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October 14, 2010

Start.Warwick

Writing about web page https://start.warwick.ac.uk/

Portal has always been a dirty word in web development. Many people remember the late 90s and the early 2000s, where “portal” referred to a website such as Excite, Lycos and Hotbot. They didn’t provide any intrinsic value of their own, they were just wrappers for a search page that had lots of advertising.

hotbot lycos excite

So when I was tasked with building a “Personalised Information Portal” for staff and students at the University, I was sceptical – it’s the natural progression of every web developer that they will eventually be asked by their employer to build a “portal” for something or other. At Warwick, I think there is actually a lot of scope for pulling together a lot of the services that we provide into a single place, particularly with the anecdotal evidence we have that a lot of students simply don’t know about a lot of the services that are available to them. In that sense, building a portal that was little more than a directory of all of our other services still had some intrinsic value.

In the end, we settled on something remarkably similar to iGoogle in terms of usability. Each window to another application is actually a “gadget”, which are organised in columns on a number of “tabs”. This is a similar model to that used by other University institutions who have tried something like this, such as myHome at Ithaca (http://www.ithaca.edu/myhome/) and go.edgehill.ac.uk.

myhome ithaca go.edgehill.ac.uk

The magic comes from a standard called OpenSocial, originally developed by Google and implemented by LinkedIn, MySpace etc. (but not Facebook). This has a specification for rendering gadgets for users, while also provided the features to potentially build the base of social networking – though it should be noted that we aren’t using any of the social features in Start.Warwick at the moment.

Once we had a gadget container up and running, the real trick was building gadgets for a lot of IT Services (and non-IT Services) applications so that users can add them to their pages. This is deceptively simple to start doing, but difficult to take to completion! Each gadget is a mini-application in itself, and as such has to go through the same strenuous process of design, implementation, testing, review, etc. of a period of multiple iterations. We’ve built around 25 of these gadgets, plus a few more that didn’t make it into the final cut, for everything from the weather to your email inbox.

At the moment, with the gadgets that we’ve been able to provide, we’ve targeted undergraduate students. This was a simple decision based on the fact that we unfortunately can’t get Microsoft Exchange information for users on our staff email system at the moment, but, with the student move to live@edu, we are able to provide users with a view of their email, calendar and TODO list.

If you want to start using Start.Warwick, you can do so today, whether you’re an undergraduate student or not (even if you’re an alumnus!). Just go to http://start.warwick.ac.uk/ and sign in with your IT Services username and password. The first time you visit, it’ll take us a little while to generate a page based on who you are (around 10 seconds) but after that, you can customise the page any way you want.

We’ve created some introductory videos to get you started, these are at http://go.warwick.ac.uk/starthelp/videos


August 19, 2010

A–Level Results Day

ORIGINALLY POSTED: 18th August 2005

In about 8 hours time, there’ll be a horde of 17 and 18 year olds prancing around in pubs all over the country, getting completely leathered and acting like prats for no apparant reason, and that reason is that today is A-Level results day. What it also means is it’s the annual Mat-gets-angry-at-the-idiotic-paper day.

I’m sure we’ll see a greater pass rate coming out of A-Levels, or at least something similar coming out than the 96% that we got last year. Then respectable newspapers like The Daily Mail and The Daily Express will go on a big mother of whinging campaign in order to point out the fact that A-Levels have been dumbed down and kids these days are stupid and whatnot.

Seriously, I can’t think of anything that gets me so angry as this, and I get angry at a lot of things. But I specifically have to try and avoid the statistics and any newspaper on this day, particularly the aforementioned Tory-biased trash (I specifically mention the Tory newspapers simply because they’re the most harsh on the results as they see it as an evil Labour construct). Luckily, since they’ve decided not to release the statistics first it means that the students can actually get their results before being told they’re worthless.

You go up to any A-Level student and tell them that their exams are easier than the previous years, and see what kind of response you get. When you get a giant stick in the eye, you’ll bloody deserve it.

Now, of course I have to have some kind of argument to back all this up, so:

There’s no definitive evidence the exams are easier

The evidence that exams are easier than previously is based entirely on the fact that more people pass than the previous year, and also the fact that there are uptight people who probably failed their A-Levels who feel like their qualifications are devalued just because someone else dares to pass them several years later.

How can you base exams being easier on that? It’s impossible to guage this – you’d have to give a student the exact same knowledge, and give them exams over a 10 year period with exactly the same syllabus, and then scale it up to around 1000 students at least and look at the marks for it. It’s just impossible to make such a sweeping statement.

