After Our Time

After listening to an edition of In Our Time about the Jacobite Rebellion, I found myself writing yet another post on this weblog inspired by that wonderful Radio 4 programme. As I was finishing it, I thought that with all the posts I was making relating to In Our Time, I should really make a new category for it. Or better yet, a new weblog…

A couple of weeks later, and I’ve set up a weblog – plus a forum and wiki – dedicated to In Our Time. Following much deliberation, I decided to name it After Our Time (thanks Naomi!) and I’ve already stocked it up with a few posts. I won’t spend too much time describing it here, since you can find that information on After Our Time’s first welcome post, but I have high hopes for it. In Our Time is a very unique programme with, I hope, very interesting listeners. I’m looking forward to meeting them on the website, even if – like all online communities – it does take time to grow. If you don’t want to keep checking After Our Time or subscribe to its RSS feed, you can always glance over to the sidebar on this site, where you’ll find links to the latest After Our Time posts.

The main impact on will be that I write a little less here; or more precisely, all of the posts that I would have written about In Our Time will go on the other weblog. So there’s really no loss, providing that you liked those posts in the first place – and if you didn’t, it’s actually a gain!

And if you wanted to read my post about the Jacobite Rebellion, and Scottish Bioweapons, here it is…

The Strength of Weak Ties

Anyone who’s read about social networks and the ‘tipping point’ will know how important the connections between people are. It’s not enough to look at just the number and the individuals in the connections though – you have to look at their strength. While reading an article (I forget which) about social networks, I spotted a reference to Mark Granovetter’s original 1973 paper on The Strength of Weak Ties (PDF).

This paper made an astonishing and counterintuitive claim – that weak ties between individuals are often more important than strong ties. To be clear, a strong tie might exist between family members or good friends, and a weak tie would exist between an old school friends who see each other once a year at Christmas. Granovetter’s paper is a little hard going for the first dozen or so pages, since it’s laden with a lot of theory and some specialised language, but it really gets going after that, when he starts quoting data:

In a random sample of recent professional, technical, and managerial job changers living in a Boston suburb, I asked those who found a new job through contacts how often they saw the contact around the time that he passed on job information to them…

Of those finding a job through contacts, 16.7% reported that they saw their contact often at the time, 55.6% said occasionally, and 27.8% rarely…

In many cases, the contact was someone only marginally included in the current network of contacts, such as an old college friend or a former workmate or employer, with whom sporadic contact had been maintained. Usually such ties had not even been very strong when first forged… It is remarkable that people receive crucial information from individuals whose very existence they have forgotten.

Remarkable indeed. Most people would approach friends for job leads first, not acquaintances, thinking that they would be more fruitful, but this is simply not the case (at least in general).

Towards the end of the papers is a wonderful section called ‘Weak Ties and Community Organization’. I recommend that you read it directly, since it’s written so well, but I’ll summarise below. Granovetter argues that when a community is completely partitioned into cliques, where strong ties vastly outnumber weak ties, it would be very difficult for that community to organise. Yes, you could provide news to everyone in the community, but would anyone do anything about it?:

Studies of diffusion and mass communication have shown that people rarely act on mass-media information unless it is also transmitted through personal ties… Enthusiasm for an organization in one clique, then, would not spread to others but would have to develop independently in each one to insure success.

This has powerful implications for communities shaped into cliques, such as the Italian community of Boston’s West End in the 50s and 60s, which was “unable to even form an organization to fight against the ‘urban renewal’ which ultimately destroyed it.” Weak ties are needed to allow information to spread between networks. Common sources of weak ties are clubs, work settings and formal organisations; so when you attend a conference every year, and simply spend a few minutes with a few dozen people there, you are refreshing those ties that allow information, gossip and job offers to spread.

Social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn allow you to formalise and track weak ties; that’s why they’re so powerful. Anyone who wants to emulate or learn from those sites would do well to look back to the original research conducted in this area.

BBC iPlayer: well over a day late and a dollar short

As has been widely noted, the BBC’s iPlayer application, which lets people watch the last seven days of TV over the internet, didn’t actually launch on 27th July. It’s still currently in beta, and if you apply to test it, it’ll take a couple of days to receive your login details. This is not particularly surprising, given the long delays the project has suffered over the past few years.

In any event, I got into the beta and launched Windows XP on my iMac (using VMWare). I’d heard that the process of getting iPlayer to run was a little complicated, so I wanted to see for myself. Here’s how it goes:

  1. Register at
  2. Receive login details via email a couple of days later
  3. Visit the BBC iPlayer page, enter the custom username and password to get into the secure site
  4. Get to the point of finding a programme I want to watch (not easy – why not show a list or grid of programmes divided by channel and ordered by time?), click on download, and get told that I need to be running Internet Explorer. Sigh.
  5. Revisit programme page using Internet Explorer (I chose ‘The Museum’)
  6. Install Windows Media Player 11
  7. Download BBC iPlayer application and install it
  8. Refresh programme page again
  9. Give IE permission to install the ‘Kontiki ActiveX addon’ (I happen to know what this is – a P2P application – but what happens if other users are suspicious?)
  10. Log in using my BBC online account (it wasn’t immediately clear whether I had to make a new iPlayer-specific account – thankfully not)
  11. Finally, click on download in IE
  12. One hour later, view the programme from the iPlayer application. It works, even inside VMWare, and the quality is fine, but noticeably worse than anything you could get via Bittorrent (or Tivo, for that matter)

I appreciate – or at least, hope – that the finished application won’t need custom login details. I also understand that most people will be using Internet Explorer by default, so they won’t have to launch it like I did; although it’s worth noting that almost 20% of people in the UK use Firefox, and another 5-10% will use some other non-IE browser.

