Is your technology getting underfoot?

May 18th, 2015

ConnectedCycle_redbike_650

I think this is great. Not long ago we would have thought internet-connected cars somewhat futuristic. Internet-connected bicycles would surely be next. But how far can you push that idea? Well, how about instrumenting your cycling using a pedal which has its own 3G connection and is self-powered?

More information about Connected Cycle here and on their web site.

Pinpointing things on Google Maps

May 15th, 2015

How to add a marker to a Google Map so that you can tell people, “It’s here!”

The state of the internet

April 7th, 2015

John Naughton, interviewed by Tim Garton-Ash at the European Studies Centre in Oxford.

Tweet me nice

January 25th, 2015

I still (often) have doubts about whether Twitter is a valuable medium, but I see, looking at my archive, that I’ve now been tweeting for nearly seven years. Gosh. So it is at least a long-lasting one.

I’m far from a heavy user, though: over that period I’ve only averaged 1.3 tweets a day, with an average length of about 89 characters. Mind you, that’s still well over 40,000 words…

“If you’ve got a browser connected to the Internet, I can show you…”

November 9th, 2014

For the sake of posterity, I’ve uploaded the original VNC video that we made back in 1998.

Lots of nostalgia in here – remember the JavaStation? The WebTV? And the days when we made movies in 4:3 ratios?

A great deal has changed in the last 16 years, but VNC goes from strength to strength!

Starring, in order of appearance:

  • Quentin Stafford-Fraser
  • Andy Harter
  • Ken Wood
  • Tristan Richardson
  • Paul Webster
  • Frazer Bennett
  • James Weatherall
  • Daisy Sadleir

Also available on YouTube. Thanks to Andy Fisher for doing the original transfer from VHS to DVD some years ago.

If it doesn’t look like your normal food, that’s because it’s bait.

November 2nd, 2014

One of the tragedies of the accelerated ‘internet time’ is the speed at which advertisers can discover our weaknesses. It took several centuries for tabloid newspapers to evolve their attention-grabbing headlines with minimal content and maximum emotion. FURY AT VICAR’S CELEB SEX ROMPS. (‘Fury’ is a word which seems only to be used now on the front pages of tabloids and local papers.)

Of course, gentle reader, you and I would never buy a paper with that headline. Despite the temptation, we know in the end it will be unsatisfying. It’s journalistic pornography, appealing to our baser instincts. Resisting the lure is part of our education, our self-control. We laugh as we pass by, at the poor, less-intelligent souls who succomb to this ultimately unrewarding titillation.

But, in just a couple of decades, the web has allowed this process to be refined to an extreme degree. Techniques such as A/B testing enable publishers to play with content, delivering version A to one group of 10,000 viewers and version B to another 10,000 to see which delivers the most traffic/sales/ad-clicks. This can be repeated, like an iterative fractional distillation, allowing the drug to be purified as never before.

The web’s equivalent of the tabloid headline is the link text – the thing that stops you walking past and persuades you to look inside. The process can be applied there too, and we see the results everywhere: links which convey even less information and appeal purely on the gut level. “Three old grannies got up on stage and you’ll never believe what they did next!” “10 things no mother should ever do!” “This one weird tip will transform your sex life!” “The most shocking video you’ll ever see!” They are designed, of course, not to convey information, because if you had any at that point, you could decide whether or not to click. Instead, they just tell you that you really must click, because otherwise you’ll be missing out, and we’ll tell you why once you’ve done so. Because, of course, we get paid by our advertisers if you visit our site, but not if you just read the link.

Now, the tragedy is that, unlike with tabloid newspapers, the content sometimes is worth seeing. The video is amusing, or cute, or whatever, and often was carefully created to be so, because they want you to share a link on Facebook, where, of course, it will be automatically augmented with their carefully-baited title.

