Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Weekend Links Post: No. 28

Welcome, again, to another entirely subjective selection of 15 links, humanely culled from my week's online reading and roughly collated under the seven broad categories seen below:

Selected Highlights from Guardian Technology (Because otherwise I just don't get around to reading it now it's no longer in the print edition).

UK's £100bn internet economy now "more valuable to the country than transport, construction or the utilities industries."

LimeWire shut down by US federal court; not that it probably makes much difference.

UK MPs have got it in for Google, over privacy and Street View.

MySpace becomes Myspace, and has a redesign (all of which the UK will have to wait 'til mid-November to ignore).

Social Media

What Facebook's "Top News" feed decides to show you and why.

Social games developer Zynga's estimated worth now surpasses Electronic Arts.

Books, Writing & Storytelling

The real demand for pirated e-books - a re-examination of recent figures.

Struggling with writer's block? One Page Per Day presents you with a simple blank page to fill - with something, anything - every day. (And here are some glimpses of what users have written already.)

Electric Literature: a literary journal with expansive, innovative ambitions for digital literature.

Useful Apps, Utilities & Downloads

Spoon: run popular desktop applications within a browser and without installation (very handy if you're away from your usual machine).

Scrivener: the formerly Mac-only award-winning program for writers is now available in a free public beta version for Windows (full release due in early 2011).


Ten Tracks: download a new curated mixtape of ten tracks every month, with all artists fairly remunerated.

Games & Other Distractions a massively multiplayer online Scrabble game, that Hasbro hasn't had closed down yet. (Here its creator describes how the idea came about, and its development).


One for Halloween: some of the strangest tombstones in the world.

Rewritable pillows - probably best not to fall asleep on one though, if you don't want a rewritable face.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Retargeting ads aren't always retargeting the right people

Personalised retargeting or remarketing. Ads that seem to follow you around the internet, tailored to the online retail sites you've already visited and even the specific products you've browsed there. However you want to describe them, such ads seem to be on the rise.

Some find the phenomenon sinister: like being constantly watched or stalked; an intrusion of privacy. Others click on the link purporting to explain "Why are you being shown this banner?" then, apparently reassured (or resigned), don't bother to opt out. As for retailers; more and more seem to be signing up to services like Criteo, while the likes of Google and Microsoft are now running their own behaviour tracking ads too.

So ran the gist of this New York Times article, from a couple of months ago.

Not long after reading it, I booked a short break in London, using a couple of online booking sites, and began to notice the recurring ads for myself. The question that came to mind, after just a few days, was: can this kind of advertising become counter-productive? Might it sometimes harm the brand?

Criteo's website claims its retargeting services offer "phenomenal campaign ROI", and I'm sure they do attract back plenty of visitors who originally left without purchasing, but what impression do the ads create on those of us who did actually purchase before leaving?

Having already booked my hotel with [COMPANY X], every time I visited certain popular sites I was greeted with ads for [COMPANY X], listing hotels in the area of London I'd already booked in - top of each list being the exact hotel I'd booked, and for the exact same nights. On other occasions the train ticket booking service I used was being advertised to me, over and over. Both of these companies I've used consistently over the last few years. And at present, I find a particular florist advertising at me everywhere I go (this time by Google). Again, on the few occasions I need a florist, it's the one I already use.

In short: all three companies had my trade already; when I made the visits to their sites that prompted the tracking ads I purchased the product or service I was there for; the resultant barrage of ads was utterly pointless. If anything, being frequently nagged to buy what I've already bought has made me marginally less inclined to visit the sites again - especially as the ads in question often untidily break the page layouts of the sites that carry them.

Clearly, the kind of technology that would track the fact that a visitor had actually purchased before leaving the sites, and/or had a long purchasing history with each of them, would be even more worrying to privacy campaigners than the present retargeting services (in fact, advertisers themselves are now looking to make it easier to opt out of behaviour tracking ad systems), so I have no idea what a genuine solution might be.

Maybe, though, the retrieval of lost custom more than makes up for whatever irritation is caused, so none is needed? Maybe more and more of us will opt out? And maybe we'll just grow increasingly accustomed to such ads anyway?

