the past, ranging from furniture (the desk I’m sitting at is something I built myself) to porches and interior housing.  When I was younger, I was always fascinated by construction and considered on more than one occasion about going into the business.

What I like about a volunteer organization is the ability to work with others – including professionals, as they’re on site as supervisors – to learn new skills, get some exercise, and have a chance to really work with my hands.  My life is very cerebral and sedentary, and so I relish the chance to get outside and get to work.

I’m still learning about the organization, but I have a lot of enthusiasm for it.  The group I’m affiliated with meets once a month, but I’m wondering if I can volunteer more often.  For instance, I have this weekend free and I wouldn’t mind going back and putting in some more time.  Just not sure if that’s appropriate or not.

Anyway, I’ll keep this site updated on my experiences with the organization, and maybe some photos of a job site.  I had a lot of fun (and I’m a bit sore) and I’m looking forward to doing it again.

The ongoing fiasco that is Google Buzz sure is fun to watch from an armchair position.  I have no love for Google, and yet another stumble in the social media world just underscores how little they understand it.

Ultimately, of course, it’s just disappointing.  Watching Google try to remake FriendFeed is really sad.  It makes me long for the days of FriendFeed (the old FriendFeed, before they moved to real-time).  That service got it right, and Google has learned nothing from them.

One has to ask, why in the world is Google even doing this?  Are they that desperate to build a social media application?  Clearly they don’t have the in-house talent or understanding to get social right, and should really be focused on acquiring social companies.  Of course, their track record on social acquisitions has been abysmal (Dodgeball anyone?).

Facebook bought FriendFeed, but they’ve essentially left it to languish and die.  FriendFeed’s biggest problem was it’s lack of community: people just didn’t flock to it like the other big networks.  Although the site itself was doing quite well, and would have continued to do well, it wasn’t “blowing up the world” like the founders wanted.  It was successful, but not successful enough.

Google, of course, could fix all that by forcing people to use a new social media service (which, essentially, they did with Buzz).  That solve’s the community issue FriendFeed had, though Google unfortunately stumbled everywhere else.  It’s a shoddy service, it has clear usability issues, the designers made odd choices in how it operates, and all sorts of other issues.

I don’t know if Google will eventually shut down Buzz, or try to make it usable.  They definitely have a long road ahead of them if they aren’t planning on shutting it down though.

I’ve been following the news of the last couple days about the capture of the No. 2 in command of the Taliban (now under arrest in Pakistan), Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

It’s been a fascinating story to watch.  First, it’s a serious blow to the insurgency (I heard on NPR this morning that delegations of the Afghan government and the Taliban are meeting, possibly to discuss peace).

What will be especially interesting is getting this man to talk about where Mullah Omar and even bin Laden are hiding out.  Imagine demolishing the top-level Taliban and its vestiges even before the major troop surge planned.  It would turn that operation into a mop-up task rather than a cut-and-run plan.  But still, it’s early to tell.

It’s also interesting to hear of the intrigue around the capture.  Apparently, it had happened several days prior; one Western newspaper (the name escapes me) had reliable information about it, but was asked by Washington to withhold releasing the information.

Finally, it’s also interesting how effective the propaganda campaign being fought by the Taliban is.  They’ve been denying the capture for days now, and I don’t doubt that they’ve been effective in their message.  The Taliban have played up the deaths of civilians by NATO forces for years, while downplaying their own brutality (I saw a figure recently that of all civilian deaths, 75% were caused by Taliban).  It seems the Afghan government needs to better control their message if this war is to be successful.

I’ve played through the game once on recruit difficulty, and didn’t have too much trouble getting through.  After playing through the (short) game, I then turned my attention to the mini-challenges.

I really like a few of the challenges, and I generally like the concept and objectives of all of them, but they are incredibly difficult!  Even on recruit, I have a hard time completing them.  On Veteran and Hardened difficult?  Almost impossible.

One of the big draws for the game is the online play.  I have yet to get it to actually work.  Every time I try to join a game, I get a message stating 0/25 games available.  I suspect it’s a networking issue that requires me to do some troubleshooting with my router, though I’m not looking forward to that.

Maybe this weekend I’ll put some more time into it.  It’s a hard game, and it can get super frustrating quickly, but I still think it’s fun.  Hopefully the multiplayer doesn’t suck.

I’ve just finished reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a seminal work that merges true-crime journalism with literature.  If you haven’t read it, or another book like it (I recommend Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), then it’s an interesting style that I highly recommend.

First, as always, I need to mention how I’m in no way qualified to comment on a book like this.  You have to assume that significant underlying themes go unnoticed by me.  But, nevertheless, I feel like writing these pieces helps me to better understand what I’ve just read.  You’re job, as the reader, is to catch me on mistakes and suggest your own interpretations.

That being said, I want to first draw attention to the nuanced narrative Capote created.  The level of detail present is staggering.  He knew the town of Holcomb and its inhabitants so well he was able to draw in everyday occurrences as significant thematic devices.

For instance, towards the end of the book, Perry Smith found himself gazing out the barred window of his cell while enduring his trial.  Capote created an image of two tomcats roaming the town, plucking dead birds from the grills of cars.  The metaphor was unmistakable: two free cats, surviving by their wits to scrape by, street savvy but unable to better themselves.  Just like Perry and his compatriot Dick Hickock.

There was an outright sadness throughout the end of the book.  When desperation gave in to acceptance of the inevitable on the part of Perry, you can’t help by question your assumptions of his actions and the events that led up to his incarceration.  Which, of course, was part of Truman’s goal: to show the aftermath of the heinous crime on both the town and the killers themselves.

There’s a lot more to say about In Cold Blood, but I’ll stop here for now.  I read through the entire book in about 3 days – an exceedingly short time for me.  But it was a book I found I couldn’t put down.  It created a different level of suspense: not one of “what’s about to happen next”, but one of “I don’t want to know what happens next, but I must”.  Very interesting.

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