Archive for December, 2010
I think I’m going to cut the UK Wired out of my diet. They recently got an award, and the mag is usually a handsome book, but it’s not good enough. Typically there’s a bit less than one genuinely interesting piece per issue, which is nowhere near enough to make the cover price worthwhile. The best stuff is reserved for the US edition – you know the names. And there’s far too much filler. A big part of the mag trade is making the inevitable filler part of the whole aesthetic; the best magazines are always good at this. The Face‘s nibs and odds-and-sods were almost a decent fanzine in themselves, as well as providing spacers between the real stuff and a support-scaffold for the ads. But UK Wired is riddled with advertorial – constant gadget porn, but nothing you could call a product review.
There’s a strong argument that there are plenty of publications that do gadget reviews. We used to say on MCI that “we are not a gadget mag”. Indeed. So chop it out, unless it really is advertorial rather than editorial that happens to be shit. And if it’s paid for, it’s polite to say so. Also, given the bulk and kind of ads they carry, they really have no right to be playing daft games with filler. In the latest issue, there are a total of two ads for anything I expect ever to be able to afford and both of them are for web hosting services.
It’s a pity, though, that having used one of those advertisers’ e-mail hosting and picked endless spam out of Fistful from the other’s compromised hosts, I wouldn’t use either of them in a fit. This is the tone of the whole thing – the design is fancy, but it’s not structural. It’s there to look at, not through, or better, with. The writing tends to be tech-y, not techy. The piece on synthetic biology in this month’s paper, for example, could have got into a national newspaper, it’s that lightweight. (On the other hand, the piece on re-designing Mecca’s infrastructure to keep pilgrims from getting killed was genuinely interesting, but crammed into a corner.) The photography is good, and the production is luscious, but here’s the problem: high gloss is ads, not content. The columnists are reliably disappointing: Warren Ellis doesn’t say anything you couldn’t get from his blog, and anyway, if you’re going to hire him, why not hire him to do what he does for real? Some people would buy it for Ellis cartoons alone. And there’s the guy whose career is based on having marketed MS Internet Explorer, a product you get forced on you when you buy a new PC, and that you have to get rid of by surgery before it explodes messily. That’s like marketing the appendix.
But it wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for David Rowan’s risible leader column. This month, he decided to cover, or at least mention, Dave from PR’s trip to Shoreditch to say how great Internet start-ups were. Unfortunately, all he could find to say was that the industry needed:
“tax incentives, networking events, and an ability to hire and fire more easily to attract people like Le Meur back”.
Well, the first adds up to “gimme subsidy”, the second is vacuous (and self-interested), and the third is pernicious. Most new businesses die within three years of launch and their employees go down with the ship, so by definition this can’t be all that important. But if you work for the contract cleaners, I suspect this is significantly more important to you. There’s another hiring constraint, though, that really is relevant here: immigration restrictions. We know much bigger companies have been complaining through the CBI about the new numerical cap on immigration. Strange, no mention of that, especially as it’s the current government’s own, direct, and specific fault. (And we could also be snarky about the fact Loic Le Meur’s business puts on a conference every year in Paris, that well-known paradise of hardcore libertarianism.)
If Rowan had wanted to cover the Cameron trip, though, there was a good story in there for a real journalist. Rumours included that staffers from No.10 had called up BT and suggested that they might want to put in free WLAN “from Old Street to the Olympic Park”, with no suggestion that there would be any funding for this. Another suggests that they asked if BT would consider moving their enormous R&D centre from Martlesham Heath to the East End, a hilariously enormous project and one that takes no account of the major operational infrastructure BT has at MHRC.
Less sarcastically, if you’re a community broadband project, you’re not allowed to offer service to any kind of business if you’re using BT passive infrastructure. And you’ve got to pay business rates on your network as soon as it’s built, while the incumbents can wait until it’s in service and earning money. There’s an OFCOM consultation on the small business telecoms market that’s been hanging fire for ages. Journalism!
I approve of this message. What was the BBC development hierarchy thinking? As Vowl says, it wasn’t even so much the content, awful though it was, but the quality. Airport documentaries: might have been funny, in 1998. Stelios hasn’t actually been in charge of EasyJet in years, and IIRC he doesn’t own it any more either. An Asian character who’s obsessed with hip-hop and constantly talks about “bitches”: well, Ali G was funny, in 1996, and he’s somebody else’s material anyway. Sacha Baron Cohen should sue but he probably doesn’t want to associate himself with this shite. Stealing jokes is one thing, but stealing ones that will soon be old enough to join the Army is pathetic.
Also, if you’re going to poke fun at crappy low-cost airlines’ grasping, self-publicising executives, surely Michael O’Leary’s endless grandstanding and bullshitting must be a seam of comedy gold…unless you’re Matt Lucas and David Williams, in which case you’re clearly too scared he might sue, so the other bucket shop is still Irish but has to look like Aer Lingus.
Something else: production values. Obviously something posing as a cheap docusoap has to look cheap, but once you spend a certain amount of effort pretending to be shit, the face grows to fit the mask. I didn’t actually see any sets falling over, but perhaps I wasn’t paying attention. Perhaps I don’t watch enough TV, but was this the worst slab of dreck broadcast in the last 10 years? Further, you, me, and everyone else is going to be rolling out to defend the BBC enough times in the next twelve months that we’ll all get even sicker of it than we did during the Hutton inquiry, and this isn’t going to help.
This paper in PLoS One is fascinating (if heavily blogged already). Basically, BT let some researchers from MIT, Cornell, UCL, and their own R&D division have an anonymised slice through their call-detail record (CDR) pile, the database from which phone bills are calculated. The scientists filtered out all the numbers that only made or accepted calls, in order to get rid of the call centres and spammers, and drew the rest as a massive directed multi-graph network. The conclusions are fascinating; in human terms, Wales isn’t a meaningful unit, and neither is England. Scotland, however, forms a well defined sub-graph.