Competition is greater

More people are going to University, so more people are placing a high valuation on their A-Level marks as they are necessary to get into University. If you weren’t going to a University that required ABB in your A-Levels, would you try as hard as if you required BCC? Quite simply, with competition being greater, particularly for the most popular Universities, there is more incentive for people to try harder, and this would probably be reflected in the results for A-Levels.

Stability breeds higher passrates

The syllabi for the major A-Level subjects has remained the same for many years now with only a few very slight differences, particularly since modular AS/A2 style A Levels became the norm. This has meant that teachers have become better at teaching them – simple as that – they know the material and they know the kind of things that are going to come up in the exam. They’re able to refine their techniques, which increases the competence of students.

The exam system is flawed

It’s been discussed many times, and it doesn’t just apply to A-Levels but to all non-Vocational qualifications (and to Vocational qualifications to a lesser extent) because there is an inordinate amount of emphasis based on core knowledge of the subject (memory based questions) and much less emphasis on knowledge of the application of the subject. Personally I can take experience on this: an exam such as Artificial Intelligence or Computer Graphics this year is based on a lot of memory, memory of techniques and whatnot. I got some pretty poor marks on these exams compared to my coursework marks. In the first year, my Programming for Computer Scientists module (although too long) asked questions that asked you to write programs to solve a problem – something that simply can’t be remembered – and I got 95% on that module, meaning I got something like 102% in the exam when you take into account my coursework mark.

As this continues, teachers become more demoralised with teaching practical knowledge of the subject and teach their students to pass their exams – giving the fact by fact point by point knowledge required to get a good grade in an exam these days. The problem is that teachers (or lecturers, for that matter) who teach their subject matter “properly” in a practical sense and then set an exam in the same vein are actually not contributing to the system, if for no other reason than their students will get poor marks.

The State/Private School System Skews Results

Private school students are more competent because they have better teachers, more pressure to succeed and generally are given more opportunity to succeed than a student at a state school. Should this mean that private school students are marked on the same scale as state school students? At the end of the day, you’re being marked on overall knowledge of the subject matter (which is going to be higher for a private school student) rather than actual skill, talent or potential, which simply isn’t graded in the current system.

Of course, when it comes down to it, your education is only as good as your last qualification. If you leave school at 16, your GCSEs/GNVQs are going to be the thing that employers take into account. At 18, yourGCSEs are almost entirely pointless – your employer is only going to take into account your A Level grades. Once you have a degree, your A Level degrees are a moot point, they may show some grounding in a subject you didn’t take to degree level, but the thing that they’re going to look at most is your degree classification and where it is from.

Good luck to Kendal, my sister, who is getting her A-Level results today.

Edit: This blog entry is 5 years old. Today, my brother got his results today, and had to go through the traumatic event of UCAS/his Uni declining his firm offer despite him achieving the necessary points.


May 31, 2010

England's World Cup Squad

It's that time of year again, and everyone has their own opinion on England's best XI and the 23 that should go to South Africa. So I'm going to act like I know what I'm talking about, here's my 23:

Goalkeepers: Hart, Green, James

Defenders: Glen Johnson, Carragher*, Ashley Cole, Baines, Ferdinand, Terry, King

Midfielders: Adam Johnson, Gerrard, Barry, Huddlestone, Milner, Lampard, Lennon, Walcott, Joe Cole

Forwards: Rooney, Crouch, Heskey, Defoe

* I'm only taking Carragher because I don't want to take Milner as the only cover for right back.

Nothing really controversial there, other than a couple of points:

  • Taking four strikers: Since the preferred formation should be 4-3-3 with two wide forwards/wingers or 4-1-1-1 with Gerrard or Joe Cole behind a "lone" striker, it seems madness to have 4 strikers warming the bench.

  • Utility players: It's important in a squad of 23 to have genuine backup for every position as well as the option to change formation and still have backup. Carragher, as much maligned as he (rightly) is, provides excellent backup at both right back and centre back. Milner fills the "Hargreaves gap" of cover at right back as well as being able to play anywhere across the middle

  • No place for Carrick: Carrick has been in absolutely rotten form and his Hollywood pass in the first half against Mexico condemns him to a summer at home

So, with that in mind, my first XI would be (4-1-2-3/4-1-4-1 with wingers acting as wide forwards):

Goalkeeper: Hart

Defenders: G. Johnson, Ferdinand, King, A. Cole

Midfielders: Lampard, Barry (DM), Gerrard

Forwards: Lennon (WF), Rooney, Milner (WF)

Adam Johnson and Theo Walcott can be devastating impact substitutes here in place of Lennon and Milner. My "Plan B" formation would probably just be a straight 4-4-2, with Lampard sacrificed to bring on Heskey (or, in a pinch, Crouch). Players like Baines, Terry, Huddlestone, Defoe and Joe Cole are taken as backup and in order to rest the first XI against Slovenia and Algeria. 

