Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Gaming and the Web

Been very busy recently but finally getting around to re-thinking about dconstruct 2008, yes that is some lag but I fully expect to have completed writing up my thoughts by September of 2009 ;). Actually lots of people complain about information over-load etc. etc. my favorite way of coping with that is simply to put aside quite long periods of time for just reviewing and going over things I have squirreled away. Making connections between old and new is also hugely useful.

The first talk at dconstruct2008 that came to mind is actually the second, it was presented by Aleks Krotoski, at the time it was probably the talk that made the least impact on me although looking back I find it much more interesting. Reviewing material from Dconstruct is easy now since eventually both podcasts and transcripts have appeared for all the presentations.  

The main gist of the presentation was that web developers and game developers do not mix although they have a lot to learn from each other, maybe the web has borrowed some ideas from the games industry but the flow of information in the other direction has not been so great. The thing that sparked my mind into reviewing this presentation was simply watching my children playing (and starting to play myself) Little Big Planet for the PS3. I was struck by the community aspects of the game and by the very web like use (and very useful implementation imho) of tagging and commenting  for content developed by other players.Once I found out that there was a huge amount of community content out there I immediately got my sons to show me how you could search (and re-find) that from within the game interface, as soon as I saw the tagging it made perfect sense that it should be there.

Actually I find it hard to pull out juicy points from the presentation although there was much I agree with and that sparked more thinging, Joshua March gives a good summary and Aleks wrote about it herself. A minor highlight for me after the fact is simply that Little Big Planet made me think of the talk and that when I got around to reading the transcript Little Big planet was raised in the brief question and answer session, it is certainly a game that was worth mentioning in this context so well done to man1. 

Watching the development of games and community aspects on a games console via the PS3 is certainly an elightening and highly useful experiance.  

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Why I wouldn't like to design an Asian Website

Actually I wouldn't like to design any kind of website, that is not where my strengths lie. I would be particularly careful of making any design decisions on a website that was aimed at a culture I didn't fully appreciate though.

Taking Chinese as an example, a number of times I have directed Chinese users to an Internet site I like and then been surprised when they are completely underwhelmed by it. One reason has been that they feel there is not enough content. This screen shot above is from web-page of the Chinese television station CCTV, it is typical of many I have seen and to my eyes appears very text dense with lots and lots (too many links). It wasn't until a Chinese web friend told me that many Chinese Internet users had yet to get used to using search functionality that the penny dropped, navigating through and discovering new content via links felt most natural to them.

Also consider that a Chinese designer can typically choose a lot of two character words for links (or three / four character words/phrases) this makes it an awful lot easier to layout blocks of links that can be scanned much better than if they were written in English.

I am not advocating the CCTV site as a good example of any kind of web design, simply attempting to highlight the kind of issues that may need to be taken into account when looking at websites from different cultures. It has to be said that in my experience many Asian websites do a better job of catering for Western users (with language options and search support) than their Western counterparts.

Naturally nothing is that clear, many young Chinese will be familiar and used to Western style websites, many of them have gone through the language/culture mind-hack.

This post will be a small part of the background to my Bathcamp presentation Bathcamp presentation Twine(in progress).

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Is Learning Chinese a Mind-Hack?

Mind Hack image from psd.

It has been said that learning a language is a type of mind hack, it is good for the brain and gives you a different perspective on many things. Written Chinese however has a peculiar feature compared to English and that is simply that it takes rather less characters to write something. Many Chinese words are just one or two characters and there is no space between words. Some of the space gain is lost because each Chinese character takes the same space and English fonts can take advantage of proportional spacing but on the whole a block of Chinese text takes up less space. On Twitter and other micro-blogging sites you are typically given 140 characters, a fairly short message in English but a Chinese writer can potentially pack in a lot more information. As a couple of examples (美女) and (帅哥) map to (beautiful women) and (handsome guy). I also believe from my own early experience and observation that the Chinese reader can read noticeably faster than English readers (could be useful if you have a lot of information to scan).

