Practise good wiki hygiene

March 26th, 2014

Katie Cunningham has written a great article entitled ‘Your wiki is a dump‘, outlining what goes wrong with wikis, and how to fix them.

I have seen this over and over again. Wikis need work, and they need someone with the guts (and/or the authority) to take a set of shears to them on a regular basis. If you have that, you can have a great resource. If not, you can have a nightmare.

Metadata is data too

March 15th, 2014

The MetaPhone project has some great examples of what you can deduce just from phone call records.


Participant B spoke at length with cardiologists at a major medical center, talked briefly with a medical laboratory, received calls from a pharmacy, and placed short calls to a home reporting hotline for a medical device used to monitor cardiac arrhythmia.

Participant C made a number of calls to a firearm store that specializes in the AR semiautomatic rifle platform. They also spoke at length with customer service for a firearm manufacturer that produces an AR line.

Silent movies?

March 2nd, 2014

You can’t have an explosion in a movie without a big bang, even if that explosion comes from a starship drifting through the vacuum of space. If the USS Enterprise is anywhere nearby, it’s also likely to be buffeted by the pressure waves, and the crew thrown across the bridge.

In a similar vein, it was one of the Weta Workshop guys in the ‘bonus features’ on the Lord of the Rings DVDs whom I first heard point out that swords, coming out of wood-and-leather scabbards, somehow always make a zzzhinggg sound. Whereas in fact…

Well, I’ll let this chap demonstrate:

Thanks to James Fraser for the link!

Adobe Creative Shackle

February 22nd, 2014

As anyone who uses Adobe software seriously will know, the company has moved wholeheartedly over to the ‘software as a service’ model, replacing their former ‘Creative Suite’ packages with the ‘Creative Cloud’.

Now, this makes pretty good sense for them as a company, and reasonable sense for many of their users. Adobe software has never been cheap, in fact, it’s been outrageously expensive, but there are some areas where it just can’t be beaten, and for the huge number of people who make their living from using it day in, day out, the £47-per-month subscription still makes sense. For that, you get access to almost everything – Photoshop, Illustrator, Premier, After Effects, InDesign… you name it. If you’re a design house, and you’ve gotta have it, the £570/year does at least ensure you always have the latest versions of everything.

But there are problems, too, beyond the inflated base price. It’s always been hard to swallow the fact that they charge European customers nearly twice as much as American ones, a practice they’ve continued to some degree with CC. Their upgrade pricing has never been very generous if you’re more than a version or two behind, and they release new versions regularly, so it’s not just the initial purchase that’s painful, you have to swallow a large chunk of it again every few years. And for people like me who use the software more sporadically, the cost was increasingly hard to justify.

But my recent purchase of Adobe Creative software was quite probably the last one I will ever make, for a more fundamental reason.

You see, in the past, you at least had the option of when, or indeed whether, you wanted to upgrade. With Creative Cloud, even if you can afford to keep paying, the problem is that you can’t afford to stop paying. Because if you stop, you don’t get to stick with the last version you installed. Oh no. You lose the ability to run the software altogether. And that means you lose the ability to access your own data. I’m sure in a movie plot that would be called blackmail.

They get away with it only because of branding. You see, there are many other cloud-based services where you lose access to the service, and often to your data, if you stop paying, though only a fool would sign up to one where the data couldn’t easily be exported in a non-proprietary format. But this, despite the name, doesn’t feel like a cloud service. For one thing, the software runs on your machine, not on theirs – you’re not paying them for computation power: it’s basically a software-upgrade service. However, the first part of the name is accurate: this is software used by creative professionals who use it primarily to make new stuff by combining the inspiration of their muses and the sweat of their brow. They, perhaps, more than your average cloud service user, will feel the pain when denied access to their past creativity.

So, when I realised this was happening, I took a deep breath and bought a copy of Creative Suite 6 – an expensive purchase of software that was already 18 months old – because it’s the last version that I know I’ll be able to run for many years, and will give me pretty much indefinite access to my data. Especially if, like me, you’re lucky enough to be entitled to academic pricing, I recommend you consider doing the same.

