A-list iOS developer shop Tapbots today released a remix of their excellent twitter client (Tweetbot), focused on tiny pay-subscription social network platform app.net. I think Tweetbot is probably my favourite thing about my iPhone, and so I immediately purchased it. No obvious disappointments, all the slick performance I like is there, and it brings across some features I've been lacking in ADN for a while, like the ability to swiftly upload photos. I promptly celebrated by taking photos of every last.fm staff member with an ADN I could track down. I think this will probably increase my use of ADN moderately. Mobile is an essential component of gathering the off-the-cuff asynchronous status updates a service like this is built upon.
I'm not sure that it will gigantically increase my engagement with ADN alpha. I was a bit suspicious of all the frothy cliques, with an intangible unease that I struggled to define, at least until I suddenly realised it was a cogent reminder of the very earliest days of bootstrapping the IMDb message boards. That left me feeling more comfortable with what the thing was, but no more inspired to engage. I'm still in love with the idea and the ideals of the place, and I'm reasonably confident it hasn't yet fallen into it's proper, more useful place. I'm shallow enough to enjoy my sexy low user id on some level that even I don't properly understand.
Has App Dot Net "arrived?". I think not yet. Netbot feels like a threshold event of some kind, in as much as serious developers are prepared to put enough effort into the ADN platform to produce fully realised software harnessed to it, and this degree of finish does not come cheap. ADN seems to be on a little draught of second wind recently, there's been a couple of fun toy apps, some positive press, and the recent price drop, bringing a wave of fresh users in. I'm still very positive about ADN as a concept, an indicator that there's now a long tail of internet folk interested enough in paying for stuff to make services like this potentially viable. I won't be really excited about ADN until I see the first compelling application built over it that is some mostly new and useful thing, rather than a new skin on an old one.posted Wednesday, October 3, 2012 at 20:42 by cms in computers, internet | Comments Off
It's not exactly the done thing on today's web, but I'm a huge believer in paying for web services. I've never been comfortable with the ad-supported web. When pure advertising is the only revenue stream supporting a product or service I worry about the deleterious effect upon that product or service.
I don't like the implication that they're really working for their sponsor's interests ahead of mine. I don't like the mental effort of hunting down all the opt-outs, of second-guessing potential consequences of the creepy data-mining and covert information sharing with networks of 'trusted partners'. More straightforwardly, for many cases, I suspect the numbers don't really balance; I find it difficult to rely heavily on something with a potentially precarious revenue stream. I don't want to push too much content into, or build infrastructure around things that won't necessarily be around in a year or two.
Paying directly for things makes everything seem more explicit and straightforward. I'm the customer. I can make informed decisions about the cost and usefulness of the thing. It's in the better interests of the service provider not to abuse the relationship. A product unspoilt and unhindered by commercial marriages should stand a better chance of evolving towards it's essential form. So I'm a relatively easy sell as a consumer. Offer me a useful service, at a reasonable price, and I'm quite likely to pay you for it.
The flipside of this is that I'm really cautious about the reverse. Purely ad-supported sites, especially ones that seem to be offering far too much for free without being noticeably saturated with advertising make me feel slightly paranoid. I like to see which way the money flows.
Here's a list of the sort of internety things I currently pay for, and will happily endorse.
elfm.el is a rudimentary last.fm radio client implemented within emacs lisp. I wrote this at work to present at our internal "Radio Hackday"; dedicated to encouraging staff to experiment with the radio services and API, and make something with them in a day and a half for show-and-tell. Kind of 20% time distilled right down to an essence.
I wasn't sure if I was going to have enough time to contribute anything, so I wanted to focus on something I could hack on by myself, because I didn't want to hold a team back if I got called away. So I picked something jokey, inessential, yet hopefully thought-provoking, as per my usual idiom.
I had a real blast participating. I don't usually get time to attend things like proper hack days, being all old and family-bound. I really enjoyed the atmosphere of inspiration and industry. All the other hacks were amazing, and waiting for my turn to demo I felt quite embarrassed about my stupid cryptic toy, but it worked perfectly in the spotlight. I got almost all the laughs, and all of the bemusement I was aiming for.
The code is here. It is awful. I haven't written any coherent lisp on this scale for many years. It uses too many global variables and special buffers. It doesn't scrobble. I had to rewrite all my planned asychronous network event machine halfway through implementation, when I re-discovered the lack of lexical closures in elisp. ( I've been reading too many common lisp books in the interim, I suspect ). I think there's enough of the germ of a useful idea in there that I might just clean it up and try and extend it into a proper thing.
