Monday, July 31, 2006

Gender Is Irrelevent

I'm a regular reader of Roger Kondrat's blog, Technological Winter. Today, he posted about a recent conference called BlogHer '06, organised by the BlogHer community - their website's byeline is apprently "Where the women bloggers are".

I was very interested in Roger's comment "Blogher was interesting for me.. ..I mean as someone that doesn’t think male or female, I just read what I read". And I think you've hit the nail on the head there, Roger. Why should the blogger's gender matter? I believe exactly the same. I read what I read and that's that. Sometimes you can't event tell the gender of the blogger, (it's one of the upsides of web anonymity, if you wish to be so). And I was wondering what makes a woman sign up for a blog precisely because it's hosted by/for women?

I've always worked in very male-dominated industries. My first job was a broadcast engineer for the BBC, where around 10% of the workforce was female. I never felt I was treated differently as a women, and certainly didn't find any prejudices in evidence. If you were good at your job, no one cared if you were a woman, you still got the respect you deserved. And I would never have wanted to be cut any breaks on the basis of my sex - don't get me started on "positive discrimination".

Now I'm still in a male-dominated profession - web design and development. At least, the design part is populated by quite a few more women, even if they aren't so much in evidence on the development side of things (at least, that's my experience). I reckon it's about 20% women where I currently work. But again, if you're any good, you could be a small, furry creature from Alpha Centauri and nobody would bat an eyelid.

Robert Scoble attended the conference, and his write-up suggests that perhaps women are using BlogHer because the tools are easier to pick up. But I have to ask, how hard is it to use Blogger, WordPress etc?

I have a very dear friend, who is a self-confessed technophobe. We've known each other since we were 11. At school, I was always the techie one, she the arty one. She majored in English & French Literature and went on to complete her PhD in that area, and now teaaches at one of the UK's top universities. She hates computers with a passion - only using them when she has to (for writing, that is probably rather more than she would like). Which is why, when I visited her a few months ago, I was absolutely astounded to learn she has a blog of her own, LitLove. And a very fine one it is too. In a few short weeks she has engaged in tremendous debates with other like-minded folk. And she has got to grips with the WordPress publishing system with great success. So obviously, it can't be that difficult to get a blog going, if you're passioiniate enough about your subject.

So what am I really trying to say here? Probably, that ultimately, it's all about the content of your blog that really matters. Not where it's hosted, or what gender you happen to be. Personally, I'd much rather infiltrate the "male domain" that is the mainstream blogsphere than find myself in what is little better than a female ghetto! I am glad I was educated in a co-ed environment, and never wanted to go to an all-girls school - they can get pretty catty at times ;-)

Friday, July 21, 2006

Atom Or RSS?

I'm thinking of providing XML feeds from my two photographic websites, and I have a clean sheet, and could either use the Atom standard or RSS. So which is best? Are there any significant differences? I've heard rumours that Atom is somehow "better" but RSS is more widespread. It's the old VHS vs Betamax chestnut rearing its head again! And I don't really want to be on the wrong end of the seesaw in the future.

I suppose I could take the line that, if it's good enough for the BBC, it's good enough for me, and go with RSS. Although plenty of sites such as Blogger provide their feeds as Atom.

Do any of you have a choice over which format you use? And if so, which one did you plump for and why? I'd be interested to hear your thoughts

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

SharePoint & Enjoy

No, not the slogan from the Marketing Division of Sirius Cybernetics Corp...

I was at a Microsoft SharePoint 2007 demo today. We were treated to lots of glossy PowerPoint slides and a stand-alone demo, but it all flashed by pretty quickly. The product seems to be very versatile with inifinite possibilities, but I think it will sink or swim depending on the amount of time given to proper configuration. Much business analysis would also need to be done to accurately guague what features are appropriate for your particular setup, and how best they may be implemented.

