Ivy Bean and gone

Ivy Bean was a star. After receiving her telegram from the Queen, she adopted social media, starting with Facebook and, like many of her younger peers, moving to Twitter.

I loved her tweets. They were innocent, describing the minutiae of life in a care home. And there was never an expectation of anything other than that. Ivy had the perspective of someone whose glass was full to the brim. Her tweets were a beautiful and welcome injection into a stream from which I was otherwise looking for insight and interesting links. From anyone else, I would probably have considered the tweets too trivial to bother with and unfollowed without a second thought. But @ivybean was not someone who could be unfollowed. That would have been sacrilege.

Below are some of the tweets that made her a joy to follow.

im having ham salad for tea

hello everybody hope you are all ok

sorry its only a short tweet and not done a lot over last few weeks but the wether is so nice its good to sit out

had a visit from our sandra yesterday she brought some parkin which we had with our cuppa it was very nice pat had the biggest piece

hello everybody sorry not been in touch but been having a few problems with laptops and internet. hope everybody is enjoying the sun

its been really busy in Hillside this week, the lounges have been decorated and we have got new curtains, it looks lovely

Edith has just received her telegram from the queen

time for a cup of tea and biscuit i think

i used the prime ministers private toilet in his study too

We’ll miss you, Ivy Bean.

BBC News: you win some, you lose some

BBC online may have just saved itself.  For iPhone users at least.

Earlier this month, BBC News launched its new offering.  While the information architecture of the site didn’t undergo a change, the navigation into that information architecture was turned upside down.  Side menus were moved to the top, while the navigational elements within the body of the homepage were unrecognisable.  And the site sucks on an iPhone where the previous site was easily navigable.  My review of the changes can be found here.

As is often the case with such wholesale changes, people reacted badly.  People don’t like change.  And when it’s something as beloved as the BBC website—an offering that has generated affinity and affection in keeping with its offline brand—the reaction to the change is all the more vociferous.  But usually this reaction calms down as people get used to, nay sometimes begin to prefer, the new offering.  (As an aside, I loved the previous redesign in March 2008 from the moment I set my eyes on it.)

With this change, there has been no such calming.  Three weeks in, the people who I know and trust still don’t like it.  It’s still confusing and unintuitive, and the BBC has ruled out reverting to the previous incarnation.

To address my frustration at the user experience of the site on the iPhone, I downloaded the newly launched BBC News iPhone app.  And I have to say, it’s lovely—at least in comparison to the disgrace that is the website.  And it also addresses head-on the Adobe issue, its video footage being accessible through the application.

But I’m still annoyed with the website from my laptop.  And I can’t see this going away.  And so for the time being, the Guardian will be the source of a greater proportion of my online news absorption.

Why for me, Twitter beats Facebook

Twitter is wonderful in a way that Facebook isn’t.

Facebook allows you to connect to people you know. It’s quite a personal thing housing pictures, thoughts and details that you likely wouldn’t want to give random people access to. So you’re quite discerning about those you invite to be your “friend” (for want of a better word) and those from whom you accept similar invites.

Twitter on the other hand is less personal. People’s profiles are generally quite vague and while many write about the minutiae of life, thoughts are generally not sufficiently detailed to tie to an individual. Its primary use, certainly among those people I follow, is to disseminate information that other people might find interesting.

This less personal feel that forms the basis of Twitter rather oddly promotes the creation of new friendships in a way that Facebook doesn’t. Facebook attempts to maintain existing friendships in a virtual world, and with its 500 millionth user recently signing up, it’s arguably rather successful in that mission. But the looseness of Twitter allows you to follow people you don’t know, strike up relationships with people you’ve never met and form alliances with those people based around common interests (and quirks).

With Facebook, what was real becomes virtual. With Twitter, what was virtual becomes real.

And this is what I love about Twitter. It extends your friend-base as opposed to enriching your existing friend-base. It’s almost like a social outlet in its own right. I can find people interested in Excel, in social media, in data mapping, in fatherhood, in iPhones, music, numbers and engage with them meaningfully on those very subjects.

Everybody move

If everyone inhabited a strip of the earth 15 degrees wide stretching from the Arctic to Antarctica (I’d suggest Europe/Africa to maximise land; N and S America are deceptively not on top of one another latitudinally), then we’d all be in the same time zone, and no other time zones would be of interest.

Here’s the maths to support the argument:

It’s quite a big project to make this happen, but I think I’ve presented enough of a business case for someone to start running with this. High-level plan anyone?

The new BBC News homepage: my take

BBC News launched their new look and feel last week.  I immediately loved the previous major re-branding, in March 2008, and here’s the glowing review I gave it.

On first impressions, I disliked last week’s re-branding.  So I allowed a week before passing comment, to allow it to grow on me.

It hasn’t.  And here’s my review.  The review focuses entirely on the News homepage.

