Benjamin Ellis

Jamin on the Net

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Rescuing the Reader

This post is a little overdue. I’ll blame my laptop mishap with a concrete floor last week, but that’s a story for another post, this one is about Google Reader, or rather the lack of it. Google have announced that they are powering down Google Reader. If you don’t know what Google Reader is, bear with me – you should do, and I’ll tell you why in a minute. The official line is this:

…usage of Google Reader has declined, and as a company we’re pouring all of our energy into fewer products. We think that kind of focus will make for a better user experience.

That’s about four lots of sad. I’d just started using Google Reader a lot more, in an attempt to get my head back into more long-form content. Don’t get me wrong, I love Twitter, but sometimes it’s good to go deeper.

Google Reader screenshot

If you’ve not used it before, Google Reader is an RSS reader. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication, and it’s the magic glue that sticks the ‘news’ and ‘blogging’ bits of the Internet together, in an open and (usually) free way. It’s got a little bit buried in the new world of Twitter and Facebook updates, but it still does it’s job, and very well. But RSS isn’t a human friendly format – it’s needs a reader. That’s where Google Reader comes in, fetching updates from your chosen blogs and news sites around the web. At least it was where it came in, but from the 1st of July it’s going out,  joining an increasingly large dead-pool of former Google products. The ex-Googler behind the product had this to say:

Google Reader was doomed to fail from the very beginning: the company never really believed in it and it took big effort on part of a small team to make it work.

Not all is twinkling lights and fairy dust at the Google palace (a former head of engineering puts it thus), but time and technology marches on. Have no fear, there are a number of alternatives.

Most folks are pointing to Feedly which is a super friendly alternative, and is available for iThingies and Google what’s-its-name tablets, as well as in your desktop browser. If you want to cast your net further afield, Gizmodo has these 8 alternatives, and this is a full spreadsheet of others. Of course, if you are a true geek, you could always build your own, as Internet darling Digg  is. There’s a petition to keep Google Reader going too. Yup, good luck with that.

Regardless, the loss of Google Reader is a sad one. It will punch a whole in the remains of the blogging eco system (oops… I nearly said Echo system there – it certainly isn’t that anymore). Google provided a sharing and discovery mechanism for blogs, as well as readership figures. Taking that away tips the balance slightly back from peer-to-peer content to big publisher’s content, and the more chatty worlds of Google+ and Facebook. The tool also had some unusual applications for those subverting government news censorship too.

Here’s the rub for me: Take the time every so often to get away from sound bite social media, as well as big media. Read some things that were written by people like you (or even people unlike you!), encourage some new writers, by commenting on a blog or two.

Blogs remain a mainstay of the bigger Internet. They glue things together, inform the search engines about quality content, through their links, and connect people with people. Install an RSS reader today, and start reading some of your friends’ blogs. Maybe even start blogging yourself. By doing so, you’ll be doing your bit to build the Internet, and keep it in the hands of people, not just the businesses that employ them.


Posted 1 year, 8 months ago.


NEVER forget your mission NEVER divert from it

So today’s big news is about Twitter acquiring Posterous. It lead me to tweet this:

“Eeeek… Posterous acquired by Twitter?! People, NEVER forget your mission, NEVER divert from it. If you do, you WILL fail.”

Which, based on the replies, requires a bit more explanation (other than explaining what has caused me to start making mouse noises).

If you are a real-time microblog that is all about “what’s happening right now”, how does buying a blogging platform make any sense? It’s a classic piece of mission creep by Twitter. Over the last several months, the platform has been gradually shifting its focus, and this latest acquisition is another swerve in the path.

The position of the interior is that you end up constantly looking to ways of making land grabs into adjacent spaces. That might seem sensible to the average MBA, but in the world where platforms rely on people’s passion and their descretionary effort, diluting the focus of what you do is a dangerous thing. Users can become confused, distracted and ultimately disillusioned.

However, the bigger signal here is that Twitter is less and less about the early adopters and more and more about the late majority. It’s switching from “many producing little”, to “the few producing much” – and that is back to where we started.

