Chris Edwards: October 2007 Archives

Chris Anderson's decision to post online the email addresses of PRs who decided that the editor-of-chief of a heavily staffed magazine was the obvious place to start with getting a launch covered made sure his anguish got noticed. It drew someone else who revealed that they have started to quietly blacklist PR emails. There could be a lot more of those people.

In the distance, a low rumble accompanies the law of unintended consequences grinding into action.

Here is the problem. People who think bypassing section editors to pitch the editor-in-chief of any book using his or her named email address aren't suddenly going to get a clue because their own email addresses are now online ready for any passing spam harvester. However, what they will be aware of is a large number of messages underneath the original post saying: "Pick up the phone, build a relationship."

What they will understand is the first bit: "Pick up the phone..." I can say with certainty that a dull, misdirected pitch delivered by email is ten times worse delivered by phone. Emails are easy to kill. Phone calls are another matter.

The problem with some scientific research is not the research itself but the way people choose to use it. What better example than research on the blogosphere itself to show how you can twist a reasonably simple study for self-interested ends or just get it completely back-asswards? The reaction to the study itself is potentially the source of new research into blogger psychology: "I bloviate therefore I am".

A team from Carnegie Mellon University decided to look at how blogs link to each other as part of a wider study to look at where to put sensors to detect pollution or disease as quickly as possible without spending a shedload of money to put them everywhere. The slightly non-intuitive conclusion is that points with a high overall flow do not provide the best positions - it is those small channels that have the largest effect on the whole network where you want to have those sensors placed.

The team picked blogs as a study area largely because blogs have some interesting parallels with the spread of contagion through a network. They also make it easy to study that spread. They are time-stamped; they link to other blogs. You can trace the flow of 'information' relatively easily.

The researchers picked a large subset of blogs – 45 000 from a possible total of 2.5 million – and crunched through their links, taking account of which links went outside the dataset and which remained inside. They monitored posts that pointed to largish information cascades – effectively blogger pile-ons. To qualify, a subject had to accumulate 10 posts to be considered a cascade. That's big enough for a small pile-on in my book.

The CMU team then computed which blogs – from the subset they picked – were most likely to be a part of blogger pile-ons compared with those which had a high proportion of posts that were not. This gave them a cost function which led to a final list of 100 'top' blogs.

This is where the fun started. People on the list found that they were on some form of top 100 and started to brag about it. It's scientific so it must be true, was Neville Hobson's considered opinion. Then people started to wonder why a really weird bunch of blogs was considered to be the researchers' top 100. A commenter at Nick Carr's Rough Type wondered why a blog that had effectively been run off the farm by an angry mob was in the listing. Had they spent about ten seconds looking at the text at the top of the list, they might have realised that the corpus used by CMU came from 2006. That's right folks, this is not a list of current blogs - only those active up to about a year ago.

There is one other point that those crowing about being on the list might want to bear in mind. If it is any kind of ranking, this is a list of the pile-on addicts of 2006. If you wanted to know where to rubberneck at the biggest accidents on the blogiverse a year ago, these were your go-to guys.

Based on this, I think there is a strong argument for building a feedreader that uses this lot as a filter against your real list of RSS feeds: it would take out the mob rule and leave you with a lot more original information. (To be fair, there are some on the list I would want to keep in the feedreader).

The irony that this post itself is part of a pile-on is not lost on me.

From a Reuters piece on Microsoft's attempts to put Windows on a crash diet for a sub-$200 laptop:

"We still have plenty of work to do in determining if the highly constrained performance, power, and memory in the first generation XO laptops will be compatible with Windows and popular Windows applications," [Microsoft corporate vice president Will Poole said in an interview].

I think they're still waiting for it to boot.

Jakob Nielsen reckons it's time to rehabilitate the passive voice in writing. And it's all in the name of search optimisation - as opposed to search engine optimisation (SEO). It's an approach that might have legs but is more likely to result in a lot more gibberish appearing online.

The idea is that people surfing, and especially shopping online, scan web pages in a cursory way that favours words over to the left. By altering a sentence so that key words come first - something that probably involves using the passive rather than the active voice or, in rare cases, flipping the word order round – you can capture their attention for longer. If you look at the results they got from capturing users' eye movements, readers also seem to favour short measures. So, it is at least good to know that conventional newspaper and magazine layout ideas were right all along. It's the reason why this blog has such a narrow template. (OK, it's a sample of three at Nielsen's site, with just one piece of running copy, but it fits my prejudice.)

