1. The gap is growing between London house prices and what you might call reality

    Posted February 26, 2014 in London, visualisation  |  No Comments so far

    During lunchtime, for a laugh, I downloaded this spreadsheet and made a chart from it.

    The data in the spreadsheet shows the house-price to earnings ratio for all London boroughs, from 1997 to 2013. This number tells us how affordable local property is for people who live and work in a particular area.

    In an ideal world you’d want it to be relatively stable—if property is expensive in one high-income area and cheap in another low-income area they might still have similar house-price/earnings ratios. And over time, you would want salaries and house prices to go up or down more or less together—if you wanted the affordability of property to remain constant, that is.

    Anyway, here’s the chart. You’ll need to click on it to see the full-size version.

    House price to earnings ratio in inner London boroughs

    House price to earnings ratio in inner London boroughs

    The biggest surprise for me upon making this was not so much that this ratio has grown over the years, or the fact that this growth has occurred in every borough. It’s more that the gap between boroughs has become so vast.


  2. Meeting chicken

    Posted January 17, 2014 in office  |  2 Comments so far

    You have a regular meeting in your calendar. It’s with just one other person. Sometimes you have things to talk to them about and sometimes you don’t. But as long as your calendar says you both have to go, you will both go.

    The day of the meeting comes round. There are lots of things that need to be done that day. You look at that meeting sitting obstinately in your calendar and think how useful it would be to get that time back.

    Inspiration strikes: why not cancel the meeting? A couple of mouse clicks, an automatic notification sent out, a joyously blank calendar. It seems so easy.

    But you can’t bring yourself to do it, to cancel a meeting at such short notice. It would make you look disorganised, unprepared. And what about the other person? They might have lots of important things to discuss with you. Maybe they’re really looking forward to the meeting; maybe they’ve worn smart clothes they otherwise wouldn’t have worn, or have regretfully cancelled other interesting meetings in order to have this one with you. How would they feel, if that was indeed the case, about you sending a cancellation out of the blue like that?

    So you get your head down and try to make the most of the productive time you have, although it’s hard to concentrate because you have one eye on the clock. The time is approaching when you’ll need to drop everything and go to this meeting. The meeting hasn’t even happened yet and it’s already wreaking havoc on your day.

    It’s now only five minutes until you need to leave. And, suddenly, your computer makes a bleeping noise or a swooshing noise or whatever noise it makes when you receive a new email. You look up from your keyboard.

    Meeting cancellation

    They blinked first

    Congratulations: you have just won a game of Meeting Chicken.


  3. ShareSite has finally returned

    Posted January 14, 2014 in projects, web  |  No Comments so far

    As mentioned last month, ShareSite has finally relaunched. You can find it at www.sharesite.org.uk.

    Rather than dumping the entire archive online, we’ll be publishing them one article at a time over the next few months, and in chronological order. It’ll give you a chance to relive the heady days of the dotcom boom, much like the Real Time World War 2 Twitter account.

    So the first one we’ve sent live is the first one we ever wrote – Chemical Steel shares hit by witch infestation – from 11th December 2000.

    A witch infestation can be a damning curse for any company. They present a physical hazard, knocking over apparatus and people with their brooms, swooping about the place and snagging loose clothing in delicate machinery. Additionally, they often use occult and magical techniques to purposefully sabotage a company’s showing on the stock markets, with negative spell-casting adversely affecting share prices.

    Read more over at the newly relaunched ShareSite.


  4. How to fight back against the cunning, dastardly new techniques of spam email

    Posted January 7, 2014 in office  |  1 Comment so far

    Everyone hates spam email. Do you remember when we used to get it all the time? Depraved demands for money would clog up my inbox as fast as I could delete them. What a nightmare.

    It was lucky, then, that spam filters came along and helped us win the war against spam. For many years those disgusting missives were absent from my inbox and I almost started to forget what it was like to receive one. Everything was great. Until recently.

    In the last few months, more and more of these unwanted emails have been evading my filters and infesting my inbox once again. It feels like we’re back to the dark days of spam. And the reason? The spammers have upped their game.

    One hallmark of the new generation of spam email is mimicking the writing style of colleagues and bosses. And worse still, the spammers are somehow able to make it look like they’re coming from my colleagues and bosses. It’s astounding. Here’s an early example.

    A cunningly disguised piece of spam

    A cunningly disguised piece of spam

    See how crafty this is? It just looks so authentic and it’s a lot like how my boss writes too, a far cry from the old days when it was easy to identify spam emails with all their rude words and grammatical errors. In fact I was so convinced it was real that I was about to send over the report. Luckily I realised what was going on and sent the email to the trash instead.

