Monday, December 19, 2011

Who's in charge of maths at Tesco online?

Exhibit A:

You mean I could have ordered 'none'? 

Exhibit B:

Red napkins come under 'The Big Price Drop', which is why they are £1.23, and not £1.25. Buy now ....these crazy prices can't last.

Exhibit C:

Now that's more like it: 'The Big Price Drop' has reduced these sausages from £1.60 to £0.00. Unfortunately, nobody told the people who actually charge you, and they're costing me £1.45.

Despite all this, I like Tesco - because the people who deliver the stuff are invariably cheerful and friendly, and if they don't turn up at the appointed hour, you can actually ring up and speak to someone who will find out very quickly what's happening. 

I particularly liked the man who came recently and said he didn't believe in all this internet shopping, and always preferred to check what he was buying himself instead of letting other people pick his veg for him. I begged to differ. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Filming at Facebook HQ

A few stills from the film:

Mark Zuckerberg at his desk

Sheryl Sandberg's desk is right next to Zuckerberg's

Zuckerberg on stage at Facebook's F8 conference in September

Where tourists get themselves photographed

Free food at the rooftop barbeque

Finally, here's something I wrote about promoting the programme on the BBC. 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Mark Zuckerberg: Inside Facebook

Emily Maitlis meets Mark Zuckerberg, founder of the most talked about new business of our time.

Facebook has 800 million users and could be worth $100 billion if, as expected, it floats on the stock market next year.

The Facebook story has already been portrayed in the Hollywood movie, The Social Network.

Now in this Money Programme production for BBC2, Zuckerberg talks to Emily Maitlis about how he invented Facebook, what he hopes for it, and how he reconciles his ambition to ‘make the world more open and connected’ with the need to guard Facebook users’ privacy.
BBC2 Sunday
December 4 9pm

Presented by Emily Maitlis   Assistant Producer: Jo Hicks
Archive: Briony Clark   Film Editor: Doug Newman   Executive Producers: Michael Tuft, Dominic Crossley-Holland   Producer: Charles Miller

More about the programme on the BBC website HERE and HERE and HERE

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The monsters of Silicon Roundabout

The economy as a whole can go from bad to worse, but online businesses seem to be immune from it all – or is it that people don’t have money to do things in the real world any more?

Mind Candy is a social gaming company, whose star creation is Moshi Monsters (below), an online game for children, which makes its income from subscriptions. There are 50 million members already and it’s growing at one a second, apparently.

That makes it a hot property. Its last investment round valued it at $200m, but its founder Michael Acton Smith reckons it’s worth more – although he admitted that all entrepreneurs say that about their creations.

What makes Mind Candy unusual is that it’s based in London – in the Silicon Roundabout area, to the East of the City – and that Smith has all the hallmarks that big-time investors look for in someone they’re backing.

He’s already had a success, with his first online business, Firebox. And he’s scraped through some bad times too – both with Firebox, which he turned round from a loss-making period by firing most of his staff and working from a single room until the company was back in the black; and with his current business, where Perplex City, a massive online and real world game, didn’t take off as hoped.

Now he's reaping the rewards from all the hard graft, and has big plans – already coming to fruition it seems – to be a kind of backwards Walt Disney company: one which creates its characters (intellectual property, or IP) online, where they can be refined by constant iteration to see what works, and then spinning them off into magazines, cards to collect, products to buy, TV, movies, anything really.

Speaking at a Glasshouse event in London last night, Smith waxed lyrical about the unsung wonders of the product licencing business. Someone just writes you a cheque for your IP, then they do all the work of commissioning factories in China, arranging shipment of products or whatever, and they take all the risk. And then they pay you a fee for every item they sell.

Last night, Smith remembered how he first got into business with Firebox, when he and his university friend and business partner Tom Boardman raised £400 each by taking part in medical experiments in Wales.

It was worth selling his body. Today, he has the ambition and experience to make the most of the popularity of Moshi Monsters and is talking about expanding into ‘family entertainment’. Mind Candy is already something big; in a few years time, we’ll know whether it's the start of something really big.  

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Is the Big Short a bit short?

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday MachineThe Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis goes in search of the winners in the 2008 financial crisis, the traders who had bet on the market collapsing, and had done well from it. He finds a handful of oddballs, outside the big Wall Street businesses, and tells the story of their sometimes shaky confidence in the common sense view that property prices couldn't keep rising and that people with no money couldn't make large mortgage payments.

In explaining how his heroes made their bets - with Credit Default Swaps - Lewis takes on the challenge of educating the general reader in the complexities of a system which, as he explains, only worked because it was complicated and wasn't an open and elastic market like the now well-regulated and transparent equities market.

Although he is reporting on what caused the global financial crisis, he is shining a light in an area which hasn't received much attention. Indeed, he explains in his Epilogue that since first publication he had to fob off various official commissions of enquiry looking into the crisis which wanted him to appear as an expert witness. He didn't see himself as that, but the fact that they couldn't come up with other candidates for the role confirmed his thesis that this was unexplored territory.

