Friday, 23 December 2011

I call it stealing

    I have a friend who receives Disability Living Allowance. She can walk for about fifty yards, then she has to sit down, such are her medical problems. The DLA is paid to her so that she can keep herself mobile, it pays for the maintenance on her mobility scooter as well as the numerous taxi fares she needs to get herself around town.
    Her scooter is showing its age though. The gearbox is making some alarming noises and she thinks it's about time she replaced it. No problem, the DLA will catch that and the people who service her old scooter have a handy scheme whereby for a not-too-large monthly outlay she can lease a brand new one, all bills paid.
    She's no engineer, so when presented with a brochure containing reams of specifications she called me to help make some sense of them all so she could choose the right machine for her needs. No problem, so the other evening found me sitting on her sofa interpreting some of the sales patter.
    Along with the scooter paperwork was a catalogue containing all manner of aids for disabled and otherwise restricted people. Everything from specially designed drinking cups through bathing arrangements to electronic devices.
    As always I leafed through it out of interest.

    What I saw appalled me. Here were items I have seen for sale in 'normal' shops, yet with vastly inflated prices.

    A big-button mobile phone for nearly 200 quid, that I've seen on the High Street for under 50 quid. A mini CCTV system for more than I've paid for some cars, that I've seen in the Maplin catalogue for around the price of a cheap bicycle. Those are the two that stuck in my mind because I knew exactly the items in other places, but there were plenty more rather expensive looking but suspiciously simple gadgets.
    We've all seen cases where some groups end up paying more for items than they should. Computer peripheral manufacturers should be ashamed of themselves for adding a mark-up just because a PC product is targeted at mac users, for instance. But mac users usually have plenty of money and often have the capability to think for themselves that they're being ripped off.
    In this case an industry is specifically targeting vulnerable people who may not have the capability to shop around, and who are grateful for anything they may be able to lay their hands on. Such a huge markup for that customer base in immoral and unethical.

    They probably call it business. I don't, I call it stealing.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Android vs. iOS apps: it's a matter of status

So my mission has been to research a category of smartphone apps. I've been to the iPhone App Store, the Android Market, the Windows Phone Marketplace, and the BlackBerry App World.

And I've seen a lot of apps, and a lot of screenshots. A hell of a lot of screenshots.

iPhone screen shots normally have the status bar included. The time, the battery and the connectivity status. Or 'iPod' if they were taken on an iPod Touch. You can level many criticisms at Apple, but you can't fault their design.

Microsoft and BlackBerry screenshots don't have a status bar. Their designs don't need one.

But Android? Oh dear. Fine, Android has a status bar. But for some reason developers uploading screenshots think it's perfectly OK to tell the world they've got mail. Or voicemail. Or missed calls, Advanced Task Manager, or a hundred other icons in their status bars.

Here's the thing, I'm an Android Market customer. As such I have the attention span of a goldfish, I'm not paying you any money for your app and I owe developers no loyalty. Therefore if your app fails to grab my attention in the first couple of seconds after page load, it's history. So if the screenshot looks a little crap, the developer loses a download.

Amazingly it seems the majority of Android developers don't get this and fail to clear their status bars and turn off their connectivity before taking a screenshot. Just for fun I pasted a few status bars together in the image alongside this article.

I downloaded them because I had to to complete my task. But would you?

Thursday, 13 October 2011

FAILBlog #fail

    My life is complete. A piece of software I wrote for the Oxford Words Blog, an online Shakespearean vocabulary checker, has been featured on FAILBlog.
    Pretty funny, the FAILBlog submitter has picked up on the fact that if you put the word 'balls' into the form repeated more than 20 times it tells you your English is 100% Shakespearean. Which though undeniably entertaining is entirely true, since 'balls' was a word used by the Bard.
    Unfortunately though it is not a fail, unless you didn't read the page and have misunderstood the purpose of the script. It is not there to deliver a verdict on the quality of writing, merely to correlate the vocabulary with that of the Bard. Which it has done, exactly as it should.
    I can't help feeling FAILBlog have failed though so, I posted the following comment:

