Category Archives: Technology

Do motor industry executives dream of electric cars?

Apparently, “yes: they do”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/8001254.stm: the relentless obsession with Carbon emissions (while important) has led us into a blind alley of thinking that electric vehicles are somehow “green”. A clue: they’re not, unless the energy used to propel them comes from a renewable resource. Otherwise, all you’re doing is swapping local pollution and emissions for those far away; you know what they say about “out of sight…”.

Carbon emissions are only one of the car’s many downsides. An electric car:

* will still get stuck in traffic,
* will still be driven at reckless speeds, even by the “otherwise law-abiding”
* will still kill people in crashes
* will still insulate people from their surroundings, sucking the life out of communities
* will still prevent occupants from getting any exercise

We need more cycling, not hare-brained schemes like this. In fact, paying people to cycle is a positive step that would be a net benefit in reduced health costs and road maintenance costs.

dConstruct 2008: part one

Last week I made the annual pilgrimage to Brighton for “dConstruct”:http://2008.dconstruct.org/ – one of the UK’s leading grass-roots Web conferences. Now in its fourth year, the theme of the conference this time was “Designing the social Web”, a topic increasingly of relevance to what we do at IOP Publishing.

“Social Software” is merely software that gets better the more people use it; it’s not necessarily about creating the next “Facebook”:http://www.facebook.com/ or “MySpace”:http://www.myspace.com/, and many (though not all) sites could benefit from social features. While we, as a company, have dabbled in several of the Social Web’s themes (blogs, commenting, registration, social bookmark links etc.) and have oft-stated aims of engaging with communities of interest in the world of Physics, it’s probably fair to say that our efforts have been piecemeal and not informed by any overall Social Web strategy. I could start going off on one about the need for multi-disciplinary Web teams, but I’ll save that for “BathCamp”:http://bathcamp.org/ at the weekend…

In previous years, I’ve come away from the dConstruct conference wanting more depth; 45-minute sessions are necessarily biased towards an overview or taster of any given topic. This year, I booked onto Joshua Porter’s workshop “Social Web Design: from Strategy to Interface” in order to get a bit more substance.

!>http://www.timandkathy.co.uk/journal/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/dsc00005-300×225.jpg! I left Bristol on Wednesday afternoon, taking a slightly odd train journey via Bristol Parkway and Reading. Four hours later, I was in Brighton. A taxi ride took me to the hotel (“Kemp Townhouse”:http://www.kemptownhouse.com/), which was small but perfectly formed; after checking in, I wandered out for food. Knowing that geeks and healthy food were unlikely to be in close proximity over the following days, I chose “Sawadee”:http://www.brightonlife.com/reviews/sawadee-thai-restaurant-100053.html, a Thai restaurant in St. James’ Street where I had a new experience: asking for a table for one. No matter, though; the next two days were bound to give plenty of social interaction so some peace and quiet was welcome, and the food was tasty but relatively healthy: Thai fishcakes followed by pan-fried cod in a sweet-and-sour sauce with rice.

After that, I returned to the hotel to get some rest before the learning-and-networking onslaught to follow.

*To be continued…*

The Web Versioning genie needs to be re-bottled

Today I got embroiled in a debate with Pete and Brian on Twitter about the term Web 2.0 and its increasing meaninglessness. This was only a few days after jumping on an old school friend’s use of the term, citing “ReadWriteWeb’s …There is only the Web”:http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/there_is_no_web_30_there_is_no_web_20.php.

I recall Phil saying I was “all about the 2.0″. And I still am, in that I think the New Web needs to be about *real* community if you’re going to profess that your site is a Community Website. With the increasingly common use of the term “Web 3.0″ (usually taken to mean The Semantic Web) in The Valley and similar bleeding-edge places, and “Web 4.0″ (both “serious”:http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/interactive_debate_on_web_future.php and “satirical”:http://www.almosttruenews.com/index.php/2006/03/23/web-40-coming-to-an-internet-near-you/) the danger is that we’ll find, like Microsoft did with its software, that the version numbers soon get a little silly.