Whatever the case, it'll be interesting to see how this sector of the industry progresses; it has at least one small flaw that might eventually need addressing.

Monday, 18 October 2010

The Weekend(ish) Links Post: No. 27

Welcome, again, to another entirely subjective selection of 15 links, humanely culled from my week's online reading and roughly collated under the seven broad categories seen below:

Selected Highlights from Guardian Technology (Because otherwise I just don't get around to reading it now it's no longer in the print edition).

The Guardian's editor on the future of the fourth estate, and the launch of a new series of Comment is Free long-form blogs.

The internet is not ruining your attention span. You are.

Personal productivity apps: a help? Or another source of procrastination?

Greater Manchester police tweet their workload, to prove a funding point and show the reality behind the statistics. (The three police Twitter accounts.)

Social Media

Finally, social networks may be catching on to how we live in the real world.

Evan Williams on decentralised social networks.

Not on Facebook? Facebook still knows you

Books, Writing & Storytelling

Douglas Rushkoff on publishing, the internet and his new book Program or Be Programmed: "If you don't know anything about the software, then you are the software."

"The majority of Great Britain has yet to download an e-book and say they are unlikely to do so in the next six months," says a new survey by Book Marketing Limited.

Useful Apps, Utilities & Downloads

The Archivist: free, browser-based or stand-alone (Windows-only) utility to search, archive and analyse tweets.


Soundart Radio 102.5 FM: award-winning experimental arts radio station, available online.

Games & Other Distractions

Infinite Blank: a multi-player online world, drawn by its players.


Atlas Obscura: "A compendium of this age's wonders, curiosities and esoterica"; a collaborative online cataloguing of the strange and wonderful sights and places that traditional guidebooks ignore.

Grain Edit: a design blog focused on classic design work from the 1950s-1970s and the contemporary designers it continues to inspire.

Brian Dettmer performs autopsies on old books, carving them open to artfully reveal their insides: gallery 1; gallery 2.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

The Weekend Links Post: No. 26

Welcome, again, to another entirely subjective selection of 15 links, humanely culled from my week's online reading and roughly collated under the seven broad categories seen below:

Selected Highlights from Guardian Technology (Because otherwise I just don't get around to reading it now it's no longer in the print edition).

Patent laws need reforming, says Microsoft's Chief Executive Steve Ballmer.

Facebook introduces Groups, to better reflect users' actual relationships and help increase privacy (or perhaps not).

An interview with Don Tapscott, author of Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business & The World.

Social Media

The Facebook that never was: why did Columbia's Campus Network lose out to Harvard's Facebook?

Malcolm Gladwell expresses his doubts about digital activism... and here's just some of the inevitable backlash.

Books, Writing & Storytelling

The Paris Review's exemplary archive of interviews with writers is now available online - in full, and without charge. has been testing the conventional wisdom that long-form journalism just doesn't do well on the web - with heartening results.

Useful Apps, Utilities & Downloads

WP-Snippets: for WordPress users, a directory of handy, free code snippets to enhance your WordPress theme.


Why brands are set to be the new record companies.

Fluid Radio: online radio station for fans of experimental, ambient, modern classical, post-rock etc. And an excellent source of associated news, reviews and downloads (such as this live solo performance by pianist Nils Frahm).

Games & Other Distractions

4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness: John Cage inspired video game; plus, an interview with its creator Petri Purho (also responsible for Crayon Physics Deluxe).

2010 Interactive Fiction Competition: all but a few of this year's entries are available to play online.


Hilarious Tweets to Famous People: a troubling insight into the minds of those who tweet the famous...

Boring Conference 2010: a day of interesting people talking about boring things - on 11th December 2010.

Why philosophers are fascinated by procrastination.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Super-fast broadband for Cornwall

Cornwall’s digital geeks were celebrating last Thursday as Cornwall Council and BT officially announced the imminent rollout of ultra-fast fibre broadband across great swathes of the county and the Isles of Scilly.