Sometimes it is unfortunate that so much emphasis is given to ease of use and quick learning/understanding, often the thing that is initially easiest to learn, understand and use falls short in the long run when compared to something that initially takes more effort. Douglas Engelbert is credited with developing the computer mouse which was widely adopted, he also developed a special one hand keypad that in conjunction with the mouse was proven to significantly improve typing speed. This keypad was not adopted though simply because the learning curve was considered too high (taking into account all the typing I do though it makes me wonder).

I feel that an often overlooked mind expanding element of language learning occurs when you are prepared to open your mind to a new culture however. It is possible and sometimes illuminating to see something from two points of view simultaneously. A recent Newscientist article How to keep your head in scary situations (unfortunately you have to be a subscriber to view full text) stated "find a knowledgeable person who shares your general cultural but who disagrees with you. You are likely to give this person's arguments a sympathetic hearing, which will help offset the natural disposition we all have to dismiss as unreliable and biased the arguments of persons whose basic outlooks are different from our own." The cultural element is important because you are not likely to believe or entertain an argument coming from a culture that differs from your own. I found that being prepared to start adsorbing another culture suddenly hugely expands the number of people that you can learn from. As Steve Kaufmann puts it History is a good example. Students should be obliged to read history books from different countries, in order to see how different these perspectives can be.

A final thought, many people who have learned English as an additional language (and or adsorbed Western culture) have undergone a mind-hack of some sort, doesn't this leave many mono-lingual English speakers at a disadvantage?

This post will be a small part of the background to my Bathcamp presentation Bathcamp presentation Twine(in progress).

Learning Via a Muse

This is what learning Mandarin means to me in respect to learning about the Internet, no Wait! let me explain ;)

Like the artist's muse my language learning gives me a focus, a filter, a point of reference and a reason to learn more about Web(n.0) and to judge whether a new technology is really helping me. Perhaps because I often spend more time working on the back-end of websites I used to find it difficult to learn about using web-technologies via learning about web-technologies. I often felt I was in a kind of "echo chamber". Although this work that sold for so much money probably doesn't fully represent a muse.

At Dconstruct08 Aleks Krotoski explains how Web developers can learn from game developers, this is her own summary on at the Guardian. I think learners can learn from game players also, make it fun, get passionate and the learning happens before your realize.

What is your muse, or if you don't have one, how do you avoid the echo chamber?

This post will be a small part of the background to my Bathcamp presentation Bathcamp presentation Twine(in progress).

Learning Potential of the Internet

The Rue Sophie Germain named for the French mathematician (1776 - 1831).

I believe that the Internet has boosted learning potential in a way that most of us have not caught up with yet. The full impact has yet to be realized but I think many subjects, or the foundation of many subjects can be easily acquired and practiced by an individual with no need for teachers, classes, university etc.

Of course to learn successfully requires dedication and interest but this is almost always the case, no matter what the method. The internet gives us unprecedented access to information, unprecedented access to fellow learners and experts and supports more media and approaches than most traditional methods.

A big hint lies in the IT sector, of there are many that are formally educated, but due to the ever changing nature of IT and due to fact that the barrier to playing with and building real things with real technology is so low, many people in successful IT careers have no formal qualifications at all, many have learned everything that supports their career via the very same devices and infrastructure they use in their daily work.

Take the mathematician who inspired the French street name above, she taught herself mathematics from books in her fathers library despite all the efforts of her family to stop her (not the done thing for a middle class girl at the time), she had to pretend to be a man initially to correspond with famous mathematicians of the time and develop her theories. Think how much lower is the barrier to entry for a modern day Sophie Germain, the vital inputs and opportunities to communicate are so much more now. The interesting questions is will the availability of information create many more autodidacts like Sophie?

In language learning we have access to media, learning resources, foreign speakers, fellow learners, free tools (Audacity for audio for example, your own personal language lab), I firmly believe that any reasonably motivated learner can learn a language to a significantly better level than most university students in less time as a hobby (it really seems that farcical).