Their answer was to use years instead (Office 2003 etc.), but the answer for the Web is *not to use artificial version numbers at all*. It’s not as if there is anything fundamentally different, technologically, between the so-called “Web 1.0″ and “Web 2.0″. It was always meant to be a state of mind or a way of seeing the Web experience, not a particular technology. Web 2.0 (or the concept meant by it) is any, all or none of the following:

* Ajax / rich interfaces / RIAs
* Blogs
* Wikis
* Social networking sites, like “MySpace”:http://www.myspace.com/, “Facebook”:http://facebook.com/ etc.
* User-generated content (“YouTube”:http://youtube.com/ etc.)
* Forums (though these are as old as the hills)
* New things that almost defy description (“Twitter”:http://twitter.com/)
* “Communities” (however you define them)
* Mashups, APIs and easily-linked resources

The trouble is that you can ask ten different people “what is Web 2.0?” and you’ll likely get ten different answers, possibly including some of the above list.

I do believe that Tim O’Reilly couldn’t have predicted what the monster he created has become, and the term was actually useful in 2003 to get a handle on the ways in which newer Web sites differed from old ones. But that time has passed, and the term “Web 2.0″ (and all succeeding x.0 versions) needs to be retired. Now.

Twitter Endgame?

As I write this, I’m trying (and failing) to load “twitter.com/home”:http://twitter.com/home. Oh – it just timed out. According to “Is Twitter Down?”:http://istwitterdown.com/ it’s not down, but I can’t get to it. There have been no updates on my timeline for two hours now, which is quite rare for a working day.

I just wonder whether Twitter has reached a natural end. You know “it was fun while it lasted” sort of thing. And it _was_ fun, until relatively recently. Then the number of “spam” followers increased, thanks to the ease of scripting against the API, no doubt; on the other hand, the API also allowed fantastic tools like the “Twitter Twerp Scanner”:http://zottmann.org/tts/ to me made, so I don’t think Twitter shouldn’t have an API.

With or without an API, the problem with Twitter (“as has been said numerous times”:http://www.google.co.uk/search?q=%22twitter+doesn%27t+scale%22) is that it doesn’t scale. It’s a centralised (if clustered) service unlike email, blogs or Plain ol’ Websites, which can exist anywhere and conform (roughly) to a standard. To Tweet, you must Be On Twitter. This is its fatal flaw while being central to the way it works. Mike Arrington wrote on Techcrunch a while ago on “how Twitter might be decentralised”:http://www.techcrunch.com/2008/05/05/twitter-can-be-liberated-heres-how/.

Twitter: a highly-addictive social experiment that just goes to show, by counter-example, the merits of decentralisation.

UK ISPs in new depths of customer hatred

“BT, Virgin and Talktalk broker deal with Phorm.com”:http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/18/technology/18target.html?_r=1&oref=slogin, who intercept internet traffic, set anonymous cookies and deliver targeted ads…

There are lots of comments on “this Guardian article”:http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/technology/2008/02/29/you_might_call_it_resistance_95_say_theyll_opt_out_of_isps_datasharing_deal.html, including this one from martinusher:

bq. I had a quick look at this system today on a technical website and it appears that the system effectively routes all your web traffic through a proxy server which records your browsing habits (and, while its about it, obscures your browsing habits from anyone else downstream from it). This is why they require the cooperation of your ISP — they have to intercept your network traffic before it passes onto the Internet proper. (Typically the link to an ISP is a point to point link just like a dial-up even if you’re using broadband.) This has implications far beyond just figuring out what you’re doing so they can feed you ‘relevant’ advertisements; its nothing less than packet by packet control of everything you do.

bq. This may sound infeasible because of the volume of traffic but a quick look at the equipment suppliers will show that its not — the industry is quite capable of examining and categorizing everything you do CIA style but won’t at the moment because its not cost-effective. The ads will give it the motivation to install the kit, the other uses will follow.

bq. Its also got the potential to cut off the air supply to sites like Google.

