Subscribing to news threads

There is, in my opinion, something quite fundamental missing from online news services. Maybe it’s there and I’m not aware of it. Or maybe it genuinely is missing.

I’d like to register an interest in a news story. And I’d like to be actively kept abreast of developments in that news story.

There are certain stories that have a timeline, most notably those involving the judicial system. Someone is killed, someone is arrested in connection with that murder, they’re released and bailed, a second person is later arrested and charged, there is a trial, a conviction etc.

And people are declared ill, their illness progresses, either positively or otherwise, and each key moment carries a news story.

I’d like to be able to subscribe to a news thread in which I’m interested. And I’d like to be pushed updates to that news thread, whether those updates are days, weeks, months or years later. I’d rather not rely on actively pulling the news on the day on which the story evolves.

The feature would rely on the news outlet (likely the BBC) deciding whether a story was related to an earlier news story. But I trust them to do this. I trust them to link together the Jimmy Savile–related investigations, those of the Huhne–Pryce story, the horsemeat saga, the phone hacking fiasco etc.

Does this service exist? And if not, should it?

On a related topic, there are some stories that simply end prematurely. The news breaks, but there is no follow-up. It’s more prevalent in the lower-profile local news. But it’s frustrating to say the least.

One notable example in my life was the cycling accident that occurred near Clapham Common on 10 October. Save my own blogpost, there was only one story of the accident at the time, in the Wandsworth Guardian. It spoke of the possibility that the cyclist might lose the use of her arm as a result of the injuries she suffered.

I would very much like to read of her progress.

Using hashtags for metadata

Throughout my time working with the civil service, people have bemoaned the problem of metadata. Metadata simply isn’t captured in documents. Users don’t have the inclination to do so. And a centralised resource to do the same would be both expensive and, likely, ill-placed to tag documents appropriately.

In Twitter, we use metadata despite only having 140 characters within which to do so. Hashtags are themselves pieces of metadata.

So what if hashtags were used in documents. Not as tags at the beginning or end of a document, because that requires a specific effort beyond the creation of the document. Instead, hashtags littering the body of the document itself. CamelCase would again take off like it was the mid-90s, given the need for spaceless tags, but that’s a small price to pay.

Document viewing software could repurpose hashtags as regular text, both for reading and for printing. But critically, the tags would be there to categorise documents and to give glee to librarians the world over.

My view is that if people take the effort in tweets, then they’re equally likely to do so in documents if the effort is minimal (one key-press) and the reward is clear.

Or in this technologically advanced world, is metadata a thing of the past?

The seven day working week

The five day working week simply isn’t long enough. It’s not about the amount of work you can get done per se. It’s about the amount of time between weekly status updates. You see, more often than not, project status updates occur weekly. And for one project I’m working on, I have to allow time to compile data for the reports, and time to socialise and agree it with the US taking into account a five hour time difference, all of this while working part-time on the project.

Together, these factors mean that an inordinate percentage of time is spent reporting, with too little time dedicated to the “doing” that makes this week’s report different from last week’s.

Rather than eat into weekends, which would likely be an unpopular move, I’m proposing that the full week is increased from seven to ten days in length, three of which will form the weekend. There will be 36.5 (or 36.6) weeks per year. Let’s leave the months as they are—don’t want to go too wild.

Weekends will make up 30% of time (up from 28.3% under the current regime). The weekdays will be named Monday, Pluday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Bacday and Friday; the weekends Saturday, Danday, Sunday. Wednesday will still fall in the middle of the working week with Pluday (named after Pluto, the God of Wealth, a day of earning) being slotted in before Tuesday and Bacday (after Bacchus, the God of Wine, an evening of drinking) being slotted in after Thursday. Bacday will be the new Thursday. Danday has been named after me in honour of me providing everyone with an extra weekend day. Everyone must raise a glass in my honour at least once during that day.

It will be a long working week, but the three day weekends will make it all worthwhile.

Who’s with me? We’re looking to re-baseline on Monday 1 January, 2012. (It would have been a Sunday, but we’re re-baselining, remember?)

Changing space/time for fire engines

The world is an inefficient place.  If fire stations are positioned such that all places can be reached within a specified length of time, then their circular catchment areas necessarily overlap, assuming that distance from the fire station is directly proportional to time taken to get there.

It would be much better if space/time was warped such that fire engines could reach every point around the perimeter of a square within a specified length of time.  That would make for a much more efficient fire service.

