From February 2008

Forced Vegetarianism

Inflationary pressures in China are currently at an 11 year high with food prices having gone up by more than 10% in 2008 alone. Contributing factors include the bad weather which brought China to a stand still during the holidays recently. The government have set up temporary price controls and increased the minimum wage in some areas to try and ease the situation but for some the impact is fairly stark when it comes to buying the weekly essentials.

DSC_4344

Earlier today I spoke with a friend in southern China who has just started back at university after the spring festival break. Rather worryingly they complained that the canteen on campus had stopped serving meat with any of the meals because of the price increases. Although they were getting enough vegetables they were feeling pretty hungry but didn’t dare tell others about it as to avoid their parents worrying and giving the university a bad impression (is this what they mean by saving face?).

As westerners this is rather difficult to imagine. We take it for granted that the supermarkets will always be stocked with whatever we want 247. It just goes to show how fragile a system we live in.

The Wanderer Returns

lanterns
Jogyesa Temple (Seoul) – photo by xoxoryan.

When Arnie uttered the immortal words “I’ll be back” he meant it, as did I, so at rather short notice I’m taking a trip east again – I’ll be in Seoul the first week of March and Beijing the second which is all rather exciting but as usual quite a lot to plan in the few remaining days! This time I’ve managed to find some much more reasonable flights, meaning it will only take 14 hours to get to Seoul instead of 24 last time which just about killed me. Luckily I’m almost a seasoned pro at this malarkey so am a little more prepared for what to expect.

I’m especially looking forward to returning to Chinese soil and having another brief taste of the local colour and cuisine – even being stuck in a queue outside the Chinese embassy in London for two hours on a freezing cold morning didn’t dampen my spirits! It will be interesting to see how far Beijing has developed since last year given the mammoth rate of construction.

Twitter logo

I had planned to blog while on the road during my last adventure but that didn’t quite work out as there are only so many hours in a day (and who wants to be stuck at a computer while on holiday anyway!). This time I thought I’d try something a a little less ambitious and will aim to provide updates on Twitter as a bit of an experiment.

Remixing The Web

The web as we know it is changing. Be these changes small or large we have already gone way beyond a mere collection of pages linked together and are now at the stage of connecting individuals through social interaction and harnessing its collective intelligence. The next step appears to be evolving towards the concept of the semantic web through the use of feeds and markup technologies (RDF, OWL, XML, Microformats etc.) to represent meanings in information which allow us to infer and connect knowledge within and around it.

A lot of this will involve annotating information to make it machine understandable (and not just readable); we will design for re-use of information. The upshot of all this should mean that the user spends less time and effort carrying out complex tasks.

Knowledge Evolution

Put another way (from Wikipedia):

“The Semantic Web is an evolving extension of the World Wide Web in which web content can be expressed not only in natural language, but also in a format that can be read and used by automated tools, thus permitting people and machines to find, share and integrate information more easily.”

A road map might look something like this and interestingly almost exactly mirrors how information architects commonly define the process of converting Data to Information to Knowledge to Wisdom (or intelligence) in the human mind:

  • Stage 1 [DATA] – connecting information (the humble hyperlink)
    • Data on its own tells us very little
    • By observing context, we can distinguish data from information
  • Stage 2 [INFO] – connecting people (social networking) â† here & now
    • Information is derived as we organise and present data in various ways
    • Organisation can change meaning (either intentionally or unintentionally)
    • Presentation enhances existing meaning, mostly on a sensory level
  • Stage 3 [KNOWLEDGE] – connecting knowledge (semantic web)
    • Knowledge can be distinguished from information by the complexity of the experience used to communicate it
    • Design helps the user create knowledge from information by experiencing the it in various ways
    • Conversations and stories are the traditional delivery mechanisms for knowledge
  • Stage 4 [WISDOM] – connecting intelligence (ubiquitous web)
    • Wisdom is the understanding of enough patterns to use knowledge in new ways and situations
    • It is personal, hard to share and reflective