Lewis paints a rounded picture of his subjects, telling us about their families, their childhood and their anxieties. That makes the book genuinely original: there were real people behind the bank failures, people with ordinary domestic worries, whose work lives were just part of their lives.

The range of the book, from personal details to the big economic picture, is ambitious and on the whole successful. It is less than 300 pages long in paperback. Perhaps at double the length, not War and Peace, but a little more fleshed out, it could have been a classic, a defining picture of some key players who personified an era, and an explanation of the strange work they did - a kind of factual Bonfire of the Vanities for the Noughties. As it is, I found I was patchily gripped, sometimes lost by the concision of the financial explanations, sometimes muddled - my fault probably - between the various characters. Taken slower, and written longer, I think it might have worked better, but perhaps Penguin wanted it short, or Lewis needed to get on with his next project.

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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Graham Greene's Clapham affair

The End of the AffairThe End of the Affair by Graham Greene

Greene's account of a writer's affair, conducted between what sounds like opposite sides of Clapham Common during the Blitz, is readable, but not quite as interesting to me as the other two of his novels I read - Our Man in Havana and The Heart of the Matter.

There are some nice insights into the mind of a novelist (the determination to crank out the 500 words a day, and the problem of the character who won't come to life, who makes the whole writing process a misery every time he's in a scene) and some quaint detail about wartime lunches and dinners 'in town'.

The religious theme, the idea that the mistress may be more loyal to God than to her lover, sits uneasily with the realism of the rest of the novel, especially with the introduction of a rationalist preacher into to the love affair. But the characters are beautifully drawn, and the dialogue utterly convincing. Especially successful is the comic private detective who uses his son as his apprentice. At its heart is a perhaps surprisingly raw account of a lover's changing emotions.

For me, there were somehow too many different kinds of elements - from the comic, to the confessional via a thesis about morality. But it may be that the same kind of dizzying range was present in the other books I read but was somehow disguised for me by their more exotic locations. I wouldn't want to put anyone off the book, but nor would I press it upon them.

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Trainspotting: a good day on the Waterloo line

A sunny journey from Mortlake to Battersea. Trains precisely on time, and the journey costs just £1.50 now using an Oyster card. No wonder it was full, even though there are trains every twenty minutes. Much easier and more enjoyable than driving. 

Friday, September 2, 2011

A time for heroes: review of Operation Mincement

Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied VictoryOperation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory by Ben MacIntyre

On the back cover, Malcolm Gladwell describes the book as "almost absurdly entertaining". It was a phrase I couldn't get out of my mind as I was reading it.

I already knew the story of The Man Who Never Was from a scary Saturday night film shown at prep school.

MacIntyre's sometimes exhaustingly thorough account of the successful plot to fool the Germans about the Allied invasion of Sicily in the Second World War puts the movie, and pretty much every aspect of the story into context.

The movie, it turns out, is a partial account by one of the protagonists. The truth was more complicated, and MacIntyre never shirks the complications even at the risk of losing his readers in detail.

But the extraordinary characters involved and the immensity of what was at stake, propel the story along, even when this reader occasionally grew irritated with MacIntyre's sometimes showy research (what was on at the local cinema at the time of the incident, for instance).

In the end, you have to admire the writer's mastery of his material and the, yes, "almost absurdly entertaining" richness of his tale. It is impossible not to get caught up in the drama of the times, and to want to continue reading until MacIntyre has reached the end of every thread he has followed.

I couldn't help feeling that today, not much is asked of us compared to those who lived through the war.

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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Yahoo! makes me a grumpy old emailer

This morning Yahoo! Mail 'upgraded' me to its new Gmail-like email. There was no choice. If I wanted to use my account, I'd have to accept the change.

I was first offered the new-look email a couple of years ago. I tried it then on the promise that I could switch back to what they called Classic email, which I did.

Apart from being resistant to any kind of change, I didn't like having ads where previously there had been none.

Yahoo! tried to soften me up for the inevitable with this email a couple of days ago:

"We appreciate that you have been with Yahoo! Mail for the past 13 years. We are looking forward to bringing you an even faster, safer, easier-to-use Yahoo! Mail very soon."

13 years! Blimey, has it really been that long? Because of course Yahoo! was itself a new-fangled replacement to my original Freeserve email address.

I'm glad to find that my account still includes at least most of my old emails. The earliest in the Inbox is from April 2001 (only 10 years ago): it's from a friend in New York, asking "How are things in England?  All we hear about is mountains of dead cows." Ah, those were the days!

I see that the Sent box goes back to March 1999 (still only 12 years).

I have alway liked email, and if anyone asked me, I'd advise them to try it and whatever else they might want on the internet.

