Saturday, 31 January 2009

Returning to the comfort zone

Homophily: a sociological term roughly equivalent to 'birds of a feather flock together.'

Or so I discovered while reading today's Guardian, which I suppose was a homophilous act in itself (as Graeme Le Saux's former teammates would doubtless agree). Homophily²?

Anyway, homophily also happens to be at least partly what I was going on about in the last post, when I said that the internet makes it easier than ever not just to find new and challenging things to read but also not to: online there are so many variations of (and within) your own particular comfort zone, so many variations of the things you know that you want to know about, that you never have to leave it; set up your Google Reader feeds correctly and you need never read an article outside of - or that might expand - your interests ever again.

In short, the internet is one giant serendipity machine, but only if you use it that way.

The question, of course, is, how do you use it that way? If you want to discover something you don't know about, or don't know
that you might be interested in, how on earth do you go about it? It's like Rumsfeld's unknown unknowns, only less sinister and explosive.

Already, I expect, you're probably thinking of Twitter, or Digg, or some other less hyped clamour of recommendation and knowledge highlighting, and maybe you're correct to an extent, but eventually don't all of these settle down into a particular user base, with particular interests and areas of expertise? And don't you have to work out who to follow? Easy enough when you're looking for knowledge you know will appeal to you, not so easy when you're just looking for serendipity.

Oliver Burkeman in the article linked to above suggests's Unsuggester, a 'least likely to like' button, which almost makes me want to sign up right now; except I doubt that if it threw up a Louise Bagshawe I'd actually give it a try, and not just because of the mental image that phrasing inadvertently gives rise to. However, that's probably a trivial example, and the Unsuggester might well be useful for finding books that will expose you to political viewpoints, say, that you might have dismissed without ever really having looked at them; though I guess it'll never give you the self-awareness to realise that that's what you've done, which is probably even more important.

But what other such things exist online? Anyone? VSL, perhaps?

Ultimately, I think, what we need is the internet equivalent of my old university friend Abhi (who I sadly lost touch with years ago and doesn't seem to be on Facebook). He and I hardly agreed on anything, but that was precisely the joy of it: discussing some random thing of interest to either of us and trying to understand why the other thought about it the way he did. Occasionally one of us would change his mind as a result, but only rarely; mostly it was just that act of trying to understand the other's viewpoint and better understand our own that was the point, as well as learning something new. (On the other hand, we got to know each other through a mutual friend, and maybe, fundamentally, we were quite similar? That's possible too).

So where does all that leave us? Probably right back where we started, I'm afraid. If we want to stray outside our online comfort zone and see what's out there, to understand the views we don't share and expand our interests, there probably isn't an easy way, we just have to make the effort. And that's just the problem, isn't it? We're a lazy lot, humans. Or as far as I've ever bothered to establish anyway.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Reading in comfort

It's an ever-changing world these days, or it was when I last checked a few moments ago. Anything that can be is being turned into ones and zeros: to be copied, distributed, even completely replaced by a digital version. But you know all that, of course, you're online. And now so's a literary journal I used to subscribe to. Unlike you, however, and from now on, it'll only be online.

There are plenty of reasons why this should please me - the new version of Books from Finland, being online only, will be more environmentally friendly; content will be posted more regularly; photos can be in colour; and best of all there'll be no subscription fees - I'll be getting something for free that I used to pay for. So why, then, do I feel like I've lost something?

After all, the magazine's reasons for the decision make perfect sense (basically the ones above, as well as wider availability), and as far as TV and music are concerned, haven't I generally been happy enough to move the majority of my viewing and listening habits online? Sure, the picture and sound quality isn't quite the same, but increased choice and convenience, and lower costs generally pretty much compensate for that (for me at least). So why should it be any different with reading?

Well, I wasn't sure, and "It just is" didn't seem a good enough answer, so I thought I'd see what reasons I could come up with:

- Unless I get a netbook, Books from Finland won't be nearly so easy to read on the train, in bed, or at whichever overpriced coffee vendor I've decided to visit when I fancy a change of scenery. Plus, it never needed recharging or plugging in before.

- There'll be one fewer pleasant surprise arriving in the mail - until I take up drunken eBaying...

- Paper's a lot easier on the eye; not to mention that the print version was always beautifully, and engagingly designed - as you'd expect of a magazine from the home of Marimekko, Iittala, etc.

- Whatever the benefits of digitisation, there's just something about the feel of a book - being able to flick through it, hold it, glance at each page in full - that's so much more satisfying than scrolling through pixels on a screen and the smooth, alienating hardness of plastic and metal.

But there's one reason even above all those, it seems to me, why I responded mostly with disappointment, and it's another psychological one: when you've paid for something it just seems to have more value. Rather than waste your money, you find yourself reading that leftover article, extract or short story that at first didn't appeal, and more often than not you're happy that you did - because it was better than it first appeared; because you didn't like it, but it gave you an idea; or because you learned something you otherwise wouldn't have.

