links for 2006-01-03

  • I think this is the first reference to a ‘Google Cube’, as mentioned in the ‘800lb’ LA Times piece – and as you’ll see, it comes with a healthy dose of speculation. One del.icio.us commenter says: ‘he’s rarely all wrong’. But are we getting carried away?
  • Gothenburg’s half marathon, 13 May 2006. ‘One of the greatest long distance races in the world.’ I’m considering doing it, as I can’t see myself going much faster over 10k.
    (tags: running)
  • Useful if you’re planning a trip, and want to catch a game or two? There’s more to life than just the NHL!
    (tags: icehockey maps)

All news matters when it's local

I must confess, I didn’t invest much emotion in the kidnapping of human rights activist Kate Burton and her parents. There’s probably a reason why ‘Bring Your Parents To Work Day’ hasn’t caught on in Gaza.
Suddenly, quite by chance, I discover that the family lives a couple of miles away from me. I pass the parents’ home on a regular basis. Guess what – I’m a lot more interested now.
Thus far, personalised news works on a calculation of someone’s predefined (or observed) interests. But how do you factor in the stories they aren’t generally interested in? The closer the story, the more likely I am to care about it, no matter what the subject. I can see a time where all news stories are geocoded, with proximity given significant (if not the main) weighting in any ‘news value’ algorithm.
But as with true personalisation, only the biggest players – either huge monoliths like Reuters or the BBC; or huge networks of local media – will be able to offer the total coverage necessary to make this work. Every news story from everywhere, geocoded (and of course, subject-tagged) accordingly. An intimidating prospect.

links for 2006-01-02

Best tech of the year 2005

Am I arrogant enough to think people want to read my ‘best of’ list for 2005? Of course I am. I’ll try to be a bit different by choosing some off-the-wall categories and winners.
‘Best-kept secret’ website: HotUKDeals.com
A UK-based forum-stroke-website where bargain spotters post details of any offers or discounts they see on their travels. Thanks to them, I scored my purchase of the year – a 28″ widescreen LCD TV/monitor from Dell – at a price so good that Dell probably regrets it now. If you sign up for email alerts, you’ll get a lot of minor discounts for sites you’ve never heard of… but it’s all worthwhile when a cracker like that comes along.
Regretted purchase of the year: iPod Shuffle (ooh, controversial!)
I used to respect Apple, and the devotion of their fans: no longer. Buoyed by the hype, and the 512MB capacity, I shelled out for an iPod Shuffle – only to discover that: a) it didn’t fit my PC’s USB ports without an adapter; b) iTunes was mandatory but rubbish; c) it started playing up within a couple of months; d) to upgrade the firmware, I had to download a whopping 48MB file containing upgrades for every iPod out there. The iPod Shuffle is now relegated to ‘memory stick’ usage; my new running companion is the TwinMOS Sushi, which I picked up for under £30 in the summer. Lesson: treat (flash memory) MP3 players as disposable, and buy cheap every time.
RSS Reader of the year: Bloglines
Yes, the daddy of them all is still The Daddy. Like Simon Waldman, I’ve really played the field when it comes to RSS client software. Bloglines won me over when I started working half the week at home, and half the week in central London – its PDA-friendly mobile version is a godsend. Over the last few months, I’ve really come round to the idea of web-based applications like Bloglines, del.icio.us, et al – although I don’t yet feel reliant on them. I suspect it’s only a matter of time though.
Mobile phone package of the year: T-Mobile’s Web n Walk
By offering a whopping 40MB of ‘internet browsing’, T-Mobile’s PDA and smartphone-friendly contracts point the way to the mobile future we were promised. With promo periods and online discounts, their Web n Walk 100 and 200 packages are more than comparable with similar talk-only tariffs. Great range of handsets at decent prices, too.
Mould-breaking moment of the year: Google Maps
How did we cope before this? Why do people persist with Multimap? How can they make the API so simple, even for someone like me who isn’t entirely certain what API stands for? 🙂 And the ‘mashups’ – wow. The Gmap Pedometer was an invaluable part in my setting a personal best for 10k in the autumn; I just wish OnOneMap had been around when I last moved house.
Damascene conversion of the year: Microsoft (TBC)
Awarded provisionally, in recognition of its open-minded blogging policy, its embracing of RSS, its recognition that looks are important (cf Windows Vista), and its return to products like Hotmail and Internet Explorer. Windows Live Custom Domains is a stroke of particular genius, letting you set up your own ‘@mydomainname.com’ email addresses within Hotmail. (I’m sticking with Google’s Gmail for now, but I’m secretly hoping they copy the idea.) Mind you, the whole ‘Windows Live’ branding – including the cringy ‘Windows Live Local’ – does not augur well. I know too many people who refer to the concept of instant messaging as ‘MSN’… dropping the name doesn’t seem smart.
Revelation of the year: online video
Having worked in a TV company’s online unit, I was more than happy to write off online video. Traffic numbers were terrible, and it couldn’t justify itself on any kind of cost-benefit analysis. But I’m now on a 2MB broadband line, with a huge monitor… and it actually works. For example: I’m an ice hockey fan, but there’s little or no ice hockey on mainstream UK TV: but the NHL helpfully provides highlights of every single game, free, in more-than-decent 700k quality; and hockeyfights.com indulges every fan’s guilty pleasure. Videoconferencing via Skype or MSN Messenger is a (qualified) success too.
And finally – the ‘how did I cope before?’ award goes to: Sky+
We invested in a Sky+ box (US readers: think Tivo) in the summer, ahead of the birth of our first daughter. We decided that, if we were to be kept up half the night, at least we could guarantee some quality TV to watch. I watch virtually nothing ‘live’ any more; I just have to make sure I record everything I’m likely to want to see. The Custard’s tipsheet is a useful back-up to Sky’s excellent EPG.