I hear people moaning about informational overload but this is a personal problem we just have to learn to adjust the way we view learning and knowledge, nowadays the possession of information is less important than the understanding of it and the ability to do things with it. The memory tricks of savants like Kim Peek seem much less impressive today, although Kim has show an increasing ability to work with his facts and develop his social skills due to his fame allowing him to practice and use what he knows. Many of us today can retrieve information as reliably Kim does and almost as fast, it is up to us to understand and use it.

I understand that some areas will always need professional qualifications, and some will need access to special equipment (particle physics springs to mind at the moment). But the basis of knowledge acquisition in these areas can still be acquired outside of special institutions.

How many times have I heard someone say "I really want to learn XXXX, I haven't started yet though I am waiting to see if there is going to be a course at the college next year...." how much do you want to learn???

This post will be a small part of the background to my Bathcamp presentation Bathcamp presentation Twine(in progress).

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Social Network Portability

Attended the Dconstruct conference last week and as last time I'll try to process the information I got from it over the next few weeks. As I am also attending BathCamp next week I will start with the talks that have any kind of potential connection with my BathCamp presentation.

Tantek Çelik gave an interesting talk on Social Network Portability a brief summary of which is provided by Tom Hume.

The point Tom makes that there may be instances where we don't want to share aspects of ourselves between different social sites is one that immediately came to my mind also. In my case an excellent example is when using some social sites for language learning. I don't see this a significant barrier though, unless I am mistaken in the application side of things, a profile page that you create on a social site is not going to be able to make those connections or allow others to make them unless you provide the initial link into your social network, it will still be easy to create completly separate identities. Also the connection to your identities on other social sites will be limited to public information.

The basic aims that Tantek initially expressed certainly need to be addressed, my own AHA moment recently came whilst using the microblogging service at identi.ca, thanks to the openmicroblogging specification I was able to follow a user on http://openmicroblogger.com/ simply by adding the url of his profile page. The exchange of avatar icons and who is following, being followed by who happened automatically (try doing that on Twitter).

I guess at that moment the microblogging AHA moment sums up my interest in this area (although I have not looked under the hood I don't thing it uses the same technology Tantek was discussing), unless I am doing something at work that is impacted by Social Network Portability then I will leave the implementation and specifications to others and wait to see how it affects me. I have installed the Operator Firefox extension for microformats and so far it doesn't appear that much if anything I am using online is using them (or if it is, then it doesn't impact what I am doing).

Information on the technologies that Tantek discussed can be found here on the microformat wiki.

Monday, 1 September 2008

BathCamp Presentation

For the last two and a half years I have been learning Chinese, for the last two and a half years I have also been learning about learning especially how the learning landscape is changing thanks to the web technologies.

Learning Chinese has become my muse for learning about new web technologies. My job has involved me in many different aspects of developing web applications (possibly too many) and a while ago I had totally lost touch with the front end and more importantly how to "use" the emergent technologies. Because I don't feel you can really understand something until you can use it and because I was interested in learning a language I decided to learn a language as much as possible via the internet.

I like to write down my thoughts sometimes especially to refine ideas, when I came to think about a presentation for Bathcamp the obvious thing to do was to write down anything I feel I have learned so far and then pull out the more interesting points(in my opinion) for a short spoken presentation. Whatever happens the writings will be useful to me in the future, I have found it very useful to review what I wrote about Dconstruct last year.

I tend to write in more than one place and may have some other resources to add so I am going to try to pull all the background material to the presentation in a twine. By the time I make the short spoken presentation (or at least shortly afterwards); hopefully everything underpinning it will be available on the twine.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Dconstruct and Bathcamp

Interesting couple of weeks ahead, this week I am attending the Dconstruct conference in Brighton and the following weekend I will be attending Bathcamp. Attendance of Dconstruct last year provoked lots of thought and posts about Internet related matters but I suspect that this year Bathcamp will generate or refine even more.

I strongly suspect that Bathcamp will generate more this year, primarily because being an unconference I will be making my own small presentation, this requires a lot of thought....

This post will be a small part of the background to my upcoming Bathcamp presentation.

Friday, 25 July 2008


Short post this, but there will be more. I am signed up to attend Bathcamp later in the summer and looking forward to it, it will be my first attendance of a barcamp style un-conference. I am not entirely sure what to expect, but I am sure it will be interesting and well worth the time.