Without injuries, there wouldn't be that many changes, though Hargreaves would be a definite, and I'd be tempted to take both Owen and Beckham as impact substitutes. Hargreaves is the only player the England team is actually missingthough, particularly with an unfit Barry.


September 21, 2009

Using Windows Live Writer to publish to Warwick Blogs

I’ve been playing around with the Atom Publishing Protocol the last couple of days, and as part of this I’ve been able to make a few improvements to the Atom implementation that we have on Warwick Blogs. As a result, it’s now possible to use Windows Live Writer to publish blog entries, which is pretty neat-o as it has draft saving and some better formatting options than can be reliably provided in a browser. Some people may prefer to use it to publish blog entries, although there are a few caveats (in particular, uploading files isn’t supported in our Atom implementation yet so you won’t be able to add pictures inline into blog entries, which is a bit of a shame).

To set it up, you need to add a new account in Windows Live Writer.

Choose “Other blog service”.

Enter the URL of your blog and your ITS username and password. For the security conscious: information sent to the Atom API is sent over HTTPS using HTTP Basic Auth.

As the blog type, select Atom Publishing Protocol, and as the service document enter https://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/blogbuilder/admin/api/atom.spr?forcebasic=true (the https is important here)

Windows Live Writer will then attempt to verify your settings, and make a test post to try and download the theme for your blog. This is a bit hit and miss, I’ve had it working on some blogs but not on others.

Et voilá! Now you’re all set up. Note that this doesn’t support Warwick Blogs-specific behaviour such as permissions (all entries will default to being viewable and commentable by anyone).


September 14, 2009

Using subsample averaging instead of scaling in JAI to get better results

I was looking over this press release about using parallel computing with Xboxes this morning and was struck by just how rubbish the resized images look in it. We use JAI to do image resizing in pure Java in our CMS, and obviously it’s not coming out very well. We’re turning a high quality source image into a very low quality thumbnail.

I tried fiddling with the interpolation on our operation, from Bilinear to Bicubic or Nearest-Neighbour but nothing seemed to make a noticable difference. In the end, however, I stumbled upon this which suggested using Subsample Averaging instead of Scaling as the operation in JAI. Success!


// We have sourceSS, a SeekableStream, and an OutputStream, out

// Load the image from a source stream
RenderedOp source = JAI.create("stream", sourceSS);

// scale the image
float width = source.getWidth();
float height = source.getHeight();

// assume no resizing at first
double scale = 1;

// if the image is too wide, scale down
if (shouldResizeWidth(source, maxWidth)) {
    scale = maxWidth / width;
}

// if the image is too hight, scale down
// IF that makes it smaller than maxWidth has done already
if (shouldResizeHeight(source, maxHeight)) {
    float heightScale = maxHeight / height;
    if (heightScale < scale) {
scale = heightScale;
    }
}

ParameterBlock params = new ParameterBlock();
params.addSource(source);
params.add(scale);// x scale factor
params.add(scale);// y scale factor
params.add(0.0F);// x translate
params.add(0.0F);// y translate

Map<RenderingHints.Key, Object> map = Maps.newHashMap();
map.put(RenderingHints.KEY_ANTIALIASING, RenderingHints.VALUE_ANTIALIAS_ON);
map.put(RenderingHints.KEY_COLOR_RENDERING, RenderingHints.VALUE_COLOR_RENDER_QUALITY);
map.put(RenderingHints.KEY_INTERPOLATION, RenderingHints.VALUE_INTERPOLATION_BICUBIC);
map.put(RenderingHints.KEY_RENDERING, RenderingHints.VALUE_RENDER_QUALITY);

RenderingHints hints = new RenderingHints(map);

params.add(interpolation);

// Here's the important bit - use "SubsampleAverage" instead of "scale" 
RenderedOp alteredImage = JAI.create("SubsampleAverage", params, hints);

