Google Earth

In a moment of schadenfreude (I’ve been waiting for an excuse to use that word for a while) I wondered if there’d be any visible car accidents on Google Earth. You’d think the M25 would be a good start, but alas London’s greatest motorway is strangely devoid of incidents (and traffic for that matter).

In fact, the M25 is clear. The M4 is clear east of the A34 junction (I got bored after that, and the M27 is clear. I can only imagine they took the pictures on weekends anyway, because the motorways are usually busier than that (maybe the satellites are used for spying on other things during the week?)

Maybe the editorial team make a point of checking for accidents? It’s the same kind of action they take on motorway webcams when there’s a crash. ‘Down for maintenance’ – yeah right.

I wouldn’t want you to think I’m sick and twisted by the way – more curious 🙂

Sex before you present

BBC News | Health | Sex ‘cuts public speaking stress’

“…they underwent a stress test involving public speaking and performing mental arithmetic out loud.

Volunteers who had had penetrative intercourse were found to be the least stressed, and their blood pressure returned to normal faster than those who had engaged in other forms of sexual activity such as masturbation.”

Damn. I have a presentation to make today and only just spotted this on the way out.

Next time you’re sitting in a lecture, watching the news or going to the theatre consider how the speakers and actors might be getting over their stage fright!

You know …

You know you use computers too much when you have a dream about installing httpd via CPAN.

Bayesian Language Detection

Excellent – I managed to write a Bayesian filter today from scratch (well, something that vaguely resembled and works like one). The application is a fairly common one – you pass it a slab of text and it detects which language the content is written in.

This is going to be used in the background of Blogwise, for blogs where I can’t autodetect the language from metadata, and will silently run on new blog submissions.

The application is relatively straightforward. I feed it a load of text content known to be in a specific language. It ranks the word by frequency, and links it to the language. When it’s done it has a frequency chart for each language. So, for example, the top words in English are the, of, and; the top in French are de, la, le; in Spanish it’s de, la, que; and so on.

You’ll notice that Spanish and French share the same top words – it’s an art to get the checking algorithm tweaked to produce accurate results. The algorithm takes into consideration many words, and particularly looks for words that exist or are popular in one language but are rare in another.

The sample data is rather thin, but already I’m seeing promising results. Of the six languages tested (French, Spanish, German, Italian and English (UK & US)), I provided five samples. I then tested them with two further samples.

The results were very promising (even with such a small test group) – not only was the system correct on all but one case, it was making enough of a distinction between languages for the confidence to be very high indeed.

The only error was an incorrect assessment of a UK English blog as US English, but there’s hardly a massive difference. US English was a close second place in its assessment, and I’m probably going to drop regional differences anyway (UK or US can be confirmed from the country – and does the reader really care?)

So this is good news, and all in the name of progress for Blogwise! Not bad for a few hours’ work.

It’s the little things

I tend to spend a great deal of the day picking out tiny little wrinkles in code, or looking for different and unique ways of approaching things, so I’ve developed somewhat of a knack for observing things in a slightly different light.

One of the things that interests me is how companies approach their marketing – and one of the companies that stood out recently was Innocent. This is a drinks producer in the UK that makes pure fruit smoothies. No big deal there – there’s another carton of this stuff from the Co-op sat on my desk and loads of ’em if you go to the supermarket.

What makes Innocent stand out is its marketing approach. Everything from the product name, the logo, the cute messages on the carton and the TV & print ads shouts ‘fun’. The carton’s a good example – look around the nooks & crannies of the box (once you spot one, you wonder if there are more) and there are several tiny messages dotted around. “Stop looking at my bottom” if you turn it on its head (with the lid on – obviously!)

There’s also an email address which, because I am nosey, I emailed. The response was a polite ‘thanks and all the best’ – not sure whether it was hand-written or not, but the fun and quirky emails are definitely a big part of their marketing strategy that they take seriously.

So, Innocent are a ‘fun’ company – that’s how they choose to market themselves and personally it appealled to me. Why? I’m not really sure. The advert stands out as nice, straightforward and honest, and honest values are important to a healthy consumer (is this really 100% fruit? How could we not believe them?). There’s also a slightly trendy feel about the product. It’s interesting in a world where the competitors feature images of chopped apples and mangos – how dull is that? Why not spice it up and make it more enjoyable.

It clearly works for them – their image, as well as the quality of product (which is also great), have almost guaranteed their sales success. Over 18 months the company has doubled in size, and shows no signs of abating.

Silly Season

Post-Christmas silly season has kicked off again on emails, so I’m running behind again. If you’ve tried to contact me recently via email I’ve got it and I promise to clear my inbox soon. (And thanks to jEN for easily the most unexpected pingback I’ve had yet)

Feed Reading with Mozilla

Is it me or does the integration between Firefox and Thunderbird suck for feed reading? Considering the two are partnering applications from the same organisation, I’d have expected a greater deal of interaction between the two.

Furthermore, Firefox’s handling of feed discoveries, although interesting, is ultimately irritating. If a website has an RSS or Atom feed available for subscription, you get a nice little orange icon inviting you to subscribe. It’s neat, simple, but fails to accommodate for user choice.

I don’t want to subscribe to feeds within Firefox – its way of displaying feeds (in the Bookmarks) is not useful to me. I want the feed to be added to Thunderbird, which does a much nicer job, but Firefox effectively locks me in to its own reader.

That’s not a pleasant experience – despite the fact the subscription icon is right there in front of me I have to do one of two things: either I go looking on the page for a feed/RSS/Atom icon or link, or if that’s not around I have to view the source.

My inconvenience quickly turns into annoyance. Today – I want to add my favourite blogs to the feed reader in Thunderbird. What should be an easy task (go to each site; click Subscribe) has the potential of becoming fairly time-consuming and tedious.

A one-off inconvenience is tolerable, but when it is multiplied or repeated daily, it quickly becomes an annoyance. That’s the kind of effect bugs and missing functionality has on programs that are used many times daily.

There are always movements in major projects like these, and I have no doubt that others have picked up on this, criticised it, and at some point it’ll be fixed – as has happened in so many ways in the past (and Firefox is of course much better for it).

In essence, this is about recognising how people use things daily, how they imagine features will work and how annoyed they can get if that feature works different to their expectations. I happen to think this is precisely one of the reasons why Google did so well – you want to do 1, 20, 50 searches a day? Google will do it consistently, straightforwardly and fast. It becomes a bread-and-butter application, as does the web browser, or the word processor, or the spreadsheet, or the photo editing program – depending on your day job. As long as they don’t get in the way by faulty interaction, and do their job they stay in place.
These things must work smoothly to earn your appreciation, and to avoid frustration. It’s a reminder of how vital human computer interaction is for products and services that are used regularly throughout the day.

All this over a little orange icon! I think I’m going to find another feed agent for autodiscovery.
BTW I’d be interested in knowing how IE7 and Safari deal with subscriptions – do they give a choice of reader packages? Could the Firefox orange icon just act as a URI with the feed: prefix – therefore invoking whichever application has been set up to deal with feed: URIs (Thunderbird does this, and Firefox could too).

Open Letter…

…to the man who lives opposite the Alverstoke Squash and Tennis club in Gosport. Please buy curtains.