Twine has started opening little bits to the public now, I quite like a few elements of Twine but there are some things that don't seem to work very well still, building a Twine of language learning resources is going OK, I am building a Bathcamp Twine but already it seems more work than it should be (I am going to have to make a logo for it, add lots of links and text by hand etc. etc.).

Now I wondering how to make a presentation for Bathcamp, I guess as much of my internet interaction that is not work related has been to do with learning Chinese via the internet this will be the theme, there are a lot of web technology goodies in there I just have to shake them out and dust them off. Trouble is I always leave these things to the last minute. Emergency plan is to juggle whilst harmonic throat singing (Tuvan style), I hope it doesn't come to that...

Sunday, 13 July 2008

More on the Demise of Email

A while ago I posted on my feelings about email, it was a brief post provoked by frustration at the time, I was intending to come back to the topic but this post at ReadWriteWeb entitled Is Email In Danger says it all really for now.

I think the frustration that I am feeling is not so much to do with email still being used but more to do with the fact that other tools that fit communication needs are not being used in so many organisations.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

What flavor of Stone Soup is Twine

I have been playing with Twine for a little while now. Some aspects I really like but there are one or two things that puzzle me, and one or two that I am not sure about. I think the twines themselves have potential, I have slowly started building up one that I hope will be a good way to share some resources, particularly when Twine goes public. I am sure that some will think that the aspects that bother me are simply down to not knowing enough about how Twine works, or more likely because I am not using Twine enough yet. This "not using Twine enough" is the thing that bothers me most, the mantra used to answer criticisms of Twine is that "the more you use it, the more you get out of it". Well that seems reasonable but I also think that a cutting edge semantic web app. should do some things almost from the get go.

There is the story of the stone soup, it doesn't really matter if you don't know it and don't wish to read the Wikipedia entry, hopefully my point will still make sense. Is it that the flavor of the Twine soup is mainly derived from all the ingredients that are added to it by the users. A cunning but relatively simple starting framework could attract a critical mass of interaction and this mass then be used to develop a semantic application. Of course you need content to be added and categorized at some level, but once you have content why does it seemingly require a lot of activity to guess what kind of new content a user may be interested in.

My best example so far is a story on Mandarin immersion learning , here are the things that Twine could know.

  1. I have created one twine so far, it is tagged with mandarin

  2. I have posted a high percentage of items tagged with mandarin

  3. I have read a number of other items tagged with mandarin and shared one or two to other twines

  4. I have conducted a search for mandarin

  5. I have pulled an RSS feed against the mandarin tag search

  6. The mandarin tag is relatively rarely used on twine

Yet when a new item is bookmarked on Twine and has a mandarin tag, I am not alerted. Given all the information above and not withstanding any smart programming that may be monitoring my activity across twines or connections I cannot imagine not picking up on at least enough of the low hanging fruit above to alert me somehow on the item. In fact if I had been involved with the programming I would have a red face at this point because Twine is touted to be smart etc. There is a remote possibility that I missed something I suppose but there doesn't seem to be any mechanism to discover or tell me of the important fact, also the twine where the article appeared wouldn't normally hold my interest enough to make it worthwhile subscribing to it, so the standard Twinerian approach of subscribing to a huge number of twines wouldn't have helped either

There are a number of other things I am looking into that worry me. There is a "bug" where if you post a bookmark that is already in Twine you get duplicated items, even if you post to the same Twine. Putting on my programmers hat this is more than a bug, unless I am mistaken it seems that the url of a bookmark is its unique identifier, this should be enforced at the back-end and unit-tested, not allowed to bubble through to the user interface. Other opportunities to cut down on information clutter have been missed for example my Twine digest email informs me of items I have posted myself.

What I have at the moment to discover things I may be interested in a marvelous hack-up of RSS feeds, pumped and tweaked and combined through Google Reader, Netvibes and now increasing Yahoo pipes. This chaotic system has the amazing ability to (assuming I apply a little regular maintenance and tweaking) to supply me with a pretty good overall picture of things I may be interested in. Now I am increasingly adding Yahoo pipes to the mix I can see another big step-up in the ability of my ad-hoc distributed tangle to serve this purpose. In fact if you didn't know how it worked you could even be mistaken for thinking the system I am using has some kind of intelligence (Yahoo pipes probably being the major potential contributor here).