By switching from spontaneous output, to more and more curated or meta content, Twitter risks steering itself under the juggernaut that is Facebook. In the on-line world, imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery, it’s simply a death wish.

Always remember what it is that you, uniquely, do best. And never, never divert from that.

Posted 2 years, 8 months ago.

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Bletchley Park – Remembering Herivel and the Herivel Tip

bpark2010 70Last year I went up to Bletchley Park during the veterans’ reunion. Last year was quite a year for Bletchley. Simon Greenish, the Director of Bletchley Park, recounted the events of GCHQ succeeding in getting the government to recognise the people who worked there during the war, with the foreign secretary giving out medals to some of the veterans. The government had also promised a permanent memorial (proposed for either the National Arboretum or Bletchley Park – I’ll let you guess which venue is favoured ;) ).

Bletchley is probably one of the hardest up museums in the country, but visitor numbers have been steadily growing over the last four years. For me, it is the birthplace of modern computing. If you aren’t familiar with what went of there in the 1940’s, you really should find out. There is a wonderful computing museum, with an array of computing artifacts to see.

Bletchley Park is full of fascinating stories that were once British national secrets. With each passing year, there are fewer and fewer veterans left to tell their stories. I was very sad to hear of John Herivel’s passing last week. He was one of the veterans that I spoke with last year, and he gave a talk during the reunion. A humble and gracious man, he was a delight to listen too.

bpark2010 84Setting the scene for Herivel’s talk: In 1940 the main challenge was to break the codes of the German Enigma machines. The power of the Enigma was its use of rotors and dynamic wiring, which meant that each time a letter on the keyboard was pressed, there were different signal products. The German army and airforce used Enigma’s with rings that were numbered, while the navy used rings that were lettered. Each ring could be set to one of 26 settings, and each day these settings were changed.

Stephen Fry and Simon Greenish using an enigma – filmed by @documentally

To crack the Enigma code, both the ring settings and message settings are required. The initial Bletchley Park methods for cracking the codes were based on Polish ideas, acquired before the war.  However, on the 1st of May, the Germans changed their methods, rendering the existing techniques inoperable. Alan Turing and his team had already anticipated this change, and were building a machine (the Bombe – in effect a computer) to decode the messages. That left a people from the 1st of May to the 1st of August, while the Bomb was being built. The Enigma machine was reciprocal – putting codes into another machine with the same set up reversed the code, but there were 158 million, million, million possible keys, so cracking the codes blindly wasn’t possible. That was, until John Herivel had an idea…

bpark2010 95

John Herivel, 91 at the time he gave this talk, was one of the senior code breakers, recruited from Cambridge by Gordon Welchman. The H tip (or Herivel Tip), which John conceived in Feb of 1940, was based on an intuition about a method that might work to accelerate the discovery of the codes. As John, put it, lots of ‘mights’ and ‘mays’!

The team humoured John, and give his method a go. Initially it didn’t work, but then suddenly it became effective, around the middle of May – very soon after the Germans forces changed their code method and the previous methods of cracking the codes supplied by the Polish failed. It was aided by a huge increase in message traffic after the Norwegian campaign, which made the H tip much more effective.

John’s method, taking advantage of errors in the way that some of the enigma machines were being set up, was used to crack messages in the critical window before the Bombes were complete. It was fortuitous timing, and made a significant contribution to the success of the code breakers. There was a sad part to John’s talk, for me at least. After the war, when his father asked him what he had done to support the war effort after university, John’s oath of silence prevented him responding – I guess leaving his father to think he had not done much than play maths. In fact, as noted by Winston Churchill, he was probably instrumental in changing the course of the war, together with his Fellows at Bletchley Park. So many of the stories are still untold, or uncaptured. There is a superb archive at Bletchley, but sadly most of it is still boxed up and not fully catalogued. Capturing the stories and making sense of the archive is very much a race against time.

John Herivel’s obituary has been published in The Telegraph, and you can hear more of the code breaker’s stories, and find out about the ancestors of the computer you are reading this on, by visiting Bletchley Park. Rest in peace John Herival. I am glad that I had the privilege of meeting you, so many of us own you and your co-workers a debt of gratitude that can not be quantified.

Posted 3 years, 10 months ago.

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