As an Enterprise Content Management system, it seems (at first look) quite comprehensive. It has native Web Content Management capabilities out of the box (my particular sphere of interest), as well as tons of other integration with the Office 2007 suite of apps.

The system is held together by the Plaform Services which handles things such as workspace, security, topology and the site model. Around this links the six main functional sections:

  • Collaboration - enables wikis, blogs, calendars, tasks and other Outlook integration
  • Portal - the Enterprise Portal, tailored content for users and their MySites area
  • Search - scalable search with tabbed contextual results - such as data (documents), people, business.
  • Content Management - integrates the document and records management functions, retention policies, workflow etc
  • Business Forms - allows rich XML web forms to gather data for workflows etc
  • Business Intelligence - allowing server-based Excel analysis, reporting of KPIs, data visualisation etc
The system runs ASP.NET 2.0 with SQL Server; MasterPages provide templates for content (in the portal itself or for web publishing); there are also database services (for interaction with other external databases), search services, and workflow services. Unlike the 2003 implementation, the 2007 release is fully customisable in terms of layout, branding etc.

Making It Look Nice
The overlayed CSS skins can be edited with the SharePointDesigner package. This is apparently an "upgrade" to FrontPage (which the Microsoft man admitted was "crap" - tell us something we don't know!). The CSS works in conjuction with the ASP.NET Master Pages. Content and presentation layers are fully separated, such that the XML services (Web Parts play a Big Part) are consumed by the ASP.NET Master Pages, which are then styled with the required CSS.

Content Types
Each content type can be configured at setup to require (or not) additional meta data to be saved with the file, by defining a document template. Out of the box, there are also a number of built-in behaviours associated with each content/document type (these were not elaborated on further).

Easy Peasy
Designing a customised web page within the portal is as easy as dragging and dropping the Web Parts onto a page - provided you have the correct permissions to do so. The system will also integrate with other document management systems such as Documentum. Offline integration with Outlook enables a user to take documents (or even whole websites) offline to work on (they can be checked out or just copied), then when they are back in connectivity with the server, they will be updated as appropriate. Last Saved Wins! (if the file was not checked out) Although, there is a facility in Word 2007 which will highlight the changes made between versions of a document to aid comparisons.

I asked how accessible the system was - and the reply was "it depends how you implement it". Microsoft nicely passing the buck to those looking after the system! Also, the more freedom you give to local editors of content (devloved content provision being the point of it all, really) potentially the more problems you may have with accessibility, if these editors do not know what's required.

Is Anyone There?
Presence is the term given to a system of icons (whether it be against a Word document or person in a search result) which let you know if the author/person is currently online, or out at a meeting (it interrogates their Outlook calendar) etc. Right-clicking the icon will get you access for initiating an IM conversation, or VoIP call (if you have the software installed), or looking at their MySpace page (personalised page which gives details of their interests, specialisms etc). Microsoft intranet users find this very helpful in communicating amongst themselves, without having to leave the SharePoint application to launch IM, for instance.

What now?
That was a whistle-stop tour of some features, from their standard demo. I will write more if I get involved in implementing an instance of SharePoint in the future (it's a distinct possibility).

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

D Is For DOM and d.Construct

Inspired by Christian Heilmann's presentation on DOM Scripting last week (he made JavaScript sound fun, for heavens' sake!), I thought I would try and get my head round the concept. I'm much more familiar with CSS and tend to cower in the corner at the thought of writing any Javascript. So I thought I would buy a book. Well, I actually went into Borders looking for a newbie's guide to PHP but came out with Jeremy Keith''s DOM Scripting: Web Design with JavaScript and the Document Object Model (Friends of ED). How did that happen?

Talking of Jeremy and his friends at Clear:left, I have bought my ticket for the 2006 d.Construct meeting in Brighton on 8th September. It promises to be a good event, and I thought I might make a weekend of it and see a bit of Brighton while I'm at it (or is that just so I can recover from the post-con hangover??).