Twine is a useful social repository to drop information into, they have convinced me of that, also it is supposed to automatically tag things (well sometimes), why haven't the simple quick wins to link people with interesting information been picked up on, especially when I can get so much mileage from tweaking and manipulating RSS feeds from disparate sources all over the Internet? The recommendations that are supposed to kick in once Twine has learned enough about me haven't show me anything yet. My experiment is going to be to see if I can get more interesting and relevant content to read from Twine simply by the manipulation of its many RSS feeds (and become a Yahoo pipes power-user at the same time ;)). At the moment I am betting on my system to win, to be fair I am interacting with Twine in a manner that should help their recommendation system, but not as fast as some (anyway a system that only works for power-users is not a mainstream system at all).

As it happens a helpful Twine user called Twain (thank you twain) told me about the Mandarin post in a reply to a comment on an unrelated thread, which was nice, even though I was already aware of it. This however does not count as Twine informing me of it.

Ultimately the stone soup story can be interpreted in a number of different ways, with both a positive and negative slant, lets hope the Twine story has a happy ending.

BBC go full fat RSS

Just a quick YAAAYY. Due to pressure from some of their users, more BBC RSS is full feed. As I have said before I much, much prefer full feeds.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

It is supposed to be a conversation (part1)

A chain of thoughts that started a little while ago and ended up in me resolving some personal thoughts about what a semantic web actually means (to me at least). Bear with me because in part 1 the semantic bit is not really obvious.

It all started when I came across a forum that had a "correct this grammar" link next to each post. I am not sure if this is the stupidest thing I have ever seen or just a very, very clever way to divert the time and energy of pedants whilst quietly direct all their corrective output to /dev/null/ (a place where the sun don't shine). If it was a diversion it was very authentic looking as it even had instructions telling you to retain the original meaning, your corrections were supposed to be approved by a moderator.

I came across this whilst I still had the "well intentioned??" efforts of some grammar/spelling actionists fresh in my mind. They hadn't been directed at me but they easily could have been and we had crossed swords. Often the grammar pedant will start with something like "I hate to be a pedant but it irks me when..." so we have to assume that in this case irk > hate.

There are places where writing as correctly as possible is important, however consider that people do not speak grammatically, when having conversations they do not use correct grammar (amazingly some people haven't even realized this). I view comments, some types of blog posts etc. etc. as conversations and the word conversation is often used to describe many interactions on the web. We are pulling in more and more information, and engaging in more and more online conversations, usually testing/refining ideas, for many people now this is not a place to worry too much about the technicalities of language so long as the meanings and concepts are exercised. I consider many of these conversations are supposed to be quick and snappy, and people adapt to this environment. We don't have same pressure to use l8r for later as we would when texting but there is a pressure there

English is often not the first language of the conversationalists but is the default language of many places where they have to interact (not so smart or sensitive to pick holes in what they have written). This was the case when I lost my rag a little and had to intervene (it irked me to intervene but I hated what was going on).

By all means strive for correct grammar and spelling in a CV or presentation or highbrow blog etc. but apart from that I think those that are upset by non-perfect English should deal with the irksomeness out of the public eye.

How do I think this relates to the semantic web, well that is coming soon.

Languages are made by ordinary human beings not by God or the pundits who stand in for him.
Anthony Burgess loved language and was a linguist. He enjoyed the play of words and the technicalities of grammar and pronounciation. However in his books on language he was consistent in objecting against those that were overly sensitive to its usage, ending on one occasion with
When we think we are making such a judgment we are often merely making a statement about our prejudices.

Monday, 26 May 2008

Facebook not for the Intranet

At one point there was a lot of hype, regarding the possible use of Facebook for all or part of an intranet. From my point of view that quickly became a very bad idea. Maybe a new, small internet company, with internet savy executives could pull it off (maybe) but I wouldn't dream of trying to implement that approach where I work.