Map of places in songs

A couple of weeks ago, I created a My Map in Google Maps.  I put a single marker on it, labelled Up the Junction, Squeeze.  The marker sat on the south-west corner of the junction between St. John’s Road and St. John’s Hill, where JD Sports now stands.

The map was created to depict references to places in songs—either in the song title or in the lyrics therein.  I invited a handful of friends to collaborate on the map, and I’m happy to say that it’s now up to 379 icons, representing places mentioned in 227 different songs.  (The KLF’s It’s Grim Up North accounted for an impressive 66 markers alone.)

The markers are colour-coded by musical genre, and collaborators are asked to follow a short list of rules to maintain the map’s integrity.

Our most northerly markers thus far are Siberia Khatru by Yes, and Frank Black’s White Noise Maker, in which Siberia is also mentioned.  Our only Antarctican reference is Ross Dependency, mentioned in Enya’s Orinoco Flow (apparently).

Phase 2 of the project is about to begin, in which a wider set of people will be invited to contribute.  If you’d like to be a part of history, drop me a comment, or an email, and I’ll add you to the list.

The first e-orchestra?

I’ve wondered recently whether a group of musicians could perform together live online.

The problem with playing music is that you need the feedback of the other players in order to understand where you are in the piece, and to react meaningfully to the circumstances of the piece.  With an orchestra, each member works in harmony with the others (often literally), compensating for balance changes and working with the imperfections that are inherent with human-created music.  If the tempo is slightly faster than you’d expected, you don’t resolutely stick to the tempo you know to be correct.  If your instrument is tuned slightly flat, you can compensate (with stringed instruments, at least) by playing sharp.  And if your fellow members are drowning you out, you can play slightly louder to ensure your section can be heard.

If you set the 50 members of an audience off on the same piece of music at exactly the same time without any feedback along the way, they’d all end at different times and the result would be a cacophony.  Hence the need for a conductor.

So what if we had an online orchestra, each member playing in physical isolation from their fellow members, connected only by the internet.

Here lies the problem.  Your fellow members need your audio feed to be played to them to allow them to play their own piece in an informed way; and you need your fellow members’ respective feeds to be played to you to allow you to play in an informed way.

Even in an orchestra that is collocated of course, the finite speed of sound means that there isn’t the immediate feedback.  Assuming an orchestra pit 14 metres in diameter, the harps (stage left) won’t hear what the double basses (stage right) were up to for a whopping 0.04 seconds.  (At sea-level, at least.)  With the internet, we’re dealing with the speed of light (880,991 times faster than sound), but with a physical distribution greater than 14 metres, and processing steps in between.

So here’s my question: if everyone had a pretty decent broadband connection and a musical feed piped directly into something internet-enabled, how long would it take for the feeds from the c. 50 members that make it up to be amalgamated and piped back to the people?  If it’s a small fraction of a second, then we’re in business.

If so, then I propose getting out my dusty old violin (not a euphemism) and arranging what might be the first orchestra never to meet.  Maybe on Twitter.  To inform whether or not to do this, I’ve constructed a detailed decision-tree.

Techies, is this doable?

If yes, then: Musicians, are you interested?

Else: sorry to have wasted your time.  Carry on.

News story subscription: good idea?

The internet promotes transience.

Everything is now on-demand.  We can access whatever we want, wherever we want (give or take), which means we flit from one thing to another, whether it’s between news stories, applications, sites.

I find this behaviour particularly troubling when it comes to news.  We read a story, or possibly a snippet of a story, show some brief empathy, and then invariably move on, our attention span defined by the time for which the news provider carries the story.

With the G20 protests, for example, there was reporting in the run-up to the event, followed by significant coverage during the event as police clashed with protesters.  There was a brief lull in reporting thereafter, until news surfaced of the man who suffered a heart-attack after being grounded by a policeman.  Several further stories of alleged abuse at the hands of police emerged over the subsequent days, after which the story seemed to come to a close.

There were no events thereafter that the BBC deemed worthy of a news article.  So the chapter is closed, for the time being at least.

I’m sure there are various investigations underway and that the IPCC is busy doing something in some offices somewhere.  But I don’t have any easy visibility into this until the next event that the news channels deem sufficiently significant.

I remember the same trend for the investigation into the death of Jean Charles de Menezes.  There were brief periods of reporting interrupting long periods of silence.  The sporadic reporting pattern is also common for crimes that have an ensuing trial, with subsequent sentencing.

