Sunday, 31 January 2010

Return of the links

For a while, every Friday I used to post a collection of links here - just fun stuff really, procrastinatory bits and pieces that might help pass the time on a boring Friday afternoon while waiting for the weekend. I think an especially busy few months put paid to that routine, though.

Later, posting a weekly round-up of interesting Twitter stories seemed like a good idea. It wasn't. It took only a couple of weeks to discover that reading numerous stories about Twitter every week, most of which you've in fact found on Twitter, very quickly starts to feel like voluntarily subjecting oneself to an especially noisy echo-chamber; i.e. not an entirely rational thing to commit to.

But ideally there would be at least one post on here each week, and finding something to write about on a weekly basis can be difficult. It's not that there aren't all kinds of things going on in the world of social media, the internet, technology, etc. - if anything, there's too much to keep track of. The real problem is finding an item that either hasn't already been covered by those big blogs that everyone already reads, or has been covered but to which I can still add a new angle (or at least an angle that I haven't already read somewhere else).

I suppose, I could just summarise whatever seems most important or interesting that week, but frankly that would just feel redundant - not a great motivation to write; or to read.

There's no reason, however, why I shouldn't do something more curatorial. So, the solution, revive the Friday links post, but in a slightly more structured and focussed form - and make it a Friday or Saturday post, to allow for any busy Fridays. There'll still be other posts too, of course.

One final reason to revive it: I don't know about anyone else, but I haven't been keeping up with The Guardian's Technology section now that it's no longer part of the print edition: what if part of this proposed Friday/Saturday links post were to be devoted to highlighting some of its more interesting or surprising stories each week? Problem solved.

As for what the rest of the links might be devoted to; well, I'm sure I'll have finalised the categories by Friday.

Or Saturday. But definitely one of the two.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

How to waste time. And influence people?

If anyone was wondering, it's actually surprisingly easy to find yourself responsible for wasting the time of hundreds of people you don't even know.

Or at least that's my excuse anyway.

Here's what happened.

It's early Thursday evening, I'm in a Tesco Express, as usual deeply dissatisfied with what's on offer. I've already wandered around the place at least three times without anything taking my fancy, and as a result am getting mildly exasperated with myself as well as at the store. 'Well,' I find myself snapping (not out loud), 'what actually do you want?' At which point, I can only assume that I object to the question's tone, because I start to sarcastically suggest crisp flavours, such as Salt & Vertigo, Cheese & Umbrage, or Soured Dreams & Chive. Ultimately, this proves quite diverting, I cheer up, and probably just buy some hummus or something. Who knows.

Anyway, a few more flavours come to mind on the way home, so I decide to tweet them, explained by the hashtag #rejectedcrispflavours.

And that's where the trouble starts.

A couple of people who follow my account, it turns out, are amused enough to suggest flavours themselves. One of them starts retweeting flavours suggested by some of his followers too. Soon enough, though, he's moved on to another game involving punnily combining soap operas with song titles, so I assume that's probably the end of that then, and get on with something else. Eating hummus, probably. Yet, unknown to me, it's not; it's not the end at all. The hashtag has begun to spread.

A couple of hours pass and it finally occurs to me to search Twitter for #rejectedcrispflavours. Not having expected it to be used by anyone else in the first place, and not even to the extent that it was, I'm curious to see how far it might have travelled during its brief moment. I'm certainly not expecting #rejectedcrispflavours to have turned into a Twitter meme...

Yet no, not only are there now hundreds of tweets appended with #rejectedcrispflavours, but people are still continuing to tweet new flavours!

Stomach-turning new flavours.

Frankly, for the most part, the whole thing's moved on a bit from my whimsical semi-puns: Godwin's law - "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1" - should have an addendum in which the phrases "online discussion" and "comparison involving Nazis or Hitler" are replaced by "Twitter hashtag game" and "references to genitalia or bodily substances". Two hours later, and #rejectedcrispflavours, it seems, has turned into a Twitter gross-out contest.

While not exactly what I had in mind, to the extent that I had anything in mind, I can't say that it's not exciting to see it take on a life of its own.

I monitor for a little while longer, but am just about to leave it be, when I spot another tweet: someone is expressing bemusement that #rejectedcrispflavours is a UK trending topic! Surely not? J D Salinger's just died, Blair's due at the Chilcot inquiry tomorrow, the iPad was released just yesterday. And what do people in the UK want to tweet about? (Or, more accurately, try to disgust each other with?)

Yes. Crisps. (They are one of the few things the UK's good at, though, I suppose).

Over the next hour or two #rejectedcrispflavours, in fact, goes on to become the top UK trending topic: 'So this is what it's like to have power,' I think. 'And abuse it.' I feel proud, bemused, and ashamed, all at the same time. 'I've created a top UK trending topic! Wow...

'But it's this one. Sigh.'

