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Charles on… anything that comes along

Sunday 30 December 2007

Filed under: — Charles @ 12:27 am

Guardian Tech Weekly podcast: the second one

If you’re gagging for the Guardian Tech Weekly podcast, the second one (MP3, about 20 minutes) is now up - the same crew as previously: Aleks Krotoski hosting, and myself, Bobbie Johnson and Jemima Kiss throwing in our tuppence.

In it we look at the year ahead: the HD wars, green energy and energy generally, the move to smaller devices, the killer game for the Wii and more. Enjoy!

Friday 28 December 2007

Filed under: — Charles @ 12:02 am

That festive TV reviewed in full

Doctor Who - terrific, though hasn’t Russell T Grant heard of Douglas Adams? Starship Titanic was a wonderful game - one of the very few I’ve bothered to play all the way to both of its alternative ends. We liked it. Kylie looked like the botox had worn off somewhere back at Alpha Centauri.

Extras - incredibly brave of Ricky Gervais to make his character first so horrible, and then to get rid of him. (He has got rid of him, right? Not coming back for another Christmas special.) And used Doctor Who and all that bunch in it as well to, apparently, show his disdain. Except you can never take anything in Extras at anything like face value.

Coronation Street - (yes, we watch it, OK?) Kevin the mechanic beats up wotsisname who is found out to be two-timing Fizz. Um, that’s your Christmas big show? Colour me unimpressed. Still wonderfully watchable, but that was like any week.

To The Manor Born - the 1970s were better in the 1970s, I think. The laugh track, or the audience, should have been removed. Like they do in the Office and Extras and Lead Balloon and pretty much any modern sitcom. Laugh tracks and studio audiences have become outmoded; we know they’re artificial (though we tolerate them in game shows - I guess you need them because they’re live and spontaneous and they’re really there). Peter Bowles has aged really well..

Catherine Tate show - another killing off. Mostly good, though fewer characters than before. Odd, that.

Hmm, seems to be a lot of BBC there.

Friday 21 December 2007

Filed under: — Charles @ 4:56 pm

What I’ve written lately: podcasting, the annual quiz, 2007 reviewed (sorta) and Google vs Wikipedia

I’ve been busy again in the Technology supplement. (And this is a day late because I’ve been writing a script to automate doing this process, which works!)

First up: Listen here: Technology Guardian launches podcast
The word first appeared in these pages - and now Guardian Technology has its own podcast too: Tech Weekly.

What I find interesting is to listen to our work (iTunes feed!) and then compare it to what’s coming out of other places - such as the New York Times. Listen to ours (mp3 link) and then to theirs (link - you can play it inline there) and come on, you have to agree that Aleks Krotoski is a much better presenter, and that we sound like we’re having more fun, and hope you are too.

Opinions welcome, of course.

I also wrote the Quiz for 2007 - first question:

1) How much did Steve Jobs’s wrongly dated stock options cost?
(a) $137.25m (b) $84m (c) $0

.. and 26 more (though it’s better in print - the answers are upside-down and in smaller type, which makes cheating harder..).

I reviewed 2007 as though it were a gadget in Technophile: Version, 2.007, is about to expire: it wasn’t a bad stab, offering some neat new gadgets and graphics…

and then looked at the arising question, of Why does Google want to compete with Wikipedia?
Google intends to let people write a ‘knol’ (newly defined as ‘a unit of knowledge’), even on the same subject as others, and in effect take part in a Darwinian struggle to see theirs made most popular.

I think that the Googlepedia will just let Wikipedia write even better articles, with attribution; if you have an open source system (in Google) it can’t be better than another one, and Wikipedia has the advantage of being written by anyone.

Tuesday 18 December 2007

Filed under: — Charles @ 6:08 pm

Podcast-tastic! Get yer Guardian Technology podcast.. over there

It’s been about two years since I started at the Guardian, and now we’ve finally got our act together sufficiently to do a podcast. (Really we needed enough studio space and time - you’d be surprised how many people are clamouring to use it. News, sport, books, science…)

But now at last the first Tech Weekly podcast is here, and there’s even a Facebook group where you can discuss it. Or diss it.

In this first one, we’re looking back at 2007 - at the iPhone, datagate, Vista and Leopard, games launches, the Wii, Facebook and social networking. I’m not the host - that’s done by Aleks Krotoski, who has just the right sorta voice for this - but I am one of the panel, along with Bobbie Johnson and Jemima Kiss.