I built and run it using GNU Emacs 23.4.1 . I used an external library for HTTP POST, which I found on emacswiki ( HTTP GET I glued together using the built in URL libraries). I've also put a copy of the version I used in the distribution directory. I used mpg123 for mp3 playback, which I installed using Mac Ports. The path to mpg123 is hardcoded in the lisp somewhere, probably inside play-playlist-mpg123.
Here's my demo script, which I evaluated in a scratch buffer. Evaluating these forms in sequence will authorise the application, tune in the radio, and then fetch a playlist of five tracks and start playing them.
;;;; -----DEMO , this example code is out of date, see README
; will open a browser to authorise application
; authenticate a user session
; tune the radio to this URL
; refresh the playlist
; filter the playlist response to sexps, play the list
There is only one playback control at the moment; stop, which you can manage by killing the buffer *lastfm-radio* which has the playback process attached to it. You can retune the radio with any lastfm:// URL format, by re-evaluating radio-tune, and then refreshing and playing the playlist i.e. repeating the last three steps in sequence.
The internal hackday was a cracking idea. Most of the hacks were focused around radio enhancements with broad-ranging appeal, the vast majority of them looked practically useful. I suspect most of the work will filter out into site and product updates. In addition to this, and perhaps more valuably, it worked really well as a community exercise, evolving knowledge-sharing, cross-team working, and enthusiasm, and converting them into inspiration, craft, and art. More of this sort of thing, everywhere!
I've iterated on the original hack quite a lot to make it slightly less brain-damaged, and a bit cleaner to import into anyone else's emacs. Updated code is here and so is a README file with updated running instructions. It's still not really in a usable state for anyone else, but it's amusing me to fiddle with it, and I vaguely plan to get it to a releasable alpha state, at which point I will publish a repository.posted Saturday, April 28, 2012 at 10:49 by cms in computers, internet, programming | Comments Off
Would anybody with a working BBC like to contribute a real world run time for his BBC BASIC based solution?
Jim runs the Enigmatic Code blog about his hobby of solving New Scientist's Enigma puzzles using short python programs, which anyone can play along with at home.posted Thursday, February 23, 2012 at 11:36 by cms in computers, internet, programming | Comments Off
I was churlishly unimpressed by the iTunes "12 days" Christmas promotion this year. However whilst subsequently browsing the iTunes Store home page I did find one app that impressed me enough to blog about.
There's a store section called "Apps Starter Kit" which lists a dozen or so applications that Apple are promoting as "must have" installs for new iOS users. I installed a handful of these to my iPhone 3GS, but the one that has most impressed me so far is the iOS edition of DragonDictate.
It's a "split brain" app, by which I mean it uses "the cloud" to perform the text-to-speech conversion. So far I have been quite impressed with the accuracy of the process, in fact I have created this blog post by dictating while walking the dog, with just a little editing afterwards for tidy up and to add hyperlinks. I suppose it is a little like a poor man's edition of Siri, minus the pretend A.I. and the search and reminders integration.
You can get text by dictating into a text box within the application and there is a quick menu of options that allow you to create an SMS or an e-mail or copy the text to the system clipboard easily for use in other applications. This collaboration isn't too clunky and although dictating text into your phone is a little stilted it doesn't seem to be significantly less effective than my relatively crappy typing on the iPhone on-screen keyboard.
I am not sure I would make a habit of using it for writing long articles or even blog posts like this but I think it could prove to be quite useful for such purposes as short e-mail replies or even sending SMS messages in situations where it's inconvenient to type.
posted Sunday, January 29, 2012 at 22:02 by cms in computers, internet | 2 Comments »
According to wikipedia, the term "Churnalism" was first coined by a BBC journalist. I think they may still have journalists working there.
See how many items of product placement you can see in this proud piece of presumably PR-led "pop sci" about smart vending machines. I found it, prominently linked, on the BBC news home page on Boxing Day. The entire notion has a whiff that classic of white elephant puffery from the old school the internet fridge about it.