– “You might call it "resistance": 95% say they’ll opt out of ISP’s data-sharing deal”:http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/technology/2008/02/29/you_might_call_it_resistance_95_say_theyll_opt_out_of_isps_datasharing_deal.html

See also:

* “Bad phorm”:http://www.badphorm.co.uk/page.php?2
* On Techdirt: “Phorm.com are an (ex?) spyware firm”:http://techdirt.com/articles/20080227/114140370.shtml
* “More Phorm horrors”:http://yorkshire-ranter.blogspot.com/2008/03/more-phorm-horrors.html

Update: seems I was a little late to the party (I only noticed it when it made it to The Guardian). The Register’s been rather prolific in chronicling the various angles on this, including the the possibility that BT lied as to its involvement and that the traffic snooping actually violates several laws:

* “ISP data deal with former ‘spyware’ boss triggers privacy fears”:http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/02/25/phorm_isp_advertising/
* “Data pimping: surveillance expert raises illegal wiretap worries”:http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/03/04/phorm_ripa/
* “BT pimped customer web data to advertisers last summer”:http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/02/27/bt_phorm_121media_summer_2007/
* “How Phorm plans to tap your internet connection”:http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/02/29/phorm_documents/
* “The Phorm files”:http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/02/29/phorm_roundup/

If you build it (right), they will come (on any old platform, even a phone)

I’m rather enamoured of “OpenID”:http://openid.net/, the really neat, decentralised way to log in to any OpenID-supporting web site with one username/password. Simultaneously, I’ve had a “Vox”:http://www.vox.com/ account since I was invited to try the beta pre-launch. It was moderately interesting as a community-based approach to blogging, but as I already have this blog I never used it for that purpose.

At some point (I forget when), Vox became an OpenID provider. “Great,” I thought, “I’ll use it as my OpenID.” All was well until a few days ago, when I tried to sign in to Vox using Opera Mini on my Sony Ericsson K800i. Here’s a screenshot of the sign-in form:

!(Vox sign-in form)http://www.timandkathy.co.uk/journal/wp-content/uploads/2008/02/vox-signin.png!

The orange “Sign in” button is a button — right? Wrong. It’s made up of the following markup:

@Sign In@
@@

So, they’ve got a “real” submit button there, which probably attends to an imagined screen reader scenario–CSS and JavaScript off; but because Opera Mini usually behaves — for all intents and purposes — like a desktop browser, it attempts to render the fancy orange button but doesn’t quite have the nous to interpret whatever JavaScript event binding code Six Apart are using to make the orange button submit the form.

I emailed Vox support:

bq. The sign-in button isn’t a ‘real’ html button and therefore I can’t sign in using Opera Mini.

They replied:

bq. We’re sorry you’re having problems signing in to Vox. We would like to suggest that you *try using Internet Explorer or Firefox when signing in to Vox*. We fully support these browsers and you’ll find that you can use all of Vox’s functions when using them.

bq. For more information about what Vox needs in order to work, check out our “Requirements for using Vox”:http://www.vox.com/services/kb/192 article. (emphasis mine)

I replied to them, for what it’s worth:

bq. OK – that’s fine. I would say something about “just use normal HTML and it works anywhere!” but I guess I’ll just find another OpenID provider.

So that’s what I did. I signed up with “MyOpenId”:http://www.myopenid.com/, who seemingly know how to use normal HTML elements for their intended purpose, rendering the service usable on Opera Mini.

If ever there was a lesson in keeping things simple and using Progressive Enhancement, there it is. For *no extra effort, more people can use your service in more places and using more devices and platforms*. What’s not to like?