There’ll be more about this time every week for the future (even next week). One point for PR people to note - we’ll be looking for guests to come into the studio, or to submit to our pointy microphones and pointed, probing questions. So brush up on your mike technique and make sure that your people know the difference between a sting and a bed. In radio, lingo is all.

And the nice thing is that we don’t have to do it to any fixed time. Perhaps we’ll gradduate to working in the pips and saying “OureditorstodaywereAandBandcomingnextafterthenewsisAndrewMarronStartTheWeekgoodmorning!” Pip.. pip..

Monday 17 December 2007

Filed under: — Charles @ 1:53 pm

Why Northern Rock hit the rocks but no other UK lender did

I was talking to a neighbour at a Christmas party about finance and business and forex and that sort of thing, because that’s his line of work, and he told me something that I’ve not seen mentioned anywhere else.

It goes like this. Northern Rock was funded by lending money on long-term mortgages, and then borrowing short-term money (to make up the difference, because otherwise it would be running at too low a liquidity ratio) at a lower rate from banks. As long as it could keep borrowing from other banks at that lower rate, its business model was fine - booming, even.

But when the credit crunch began, because banks suddenly started worrying about all the CDOs and SIVs and their *real* values (if they have such a thing), it suddenly became very difficult - no, impossible - for Northern Rock to borrow money from those other UK banks. Which meant that suddenly it had a serious cashflow problem: all those short-term borrowings had to be paid back, but it had nobody else to borrow it from again (at all, not even on a short-term unfavourable rate), and not enough in its deposits to cover the payback and keep within its liquidity requirements as a bank.

Uh-oh. “Hello, is that the Bank of England? We have a little.. situation.”

Now, why was it only Northern Rock that had this problem? Why not any other UK clearing bank, since they’ve all been lending and borrowing like billy-o?

One other thing you have to add to the scenario: the European Central Bank made a huge amount of credit available in September, while the Bank of England didn’t, citing the risk of “moral hazard”. Two days later, though, it was lending to Northern Rock.

So why didn’t Northern Rock get its line of credit earlier from the ECB - which that GATA link above says was being used hugely? As in…

EU sources say Britain’s banks have been clamouring for money in Frankfurt, accounting for a substantial chunk of the €190 billion (£132 billion) lent last week in the ECB’s variable tender operation. “It is fair to say they have been borrowing from the ECB on a very large scale. It’s cheap, so why not?” said one official.

The UK banks were also major subscribers at the €50 billion issue of three-month loans on September 27 at 4.63 percent, and the earlier tender of €75 billion on September 13.

Because Northern Rock isn’t a European clearing bank. It’s only cleared for clearing (if you follow) in the UK. It couldn’t get those cheap funds from the ECB.

Quite possibly if Adam Applegarth and mates had been able to see the benefits of getting European clearing benefits and signed up there, this whole story would have been entirely different: no run on the bank, no Richard Branson trying to get his hands on it (despite Virgin not having any banking licence at all), no political embarrassment, lots of sooothing words about how the UK banking sector is insulated from the US sub-prime market. None of it true, but banking doesn’t rely on truth - it relies on trust, which is an entirely different thing.

Filed under: — Charles @ 12:00 am

How digital cameras made the stalkerazzi feasible - and what that tells us about print journalism’s future

Good piece by Decca Aitkenhead about the life of the paparazzi in Guardian Weekend, notable for a few particular paragraphs:

Three big changes have transformed the world of the paparazzi in the past 10 years. The first, and most radical, was digitalisation. Today you need camera kit worth little more than 500, and no photographic training, to have a crack at working as a pap - which is why their average age has plummeted. It also explains why their numbers have soared. But the second change came after a 2004 BBC documentary series, Paparazzi, which followed the biggest agency in Britain, Big Pictures. “It made it look easy,” one paparazzo complains indignantly. “We had a secret recipe, and they blew it. They told everyone the ingredients. It was so stupid. The makers of Coca-Cola don’t tell you what they put in Coke, do they?”

So digital is driving down prices of getting into the market. But…

A full-page picture of Kate, Keira, Kylie or Sienna - the most reliably bankable big four - sells to a celebrity magazine such as Heat for only 200, while a set of pictures of, say, Liz Hurley shopping, which could once have fetched 6,000 from a tabloid, sells for only 800.

So digital is also increasing the supply - which is forcing prices down. In consequence…

Mark Frith, editor of Heat, recalls how, back in the 90s, the daily delivery of paparazzi pictures to Smash Hits, where he then worked, would arrive in a single A4 envelope. Today he receives between 10,000 and 20,000 electronic images every day.