Monday, July 17, 2006

Not So Plug-And-Play

I've taken photos at a couple of events with my new Motorola L6, which I thought would be great to put on the blog. Once was at the recent Geeks Dinner the second was at the WSG London meeting. But sadly, I'm being defeated by technology.

You see, I don't have any sort of picture messaging contract with my phone, so I can't email them to myself... BUT! the phone has a handy USB port, so I thought I'd get 'em off that way. Cue pain and suffering. The phone didn't come with any software (drivers or otherwise) and WindowsXP doesn't have any native drivers for the phone, although it recognises the make and model.

I thought I'd go straight to the horses' mouth and searched the Motorola website for downloadable drivers for the L6. Nothing. Nada. Nowt. Plenty of glossy brochureware (you're preaching to the converted, I already have one!) but nothing useful. A google or two later turned up quite a few disgruntled users also looking for the driver and posting their frustration on forums far and wide.

So the search continues. If and when I find the driver, I'll upload the photos (they weren't that exciting, so don't hold your breath in anticipation). Until then, you'll have to do with the text and make up your own cartoons to go with it :-)

Saturday, July 15, 2006

WSG London #1

The first London meeting of the Web Standards Group took place last night in North London, and was well very well attended with 190 people turning up to hear speakers Andy Budd on Who Cares About Standards? and Christian Heilmann speaking about Maintainable JavaScript.

Christian was very animated and went quite quickly, and since JavaScript is not really my forte, unfortunately I found it was easier to just listen than trying to scribble notes as well. His slides are available via his blog. But I was able to take notes during Andy's talk, a precis of which appears below.

Who Cares About Web Standards?
This was the rather controversial opening salvo from Andy! He began by giving us a brief history of standards - not just web, but standards in general. From one of the earliest in 1120 when King Henry I defined the L unit of measure (the length of his arm!) through the inventions of the wooden screw by the Romans, and the subsequent standardisation of screws and other machined parts by Sir Joseph Whitworth in 1841, when the Industrial Revolution was in full flow.

Whitworth was in charge of Babbage's Works where the first mechanical computer, the Difference Engine, was made. By 1860, Whitworth's screws had become the de faco standard, certainly in the UK. Meanwhile in the US, William Sellers proposed a different standard (sounds familiar?!) to help build the railroads. This was all fine until towards the end of the second World War, when the US was supplying England with a lot of spares for machinery and the war effort - and they were having to make two version of everything. Eventually the UK capitulated and the US standard became the very first official standard for anything. Now there are over 800,000.

Why bother?
When implemented, standards should:

  • Ease communications and inter-operability. Buy a new DVD player and plug it into your TV and it should work.
  • Make life easier. You can buy a toaster safe in the knowledge that its plug will fit the sockets in your walls.
  • Be a measure of quality, or level of expertise, a mark of professionalism.
  • Ensure safety and durability.
There are different types of "standard" - Official, de facto, (non regulated but ubiquitous), open, proprietory. When standards work well, you tend not to think about them.

What's this got to do with the web?
During the Browser Wars, the languages such as HTML and CSS were produced and expanded by the browser manufacturers. By pushing their own "standards" they set out to monopolise. When the W3C came together and put together language recommendations (they are still not standards!), and developers put pressure on the browser manufacturers to support them coherently. All modern browsers support the W3C recommendations - some just do it better than others! The term "web standards" was coined by Jeffrey Zeldman and the WaSP project.

The Philosophy Behind "Web Standards"
The aim is to separate content from presentation and behaviour, using (X)HTML, CSS and JavaScript in the appropriate fashion to produce quality code and semantically correct documents.

