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Date: Monday, 17 Nov 2008 23:22

I was lucky enough to be invited to the inaugural Guardian Hack Day on Thursday/Friday of last week. What a great time I had, and what a terrific bunch of people they have working there. For those of you dear readers who’ve not been to a Hack Day, just imagine a room full of geeks trying to do something cool in 24 hours, with no sleep. Oh, and lots of pizza and beer.

I was pretty sure that I wanted to do something with numbers, specifically with the big monetary numbers that have been littering every article since the economy tanked: £300bn for Bank of Scotland here, £140bn for Northern Rock there, £1bn bail-out for the Post Office, £6million a year for Jonathan Ross. It’s all too much.

So, I wrote a script that lets you see what this money could buy if we weren’t throwing it at second-rate comedians or third-rate bankers. What if we spent it on schools, or teachers, or wispas instead? My script lets you see that by altering the text of Guardian articles as you browse.

Look! A picture where you can see the fruits of my labours in a fetching burgundy colour:


To use the script, you’ll need to be using Firefox and have the GreaseMonkey add-on installed. Once you have them, click here to install the script and then visit any article on the Guardian site and click an alternative unit from the ‘Swap numbers’ floating menu.

Yes, it’s a bit silly and I’ve left a lot unpolished, but that’s not the point of a 24-hour hacking competition.

What surprised me is how useful alternative monetary amounts may be as a navigation pivot. We’re used to jumping around sites using tags or other text-based navigation, from finance, say, to education stories. I’ve not seen it done with numbers. And, well, someone should. Now. In fact, I just might.

Anyway, I came second in the X-factor vote, and the Guardian said my hack was ‘quite brilliant’ which completely made up for rest of the shitty week I had last week.

Please, Guardian folk, invite me to the next one!

Author: "Ben" Tags: "Internet, ghack1 guardian hacking"
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Date: Friday, 07 Nov 2008 06:00
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Date: Wednesday, 29 Oct 2008 05:00
  • Halfway There: Boot to the head
    "[R]ather than believe that he was a glorified ape, he believed that he was a child of God made in His image. He is in Army Intelligence now, serving our country in Iraq." Oh, Chuck. I know *you* didn't evolve, but please let the rest of us believe.
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Date: Tuesday, 28 Oct 2008 05:00
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Date: Monday, 27 Oct 2008 05:00
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Date: Friday, 24 Oct 2008 05:00
  • Phone chargers - the truth
    I've been telling people this for years. The debate about standby chargers and devices is about being scared to call for major changes in lifestyle, namely cutting out meat, driving and flying. Similar truths exist regarding plastic bags and paper cups.
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Date: Thursday, 23 Oct 2008 05:00
  • A class apart? | Coffee House
    I'm pleased that even folks at the Spectator are uneasy about the Etonian Opposition. Once David Davis jumped ship, it became clear that the shadow cabinet represent only the thinnest sliver of society. I think the Daily Mail would be making a lot of this if they didn't hate Scots Brown so much. Compare them to the New Labour incoming cabinet - Prescott, Blair, Cooke, Beckett, Brown, Smith. Much, much more diverse.
  • Reporters sans frontières - Annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index - 2008
    A worthy attempt to highlight international press freedom. But, but, but - even among the best of reporters, of which these are, is a fundamental ignorance of how to move from score to rank and how to interpret variation and error. How many journalism schools teach statistics these days, I wonder? Is this willing or unwilling data sloppiness?
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Date: Wednesday, 22 Oct 2008 05:00
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Date: Tuesday, 21 Oct 2008 05:00
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Date: Saturday, 18 Oct 2008 05:00
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Date: Thursday, 16 Oct 2008 15:47

As if by magic, Russell Davies writes:

We need to stop describing ad-supported things as ‘free’. Their might be no exchange of cash but there’s an exchange of attention and cognition. The marketing business justifies a lot of crap on the basis that it’s giving things away for free. If we paused and recognised that they’re not actually free then we might think harder about whether it’s the right thing to do. We might do smarter, better things if we recognise the cost we’re imposing on people without their permission.

I agree that advertising is not free - it’s a cost in terms of our attention, our time. But there’s a further aspect in which advertising costs us. The more relevant advertising becomes, the more likely it is to tell us things that we already know - relevancy here is more likely repetition. The more it tells us about things we were going to take advantage of anyway, the more it’s just a cost transferred directly from its medium to the good or service we purchase. Advertising, done best, directly makes things more expensive.