ImageEncoder encoder;

switch (fileType) {
    case gif:
    case jpg:
        // now re-encode
        JPEGEncodeParam jpegEncodeParam = new JPEGEncodeParam();
        jpegEncodeParam.setQuality(DEFAULT_SAMPLING_QUALITY);
        // who knows what all this could possibly mean ?
        jpegEncodeParam.setHorizontalSubsampling(0, 1);
        jpegEncodeParam.setHorizontalSubsampling(1, 2);
        jpegEncodeParam.setHorizontalSubsampling(2, 2);
        jpegEncodeParam.setVerticalSubsampling(0, 1);
        jpegEncodeParam.setVerticalSubsampling(1, 1);
        jpegEncodeParam.setVerticalSubsampling(2, 1);
        final int restartInterval = 64;
        jpegEncodeParam.setRestartInterval(restartInterval);

        // done messing with the image. Send the bytes to the
        // outputstream.
        encoder = ImageCodec.createImageEncoder("JPEG", out, jpegEncodeParam);

        break;
    case png:
        PNGEncodeParam.RGB pngEncodeParam = new PNGEncodeParam.RGB();
        encoder = ImageCodec.createImageEncoder("PNG", out, pngEncodeParam);
        break;
    default:
        throw new IllegalArgumentException("Unrecognised image");
}

PlanarImage planarImage = alteredImage.getRendering();
encoder.encode(planarImage);

The difference is actually pretty startling.

Resized using “scale” with bicubic interpolation Resized using “SubsampleAverage”

June 30, 2009

How do programmers feel about their software?

Writing about web page http://www.natpryce.com/articles/000748.html

Nat Pryce posted an article entitled "What do Programmers Feel About Their Software?", which provided a program to try and visualise what the comments in code indicate about programmers' emotions. The program basically analyses all of the comments in the program (which are usually only seen by other programmers working on the same software) and uses Synesketch to display a visual representation of emotion.

So, naturally, I plugged in some of our own software, and the results were quite surprising... There are some demos on the Synesketch website which show some examples of what the images mean.

Blogbuilder

Blogbuilder

Surprisingly, there is a lot of happiness here (signified by circles in bright colours).

Files.Warwick

Files.Warwick

Again, strong happiness for our file-sharing application.

Our (unreleased and unnamed) portal project

Portal Project

Even stronger happiness here, which is to be expected more since it's a relatively new project and I'm the only one who's worked on it...

Sitebuilder2

Sitebuilder2

In sharp (and dire) contrast, comments in our CMS show severe sadness. There are probably a few reasons for this... use of Swing WebFlow is probably up there as one of the top reasons. There's also a LOT more code (and more programmers) than in any of the other projects, and we're a lot more likely to look at each others' code and go "wrong!"


June 08, 2009

The BNP are elected, and we have nobody to blame but ourselves

Writing about web page http://action.hopenothate.org.uk/page/s/notinmyname

There were a lot of people talking on Thursday about going out to vote to make sure the BNP “doesn’t get in”, but it looks like that’s failed since the BNP got their first ever country councillors and have had two people elected to be MEPs.

Since I’ve spent the majority of my adult life living a couple of miles away from Coalville, having a BNP Country Councillor getting the most votes there is particularly poignant to me. I may be being naïve but I simply cannot fathom how anyone in the streets can agree with BNP policies.

Indeed, there has been some suggestion that a lot of people who vote for the BNP do so without understanding their policies. So, the BNP in a nutshell:

  • Do not allow anyone to join who isn’t “indigenous Caucasian”, even if they have been born/brought up in the UK
  • Non-”indigenous Caucasian” peoples will be allowed to stay in the UK, but only as “guests”
  • No mixed-race relationships. The BNP “do not [...] accept miscegenation as moral or normal.”
  • Belief that homosexuality is “unnatural” – opposition to civil partnerships
  • Repatriation of non-Caucasians.
  • Reintroduce capital punishment for convicted terrorists, paedophiles, murderers
  • Holocaust denial (by Nick Griffin, at least – the party has removed most anti-semitic policies). This seems mostly due to a wish to remain anti-Islamic, which has led the party to come out in support of Israel.
  • Introduce a Muslim no-fly policy to stop Muslims flying in and out of the UK
  • Ban Halal/Kosher slaughter of animals
  • Propose that “citizens” should keep a rifle and ammunition in their home

I wonder how many of those hundreds of thousands of people who voted BNP did so because they were in agreement with these policies. Having spent a lot of time in Coalville I can understand that some people definitely agree with these policies, sadly (in my view).