A group called Quick Sprout recently published a guide on How to write the perfect headline. I’m not linking to their site directly because the pop-up ads are much too annoying, but you can find it via the site above. Their tips summarise the industry’s discoveries:

  • “A writer should spend half of the entire time it takes to write a piece of persuasive content on the headline…. 8 out of 10 people will read the headline, 2 out of 10 will read the rest.”
  • “The perfect length for a headline is six words.”
  • “Use negative wording: negatives tap into our insecurities.”
  • “Try using this formula: Number or trigger word + adjective + keyword + promise.”

They have some nice examples of this last rule:

  • Before formula: “How to bathe an elephant”
  • After formula: “18 Unbelievable Ways You Can Bathe An Elephant Indoors”

But I’ve noticed a strange thing recently. I’m starting to feel ashamed when I click on links like this, as if I couldn’t resist buying the tabloid; I couldn’t help eating the junk food. I’m actively resisting sites that are linked to in this way, and I have a lower opinion of sites that display the links. Am I alone?

Take the Independent, for example, a once-reasonably-respected UK paper. The bottom of every page now looks like this:

independent_ads

This is a tame set of examples which just happened to be on the first page I looked at, but really! “20 Hot Celebs You Didn’t Know Are Jewish”? We care whether they’re Jewish? They can’t be Jewish because they’re ‘hot’? Come on, Indie…! What are we meant to think of your standards?

So I hope we’ll start to see a backlash against this blatant manipulation. Let’s start educating people that, if someone pops out at you in the street and says, “Come down this alley with me, you’ll never believe what’s at the end of it!’, they may not just be doing it for your benefit.

As the old adage goes, if you can’t tell what they’re selling, it’s because you’re the product. So ask yourself this, the next time you see an irrestible link: Do you feel compelled to click, or are you making the decision?

Because there’s one sure-fire way to know if you’re the product. It’s when you’re the thing being delivered.

Social Commentary

October 10th, 2014

I hadn’t come across Kate Reddy before, but they interviewed Allison Pearson, her creator, on Radio 4 this morning, about her return to the Telegraph. The piece is, I think, quite splendid.

Now I know what I’ve been missing by not being a parent.

Tilly! Tilly! Put that camera down! Drop it! DROP IT!

Doing the TWiT

September 21st, 2014

Almost exactly 15 years ago, a Californian TV channel sent me a webcam. To be precise, they sent me a 3COM camera which came with a PCI frame-capture card. Connecting this up was a bit of a palaver, because I ran Linux on my home machine at the time, and I had to create a new partition and install Windows 95 so that I could run the supplied software. But it was worth it, because this was ZDTV, who were doing an interesting experiment on their Call for Help programme: interviewing people in remote locations using these new-fangled webcams alongside a traditional telephone call.

By the time my segment came, it was well past midnight, and I got a laugh by holding up a clock to prove that I was somewhere in a very different timezone, and by saying that, though they thought they were very advanced in California, they were still in Tuesday, while some of us had already moved on to Wednesday some time ago.

There were other guests on the show, and we made minor history by being the first time ZDTV (and perhaps anyone) had done a three-way call using webcams as part of a live broadcast. The presenter was a very nice chap named Leo Laporte.

Since I seldom saw any American TV, I wasn’t aware at the time of Laporte’s gradually increasing prominence as the host of shows such as The Screen Savers on the same channel (which had by then changed its name to TechTV). But he soon gained more international exposure with the launch in 2005 of the This Week In Tech podcast — affectionately known as TWiT — which grew into the TWiT.tv network, consisting of around 30 different shows. I have been listening to several of them almost since day one.

As the network grew, they built their own studio in Petaluma, California. And it just so happened that I was driving through there on Friday, so I stopped off to have a look.

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I stuck my head inside the door and said hello, and the wonderful Debi Delchini immediately welcomed this stranger from across the seas and gave me a guided tour, despite the fact that I had arrived right at the end of her Friday afternoon.

