People of the UK! Let’s Show we Care about Government Openness

[ UPDATE 16/02/09: I’ve had a letter from my MP, Kevin Brennan, in reply to my email. It’s dated 12th February 2009 and reads “Thank you for contacting me regarding Freedom of Information and MPs expenses. I believe it is essential that elected representatives should have the support necessary to perform their functions, including the requirement to represent their constituency at Westminster in parliament. In addition I believe that the public are entitled to see how any expenses paid for from the public purse are spent, and following the debate which took place in the Commons there will be full publication in the near future.]

[ UPDATE: Gordon Brown has now backed down and withdrawn this proposal. Although I’ve had no reply as yet from my MP (Labour party), it’s still rather excellent news. ]

Whatever your political persuasion, if you live in the UK and value government openness then this may trouble you.

Ministers are about to conceal MPs’ expenses, even though the public has just paid £1m to get them all ready for publication, and even though the tax man expects citizens to do what MPs don’t have to. They buried the news on the day of the Heathrow runway announcement. This is heading in the diametric wrong direction from government openness.

The above quote is taken from mySociety where you can find more info on how to complain. You have until Thursday 22nd January 2009 to do this.

If you’re on Facebook, there’s a group to spread the word.

I’ve written to my MP. If he responds, I’ll post it here.

I am also writing at Native blog

Quick intro to my working situation.

Native is a business that helps you with online media, based in Cardiff, Wales. It’s a two-headed partnership, of which the heads are me and Tom Beardshaw.

At the moment we are meeting loads of people for coffee: old friends, new friends, clients, potential clients, people who create stuff, suppliers, “competitors”…

Never did I drink so much coffee as these past few weeks.

During our chats it has emerged that we’d like to have somewhere to round up interesting articles – for our clients, people we’re training and people who’d like to find out what we’re thinking. These are often curious yet busy people who want inspiration but don’t have time to subscribe to an imperial tonne of blogs.

So as well as the personal blog you’re currently reading, I am also writing regular posts at the Native blog.

I’m covering online media and how it affects business, particularly creative business and business based in Wales.

It has a different tone to Quixotic Quisling. The Native blog has fewer ramblings and more news. It is more frequent and more linky. Actually often it will be a set of recommended links with assorted commentary, open-ended questioning and provocation. I’m following Jeff Jarvis’ guideline – cover what you do best and link to the rest.

We’ll also be posting info on Native web projects. Tom and I are retaining our autonomy as freelancers but have set up Native for bigger projects where we complement each other.

Recently we have been working out what we do and don’t do. “Cover what you do best and link to the rest” may apply to more than just URLs.

Penrose’s Patent and the Battle of the Tissue Tiles (Contains Mathematics)

Penrose bar 2

This drama has got it all – art, law, maths, a genius professor/knight, a multi-national company, a courtroom…

I was reading about Roger Penrose and I realised that today is the 30th anniversary of his success in applying for a patent on Penrose tiling. So this isn’t exactly news, but the anniversary is my excuse to post up some cool links.

Penrose tiling was discovered in 1974. You can pick up the idea behind it pretty quickly.

We’re familiar with bathroom tiles and similar types of designs that have translational symmetry. In other words, they repeat after a while. Penrose tilings don’t repeat. They are non-periodic. But they also have five-fold rotational-symmetry.

This combination of properties had never been seen before. People assumed it was impossible until Penrose came along and drew one. Awesome scenes, no?

If you want to investigate this for yourself, you can start with some pretty pictures and then delve into the actual maths.

Penrose successfully got the patent through on 9th January 1979. And that’s where it gets contentious as there are people who would take issue with this. It was undeniably an innovative step and in this instance a patent can incentivise further discovery and get some pay-off for a mathematicians’s hard work. But is it right to award patents to mathematicians who discover stuff that’s lying around in the Universe? I’m not at all sure it is right, but that’s what happened. Happy birthday patent!

Much later on, in 1997, Mrs Penrose came home with some Kleenex toilet roll from the supermarket. Her husband, the prof, was shocked to discover that the pattern on the roll of tissue was based on his tiling. There’s a good summary of the beginning of the story here. It couldn’t have been an exact copy because the original is non-repeating. Apparently the design prevents bunching of the roll because it’s non-periodic. Penrose sued the company and later won.

I think I’m right in saying the patent will have expired by now, if you want to make anything with the design.

I first heard this story in a mathematics lecture in 2002, my final year at Cardiff University. It was during a module called Non-Commutative Geometry. I won’t try and pretend otherwise – in truth that module was an absolute beast, every bit as difficult as it sounds.