Quick example: when I buy a newspaper, I’m likely to see adverts for things I’m not going to buy anyway. I don’t drive, but there are plenty of car adverts in the papers. The car companies will never see the money they’ve spent on advertising from my wallet.

That portion of the newspaper revenue that the car adverts support is funded by someone else and effectively donated to me through the paper’s lower cover price. But as the adverts become more relevant, this dynamic changes and subsequently the newspaper, or more likely website, becomes less free to me.

And in between lick and split, in between the car makers and the journalists are the advertising folk’s overheads that I’m funding too.

If the internet works its disintermediating magic then advertising will eat itself. That’s good. Ok?

But go read Russell’s post anyway, it’s dead good.

Author: "Ben" Tags: "Uncategorized"
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Date: Wednesday, 15 Oct 2008 21:56

I’ve just come back from one of the first meetings for what I hope will become a very important project. I’ll talk more about the project itself in a future blog post. It was a good meeting, trying to gather a bunch of people around an embryonic open-source VRM application.

But, I couldn’t help noticing that for a second time in as many weeks - the first time was at the Social Innovation Meetup - how much the language of the venture capitalist and MBA spivs has become common coin.

So, people were talking about ‘routes to market’, ‘how to drive adoption’, about ‘market share’ and ‘intellectual property’. Worried about cashflow and ‘lifestyle businesses’. It’s so different from the last projects like this I was involved in, where, wide-eyed and unflappable, we only talked about the code, and how to make stuff that we ourselves would use. Classic, open-source, scratch-an-itch concerns.

Those last projects were ten years ago, when the cost of, for example, web hosting was tens of times higher than now; when there was nowhere like the amount of free software out there to learn from and use; when all a respectable developer spent their pocket money on was technical books. What’s driving the spiv talk now?

I’m not sure what to think about it, but it just feels wrong. On the one hand, it’s boldly visionary to be thinking about every tool as something that could change the world. On the other, it’s casually dismissive of any moderate or non-monetary motives, forcing every web-app to be viewed through the ‘next google’ glasses.

At the meeting I was at tonight, the spiv-tallk was at least countered. But I sensed that for some people the make-believe narrative of the venture-funded start-up still held. I’ll admit I’m oversensitive about these things, but just because I’m paranoid it doesn’t mean that people aren’t out to get me, right?

Oh well, these days will pass. I keep telling myself. They will pass.

Author: "Ben" Tags: "Internet"
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Date: Wednesday, 15 Oct 2008 12:10

Everything is wrong with advertising, and that will become clear over the next few years. Almost all business plans based on advertising will fail. The amount of money being spent on advertising will decrease. The number of spivs that the advertising industry can find meaningless work for will plummet. And this is a damn good thing.

Bold words, and sure to met with chuckles from the spivs currently dreaming up the next big advertising platform - maybe it’s mobile, maybe it’s online. They’ll be laughing all the way to the piggy-bank, little piggy tails bobbing, while anti-business, idealist anarchists are force-fed our own words. Or so they dream. This is the first in a series of posts explaining why we’ll be having a big piggy barbecue soon, and why we should be already smelling the bacon.

One of the reason the pig-spivs are deluded is that they don’t have a clue what advertising is. To them, advertising is either defined existentially as ‘what advertising people get paid for’ or recursively as ‘what advertising budgets are for.’ Deconstructing google’s marketing the ‘ad’ in Adwords refers to the budget-line that they get paid from rather than what they’re doing.

Alongside this Orwellian pig-spiv wordplay comes another odd assumption. That advertising in some way makes things cheaper. Having advertising on my mobile phone makes my mobile phone free; having advertising in a newspaper makes the journalism available for free. When you put it like that, it’s clear that advertising merely moves end-user cost from one activity, say journalism, and adds it on to another, say making cars. Now this may be a bargain we’re willing to strike, but, overall, it means that things cost more - largely to no-one’s benefit.

Reflect a while on this: the current economic difficulties are, to some degree, caused by folks in the States defaulting on their home-loans, often to pay medical and drug bills to companies that spend more in advertising than in either production or research. This is not a smart state of affairs.