But I still think there's something a bit nauseating about the saintly Martha Lane Fox's admonishment of those who haven't got themselves online yet.

It's "disappointing, depressing and I find shocking," she said today, that almost nine million people in Britain have never been online. These people say they have no use for the internet, and are the targets - willing or not - of her campaign, Race Online 2012 with its "one-on-one tailored personal inspiration" to make people want to use the internet. Perlease! Why shouldn't these people carry on in their own sweet low-tech way if that's what they want?

Come to think of it, I'm not sure whether I'm more turned off by MLF's indignant complaints against innocent non-internet users or by Yahoo!'s slippery sales pitch for its new email, which completely fails to mention that my Inbox will be boxed in by distracting animations of the Samsung tablet and other things I don't want.

Sorry Martha: that I haven't yet realised that I want.

Still, I shouldn't be too grumpy. 13, or even 11, years of free email with no ads isn't bad.

Below: Classic Yahoo! Mail:

And the new version: 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Early days of Apple: Wozniak on Jobs and Gates

Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, talks about how Apple and Microsoft started from the world of hobby computers.

He refers to founding Apple with Jobs around 2.30 and about the supposed rivalry between Jobs and Gates at 8.30.

The interview was filmed for a programme I made about Bill Gates in 2008.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Flood in Hammersmith this afternoon

You were warned:

It was under the railway on Leamore Street - presumably a combination of heavy rain and a blocked drain. Luckily there's a raised footpath for pedestrians (and cyclists like me ...surely justified this time?)

And this what it normally looks like, according to Google Maps:

Friday, August 5, 2011

Dahlia, grown from seed, with great difficulty

One one plant survived the slugs to flower:

On the trail of Chekhov

Reading Chekhov: A Critical JourneyReading Chekhov: A Critical Journey by Janet Malcolm

Janet Malcolm made a journey through Russia in the Yeltsin era in pursuit of a better understanding of Chekhov. This slim volume is a record of her travels and thoughts about the writer and his work. It strikes me as a book written to give a tangible purpose to a journey she wanted to make.

Her critical analysis, which pulls together a close reading of many of Chekhov's stories and plays as well as examining the various strands of thought from critics over the years, is artfully integrated with amusing tales of her guides and drivers, and encounters in post-Soviet Russia (the maid whose room at the end of the hotel corridor is filled with a luxuriant grape vine...)

Malcolm is a wonderfully confident and unshowy prose writer, perhaps influenced by Chekhov's own advice that a writer can't do too much abridging of a first draft, even to the point he felt he'd reached sometimes, of being left with passages that read more like a cryptic summary of his original intention.

Chekhov loved Tolstoy but was ambivalent about Dostoyevsky's darker world - although Malcolm argues convincingly that Dostoyevsky had a detectable influence on Chekhov's generally flatter, less full-blooded visions.

If you want a gentle introduction to Chekhov the writer, and to give yourself the desire to pick up his books, Reading Chekhov works well.

And if you want an example of how a writer can be both personal and restrained, vivid and yet utterly free of self-indulgence in travel writing, Malcolm is a wonderful model.

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Thursday, August 4, 2011

Birth of the smartphone, death of the daydream

Forty per cent of Britons now have smartphones. We're addicted to them according to a new survey.

But that isn't news of course, because whenever two or three are gathered together, one or two of them are pecking away at some kind of mobile device.

Where once you might have taken a moment to examine your fingernails, stare into space or whistle a tune through pursed lips, today there's stuff to be done while you're waiting. 

Take me: I've got two games of Words with Friends for Android on the go, and I constantly feel that my opponents (who I have never spoken to about the games, although one is a real friend), are thinking I take ages making my next move. 

And then there are tweets to be read or written, news feeds to be checked and possibly 'liked' on Facebook, photos to be taken, edited, uploaded, and apps to be downloaded. (I've got a quiz about national capitals, which fills in any idle minute educationally.) And of course, there's email to read and write. 

In fact, waiting time has gone from downtime to too-much-to-do time. 

So when can we just do nothing - and think nothing - any more? When can we let our minds roam freely so that our unconscious can untangle some seemingly intractable problem that our stressed-out, logical brain can't solve? 

There's always gardening. 

Remember, nobody is going to find themselves on their deathbed wishing 'if only I'd tweeted more...'

It is exactly a hundred years since the Welsh poet W.H.Davies (above) published his poem, Leisure - but it's really coming into its own in the age of the smartphone: 


What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty's glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

Friday, July 29, 2011

He was right about the global village

Here is a link to my blog for the BBC College of Journalism about Marshall McLuhan, the centenary of whose birth is being celebrated in Toronto: We need a new McLuhanFascinating character, fascinating pronouncements about the media. Douglas Coupland wrote a book about him last year. 

(The cover of a McLuhan original from the 1960s.) 