Aside from the questions of who owns your data? what happens if Facebook is down or slow? there is the considerable problem of bleed between work and personal life and bleed between the few useful things you can do on Facebook and the vast array of useless trash. The following youtube sums up my feelings exactly. I would suspect that most employees would not welcome this bleed either.

Not that Facebook is a complete waste of time, there are one or two people I can communicate most reliably with via a Facebook message, I have played a couple of very entertaining chess games via Facebook, but I have also ignored far too many hot potatoes and their like.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

More on fullness of RSS

A while ago I posted in a very general way about some advantages of full RSS feeds. Since that time I have continued to use RSS extensively and thought about it a little more, there are of course various degrees of fullness.

One of the most useless feeds I have comes from a Chinese site, translated into English the title of the page the feed comes from is "Everyday English". Each time a new article is published it appears in my feed-readers with the title "Everyday English" and the text "Everyday English" that links through to the article. I have no way of knowing whether it is worth my while going to the article, each RSS item in my reader is identical.

At the other end of the spectrum would be the blog feeds where I can read the entire article in a feed-reader, inclusive of any included media files, the only reason to actually go to the site in question would be to read or leave comments.

In between there is a sliding scale, descriptive titles, snippets or abstracts included etc. etc. The bottom line seems to be I don't care how it works so long as I minimize time spent wasted going via links and finding I am not interested in what is at the other end. If I don't find my-self wasting time this way it is surprising how much information I can sift through and select from,  every time I have to follow a duff lead though feels like a huge drag (probably way out of proportion to the time wasted but that is human nature). A feed that commits the double crime of not having a high enough density of compelling content and wasting too much time gets deleted.

Sometimes the outcome can be surprising, I had a number of feeds that produced very little of interest but sometimes the odd gem. Usually there was enough information in the title or link to spot something of interest. I decided that they were not worth close monitoring but occasionally I have time I might look to see what is floating on top there. A bunch of these types of feeds can be seen on my Netvibes potluck page.

Sometimes I use Google Reader on my phone via the Opera mini browser, it is very efficient so long as I don't waste time following links to destinations that have nothing of interest.

I guess content providers often want me on their sites but, what kind of mood do they want me to be in when I get there. The challenge would seem to be in giving me other compelling reasons to visit.

My final observation is that the usefulness of an RSS feed depends on the type of content and how I interact with/use it, I can only determine this over time and by having some interest in the content. So I suppose if you produce RSS it would be a good idea to get feed-back from people that meet these same criteria.

Blogged with the Flock Browser

Sunday, 30 March 2008

Using Google to buffer and/or archive RSS

I have ended up using both Google Reader and Netvibes to monitor RSS feeds. Google Reader is great for long-term stuff whereas Netvibes is great for monitoring what has changed recently. Netvibes also offers other functionality that I find more useful than iGoogle for generating an online desktop.

Whilst learning Chinese I have found a number of things I can monitor by RSS that yield a high number of results, many of which are of no interest but there are the occasional gems. I tend to call these type of feeds "potluck" If I have time I can always trawl through them quickly and see if there is anything that interests me. One type of feed that can yield the occasional gem via online link tagging services, just monitoring the del.icio.us tag for "chinese" for example can sometimes give me useful new resources. Recently I started experimenting with the public universes offered by Netvibes. I also thought it would be useful to carry out the same sort of monitoring at simpy.com and ma.gnolia.com sadly I discovered that like many other online services, simply and ma.gnolia just do not provide good reliable real-time RSS feeds. The result was that many times my Netvibes boxes were empty. The easiest and most elegant solution to this kind of problem was simply to ensure that those kinds of feed were collected by Google Reader and then I made the RSS public from Google Reader. Now when I look at those feeds in Netvibes they are coming from Google Reader and whilst they may not be completely up to date they are never empty (Google Reader caches the information). Of course I can also combines feed and publish them as one from Google Reader.