I’m not totally sure why I find myself continually revisiting school and university in this blog. Maybe I have unfinished mental tidying to do.

Anyway, my lecturer at the time showed us Penrose tiling and related the Kleenex story. In a flourish (and this was a flourish by maths undergrad standards, yours may differ), he ended the story by saying “Of course, the company had to withdraw the item from the shelves… BUT NOT before I had a chance to snap up THIS!”. At which point he reached under the desk and produced a bog roll. “And what is more, the top 3 scorers in the exam will each get a free sheet – with my compliments”.

This was, comparatively, one of my highlights of that year.

I was actually mildly disappointed not to win a sheet. If I ever manage to catch one on eBay it’s going to feel like cheating.

My New Year’s Resolution – White Inbox Every Night

I’m setting myself a few New Year’s Resolutions for 2009.

They’ll also be New Years’ Resolutions. Note the apostrophe placement because some of these things are just too good for only one year.

One of them relates to email.

Email is a blessing and a curse for me. Recently – OK, for the last few years actually – I’ve been trying to reform my approach to it in order to get more and better stuff done in a working day.

Some of this includes

  • Not “living” in email (because it takes me away from project domain into message domain)
  • Processing it all in one big batch, two or three times a day where possible
  • Then while I am looking at it, deleting junk and spam on sight
  • Ditching fiddly folders and just using one archive folder because search is all you need
  • Transferring stuff to a paper to-do list or some more appropriate medium
  • Phoning people instead

Additionally

  • I use Thunderbird so to speed things up I’ve got Quicktext (for quick fire templates of readymade “cheat” replies) and Buttons so I can have a lovely massive “Archive this!” button (like the one in Gmail).

So aptly enough, I just spotted this tweet on Twitter from @billt and @suw linking to a new pledge on Pledgebank (built by mySociety who are doing several rather neat things with the web).

I had no problem with the spirit of the pledge. Email was designed for sending and receiving messages. It is not a to-do list – it wasn’t designed for that.

Now and again though there could be a day when I’d need the freedom NOT to check email, so I was initially reluctant to sign.

Then I realised, with some prompting, that this was about inbox rather than pop box. The distinction is important. In other words, if I don’t want to look at email for one day (which is possible and desirable once in a while!), then I can keep to the pledge by not downloading any email at all.

Here we go.

Between you and me I’ll be keeping the pledge whether or not they hit the target number of signatures. But if you fancy joining me – or rather, us, because in this wired world you might as well take full advantage of sincere encouragement on offer from absolute strangers – then you can sign up.

I’ll probably be spending less time on email now, somewhat freeing me to make curries and also visit new places. Incidentally, both of these plans form the essence of a couple of other resolutions.

The Pledgebank system just sent me an email – to confirm my signature on the pledge. Which is a rather apt but not entirely helpful start…

Thoughts on Attempting a “Review of the Year”

The Joy Collective is a rather splendid blog about music.

It tends to focus on Cardiff, Newport and Bristol, which makes a lot of sense because all three are close enough to share their gig-going crowds. Plus, truly, they are among the UK’s best cities for gigs.

Recently Will at The Joy Collective sent me some questions about my experiences of 2008. So I dashed off some answers, knowing they could never be comprehensive or definitive.

Some thoughts:

  • It’s fun to take stock of cultural things. Counting off years is a great opportunity to do that.
  • Old stuff can be good too. In fact there is much more good old stuff – because there’s more. Compare past millennia of culture to 2008, which is only one year. Of course, the old also has much more rubbish too.
  • Time CAN be a filter of quality because utter rubbish does get forgotten.
  • Old books, old films, old music can be worth the effort. While a lot of it is rubbish or irrelevant, history is rich with things waiting to be rediscovered.
  • We often don’t try to discover the old. What proportion of the books on your shelf were written pre-1900? What about, say, black and white films? (What about your computer games? I don’t play much these days but are they an exception – disposable culture?)
  • Assumptions (often false): new is “better”, new is a “progression”. Even in our digital age, these assumptions lead to a market scarcity of old stuff, or a scarcity in popular archives like libraries or databases. This deprives us of the opportunity to check the old stuff out and thus we have a vicious circle. (Examples: even iTunes doesn’t have many recordings from 78rpm era. And you can’t watch, say, Casablanca at the cinema – usually.)
  • Newness governs demand and therefore the charts, even niche charts. (Jeff Buckley’s version of Hallelujah is definitive and better than Leonard Cohen’s original. (Discuss!) But more people bought Alexandra Burke’s new version.)
  • Over time, the significance of a particular album (or film/piece/work) can go down as well as up.
  • Annoyingly, we now have to pay huge amounts of money for originals of great things which were ignored or neglected at the time of release. This observation was annoying for the creators at the time, as they struggled to get sales. Any artform has examples of this. (Examples: Vincent Van Gogh paintings, Sun Ra or Main Source albums)
  • The cultural impact (or any other consequences) of things in a particular year will become clearer in time.
  • Just to prove a point, maybe I should post a review of the year 1988 at a totally arbitary time. Or the year 88AD. Either review could only ever be subjective and incomplete.