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Growth of my Twitter empire

Seven weeks ago, I began an experiment to see if you can build a Twitter audience without writing anything. I set up a set of six new Twitter accounts that were fed automatically with news updates from Google and Yahoo! news searches. Every hour or so, each account tweeted links and headlines relating to one of six tech companies - without me having to do anything.

Somehow, right from the start, they managed to acquire some followers - mostly between ten and twenty each. I don't know how those people found the accounts: perhaps they were 'suggested' to them by Twitter if they'd mentioned the company names in their own tweets?

I tracked the numbers of followers every day, waiting to see whether they were going to rise, or dwindle away. Seven weeks later, I still don't really know: there's a generally upward curve in the weekly totals (above), but nothing decisive.

A couple of weeks in, I added to the accounts with four new ones: following news of the London Olympics, Facebook's IPO, East Sheen (in West London) and one which combined news of all six tech companies, under the name Tech_Biz_Today.

The last had far more tweets than the others because it was getting all six of the original feeds, and it is now the most popular (26 followers, acquired in a shorter time than the original six). The least popular is the one about the Facebook IPO. Its only follower has been me, even though I have retweeted its messages to some of the other accounts, hoping to interest someone in following it. I can't understand why it has sat there so unloved when even my obscure East Sheen account, mostly full of irrelevant news about Wimbledon tennis, has found four followers. I have now changed its name from FB_IPO to FacebookIPOnews, but I don't suppose that will help.

This is still a work in progress. I'm going to have to keep following what happens because I want to know the end of the story.

And there are always little tweeks to be made. So this morning I realised that I might as well have the various accounts follow each other - because if someone takes an interest in one of them, they may look at who it is following and find one of the other accounts. Also, I wonder whether Twitter promotes accounts that seem to be acquiring new followers fast?

This process took the total followers of all the accounts up to 222. (But I will discount the ones that are really just me from future calculations.)

If Tech_Biz_Today is the most popular accounts (because it does so much tweeting?), I may start a Bank_Biz_Today, or something like that. Learn from what works...

Links to all the Twitter accounts are here.

My previous update about this is here.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

There's life in the independent bookshop after all

My high street in West London has one bookshop, which, until a month ago, was a rather unfriendly place which I assumed would soon be replaced by another estate agent or stupid gift shop. The man behind the till wasn't exactly rude, but he did seem uninterested in books.

Then it was bought by a woman who owns two thriving bookshops within a couple of miles. I know both of them, and they're bustling, cheerful places and, what's more, places which I have left having bought a book without intending to.

Well, today, I went to my local shop which has been in her hands for just over a month. I was just browsing, but I found two books I couldn't resist on the table just inside the door (Keith Richards' autobiography and Michael Lewis' book about the financial crisis).

While I was paying, I asked the new owner how it was going. She said business was up 40% on the same month last year and she expected to make the same increase again when she'd had a chance to change more of the stock and do more reorganising.

It was a dramatic result, but she was unsurprised. She put it down to a better selection of books, better presented, and more enthusiastic customer service. To my untrained eyes, not much had changed, but the subtle differences were obviously effective.

I nosily asked about how books are sold and she explained that most shops deal with publishers on a sale-or-return basis. In other words, they're not stuck with books that don't sell.

She could choose a higher profit margin by buying books outright, which some publishers prefer; but she said that shops would only do that with a massive discount. She'd want to pay no more than 25% of the retail price, which would mean she could still make money by selling the leftovers for 50% of their original price.

So it's not impossible to make a living as an independent bookseller, I asked, despite everything you read to the contrary? She said it was quite possible, as long as you had a real interest in the book business, so you knew what to put on the shelves, and good customer service, so people wanted to come back. She reckoned there was probably another ten years at least for people like her, before she was overtaken by the digital revolution.

It wasn't what I expected to hear, and it was a refreshing note of optimism: a new bookshop business that's doing well, with an owner who isn't gloomy, and no particular gimmick or formula. Amazing. And I'll be going back.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Social Animal works - despite everything

The Social Animal: A Story of How Success HappensThe Social Animal: A Story of How Success Happens by David Brooks

In 1967, Desmond Morris wrote a non-fiction best-seller called The Naked Ape, which described human behaviour in terms of animal instincts - aggression, hierarchy, sexual signals etc.

David Brooks has done the same kind of thing with the unconscious, which, he argues plays a far more important role in our lives than as some kind of primitive animal memory which only comes into play when the more advanced parts of our brain can't cope.

I don't know if Brooks read Morris, but I'm pretty confident he's read Malcolm Gladwell, whose Outliers is subtitled The Story of Success, and whose Blink is all about the unconscious.

But Brooks is much more than just another clever journalist jumping on a trend - although he may be that too.

The Social Animal, like Gladwell's books, takes research from psychology and sociology, and weaves it into an easily digestible sequence. But Brooks goes a step further, mixing his factual material with a kind of mini-novel, the story of Harold and Erica, a couple whose lives he traces from birth to death, dramatising his research findings through their experiences.