The passive voice has its uses. It provides a handy way of altering the rhythm of a paragraph amid a lot of active-voice sentences. It is also dangerous.

Hwang's costly law

25 October 2007

Samsung is trying hard to push the idea of Hwang's Law, as seen in the company's latest move to show off an experimental 64Gbit device. In 2002, the head of the Korean company's chip business Hwang Chang-gyu gave a speech at one of the chipmaking industry's biggest technical conferences, ISSCC. There, he claimed that flash memories would break away from the prevailing trend in the chip industry and double in size every year. That was something that happened only in the very early days of the business, at the point when Gordon Moore was putting together the graph that became Moore's Law.

For much of its history, the growth in the number of functions that you can get onto one chip has wobbled between a doubling every 18 months or two years. And a lot depends on how you measure the number of functions – something that Intel has made use of on several occasions. Right now, the rate seems to be a doubling every two years, which fits neatly with Intel's own plans. That may explain why Moore has recently been reminding people that he picked the two-year rate as he wrote his first article on it in the mid-1960s.

But Samsung seeks to break with convention, by upping the rate for flash memories, at least, to a doubling every year. And, roughly every autumn, the company has produced an example of a chip that could store twice as much as the last. So far, so good.

Samsung's relentless push looks as though it is coming at a cost.

Some 18 months ago, Tom Foremski called for the death of the traditional press release. Not long after, PRs such as Todd Defren and Brian Solis thought the response should be what they called the social-media news release. Then people started arguing the toss about how social a press release can be. They are still talking about it.

Various people have come up with their own interpretations only to have Defren and Solis swing by to declare that it's a "good effort" but not a social-media news release. For them, unless it has support for comments and trackbacks, it ain't social. Like it matters.

For Rogers Cadenhead, bloggers such as Michael Arrington have "sold their souls" to PR and become beholden to the hype machine in the same way as magazines.

Cadenhead points to a piece from Robert Scoble that claims some of the more popular tech bloggers are being offered, and taking, embargoed briefings so they can break the news about some new product the minute the company says it's OK: "According to Scoble, A-list techbloggers have become just as desperate for inside access, even to the point of honouring an embargo intended to benefit another blog."

What's that noise? In the background, Pete Townshend is stabbing at an organ hypnotically, trying to channel Terry Riley on an all-nighter. A couple of quick windmilling power chords and a scream from Roger Daltry and the blog revolution comes flying off the wheels. All together now: "Meet the new boss..."

Cadenhead's argument is that the tech product magazines were effectively neutered by the need to keep in with PRs to ensure a steady stream of embargoed stories so that they need not be gazumped on news by the competition. The effects of embargoed news are more subtle than that - it's too blunt an instrument to be wielded in the way that Cadenhead describes.


16 October 2007

On Monday, Tim O'Reilly demonstrated that the Web 2.0 world has so wholeheartedly disappeared up its own arse it has now reappeared at the other end. Only a bit grubbier.

In a post that actually decries an environment he cheerleaded for the last few years, O'Reilly takes aim at herd behaviour. It's not hard to find examples of herd behaviour on the Interweb, although his prime example is from the place where all the best people like to flock: finance.

O'Reilly notices, thanks to a bit of research posted on another blog, that quantitative hedge funds didn't actually do all that much hedging in practice. Or, in other words, it's hard to bet against the market when everybody else decides to do the same thing as you. This, apparently, is a bad thing. Is it? Only if you invested in one of these funds. A bunch of other people did very nicely thank you out of not getting involved in stupid trades and, in effect, picked over the bones of the quants.

Here's a handy tip for PRs. If you were giving your next release or invitation a little bit of 2.0 action, think again. Hoping to profit from a little Web 2.0 shine (which has tarnished quite badly in recent months), people have decided to tack on the tag "2.0" to any old topic that might be in need of a warmover, generally in anticipation of some marketing veep or CEO landing nearby for tea and Powerpoint.

With me, at least, it's having the opposite effect to what was intended. Rather than making me think: "Wow, I must find out the changes that usher in the age of Cauliflower 2.0", it's more of an "oh look, no sizzle, no steak, no I won't be going" response. Actually, it's more of an FFS response.

By the way, going to version 3.0 isn't going to help. Just in case you were wondering.