First of all, thank you FAILBlog for featuring this. It has always been an ambition of mine to have a piece of my software featured on your site, and now I have achieved that goal.
I wrote the script featured in the screenshot above, you can find it at
At first sight it does look like a fail, but as it says on the page this is not a script for judging the quality of writing, it is simply a vocabulary correlation checker that compares the vocabulary entered with that of the Bard and delivers a percentage result. So since the Bard did use ‘balls’, it is exactly right in saying the text is 100% Shakespearean in vocabulary, because it is.
But that does not make the odd-looking result any less entertaining, so please feel free to have a laugh at our expense.
     I guess the guys at FAILBlog don't appreciate it when they get something wrong and the originator makes a comment about it, because their moderators have chosen not to publish my comment.
Edit - several hours after I posted this piece and hours after publishing a load of other comments the FAILBlog people published my comment. Well done! Did I stumble on an editorial approval policy?:)

Friday, 2 September 2011

How smart does a smartphone have to be?

    It started with an argument I heard last year at an event for mobile application developers. On my left, a developer, on my right a mobile phone industry maven. The developer was waving his three-year-old Nokia E71 and using it to illustrate a point about the smartphone market.
    The maven remarked that in the context of the smartphone market in 2010 the Nokia was not a smartphone even though it meets the basic criteria for being a smartphone of having a general purpose operating system on which the user could install their own software. His reasoning was that it was not marketed as a smartphone in the same way as iOS and Android devices have been and it lacks the readily accessible app stores available on those devices, and most users would not use an E71 in the same way that they would use an iPhone. They would use the E71 as a phone while they'd use the iPhone as a computer.
    A lengthy argument ensued with the developer demonstrating the apps on his Nokia and the maven simply pointing out that a developer prepared to source Symbian apps and install them himself is hardly the typical mobile phone user.
    I can so see how both sides of the argument have merit. Any Symbian phone is a smartphone in the classical sense, but the differing experiences between using the Nokia and using a modern phone running Android or iOS mean that most users of Series 60 phones like the E71 would have been just as well served by a series 40 feature phone, such was their low uptake of the smartphone features.
    I've been given cause to rememeber the argument a couple of times this year, as I've left the charger for my Motorola DEXT Android phone at my parents house and had to revert to using my previous phone, a Nokia N73. I'd never fully made use of the N73's smartphone facilities when it was my only phone because I didn't have a data plan worth anything, so how easy would it be to use a series 60 device as a smartphone in 2011? I installed the Motorola's SIM with its hefty bandwidth allowance and set the N73 to work.
    At the very start I knew there were areas in which a five year old phone could not compete. The N73 is one of the best voice phones I have ever owned and it has an excellent camera, but events have moved on since it was my fancy new toy. There is no touch screen so input is from a numeric keypad and thumbstick, no wifi or GPS, and its rather archaic miniSD card is limited to only 2Gb. It seemed so large when it was new! So I was interested in two areas only: what is the ease of finding and installing software on a Series 60 device and can the device and software do the jobs I demand of my smartphone?
    That posed the obvious question: what do I use my smartphone for? Like most Android or iPhone users I have installed a variety of apps for all sorts of purposes. I guess you could call me an Android power user, the DEXT has been rooted and sports a CyanogenMod community ROM.
    Some of the apps on the DEXT such as the compass app or the GPS-driven OS map app were not applicable to the N73 because of the lack of GPS. Others I might have installed but never really used much. So I thought about it and decided that I use the Android phone most for web browsing, Gmail and Google Maps. All tasks that should be within the capabilities of a device like the N73.
    As soon as I turned the N73 back on earlier this year I realised that there was another issue to consider. Not one that would prevent the phone being used but nevertheless a big consideration when comparing with a modern smartphone: Symbian is a capable modern OS under the hood, but Nokia's interface feels so much like one created for an appliance while the iOS and Android interfaces feel like those of desktop computers. You might excuse this by the age of the device, but having recently had a go with my wife's brand-new Nokia N8 I'd have to say that this is still the case with their most recent version. This is not necessarily a bad thing but does reflect the culture behind it, Nokia are a manufacturer of dedicated devices while Apple and Google come from a general purpose computing background. Another point for the maven above's premise that the marketing for Symbian devices never really capitalised on their smartphone abilities. Perhaps if they had, Nokia wouldn't be in the position they are now.