Some have suggested that Labour are to blame for the BNP getting in. This, frankly, is ridiculous – the media are fully prepared to jump on the anti-Labour bandwagon at the moment because the momentum is there and that’s the general public “opinion” at the moment. The fact of the matter is that fewer people voted BNP this time than in 2004 – the problem was that there was:

  • A (relatively) small swing from Labour to Tory, UKIP, Green
  • Lots of people who traditionally would vote Labour decided not to vote at all

So who’s fault is it that the BNP got in? Ours. By not voting, or not explaining to those people willing to vote BNP and didn’t fully understand their policies, we’ve allowed a fascist party a soapbox to preach their messages of hate. Brilliant. I can’t think of a time I’ve felt more depressed about people in this country.

There is a petition, Nick Griffin: Not In My Name which may be a good place to express at least some of the outrage.


April 04, 2009

Tonight, I went for a run for the first time in 16 years

The “done” thing whenever you do exercise and have a blog seems to be to use some kind of new-agey tech tool to tell everyone about it. That’ll learn you for reading my blog!

In other news, I’ve now lost nearly 4st. I’d lost over 4st a while ago but I then kind of fell off the wagon… time to get back on that horse.


February 23, 2009

Spotify: University of Warwick Playlist

Writing about web page http://open.spotify.com/user/mathewjm/playlist/2l7tQUrlTmhoSBiWqjWp7K

For those that aren't aware, Spotify is probably the hottest thing in music right now. Provided you are at your computer, you can listen to vast swathes of music legally and for free.

UK users can sign up for Spotify for free

Here's a video on how it works.

As an experiment, I've created a University of Warwick playlist that anyone can add music to. Go!


February 21, 2009

25 things about me that you don't care about

Writing about web page http://ellielovell.wordpress.com/2009/02/20/25-things-you-didnt-need-to-know-about-me/

Ok, so here's a daft meme that got passed on to me by Ellie (and about 20 other people on Facebook).

1. I am currently trying to buy a house. I've not actually got very far with the whole process, but at least I've made up my mind that I actually do want to buy one.

2. I'm extremely loyal to anything I'm a part of, to the point where sometimes I am blindly loyal to things that might not deserve it.

3. I try to see the best in everyone and a lot of people have called me naïve. In a lot of ways, I guess I am!

4. I was raised as a Catholic and I go to church occasionally when I'm back home with my family. When it comes to my own beliefs, over the past year I've moved more towards an agnostic view.

5. When I was at University I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

6. I have a younger brother and a younger sister. When I told a therapist I was a first child, she called me "Mummy and Daddy's little experiment". Nice.

7. I am a complete nerd and I love creating things. I used to make small text adventures (in QBasic) on my computer when I was only 7 or 8 years old. When I was at University, I set up my own company to program websites for people, and I helped set up (and became president of) the Video Game Design Society. When I graduated I went to work for the University to develop their blogging software (that'd be this) and work on a content management system. I see myself as a very creative person, and by writing software I see myself as expressing that.

8. I like to organise and be in control of things. I ran to be Head Boy when I was in school (though my teachers convinced me to drop out and concentrate on my A-Levels); I've run 3 or 4 web gaming communities with over 100 people in them; I became president of the Video Game Design Society. One day, I see myself in a management role.

9. Despite being mocked for liking large swathes of pop music, I used to sing and play keyboard, and I have qualifications in music theory.

10. I am a massive fan of Oasis, but my music taste seems to spread every year. I'll enjoy pretty much anything I can sing along to, but I'll also enjoy classical and electronic music that I can't!

11. I am a fanatical Formula 1 fan. I have in the past sold programmes at the gate at the British Grand Prix in order to be able to be there, and ended up bribing two stewards in order to get into the VIP viewing areas just before the race.

12. I love football but don't particularly follow one club. I generally support Manchester United as I went to see 6 or 7 of their games when I was growing up, but I also look out for Mansfield (my home town, so to speak) and Ebbsfleet, as I am a member of MyFootballClub and as such own a stake them.

13. I consider myself to be an utterly lazy individual - it's hard to stop being lazy when you're too lazy to stop yourself...

14. I always thought that I was extremely clever in school - I got the best GCSE results of any boy in our school out of 500 people. When I got to Warwick, I realised that compared to my friends and the people in my year, I was very, very average.

15. If I could change one thing at the University, I would merge the online communications team with the web development team, since it seems strange to have the people who work on the University web site separate to the people developing it.

16. I worked for 6 weeks in China helping to write memorandums of understanding (a formal "gentleman's agreement") between Chinese suppliers and a large multi-national. I travelled around large parts of China and loved the culture there (and a food!)