So there you go. Feel free to comment. You can also read other people’s 2008 reviews on The Joy Collective.

Sock And Awe Google Analytics (Just A Flash In The Pan?)

sock and awe

After the Bush/Shoe incident, anyone who’d spent even a few moments in eccentric corners of web knew there would be a creative response online. And it came. Wired has a summary of the shoe-inspired games and animations.

So Sock And Awe wasn’t the only Flash game based on the Bush/Shoe event. But it was the best.

Now Alex Tew, its creator, has sold the site as a property on eBay for £5,215. Whichever way you look at it, that’s a good rate for a few hours of work – not to mention the email subscribers he gathered, which were not part of the sale.

Rory Cellan-Jones at BBC News has the details of this high speed micro-start-up.

As Cellan-Jones notes, the site is based on a current affairs event and will now rapidly decline in value. It’s up to the new owners to extract value from it.

But this doesn’t detract from the cheek and verve of Tew and his colleagues. Everything from the choice of name to the design to the speed of launch and then the one-day auction was executed with skill. See also: his Million Dollar Homepage. If you’re curious about his next move in the world of the web, check out Tew’s forthcoming start-up PopJam.

While the Sock And Awe site was being auctioned, I contacted Tew and asked to see the full visitor stats, via Google Analytics. The visitor counts and top countries were already generally known, but I wanted to see precisely what was happening.

Now that the sale has closed and people are chatting about it, the full analytics make interesting reading so I thought I’d post them up here – with first some graphical highlights then the unexpurgated PDF dumps. (“After the jump”, if you will.)

It’s a good case study in site design and branding.


Sock And Awe – Visitors Overview
The bounce rate is high, which for the average site would normally be very bad. (In other words, most people are just looking at the homepage then leaving.) But Shock And Awe is mainly about the homepage, so it’s an exception to most sites.


Sock And Awe – Top 20 Referring Sites (Detail)
Most visits are getting there by typing into the address bar. Far fewer are clicking to come from other sites. This shows the value of having a good web address that’s memorable and easy to spell. Notice I said “visits” rather than “visitors” (uniques). As you can see from the New vs. Returning PDF, 13% of them are repeat visitors, presumably returning to play again.


Sock And Awe – Map of Visitors
An unusual sign of accord between USA and France, who occupy the top two spots. Google Analytics also records “not set” for country unknown but this is much further down the chart at position 42. Middle Eastern countries can’t get enough of the Bush bashing, as you can see from the full countries PDF

All of the analytics in my blog post here were taken at around 6:15AM GMT on Thursday 18th December. As you can see, the graphs and figures plummet on the 18th because they’re not showing a full day’s stats. It may be better to disregard that day’s totals and regard all analytics as a snapshot showing qualitative insights.

Grab the ZIP file of all sockandawe.com analytics. Or view individual pages below.

Dashboard
This is the overview data.
Dashboard

Visitors
Check out Time on Site for All Visitors – the earlier visitors have much longer attention spans!
Visitors Overview
Map Overlay
New vs. Returning
Languages
Visits
Page Views
Absolute Unique Visitors
Bounce Rate
Time on Site for All Visitors

Traffic Sources
As I mentioned before, the direct traffic is by far the largest. With no time to mount an SEO campaign, Sock And Awe still captures some keyword search traffic, again thanks to the memorable name. (Google and other engines recognise matches with the domain name.) It also captures a few who mistakenly type the URL into their search bar instead of their address bar. (Incidentally, you may be wondering why my own personal blog is called, of all things, Quixotic Quisling. Well, I like to play the long game.)
Traffic Sources Overview
All Traffic Sources
Direct Traffic
Referring Sites
Search Engines
Search Keywords

Content
Content analytics are perhaps the least interesting because this site has very few pages. Although Top Content does give a hint how many people attempted to sign up for the newsletter – at least 30,000 it would appear. (After signing up, they arrived at sockandawe.com/email for a confirmation message. This folder has now been removed.) I say “attempted to sign up” because my own experience is that many people try search queries in these boxes, even despite clear labelling. Tens of thousands is still a good order of magnitude, even if half are bad. Many of the web addresses listed in Content account for framed visits (one recognisable example is somebody using Babelfish, in vain, to attempt to get a translation).
Content Report
Top Content
Top Landing Pages
Top Exit Pages
Average Pageviews

Quick word on Development Costs
According to reports, the game took a night to build. The game engine is very simple – if you think about it, it just compares the X-position of the mouse cursor (which is invisible) with the random X-position of Bush’s head graphic. If the distance is within a pre-set striking tolerance, then the whack graphic is shown. I would say the most time consuming part of the Flash game development was designing the graphics and animation.