    So I had an old phone ready to go. Fortunately I'd charged the battery every month or two so everything still worked. My first step was to plug it in to Ovi Suite and run the software updater. At this point I hit another area in which the Nokia fails to compete with other smartphones. This was the very latest version of Ovi Suite as installed for my wife's N8, you'd think that by now Nokia would have employed a user experience designer to make it easier to use. By comparison with similar tasks on an iOS or Android device which Just Work, Ovi Suite is painful to use, a piece of annoying bloatware.
    New firmware in place, and what did it do for me? Nokia Maps was new, so it was back to Ovi Suite to download the UK maps. Yet more tedious fiddling. Then to look at the apps.
    Here I met the biggest let-down and the confirmation of the maven's view over that of the developer. Comparing the choice of apps on an Android phone with those in Ovi store reminded me of my Amiga days nearly twenty years ago when I would see poor quality software being punted for several times the price of its equivalent for the PC. How many idiots really pay five quid for a novelty theme for their Symbian phone? Yet that seemed to be most of what was on offer in the app store, to find anything useful I had to resort to Google to find individual developer sites.
    Fortunately though, I didn't need to look very far for my main apps. The updated firmware gave me a newer version of Nokia's Symbian browser but that hardly delivers a modern browsing experience. The same goes for the Nokia email client, in a cloud email world it just seems so dated. So my web browsing was always going to be taken care of by Opera Mini and email was well catered for by Google's native S60 Gmail app. I also took the time to install Google's search app and Google Maps app.
    So my viewport on the world became a 240x320 pixel portrait display and my input device a numeric keypad and thumb joystick. I needed to relearn the art of entering text using a keypad and resist the urge to use my finger on the display.
    My respect knows no bounds for the developers of Opera Mini. To fully replicate a modern desktop browser with server-side rendering on a very basic phone was always going to be a tall order, but they have come as close to that goal as they can, delivering a surprisingly useful web experience that comprehensively shames even the latest version of Nokia's own browser on the N8. I can check my work email using the web version of Outlook, I can easily browse full desktop versions of most of my favourite web sites and I find the interface squashed into the tiny screen of the N73 to feel modern, be intuitive and easy to use.
    The same can not quite be said of the Gmail client interface. It's easy enough to use but it has a very different feel to that of Opera Mini. It uses the Symbian GUI features heavily, and as such it feels like something running on a phone from 2001 with a grey LCD rather than one from 2006 with a colour TFT.
    Having spent a couple of weeks back in N73 country I have to admit I found it perfectly adequate for 2011. Sending a Tweet or replying to an email is a little tedious through a numeric keypad but using the joystick to control the pointer soon became second nature. And the Nokia's far superior hardware meant I had a signal in the most unlikely of places where the Moto would have been a relatively useless brick. I've posted pictures to Twitpic, made forum posts, referred to an email from my boss in a meeting and sent a drunken Tweet from a pub looking for a quiz team. In short, the N73 has been my constant companion in exactly the same way as the DEXT and though it can't quite do all the things the Android phone can, it's been useful enough for me not to become frustrated with it.
    On the whole after a while using Series 60 again I agree with the maven's view above. It is most definitely a smartphone OS and I've used it as such, but get it to do so I've had to search the web for apps and navigate a rather tedious and unintuitive PC software suite. But I can see the developer's point of view, it's been a rock solid small computer for some quite intensive mobile browsing and email on the go. Even with CyanogenMod I'd have had to reboot the DEXT a few times in a couple of weeks, by comparison I never had to reboot the N73 to make it perform properly. The only thing I found tedious with the Nokia was its text input, but then again I never got on with numeric keypads. If I get the chance I'd like to try a Bluetooth keyboard with it, or perhaps a QWERTY device like the E71.
    So I'll not be giving up the Motorola. It is a better computer, even if not always the better phone. But the Nokia has been rescued from the drawer and kept charged, because I now realise it's too useful to ignore.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Precomputing for fun and profit