17. I once wrote a novella about a young pixie named Sera. It was terrible.

18. I am constantly frustrated by poor speaking skills where I mumble or slur my words. Unintentional, sorry!

19. I used to play cricket (medium pace right arm bowler, genuine number 11 batsman) and rugby (tighthead prop) for my school. I once dropped a very simple catch on the boundary that would have won my form the competition in an inter-form competition, and was promptly beat on for it.

20. I get very angry when I don't think other people are pulling their weight or are being knowingly ignorant.

21. My name is Mathew, with one 't'. It's something interesting and different about me, and it's why I don't like it when people call me 'Matt' instead of 'Mat'. My sister is called Kendal, so obviously my parents had some hang-up on weird names.

22. I am extremely close to my immediate family.

23. The fact that my mum's on Facebook creeps me out. Not in a bad way, but it's just odd.

24. I didn't get in to rock music until I heard Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' in around 2000. Before then I'd never paid much attention to music other than pop music on the radio or stuff that I'd been bought on CD (other than Oasis)

25. I liked (Professional) Wrestling for a lot longer than I'm proud of.

Apparantly I have to pass this on to 25 people. If you're reading this entry, then one of those people is YOU.


February 16, 2009

Sebastian Vettel explains the new F1 rules

Writing about web page http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zTkVKPdyWs0

Even if you're not "in" to F1, this video is pretty damn cool.



January 27, 2009

Twitter is not fit for (my) purpose(s)

For people who aren't aware what Twitter is (and they must be few and far between after mentions from high-profile users Stephen Fry and Jonathan Ross), it's a "micro-blogging" service. Users are given a box that they can type up to 140 characters in and nothing else, and can "Follow" other users to receive their "Tweets" on their own page. I myself have been a member for nearly 2 years now, and what started out as a bit of a novelty in the beginning has lately begun to get on my nerves.

Things you need to know about Twitter

  • There are a lot of users. Probably into the tes of millions at this point
  • Increasingly more celebrities are joining, and are goading other celebrities into doing it. As well as the aforementioned Fry and Ross, there are people such as Russell Brand joining in
  • Twitter is famous for its outages, usually because they happen when it's busy. Notoriously, it launched with a bad architecture and no suitable plan for scaling the service, and the "Fail Whale" (an image used on the error page) has its own cult.
  • Twitter is highly addictive (and I'm addicted)

Things that work really well

  • It's yet another step towards decentralised, social news. What started with blogging has been continued into micro-blogging (it's easy to "tweet" with a mobile phone and sites such as Twitpic allow you to send images to it and have them auto-twat). When the plane crashed into the Hudson River, a user took a picture and posted it to Twitpic almost immediately after it had happened, and this was run on a lot of news networks.
  • The concept of a very low-effort service works remarkably well. Having a Twitter stream that contains a stream of consciousness and cool links has basically zero effort, similar to updating a Facebook status.
  • Because so many people are on Twitter, there are usually people with similar interests to follow. I follow a lot of people in the Communications Office at the University (@tomabbott, @ellielovell, @lovelychaos, @jamiepotter, @juliapidgeon) because I like to hear what they're getting up to, and equally I follow some "power users" of the software I work on for the same reason.

Why it doesn't work for me

I like Twitter. I like to read my friends' thoughts, and what they're getting up to, and see interesting links that they post. I like this so much that I even wrote my own instant message program that gives me all the tweets my friends make and lets me reply to them. This works really well:

Twabber

However, this isn't something that I should have had to do. The one rule of Twitter that has been proven true time and time again is what Twitter give, Twitter taketh away. When I started using Twitter, it had its own IM "bot" which you could subscribe to and get updates from, in exactly the same way (but with a little more functionality and not requiring me to run it on a server!), but they took it offline and it never came back. They also launched with SMS support - you could text Twitter a status update, and your friends could as well. This was taken away for the majority of world users (in the UK, you can send a status update but you can't receive anything) - making the service fairly useless without an Internet connection.

Another problem I have with Twitter is the rampant (and rapidly spreading) commercialisation of the concept of "tweets". Much in the same way as companies paid people to blog on their behalf back when it was "cool", companies have their own Twitter streams, and advertise seemingly under the noses of people. Stephen Fry, for example, generally comments about the latest piece of technology he's bought. If he gives it a good or bad review, that influences thousands upon thousands of people - this is fair enough, if you're trusting enough of Stephen Fry to respect his opinions. But what of this so-called "Twitterati"? These people are only famous through Twitter, and seem to be in an endingless arms race to get more "followers" so their messages can get through to more people. Digg's Kevin Rose posted a blog post on "10 ways to increase your Twitter followers" - a complete bastardisation of the entire concept of Twitter. The only reason to have more followers is ego massage or profit, and you can be sure that for a lot of people the second reason is the primary. Carsonified (who run technology conferences) launched a competition recently (and then rescinded it) which was a Twitter-backed glorified pyramid scheme; Tweet an advert for their conference and then force your friends to re-Tweet it, irritating just about everyone in your friend stream with a constant invasive advertisement. Whilst Carsonified is a company benevolent enough to admit they were wrong, what happens when Apple says "get 20 people to re-tweet a link to the new Macbook Air and you can win one"?