And then there’s the final piece of the puzzle:

Frith dates another major change to an issue of Now magazine in spring 2003. “It carried pictures of three celebs not looking that great. And the cover line was something like ‘ROUGH!’ I remember that issue coming into the Heat office and thinking, they have finally flipped. The first rule of magazines is you never put anyone on the cover looking awful. A week later the circulation figures came in. They’d sold something like 700,000 copies, one of their highest figures ever. And it changed everything. It changed every rule.”

So here’s what digitisation has done to professional photography: driven down the cost of entry; driven down the value you get from the product you produce; increased the number of potential outlets; and created an entirely new field, in this case of “celebrity abuse”, of essentially looking behind the curtain at what’s seen.

Now we get the same process happening with words: the price of entry is really, really low. There’s more product, though the quality.. well, it’s variable: the really good stuff is fantastic, and there’s a lot of simply good stuff. But the range is enormous. Has the median gone up or down? I’d leave others to judge.

There are more outlets. And there’s a huge amount of “looking behind how it’s done” by blogs - not really adding anything that you could call “journalism” (in the sense of finding out something that’s new), but it serves an interest of trying to “analyse” - a sort of journopapping.

What we’re seeing with celebrity photographers is surely going to find its echo with journalism. I wonder what strange niche we’re going to find flowering in the way that “rough-looking celebs” has for the photographers? Is it already here? And what is it?

Friday 14 December 2007

Filed under: — Charles @ 9:36 am

On the Guardian site today: breakout, the real web game

Today online, I’ve written about breakout - the real web game: as in, can you get from A to B online without using search engines? It tells you a lot about how much more interconnected the web has become.

The other day I found myself in a sports centre with a lot of time to kill while I waited for someone. There in the foyer was an internet kiosk. Great, I thought, waste some time on the net! It was just a browser with a keyboard. OK, no problem. But the browser was locked down: you could only view the pages it had loaded, or pages linking from them. You couldn’t enter a URL. At that moment the browser was showing the fantastic benefits of recent investment in the sports centre. Borrrrring!

Most importantly, you couldn’t use the search box in any page (which otherwise might have thrown up a Google result, or outbound link).

Huh. Unless I could find a way to break out of the kiosk’s limited pages onto the wider internet, it looked like I’d have to find some other way to pass the time.

The challenge:

Now, how could I get from there to the Guardian to see what was going on at the Technology blog? (Go ahead, try. Remember, you’re not allowed to use any search boxes or search engines such as Google. And because you’re pretending to be using a public kiosk, you don’t trust it with your username or password for any sites; you can only get to pages that any passing person would.)

…..which leads us back to ..

Years ago, the paradigm was all about trapping people on your site. There were in essence two species of site: “portals” (which tried to get people to go there by linking out to everywhere else, the ur-portal of course being Yahoo!) and “destinations”, which tried to be an internet black hole, offering no way out and aiming to keep you there until you clicked on an ad in sheer frustration.

Thursday 13 December 2007

Filed under: — Charles @ 10:25 am

In the Guardian: Why Leopard doesn’t make me purr, and others

I’ll probably get a zillion letters telling me it’s my own fault, but in today’s Guardian I’ve noted how many people are considering downgrading to Tiger after having installed Leopard. I’m among them (though a wipe-and-clean install is also under consideration, and is what I would do first):

Britney Spears on her own forms a useful control group for internet searches. Let me explain: if you’re using a search engine to try to find out how many times some phrase is mentioned - let’s say it’s “downgrading to Tiger” or “downgrade to Tiger” - then to cross-check your numbers, see how many times the phrase “downgrading to Britney Spears” appears. That’s because it’ll tell you the baseline of chance hits for that phrase. (It’s zero.)

Why was I looking up “downgrading to Tiger”? Because I’m considering it. And it’s clear from the search that plenty of other people, having upgraded to Apple’s latest version of OS X, codenamed Leopard, are doing the same.

The trouble out there was summed up best by a note from the ur-blogger Dave Winer: he moved back to the Mac a year or two ago and lapped up Leopard. But he says he’s not enjoying it. He mentioned this to a friend, who replied dismally: “It’s like Windows”. As in crashes, stalls, freezes. That must have hurt in Cupertino.

It’s not just me - there are plenty of other people considering the same thing, if you have a look. Why has this happened? I think because doing the iPhone and Leopard in the same year has been too much of a software engineering effort for a company with a comparatively small engineering base (though of course throwing people at the job wouldn’t get it done faster, only bigger).