Using blog clients with WordPress.com

It isn’t especially well documented, but you can write your WordPress.com blog using software applications on your desktop PC (like w.bloggar), or in my case right now, your internet-enabled PDA. The key is to quote the ‘path to API’ (or however your software refers to it) as your blog’s address (simondickson.wordpress.com) followed by /xmlrpc.php. Obvious, really. 😉

Unofficial del.icio.us extension

I’m determined to get to grips with del.icio.us. For now, I’m still having real trouble typing the name, with the dots in the right places. But I’m beginning to see the value of it.
The official del.icio.us extension for Firefox is pretty good. It gives you some lovely big icons in your main browser toolbar – but it has its problems. For one, I couldn’t get Firefox to remember my password… so the big del.icio.us icon just dumped me on the homepage, still two clicks away from my own territory. Plus it didn’t remind me what tags I was already using.
Enter delicious.mozdev.org, which does the things you want it to do, albeit a bit on the ugly side. It shows all your bookmarks in a Firefox sidebar, which makes for a much more familiar user experience. It lists all your available tags when you want to add a new item, and gives you a countdown towards the 255 character limit on descriptions. Only problem? – the functionality hides in the right-click menu. But I can cope with that.
So far, my main finding is that del.icio.us simply isn’t being used by many Brits. Sites you’d expect to be bookmarked by hundreds of UK-based web users, generally only count a few del.icio.us users. Only 250 people have tagged the National Rail site, for example? Just 19 have tagged the BBC Sport homepage? Barely 50 people have tagged the Arsenal FC homepage?

Field-testing Google at Heathrow

I bet this would have got more attention if it had happened in the US. Google has been offering free internet access to bored passengers at Heathrow‘s Terminal 1, and has used it as an opportunity to talk to people about ‘what they like and don’t like about our products’. Full marks! There is simply nothing more dull than sitting in the departure lounge, especially Terminal 1 where the shopping is pretty poor. And of course, waiting times have increased in the last couple of years thanks to the additional security measures. But it’s going to take more than this to make me fly via Heathrow regularly again. Too much of my life has already been spent at baggage reclaim there. I’ve started going through Southampton as often as possible: much smaller airport, but so much quicker to get through, inbound and outbound.

Deja vu PS2-style

I’m not a ‘petrolhead’, but I love the BBC’s Top Gear. The sheer passion and enthusiasm of Jeremy Clarkson and co is infectious, and you suddenly realise you’re tuning in week after week.
But an item on this week’s show, the last in the series, was familiar. Apparently F1 world champion Fernando Alonso credited his performance at this year’s inaugural Turkish Grand Prix to practising the circuit on the PlayStation. So they wondered, could Jeremy match his time around one of Gran Turismo’s simulated tracks in a simulated car, when driving for real around the same track in the same car? Simple answer – no. It’s understandable really; if you crash at full speed on the PlayStation, you get another try.
In fact, I tried a similar experiment myself, earlier this year. My wife and I visited Monaco – and emerged from the train station at a place which looked startlingly familiar to me: the foot of the hill just after the start of the Grand Prix circuit. I couldn’t believe it; I’d never been there in my life, but I knew the place like the back of my hand. We ended up walking the full circuit over a couple of hours, albeit stopping for some food and taking a detour to the ‘old city’. With each turn, I became more and more amazed at how good the PS2 version was. I knew exactly where I was, the whole time.

I'm watching you, Tiscali

Since switching to Tiscali a while back, I’ve noticed my internet connection suddenly ‘dropping out’ a lot of the time. Maybe once a day, I suddenly lose connectivity. Maybe for no more than a minute or two, but it was getting very annoying. Might be my fault, might be theirs, you never quite know.
So I found a piece of free software called Link Monitor, which sends a ‘ping’ signal to a website of your choice every few seconds, and alerts you when/if the signal doesn’t get through. All the details are logged in a simple text file. The results? – it isn’t anywhere near as bad a problem as it seems, but it is happening relatively frequently: actually, three times in the last 15 or 20 minutes. 🙁 Certainly I never noticed such problems with NTL.