Similarly, the bandwidth costs would be low. If you run the site through an analyser, it’s currently around 200kb of data. The site has been slightly modified to remove the subscription option and add advertising, but these are not big changes.

Discussion
Can you glean any more significant insights from these stats? You can comment or send me a message on Twitter.

Wordwhale – Fun With Anagrams Via Twitter

wordwhale

Meet the Wordwhale.

If you like solving anagrams, the Wordwhale is now pos(t)ing one daily.

Follow @wordwhale to join the lexical fun.

(You don’t need to be signed up to Twitter to try solving it. You can still view the webpage twitter.com/wordwhale to monitor what’s going on and try solving it. But if you’d like to enter and have a chance of being recognised as first to solve the anagram, you need to be signed up.)

A Pyramid of All the World’s Knowledge

One video which I really enjoyed this year was this 20-minute talk about endangered languages.

I wasn’t particularly following this subject in any great depth before. Let’s just say raw curiosity can take one to some unexpected places.

You can open it in a new window here.

Dr. David Harrison says:

There are 7,000 languages spoken in the world and this represents the greatest repository of human knowledge ever assembled.

But they are rapidly going extinct and eroding under various pressures of globalization, which I will talk about today.

And this loss will be catastrophic for humanity, both in terms of science and technology and culture.

And not just to the people who speak these languages, but to all of us.

Harrison gives examples of the riches which are bound up in just a few of these admittedly obscure languages, including knowledge from medicine, geology and biology.

The most striking thing for me is when he refers to the Yupik language of Alaska as a “technology”. This might be obvious to some, but to me it was an intriguing perspective.

It may be possible to invoke arguments for preservation of these languages on the basis of feelings about old village life and its unfortunate decline. Those kind of arguments may have validity, but Harrison’s emphasis in this talk is on the value of languages to science, technology and the world’s knowledge.

It’s also a heavy blow to the assumption that we have access to all, or nearly all, of the world’s knowledge through the web and through our dominant majority languages. We don’t. Apparently, according to his closing words, it’s possible for these minority language technologies to co-exist with English and so on – although he left me wanting more details.

Harrison depicts the globe’s very uneven language distribution on an inverted pyramid, where the pyramid represents all languages:

83 of the world’s languages account for nearly 80% of the world’s population and I would draw your attention to the base of the inverted pyramid. 3,586 of the world’s smallest languages are spoken by just 0.2% of the world’s population.

It brought me back to this speech from Kevin Kelly, the thinker and founder of Wired magazine, in which he suggests that technologies don’t die. Surprisingly, technologies that we might think are obsolete (parts for steam-powered vehicles, ploughs, stone age knives and so on) can all still be bought from specialist shops – new!

For what it’s worth I usually love Kevin Kelly. Recently I’ve spent several evenings exploring his ideas, to then feel them rattling around my brain for days afterwards. I’m still trying to work out if his towering optimism about technology is a weakness.

Language would appear to be one big exception to Kelly’s assertion that culture tends to accumulate. Retrieving the total benefit from the world’s languages, as opposed to other technologies, will take a huge amount of effort.

If only we could get these guys in the same room for an intellectual deathmatch. Let me know if it ever happens, because hearing them slug it out on matters of technology would be sweet. In the meantime, once I’ve grokked Harrison’s whole entire web presence, I shall be tracking down his book, When Languages Die.

That 20-minute video is well worth a watch and back there I had to restrain myself from quoting the transcript in full. On a tenuously festive tip, the bit about the Tofa language of Siberia might teach you something about the classification of reindeer.

What’s the point of Twitter?

twitter google trends 2008
Google searches for “Twitter” over time, source: Google Trends

This graph shows the huge increase in searches for the word “Twitter” on Google. It could be said to roughly correspond to the service’s popularity and importance.

Or maybe, for some of the non-adopters, it signals their rising levels of scepticism and annoyance in constantly hearing about it.

After some heavy field testing, I have discovered that Twitter is not exclusively for smug fools. Actually I have even stopped coyly referring to an update as a “Twitter post” and just started saying “tweet” like everyone else. Indeed.