Mobile GMail, Twitter and why I’m no better than Crackberry addicts

At the company Christmas meeting/lunch/disco in 2006, I had the pleasure of sitting at the same table as one of our directors. During the meal he checked his email on his Blackberry (nicknamed “Crackberry” due to the addictive nature of anywhere, any time email) several times. I seem to remember telling him, in jest, to “put it away”.

Fast forward to 2007. Three has the best-value data packages of the UK mobile operators: £2.50 per month for 10MB of data, which is plenty for mobile e-mail and the odd bit of Twittering and Mobile Facebooking. You can get “unlimited” (actually 1GB fair use) for £5/month, but that’s overkill for me. It’s the same price as ten train times lookups via the official, paid-for service on Planet Three, so in those terms: why not?

Well, it’s a good job that Three’s 3G coverage is patchy near our house. I do find that I don’t want to miss anything on Twitter, especially, while mobile GMail is a strange mix of regular email, commercial marketing that I have signed up for, and mailing lists. The latter, like Twitter, plug me in to online community to such an extent that I find it hard to resist continuously checking for replies and new conversations.

Perhaps I’m filling a void because I don’t get out much IRL(In Real Life). Hey, having just had another baby, I don’t have the chance to get out much! My evenings are mostly cook (unless Kathy’s done that), eat, clear up, do some housework, rock Abi to sleep and then go to bed – preferably early so I don’t feel the effects of broken nights too much.

Online community is most of the community I get at the moment.

12 days until BarCamp Bristol

Because not everyone has time to read mailing lists or check “Upcoming”:http://upcoming.yahoo.com/, and one of the rules of BarCamp is that _you *do* blog about BarCamp_, here we go.

BarCamp Bristol (Bristol’s first) will be taking place on October 12th-13th 2007 at Sift’s offices in Victoria St., Bristol.

More information is available at “BarCamp”:http://barcamp.org/BarCampBristol, “Upcoming”:http://upcoming.yahoo.com/event/242037/ and “you can sign up, too”:http://bristolskillswap.eventwax.com/barcamp-bristol/register.

h3. What’s all this BarCamp stuff about, anyway?

BarCamp is an unconference, which means that there is no distinction between attendees and speakers. This is because everybody who attends has to give a talk or lead a discussion; there are no “tourists”.

It’s a chance to tell other people about the one thing that you know heaps about but others perhaps don’t, or lead a discussion about the best way to solve a particular problem. What it isn’t is a Hackday-style geekfest; we want people to feel comfortable attending no matter what their level of technical knowledge.

We have got sponsorship for the event from various companies, so the event is basically free to attend. We would like people who sign up to put £5 down so that their money’s where their mouth is, so to speak ;)

Come on then – what are you waiting for? “Sign up now”:http://bristolskillswap.eventwax.com/barcamp-bristol/register!

Skillswap report

On Tuesday I spoke at the “February 2007 edition of Bristol Skillswap”:http://bristolskillswap.eventwax.com/microformats/ at The Watershed. I _think_ it was the first time I’d given a public presentation, though I’ve given a few talks at work. There were about 25 people there, which was a sufficiently large number to elicit questions and feedback but not so large as to be intimidating.

The subject of my talk was “Microformats: The Semantic Web for the Rest of Us”, and “the slides are available online”:http://www.timandkathy.co.uk/presentations/microformats/ in lovely “s5 format”:http://meyerweb.com/eric/tools/s5/ (a simple html file plus CSS and Javascript magic).

I managed to bag a couple of beers (for later consumption, I should add – I thought it best to be compos mentis during the talk itself) and then began the presentation. I described what the Semantic Web is, what Microformats are and what the point of it all is before showing some real-world examples. The main, meaty part, though, was to dive into “some”:http://www.timandkathy.co.uk/code/microformats/hcard1.html “HTML”:http://www.timandkathy.co.uk/code/microformats/hcalendar1.html and add some Microformats for “contact information”:http://www.timandkathy.co.uk/code/microformats/hcard2.html and “events”:http://www.timandkathy.co.uk/code/microformats/hcalendar2.html — the two Microformats I know best.