Getting there will take some time to develop but already we are seeing major sites like Amazon and Flickr exposing their data via REST APIs allowing for their it to be reused and remixed. What we are beginning to see is web sites as web services; the unstructured is becoming structured (more detail here). What you end up with is the web as one big re-mixable database platform upon which new applications will be built to manipulate data in ways unthought of before. (Potential applications)

Content Remixing

Helping this along the way are a number of freely available tools which make it easier to do things that only programmers could do before by allowing anyone to scrape content from web pages or feeds and then manipulate them however they like (legal issues aside). Here are the main contenders which I have found particularly useful:

OpenKapow Dapper Yahoo Pipes

Yahoo Pipes

Yahoo Pipes is an ingenious web app which provides a very intuitive GUI for remixing content without any complex syntax – you simply drag and drop the building blocks then connect them together with pipes to control the flow and transformation of information. In one end you plug your data and out the other end comes a variety of feeds (RSS, JSON, email, mobile).

Yahoo Pipes

I’ve personally used Yahoo Pipes for a proof of concept at work and found it incredibly powerful yet simple to use. Whilst I would describe myself as technical, I’m not a hardcore developer and in that respect this tool hits the nail on the head perfectly; I can visually plumb things together without having to write a line of code and know that it will be error free. (More)

A cool enhancement to the RSS feeds Yahoo Pipes produces is to plug them into Feedburner so what you can take advantage of it enhancement, publishing and analysis tools.

Dapper

Dapper allows you to scrape websites using a visual interface, turning the data you select into dynamic web services (outputting to RSS, email, iCal, CSV, Google Gadgets and Google Maps). Dapper learns from the examples you feed it and then by comparison can create a query that turns an unstructured html page into a set of structured records. If the site you want data from doesn’t already provide a feed this is where you’ll want to go. (More)

OpenKapow

OpenKapow is more industrial strength than the other two; more powerful but more complex also. It uses a desktop based visual IDE to gather data from websites which can then be processed by different types of “robots” to create RSS feeds, REST web services or Web Clips. Seems to be aimed more at professional developers rather than casual users but still a pretty cool tool if you need some serious power. (More)

More tools are examined here and here.

Whilst all these tools and technologies are very good there is still the issue of data cleanliness as we don’t have the same level of control or constraint that you get with relational databases. No doubt this will improve over time as the services mature but for those early adopters there’s still plenty to play with. Regardless of the labels we choose to give new concepts there is no doubt in my mind that this one is going to be big – watch this space!

Online Marketing

Have you ever clicked on an online ad purposefully? I never have and over the years have instinctively learnt to filter them out subconsciously; I simply don’t give them any focus or attention, I go straight for the content. I may possibly be atypical but this begs the question of whether pouring money into online advertising really brings a worthwhile return on investment. A recent study adds more fuel to the fire as it found that “only 6% of people online are contributing 50% of the clicks to display advertisements” and that the majority of these click-throughs did not convert into sales.

Landfill Site
Photo by dnorman

This is what my marketing profile looks like:

  • I don’t click on web adverts/sponsored links ever, if you force a pop-up ad on me goodbye
  • I don’t buy the special offers in supermarkets unless it is something I was planning to buy anyway
  • I don’t window shop, I know what I want before hand, I go get it (sometimes after viewing online)
  • I don’t follow fashion, I use things till they are worn out usually (exception: Apple)
  • I don’t read spam, you better have an unsubscribe option for your newsletter
  • I don’t like personalised advertising ala Facebook Beacon but I don’t mind Amazon style recommendations

I am not a marketers dream. Maybe it’s a male thing?

Aside from this unfortunate reality there is a side to marketing in general which I find particularly unethical; playing on peoples sensibilities to sell them things they don’t really need or want. It also sometimes feels like a lot of these things are targeted at those most vulnerable (e.g. children / those with low income) which is pretty deplorable if we contend any notion of social responsibility. Even the concept of viral marketing has been sabotaged by those wanting to make a quick buck making me even more cynical about the whole business.