I don't know if I'm alone in finding this sort of thing repellant. The motivation to whip up this kind of nearly content-free guff into page length pieces must come from somewhere, which means a degree of specific intent. There's the skeleton of an interesting piece on mechanical learning and commercial interests buried in there somewhere, but I find it difficult to read when I keep being stabbed in the eyes by blatant marketing copy, much of which I uncharitably suspect of being pasted in directly from the source press-release. The focus of the piece ought to be on the science, perhaps some of the biometrics and algorithms supporting the interesting sounding audience impression metric (AIM) software, but that's given a throwaway mention; instead the article's centre of gravity seems distorted to orbit around some recently launched consumer products, with little depth of story. Weird details leave unanswered questions hanging. In what way is a new Jell-O SKU "Just for adults" to the extent that it requires a screening interview by femputer? Titillating teaser questions like this are familiar marketing devices used to capture and exploit base curiosity, but seem out of place in a news piece without any resolution. How does the system handle adults whose body shape diverges strongly from their defined four age brackets? What the merry heck is a general manager of personal solutions anyway?
I gave up counting the product placement incidents after the first couple of paragraphs. Only someone with intimate knowledge of the BBC house style rules would know just how many direct repetitions of the properly capitalized brand names Kraft and Intel are strictly necessary, but there seem to be an awful lot of them littering the piece. There's a lovely Intel i7 box graphic three-quarters of the way down the piece; it seems to me only tangentally related to the story, yet conveniently re-uses the branding iconography supporting their current consumer-targetted CPU line.
Like many a British license-fee payer, I have a peculiar, combative slightly proprietorial relationship with the BBC; being in some weird sense a stake-holder in this unique broadcasting organisation; pride mingles with a misplace sense of ownership, disappointment tangles with admiration. Once upon a time I viewed their web initiatives as exemplary, inspirational and essential. These days they seem increasingly overcooked, irrelevant, and misguided.
I realise, in a sense, I'm a grumpy old man ranting at the telly, but I think this tapering off of content quality provided by BBC online is a real thing. If so, a really worrying trend; added to this we have an effectively Conservative administration, who I'm sure would love to see the BBC, already in retreat, broken up further. Spreading out the more lucrative parts of the special quasi-monopoly, to their chums in commercial broadcasting whilst binning even more of the less lucrative parts in the name of austerity would fit in well with their principles of government.posted Thursday, December 29, 2011 at 16:30 by cms in internet | Comments Off
Some time in 1997 I decided to get a modem for my home computer and try and get back on the internet. I hadn't really been online for a couple of years by this point. I'd spent a good 60% of the time I was supposed to be at university exploring the net, at approximately the same time the world-wide-web was being invented. Subsequently, a few of the offices I'd done contract work in were high-tech enough to have an internet pipe, but the majority were not, and by 1997 I was a year or two into the embryonic stages of what I then imagined to be a high-flying enterprise IT career. There were are few dial-up terminals in the office, but they were proper walled-garden, pretend the web isn't happening, CompuServe accounts, and I mostly ignored them.
By the time 1997 came around, the internet was seriously encroaching upon the real world. URLs on product billboards, mainstream magazine articles, entirely dedicated consumer magazines, even. Java hype was everywhere in the trade media, and was getting a further boost up from the growing sense of discomfort about the disproportionate amount of influence Microsoft now wielded over the PC industry. I was pretty grumpy about Windows by this point. I'd cheerfully embraced it's third generation, as a standard way to build what were for the time fairly advanced interfaces for DOS, with a built-in graphical toolkit, and I was making my living building client/server applications for businesses, using a 4GL called 'Gupta SQLWindows', and a smattering of C and Visual Basic. The IDEs and the Win16 API were probably rudimentary, but I didn't know much better, and it was the closest thing to NEXTSTEP I'd found in a professional context. Then came Windows95, which promoted itself from a graphical shell for DOS, to a full-blown OS, which I found tremendously exciting until I'd worked with it for six months. All my tools and APIs were now yesterday's thing, and this new shiny Windows came with ridiculously inflated hardware requirements, and was frustratingly unstable. The joke term "Blue Screen Of Death" started to grate with familiarity. I grew insufferably contemptuous of Microsoft and everything it stood for.
At home I'd been running a linux system for a year or two. Linux had grown up fast since I'd first encountered it as a barely installable joke UNIX passed around the office one day on a handful of floppies. I'd spent a day installing it on a COMPAQ laptop then, and quickly judged it to be no competition for SCO. It improved and spread rapidly, and within a couple of years I was sufficiently inspired by reports to acquire a cheap PC clone and install, break, reinstall a succession of linux distributions, starting initially with a Slackware 2.something from a magazine coverdisc (Computer Shopper, I suspect). Now I had a religion; I'd periodically switch distributions, usually from a CD/Book bundle in the bargain bucket of the local waterstones, sometimes from a CD set ordered by mail. No net connection at home at all. Well, hardly anyone did, and there weren't yet any flat-rate or free dial-up systems.