    But the spammers had some more tricks up their sleeve. The next wave of emails continued to sound like my workmates, but they started referring to earlier messages – “following up on my previous requests” and so on – which gave them an added sense of realism.

    I tried setting up filters to block these messages but they were too different, too diverse in their content, so I resorted to manually deleting them which was very time-consuming. It was fortunate that work had become fairly quiet, giving me several hours a day to clear out my inbox.

    Then the spammers unveiled their next trick: they started to email large PDF files, pretending they were reports for me to review.

    They think I was born yesterday

    They must think I was born yesterday

    Imagine I’d opened this spam attachment – a 7mb PDF large enough to contain millions of trojan viruses. My computer would have been so badly infected that a trip to Dignitas would have been the only option. I pressed the Delete key without hesitation.

    The attempts to infect my laptop and drain my bank account continued in earnest. PDFs, Word documents, Excel spreadsheets – the spammers flung everything they had at me. When these didn’t work, they hijacked my boss’s email again and adopted a radical new technique: they started sending meeting requests.

    I'll admit, this one nearly had me fooled

    I’ll admit, this one nearly had me fooled

    Attending a meeting with a professional spamming gang is ill-advised at the best of times. I rejected the invite, and the many others that followed, accompanying my responses with some well-chosen words in which I told the senders in no uncertain terms where to go.

    It’s not easy to fend off such persistent and innovative spammers. If you use the tips I’ve shared in this post I’m sure you’ll be safe. But now I have to stop writing – my boss is heading towards my desk and he’s looking pretty annoyed…


  5. I bought a Logitech iPad Mini keyboard and although it doesn’t have a tab key it’s still pretty good

    Posted January 3, 2014 in hardware  |  No Comments so far

    I’ve started using my iPad Mini a bit more often. I like it, but typing on an iPad reminds me of tap-dancing on ice, so a couple of days ago I ordered a physical keyboard.

    The keyboard, a Logitech one, arrived in the post today.

    Keyboard in use

    The initial experience of using it was very strange. As my fingers sought out the individual keys my left hand signalled back to my brain with the disturbing news that there was no tab key next to the “A”.

    Typing hard

    If you touch-type, like this crocodile here, you probably know how weird that feels. The tab key doesn’t get used a lot while typing but it helps the fingers suss out where the “A”, “S” and “D” keys are. Without a tab key I kept pressing “S” when I meant to press “A”. Just imagine the social embarrassment that could cause.

    You mean to type: “That meal you cooked was a hit”
    You actually type: “That meal you cooked was s hit

    As I got more confident and started to type more quickly, a new problem emerged which reminded me of pretty much every time I’ve tried to combine a keyboard with a tablet. This involved the fingers brushing against the iPad’s screen every now and again, causing the cursor to jump to a new random location and making a right mess of the text I was entering. Having to stop typing every five words to reposition the cursor is not my idea of fun and it probably isn’t yours either.

    My hand is shown for scale

    That particular problem seemed to abate quite quickly though. I guess my fingers adjusted their flight paths without a conscious effort on my part, diverting to new routes that allowed them to hop from key to key without hitting the screen. And the little finger on my left hand was gradually coming to terms with its new responsibilities as the “A”-typing key, and my ring finger was making friends with the “S”. I was starting to get to grips with the thing at last.

    IMG_1926

    When writing I redraft sentences all the time. Very rarely do I write something and then leave it as it is. You’d never tell from reading this blog, of course, but it’s true. I’m utterly dependent on shift and arrow keys to select words, lines or entire paragraphs, then move them around or consign them to the scrapheap.

    These sorts of things are long-winded and frustrating to do on the iPad’s “soft” keyboard, so I was relieved, as I started to experiment with them, to find that the new “hard” keyboard actually did them pretty well. And when I stopped typing and turned it back into a case again, I was glad to see that the keyboard did the magnetic thing and made the iPad’s screen turn off too, same as the official Apple case. My earlier annoyance with the keyboard started to fade.

    I decided to write a post about the keyboard right away, before I became accustomed to its ways and forgot how it had felt in these first five minutes of use. And I thought, maybe I’ll type the post with the new keyboard, to really put it through its paces. Then I thought, life’s too short. So this post has been typed on a “real” keyboard.

    Croc typing away

    Sorry, little keyboard! You’re good – but not that good.


  6. France is bacon, and other nuggets of wisdom

    Posted January 2, 2014 in visualisation  |  No Comments so far

    Yahoo! has an autocomplete service much like Google’s. When you enter the name of a place such as “France”, the results it suggests give an indication of what the Yahoo! search system thinks about it. Almost all of them are either derogatory or surreal.