Instead, Wales splits into three geographic tiers with very little interconnection. These regions don’t respect the border at all – not surprisingly, the northern tier is completely integrated with Liverpool and Manchester and the central tier with the West Midlands. South Wales is clearly identified, with a sharply defined border along the water between it and the West Country. There’s also a well-defined western border to Yorkshire, and interestingly also between the West and South Ridings but not between them and the North Riding. Essex is an extension of London, but Kent is distinct. So is Norfolk.
In fact, England isn’t really identifiable on the maps: surprisingly, the administrative units that fit best to the BT data are the EU regions much hated by ‘kippers. More broadly, if it’s got a recognisable accent, it’s a recognisable presence on the graph – although the big exception is Yorkshire. There’s even a territory for people with no recognisable accent, a sort of motorway crescent to the west of London which is described as a “tech corridor” – in fact, if you were to draw all the Formula One teams’ workshops on the map, they would essentially all fall within it, as would Vodafone, O2, Cable & Wireless, and 3UK’s headquarters, Aldermaston, Eidos, Surrey Satellite Tech, chunks of BAE and Thales, and Electronic Arts UK, so perhaps they have a point. In the end, though, this potentially interesting zone – Ballardia? – gets lumped in with the Cameroonian central-southwest.
This is one of the most interesting stories in the Wikileaks cable dump. The Saudis use the existence of the French national imagery satellite capability, and David Ignatius’s column in the Washington Post, to resist efforts by the Americans to stop them using US arms and satellite data provided for use on Al-Qa’ida for other goals of foreign policy, notably trying to encroach on Yemeni territory. Of course, the UK isn’t allowed to do that.
“Richard sent me photos of his private parts before I’d even met him,” says the redhead. “I thought this was very odd for a politician.”
Yahoo! might be going to shut down del.icio.us, the link-sharing and bookmarking website it bought back in 2005 or thereabouts. (They might sell it, too.) This is awful – it’s one of the most useful things on the Web and it’s a key link in the production chain for everything I’ve written in the last six years for this blog, Fistful of Euros, Stable & Principled, Telco 2.0, and God knows what else. As well as providing a bookmarks file you can use anywhere, it also provided a huge quick-reference handbook of stuff other people found useful. During 2004, not only did I start using it, but this blog started to provide a list of RSS items from my account and several other blogs in the sidebar.
Yahoo! never did much with del.icio.us – they managed to retire the original domain name and redirect it to delicious.com, just as link-shorteners became fashionable, they made the web site more ugly, and they tried to impose some sort of horrible terms of service amendment by asking users to sign in with Yahoo! user IDs. I had nothing against this, but when I saw the lengthy new ToS document, I didn’t bother reading it – it could only be evil, and therefore I refused. Bizarrely, they never even tried putting adverts on the home page, despite being the world leader in display-style Internet advertising, and neither did they ever try to get me or anyone else to subscribe, although they got me and hordes of others to pay for Flickr accounts.
You’ll note that this doesn’t include any new features or anything interesting at all. Also, they never did anything about spam accounts, so a lot of the social functionality became useless as “links for you” were always spam. However, they couldn’t kill a basically useful product. If they sell it, though, it might survive or it might die – look what happened with Technorati.
A common theme about Yahoo! is that although the company drifts strategically, and every now and then gives the Chinese secret police confidential data about dissidents, the engineers are pretty good. True – they released lots of cool and useful stuff. Pipes, YQL, Term Extractor, YUI hackdays. Similarly, the Firefox extension for del.icio.us is very good indeed. It provides a full-text search over your tags, something the web site itself doesn’t, and it can provide offline access to your bookmarks if you need that.
So here’s a tip. The FF extension lets you work with your bookmarks offline and without signing in – so it must store them on your local machine. In fact, it uses quite a lot of Firefox’s bookmarking functionality. And when you sign out, it asks if you want to keep your bookmarks in Firefox. You can add more bookmarks before you sign in again. Therefore, there’s a way to slurp your data out of Yahoo! before it all gets deleted. Obviously they’ll stop maintaining the plugin at some point. But once your data is stored as browser bookmarks, it can’t be too far from being exported to an OPML file, at which point it could be imported anywhere else. Is dis.gustin.ng available?
This would do as a HOWTO start a war.
The document, drawn up by John Williams, press adviser to the then foreign secretary, Jack Straw, spells out ways to soften up the media, including “critics like the Guardian”. Under the heading Not taking the UN route, Williams wrote: “Our argument should be narrow, and put with vigour – Iraq is uniquely dangerous.”
In his memo, he said drafts of the dossier at the time had no “killer fact” which “proves” that “Saddam must be taken on now, or this or that weapon will be used against us.” When Blair was launching the dossier three weeks later, he told parliament that intelligence had “established beyond doubt” that Iraq had WMDs.
Williams wrote: “Our target is not the argumentative interviewer or opinionated columnist, but the kind of people to whom ministerial interviews are a background hum on the car or kitchen radio. We must think Radio 5. Although the big Radio 4 programmes have to be done, we must not let them set themselves up as judge and jury.”
Repeat, repeat, repeat. Here’s Grant Shapps applying the same technique:
“We are still saying someone could have rent of £21,000-a-year paid by the taxpayer. How many could afford to pay that?”
Give him some credit – he even let on what he was doing.
Oh yes, so the IBM ManyEyes people fixed their computer.
I’ve got much more data now – I still need to do the four (key) departments that release in PDF format, and flush the existing stuff to replace the records with ones with standardised dates, but that should give you an idea. Hit the button in the visualisation with a network on it to redraw the force-directed graph.