    Last year I wrote a post about my keyword analysis tool. I wrote this piece of software in the years before I started working for OUP, and only now I have seen the tools at the disposal of the lexicographers do I realise that I created what was in effect a corpus analysis tool.
    I used the technologies I was familiar with using for web sites, PHP and MySQL. These are the bread-and-butter of web development, making it possible to create dynamic and flexible web content engines with relative ease. Since an SQL engine is designed for the querying and analysis of data, I thought, MySQL would be perfect for the task of language analysis.
    I was proved right, to a point. I was able to quickly hack together a fully functional tool that would analyse a corpus to provide me with collocates and their frequencies for any n-word phrase. But in sticking dogmatically to what I knew, beyond that point I had taken entirely the wrong approach. I was using a very powerful database engine to perform the same very complex task again and again on an extremely large data set, and as my corpus edged into the tens of millions of words I found that my analysis was redolent of the early days of mainframe computing when programmers would start a job and go away to have a cup of tea while it ran. The system became so slow as to be unusable. It works, but even with all the MySQL optimisations in the book it does not do so in the real time demanded by today's users.
    My mistake was to rely on an expensive commodity when I should have used a cheap one. When I first used computers twenty-plus years ago, storage was the expensive commodity. We used to have disk compression systems using a cheap commodity - the processor time on our PC-ATs - to expand an expensive commodity - the free space on out 10 and 20Mb hard drives. Thus we were trained as programmers to be as efficient as possible in our use of storage space and memory.
    Space efficiency is a good thing if you are programming for a tiny embedded system but in 2011 disk space on web servers is laughably cheap. Processing power, as represented by the waiting time of your users, is not. Clearly a rethink is called for.
    So as an experiment I tried precomputing collocates and frequencies a subset of phrases and saving them as a structure of separate tiny JSON files. A simple JQuery based browser interface was then cobbled together to browse them, resulting in an application that was near-instantaneous for analysis that would have taken minutes to compute all the separate component queries using the MySQL tool.
    The moral of this story is I guess to stand back from your choice of underlying software tools and ask yourself whether they have been driven by suitability or familiarity. I used PHP/MySQL because I am used to it, I never gave a thought to whether a simpler solution might not be much better.
    So I'll be revisiting my hacked-together precomputing engine and applying it to my entire corpus. I may end up with a few gigabytes of JSON files instead of a large MySQL database but to the user that doesn't matter.
    I never thought I'd be returning to flat file storage, in fact I've mocked people who use perl DB files for similar tasks in the past. Guess I'd better eat those words then, precomputed of course!

The annoyance of writing stupid things

   It is with some surprise that I notice six months have passed since I last published anything here. It's not that I haven't written anything, I see I have four draft posts stored up, or that I haven't been writing things elsewhere, just that what I have written here has seemed so banal when reviewed that I haven't pressed that 'Publish' button.

   Better to say nothing than say too much and confirm to the world that you are a fool.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

My travels over four decades

  While planning a holiday with my wife a few weeks ago I was left wondering where in the UK I had yet to see. She doesn't hail from these shores, so I wanted to show her something new.
   I started with a map book, but soon realised a broader stroke was required. I can get too engrossed in maps. So I found a blank topographical map of the UK, loaded it into Paint Shop Pro and started work with a virtual marker pen. I had to rely on memory because I haven't kept a travel diary over my lifetime, but over four layers I was able to arrive at a pretty comprehensive itinerary of my life.