Recently there has been a rise in so called "Twestivals" - meetups between groups of "Tweeple". There's one in Birmingham in February that @ellielovell, @lovelychaos and others are busting guts to promote and help organise. I, myself am uneasy with the concept as a whole, and this is from the standpoint of someone who has helped organise and been to this kind of meetup of Internet communities before. They're actually great fun, people with similar interests come together and discuss seemingly random and sprawling topics. However, none of the meetups I organised ever had a sponsor, and none of them ever charged an entrance fee (which will go to charity). Also, isn't the whole point of Twitter that these people don't have common interests? Twitter have done a good job in making the service accessible to lots of people, so why not just throw a party - there's no reason to have it related to Twitter at all.

This also relates to the main problem that I have. For me, the whole concept of Twitter doesn't work at all. Whenever I go over following around 50 people, I drown in the amount of tweets and end up un-following people. This is because Twitter's biggest strength (its simplicity) is also, in my opinion, its biggest flaw in the lack of metadata. When I follow people, I don't want to follow everything, I just want to follow certain topics, or possibly exclude certain topics. When I follow @ellielovell, I want to hear pretty much everything because it's usually interesting, but I don't want to hear anything about Twestival because I'm not going. When I follow @ryancarson, I want to hear interesting technology snippets and commentary on the industry, but I'm not really all that bothered when he's down the pub. TweetEffect actually monitors the effect on the number of "followers" a person has based on their previous tweet - it's a little hard to follow but personal tweets tend to lead to a large downward trend in the number of followers, so I'm sure I'm not alone in wishing that I could exclude these tweets. The problem is the de facto method of "tagging" a tweet doesn't work because too few people know about it and it eats into your 140-character limit (plus, you can't "follow" a certain tag for a certain person). People get around this by having multiple Twitter accounts occasionally, but usually not, and this isn't really a solution. The reason I don't follow more than 50 people at once is simply because the whole concept of Twitter means that I can't.

Anyway, I'm off to Tweet about this blog post. I'm not sure whether I'm ranting about Twitter, or whether I'm just disappointed that I don't think the concept fits my needs. I sometimes feel like I under-utilise the tools available on the Internet - I don't feel like Twitter is a suitable social network for me, like I don't feel that subscribing to RSS feeds in a feed reader is very useful. I only subscribe to 5 or 6 RSS feeds and I don't use a feed reader at all - I use Live Bookmarks in Firefox to get a current state of "What is the feed showing now?" - maybe I'm just Doing The Internet Wrong.


January 01, 2009

New Years Resolutions

www2.warwick.ac.uk.     2398    IN      A       137.205.195.44

matmannion.com.         86400   IN      A       67.207.134.190

hampsterdance.com.      3600    IN      A       68.178.254.129

www.rickastley.co.uk.   10800   IN      A       87.106.117.53

xkcd.com.               3298    IN      A       208.122.19.56


HAR IT'S A PLAY ON WORDS! If you don't understand, it's better not to ask.


December 16, 2008

Becoming a lean, mean muscle machine – the first 6 weeks

Writing about web page http://go.warwick.ac.uk/matmannion/calendar/weightloss

6 weeks ago today, on returning from a family holiday in Corfu, I weighed 23 stone, I was extremely unhappy and I’d finally resolved to do something about it. I’d had gym membership at Cannons since February but I’d never really used it more than say once a week, and in August and September I only went once in each month, which seemed like more than a bit of a waste.

I’d tried diets before, but I either got bored, lost all willpower or found it unmanageably difficult to maintain a decent lifestyle while doing them (why do all diets make you prepare a meal for lunch? Idiots). I finally ended up on one where I could eat well and not feel like I was missing out on everything I ever wanted to eat. I also decided to burn the gym like never before and set myself some pretty ambitious goals – 3 stone in 2 months so I’d be under 20st for Christmas.