Even with these caveats, the process is far too long. Users are expected to download and install an application, and install an ActiveX control. They’re also required to have a BBC online login, which most will not. On top of all of this is an irritatingly large amount of switching between applications and refreshing of pages, and a mediocre programme library.

I am, of course, ignoring the fact that the iPlayer doesn’t work on Macs. I have heard it argued from the BBC that they are not under any obligation to ensure that the iPlayer works for every single system, and that Mac users should blame Apple for not licensing the Windows Media Player 11 DRM. The problem is that the BBC is a public service institution and is expected, where possible, to provide content to the widest number of people. There are other ways of getting content to people using Macs besides Microsoft’s DRM.

To be honest, I doubt that anyone at the BBC even believes in these arguments. All of the BBC techs I’ve talked to about the iPlayer and Ashley Highfield tend to begin swearing profusely. Maybe it’s because most of them use Macs.

Ultimately, the iPlayer is irrelevant. ABC’s website already allows anyone in the US to stream high-definition versions of Lost, Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty, among others. You don’t need to download anything, you don’t need to register or log in, and yes, it works on Macs. Now that’s a service that will entice people away from Bittorrent!

No doubt the BBC would say that they have different rights issues to ABC. There are two responses to this: firstly, if ABC figured out the legals so that they could stream programmes online, surely the BBC can? And secondly, it’s not as if the BBC even appears to care about rights in other arenas. The BBC’s copyright is already enforced completely schizophrenically: there’s nothing stopping someone with Sky Plus from recording all the episodes of Doctor Who at original quality and keeping them for years; or someone with a Sony DVD recorder from burning those same episodes to disc. People have been illegally downloading TV episodes for years – it’s easier, quicker, more flexible and higher-quality than the iPlayer – and you don’t even get caught any more! And if they can’t figure out Bittorrent, there’s always YouTube, Dailymotion and TVLinks. So why restrict computer users to downloading only a fraction of their content, and automatically deleting it after a month?

The BBC’s stance makes me think of the boy with his finger in the dike, proudly holding back the sea – except with the BBC, there’s water gushing through a thousand holes elsewhere. They think they’re doing people a favour by letting them rewatch programmes over the internet, as if this were a huge innovation. They think they stop people from copying their content by building restrictions into their outdated piece of software, the iPlayer. They can’t.

The Death of Publishers

Update: Virginie Clayssen has done a wonderful French translation of this post on her weblog teXtes

Adrian Buys an eBook Reader

A couple of weeks ago, I idly visited and discovered something incredible – Tiger Direct in the US were selling Sony eReaders for $100, a discount of $250. Thanks to the rampaging power of the British pound, that’s less than £50. I’d always been interested in getting an eBook reader, so this was a brilliant opportunity to try one on the cheap.

A few frantic instant messages to US friends, and it was ordered. A lot of people at Mobileread were worried the price was a mistake, but we later discovered that it was an experiment by Sony, presumably to see how fast 1000 units would sell. Answer: less than half a day, and that’s only because it began when the US was asleep (amusingly, many of the units consequently went to Europeans).

eBooks and the Future of Book Publishing

The impending arrival of my eReader has had me thinking, once again, about the future of the book publishing industry. Like most of the other early adopters, I intend to load my eBook up with a few hundred out-of-copyright classics from Project Gutenberg; all of Dickens, Austen, Bronte, Conan Doyle, Shakespeare and others would be a fine start (and there goes the classics market!).

What about more recent books that are still under copyright? Well, you can buy novels and short stories from places like the Sony Connect Store and smaller operations like Fictionwise. Unsurprisingly, these books have DRM (like most songs from the iTunes Store) and this can pose a problem for early adopters with eBook readers that aren’t compatible. Also, the prices of the eBooks are startlingly uncompetitive with traditional retailers: it’s almost always possible to buy physical copies cheaper from Amazon or its Marketplace sellers.

All of this means that eBook readers are left with only one advantage over physical books – the ability to carry hundreds of books in the space of an average hardback. That’s still pretty good, but it’s not worth $350.

But what if you could get copyrighted books for free? Now that would change things. Already, there’s a small but growing number of ‘ripped’ books floating around the web and on torrent sites. They’re mostly expensive textbooks or bestsellers; all of the Harry Potter novels are online, of course (that’s where I read the first two) and it’s well known that the final novel was ripped before it went on sale. Since people tend to read pirated books on their computers, which is uncomfortable, it’s not surprised that there’s relatively limited number of ripped books so far. This will quickly change with the advent of good and affordable eBook readers.