One sliver of advertising that I think is safe is what I’m going to call ‘yellow pages advertising’. I have a need for something, and I want to see who can satisfy that need. And, crucially, I search to satisfy that need. Whether that’s by going to the yellow pages, searching on google, visiting a price comparison site, I search. The internet has made this process more information-rich, perhaps more price sensitive. The cost we bear for this advertising - being advertised to is always something that costs us in the end - pays for better information. I think that’s ok.

Most advertising, though, is of a different sort - I’m going to call it ’shove advertising’. It’s aim is either to push a product on to us, to influence our view of a product, or to create a demand where none existed. Because its aim is to distract rather than to inform - it’s aim is to make us do something that we hadn’t planned to, spend money we weren’t going to. It’s in essence distracting, intrusive. In essence I say to avoid this very odd assumption that there’s a holy grail in relevancy which can somehow make intrusions welcome, distractions non-distracting. Relevancy is the pig-spiv’s silk purse. Trying to turn shove advertising into yellow pages advertising. A shove is a shove - unless I’m being pushed out of the way of a speeding bendy-bus, shoves just aren’t welcome.

That’s enough for now, in the next post, I’m going to expand on why shove advertising has grown so prevalent, and why it won’t last. And why I believe the internet has changed this. Hopefully forever.

Author: "Ben" Tags: "Uncategorized, advertising, relevancy, s..."
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Date: Tuesday, 26 Aug 2008 02:18

I’m hoping some of us remember when subversion was first released. Those of us CVS users knew immediately that subversion’s changeset-based tracking was a big improvement.

Some of us held off a little while until the tool support had matured, but after a few months there was no great benefit to sticking with CVS, and subversion spread quickly. In a short time, it became the free source control system of choice.

Switching to subversion fixed a problem that with CVS, but it didn’t fundamentally change how we’d used source control as a team. That’s important.

The rationale for switching a team from subversion to git is less clear-cut and, I’m going to argue, you could end up affecting how your team works together for the worse.

Git is a more complex tool, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and I have no doubt it will get simpler tooling with time. Its speed is a huge improvement over svn and for some I’m sure sufficient reason to change. And, of course, it doesn’t drop pesky .svn folders all over the place. All improvements, straightforwardly.

But, if subversion is a team-based tool, git is designed around individual developers, loosely-connected in social groups. This distinction is what makes git an excellent social tool - an excellent choice for software developed by a diverse group of individuals as open-source projects often are. Just for the record, github rocks.

However, git’s group-development virtues are team-development vices.

Branching is an evil for small teams. Single-trunk development with continuous, often, easy integration leads to fewer bugs, better communication between team members, sharper code. I’d go further than most agile proponents here: if your team is small enough to handle it, this is what you should do; if it isn’t, it’s time to split the team.

On the softer side, the commitment that a team-member makes to keeping the trunk clean is important in itself. It’s these norms and commitments, personal promises and bindings that make the difference between a team and a group of individuals. And, our chosen tools are a part of that team structure.

Git is a gift for those people on your team who are not team players, but not necessarily a boon for the team. I’ve seen this play out a couple of times now, surely others have too?

So, what I think most teams would do better with is a subversion that’s faster and doesn’t leave .svn folders around, one that’s easy to set up and doesn’t have 200+ commands to play with. Perhaps if subversion were up on github we could all have a go at making it.

Author: "Ben" Tags: "Tech industry"
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Date: Tuesday, 24 Jun 2008 10:55

What a lovely time we had at Mashed08.

By any rational measures it should have been awful - I had my wallet and my mobile phone nicked by someone on the tube, and struggled through Saturday with a mild hangover and a dodgy back.

But all that faded away. I had the lucky chance to work with James Adam (something I’ve been wanted to do since I employed him, and then left the company) and James Andrews on a very silly hack. And, then we won a prize for making the chap from O’Reilly laugh. Perfect.

Here’s what we did - we call it ’subterranean homesick news’:

James reveals how we did it.

Thanks to the BBC for letting us play with their video and subtitling data. Worth it just to see Bob getting all political again. We live in hope that one day we’ll see Bob Dylan signing on all BBC programmes.

Author: "Ben" Tags: "Uncategorized"
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Date: Saturday, 01 Mar 2008 00:01

Under what circumstances would it be acceptable for a Police Officer to make a V-sign at someone? And that’s not the worst of it.

Let me tell you what happened on my way home tonight.