It sounds a weird mixture and could have gone horribly wrong. But in Brooks' well-judged prose, somehow it works. I sometimes found myself wanting to get away from Harold and Erica and back to some proper factual information, and sometimes the other way round, needing a bit of light relief from talk of the vital role of the amygdala.

Once in a while, I felt that Brooks didn't know much more about the research than he needed to complete his chapter. And I wondered just how universal his conclusions are, featuring as they do, in Harold and Erica, a very culturally specific American world - with Erica a strikingly successful woman who makes it to the White House from humble beginnings.

But any misgivings are put into perspective by the common sense and solid values that Brooks seems to be directing us towards. While he's a student of science, the book is peppered with references to literature and history, to which he gives equal weight. And then there are what appear to be the author's own views, such as the following brilliant theory of everything:

"The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past, we call genetics. The information revealed thousands of years ago, we call religion. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago, we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago, we call family, and the information offered years, months, days or hours ago, we call education and advice."

If Brooks reaches conclusions, they are along the lines of a message that humanity with all its flaws is heroic, and life is full of opportunities to shine. The Social Animal may have started out as a publisher's idea for a best-seller, but it is full of interesting material, and easy to like.

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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

My first steps with Storify

This morning I had my first go with Storify, a site that lets you easily put together a sequence of items from social media, by searching for them on its site, and then simply dragging them into a timeline and adding whatever you want to say between them.

It's cleverly easy to use, as well as to share and embed what you've made.

To help get a bigger audience, when you publish your 'story', the site offers you a one-click option to notify everyone whose social media contributions you have dragged in, that they have been included.

Using the embed code to copy it here too, here's what I wrote (for the BBC College of Journalism blog):

Friday, June 17, 2011

My Twitter empire falters: temporary blip or terminal decline?

My Twitter empire has become a bit of an obsession, and not a very productive one. I've set up a set of matching Twitter news accounts (like these two), which I rather like - and actually learn useful things from - but not many other people seem to appreciate.

The idea was to make them tweet automatically by directing news links into them using RSS feeds from a news search. They'd attract specialist audiences who would retweet interesting stories, and more people would join.

It's a kind of rerun of an early obsession I had with eBay: could you make money from things you picked up for free? Six years ago, I made a programme called eBay: Money for Old Rope? in which we found out whether you could actually sell old rope on eBay. (You could, up to a point.)

Well this was the same kind of idea: can you get people to follow you on Twitter if you set up accounts that only tweet automatically? It would be amazing if you could; again, the answer (so far) was an inconclusive yes and no.

The initial results were mildly promising. The graph seemed to be going up, but then it stopped, and started going down again. Why? There were several possibilities:

- Perhaps people had twigged that there was nobody posting this stuff, and they felt conned.
- Perhaps I wasn't promoting the accounts enough with retweets and other ways of drawing people's attention to them.
- Third - and this wasn't just a possibility - I noticed the accounts weren't getting new tweets.

I'd been feeding them through Hootsuite, using the RSS of a Google news search, but it had stopped working. I wasn't sure whether that was because Hootsuite had stopped sending Twitter the news, or whether Twitter wasn't posting what Hootsuite sent it.

I had a look through the Twitter rules, but couldn't see anything that suggested there was anything wrong with what I was doing in the eyes of Twitter - so I didn't think Twitter had somehow stopped the posts or frozen the accounts: indeed, I could still post things manually.

I reset the feeds using a Twitterfeed account instead of Hootsuite, and using Yahoo! News searches instead of Google. They started working again, although I suspected that the more complex the search formula (e.g. I had "Amazon - rainforest - river") the less posts were produced.

But restarting the tweets didn't immediately reverse the downward trend in followers.

And I wanted to try some other ideas. So in a flurry of activity last weekend:

- I put all six tech companies from the original accounts together in a new single feed - @TECH_BIZ_TODAY
- I set up a dedicated account for Facebook's public flotation - @FB_IPO
- I added one for the Olympics - @LD2012_TODAY
- And I tried a local news account for East Sheen, in West London - @ES_TODAY

But all of these did even worse than my original six tech business accounts.

I was particularly disappointed about the failure of @TECH_BIZ_TODAY because I felt my promotion of it really should have worked. I used Hootsuite to send out a tweet about it to all my other accounts, with a link to a blog I'd written about it. Strangely the blog got a decent (on my small scale) 45 hits after the tweet went out. But nobody - not a single person - signed up to @TECH_BIZ_TODAY, even though they were already following one of my other tech accounts and should have been interested in the subject.

I thought this was going to be a passive pursuit: just set up the accounts and watch them grow. But it turns out to be more like gardening: in a garden, everything changes rather slowly, and, in theory, should be able to look after itself. Indeed, if you haven't had a garden, it's hard to imagine what there is to do most of the time. It takes a matter of minutes to plant some seeds, for instance, and months for them to grow. But it turns out that there is always something that needs doing.

