The delights of padded paper

A delightful excerpt from How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu. I’m aching in agreement.

“Look at that,” he said. “How the ink bleeds.” He loved the way it looked, to write on a thick pillow of the pad, the way the thicker width of paper underneath was softer and allowed for a more cushiony interface between pen and surface, which meant more time the two would be in contact for any given point, allowing the fibre of the paper to pull, through capillary action, more ink from the pen, more ink, which meant more evenness of ink, a thicker, more even line, a line with character, with solidity. The pad, all those ninety-nine sheets underneath him, the hundred, the even number, ten to the second power, the exponent, the clean block of planes, the space–time, really, represented by that pad, all of the possible drawings, graphs, curves, relationships, all of the answers, questions, mysteries, all of the problems solvable in that space, in those sheets, in those squares.

Google+/-: the importance of Apps users

This week, Google pre-launched its latest offering: Google+. Not wanting to mince words, its aim is to unseat Facebook as the social medium of choice.

I was lucky enough to be sent an invite by a Twitter follower/ee, which was sent to my Google Apps account as per my begging request. But it doesn’t work. Apparently my organisation does not support Google Profiles, a prerequisite for Google+.

And herein lies the problem. Google first offered Gmail, allowing people to get webmail on addresses. It then extended its webmail offering (Google Apps), allowing you to use Gmail as the interface for your email address. Poetry.

Many years later there lies chaos beneath Google users’ credentials. For many years, Apps users needed to maintain a Gmail account to access the likes of Google Reader. Reader is now integrated into the Google Apps offering, although there was no way (that I was aware of) of bringing across my Reader history—starred and shared items specifically—in the switch.

But as exemplified by Google+, Apps accounts still do not feature the full Google product set, this time Profiles being the missing link.

I understand, at a basic level, the issues that Google faces. Its professional offering, often paid for, is colliding with its “fun” offering. The former is formal, charged for and supported by SLAs—meaningless SLAs but SLAs nonetheless. The latter is free. If it doesn’t work, people can whinge but whinging about something that’s free is rather pointless.

Coupled with this is the complexity around organisations vs. individuals. Gmail users are individuals. Google Apps users are (or can be) controlled at the organisational level, administrators having control over the existence or otherwise of your account, together with what you can and can’t do with that account.

(Most Apps users I know are actually individuals not exploiting the company-level administration features that the product provides. But the fact that these features exist at all means that they need to be considered in the introduction of additional products under the Apps umbrella.)

It took the best part of a year after Gmail users were presented with the already long-awaited new Contacts interface before it hit Apps users. This is because of subtle yet important complexities around contact sharing within organisations and the like.

All of this means that Google Apps users, despite ultimately being (in my opinion) the holy grail for Google, often feel like the runt of the litter.

But with products as important to their future as Google+, Google will need to get much better at managing the introduction of such products to its Apps users if it wishes them to succeed.

Creating a date list

The other night, a friend called asking for some Excel help. I was in the car—hands-free—on the way home after a pretty lousy day. And the vision of some Excel trickery in the evening perked me up no end.

Down the side he had a bunch of sites. Across the top he had column headings for various activities that were to take place. And in the body of the table were dates—the date on which each activity would occur for each site.

It was a great way of capturing the data, but with 100 sites and 15 activities, once populated it was difficult to figure out what was due to happen on a day-by-day basis. He wanted a list of activities across all sites in chronological order. And he wanted this list to update (and re-order) with changes to the underlying data.

The remaining 20 minutes of the car journey saw me pondering. Getting a list of the 1500 activity–site combinations tagged with the date would be trivial. The INDEX function would allow me to number the rows and columns in the source data and pick the relevant value for each row. The tricky bit would be having that data auto-sort whenever anything changed in the source. So an activity front-loaded in the plan would be near the top of the list. But if someone suddenly shifted it back six months, the requirement was for it to automatically plummet down towards the bottom of the list.

I figured that I could use the RANK function to ascertain where the date sat in relation to the others. But then I faced the issue of multiple entries sharing exactly the same date—with 1,500 activities spread across six months, this was common. And then I remembered my post on breaking rank.

Breaking rank is an inelegant yet at the same time adorable method I came up with to differentiate between identical values for the purpose of sorting. If you add a random number between zero and one—RAND()—to every single date in the list, then the dates will not change, but their underlying values will. Dates are stored as numbers, 1 representing 1 January 1900, 2 representing 2 January 1900 and so on. (Today is 40,627 for what it’s worth.) So by adding a value between zero and one to a date, all you’re doing is being more precise about the time at which it is done. 40,627.5 was midday today, as an example, the 0.5 representing half a day.

But given that the dates are being displayed as dates rather than specific timestamps, the decimal extension matters not. But crucially, it makes every single date’s number unique in the list, and so the RANK function can identify the rank of each uniquely.