So, yes, if anyone saw #rejectedcrispflavours in the UK trending topics, and wondered why, or perhaps despaired, well, this isn't so much me claiming credit as accepting the blame. Apparently this is the kind of thing that can happen if you have an argument with yourself in a supermarket. Be warned. (Or possibly encouraged, depending on your point of view).

Regardless of what the #rejectedcrispflavours hashtag eventually turned into, though, the whole thing was certainly a thoroughly fascinating first-hand lesson in exactly how easily something can (accidentally) go viral: all it took was having one follower* with the right kind of followers to propagate the idea (in this case, followers with a shared interest in hashtag games). That simple. Even knowing why marketers spend so much time and energy trying to identify and woo influential, connected voices online, I still couldn't help but be surprised. It really is, it seems, who you know.

*Of the two people who initially joined in; as far as I can tell, followers of only one of them went on to use the hashtag.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Panda Cloud - the hassle-free antivirus?

I think I may have already mentioned my opinion that the average antivirus program can be almost as annoying and intrusive as having an actual virus. The slow downs, the updating, the increased boot times, the panicky messages popping up for no good reason, all of them just add yet another layer of potential irritation to everyday computer use.

But, of course, an antivirus is a necessary evil, so at some point I settled on AVG as the least irritating of the bunch and resigned myself to trying to get along with it.

Then it started asking for money - to update the licence (I can only assume I unwittingly upgraded from the free version, though I have no idea when or how). I tried upgrading even further, to the latest version, 9.0 - the counter-intutive option so often seems to work with computer problems. No luck, of course - and on top of that, AVG, mystifyingly, now wanted to query every single action I made in Spotify, even after setting it as an exception.

So. Enough. Time for an antivirus option I've long been hoping wouldn't turn out to be too-good-to-be-true, Panda Cloud - recently out of beta, still free and, encouragingly, getting some excellent reviews.

Panda Cloud's aim is to be simple and hassle-free; analysing threats and updating itself in the cloud (hence the name), not taking over your entire system, using a minimum of bandwidth and system resources, and mostly just sitting there in your system tray keeping a sharp eye out for anything nasty. Moreover, because its virus signature database is in the cloud: a) it can be dowloaded and installed quickly; b) after installation, it doesn't have to do that initial update thing that can take forever; c) the database can be huge (currently terabyte-sized) - and can grow - without causing you storage problems; and d) it will always be up to date.

And how does it measure up in everyday use? Wonderfully.

Pros: Installation is extremely quick and easy, and on first scan it found and removed a trojan - an excellent start. It hasn't once slowed the system down, or queried a program or process it really ought to recognise; nor does the cloud itself seem to have suffered downtime. The interface is pleasingly simple and streamlined - possibly unnervingly so for control freaks and those used to the likes of Norton and McAfee - but does, however, reveal additional options as the need arises, such as letting you reinstate anything it may have neutralised.

Possible cons: according to the review, not the best option for cleaning up an already infected machine (stops malware getting on to the machine in the first place brilliantly, though: "the best free antivirus software available"); according to PC World, not the quickest at on-demand scanning (however, the review was pre- the full release, and even a full system scan was quick enough and unobtrusive enough for me).

Overall, then, exactly what I've always wanted from an antivirus: it does its job, it keeps to itself, and it's never the slightest bother. In fact, it's a shame Panda don't make housemates too.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

In two minds about newspaper paywalls

Fabulous news, in 2011 The New York Times will start charging for its website! All we need now is for every other newspaper, magazine, the BBC and YouTube to join the Murdoch titles, the FT, Wall Street Journal, and so on, and we might all actually get some work done for once - instead of scrolling through Google Reader, opening links on Twitter, and searching in vain for stuff on iPlayer that we haven't already seen/heard once this week, before repeating it all again for no good reason other than it's been another twenty minutes.

Or maybe that's just me.

Anyway. Bliss. I almost can't wait.

(For one thing, I've always wondered what time travel might be like - this alone would be like going back five years).

But of course there's a much wider point here than a possible (but doubtless only temporary) boon to my personal productivity: mightn't widespread moves to paid and limited free content, effectively, ration news only to those who can afford it? And what of our present ability to compare sources and obtain a more rounded perspective on events? I mean, imagine a world where the current most popular news sources have even stronger voices - The Daily Mail? ITV? FOX News?


Worse than 'Brrrr...'

But that assumes that most of us don't already rely, for the most part, on just one or two sources, usually supplemented only now and again when something especially interests or concerns us. Most of us do, I think. And most of the proposed paywalls will at least make a certain amount of articles free to non-regular readers, over certain time periods. (Even if such systems do, though, have the effect of penalising the site's most loyal readers).

The major concern, then, looks to be whether paywalls will be sufficiently open that there is enough news still freely available - to encourage diversity of opinions, democracy, free speech, or any of the other benefits suggested by commentators like Jeff Jarvis. Whether or not information really does want to be free, it would be terrible to lose any of these benefits, essentially, just for the sake of some adverts.

Sigh, and yet I really do quite like the idea of fewer distractions...

Well. You know. It's just such hard work using will power.