So with my 'automated' news services: there's always something that could be improved: a better formula for the news source, a strategic retweet, a look at who is following what, more stats to compile. This is all quite fun, but even if it was working well in audience growth, I don't think it would run itself.

But it turns out that  there are people making this kind of thing work: I've come across a few, such as @Lon2012don, which seems to have had the same idea as me - automated news of the Olympics. And this account, after 4,000 tweets, has an impressive 2,500 followers. Its weblink directs its followers to a dedicated sports books page on Amazon, which is presumably how it hopes to make money. I'd love to know the story behind it.

I have learnt a bit out of this, and can't decide whether to stop wasting time on it, or to keep on trying to make it work. I suppose it's less of a waste of time than Farmville, or being addicted to a soap - which is a bit what it's like. It's a soap storyline with numbers: will they go up or down? In fact this morning, 21 days into the experiment, you could look at the graph (below), and decide that after 'bottoming out', the trend is up again. That's what's so intriguing. I'm not going to be able to give up this storyline any time soon.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Why the rare book market online is raising, not lowering prices

Tolkien's Gown and Other Stories of Famous Authors and Rare BooksTolkien's Gown and Other Stories of Famous Authors and Rare Books by R.A. Gekoski

Rick Gekoski is a dealer in rare books, but he's also a natural story-teller and a good gossip. He is happy to talk about money - which makes his accounts of buying and selling books all the more interesting. And he takes an almost philosophical view of what he and his peers in the book trade do for a living.

Tolkien's Gown is a gripping account of the famous writers he's dealt with, both in person, and personified by the first editions of their work that have passed through his hands. I was so enthralled when I read it last summer, that I went to see Gekoski talk at a rare book fair in London last week.

In person he's a slightly unkempt figure with straggly hair and thick glasses. But his mastery of his subject and confidence in his own judgement make him a charismatic speaker, funny, clever and wise. Here's some of what he had to say:

The internet is probably raising rather than lowering the price of his kind of books. As soon as someone has anything they think might be of value, they go online and price it according to the most expensive copies they can see, without the knowledge to realise the differences between copies that determine price. So instead of a dealer like him turning up and telling the seller what their book is worth, he is now second-guessed by his customer, who, in Gekoski's view, usually gets it wrong.

He is fed up with today's obsession with 'fine' copies. Older books should look old, he says. And there's a ridiculous premium paid for books with dustjackets. He cited one he bought with a jacket for £80,000 which would have sold for less than £2000 without the jacket.

His solution to the internet destroying his business is to deal in books that are so rare that they aren't for sale online. That way, his expertise can still play a part in the buying and selling. But it means the average price of books he trades is £8000. It also means that the old 'scouting' tours he used to enjoy, visiting bookshops and collectors in the US and Australia, are largely a thing of the past.

The fun's gone out of it, he said, and that special relationship between collector and dealer has been lost. Where once his customers, like a lawyer's clients, came to him for advice, in a mutually beneficial relationship, today he is at odds with them, sometimes even in competition for books. But there is still a wisdom he brings to the business, seeing the collector as a kind of artist, that surely the best collectors must still value.

Graham Greene told him, he said, as he was visiting him in Antibes, that if he hadn't been a novelist, he would have liked to be a book dealer, because it was a form of treasure hunting. And if I hadn't been a dealer, Gekoski replied, I would have liked to be a novelist.

He brings one quality to his business that the internet can never replace: he is obviously good company - and I suspect that much of his success is down to the fact that people such as Greene and many others he writes about in Tolkien's Gown enjoyed having him around. He appreciates writing as well as books, making him the perfect house guest to distract a writer from getting down to work.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Tesco online - devious or maths fail?

How about this for a special offer from Tesco?

Yes, the Italian pizzas are £1.79 each and £5.00 for two. The Romanas are even more special: £1.79 each and £6.00 for two.

There's a promotion possibility for someone here - from Tesco virtual shelf stacker to AS level maths question setter...

Monday, June 6, 2011

How I'm building my Twitter empire

It's just over a week since I set up six business news feeds on Twitter, each covering a different tech business - as a I wrote about here.

Since then, the number of followers on my Twitter accounts has doubled - to 76 (see below). Not a massive number, but the point of the experiment was to see how far I could get in building an audience without actually producing any original content: all the Tweets are generated automatically through RSS feeds from Google searches for the names of the respective businesses. 
I've written about it in more detail on my BBC blog here

Now I'm wondering whether other subjects might work better with the same treatment. What's needed is a subject that can be easily specified by a single word. So Twitter, Microsoft, Facebook or Google are companies, words and subjects that people might be interested in hearing about. Amazon and Apple don't work so well because a news search for either word is likely to produce much news beyond the world of the tech businesses. 

