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Quentin Stafford-Fraser's blog
Updated: 10 hours 4 min ago

Oh darn!

Sun, 23/11/2014 - 22:24

I’ve just spent a happy hour or so sitting by the fire, darning the elbow of an old sweater. Yes, darning. I can positively hear some of your eyebrows rising into a skeptical arch. It’s not really the normal pastime of an aspiring high-tech entrepreneur, is it?

But I’ve always found it strangely satisfying. It’s exceedingly easy to learn, but it’s a kind of miniaturised DIY structural engineering. Then there’s the challenge of weaving together the limited range of wools I normally have available in such a way that they approximate the original colour and texture of the surrounding weave: a process which has something of a Photoshop feel to it. And finally, there’s the moral satisfaction of not allowing a much-loved and perfectly functional garment to be lost simply because of a small hole. It’s also, I find, completely absorbing, which is sometimes a welcome distraction.

I’m certainly far from an expert, and I’m not sure my left elbow would bear any very close inspection, but since I don’t anticipate meeting any close-elbow-inspectors in the next few months, I think I should get away with it. There are now probably dozens of YouTube videos which will teach you to darn – why not give it a try? You know you want to…

Scan the world, every day

Sun, 23/11/2014 - 10:20

Planet Labs has a plan, a plan which is exceedingly powerful, partly because it is so brilliantly simple. And it seems to be working.

My sun shall rise in the east…

Sat, 15/11/2014 - 19:05

Dawn breaking beyond the River Cam, taken from Grantchester Meadows last week.

The title of this post, of course, is a line from the excellent track ‘I’ll Find My Way Home’, by Jon & Vangelis, which is playing as I write this.

And here’s another bit of trivia for you: in the first episode of the ITV TV series Grantchester, we see Sidney and Amanda enjoying themselves by swinging out over the river on a rope attached to a tree branch. I recognised the tree immediately, but the usual rope (which you can see by clicking on the image to get a larger version) had been replaced with a frayed one for the purposes of the filming. The rope, of course, gives way when Amanda (Morven Christie) is way out over the river. I have come perilously close to the same thing in the past…

Out of Reach

Fri, 14/11/2014 - 17:44

The pretty little village of Reach, just north-west of Cambridge, is in the middle of fen land, but was considered a port from Roman to medieval times because of the shipping that arrived there through the marshes. It’s where the northern tip of the Devil’s Dyke, affording transport by land, meets the southern end of Reach Lode, which provided transport by water, and it used to be the site of a great fair.

Nowadays, the pleasingly-named pub, The Dyke’s End, is one of my favourite spots for lunch, and, having taken Tilly for a post-prandial walk along the dyke last time I was there, I opted for the lode this time. And very fine it was too. The rainy morning turned into a lovely afternoon, and, though I didn’t have a proper camera with me, the iPhone did a pretty good job.

Click for a larger version.

“If you’ve got a browser connected to the Internet, I can show you…”

Sun, 09/11/2014 - 21:25

For the sake of posterity, I’ve uploaded the original VNC video that we made back in 1998.

Lots of nostalgia in here – remember the JavaStation? The WebTV? And the days when we made movies in 4:3 ratios?

A great deal has changed in the last 16 years, but VNC goes from strength to strength!

Starring, in order of appearance:

  • Quentin Stafford-Fraser
  • Andy Harter
  • Ken Wood
  • Tristan Richardson
  • Paul Webster
  • Frazer Bennett
  • James Weatherall
  • Daisy Sadleir

Also available on YouTube. Thanks to Andy Fisher for doing the original transfer from VHS to DVD some years ago.

Autumn

Sun, 09/11/2014 - 17:06

Beechwoods Nature Reserve this evening.

Canadian Coffee

Thu, 06/11/2014 - 21:06

Another radio interview about the good ol’ coffee pot – this time with CBC.

You can find it here.

It was done over Skype, and is heavily edited, but it mostly makes sense! Just about 4 mins long.

If it doesn’t look like your normal food, that’s because it’s bait.