It would be great if I could “subscribe” somewhere to news stories in which I’m interested and see a timeline of things that have happened, and things that are due to happen, newsworthy or otherwise.  I’m thinking of some visual timeline similar to that seen in Google Finance, key points being highlighted and clickable.  Perhaps Twitter has a role to play in identifying historic times at which significant events occurred.  And in a Wikipedia-style, maybe enthusiasts could be responsible for writing, and self-policing, the future timeline.  (Another nail in the newspapers’ respective coffins.)

Does such a service exist?  Would there be a market for one?

The hybrid, fixed price/T&M deal

In IT project delivery, there are two common commercial models.  Time and materials, or T&M, involves the client paying the supplier a day-rate for each person day they spend on the project, along with any expenses incurred along the way.  Fixed price involves the supplier quoting a fixed cost for a given scope upfront, and the client paying that fee, whether the supplier completes their obligations in lightning time or they take forever to complete the scope.  Each model comes with flaws.

In T&M, this is guaranteed income for the supplier, income that has been underwritten by the client.  So, within reason, the supplier can dawdle, making  a job that would usually take them five days last seven.  It means that the developers are fully utilised for longer, which is important to the supplier.

With the fixed price model, the supplier is encouraged to get the scope completed as fast as possible once the quote has been accepted.  This frees up the resources to be used on other accounts or other pieces of work, maximising their profit margin.  FTW.

These are very simplistic viewpoints, not allowing for morals, doing the right thing, strategic partnership and all of that bollocks, but you get the picture.

It seems that the models are flawed for almost diametrically opposite reasons.  The former promotes due diligence, attention to detail, code reviews up the ying-yang, oodles of governance etc.  The latter arguably compromises many of these necessary disciplines, getting the product ready for shipment as quickly as possible.

So, why don’t clients opt to pay the difference between the two?  The supplier still provides a fixed price quote—£100,000, for example.  If the T&M cost is lower than the quote (£80,000, say), then the client will pay £90,000.  If the T&M comes in higher (£150,000), then the client will pay £125,000.

It makes sense.  The supplier is rewarded for getting things done quickly, but this reward is less than it would have been under the fixed price model.  And if there is an over-run, the client will contribute towards the additional cost, but the supplier will still suffer as they would have done under a fixed price model, only to a lesser degree.  The model seems to remove, or at least reduce, the drivers of perverse behaviour.

It’s probably not a new concept—some form of risk/reward share between the two parties.  But it was sufficiently revolutionary—to me at least—to interrupt my intense dozing-off activity last night to allow me to tap the idea into my iPhone.

Alt tags should be funny

There was a picture of Earth on my client’s intranet site the other day. It was quite clearly not a photo, as it was surrounded by a circle of light to make it stand out all the more from the black background of space.

It bore the Alt tag “Earth, as seen from space”, which displayed on hover, consigned as I was to using the travesty that is IE. The clear mistruth represented by the tag got me thinking about a theme I’ve pondered numerous times before: alt tags should be funny.

Blind people have life hard enough. An entire sense is missing and with all of the accessibility technology in the world, their experience will always fall somewhat short of that of a sighted user. (Although they will never experience the blinding orange of Directgov, so maybe it does have some blessings.)

So to enhance their experience in other ways, why not make the alt text for images funny? The Earth picture might be tagged “Earth, surrounded rather bizarrely by a ring of fire”. The attractiveness or otherwise of people in photos might be referenced. (“Distressingly ugly ginger chap walking, to the cosmetic surgery, perhaps”, for example.) The world’s your oyster and you might just enrich the web experience for some of your users.

Maybe it’s not a technique to be advocated on all sites, but some could doubtless benefit.

A new definition of primes

I had a discussion over email a while ago with someone I finally met today about whether the number 2 is prime.  Let’s call him James.  His real name is James.

A prime is usually defined as a number greater than or equal to two that is divisble by 1 and itself.  People often take issue with the arbitrary lower limit set, which is there to avoid 1 being prime which would almost certainly cause the world to end—the likely wider consequences are far greater.  But I’ve never had a discussion with anyone about whether 2 is prime.  It just is.

To avoid any doubt over 1’s primeness (and indeed that of its next door neighbour, 2), I’ve never understood why the definition isn’t changed to the following:

Any number divisible by exactly two positive integers.

It would work wonderfully and save all sorts of deep and meaningfuls among mathematicians.  Actually, maybe that’s why the definition’s never been changed.

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