By 1997 though, I felt I was ready. I bought a discounted 33.6 external modem, subscribed to an ISP that sounded platform neutral, and didn't rely on bundling DOS or Windows software dialers (Direct Connection, as was), and spent a surprisingly effortless afternoon figuring out how to connect my little linux system to the internet. This seems like it ought to have been a frustrating process, given that this was RedHat 2.x or whatever I was running by this point, and I had no internet to search for help, and no local experts to ask, but I seem to remember it being fairly trivial to set up and script a PPP connection. I think the first thing I downloaded was Netscape Navigator. Or maybe Doom. I remember setting up an offline USENET server, and then feeling my way around the web, hungry for more linux information. I would download any interesting software source code bundle I could find, and try and build it. I periodically toasted my linux box this way, inexpertly installing new homebuilt versions of libc or XFree86 with little attention to package management or change control, and not much more appreciation for the software build process. Outside of USENET the linux web community seemed disjointed. Little islands of conflicting information, often hanging off university home pages.
One day I found this amazing sort of crowd maintained combination of a news feed and a bulletin board, already populated with a peer group almost custom-fit for me. I think I can remember how I found it. I was using a little desk applet for the Afterstep window manager called asmodem that let me toggle my modem. I was very big on customising my desktop then. I looked up the author's home page, to see if there were any good links to other AS wharf applets. One of the links to there was to this other place. I remember I spent a couple of hours there, browsing around what passed for the archives. It wasn't just linux and X, there were other nerd-friendly topics. I don't remember much about the content. I remember being engrossed, and following stories and commentary back and forth, drinking in content. Unluckily I didn't make a bookmark, and a couple of days later I realised I couldn't remember what the site was called.
I think it took me as much as a couple of weeks to find it again. It had a stupidly hard to remember URL. http://slashdot.org/. I re-visited it frequently. It had a clever page construction, where the updates floated to the top, like a reverse INBOX. It aggregated interesting content, seemingly focused around linux, and GNU and other cool Free software like this new nuclear-mega-awk scripting language called Perl, and other nerdly content about movies, and sci-fi, and super-computers, and spaceships and BeOS. Stories were posted, usually based around a couple of links with commentary, and the users could add their own discussion in a threaded hierarchy, unmoderated, uncensored and even fully anonymously. I quickly became a compulsive visitor. Soon it was the first site I'd load after dialling up to the net.
The anarchic commenting community sort of worked. You'd recognise the same usernames in discussions. Actually, I'd recognise sigs before names. Most of the discussion was lucid and informative. I'd usually get as much from links in the comments as I would from the submission or editorial. Even the trolls seemed funny and community-minded. It had a sense of culture, of community. First Post! Duplicate submissions on the front page, Hot grits down your pants, The naked and petrified guy, Mae Ling Mak, Natalie Portman, the caveman user I'm struggling to recall the name of (urk?), In Soviet Russia, a Beowulf cluster, and all the rest. Memes, I suppose, but we didn't really call them that much then. The 'slashdot effect'. I remember every time there was a stable linux kernel point release, which was pretty frequently, they'd post a story about it, and I'd dutifully download the source, spend a couple of hours compiling it, and then install it, ruining my precious uptime in the process. JonKatz and his floundering attempts to become one of the gang.
I remember frequent stories about all these futuristic new desktop interfaces that were in the pipeline. GNUstep was well on the way to bringing my idolised NEXTSTEP frameworks into my home, cost-free. Futuristic new graphics display technologies (Berlin, Fresco). The amazing (and almost functional) eye-candy of the Enlightenment WM with it's realtime miniwindow pagers and overlayed virtual desktops. Some new initiative called GNOME which was going to bring a CORBA-based networked component GUI desktop framework to run on top of traditional UNIX some day. Funny submissions, hoax submissions. Disappointingly frequent pseudo-science stories about perpetual motion machines and cold fusion, and the like. Crack dot Com were writing their new game "Golgotha" that would blend the large scale RTS wargame with the cutting edge first-person mouselooked shooting genre, and they were targeting linux as a first class platform at launch. It was all intoxicating stuff, and I spent hours immersed in it, genuinely feeling some part of a community.
I was never a frequent poster. Initially I lurked, and dabbled with anonymity. I was very cautious about revealing too much of my personal information online in those days. I remember feeling really regretful for ages that I'd held off registering once I realised that people were competing over low UIDs. Still, here I am – user 24640 – 5 digits, not too bad. "scrutty" was the character I used to use on Perilous Realms MUD in my polytechnic days. I can't see any easy way to find my earliest comment by this account, and I can't remember what it was. Probably something embarrassing.