Thanks to the new public Netvibes service I can make some of my "pot luck" feeds public, which acts as a nice way to demonstrate how this kind of RSS usage

As an aside I have often noticed that many of the less mainstream services are not consistent with the performance of RSS feeds (and searching). At the moment I wouldn't switch from del.icio.us to an alternative simply because nothing else I have looked at is anywhere near so reliable.

Blogged with the Flock Browser

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Email is not dead, it just smells like it.

Sometimes I think to myself there is little difference between Email and RSS (or I imagine ways in which I could manage my email in a way that might still make it marginally useful), I always come back to my senses though. Email is always going to be there and there is going to be a long tail of declining useage but I really try to interact with it as little as possible.

The real problem is seen in the use of email for communication in projects, both inside and outside of work. It really takes a lot of effort to manage email in a useful way, when discussions get multi-threaded and emails are copied, replied to, forwarded etc. etc. communication breaks down. Then of course there is the disaster that occurs when someone forgets to "copy in" someone else.

I was recently involved in a non-work project that involved communication by email and has now switched to use Basecamp already it is like a breath of fresh air.

Of course you need more than RSS to replace everything people do with Email, and elements of email can only look anything like RSS if you squint at it from a distance when very tired and forget to use one hemisphere of your brain.

Here is a tip, if someone at work sends you an urgent email, then try to ignore it for at least a day, If someone comes and actually talks to you help them as fast as you can, you can train them if you are persistent enough.

Blogged with the Flock Browser

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Blog post in a Chinesepod bottle

A short post this one but with a specific objective. The purpose of this this blog is primarily to act as a brain dump and thinking space, I am not aiming at attracting a readership (and on that measure I am succeeding admirably ;).

That being said It was interesting to note that some comments previous observations I made regarding problems with Chinesepod RSS feeds seem to have resulted in some action. I also noted a few hits from Shanghai in Google analytics. I was kind of expecting and hoping that this may be the case.

I would think that these days, if your online presence is important, then you should be spending some time peering into the dark corners of the web getting indirect feedback from discussions about you. It appears that the folks at Chinesepod have this covered.

I am curious to see if this post in an obscure corner gets read, it has some words and tags about Chinesepod, cpod and Ken Carroll that should do the trick. If somebody (anbody) from Chinesepod or Praxis reads this then please leave a comment, I will be very impressed and it will complete my experiment. The web version of the "message in a bottle" should in theory be much more discoverable than the traditional one.

Blogged with Flock

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Lies damn lies and web stats

Been a little while, but lots of things have been happening web-wise so I had better leave some thoughts here in case they fade from my mind (the main purpose of this blog is to prevent loss).

In my opinion if you have anything to do with web applications then it is absolutely vital  that your marketeers and sales people and the like are aware that web statistics are invariably generalizations, they are not exact and not usually fit to be treated in the same way as accurate financial accounts. This does not detract from their value but does mean that don't don't waste endless hours trying to account for tiny discrepancies etc.

Of course it depends what kind of analysis you do but increasingly people expect more than you get from the average server log. Many ways of getting very good information about your users are not 100% reliable, for example Google analytics provide a whole host of useful information but that depends on your visitor having JavaScript; This is not a problem if you accept that and make allowances for it.

There are many reasons why things may not sync up exactly, one that keeps haunting me is timestamps between different pieces of the system or between the database and the software application, not matching up exactly, other reasons apart from the JavaScript problem mentioned above could be down to cookie problems (or even absence of cookies), proxy servers (if you are monitoring sites accounts by IP address). data and links between data actually changing between the time of the original event and the processing of the statistics.

What can you do about it?, well if the processing is complicated and you have to tie a lot of elements together to cook your final reports, it seems that it is always more reliable to capture as much of the relevant information you need at the source, as it happens and then log that. For a simple example if you have a linking between an account and an IP address range then capture the user id and put it in your logs, as it happens. If you really have a pressing need to capture usage information 100% accurately then log each occurrence as it happens rather than trying to derive it from a url in your log.

Sometimes people treat web stats as absolute, this is not wise recently a number of people trying to sell us tools that included mailshot facilities proudly told us that their tool could track who actually opens the email you sent out 100% reliably. Of course they ended up looking a little foolish as they were talking about tracking the request of tagged images in HTML emails; which although it might be useful, is never going to be a 100% reliable method to determine if someone opens the mail you sent.