The EU-funded project will make Cornwall one of the best-connected places in the world, outstripping London and other urban centres for broadband speed and availability. Maximum download speeds of between 40Mbps and 100Mbps will be available to 80-90% of premises in the county by 2014, with only the most remote locations missing out on the superfast broadband bonanza.

Half of all premises will have the option to have a fibre-optic cable installed directly into the building, making download speeds approaching 100Mbps a scarcely dreamed-of reality for some lucky Cornish homes and businesses by as early as next Spring, BT chief executive Ian Livingston told a room packed with journalists at Newquay’s Headland Hotel.

That's faster than anything currently available anywhere in the UK, putting Cornwall on a par with South Korea, the world’s most hyper-connected country.

Magnet for high-tech businesses

The rollout, which BT says is already underway, should turn the UK’s rural south-western tip into "a magnet for high-tech businesses," according to Cornwall Council Leader Alec Robertson. Not only will it provide the necessary infrastructure for media firms, digital content providers and other bandwidth-hungry companies to relocate to Cornwall, it will also provide a fertile environment for graduates of the Combined Universities in Cornwall’s digital media and animation courses to set up in business here.

Cornwall Council Leader Alec Robertson opens the press conference

And that economic transformation is the whole idea. The EU’s contribution of £80m – matched by a £54m investment by BT – is the biggest single allocation from its European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), a pot of money reserved for economic development projects in the poorest areas of Europe.

Cornwall, with an underperforming rural economy that trails the UK average by a wide margin, is the only county in England to qualify for these funds. This project is Cornwall’s biggest and most important attempt to claw its way out of the mire of low-value jobs in agriculture, retail and tourism and to create what Elizabeth Holt, head of communication and partnerships for the European Commission, described last week as a "fully innovative, knowledge-based, low-carbon economy."

An opportunity to "invent the future"

All the speakers at last week's event touted super-fast broadband as a critical investment for Cornwall, without which it could never overcome its problems of rurality and geographical peripherality. Nigel Ashcroft, director of NGA networks for Cornwall Council, said that with connection speeds that are almost unprecedented across the globe, Cornwall-based businesses will have a chance to "invent the future" by creating brand new applications and services that make full use of the bandwidth available.

An antidote to public sector job losses?

The rollout should give Cornwall a huge opportunity to create new, high-value jobs in high-tech, 21st century industries at a time when other areas of the UK are experiencing severe cutbacks in public investment in infrastructure and employment.

Cornwall Council and BT have estimated that 4,000 new jobs will be created and a further 2,000 existing jobs protected, perhaps offsetting the 2,000 public sector jobs that are due to be lost in the county as a result of the Coalition government’s spending cuts.

The world’s first rural digital cluster?

As an experiment in rural connectivity, super-fast broadband for Cornwall should provide a pioneering case study that other rural regions of the UK – and the world – are sure to study closely. It was telling that the audience at last week’s press conference included journalists from China, South Korea, Latin America and Germany alongside national news reporters from London and the local south-west media.

So could this mark the end of ‘digital clusters’ being the preserve of the world’s big cities? Could Cornwall soon boast the world’s first rural digital cluster? It’s tempting to think so, but for all its virtual connectivity, Cornwall will still remain physically remote from the world’s great urban intellectual nexuses.

That remoteness may remain a handicap when it comes to attracting big-hitters to visit the region in person. Will we see internet-era thinkers such as Steven Johnson, Clay Shirky or Cory Doctorow making the five-hour train journey from London to engage and inspire the local digerati? Will Truro join New York, San Francisco and London on the A-list lecture circuit? Can we look forward to hosting a TED conference in Penryn? It would be great to think so, but I won’t hold my breath just yet.

Remote communities to miss out

And what of those parts of the county that the fibre won’t reach? BT has promised to upgrade the county’s patchwork of ‘notspots’ using a mixture of satellite connections and copper-wire technologies such as ADSL+, but the speeds delivered will remain around 2Mbps; nothing like the service experienced in the rest of the county.

For Cornwall’s remotest farms and communities, it looks like the only super-fast option will remain the one heroically undertaken by Lancashire farmer and rural broadband campaigner Christine Conder – installing the fibre yourself.