Like Apple, Adobe have generally produced very good products. But customer sentiment about the two companies is diametrically opposed. Apple’s customers generally love them; they have plenty of choice elsewhere but they keep coming back to pay the inflated prices because they delight in what they get in return. Adobe’s customers, on the hand, despair about the fact that they have to keep paying the inflated prices because they have little choice elsewhere. I think one of these is not a recipe for a sustainable long-term business. The Creative Cloud has thrown the issue into sharp relief.

Why you should cancel your insurance.

February 18th, 2014

Golly! Now here’s something I hadn’t considered. If you sell a vehicle, or have it stolen, make sure you cancel the insurance on it immediately.

Adrian Higgs pointed me at this post by a solicitor specialising in motorbike-related personal injury claims. Mmm. I imagine they’re busy. Anyway, the story is of someone whose bike was involved in an accident after he had sold it. The new owner wasn’t insured, so the claimants came after him…


Under European law innocent road users are entitled to be compensated for their injuries and the idea is a “cascade” of insurers and indemnifiers. So if the buyer had proper insurance, his insurers would pay up. (Insurers can “void” a policy if the proposer answers a question dishonestly or recklessly. A classic is “forgetting” to declare points or a claim. The insurers can simply say that the policy never existed. They have to go through a process for this and this may well already have happened.) The next stop on the cascade is an insurer who has taken a premium for the vehicle and the policy was not lapsed at the time of the collision, and that is unfortunately where you have become unstuck.

If this is really the case, it’s something to take seriously.

It’s raining again…

January 25th, 2014

…and so I turn to one of the most useful sites for British dog-walkers (cyclists, etc), which can help you answer the questions, “Is it about to rain?” and “How long will this rain last?” At the moment, the former question is largely rhetorical, but the answer to the latter can be very useful.

It was Richard who first pointed me at, which gives you a rough animation of the radar precipitation map over the last couple of hours, so you can get a feeling for how fast the clouds are moving.

Screen Shot 2014-01-25 at 16.15.47

Very very handy. And very British.

It’s also worth knowing that if you put ‘/mobile’ on the end of the URL, you lose some features, but you also don’t get any ads. I have it bookmarked on one of the home screens of my iPhone.

A small rant

January 25th, 2014

Sorry, people, but I had to write something, having read no less than three posts today by writers who didn’t know the difference between ‘uninterested’ and ‘disinterested’. You can see how that would rankle.

The majority of the time, you probably want ‘uninterested’. That means not paying attention to something because you don’t find it stimulating enough. ‘Disinterested’, on the other hand, means ‘impartial’: having, say, no financial interest in the outcome of a deal. (For anyone even more pedantic than me, I realise that this distinction only became clear in the early 18th century. But I think that should have given most bloggers enough time to catch on by now.)

Anyway, it’s very easy: all you need to do is to remember the phrase my English teacher told me, many moons ago… Are you ready?

“A good judge is disinterested.”

There. Isn’t that easy? Thank you for your attention, everyone. Now I can go to bed with a weight off my mind.

Time, like an ever-rolling stream…

January 23rd, 2014

2002-09-08_07-59-56or “How to manage too much stuff”

The now ubiquitous blog format — a timestamped series of posts in reverse chronological order — is a truly wonderful invention.

It’s wonderful for users, who can quickly see whether there’s anything new and get the most up-to-date stuff first. But it’s also wonderful for authors, because it’s immediately obvious to visitors when the content they’re looking at may be out of date. This means authors can almost completely dispense with one of the most tedious management tasks normally associated with any large corpus of information: revisiting what you’ve written in the past and making sure that it’s still correct.