I remained pretty obsessed with the site for years. My friend Tim was reminiscing on Twitter yesterday about my introducing him to it. I can remember coming home from holiday abroad, internet-free of course, and deliberately reading the previous seven days submissions to make sure I hadn't missed anything. I quit my boring career and got a job at a cool dot com startup, just as things were bubbling up. Everyone there seemed to read slashdot reloading dozens of times a day. Important technology stories broke there hours before the mainstream news sites got hold of any of it, we were always days ahead of the 'suits' with these information nuggets. Famous people had accounts and posted amongst us (John Carmack! ESR! Bruce Perens! Neil Stephenson! Wil Wheaton!) which seemed really bizarre in those days long before twitter or official facebook accounts. Comment moderation arrived, and I remember submitting comments and then reloading frequently to check my karma score, which used to be visible numerically. Karma whoring inevitably arrived, and brought meta-moderation along with it. I was the first in our office to be selected as a meta-mod, and I remember feeling proud or cool or a massive nerd, or some composite emotion made of all three. I loved that the site was billed as news for nerds, a term I felt far more comfortable with than the more US-specific 'geek', which still grates on my ears a little.
I remember their IPO conducted in some kind of interestingly nerdy dutch auction system. I remember watching the stories of subsequent corporate ownership and acquisition and nervously watching the site for signs of imported cultural spoilage. I remember the Slashdot PT Cruiser. Slashdot was just a daily part of life, reflexively checked and rechecked. I submitted a handful of stories, but I don't remember ever getting one accepted. I remember Jim chuckling one day across the desk from me, because whilst running HEAD requests against slashdot.org to test a proxy server or something, he spotted that slashdot was inserting Futurama quotes into it's HTTP responses, as X-Fry or X-Bender headers. I remember feeling I was drifiting a little out of touch with the herd when they posted their famous iPod launch story.
I particularly remember that infamous afternoon in September, TeeJay looking over his screen at me and saying something about the Net being broken, and the World Trade Centre. All the news sites were down, but Slashdot just about stayed up enough for me to read about what was happening in New York city, and dash to the office kitchen to remain clamped, open-mouthed to the BBC news feed.
When I was formulating the boards at IMDb, slashdot was a gigantic influence on my design. Most obviously in the nested table thread structure, and the view options, but in some other subtler ways, that lead me to eschew the fiddly point scoring and filtering, and implement constant post expiry to try and prevent the conversation ossifying around the earliest, most repeated subset of views. We inadvertently spawned the GNAA, who went back to slashdot, forming a particularly weird and unpleasant slashdot troll subculture. The first time I watched as IMDb was in a slashdot home page story (probably LotR or a Star Wars prequel) I remember my disappointment at the somewhat smaller than I'd imagined size of the slashdot effect, I don't think they even made it into our top 100 referrers report. I was already visiting the site less often, I had my own enormous forum to worry about, and I'd switched back to using a Mac (which had become consumed by the latest iteration of my beloved OPENSTEP). I was still probably reading it most days a week, but posting far less.
I never quit completely. These days I'm probably down to a couple of visits a month, perhaps less than that. It still feels like an important part of my life, and I think it also represents an under-appreciated contribution to internet culture. It was the first blog-formatted site I recall ever seeing, although nobody called it that for years. It was the first successful news aggregation site to find a mainstream audience, and it unquestionably forged the the user-sourced content and discussion model template used by subsequent sites like Digg, Reddit and HN. I think it was a peer group for a huge number of people much like myself, and an important bridging stage for internet community culture in between USENET and the all-encompassing web. It was "Web 2.0" and "Social" years before they arrived. It really promoted a sense of belonging. I have never met Rob Malda, but I remember feeling elated all day, when he used slashdot to successfully propose marriage to his girlfriend, and yesterday when the surprising news broke about his resignation from the job he invented at the site he founded, it gave me far more pause than the more famous, wealthier man who grabbed all the headlines by resigning the same day.
Slashdot will endure, and I expect I will still visit it, sporadically. I'm not going to pretend it's as important to me today as it was even five years ago. I only just realised yesterday, that Rob Malda is one of my heroes, and I never even said "Thank You". Well, I have done now.posted Friday, August 26, 2011 at 20:28 by cms in history, internet | Comments Off