Yes you ARE justified in feeling a little online service sign-up fatigue, but this is not another Facebook. The tweet hype will increase well into 2009, so you may as well try it. At least to avoid that kind of feeling of being the only person not on pills at a student disco.

Here’s a decent Twitter tutorial and here’s a persuasive intro to Twitter by Tim O’Reilly, the tech publishing overlord.

Such a medium gives tiny glimpses into the everyday. So if you were ever to meet Tim O’Reilly you could ask him about, say, his horses. That kind of question is officially not weird anymore – should it be that you find yourself stuck for an opener, meekly cowering beneath his guru beard.

The existence of a communication platform based on 140-character messages shouldn’t be shocking. Text messages have been widespread for about a decade. Yet, even among tech people, some of the admittedly valid criticism of Twitter points to this issue of brevity.

Other than being the soul of wit and all that, this is a definite limitation. But every medium has features which can manifest as weaknesses.

Nobody’s suggesting this should be the optimum or dominant form of communication between you and me. It can just augment and support what already exists and fill a niche of its own, just as conventional text messaging has done. Besides, a big part of the appeal are web links which telescope off into bigger “messages”.

As you read people’s tweets over time, you build up impressions. Twitter is months of agonising smalltalk, crushed down to the basic eigenvectors.

So I am intrigued by the pure economy of Twitter communication. It reminded me of other things – its precursors, especially other technologies.

My dad isn’t on Twitter, but when we’re apart he and I often communicate by SMS. The text message he frequently sends me is:

ok

That’s it – low fat communication with no caps, no punctuation, no salutation, no sign-off. A mere two letters and with that the most commonly recognised word in the English language.

My brother gets them too and it’s become a small point of reference in conversation between the two of us. It’s one of those trivial but cherished things that families have in common.

The fact is, because of the context and who it is, these replies from my dad always mean a lot to me. The “ok” signifies several things… I am here / I agree / No problem. It’s usually in reply to a plan or proposal from me, for example an initial text to the parents saying “hi, see you sunday, will pop round” so it’s about optimism and expectation too.

It also reminds me of the ultimate succinct exchange, when the author Victor Hugo was relaxing on holiday and used the high speed technology of the day, a telegram, to send his London publisher a single question mark. Keen to get news concerning sales of his new book Les Miserables, he received an equally terse reply. The first print run had entirely sold out and the publisher’s telegram was a single exclamation mark.

We can speculate why this took place. My theory is that the author was just too exhausted to embellish the message after the long process of getting the book finished.

Did the book REALLY sell out on the first run? Or is that fact included just to spruce up the anecdote (which I first read as a boy in Reader’s Digest)? How would Victor have reacted to the West End’s frilly-costumed musical adaptation?

We need not concern ourselves with these uncertainties. What we do know is, the messages are only rendered meaningful by the “metadata” of CONTEXT, with just enough content to work. See also: the Laconians, who stripped away all the redundancy to deliver pointed, concise, laconic comebacks.

Perhaps tellingly, the second biggest adopters of Twitter have been the Japanese, where wired openness about daily life gives rise to thousands of digital haikus per second.

We should also note that English and Japanese are currently the only interface language options on the Twitter website, although client software in different languages is available. I’ll reserve that line of enquiry for a future post.

The upshot of these examples is: we’ve long known that you can squeeze a lot of feeling or intent into a message with tiny informational content, from a round of applause to a marine distress signal. So the brevity is fine.

But what about Twitter as an echo chamber of self-referential tweets and inane signalling about Twitter itself? “Hello world.”, “I’m tweeting.”, “Which client do you favour?”, “test123” and so on? Well, the channel is open, and I think this is all possibly fine too.

Socially, amateur radio was always a marginal hobby and I guess it still exists in some corners. My awareness is largely informed by the Tony Hancock sitcom episode, The Radio Ham (although I believe enthusiasts hate this term). In reality, I’m told that much of the chatter on the airwaves was to exchange callsigns, establish contact and discuss – wait for it – the newest equipment for doing amateur radio.

Young boy riding by at high speed on a bicycle shouting repeatedly, ‘I am here.’ Perhaps the central and single message of humanity.

A Year with Swollen Appendices
Brian Eno
24 February 1995 (Diary entry in Egypt)

The last time I did a precise measurement of a message’s informational mass, I was studying a module on coding theory. We learnt how to introduce redundancy deliberately, to assist error-checking when sending data signals. It was useful but a bit on the dry side. I much prefer the riffing from people-to-people – and the joy of a communication which even, at times, celebrates itself.