First impressions were drawn to its overt redness.  It’s way redder than its predecessor, the header that houses the three main navigational tools lacking the subtlety of before.  (For reference, the “before” view can be seen in the link to its review above.)  And when news breaks, a further red strapline at the top only goes to accentuate this.  Maybe over time this will become white noise.  But for the time being, it distracts the eye and takes it away from the site’s content.  Embedding the navigation in the header is, however, successful in widening the real estate available for content though.

Now to the typography.  It comes across as amateurish.  The contrast in size between the clickable title of the headline news article and its summary is way too great.  And the very size of the title makes its on-hover underline plain ugly.  They appear to have moved from a Verdana-esque font to Arial, which may be more web-friendly but only serves to make the content less visible, to me at least.

The main news items are more difficult to absorb.  The pictures that previously accompanied the lead three articles gave context, allowing elements of the article’s subject to be inferred without the need to read the entire summary.  This sounds lazy—and maybe it is—but it is a symptom of how people absorb information nowadays.  I do like the tag showing which articles are “new”, as previously, a new story that was not deemed important enough to make the top three could easily be lost among the lesser stories.

The right-hand column interests me little. Maybe as video becomes yet more prevalent online, I will find myself clicking more over there, but for the time being, that column, above the fold at least, is almost redundant to me.  It’s very orange though.

Besides the Sport link in the top navigation, nothing sport-related makes its way above the fold unless a sports story makes mainstream news (e.g. yesterday’s Open result).  I think this is a crying shame, particularly given the BBC’s deserved reputation in this field.

Below the fold, I get lost in a heap of yet more confusion.  There isn’t sufficient visual distinction between the Also in the News section and Sport.  And the lack of any tags against any of the Sport headlines means you have to know your stuff and may result in confusion.  Surfaced articles such as Wigan sign Melbourne trio, without the Rugby League tag, will cause confusion.

The grey localisation box (after all, it’s location based rather than being based on anything any more specific about my person) is a half-arsed attempt at personalised news.  Down the right, again general confusion is the order of the day until you hit the familiar and loved Most Popular box, which straddles the second fold, on this laptop at least.

The lead stories from the site’s main sections (Business, Politics, Technology etc.) are stacked four abreast, lesser citizens in a homepage stripped of any sense of order.  And the iPlayer gets some airtime in the bottom right corner, almost an afterthought.

Look at the site on an iPhone, and as well as being unable to access any of the video content because of the Apple/Adobe stand-off, you’re confronted with a site that is difficult to navigate, with lots of vertical and horizontal scrolling and general difficulty getting close to any of the content.

Overall, the homepage is a mess.  It lacks structure, order and any meaningful visual differentiation.  And I miss its predecessor dearly.

Hiatus over

My blog has suffered of late. Years back, my writing was prolific, in the abundant sense if not in the quality sense. On average I was tapping in almost a post a day and in the main enjoying it hugely.

But over the last few months, my post count has dropped off significantly. This has, to varying degrees, been a result of general busyness, lack of interesting things to share (when has that ever stopped me?), the non-seasonal seasonality that affects bloggers and Twitter. Twitter is easily accessible, requiring little forethought. Ideas that might otherwise over time stew and percolate, taking on a life of their own, are instead shared via sub-140 character snippet and moments later forgotten—in most cases by both the reader and the author.

But more recently, blog posts (for the posts themselves are not blogs, despite the wonts of many of their writers and the ensuing boiling of my blood) have started coming to the fore again. I’m enjoying my blog again and am finding things to write about that inspire me and, hopefully, that inspire the odd reader out there. For I’m guessing you all must be odd.

I’ll be making a conscious effort to resist the temptation that the immediacy of Twitter offers and pushing more d my thoughts, views and tangential ramblings blogwards.

So stay tuned.

The Express’s “ethnics” article: my take

The front page of today’s Daily Express carried the following lead article:

One in 5 Britons will be ethnics

It went on to expound that ethnic minorities would increase from their current eight percent level to 20% by 2050.

To be fair to the Express, none of the messages in the article itself were inflammatory.  The article was very much information-based, its facts taken from a three-year study by the University of Leeds.  Martin Belam has questioned the basis of much of the statistical analysis, which itself is an issue, but let’s ignore that for the moment.

The issue with the article centres around a single letter.  The final letter of the headline.  The “S” of ethnics.

They will doubtless argue that the term ethnics was used as a convenient abbreviation of ethnic minorities, one that helped with the punchiness of the headline and helped fit it into the space available.  I vehemently oppose that stance.  The use of the word ethnic as an adjective is not offensive, as exemplified in the term ethnic minorities.  So simply taking off the S would have allowed the headline to fit into the space available, while diffusing the impact of the headline.

