Bag of Spoons
Just off the A1(M)

Thu, 03 Jul 2008

Opening up the microblogosphere

I know, horrible word, but new worlds need new language. I've been playing with Twitter for a while now. It's fun and I've made a few friends there. I even found a nice client in TwitterFox that lets me keep up with my updates from within Firefox. But there are some issues. The site is still struggling with performance issues, so sometimes it doesn't all work. The ability to post from XMPP/Jabber/GTalk has been down for weeks. I've been seeing a lot of the Fail Whale when I go to the site. Another issue with Twitter is that it is a closed source system.

This week I found out about identi.ca. It looks like a Twitter clone, but lacks a lot of the features. That should change as it is running on open source software. I've not checked it out myself, but I expect a few people will be. That means that more people could set up their own microblog sites. The problem then is that the network will be fragmented. They have an answer to that in the OpenMicroBlogging specification to allow messages to be sent between services. I'm not sure if you can actually do that yet, but it's a good sign.

Other good signs are use of OpenID for those who don't want yet another password and FOAF to make the data accessible. It also works fine from my IM clients. There is a lot of work to do there, but I have high hopes. I've even linked up with one of my Twitter contacts there. I've picked up a few followers for unknown reasons. I'm unsure of their motives. The same thing happens on Twitter as an attempt to get attention.

My other new web presence this week is at Whoisi. This appears to be similar to FriendFeed, but with some crucial differences. There is no ability to log in. Anyone can create and edit an account for anyone they choose and associate feeds with it, but they have no ownership of it. That sounds like anarchy, but we shall see. I've seen mention of them keeping history in case of vandalism. On FriendFeed I created my own feeds for friends to track their various accounts, but that was private to me. I could do the same on Whoisi and then anyone could follow them. Is that a good idea or an invasion of privacy. Some people might not want their various on-line identities to be linked. If they are not already making the connections public then I will not do so. You can still select a group of people to follow, but that setting is only stored as a cookie or as a private unique link that you need to save. As with identi.ca, some people I know are already there. The site will suit those who don't want to have to set up more accounts, but lacks conveniences like RSS.

I don't actually sign up for every service I hear about. There have been a few I have checked out and then not used, but generally I only sign up if I see a real use. I have my core of useful sites linked from the homepage of this site.

[22:00] | [] | Comments | G

Thu, 12 Jun 2008

Herts LUG 20080611

A good crowd in for this month's talk by Jason of UK Free Software Network, an ISP who help fund free software projects. He was talking about Phorm, a company who provide targeted on-line advertising by using equipment at an ISP to monitor your web browsing. Everyone in advertising wants to gets the 'right' ads to people, but this is going a step too far by intercepting data they have no right to see, ethically and legally. They say that they anonymise the data, but that doesn't make it right. There are some reports that they have been up to some dirty tricks, such as replacing other peoples' ads and using cookies under other names. I've not read much on this myself, but there is plenty of information out there. It was interesting to get the perspective of someone in the industry who wants to protect his customers. He's trying to make a living, but not at the expense of selling out his customers.

My ISP, Virgin, are one of those trialling Phorm. I've not seen anything from them on it. There is supposed to be an opt-out, but can we trust them?

A lot of us already sacrifice some privacy to get some benefit. I have a few loyalty cards that get me some payback in exchange for giving away my shopping details, but it could be tracked to some extent anyway. Sites like Gmail and Facebook target ads based on your communications and habits, but you accept that when you sign up. You mean you didn't read all the terms and conditions? Phorm is different because they look at everything. There are technical options, such as working via a proxy, but these are not available to everyone. With the government wanting to track our on-line habits too, to prevent terrorism (allegedly), using encryption may just draw attention to you and cause you more grief. If too many people do it, then would they ban it? It's happened before in some European countries. France had restrictions on encryption for years. I would like to see more people using encryption for everyday communication. We could do with easy ways to encrypt traffic to mail servers, so that the spooks cannot even see who we communicate with. If anyone wants to do some keysigning I'm always interested. I did some a couple of years back, but not much recently. My key details are here.

We need to fight to protect our right to privacy or the terrorists will have won.

[22:22] | [] | Comments | G

Sun, 11 May 2008

Cool sites

Nothing much to report, but here are some cool sites I have found lately:

You can follow my bookmarks over on Del.icio.us. I'm interesting in following others who share my interests.

[20:43] | [] | Comments | G

Fri, 11 Apr 2008

Google Docs

I seem to have adopted several of Google's products for running my on-line Activities. I have an iGoogle page where I have assembled various gadgets that let me see at a glance what is happening on Twitter, Facebook, Friendfeed and others. I also use it to access my Gmail and Google Calendar. I find that keeping some of my data on-line is convenient when moving between home and office. It might be better on my PDA, but I haven't worked out how to synch PocketPC.