If you’ve ever had to maintain a large website which doesn’t have this kind of built-in auto-obsolescence, you’ll know what I mean. Marketing people, for example, often feel that the more content they can put on the website about their product, the more impressive and compelling it will be. Keeping it updated as the product line evolves, however, then becomes a bit like painting the Forth bridge. The value of blogs, in contrast, is that you don’t need to tidy up after you. So pervasive has the timestamped article become, that I get frustrated when I’m reading a review or an opinion piece which doesn’t show the date. What information was available to the author at the time? Is he reviewing this version of the software or the previous one? Did he know about the competing device from another company?

So, with blogs, we’ve come up with this cunning way of handling the problem of producing too much content. But what about the similar challenge of having too much to consume?

Well, we’re still evolving ways of dealing with that, and we’ve already passed through several stages. I can, because I’m Really Old, remember the time when there were fewer than a dozen websites in the whole world. So it was pretty easy to remember which ones you liked, and when you’d run out of interesting things to read on those, you might start one of your own.

Since then, we’ve moved through a series of different ways of coping with the ever-increasing amount of information.

  • When there was a small amount of stuff, bookmarks helped you remember it.
  • When there was a bit more stuff, Yahoo helped you navigate it.
  • When there was a larger amount of stuff, Google helped you find it.
  • When there was too much stuff, social networks showed you the bits your friends liked.
  • When there was even more stuff, streams forced you to ignore most of it.

Now, we’re almost at a couch-potato level of consumption. You fire up your Twitter, Facebook or Google+ app, and information flows past you. Next time you look at it, new stuff will be there. The process of finding new stuff to read has thus been reduced, for most of us, to a single button-click on a phone. Actually typing something into a search engine now constitutes ‘research’, especially if you have to click through more than one or two pages.

This is, arguably, a new kind of page-ranking, where novelty plays a greater role than it ever has before. Yes, some old material gets recirculated, but generally, the river keeps flowing, and this morning’s news will be well downstream by the time you dip your toe in during the afternoon.

Now, novelty is exciting, but it is very different from quality. In fact, it is often the opposite. C.S. Lewis once observed, in an essay called On the reading of old books, that, since there were many more books being published than could ever be read, one very good way of filtering out the dross was to stick to those that had stood the test of time. This is an idea that has stuck with me ever since I first cam across the essay as a child, and I have since tried to read one book written before my lifetime for every one written during it. That is still outrageously biased towards the present, I know, but it’s a start.

Now, how does ‘the test of time’ translate into our modern world? I think there’s an argument that this is a very powerful page-ranking metric that has not yet been fully exploited. (Perhaps, ironically, because it is not a new idea!) Surely, there must be value in knowing which pages people are still reading several years after they first hit the web?

At least once a day, when I’m trying to avoid out-of-date documentation or reviews, I’ll make use of Google’s time-filtering option to limit search results those created in, say, the last year. And in fact, you can create more complex filters to restrict output to particular ranges of dates. So you can search for pages more than 5 years old. (I’m ignoring, for the moment, the fact that the real dates of publication can often be hard to establish. If one newspaper is bought by another and its content copied to a new server, for example, the creation dates may not be preserved very well.) Still, you can, in general, limit your searches to ‘old stuff’.

But Google’s Page Rank algorithms make substantial use of the overall number of times a page is linked to when determining its importance, though they are no doubt biased towards the present. But I really want to know the number of times an old page has been linked to recently: I want a page ranking algorithm based on recently-published pages’ references to older pages.

Can I get an RSS feed of blog posts and web pages that people are still referring to now, but were published more than three years ago? It’s challenging, in a world where even the URLs that worked last year may not work today. But I think would would be worth pursuing. How’s that for a project, Google?

The Data Ratio

January 20th, 2014

Here’s something it would be fascinating to know, but I can’t think of any way of coming up with even a wild estimate. Can you?

  • How much data does the average user create, themselves? (Documents, photos, emails, social network posts, etc)
  • How much data is generated about the average user? (Web logs, surveillance,marketing data, medical records, credit ratings, utility bills…)

and what’s the ratio of the two?