  • Communication - easier to hand over to other developers (or come back to yourself in six months' time)
  • Inter-operability - more accessible, forwards-compatible, multiple device support for phones, PDAs, text readers, microformats etc
  • Make life easier - code can be more easily maintained
  • Safety & durability - code less likely to "break" and should last longer
  • Guarantees a level of expertise - proves you are resonably proficient as a developer and should help eradicate the FrontPage Cowboys ;-)
  • Mark of professionalism - you will stand out from the crowd
Things Aren't Perfect
Standards-complient pages not necessarily load up faster - the number of packet (file) requests can slow things up, so if you have 2 or 3 CSS files associated with a page, there can be a bigger "up front" hit on speed when a visitor first comes to your site, although subsequent pages may well be quicker to load. There is the benefit of less code bloat without all those <table> and <font> tags though.

Huge CSS files can be very difficult to maintain, especially when the full consequences of the cascade are taken into account. Presentation is still tied to content (to a much lesser extent) as the CSS/layout you choose is often influenced by the code order of the document itself. It's much better than it was.

Full CSS Layout is less than ideal at times. Floats are really a buggy hack, but it's the best we've got. Browser implementations for things like <fieldset> and <legend> are still inconsistant (handles padding and margin differently). Advances in XHTML and CSS are beginning to stall. When is CSS3 due? XHTML isn't great for marking up applications as opposed to static documents, or for microformats.

Are standards becoming irrelevent?
Almost reached a tipping point where "everyone" is doing it - so why should we keep going on about it? Development using the standards should be a no-brainer - why do it any other way? Besides, most clients don't care as long as the job gets done, so just do it that way and don't go overboard in advertising the fact. A couple of lines in your proposal documentation (to the effect that "we will use the appropriate web standards" is sufficient).

What now?
The focus needs to change more towards:
  • Accessibility/Useability
  • User Experience
  • Design
  • Branding
  • Client and user goals
Andy's slides can be downloaded from his website.

Geeky Prize Comeptition!
To tie in with Andy's fixation with screws, here's a little bit of fun...
Despite the US standard for screws taking off after WWII, you can still find a ¼-Whitworth screw/thread in common usage today. I will award a pack of 4 hand-made greeting cards of your choice to the first person who can tell me where.

Oh lord, I've just spotted myself in the audience shots which Christian uploaded to Flickr.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Going Solo

Several friends are currently in the process of throwing in the towel with corporate life and starting their own business or freelancing, and I've come across several useful articles recently which are relevent to the subject. Here are a few:

I'll add some more as and when I find them.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Man Versus Machine

I hope I didn't come across as arrogant in yesterday's post about how much difference a good piece of equipment can make. That wasn't my intention. But further reflection set me thinking that, in these days where consumers expect instant gratification from their purchases, I think it's sad that some people spend an awful lot of money on the best camera and are then disappointed with the pictures they take with it.

People seem far less willing to learn the art and craft of photography in order to get the best results. Of course I'm generalising here, but there has been a gradual decline in membership of photographic clubs throughout the country, even with the huge rise in the number of people buying cameras. I'm a B Panel Judge for the East Anglian Federation, part of the Photographic Alliance of Great Britain. I visit clubs around north London and south east Essex to judge competitions regularly, and their committees are constantly striving to attract new members. Somehow only a trickle seem to be coming through the doors.

A few clubs (and the number is decreasing) have actively shunned the Digital Revolution; it won't be long before they go under. Some have allowed digital but to be judged in a separate category (and I think, why segregate? It's the end result that counts and matters to me as a judge, not the technology used to produce it).

Some argue that digital is "easier" than traditional "wet" processes. Usually those who haven't tried it, I find. And as a judge, I've seen just as many badly-done digital prints (if not more) than traditional. In fact, I'd argue that it's actually easier to make a bad digital print than a bad darkroom one - far less effort is required. Plus, you don't end up smelling of chemicals or emerging from the darkroom like a confused mole! As ever, the skill is in the execution of what you're doing, not how.

The vast majority of the clubs I visit have embraced digital photography wholeheartedly (without prejudice to those still using film). So much so that at a few, I don't see any darkroom prints any more. I can tell, if I look hard enough (and it would require an even lenghtier post for me to explain how). I've seen some really stunning inkjet prints, not just from a technical perspective, but from an artistic one. Again, it's all about who's behind the camera more than the name badge on the front.