I have a couple of applications for a spreadsheet that I can access from wherever I may be, so I decided to check out Google Docs. The spreadsheet seems fairly capable, if a little slow. I've not tried the graphing options. You can export to various formats, including open ones. This has the potential to be another threat to Microsoft's monopoly, especially where people want to collaborate on documents. Office is far more than more people need anyway. It's amazing how far web applications have come in the last couple of years. I remember being amazed when I first saw Google Maps. Google are trying to get more of the market by providing the Apps platform where they will host applications written by others. There will be costs involved, but it's likely to be cheaper than rolling out your own hardware in many cases and more resilient to load spikes. I'd love to play, but need to find an itch to scratch.

I was just discussing the issues of being a non-Microsoft user with a colleague. It causes me a few issues with connecting to the office from home, but I have something that works. He considers the MS tax to be worth paying for the sake of less hassle. Ironically we were discussing this using the non-free Skype chat, but that's one of the compromises I have accepted. To get some stuff done I have to use a few non-free applications.

At HertsLUG this week Malc was educating us on the OOXML situation where MS have managed to force their 'standard' through the ISO. This seems to have been ignored by sites like the BBC. We still have a chance to make our opinions on this scandal heard by writing to the politicians, but I don't know if this will affect the outcome.

Also at the LUG I had my first hands-on with an Asus EEE. It was slightly bulkier than I expected, but is very neat. I'm not sure I would use the default Xandros GUI, but it seemed to handle the applications well. It even had Penguin Racer and Frozen Bubble installed. I gave the BBC iPlayer a quick try, but couldn't get it to do full screen. I don't really need a big, full-featured laptop, but one of these would be handy for when I'm away from home and want wireless internet and the ability to do various tasks, like photo editing or hacking.

[14:05] | [] | Comments | G

Wed, 19 Mar 2008

Open Social Networking

Social networks have been one of the boom areas of the net in the last few years. I've been quite glad to see people making use of the internet as a publishing medium rather than just consuming what others produce. I know it results in a lot of junk, but then you don't have to read it all. It used to be that you would have to set up your own site to do this, but the social networks have lowered the bar so that anyone can do it. It still seems that many are not that interested in doing so. I started using the Multiply network a few years ago as it seemed to offer some nice facilities. I managed to get a few friends and family to join, but few of them have ever posted anything. One of the most attractive features was that you can say exactly which people or group can see any item. This is essential when posting family pictures. Multiply keeps plodding on, but shows no sign of becoming better known. I assume they have enough members to keep them going from their Google ads.

Of course Facebook is the big name of the moment. It offers lots of useless 'toys' for people to play with. I joined to see what is going on, but mostly just use it to keep up with what my friends are doing. It doesn't really seem aimed at those who want to write longer pieces like this. I see that they are offering more control over privacy in a similar way to Multiply, but I wonder if people will bother. There must be some who get to regret posting certain items that get seen by employers or others who might not appreciate them.

The problem with all these systems is that you cannot easily change to another unless you can persuade all your friends to do likewise. Transferring your content is likely to be tricky as well. This is why I would prefer to use this site where I have full control. I just have to persuade my less technical friends that they should get into things like RSS so that they can get notified when I update. There's also the issue of privacy. At the moment everything here is public and so I have to be careful what I post. Implementing any sort of access control requires more technology. What I would like to have would be something like OpenID for logging in with access restricted to those I have added to my FOAF profile (they have a new wiki). I doubt I could do this using Pyblosxom, but am reluctant to move to anything more complex for now. So the family stuff will stay on Multiply for now. It's too much work to get them all to migrate to anything else.

Meanwhile, I'm keeping an eye on the more open technologies. Don Park's XFN spidering tool is coming along nicely. The output you can see for my site is still fairly basic, but the power of using this data is revealed by making use of the OPML file it creates. If you load this into something like Google Reader you automatically get a full set of feeds for my sites and those of my friends. This is just from adding a few tags into the HTML code. Enough sites are doing that to make it useful. There are plenty of people working on these technologies, but it probably doesn't have the commercial potential to attract the big money. How can you force advertising on people if they don't come to one central site? I still wonder if that is a viable source of income to justify the huge sums that are being paid to buy up sites like Bebo. But what do I know?

So have I achieved anything by this post? I'm not sure, but I quite enjoy writing it. I probably need to plan what I write more.

[22:12] | [] | Comments | G

Sat, 08 Mar 2008

XFN

I've written previously about using open methods for creating social networks. I still believe this is the way to go. Sites like Facebook are very convenient, but they come and go. People move on when something better comes along. I have this site as a hub for my internet activities. I incorporated XFN ages ago. The problem was that the data was not at my root page. Instead my blogroll appeared on every page of the blog. That caused an issue for a friend who found hundreds of links to his site coming from every possible page on mine. That made it hard for him to track who was linking to him. So I moved the blogroll to a static page about me. That was still not what I really wanted, but whilst I was sorting out my URLs I took the opportunity to set up a proper home page. It's still a bit messy, but it contains a list of sites that represent me in some way and a list of friends. All of these contain XFN data.