Sun, 02/11/2014 - 12:40

One of the tragedies of the accelerated ‘internet time’ is the speed at which advertisers can discover our weaknesses. It took several centuries for tabloid newspapers to evolve their attention-grabbing headlines with minimal content and maximum emotion. FURY AT VICAR’S CELEB SEX ROMPS. (‘Fury’ is a word which seems only to be used now on the front pages of tabloids and local papers.)

Of course, gentle reader, you and I would never buy a paper with that headline. Despite the temptation, we know in the end it will be unsatisfying. It’s journalistic pornography, appealing to our baser instincts. Resisting the lure is part of our education, our self-control. We laugh as we pass by, at the poor, less-intelligent souls who succomb to this ultimately unrewarding titillation.

But, in just a couple of decades, the web has allowed this process to be refined to an extreme degree. Techniques such as A/B testing enable publishers to play with content, delivering version A to one group of 10,000 viewers and version B to another 10,000 to see which delivers the most traffic/sales/ad-clicks. This can be repeated, like an iterative fractional distillation, allowing the drug to be purified as never before.

The web’s equivalent of the tabloid headline is the link text – the thing that stops you walking past and persuades you to look inside. The process can be applied there too, and we see the results everywhere: links which convey even less information and appeal purely on the gut level. “Three old grannies got up on stage and you’ll never believe what they did next!” “10 things no mother should ever do!” “This one weird tip will transform your sex life!” “The most shocking video you’ll ever see!” They are designed, of course, not to convey information, because if you had any at that point, you could decide whether or not to click. Instead, they just tell you that you really must click, because otherwise you’ll be missing out, and we’ll tell you why once you’ve done so. Because, of course, we get paid by our advertisers if you visit our site, but not if you just read the link.

Now, the tragedy is that, unlike with tabloid newspapers, the content sometimes is worth seeing. The video is amusing, or cute, or whatever, and often was carefully created to be so, because they want you to share a link on Facebook, where, of course, it will be automatically augmented with their carefully-baited title.

A group called Quick Sprout recently published a guide on How to write the perfect headline. I’m not linking to their site directly because the pop-up ads are much too annoying, but you can find it via the site above. Their tips summarise the industry’s discoveries:

  • “A writer should spend half of the entire time it takes to write a piece of persuasive content on the headline…. 8 out of 10 people will read the headline, 2 out of 10 will read the rest.”
  • “The perfect length for a headline is six words.”
  • “Use negative wording: negatives tap into our insecurities.”
  • “Try using this formula: Number or trigger word + adjective + keyword + promise.”

They have some nice examples of this last rule:

  • Before formula: “How to bathe an elephant”
  • After formula: “18 Unbelievable Ways You Can Bathe An Elephant Indoors”

But I’ve noticed a strange thing recently. I’m starting to feel ashamed when I click on links like this, as if I couldn’t resist buying the tabloid; I couldn’t help eating the junk food. I’m actively resisting sites that are linked to in this way, and I have a lower opinion of sites that display the links. Am I alone?

Take the Independent, for example, a once-reasonably-respected UK paper. The bottom of every page now looks like this:

This is a tame set of examples which just happened to be on the first page I looked at, but really! “20 Hot Celebs You Didn’t Know Are Jewish”? We care whether they’re Jewish? They can’t be Jewish because they’re ‘hot’? Come on, Indie…! What are we meant to think of your standards?

So I hope we’ll start to see a backlash against this blatant manipulation. Let’s start educating people that, if someone pops out at you in the street and says, “Come down this alley with me, you’ll never believe what’s at the end of it!’, they may not just be doing it for your benefit.

As the old adage goes, if you can’t tell what they’re selling, it’s because you’re the product. So ask yourself this, the next time you see an irrestible link: Do you feel compelled to click, or are you making the decision?

Because there’s one sure-fire way to know if you’re the product. It’s when you’re the thing being delivered.

A history lesson

Sat, 01/11/2014 - 21:31

This has been circulating on Twitter, courtesy of Jeremy Geelan – taken at W3C20.
(For those not in the know, Tim Berners-Lee is on the left, Vint Cerf on the right, and the joke is on those who don’t know the difference between the web and the ‘net.) Lovely.