Coming full circle, the only real way to build audience or a brand is to provide something which is genuinely useful to the consumer (What is good content?). If you can manage this then to an extent it will market itself. Gimmicks/promotions only have a short life cycle and presentation will only get you so far; once the illusion is gone those valued eyeballs wont be coming back…

Feel free to comment if you disagree or have a different point of view 🙂

York

DSC_5989

Last weekend I took a trip to York, a historic city in the north of England. Being nearly 2000 years old there is plenty of interest to see and do if you enjoy a bit of culture (and don’t mind walking!). Last weekend the weather was particularly mild and almost spring like for this time of year in the UK (around 10 deg C) which made it even nicer and not bad conditions for taking a few photos!

DSC_6014

Whilst you could probably spend a good week exploring, if you only have a day or two here are some places of note:

  • York Minster – the second-largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe, incredibly beautiful both inside and out
  • Castle Museum – a surprisingly good museum with a reconstructed victorian street & shops
  • Clifford’s Tower – remains of the castle fortification with a long history and great views over York
  • City Walls – first built during Roman times very enjoyable walks can be had along its remaining sections
  • The Shambles – a medieval street in the heart of the city which transports you back to another time

The official website has a lot more info. I forgot to take a map with me but found my iPhone more than adequate for finding my way around, especially with the new pseudo-GPS location feature.

DSC_6047

DSC_6055

More photos.

Namdaemun Destroyed

Namdaemun on Fire

On Sunday night a devastating fire destroyed the 610 year-old Namdaemun “Great South Gate” in Seoul, South Korea [video]. Luckily no one was hurt but it’s sad to hear that the blaze may be have been started on purpose. The loss is even more painful as gate was the countries no. 1 national treasure and one of the few to survive foreign invasions. The Cultural Heritage Administration has said that it will take at least three years to restore at an estimated cost of $21 million.

Namdaemun on Fire

I feel somewhat lucky to have visited Namdaemun last September when I was in South Korea and took a number of photos of the magnificent structure with its colourful paintings on the underside. What struck me was its isolation, surrounded by the towering skyscrapers of modern Seoul making it even more of a landmark.

DSC_5851

No doubt people will be pointing the finger of blame over the disaster but no amount of postulating is going to bring it back…

Update (12/02): Looks like an angry old man with a history of arson was responsible. “Chae”, 69, had already been convicted in 2006 of trying to set fire to Changgyeonggung Royal Palace after some sort of land compensation dispute. He is now in police custody.

Year of the Rat

Having being born in August 1984 I fall squarely in the year of the rat (a wood rat to be precise) according to the Chinese lunar calendar. A single cycle takes 12 years to complete and with the 2008 lunar year just beginning we’ve now moved into the year of the rat which, according to superstition, will be particularly unlucky for yours truly (good thing I’m not superstitious!).

Year of the Rat

I find Wikipedia’s definition of rat people attributes particularly amusing:

“Being the first sign of the Chinese zodiacs, rats are leaders, pioneers and conquerors. They are charming, passionate, charismatic, practical and hardworking. Rat people are endowed with great leadership skills and are the most highly organised, meticulous, and systematic of the twelve signs. Intelligent and cunning at the same time, rats are highly ambitious and strong-willed people who are keen and unapologetic promoters of their own agendas, which often include money and power…

Behind the smiles and charm, rats can be terribly obstinate and controlling, insisting on having things their way no matter what the cost. These people tend to have immense control of their emotions, which they may use as a tool to manipulate and exploit others, both emotionally and mentally. Rats are masters of mind games and can be very dangerous, calculative and downright cruel if the need arises. Quick-tempered and aggressive, they will not think twice about exacting revenge on those that hurt them in any way. Rats need to learn to relax sometimes, as they can be quite obsessed with detail, intolerant and strict, demanding order, obedience, and perfection.”