Our equipment can and should be used to facilitate the expression of our artistic talents, and not as a points-scoring exercise to see who's got the best kit. (Again, I usually find those misguided enough to indulge in this kind of behaviour are invariably those who can't take a decent picture for toffee).

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Geek Dinner

Last night's Geek Dinner was interesting, with a huge attendance of around 80 people. We started off in the back room of The Bottlescrue pub near Holborn, but there were soon so many of us we all decamped to the terrace outside to enjoy beer and banter whilst awaiting our speaker.

Our guest speaker, Chris Anderson, arrived a little later than planned due to transport problems, but began speaking around 8:30pm to an attentive audience eager to hear his take on The Long Tail theory of market forces. Here is a resume of my notes:

He began by commenting that Capital One credit card in the States was one of the first companies to embrace The Long Tail principle. Originally, they would offer low-rate credit cards to customers considered to be low risk, medium rates to medium risk people and no credit card to high-risk customers. Once they embraced the long-tail principal, they soon learned to slice the market into thinner slices - with a sliding scale of rates dependent on the customer's circumstances. Soon other credit card companies followed. Insurance is a similar market which has not really been tapped so far - partly because the greater risk customer is unwilling to pay the required premiums to acquire cover.

The key to Long Tail theory is that One Size Doesn't Fit All - scaling down is they key. In these days of easier supply chains, it's much easier to service the niche market as well as the "hits" end of popularity. The Bottom-Up pyramid model for marketing is different in that it advocates making one product so cheap that anyone can afford it, whereas the Long Tail is about selling fewer units of more things.

The natural shape of consumer demand is more niche-heavy than you would expect, if consumers can find what they are looking for (eBay and google are good examples of facilitating this). A question was put that "does Google have a monopoly and does it restrict the market for people finding niche products (especially with AdSense incorporated). Chris thought the answer was "no".

TV is one of the most expensive production costs/sales ratio of any product. In times past, a programme might only have been broadcast a couple of times, but now syndication of archive material is the Long Tail of the broadcast chain. Similarly, on-demand services are allowing consumers more choice in what they watch (niche programmes) and when. One example given was the ability to watch Cricket in the US over the internet - unheard of a few years ago.

The BBC is one of the leaders in the UK of making use of Long Tail principal. They have spent millions of pounds digitising archive material without knowing what the demand for it might be, but are now beginning to reap the rewards. Chris thinks is it worth looking to them for leadership and Best Practice in the area. Reuters and ITN are also jumping on the bandwagon for archive distribution. [As an aside, Mark Thompson, BBC Director-General gave two speeches in the Spring which are quite relevent to this debate, and he coined the phrase BBC2.0 in one, which seems appropriate. They were the RTS Baird Lecture given in March 06, and the RTS Fleming Memorial Lecture in April 06, both available to read from the BBC's Freedom of Information website].

A question was put that, in the light of the Media being propped up with Advertising via trusted brands (in TV, radio and in print), it's impossible to measure their effectiveness at present. How long does the current business model have before it collapses? Chris thought that, even though the advertising & media industry is very conservative, it could be a generation before this business model ceases to be operable.

The next question considered "what's in it for content producers". Chris highlighted the opportunities to distribute cult, low-budget films online, without having to have the marketing budgets of the big studios; this goes for music too. A band such as the Arctic Monkeys started distributing in the niche markets, then became a grass-roots hit, then might decay in popularity over time (shows the Long Tail can have precursors too).

Not only does the Long Tail prevail in terms of hits vs niche markets, it also prevails over time - in other words, today's hit can become tomorrow's niche.