So in my interim working sheet, I had 1,500 rows. My dates were in column F, starting in F2. In G2 I simply created a random number: =RAND(). And after pasting the values over the random numbers, H2 became F2+G2. Now columns F and H looked identical (formatted as they were as dates), but column H had the artificial decimal precision. Finally, in column A, I ranked the dates against the range of dates: =RANK(H2,$H$2:$H$1501,1). The “1” at the end merely informs Excel to give the lowest ranking (1) to the earliest date, as opposed to the other way round. Columns C and E contained the site and the activity respectively.

In my final presentational sheet, I simply created a list of sequence numbers (in order), from 1 to 1,500. The subsequent three columns (date, site and activity) simply looked the sequence number in the Ranks column of the working sheet and brought back the appropriate value using a VLOOKUP.

Whenever dates in the master sheet are changed, the ranks in the working sheet will adjust accordingly and the final presentational sheet will reorder accordingly.

All in all, about half-an-hour’s work. (It’s taken longer to write this post.) But more importantly, as well as helping out a friend, it put some rather lovely fondant on what had previously been a pretty shit day.

Here’s an anonymised version of the finished article.

My services of choice for international teleconferencing

In my work, I have a need to call America, Ireland and mainland Europe a lot, both from my home and while “mobile”. I also need to arrange conference calls with people from all of the above. Two services make this experience seamless and fabulous. There are a few gripes—which I’ll highlight—but all in all the experience is positive.


Skype allows me to undertake VOIP calls from my mobile, a desk phone or my PC. Which is pretty damned useful.

While at home, I use the desktop application and use my laptop as the medium. The on-board speakers and microphone make this less like a traditional phone conversation, more like the experience of a speaker phone. The user interface is an absolute travesty, but once you’re on the call, all is good.

While out and about, I use my Skype To Go number as a route to my international target audience. There are very occasional issues with call quality, but in the main it does its job, and with speed-dial numbers, things are even easier. I dial a London number and then use the speed-dial facility or dial in full the international number, and we’re done. I used to use the Skype wireless app. from my iPhone, but generally, if I’m in wireless range (a prerequisite), I’ll have my laptop handy and choose to use that instead.

While at a desk phone from which I shouldn’t/can’t call internationally, I again use my Skype To Go number. If it’s an unregistered number (or one behind a gateway), I have to complete two further steps of authentication. If I’m dialing a non-speed-dial American number, this means typing 42 characters to get through, but that’s fine by me. (I’ve always been good at remembering numbers—my brother’s phone number in Germany 19 years ago was 010 49 221 2093 531, for example.)

Calls to American toll-free numbers are free, standard US numbers are 1.6p per minute, same for Luxembourg and Ireland.

The only thing I wish is that the desktop user interface was overhauled or that I could download a separate a third-party app. as my gateway into the Skype service.

I have my account set up to automatically top up every time it dips below £2 so I don’t have to worry about running out. Although mid-call the other day, it warned me of a failed payment (by debit card had expired), and I was able to register the new card and top up my balance during the call before it became an issue.


Powwownow adds teleconferencing to the mix. I have registered for their Enhanced Access service, which is as free as their Open Access feature but importantly adds international dial options to the standard 0844 dial-in. The model is that every participant helps pay for the service being provided.

I used to use the Open Access package, but used to cringe at the thought of the 20p per minute cost when forced to dial the 0844 number from my mobile. Even using Skype, it was 8.1p per minute.

With the Enhanced Access service, somewhat counter-intuitively I call a regular American number to access the UK service. And doing so over Skype gives me the 1.6p per minute rate.

Conference calling with AT&T does not seem to allow Skype access—the participant code is not picked up properly. This is not an issue for Powwownow.

The combination of the two services gives me complete freedom for calling and conference calling wherever I am. I’m told that Google Voice and Video Chat might be a good replacement for Skype. And this integration with my Google Apps Contacts would certainly be welcome. But for the time being, I’m happy.

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.

How the BBC might personalise its content

I have a dream.

I’d like to be able to rate my interest in the categories in BBC News.  On a scale of 1–10, say.

Upon being published, the BBC will score every single story on an importance/significance scale of 1–10.  And articles will automatically be given a recency score, from 10 (breaking news) to 1, a couple of days old.

In putting together my personalised BBC News homepage, the BBC will multiply these three scores together for each article: my interest * importance * recency.  So each article gets a score out of 1,000.  And articles will be presented to me according to that score.

A similar methodology could be used for the BBC Sport site, with articles about sports I’m not overly interested in only coming to the fore when there’s little else going on, or if they’re sufficiently significant/recent to trump my content of interest.

Sound sensible?

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