In the end, the talk ran to about an hour (which I’d hoped it would, but I wasn’t sure). There was a good amount of questions and feedback, and several of us carried on the discussion in the Watershed bar afterwards. I’m not sure how well it’ll come out on video, but never mind!

One Day In History: not quite Web 2.0?

“The History Matters project”:http://www.historymatters.org.uk/ is encouraging the ordinary citizens of the UK to blog about their everyday lives tomorrow, October 17th 2006. On first inspection, it sounded like a fine idea. I was all ready to kick the dust from “my underused blog”:http://www.timandkathy.co.uk/journal/ and start blogging.

It’s not quite as simple as that, though. You can’t just blog anywhere; you have to use the “History Matters One Day In History site”:http://www.historymatters.org.uk/output/page97.asp. You must also agree to their “Terms and Conditions”:http://www.historymatters.org.uk/output/page66.asp and waiver copyright to your blog entry, which can be used by the British Library in published works, media etc. as pointed out in the blog form’s footnotes:

bq. Your diary will be stored in electronic form in the British Library’s Web Archiving Section which is a part of the Modern British Collection.
Members of the public will be able to consult your material.
The History Matters partners own the copyright of any materials that you submit and be free to use them in any History Matter related materials such as any media stories, published books etc.
Please see the Terms & Conditions for further details as to the use(s) of material submitted to ‘One Day in History’.

Now, I’m no “Cory Doctorow”:http://www.craphound.com/, but I care about the overuse and downright abuse of copyright law to benefit the wrong people. I’m sure that the History Matters project thinks it’s being really revolutionary by having “one of those new fangled blog things”, but is playing the same insidious All Your Posts Are Belong To Us game that I would expect of major media organisations like NewsCorp.

The second old-economy mistake that HM makes is centralisation. There is no need to force people to use the ODIH (sounds like “oh dear”; well, it is made using an ASP(Active Server Pages) CMS(Content Management System)) site; RSS and other open data standards, combined with tagging (tag=odih, for example), would have made it perfectly possible to have a decentralised blog day effort. This could have been harvested by “archive.org”:http://archive.org/ or the “British Library”:http://www.bl.uk/ after the event, in case the original blog posts went bit-rotten over time. If the bloggers used a suitable “Creative Commons license”:http://creativecommons.org/licences/, then their posts could have been repurposed as derivative works by the HM project and the British Library.

I can understand _why_ the ODIH blog operates in the way it does: centralisation lowers the barrier to entry for people who probably don’t have a blog to speak of. Raise the barrier too high, and you won’t get the participation required to make the event a success. Decentralisation would have meant that the HM project would have had to exercise a degree of trust in the data quality used by the bloggers and their content. However, as they make no guarantee of quality or suitability for the data submitted to ODIH anyway (We may remove any postings or other material or interaction at our entire discretion.), there’s nothing to be gained in that regard by centralisation. It really does appear to be all about the snatching of copyright over the submitted work (If you do not want to grant the Partners the rights set out above, do not submit your material to the Site. Um, OK).

These same people probably don’t exercise themselves about copyright and freedom issues, but may take exception to the handing over of their intellectual property in such an all-or-nothing way to the HM project. Unfortunately, they are unlikely to be aware of Creative Commons and the range of licenses that it offers as alternatives to full copyright.

It seems churlish to advertise this as a mass blog, yet potentially exclude those people who have made blogging so important for the project even to exist: bloggers themselves.

In conclusion, my initial enthusiasm for the project has waned and I don’t plan on blogging via the ODIH site tomorrow. I will probably blog on my own blog though, as a mini-protest against the lip-service paid to blogging by the ODIH site.

As an aside, it would be wise to consider these issues as we enter the Brave New World of community web sites. You have to trust your users, not take away their rights.