I’ve also looked at the row over Western Digital’s network hard drive that won’t let you share files over the internet - if you consider it, not many do, but WD was trying to get some value from a company it bought. Unfortunately, it’s turned out to be negative value:

What Western Digital is clearly worried about is that protectors of intellectual property - such as the big record labels and movie studios - might, if they found that its drive allowed people to share files with the whole world, sue Western Digital for aiding and abetting in piracy. Sensibly, it decided to avoid that outcome.

What wasn’t sensible, though, was deciding to offer the internet sharing option but to restrict it. With the wisdom of hindsight, what WD should have done is much simpler: not offer the internet sharing option at all. (Gizmodo found that not installing the Anywhere Access software did the trick nicely).

And I’ve also reviewed Sony’s Nav-U NV-U92T satnav, and looked briefly at Ask’s “AskEraser” idea - which is really just a way to grasp at market share.

Wednesday 12 December 2007

Filed under: — Charles @ 3:24 pm

Meet the naked triplet and fishy cycles: sadly, they’re for solving sudokus

Sudoku SusserI know, the title is something of a come-on, isn’t it? But according to the free (tipware), cross-platform Sudoku Susser, if you’re going to get to grips with the harder sudokus (such as those in the “difficult” category of thelondonwastepaper - which is the only part of that paper I read, apart from the cartoons on the opposite page, and the only reason I read those is to marvel at the fact that they’re still going despite being dire) then you need to understand the concepts of “naked pairs”, “naked triplets” and even “X-wings” - the latter, it seems, a subset of fishy cycles, which apparently are “hard to explain”.

Reading the manual for this program was like stepping into a deep pool: you suddenly realise that there are people out there who are into this topic in a much, much deeper way than you would ever find (a) time for (b) the interest for. Kind of a mini-version of any specialist subject online, really.

Naked pairs and naked triplets (since you’re wondering) are unsolved squares - respectively two and three - which can only have, respectively, two or three possible numbers in them. So those numbers are ‘locked out’ from other numbers in their associated square/row/column. It’s a probability-reducing thing. And you thought it was something you’d find in the Sunday Sport.

And before we deal with fishy cycles, we must (like something out of Lewis Carroll) consider the Swordfish:

The next step up in complexity from an X-Wing is a Swordfish pattern. Instead of looking for a 2×2 set of rows and columns, Swordfish uses a 3×3 set.

Apparently “fishy cycles” - which are something to do with interrelationships between unsolved sudoku squares - are discussed here - though I’m not sure that’ll clarify much.

Anyhow, if you’ve had sudokus that have driven you mad and you’ve been sure that they’re insoluble or have duplicate solutions, this program will give you the lowdown. And the price (though remember, it’s tipware) is hard to beat. Even though the graphics are a bit mind-boggling.

Friday 7 December 2007

Filed under: — Charles @ 11:28 pm

My latest at the Guardian: can you remember if Blog Readability is a scam to point to a loans site?

With scams all in the news now, my latest feature at the Guardian (online only) looks at the rather strange case of the Blog Readability page, which has done the online equivalent of walking into a police station and said that it’s lost its memory of how it came to be hosted on a completely unrelated site.

Let’s say you’re a site offering cash advances - better known as loans. You want to be on the top of Google’s results when someone searches for “cash advance”. How do you do it? Easy. Get bloggers to point to your site. For free. Bloggers have too much self-esteem, you cry - they’d never push a loans site up the rankings. They’re too canny, too cynical.

Wrong. Bloggers today offer a great resource for the clever to exploit. If you’re a loans site looking to boost your ranking, you can probably do it for about the cost of drawing up a few graphics in an afternoon and seeding a suitably influential blog. Pretty soon you’ll have hundreds of people copying it.

So you create a web page saying it’ll tell people their Blog Readability… and people come and start using it.

Anyway, once you’ve input your blog’s URL, you’ll quickly get a graphic showing your blog’s “readability” by school age - elementary school, high school, undergraduate, postgraduate, genius and so on. It seems to happen really fast, given the sort of linguistic analysis that must be needed, but computers are fast these days, aren’t they?

Then you have an image, which you can - if you’ve got the time and energy - copy, upload to your blog, and display; or a bit of HTML, which is much simpler, to paste in your page or profile. No muss, no fuss.

I was looking at this when I started wondering about the HTML. It has an image link - img style=”border: none;” src=”http://www.criticsrant.com/bb/readinglevel/img/junior_high.jpg”. All well and good. But then there’s the ALT tag - remember, the stuff that search engines actually index: alt=”cash advance” Get a Cash Advance”.

And that phrase “cash advance” has a link to an entirely different site…

Lots to read. And there’s even a graph…

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