Blogged with the Flock Browser

Saturday, 12 January 2008

RSS and tagging working together

A number of things prompted this post, the main catalyst was a question that came up at work and which I hope to provide and answer: Why would somebody want an RSS feed of their (article) tags?. I hope I can at least answer why they might

Partly it was also something I read on ReadWriteWeb, 5 Ways You Can Fall in Love With Tagging Again. Much of this wasn't new to me but one statement in particular One of the best things about tagging URLs is that all kinds of RSSfeeds become available. Made me think a little. The RSS feeds of tagged urls I have employed before and we have been using tags to identify interesting urls to work colleages for sometime. Why just restrict yourself to tagged urls though, anything that you can tag online could result in useful RSS feeds (although it is usually going to resolve to a useful url). In fact it is sometimes easy to forget that feeds from de.licio.us tags represent tagged urls (the comments are useful here to add further information), a feed directly from a set of tagged resources could in theory provide richer information.

Another element was the recent and very fruitful experiments I have been having with tagging and RSS feeds to help me with the process of learning Chinese vocabulary. I tag online dictionary entries on Chinese words as urls in del.icio.us, keeping the dictionary definition in the title and comment (along with other notes in the comment) and consuming the feeds in various places allows me to sort, search through, view and categorise the words I am learning in many different ways. Becasue these are not new items some ways of consuming RSS don't allow you easily remove items that have moved from one category to another, but using a combination of GoogleReader, RSSOwl, live bookmarks, Netvibes etc. I have all the ways to view, sort, search, archive my word lists that I could ever wish for.

Back to the orignal question, having access to RSS feeds of your tags in an online application allows you sort search and view your data in ways that suit you but that may not be supported in the original application. If you use two or more applications for similar purposes then RSS feeds can allow you to "silo bust" and combine similar information that you are interested in from many different sources.

Ouch unfortunately thinking about this has led to an uncomfortable conclusion, although del.icio.us is tagging links, these links represent resources.
If you are writing an application and providing tagging for your users then perhaps you should ask "how do these tags add value over them just tagging the resources in a service like del.icio.us?"

Perhaps one option is to co-opt your tagging systems to add other functionality to your site. By using a series of reserved "system tags" you can added a fileing cabinet of items for later reading or items for sharing etc. etc. In the same way that much new functionality is built on top of del.icio.us, (the readeroo plugin for example). If you already have data that maps tags to users why not use this to define other behaviours?

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

When RSS feeds disappear (Chinesepod)

I am now completely reliant on RSS feeds to keep up with changing content from all over the Internet, they allow me to monitor changes and new posts on far more sites than would be possible if I just used my browser and web addresses. Also I can often read content without visiting the sites themselves. I prefer to monitor feeds online
using a combination of Netvibes and Google Reader.

Where the system really breaks down is when the RSS feeds vanish and a small part of your information update system fails to update. Unfortunately Chinesepod have done this to me twice now. RSS feeds either disappearing or being re-assigned to new urls, they even managed to destroy most of the feeds on their Netvibes universe so I just deleted the tab (a bit unfortunate after they went to the trouble to set it up).

For example, I like to read Ken Carroll's blog but the feed has shifted on me at least a couple of times now (if you include the move from Chinesepod to Praxis), at least now he has his own domain (ken-carroll.com) I should be safe :).

I guess I am saying that you should aim to keep your RSS as permanent as humanly possible, even if you change the url structure of your site then url-rewrites or re-directs should be employed to safegaurd your subscriber base.

It seems we all need to remember that your website is not your product data and content that you produce may be being used and consumed by people that never or hardly every visit your website. I was delighted to discover recently that one of the many online presences where I work is now almost exclusively accessed via RSS requests rather than the website itself.

Generally of course I feel that Chinesepod do a very good and innovative job, and the fact that I bother to re-find Ken's output is an indicator that along with people like Stephen Downes (who Ken also mentions) I am often interested in what he has to say, many other sources of information would just be lost.