Massive changes in lifestyle are a pretty good way to lose weight at an amazing rate, so it wasn’t really surprising when the first stone popped off in the first two weeks. Since then I’ve been steadily trying to ramp it up, to the point where I’m going to the gym every day now… though that’s having the strange effect where my weight loss is stagnating because I’m growing muscle mass.

Anyway, that’s all boring. STATS!

When I started

Weight: 23st
Heart rate (6.5kph at zero incline on treadmill): 162bpm

After 3 weeks (fitness assessment)

Weight: 21st7lb
Blood pressure: 145/95 (v. high)
Fitness ratio: 45 (not sure how they calculated that…)

After 6 weeks

Weight: 20st6.5lb
Heart rate (6.5kph at zero incline on treadmill): 141bpm

Which isn’t bad, I think!? More importantly I think are some things that can’t really be quantified – my waist size is about 2 inches smaller, I feel much, much better than I did before I started this (endorphins, yay!) and I think I look better too. Hooray!

That said, I am still a fat bastard, so it’s not time to stop yet… Still 9 days for me to lose those extra 6 and a half pounds too, though the Warwick staff party may scupper that…


November 24, 2008

New Balance MR1224ST Trainers

Writing about web page http://www.fitnessfootwear.com/p-1756-new-balance-wide-width-mr1224st.aspx

As some of you may be aware, I’ve been making a concerted effort recently (with some success) to get my size and weight under control. This has come in two forms: a diet; and regular visits to the gym (which have admittedly been irregular at best so far). This has posed a problem in that doing a lot of exercise in shoes you wear for the rest of the day is really icky, so when I’ve been going to the gym I’ve been wearing some old Nike Airs that are very dogeared and nasty.

So since I’ve been looking for a decent pair of gym shoes, I jumped at the chance when the nice folks at Fitness Footwear offered to send me a pair in return for reviewing them on my blog. Sounded pretty good for me, so after a quick peruse of their website I settled on getting some New Balance MR1224ST in funky orange.

New Balance Wide Width - MR1224ST

New Balance MR1224ST First impressions were extremely positive – after ordering a size 10.5 I was told that a lot of customers found this particular shoe to be around half a size too small. I took the recommendation and plumped for a size 11 instead, and after about 2 days they arrived. Packaging was excellent and not really any different to what you’d expect if you’d bought from a bricks-and-mortar establishment rather than online, and they were pretty good looking. After trying them on, I was extremely pleased that I’d bought the 11 instead of the 10.5 because they were pretty much a perfect fit.

Since I’d bought them for the gym, I took them out for a spin and they performed pretty much as expected. I had a bit of blistering after I’d jogged for about half an hour, and eventually that got me off the treadmill, but I think that was just a result of having not worn the shoes before and jogging for a reasonable amount of time after doing a lot of other gym work – overall they’re extremely comfortable and snazzy-looking to boot. Chuffed.

I also had a look around the rest of the Fitness Footwear site and they have a pretty good selection of running shoes as well, and since that’s what I tend to traipse around in all day I’ll probably go back and have a look and grab a pair of those too at some point. Certainly, any inhibitions I had about buying shoes online has gone away!


October 05, 2008

Testing out Jing – How to use Search on the Warwick website

Writing about web page http://www.jingproject.com

Click here to watch screencast (too big to embed in blogs...)

Lessons learnt:

  • Write a script first
  • Do your screencast at the size you want to embed it at (I did it at 1024x768 but I really should have done it at 800x600 or even 640x480)
  • Cocking up 30 seconds before the end twice means you have to re-record the whole thing. Jing saves as a SWF, so you can't do any editing
  • The iMac microphone makes me sound like a douchebag
  • Don't use a squaky chair

October 01, 2008

There are many copies… and they have a plan

Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7645053.stm

The greatest evidence yet that the Tories are in fact Cylons.

Created by man? Check

They rebelled? Check

They evolved? Well they seem to have evolved to a point where people like them...

There are many copies - Oh god yes

And they have a plan.

If I weren't so lazy, I'dve mashed that up properly.


September 29, 2008

Oh you sons of bitches

Follow-up to Hey that's not funny :( from Connection reset by beer

I hate all you guys. I knew as soon as I saw Howes searching for "mat mannion is a fool" that this would happen.

Now, we are all sons of bitches

THANKS.


September 24, 2008

Hey that's not funny :(

I made a little API so that if you add "Warwick Search" to your Firefox as a search engine, it gives up some search suggestions when you start typing now.

Stupid search engine.

That shit's not funny, yo. (It gets the suggestions from the most popular searches previously done)


September 22, 2008

Sometimes…

...I scare myself.

Fatal Four-Way