But by switching from an adjective (ethnic) to a noun (ethnics), the newspaper has completely changed the emphasis of and people’s takeaway from the article.  Ethnics immediately comes across as a pejorative term, one filled with hatred, malice and negativity.  In isolation, some might read the headline “One in 5 Britons will be ethnic” with a positive spin (multiculturalism etc.).  But no one could ever read the headline “One in 5 Britons will be ethnics” with a warm, fuzzy feeling.

A good proportion of those exposed to the headline will not have read any further than that headline—as exemplified by the example Martin cites.

If the Express had any morals—bear with me—it would be utterly ashamed of the inclusion of the redundant, inflammatory S.  But instead, it will continue to publish such articles, along with its beloved rival the Daily Mail, inciting racial hatred (itself a crime) and stunting the growth of this country.  As Charlie Brooker so eloquently put it:

To be fair it’s hard writing headlines against the clock with limited space to get your message across, when you’re a thick racist c*nt.

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

The River Twitter

My good friend Alan wrote:

Twitter, for me, is a river.  Every so often you step in and watch the flotsam drift by.  Sometimes there is stuff that you pick up and look at, rarely you keep it to examine later.  But what came before and came after is lost to the ocean of debris.

I love the analogy.  Your Twitter feed is like a river.  Whether or not you’re present to witness it, it keeps on flowing.  And for anyone following more than a hundred or so people, keeping up with every snippet every day is a pointless goal.

Instead, just as with a river, you pop along every so often—to admire the view, to watch the boats pass, to see how the sun is glistening on the water.  You might even take off your shoes and have a paddle.  But however often you go back, the river will always be flowing, there’ll always be something new to take in, and you’ll always be welcome to get your feet wet, skim some stones or dive right in.  That’s what I love about Twitter—and rivers.

Huddle’s confusing nomenclature

In SharePoint, if you want to edit a file, you check it out.  And when you’re done, you check it back in.  It makes sense.  It works.

In Huddle, if you want to edit a file, you lock it.  And when you’re done, you unlock it.  I find this far more confusing.

I understand the rationale for Huddle’s choice in nomenclature.  In locking a file, you are preventing other people from editing it.  And when you unlock it, those with permissions are again entitled to edit it.

But it would make equal sense to me if the terms were reversed.  I might unlock a file to edit it—just as I would unlock a bike to ride it—and then lock it when I’m done.

The terms they’ve chosen result in a slightly confusing user experience.

Tag-stacking: happy days

Today I undertook some more awesome analytics.

I received some data at lunchtime courtesy of one of my more distant Twitter connections.  I’d been recommended to her by one of her Twitter-hungry ex-colleagues as a trusted member of the government community (I think), and importantly as someone who knows their way around Excel.

The data was very high profile—its basis has adorned the front page of BBC News in the not-too-distant past—but I won’t divulge any more information about its contents, nor those requesting the analysis.  Suffice to say it had nothing to do with school repairs.

Here’s the challenge I faced.

There were over 10,000 rows of data.  And there was a single column at the end that contained comma-separated tags for each record.  And the most tag-heavy record was furnished with a smidgeon over 200 tags.  My mission was to create a single list of tags, together with their frequencies.

The first step was to get each tag into a separate cell.  Data | Text to Columns allowed me to declare the comma as the separator, and what was a single column became 209 columns of data.  But there wasn’t an easy way to stack these that I could think of.

So I went for a wee.  And suddenly thought of an ideal solution.

The ADDRESS function brings back the A1-style (or even an R1C1-style, if you choose) cell reference.  So =ADDRESS(2,3) will bring back the cell reference of row 2, column 3, i.e. “C2”.

But it brings this back as text.  Which is where the INDIRECT function comes into play.  INDIRECT takes some text and interprets it as a formula.  So =INDIRECT(C2) will give you the contents of C2.

Combine the two, and you have:

=INDIRECT(ADDRESS(2,3))

This will bring back the contents of cell C2.  But if you make the two arguments of the ADDRESS formula themselves into cell references, you have dynamite.

So I created two columns, one to contain the row references of the tags and one containing their column references.  The rows data contained 209 1s followed by 209 2s, 209 3s etc. until we hit 10,000.  The columns data contained the numbers 1 through 209, repeated 10,000 times.

2,144,967 rows of data (to be precise) were too much for Excel 2007, so I had to break it into three chunks.  A minor inconvenience.

Applying the above formula to each of those row/column combinations brought back every single tag in a list, with zeros where there was no tag.  (I.e. a record with five tags would have those listed followed by 204 zeros.  Not the most efficient mechanism maybe, but it worked.)

The three tag-lists were sorted, the zeros removed and the resulting lists were stacked upon one another.  A simple PivotTable then gave me the frequency count for each tag.  Over 25,000 tags in total (the zeros having been removed), made up of over 6,000 unique values.

One satisfied customer.  And one satisfied analyst.  Happy days indeed.

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