I was waiting at the Bus Stop, just East of New Cross Station. As it happened, I’d been out for a drink and a friend of mine had stolen my lighter. I asked someone who was walking past for a light and he took pains to give me one - it was windy and it took longer than it should have, but there we go.

The chap had walked 5 yards past the bus stop when a Police car screamed to a halt beside him. Three officers jumped out. One of them asked me if he was with another person, to which I replied he wasn’t. They made him turn out his pockets and then let him get on his way. They got back in to the car.

I thought that they were supposed to fill out a form to tell him why he’d been stopped and searched, so I tapped on the window of the police car and asked, politely, why they hadn’t. “I gave him a choice,” the Policeman driving said, “either I could he could come down to Deptford station and fill in a form which would take 20 minutes or he could go on his way”. I asked the driver for his number, which he freely gave me - PL 197.

I let it go at that - I don’t know the intricacies of the law in this case. The Police car performed a U-turn in the road to head back West into London. As it passed the bus stop the policeman driving made a V-sign at me. A few minutes later the car passed again going east and they waved at me, rudely, from the car.

Needless to say, I called the Met hotline to complain. Let’s see what happens here - this isn’t right.

Author: "Ben" Tags: "Uncategorized"
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Date: Monday, 04 Feb 2008 19:38

Some chap just turned up at my door, asking to read my gas meter. I’ve taken to asking these meter readers a few questions: who’s my gas supplier? what’s my account number? Not one of these questions could he answer though, bless him, he did guess at British Gas for my supplier. Wrong answer, of course.

He purported to work for Accuread, and his plastic ID looked plastic enough.

I’m not sure one can be too cynical about these things – perhaps he really did work for my gas supplier, perhaps he was from another gas company doing ‘market research’, most cynically, he didn’t work for a gas company at all.

If any of the latter answers are the case, then this is a serious matter. I’m wondering how to take it further.

Author: "Ben" Tags: "Uncategorized"
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Date: Thursday, 31 Jan 2008 19:15

Tomorrow, I intend dishonestly to obtain a Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages certificate.

I’ve sat through the required 100-hours of ‘input sessions’ (lessons); scraped through six hours of ‘class-work’ (lessons); my ‘elicitation’ (asking) skills have had the required ‘appropriacy’ (appropriateness); I’ve allowed students to ‘practise communicatively’ (speak); I’ve supplemented my lesson plans with ‘realia’ (props); I’ve ‘concept-checked’ (asked questions), ‘monitored’ (listened), and ‘facilitated’ (taught). By all accounts, I think, I deserve to pass.

Tomorrow, I have my final moderation interview (I’m sure there’s a less straightforward TEFL name for it). And, I fully intend to butcher my language in the way that they see fit.

“One final point”, we were taught (!) today in an lesson (!), “don’t use the word ‘teach’ in your interview, there are much more precise words like present or facilitate.” Give me strength!

What’s more, I intend, against all scientific advice, to talk about how carefully I matched my ‘class-work’ activities to individual students’ learning styles. I might even use the word ‘kinaesthetic’ if I’m feeling particularly ‘courageful’.

It’s ironic. I decided to leave the commercial world and try teaching to get away from this; to escape from the utter, utter nonsense that spews forth whenever business folk open their mouths. How disappointing to find not only the same paucity of speech but also the same pseudoscientific, cargo-culting crap in English teaching.

Must try not to lose my temper in the interview… must try not to lose my temper in the interview… must try not to lose my temper in the interview…

Author: "Ben" Tags: "Uncategorized"
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Date: Friday, 28 Dec 2007 22:26

Extremely poor marks for Skype and Philips this year, a bit of advice for Virgin, and a surprisingly good experience returning something to Comet.

We wanted to buy the mother-in-law a simple-to-use Skype phone so that she can more cheaply call my various brothers- and sisters-in-law who are in far-flung places. BT’s overseas call charges are a scam.

We ordered a wireless phone from the Skype website. We were staying in Berlin and so we asked for it to be delivered to my brother-in-law’s address in Plymouth. Skype cancelled the order without informing me. Not only that, but when I found out and emailed them I received a canned response with a list of ‘some common reasons why orders are cancelled’. WTF?

I remained determined to reduce the mother-in-law’s phone bill. So, rushing to a nearby Comet store on Christmas Eve, I picked up a Philips Skype telephone. The box had a nice smiley person on it, and it oozed ease-of-use.