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The TWiT studio, though not large, is cunningly divided into half a dozen different sets, to allow different moods for different shows.

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The mixing desk in the middle can rotate to face whichever one is in use.

There are cameras everywhere. Unlike traditional studios where large cameras roll about on substantial bases, we are now in a world were adding extra small broadcast-quality cameras is cheap compared to arranging the building around a few bigger ones.

Leo wasn’t there, sadly, but I did get to sit in his chair!

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There was, however, a show being recorded: Fr Robert Ballecer’s This Week in Enterprise Tech.

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I noticed that he was interviewing two people over Skype.

That’s good, I thought: it looks as if the format has caught on after all.

How heartbleed works

April 11th, 2014

Everybody has probably now heard of the heartbleed bug which affects hundreds of thousands of computers across the net. There are some lists out there of the popular services which are affected – see this page, for example – and it’s worth noting that you should change any passwords on Facebook, Google, IFTTT, Tumblr and Yahoo at the very least.

But have you wondered how it works? What does a ‘memory-leak vulnerability’ actually mean? Well, of course, nobody explains it better and more briefly than XKCD:

heartbleed_explanation

Spinning the cloud

February 26th, 2014

You might think that, of all the household devices that could be connected to the ‘net, a washing machine would be amongst the least useful, except perhaps for the purposes of energy monitoring or service diagnostics.

So I was particularly impressed with Berg’s Cloudwash demonstrator, which emphasises the user interface aspects of connectivity. It’s always struck me that washing machines tend to have particularly awful user interfaces. Until very recently, for example, we had one where program ‘4’ was the one we used all the time. We needed to remember that, and on the rare occasions when we needed a different program, we had to look it up on a card.

Often, by giving a device connectivity, you can also give it a better user interface, even if that’s only used to configure the buttons on the front.

Facebook as a blogging platform, considered.

January 24th, 2014

Euan Semple and I have been having similar thoughts. In a perceptive post he writes:

…As people have moved into places like Facebook and Twitter the energy has moved away from blogging to some extent. Less comments and less people using RSS to track conversations. I, like many bloggers, used to post links to my blog posts on Facebook or Google+. Then I realised that I was expecting people to move from where they were to where I wanted them to be – always a bad idea.

So I started posting the entire content of my blog posts on Facebook and Google+. The process is the same, I get the same benefit of noticing things that blogging gives me, the same trails left of what caught my eye, but the conversations have kicked off. I love the forty or fifty comment long threads that we are having. I love the energy of the conversations. It’s like the old days…

And I have to agree. Much as I dislike the tabloid-style, ad-infested nature of Facebook, it does seem to be where the conversations are happening. Yes, some of the smarter people are on Google Plus and App.net, but just not very many of them, and I’m letting my App.net subscription lapse this year. I am even starting to tire a little of Twitter’s 140-character limit and, more so, of the difficulty of having real multi-person conversational threads there. And even though it’s now easy to reply to posts here on Status-Q using your Facebook ID, where your thoughts will be preserved for viewing by other readers, many more people prefer to comment on Facebook or Twitter when I post notifications there.

Euan and I have both been blogging for about 13 years. In that time, a variety of other platforms have come and gone. I expect that quality blogs like his and John’s will outlive Facebook, too. At the very least, I expect that I’ll be able to find good past content on them (see my recent post), long after the social network of the day has changed its ownership, its URL structure, its login requirements or its search engine. So I’m not going to be abandoning Status-Q any time soon: it’s not worth putting much effort into anything that you post only on one of these other platforms.

But his idea of cross-posting the whole text of one’s articles is an interesting one. Facebook is clear, at least at present, that you still own it, though they have a non-exclusive right to make extensive use of it – something those of us who occasionally post photos and videos need to consider carefully.

But I also need to consider the fact that I actually saw his post on Google+, even if I then went to his blog to get a nicely-formatted version to which I could link reliably. Mmm.