I'm wondering about a collection of news feeds about universities: a story with "Oxford University" or "University of Oxford" would perhaps find an audience. Any thoughts about other subject areas would be welcome.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

My new blog on tech business news

Take a look at my other Blogger blog - for information about the _TODAY GROUP - a set of tech business news feeds I've set up on Twitter - and now on Facebook too (screenshot below).

I wrote about the idea in the previous entry here.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Can you build a Twitter audience without writing anything? An experiment.

I am more than a little sympathetic to the critique of Web 2.0 trends in Jaron Lanier's mind-broadening book You Are Not a Gadget (2010).

Lanier complains about the fragmentation of communication encouraged by today's social media. People post tiny nuggets of news and information - status updates, tweets etc - which tech companies slice and dice by demographic and pair up with commercial interests.

The result is a kind of information slurry into which advertisers can dart strategically.

It's very different, Lanier argues, from the good old days of the internet when people created individualistic online worlds with weird, elaborate websites and idiosyncratic messageboards.

But, hey, you have to know your enemy.

So over the weekend I tried to find out whether I could generate some information titbits that would build an audience without me actually having to say anything.

The idea was to create a group of Twitter accounts fed by RSS feeds from Google News searches. Each account would provide the latest news about a different hi-tech business.

On Saturday, with a little help from Photoshop, the _TODAY GROUP was born, with six new Twitter accounts. The designs would all match, and my customised Twitter background, with a bit of tweaking, revealed the Twitter names for all six accounts on either side of the page (below).

Then I went to Hootsuite and directed the RSS feed from the relevant Google News search to each account - with a few adjustments for the more ambiguous company names: Amazon "-rainforest" and Apple "-fruit", for instance.

Having pointed each feed to the right Twitter account, I could sit back and see what happened.

Sure enough, the Twitter accounts soon began to fill with news that looked appropriate to their subjects. "Will Google Wallet end up in your pocket?" asked my Google News account. "Pressure on Microsoft boss," warned Microsoft News. Each headline was accompanied by a link to the full news story, culled from different outlets that Google News was scanning.

I'd told HootSuite to update once an hour, so as not to overwhelm my followers with too many tweets.

On Sunday morning I checked back to see how it was all going. Between them, the six accounts had 29 followers. A sort of result, though a quick scroll revealed that many of them ranged from the blatantly self-promotional to the outright dodgy.

I noticed that the account following Google was my most popular, with 11 followers. But, because I'd done something wrong with its RSS feed, unlike all the others, it hadn't actually put out a single tweet. Hmm... perhaps I could get a bigger audience by tweeting nothing at all.

On the other hand, I hadn't told a soul about the existence of this fine new 'suite' (as I liked to think of it) of Twitter accounts. Maybe when I did they would take off.

How to do that? Well, I started by 'following' my services on my own Twitter account (which boasts a pathetic 50 followers). I retweeted a couple of the more interesting headlines, hoping to build up interest in these exciting new sources of techie information.

Then I resolved not to waste the whole weekend on this nonsense and went out to repot the dahlias - and think strategically about my next move.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Waiting at the hospital

I amused myself with the Scribbler app on my phone as I waited for my mum to be released from her cateract operation...

A visit to an NHS hospital is disorienting: you're not in the familiar commercial world, and yet it's not a normal public space either. It's dirtier, less manicured, less owned, than even the average school, local government office or library.

It's all big signs, bossy instructions, plastic on floor and chairs and a layer of grime that has, no doubt, been swept for dust this morning.

Attempts to improve the look of a hospital, like the Turner prints of Greenwich on the wall outside the eye clinic, create not so much a pleasant environment, as the message that a well-meaning committee has been at work. The pictures are so obviously a gesture. They just say "we're trying" - like the gardener watering the hanging baskets in the tiny patch of garden between criss-crossing hospital corridors.

And the tired-looking people who work here really are trying. Yes, you can come back and take your mum for a cup of tea during her three hour wait, even though that's not really the system. And we'll even make one for you too when we're giving her another cup of tea after the operation - milk, sugar?

It's a bit like I imagine it would be in a Mother Teresa clinic in India: you'd be struck with how people could be oblivious to their working conditions.

With the NHS, it's not so much 'you don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps' as 'you don't have to be a decent, good-hearted person to work here, but you won't last long if you're not.'

As I whiled away the hours, I came across an article in the Guardian predicting that by 2050, Britain will be spending more than a fifth of its national output on services for the elderly. How can the funding and organisation of the NHS get ahead of the demographic curve? Especially if immigration is restricted, or just less attractive to those who have wanted to come to Britain? And if medical science and practice continue to advance?

Five satisfied customers have left the eye clinic by half past four, some saying they can already see better. My mum and I go out into the sunshine and drive home. Far better for the NHS to have achieved the miracle of good people working in poor surroundings than to be stuck with the opposite.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Trump not running: but did he still win?