Cue two hours of trying to get the bloody thing installed and working on a windows PC – an install program that was bloody awful; settings that weren’t remembered between reboots; cryptic dialog boxes now appearing when the PC started up. At one point there were two boxes on the screen, one telling me to upgrade Skype to the latest version and the other telling me that if I did then the phone might stop working. Sigh.

Even when it did seem to be working the phone only intermittently showed the Skype contacts it was supposed to, and there was no way to call a number through Skype that hadn’t been entered into your computer’s contact list. Or at least, no way I could fathom out. Oh, and of course you only find this stuff out after you’ve left the phone to charge for ‘at least’ 24 hours.

Why do people put up with this crap? And why on earth does Skype give its seal-of-approval to such a piece of shite technology?

So, it went back to Comet. Ease-of-use my arse. To my complete surprise, the staff in Comet were really helpful and took the box back in good faith, crediting me back the full amount. Full marks there. I’ll shop there again because of it, and probably next time I’ll be shopping for a more expensive item.

There’s an example there that Virgin could learn from – be nice to people on the way out or they won’t come back. I bought Liz an iPhone for Christmas, and needed to transfer her number from Virgin to O2. However, Virgin provide no information on their website about how to leave their service, but plenty about how to switch from other suppliers to them. Nothing like being treated like an adult…

Author: "Ben" Tags: "Uncategorized"
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Date: Sunday, 02 Dec 2007 16:39

The almost certain demise of PayPerPost got me thinking again about Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). Their advertisers were promised an SEO benefit, google saw through their buy-search-engine-position-by-proxy scam and zapped their ass. Damn right too - SEO is a scandalous profession.

SEO specialists are the astrologers of the internet age. The only difference I discern is that most SEO experts believe in the truth of the advice they’re giving. I suppose that gives them a touch more integrity, though it also makes them a touch more stupid than their stargazing brethren. Both professions, if you can call them that, exist because our reptilian brains find it hard to discriminate between coincidence and consequence.

Let’s try an experiment. A thousand people in a room are asked to toss a coin ten times. It’s a contest to see who can throw the most heads in row. Let’s make it a financial contest. They all pay £1 into a pot, and there is a guaranteed prize for anyone who can throw five or more heads in a row. Not five heads in total, but five in a row. Tricky, eh?

How much should that prize be? It must be pretty unlikely, right? A big prize must be on offer, perhaps the whole pot. Maybe no-one will be able to claim it.

Does it surprise you to learn the prize for throwing five or more heads in a row would only be £9? That’s right, nearly 11% of participants are expected to throw five heads consecutively, nearly 50 people will throw six in a row.

But what has this got to do with SEO consultants?

Well, if you took the 46 (or so) people who threw 6 heads in a row, and asked them how they did it, you could be sure that some of them had technique. One of them would tell you it’s important to throw the coin to exactly the same height each time; one of them might tell you to cross your fingers; another that it’s the way they flicked their wrist. All of them of course would be wrong. It’s a coincidence that they achieved an unlikely result, not a consequence of anything they did. There’s no way you can pick which of the 1000 players will win the prize in advance.

And SEO? Most SEO consultants sell themselves on their past record. I did for years. I had rules of thumb, and metrics and tricks and techniques. I read all the right forums, and used all the right jargon. No-one ever knocked my record. But honestly, I was a fraud. The truth is, once a site is moderately well-structured the rest is luck. I once managed to achieve the equivalent of six heads in a row and that guaranteed my ‘expertise’ - I was expert in the same way the 46 coin-tossers were lucky. Not inherently, but by reputation.

It’s pretty simple to structure a site so that the search-engines are receptive to it. It doesn’t take much expertise or indeed much time. After that you’re on your own - if people want to link to your site, they will and the site will improve in rankings. If they don’t, you need to do something different. Um, that’s pretty much it. Honest.

Oh, and don’t go and do anything stupid or immoral - like the PayPerPost advertisers were attempting. You’ll get caught, because it’s not good for the rest of us and Google, at least, cares about that.

You might as well consult star-charts as SEO consultants to improve your search engine rankings. But then, perhaps I’m too harsh here. I’m likely to be much more cynical about these things than you. I’m a Scorpio, after all.

Author: "Ben" Tags: "Internet"
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