Someone asked "where does the tail fall off" - well of course, with a power law, the answer is never. There will always be a market for the niches, no matter how small. Where the cutoff comes in terms of viability depends on your motivating factors - commercial reasons for a product are very different from consumers reasons - and you cannot always anticipate the "value" of something - it's not always measured in economic terms, sometimes things are done for reasons of expression, reputation etc. The Long Tail is perfect for these instances which would not necessarily be viable in purely economic terms.

The market for Hits and Niches co-exists, and in the long term that won't change. New Hits achieved via word-of-mouth can still be achieved. However, these bottom-up hits are likely to get bigger, while the conventional top-down hits get smaller.

Someone asked what the most interesting markets were currently applying the Long Tailed phenomenon. Chris cited the growing trend in the USA for Micro-brewed beer - now there are around 40 varieties of specialist beer where there used to be only 4 big players. He also mentioned The Pentagon investigating Long Tailed Warfare - but did not elaborate too much (maybe he would have had to kill us?)!

Friday, July 07, 2006

Thick Squared

Following on from my post on RugbyMad about how thick can you get (travel agents' feedback from customers), I see The Register is running a poll for readers to decide who handled the most stupid help-desk call. There are some crackers there, but I think my favourite has to be my rabbit's dead :-D

I'm till having aggro with Technorati, as posted yesterday.

Without me doing very much, recent posts on RugbyMad seem to be indexed (I've not tagged any posts on that blog yet) but further back than a couple of weeks and there's nothing found when searching. Meanwhile, the scoped search for this blog still seems to do five parts of naff all. Hopefully they will sort it soon.

On a more positive note, I'd like to thank Roger Kondrat for giving this blog a plug over at Technological Winter, and his help with aiding this relative blogging-newbie overcome the trials and tribulations of the technology :-)

Tonight I'm off to the London Geeks' Dinner to hear Chris Anderson speak on the The Long Tail as a sales model, which I hope will be interesting. I'll post my thoughts soon.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Troubles With Technorati

I'm having some trouble with Technorati, and it seems I'm not the only one.

I claimed my blogs (this one, plus my Rugby Mad one), set the blogger settings to ping Technorati (as advised in their support faq) and have added Technorati tags to all posts in this blog (have yet to get around to it for the rugby one, but hey).

Now if I search for something on Technorati, (either directly at their site or with the plugin for this blog at the top right of the page), which I know is definitely here, it claims not to find anything! It also claims that my most up to date post was six days ago, when it fact it was just yesterday.

I've logged a call with Technorati's help people, who have acknowledged receipt, but so far I haven't heard anything else. I know I've only just started blogging, and so my ranking is pretty lowly, but I thought technorati would be an excellent place to generate some passing traffic and help to build up my online profile. I hope they are not operating some sort of elist policy along the lines of "well her ranking is down with the amoeba, so we don't need to keep her search as up to date as some"...

I'll keep you posted on developments.

Add half an hour later: Actually, it gets odder. Scoping a search at Technorati on Rugby Mad or Just Mad will turn up results for some things, such as "churchill" but not others, like "handbags" (which appears in this post and here). I'm even more confused now!

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Look Ma, No Hands!

I've had a fab geeky shopping session today wilst everyone else was going do-lally watching England play footie - the town was really empty and I got all my shopping done in record time, yay.

Having had my old crusty Sony-Ericsson phone for a couple of years now, some of the buttons were beginning to go home, so I upgrated to a Motorola L6 with Bluetooth headset thrown in for nowt (marvellous).

And I was also a bit rash and signed up for an O2 3G/GPRS mobile data card for my slaptop - so I'm now inter-web-connected wherever I can get a phone signal - yippee!

Its about time - I've been struggling along with Dialup (yes, 56Kb if I'm lucky) for a while now at home, and although I'm about to order TalkTalk's 3International package (free broadband for life), as recommended by the excellent BroadBandGenie, they reckon it will take nearly 2 months for the Broadband bit to get connected. Sigh.

So anyway, I'm very excited by my new toys (sad geek-girl that I am!), and this has been posted curtesy of O2 mobile. Expect more :-)