(1)The complete picture:
    No prizes for guessing from this map that I've spent my life based in the south Midlands, or that I've spent a lot of time in Yorkshire. Growing up near Oxford and attending Hull University explain those two. You can also trace some of my childhood holidays in Devon, Dorset or South Wales. But the rest is a surprisingly disjointed array of trips to see friends and relatives, plus road trips to seek out interesting places. This map might be a lot less diverse if I didn't own a motorcycle.
    Surprises: I've never been to North Wales, or central Devon. Somewhere to take my wife on holiday, mission accomplished!
(2) The 1970s
Childhood holidays and trips to see my aunts. Memories of sticking to the vinyl seats of an Austin Allegro or British Rail in the Age of the Train.
(3) The 1980s
    Confessions of a teenaged train geek. Four kids with a Family Railcard. Plus yet more family holidays to Yorkshire, this time in an Allegro with velour seats. That's progress, that is.
(4) The 1990s
    Someone gives me a driving licence and a succession of tatty old gas-guzzlers take me further afield. How much petrol did I burn in that decade?
(5) The 2000s
    Finally I'm old enough to afford a nice car and I've got an entire country to show my wife. So how did I manage to miss out North Wales, most of Devon and the Scottish Lowlands?

Friday, 14 January 2011

A dictionary search box for your website or blog

The Oxford Dictionaries Online search box widget I mentioned in a previous post has now gone live and is available for you to put on your own blogs or web sites. It is available in two versions, one for each of world and US English, and an instance of the final result can be seen at the top of the right hand column of this blog.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Yet another set of browser stats

    It's worth posting these graphs of browser market share over the second half of 2010 generated from real-world Urchin traffic figures. The first one shows the percentage traffic for each of the five main browsers, and the second one breaks the MS Internet Explorer figure down into separate versions since version 6. April and May are best ignored due to the site launch distorting the figures, but June onwards can be considered to be an accurate representation of Internet users.

Web traffic by browser

    As MSIE has slipped gently below a 50% share, Firefox has remained essentially steady, leaving Chrome to pick up IE's defectors. The slight surprise in this graph is at the bottom, Safari has been overtaken by Opera in the later months of 2010.

MSIE individual versions share of MSIE total

    As might be expected, MSIE8 has taken over from MSIE7, which is slowly levelling off. Whether MSIE7 will follow MSIE6 in refusing to die remains to be seen, but the continued use of these two browsers does indicate that a substantial core of Windows users are refusing to upgrade either manually or by Windows Update. MSIE6 shows a slight increase in the summer months, this is probably due to students using home PCs while away from their schools. MSIE9 has a very small showing, as you might expect from its pre-release status.

Monday, 3 January 2011

2010 as viewed through Daily Express headlines

    A couple of years ago I was working in a small business centre in Oxfordshire, a building that was home to several small tech companies. We had a common room with a kitchen and dining area, and the building management provided us with a selection of daily newspapers.
    Among those papers were a high-end broadsheet, a red-top tabloid and the Daily Express. I became fascinated by the Express headlines over the year, and resolved to collect them, initially just for the ones barmy enough to make me laugh but later all of them for a collective analysis. This post is the result, an infographic that tries to capture the essence of a year as seen on the front pages of the Express.
    So why did the Express fascinate me? Here is a gloriously barmy  newspaper obsessed with cancer stories, lurid tales of illegal immigrants, and the UK housing market, using a colourful vocabulary all of its own to stir its readers into righteous anger over stories that very often have little relationship to the main news stories of the day. Everyone is furious or outraged in Express-land, we're under siege from miscellaneous foreigners and there is no Government decision or economic movement that is not designed to let down the Express reader. This continual negativity is offset with ludicrous non-stories proclaiming miraculous rises in the housing market or turning tentative conclusions in scientific papers into medical breakthroughs in the fight against cancer. Seeing what they had on the front page became part of the entertainment of my morning routine, there is nothing like a ludicrous headline over your morning coffee for starting the day with a laugh.
    The infographic shows some of the pretty pictures that can be gleaned from a year's Express headlines. A PNG version can be downloaded by clicking on the image or you can download it as a PDF from this Google Docs link. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed making it.