Perhaps there is something in all this nonsense after all?! I found the last point particularly apt!

Still, I’m missing the crazy fireworks in Beijing… Happy New Year 🙂

Vote! (Please)

Vote Obama

For goodness sake America sort it out. The rest of the world is relying on you to elect someone who will end Bush’s rain of terror and downright stupidity. If you don’t there is only one direction the world is going and it isn’t pretty.

How To Ruin A Design Classic

The London Underground (or the “Tube” as we like to call it here) has arguably the most iconic map in the world. The circuit-diagram style map invented by Henry Beck in 1933 paved the way for the way in which most modern metro/subway systems portray their transit networks today. Its success in aiding the traveller to find their way from A-to-B is a testament to it’s simplicity and as the saying goes “it it ain’t broke, don’t fix it“.

As the underground has expanded and changed over the years so Transport for London have updated and tweaked the map. Fair enough, but unfortunately it appears that their designers have got a bit carried away and with every new version it seems to be getting more and more complex and cluttered.

For an idea of what I mean just compare the 2004 & 2008 editions of the map:

London Underground Tube Map 2004
London Underground Tube Map 2004

London Underground Tube Map 2008
London Underground Tube Map 2008

I think you’ll agree that the differences are striking. The main things things which come to my mind:

  • Adding background shading to show the zones is irrelevant and distracts the eye; when was your decision to go somewhere last influenced by what zone it was in?
  • Adding the blue step-free access signs only helps a tiny fraction of the maps users and actually removes detail as you can no longer tell which stations are interchanges; why not have a separate map showing disabled access provisions?
  • The new “London Overground” lines are a glaringly poor addition; they feel like they have been drawn around the existing map rather than integrated with it – is trying to bring together over & underground maps really a good idea?
  • The tiny red symbols, indicating “Check before you travel” in the key, are completely pointless and only add more visual clutter; they look more like crucifixes to me!

London Underground Tube Map

So there you have it – how to ruin a design classic in four easy steps!

Update (12 Oct 2009): TfL have introduced a new map which addresses a lot of this issues. I’ve reviewed it here.

Dim Sum Musings

Despite London’s large Chinese population, finding good authentic Chinese food at a reasonable price is somewhat difficult – China Town is OK but generally expensive and the quality/hygiene questionable. However, when you scratch beneath the surface, there is the odd gem to be found and sometimes in the most unassuming of places. One such place can be found south of the Thames not far from where I’ve been working and over the past year has become a popular haunt for Friday lunch of almost mythical proportions. One of my colleagues has kindly written a review which I thought I might share (complete with my iPhone photos) –

IMG_0076

An unassuming blue building at the Elephant end of Walworth Road – Indian Cafes, ropey B&Bs, the world famous Ivory Arch nightspot. Not necessarily where one would expect to find a restaurant of any true quality, but then life is full of unexpected pleasures. At the far end are a set of doors that would not look out of place along the Great Wall and behind them lie sublime culinary delights not of this world.

IMG_0069

The Dragon Castle menu has all the regular Chinese restaurant favourites – sweet and sour chicken, crispy duck etc – and some unusual but tantalising specialities, but the real draw is the dim sum. The highlight is the scallop and coriander cheung fun – juicy scallops and fresh coriander wrapped in a sheet of glistening cheung fun. Other favourites include the Vietnamese spring rolls, beef balls, sesame prawn rolls – a far cry from the usual sesame prawn toasts. The dumplings are a real treat, steamed or fried, pork or prawn, or both for that matter – I am salivating just thinking about them.

IMG_0086

The dim sum specials menu has just been updated with some truly delicious new ideas – mixed seafood dumplings and honeyed venison puffs are the star attractions.

You might think that all this is sounding a little pricey for lunch, but amazingly no matter how much you order the bill is never above £15 per head – perhaps this really is some magical realm!

So go, go now and try some of the joys that I have mentioned, and some that I have not, but make sure you get there by 5pm, because that’s when the dim sum chefs knock off.