Trump Abandons Designs on White House in 2012 Reuters reported today.

So did President Obama's jokes about him at a White House press dinner recently finish off Trump's Presidential ambitions?

No, Trump is not a quitter: if anything, adversity spurs him on. He probably found it more difficult to give up after Obama's jokes because he would have been worried it might look like the President had got the better of him.

But the new Apprentice season has launched with the kind of marketing of Trump that money couldn't (and didn't have to) buy.

In fact, Trump's presidential bid was part of a bigger pattern in his life, which shows up the media as gullible in the face of Trump's expert handling of his own PR.

It's been only 13 years since there was talk of Trump running for President in 2000 campaign, as the New York Times' archive for October 10 1999 reveals:

Donald Trump has announced his Presidential exploratory committee. He is dreaming of Vice President Oprah Winfrey, insisting that if the talk show host runs with him, they will win ...Some have said that Mr. Trump's motive is to flog the latest volume in his life story.

Journalists in 1999 might have been forgiven for letting Trump fool them: after all, he'd only tried this once before, eleven years earlier, in the 1988 campaign.

As the Times reported on September 2, 1987:

Mr. Trump was not available to comment on whether he means to be taken seriously as someone pondering running for President, or was just stirring up a little smoke to draw attention to himself or his views.

So, three periods of rumour, speculation and denial. Who knows how calculated each was in Trump's own mind? But he must have realised that this is a neat way to get a huge amount of attention while looking like he doesn't really want it.

If we take the average duration between these episodes, we should expect the next Trump bid for the White House in 2023. He'll be 76 then, so perhaps there'll be another autobiography to plug.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Like Eve, unable to resist Apple

I first bought a Macbook about five years ago, and it had never gone wrong before last week.

My old PC was always grinding to a halt, and had to spend days being fixed at the home of a man I didn't know in an unsavoury part of town: I always imagined he was copying everything about me he could find on the drive he was recovering.

When my Macbook started taking several minutes to load up, I knew it was sick, but it wasn't dead.

Thanks to Apple stores, I didn't have to call the dubious man. Three visits to my local Apple emporium solved the problem:

On the first, I bought a small hard drive to back up my data, with advice from a young man who said I didn't need the more expensive one I was looking at because something that cost about half the price, around £40, would do just as well.

Backed up, I returned to the store and explained about the slow startup. Someone else looked at it, and said that the hard drive had failed. They could supply a new one but I'd be much better off going to a shop across the mall which sold them a lot cheaper.

New hard drive installed, back home, I tried to restore the data from my new backup drive. It copied back onto the computer, but then the computer wouldn't start.

Third visit to Apple store: a young woman was given my case, and sat me down to hear what I'd done. She operated on the laptop, and decided it was all probably fine. She'd call me later in the afternoon and I could pick it up on my way home from work. She did, it's working again and Apple has created another satisfied customer.

Why? Well, apart from the fact that the computer is working, and fixing it cost me nothing - for some reason, Apple doesn't charge for this kind of thing - it was the attitude of the people at the store which won me over.

They have overcome the social problems of geekiness. They listen like good doctors, and engage you in what they're doing to sort things out.

My helpers sat across the desk with the laptop angled so we could both see what was going on. They didn't play the 'you won't understand this' card; nor did they treat me like an idiot by making everything stupidly simple. I left with my dignity as well as my computer, even though I'd probably made some silly mistakes.

Arguably, there was a slightly cultish, evangelical feel to the place, everyone bouncing round with iPads in hand. But it was upbeat, polite rather than alienatingly cool, and stuffed with staff ready to talk about whatever you wanted.

If this is cold, calculating brand-building, give me more of it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Please explain economics to me

So the Euro has been adopted by countries with very different economies. Some – like Ireland, Greece and Portugal – are in a bad way and need massive bailouts. Others, like Germany, aren’t doing so badly.

But because the Euro includes the weak economies too, its value has fallen (CHECK). And that means that Germany, which exports a lot of high tech stuff to the rest of the world, now does well because its currency is cheap to non-Euro countries (CHECK).

Meanwhile Britain has adopted austerity measures to sort out its public finances, and that reassures the markets. It’s not going to be another Greece, and so its currency rises in value (CHECK). And that means that British exports suffer because they’re expensive (CHECK).

Then there’s the USA, which isn’t really interested in getting its public finances in order. So the markets realise it could be a bit like Greece, and everyone sells dollars. So the value of the dollar falls (CHECK).

Yup. Nothing really fits.

But tell me this: supposing…

- The Euro had fallen in value

- German exports only did well under a cheaper Euro

- Sterling rose in value as the government tackled the deficit

- British exports were doing badly

- The dollar fell because market were worried about US public finances

…then you can bet your bottom dollar everything would be explained by the economic theories above.

Doesn’t what's actually happening show that economics is little more than a kind of folklore which just happens to fit some scenarios better than others?