Oh darn!

November 23rd, 2014

I’ve just spent a happy hour or so sitting by the fire, darning the elbow of an old sweater. Yes, darning. I can positively hear some of your eyebrows rising into a skeptical arch. It’s not really the normal pastime of an aspiring high-tech entrepreneur, is it?

But I’ve always found it strangely satisfying. It’s exceedingly easy to learn, but it’s a kind of miniaturised DIY structural engineering. Then there’s the challenge of weaving together the limited range of wools I normally have available in such a way that they approximate the original colour and texture of the surrounding weave: a process which has something of a Photoshop feel to it. And finally, there’s the moral satisfaction of not allowing a much-loved and perfectly functional garment to be lost simply because of a small hole. It’s also, I find, completely absorbing, which is sometimes a welcome distraction.

I’m certainly far from an expert, and I’m not sure my left elbow would bear any very close inspection, but since I don’t anticipate meeting any close-elbow-inspectors in the next few months, I think I should get away with it. There are now probably dozens of YouTube videos which will teach you to darn – why not give it a try? You know you want to…

Scan the world, every day

November 23rd, 2014

Planet Labs has a plan, a plan which is exceedingly powerful, partly because it is so brilliantly simple. And it seems to be working.

My sun shall rise in the east…

November 15th, 2014

20141106-08455303

Dawn breaking beyond the River Cam, taken from Grantchester Meadows last week.

The title of this post, of course, is a line from the excellent track ‘I’ll Find My Way Home’, by Jon & Vangelis, which is playing as I write this.

And here’s another bit of trivia for you: in the first episode of the ITV TV series Grantchester, we see Sidney and Amanda enjoying themselves by swinging out over the river on a rope attached to a tree branch. I recognised the tree immediately, but the usual rope (which you can see by clicking on the image to get a larger version) had been replaced with a frayed one for the purposes of the filming. The rope, of course, gives way when Amanda (Morven Christie) is way out over the river. I have come perilously close to the same thing in the past…

Out of Reach

November 14th, 2014

The pretty little village of Reach, just north-west of Cambridge, is in the middle of fen land, but was considered a port from Roman to medieval times because of the shipping that arrived there through the marshes. It’s where the northern tip of the Devil’s Dyke, affording transport by land, meets the southern end of Reach Lode, which provided transport by water, and it used to be the site of a great fair.

Nowadays, the pleasingly-named pub, The Dyke’s End, is one of my favourite spots for lunch, and, having taken Tilly for a post-prandial walk along the dyke last time I was there, I opted for the lode this time. And very fine it was too. The rainy morning turned into a lovely afternoon, and, though I didn’t have a proper camera with me, the iPhone did a pretty good job.

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Click for a larger version.

“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.

Canadian Coffee

November 6th, 2014

Another radio interview about the good ol’ coffee pot – this time with CBC.

You can find it here.

It was done over Skype, and is heavily edited, but it mostly makes sense! Just about 4 mins long.

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.

A history lesson

November 1st, 2014

Tim Berners-Lee and Vint Cerf

This has been circulating on Twitter, courtesy of Jeremy Geelan – taken at W3C20.
(For those not in the know, Tim Berners-Lee is on the left, Vint Cerf on the right, and the joke is on those who don’t know the difference between the web and the ‘net.) Lovely.

To Siri, with love

October 26th, 2014

Judith Newman’s delightful article in the NYT describes how Apple’s speech-recognition software is helping her autistic son to communicate.

If only gay sex caused global warming…

October 26th, 2014

I’ve often quoted the statistic that, on 11 Sept 2001, about 3,000 people died in terrorist attacks, and, on the same day, about ten times that many died of starvation. Our brains find it hard to respond appropriately to such data.

There’s a very nice LA Times article by Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychology professor, talking about the same issue with respect to climate change. It was published… ahem… 8 years ago, but was just brought to my attention by Ian Yorston.

Extract:

That’s why we worry more about anthrax (with an annual death toll of roughly zero) than influenza (with an annual death toll of a quarter-million to a half-million people). Influenza is a natural accident, anthrax is an intentional action, and the smallest action captures our attention in a way that the largest accident doesn’t. If two airplanes had been hit by lightning and crashed into a New York skyscraper, few of us would be able to name the date on which it happened.

Global warming isn’t trying to kill us, and that’s a shame. If climate change had been visited on us by a brutal dictator or an evil empire, the war on warming would be this nation’s top priority.

An enjoyable read.

Experimenting with Bower and Flask

October 25th, 2014

This is another of those “just in case you’re Googling for it” posts…

Background:

  • Flask is a nice lightweight Python web framework – a handy way to create small web apps when you don’t need the power of something like Django.
  • Bower is a package manager for web components – a really easy way to get the latest versions of jQuery, bootstrap and anything else you might want.

Bower will put the packages into a folder called bower_components, with the idea that your deployment process will use something like Grunt to move the static bits from there into their final location. This is all well and good, but it seems like overkill if you’re just experimenting on your own machine.

Wouldn’t it be nice if Bower could just put the packages somewhere that they could be served directly as static files by Flask?

Well, it turns out that it can. If you create a file in the top level of your app called .bowerrc containing the following:

{
   "directory" : "static/bower_components"
}

then Bower will put its components in a subdirectory of the static folder and Flask then knows how to serve them up. You might do:

bower install jquery
bower install bootstrap

and then in your HTML you could use something like the following:

<link rel="stylesheet"
    href="/static/bower_components/bootstrap/dist/css/bootstrap.min.css" />

and for the Javascript:

<script src="/static/bower_components/jquery/dist/jquery.min.js"></script>
<script src="/static/bower_components/bootstrap/dist/js/bootstrap.min.js"></script>

You could leave out the bower_components bit at each stage and make your URLs even tidier, but I felt it was still useful to separate those bits that were being managed by Bower from those that weren’t.

Hope that helps someone!