Ripping Books and Swapping Them

Ripping a physical book is not as easy as ripping a TV show or CD. Ripping a CD into MP3s is a one-click operation, and recording a TV show is not much more difficult for those who are experienced. Physical books, however, either require transcription by hand, which is tedious (but an interestingly parallelisable task) or a scanner with autofeed (you slice off the spine, then run the pages through a scanner and OCR them). The results aren’t as good as music or videos, since errors creep in and you can lose the formatting, but it’s usually good enough.

So, for the moment, ripping books isn’t quite the industrial, casual operation that ripping music or video is – but it’s getting easier every day. I imagine enterprising rippers will buy Ebooks online, take screenshots of all the pages and then OCR them – or simply crack the encryption. These rippers need not even be breaking the law by doing this – last year, Australia made it legal for people to carry out ‘format shifting’, in recognition of the fact that everyone was ripping their CDs into MP3s anyway. The law doesn’t just let you shift music between different formats – it’s also for photographs, videos, magazines – and books. In other words, if someone in Australia buys a book, they are perfectly entitled to rip it and create an unencrypted copy. Should that copy somehow find its way onto the Internet, well…

It could reach everyone in the world. It only has to be done once.

Ripped books do have one huge advantage over MP3s and videos; they are tiny. An uncompressed novel takes up about 100kb in plain text; even with formatting, you could compress it down to around 50kb. That means that a hundred novels would be 5MB – a wholly unremarkable size that could be emailed between friends easily. Ten thousand novels – say, the last 20 years of books worth reading – would take up 500MB. That’s about the same size as a ripped TV show that millions of people around the world routinely download every week.

The point is that text is trivially easy to send around the internet. We do it every day when we surf the web. When you couple that reality with affordable eBook readers, you have a serious problem for publishers. Continue reading “The Death of Publishers”


The long awaited UseMod 1.0 is now out. UseMod is one of the best simple wiki engines in development and 1.0 offers a number of useful new features (such as RSS feeds) that I may try out for a new idea I have.

We Can

iCan is a new website set up by the BBC to let people discuss local issues and team up with other citizens to effect change, by using a clever combination of forums, locational information and databases. Some issues they’re tackling are schools, anti-social behaviour, litter, traffic and so on.

So, why are people whining about iCan? These people say that iCan is merely covering ‘minutiae’ that no-one cares about and should instead be about the war in Iraq or global relations. Whoa there – sure, people care about the war and George Bush. But they also care about litter, graffiti, local crime and traffic – to dismiss them as being minutiae is deeply patronising (a charge they make against the BBC, amusingly enough).

It’s ridiculous to expect iCan to solve all of the country’s problems, and downright foolish to think that it would cover such topics as the war, given that it’s being run by the BBC. However, iCan has the potential to change many other issues that people truly do care about, and that should be enough for anybody.

In Print

‘One of the best veteran bloggers’ (scroll to the bottom of the page) – that’s what I am kids, according to the NetGuide NZ magazine. A while back I got an email from some reporter asking for weblogging tips for a magazine. I was in half a mind to delete the email because it looked suspiciously like spam, but I later relented and bashed out a couple of paragraphs, which have apparently made it into the magazine. Neat stuff.

Planet Jemma

It’s a great idea – create a fictional online journal of a 19 year old English girl who’s interested in science (and boys, etc etc) to get other girls into science. And that’s what the British Council has done with Planet Jemma.

Now, I don’t dare to presume that I have any special insight into the minds of young teenage girls, but I don’t see how the website (not the idea) can work at all, on anyone. It’s a real pain to navigate and read, and there’s no real indication on what you’re supposed to do. You have to register to be able to participate (which probably cuts down on their visitors by an enormous percentage) and the whole thing smells of a somewhat desperate attempt of ‘cool and with it’ adults to pretend to be teenagers.

Hey guys – it won’t work! You won’t find anyone better than teenagers at detecting imposters, especially in a dubious subject like science. A more sensible solution would be just to get a real science undergraduate to write a diary (preferably someone who can actually write, but there are plenty of those around).

The science on the website leaves a lot to be desired. There was some guff about ‘quantum teleportation’ on today which didn’t explain what it meant and ended up as a horrible, horrible jumble of confusing concepts that wouldn’t convince anyone.

God knows how much the British Council paid to create this website – I suspect well into five figures, very possibly six, given the copious amounts of Flash used – but they have far better things to spend their money on than this ‘pseudo-teenage’ rubbish.


FeedDemon is a great RSS reader for Windows, possibly the best. It’s streamlined my reading habits and speeded things tremendously. It’s not perfect, still being in the beta stage, but that does mean that it’s still free. Normally I use Newzcrawler but it managed to trash my subscriptions while upgrading to 1.5; plus it was still quite buggy and a bit unwieldy.