Or, more briefly, what’ s the ratio of data created by you, to data created about you?

Of data created intentionally and knowingly, to that created unknowingly as a side-effect of living in the modern connected world?

And does it vary significantly, in the developed world, by country, and by demographics…?

Any ideas? (Conspiracy theorists need not apply!)

Multi-storey cabbage park

January 18th, 2014

A New Scientist piece about vegetable farming in a very space-efficient way. Interesting – I hadn’t thought before about what the efficiency of LED lighting meant for chlorophyll.

And if you try searching Google images for ‘vertical farming’, you get some intriguing pics.

Thanks to Tom Standage for the link.

The Church(es) of England?

December 28th, 2013

I have something of a soft spot for the Church of England, having grown up in it, though it’s been rather a long time since I was a regular attender. But I think this article is probably correct when it starts with:

The archbishop of Canterbury must acknowledge that disestablishment has already happened, and look to a future that deals with reality.

I particularly liked one of the illustrations of this point:

The Diana funeral was about half Anglican, and half teddy bears.

Actually, I’ve always thought that the church would probably benefit from disestablishment. This article makes the case for decentralisation, as well.

Now, I know little of church finances, but I suspect that very few current congregations could actually support their clerical staff if it weren’t for the church’s central endowments and investments. No doubt some distribution mechanism could be sorted out, even if the parishes were to be more independent.

But I do remember, sitting in a dull sermon somewhere as a child, realising that if congregations really took the biblical principle of tithing to heart, then it would only take nine people to support a vicar at the same standard of living as they had. Or ten, of course, if the vicar wanted to tithe as well!

Something for the faithful to ponder…

Universally Challenged?

December 26th, 2013

Christmas-University-Challenge-Series-3-Gonville-&-Caius-1600“Television”, said Noel Coward, “is not something one watches. It’s something one appears on.” But it’s quite strange to have done both, having watched myself on University Challenge just now. (See my earlier post.) I’ve been on TV and radio a few times, but they’ve generally been broadcast live, or in other regions, so I’ve seldom had the chance to see myself at the same time as others do. A most bizarre experience.

Anyway, those who are curious (and in the UK) can see the show here for the next few days. I won’t spoil the suspense, except to say that we didn’t disgrace ourselves. My contribution was rather larger, I hope, than the cameras suggest, but still small. I was, however, blessed with excellent team-mates, and it was all great fun.

A couple of things that might interest regular viewers, that hadn’t previously occurred to me, especially about the starter questions…

The first is that the programme flatters the home viewer. When watching starter questions in the past, I’ve been smugly pleased if I can yell out the answer before the person on screen. But the contestant has had to think of the answer many seconds earlier, press their buzzer, wait for their name to be announced, and then respond. In fact, when you’re on the set, it takes a bit of time to realise that it’s your turn, because you get no feedback on the desk to indicate that you have buzzed first until Roger announces your name. This all takes some time, especially on the (very rare) occasions when he has to say “Gonville & Caius: Stafford-Fraser”! At that point, you have to form some coherent words and speak them out confidently.

The second is that the programme is edited, though very lightly. They try to do it ‘as live’, not least for the benefit of the audience. But there are occasions when contestants responded either a bit faster or a bit slower during the filming than was apparent in the broadcast. Then there are sometimes one or two retakes for technical reasons at the end, so you can be in the unenviable position of having to repeat, earnestly, an answer which you know by then to be false… In general, though, the broadcast is a pretty accurate representation of what it felt like at the time.

Lastly, of course, there are often more people who know the answer than get credit for it, because you usually can’t tell on screen who else is buzzing. I know there were several times where more than one of the Cambridge team, and no doubt several Oxonians too, were pressing their buzzers almost simultaneously, but only one light comes on. Fortunately, Lars Tharp and Mark Damazer were particularly speedy, and they, of course, came from The Right Place.

Anyway, lots of fun, and anyone who’d like to watch any further rounds can find the broadcast times here.