So, when Books from Finland goes online only, hopefully I'll remember that - because that's both the beauty and the awful time-sucking danger of the net, you're never more than a click or two away from something more instantly appealing. On one hand, it's never been easier to find something interesting and challenging to read, but on the other, perhaps it's also never been easier not to?

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Windows 7 - seventh time lucky?

OK, now I understand why people hated Vista so much when it came out... What changed my mind? Mostly, being told last night that I neither owned a file that I had just created, and wanted to delete, nor had the 'special permissions' to do so.

Yep, I know, it's a feature that stops the inexperienced from deleting important files that make Windows, you know, actually work; however, these were files from the backup of my old computer, files that I'd transferred over myself, that weren't part of Vista itself, that weren't in any specific Windows folder, and that neither I nor Vista needed - system files, yes; Vista files, no. And then to add futility to injury, you turn to Vista's Help files: nothing short of baffling (certainly on that subject anyway).

So thank goodness, then, for the denizens of online help forums - the unsung, if occasionally rather sarcastic, saviours of IT land.

In a similar spirit of sharing the knowledge, or at least making sure there are plenty of links to it, here are the Vista solutions I found:

- To open a backup created in Windows XP (i.e. a .bkf file) in Vista, this seems to be the program you need.

- And if you later find you can't delete some/all of the files it's transferred, this forum reply tells you how to give your user account the relevant permissions.

As for Windows 7; sorry, nothing to read here - I just liked the title.

UPDATE: But if you want to subject yourself to it before it's ready, go ahead: get a beta copy. Plus, following it with the latest patch might not be such a bad idea, either, I'm guessing.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Compare the marketers

Being someone without a television, the only time I usually see telly ads is when I wander over to the pub to watch grown men chase a ball around. However, they're generally all for Carling, cars, WKD, or Gillette, interspersed with at least 10 ever shorter trailers for the same bloody dismal attempt to be the next American Pie/Lock Stock/that-Judd-Apatow-one-where-someone-gets-pregnant-by-an-allegedly-lovable-idiot, so I generally just stare at my phone during half-time, or talk to someone, if they keep insisting on it. However, on Tuesday half-time was much brightened by the following:

The inevitable viral website's great too - at least if this description of a spelunking meerkat in Weston Super Mare is anything to go by:

Your meerkat

Size : Small

Location : Weston S Mare

Hobby : Spelunking


With little torch on head and stripy rope round belly, Spelunkat loves to explore intricate cave networks. Deep caves give Spelunkat chance to contemplate life while feasting centipedes and listening burp echo.

This meerkat goes to Weston Super Mare to play slot machine and snog stranger outside closed beach bar or stand in middle of gigantic empty car park when feeling sickness of home in Kalahari.

An entire marketing campaign from one joyously silly pun -  inspired :)

Marketing the Right Wrong Way

It looks like Conservative political lobbying for greater 'liberty' has now extended itself to the liberty to spam people - or possibly just people who blog, since that's the only reason I can think of for both my personal and work accounts starting to receive unsolicited daily updates from NetRight Daily and Daily Grind the other week. Apparently, these are emanating from sites called and NetRightNation, both of which, as far I'm concerned, are very much at liberty to getbent and NetRightOff, given their intrusive marketing methods. Whatever your politics, and whatever it is you're marketing, spam is never, ever a good move.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

RIP The Future (1909-2009)

"Why wait for a future that never arrives on time?" Lou Barlow once sang; although I doubt he had the predictions of Henri Antoine Jules-Bois in mind at the time, let alone those of any of the countless futurologists that have since followed him gamely into the spotlight of potential future ridicule. As for Henri Antoine Jules-Bois; well, apparently he was a French occultist and self-styled "philosophical prophet" who, in 1909, the New York Times reported as having wonderfully French* things like these to say about the year now upon us:

M Bois believes that motor cars will in a hundred years be things of the past and that a kind of flying bicycle will have been invented which will enable everybody to traverse the air at will, far above the earth.

Asked to be more explicit, M Bois naturally said that while a philosophical prophet might feel sure of his generalities, it was too much to require of him to enter upon strange details.

There was some other stuff in between those two paragraphs, as well - from which it was pretty clear that he hadn't foreseen size-zero models or the state of British public transport - but I kind of liked the above juxtaposition better, and faced with a glowering brute of a year like 2009 we probably need all the funny we can get (besides, that's what hyperlinks are for). So, rather than linking to any of our contemporary Henri Antoines - not that you'll be able to avoid them, they're like wasps in summer at this time of year - it would probably be better to end with another dose of comical retro-futurology. This time, it comes courtesy of Look Around You, Series Two:

*More the second paragraph than the first.