I have a few friends who have XFN links on their sites that link to mine. There can just be issues if we do not agree on what is their base site. That generally just stops the links from being properly reciprocal.

In case you don't know XFN, or XHTML Friends Network is a way to embed data in web links that indicates your relationship with the owner of that site. It is not directly human-readable, but can be read by software to map out social networks. Some examples of this are:

I would like to see something that could produce nice network diagrams. Perhaps that can be done with software run on my PC.

A number of social sites are including XFN data to link to homepages and contacts, including last.fm and Twitter.

There is a very good article from last month that goes into lots of detail on this subject.

If you want to join in with this game then drop me a link and we can coordinate our efforts to best effect.

Finally, I am just including a link to my Technorati Profile to get the blog linked with the new URL. This is topical as the link includes XFN data to indicate that it is my profile.

[22:34] | [] | Comments | G

Fri, 25 Jan 2008

Feed Me

I mentioned before that I was playing with some feed aggregating sites. FriendFeed is my current favourite, largely because it lets me create feeds for friends who have not signed up. I accept that they may not want to, but I want an easy way to see what they are up to on various social sites. FF keeps adding features. One useful one was the ability to add multiple feeds of the same type. That's good if you have more than one blog or want to use feeds from sites that are not directly supported.

I've also played with ona*swarm. They use the right technologies, such as OpenID, but nothing else really stands out.

This week I've been looking at Pownce. Kevin Rose of Digg is behind it and it just became available to anyone to register. So far I can't see anything that really makes me want to use it, although they do use some semantic technologies that I favour.

I've used the FriendFeed gadget on my Multiply page. I may use it here when I decide if it's what I want to use 'permanently'. Nothing is permanent on the internet.

[14:21] | [] | Comments | G

Sun, 04 Nov 2007

Socialists

I've mentioned before that I don't really like closed social sites like Facebook. I shouldn't have to force friends to join whatever site I'm on just so they can see my updates. I could ask them to subscribe to the feeds of all the sites I use, but that's asking a bit much and their list will not stay up to date for long. I've been exploring some sites that let me build a single feed from all my sites.

Mugshot does this fairly well, but has some limitations. It only allows linking to certain sites plus one blog. It has some nice social features like groups that all you to have a joint feed.

FriendFeed offers very similar facilities, but not groups. What attracted me there is the option to set up feeds for friends who don't want to join themselves. They call this 'Imaginary Friends'. Others may call it cyberstalking ;) They also don't allow for multiple feeds from sites they don't directly support. I'm on their support group, so I will be pushing for things like that.

The big news in social networking this week was Google's announcement of OpenSocial. I'm not fully clear on it's capabilities, but I gather that it would let developers write applications like those available within Facebook, but they could be used on any site that implements their API. We shall see how it develops.

[19:40] | [] | Comments | G

Thu, 27 Sep 2007

Moving Pictures

I shall try a lazyweb request. I'm getting some grief that our Linux computer does not allow us to view video over Skype. I really don't want to have to have a Windows PC at home and Skype seem in no rush to update the Linux client. So are there any other options that would allow non-technical relatives to use their webcam on a Windows PC so that we could watch the video? Ideally we would like voice communication as well. Two-way video would be great, but this means finding a Linux-supported webcam. It seems tricky to find a definitive list of those that work.

I await a flood of suggestions ;)

[22:21] | [] | Comments | G

Fri, 21 Sep 2007

Semantic Web Kicking Off?

I've been reading about the Semantic Web for about 3 years now. It makes sense to me that web pages should be readable by software as well as by people. With the right software you can tell from my site where I live, who I know and what sites are about me. Of course, you will only get the information I choose to share. It's disappointing that more people are not making use of these technologies. They allow for so many cool things, like finding out what web sites are based in your area. Ultimately they could make search much more effective, even bearing in mind an old essay by Cory Doctorow.

In the last couple of weeks things have started looking up. Firstly I found Foafing the Music that looks at my FOAF (warning, site not updated in ages) file and tries to work out what music I might like based on what information I have there. Interesting, but just a toy for now.

This week I read about Six Apart adding semantic features like FOAF and XFN. They also use OpenID, echoing my thoughts on open social networks.

A comment elsewhere on that story revealed that photo site Smugmug was also getting on the FOAF/XFN bandwagon.

I've written one small program that collects geographical information from a set of sites to display on a Google map. I'd like to do more in that area.

[21:46] | [] | Comments | G

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