July and August are often described by media journalists as the ‘silly season’ due to the fact that MPs are on holiday and there’s no real news to talk about. At such times they root around for silly stories to fill the print pages and air time. I thought I’d follow the trend and just mention a few nuggets that caught my eye this past month.
The first is an app that just says “yo!”. In the past week it has soared past Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat to become the fifth most popular app in the US App Store. The user just presses a contact’s name to send a “yo!” taking it, as the FT so prophetically puts it: “…to its logical, minimalist extreme.” With 4 million “yo!s” being sent in one day it’s difficult to see what the attraction is but the Yo people explain that its limitation is also its strength (?) “Wanna say ‘good morning’? Just Yo. Wanna say ‘baby I’m thinking about you?’ Just Yo. ‘I’ve finished my meeting – come by my office’ – Yo…the possibilities are endless.” Erm…
Yo’s founder and Chief Executive, Or Abel, apparently bought the app from an investor who originally came up with the idea as a way to summon his assistant.
Tweeting is now pretty active on the subject with one commentator getting rather philosophical on the subject: “Yo is an instance of ‘one-bit communication’ – a message with no content other than the fact that it exists – yes or no. Yo or no yo.”
With soaring popularity comes increased interest from hackers. There is no knowing where this could all end when people start getting a “yo!” from someone they don’t know or failing to get a “yo!” from someone they do …know!
My next app story is somewhat more worthy as the techy community look to ways of helping change the lives of rough sleepers by connecting homeless people with services they need or teaching them new skills. StreetLink, a UK-wide service, which is also a 24-hour telephone helpline and website, enables smartphone users to report a person who is sleeping rough. The service then identifies and emails the local authorities responsible for that person.
At London’s first Technology Week conference in June one of the speakers was Big Issue vendor, Simon Mott. Mr Mott is using his smartphone to take card payments for the magazine (it retails at £2.50) after finding that he was losing sales because potential customers did not always have small change.
I’m not sure this would go down too well in Honiton and Exeter but Stephen Robertson, chief executive of the Big Issue, is in favour: “Basic smartphones are available to rent for as little as £10 a month and there’s no reason a homeless person should not have one.”
I discovered my final story in The Week and, for me, it’s the most fascinating.
Chester Nez, who has died aged 93, was one of a handful of Navajo Indian speakers commissioned by the US Marines in 1942 to use the Navajo tongue to devise a code that the Japanese couldn’t crack (as they had every other code used by the US in the Pacific.) Navajo wasn’t a written language, so it couldn’t be looked up. It also employed rare tonal qualities, with the result that, to the untrained ear, it resembled: “…the call of a Tibetan monk interspersed by various other sounds, including that of a hot-water bottle being emptied.”
Nez and 28 fellow Navajo were given 13 weeks to develop the code. They formulated word-letter pairings: ‘wol-la-chee’, the Navajo for ant, was A and ‘na-hash-chid’, the word for badger, was B. A grenade was signified by the Navajo for ‘potato’, a submarine was an ‘iron fish’, Adolph Hitler was ‘moustache smeller’ and Mussolini became known as ‘big gourd chin’.
Messages that had previously taken 30 minutes to code and decrypt could now be conveyed in 20 seconds and the Navajo code was never broken; indeed their work was so crucial that they were denied leave. It’s ironic that it would be 1948 before the Navajo were given the right to vote.
In the space of a little over 70 years we have gone from clever code breaking to communicating with a ‘yo’.
For more information go to:
www.theweek.co.uk (for more ‘yo’ news)
www.londontechnologyweek.co.uk (for more on the homeless app)
www.navajocodetalkers.org (for more on the code talkers including a video interview with Chester Nez)
Carol Hayes (July 2014)