    Kier Clarke over on Google Maps Mania has produced a Google Map which displays these Yahoo! auto-suggestions over the associated regions. It’s a mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous.

    Western Europe as seen by the Yahoo! autocomplete algorithm

    Western Europe as perceived by the Yahoo! autocomplete algorithm

    I especially like the ones where the algorithm gets confused over homophones and generates sentences that have nothing to do with the country at all, like “Greece is the word” in the screenshot above.

    But while those examples provide an insight into the rules and quirks of the Yahoo! system, most of the others reflect a disdain for the world as a whole – “Italy is racist”, “Wales is crap”, “Germany is being crushed” and so on.

    There’s something strange and uncanny about the effect the map creates, its jarring combination of bleakness, hostility, confusion and nonsense. This seems to be par for the course for objects created by the haphazard collision of software algorithms with the real world.

    (via Atlantic Cities)


  7. Prepare for financial enlightenment – the return of Sharesite is nigh

    Posted December 17, 2013 in projects  |  2 Comments so far

    At the height of the dotcom boom, soon after the turn of the millennium, everyone was desperate to cash in. It seemed as though new websites were being launched every day covering technology, media, telecoms, finance – anything that could help the publisher get a piece of the new gold rush.

    Of course some of these were what the jargon of the time might have termed “passion plays”, which, loosely translated, meant things people did because they actually cared. Others were the work of cynical opportunists driven by nothing but naked greed. One such site was the short-lived, money-obsessed financial news outlet called Sharesite.

    Why do I feel able to slander Sharesite and its proprietors in this way? The answer is simple – I was one of them. And you want to know something else? In 2014, we’re bringing Sharesite back.

    Employees of the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal need not panic, however, because Sharesite was a spoof website and none of the things it described ever actually happened. I set it up along with another ex-FT employee in late 2000, inspired – obviously – by the Onion, and it enjoyed some modest success for a few years until we forgot to renew the domain name and the project came to a prosaic end.

    Sharesite reporters covered such market-moving stories as the physical collapse of an American high-tech stock exchange, Germany’s innovative nocturnal currency, and a PR stunt that backfired on a London trading floor with macabre results. While a lot of the content was very much of its time – especially our coverage of the dotcom crash – some articles were almost eerily prescient. I’d say more but I don’t want to give too much away.

    There were no proper archives of Sharesite’s content, so we’ve had to dig through the Wayback Machine and painstakingly extract all of the old articles. Some other material has been recovered from web forums, blogs and other places where it was reposted and shared. This exercise in web archaeology now complete, we’ll soon start bringing Sharesite back online as well as jumping on the social media bandwagon with aplomb – well, as much aplomb as it takes to set up a Twitter account.

    As soon as Sharesite is live again I’ll “share” the details here so start preparing to experience financial enlightenment. Just try not to make any investment decisions in the meantime.


  8. How I’m taking control of my oversized vinyl collection, one record at a time

    Posted December 10, 2013 in Diary, music  |  No Comments so far

    I own far too many records.

    These records total over 2,000 and they’re sorted in alphabetical order by artist. A couple of months ago I decided to go through them systematically, one at a time. For each record I find, I ask myself a simple question: do I want to listen to it, all the way through, then and there?

    If I don’t, then the record gets listed for sale on Discogs. If I do, and I like it, it gets to stay; but if it gets a “meh”, then it gets listed for sale too.

    When I started this exercise I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into. Now that I’ve passed the 200-record mark – still less than 10% of the total – I’m realising that it’s going to take ages to finish. Which is not such a bad thing. This long-running triage project is, after all, good fun. It’s nice to re-immerse myself in records I’ve not listened to for years. And it’s curious, almost exotic, to subject myself to its strict alphabetical discipline.

    In this digital age of expensive algorithms and the mind-bending calculations they perform to choose music that takes us to the precise centres of our comfort zones, it’s an odd experience to step away from the “Genius Mix” or the “Recently Played” playlists into an unforgiving regime of alphabetically-sorted vinyl. So you didn’t want to listen to Analord today? Tough. Thinking of leaping out of sequence to Sun Electric just because you ‘feel like it’? Again, tough: list or listen, that’s the rule. Selecting music based on what mood I’m in or what I want to hear will often bring me down the same old pathways to the same old group of albums, and this project is forcing me to do something different, which is great.

    I’ve come to realise that a lot of my record collection had become like junk DNA, lots of seemingly useless detritus that pads out the interesting stuff. Records that I’d regularly flick past without considering, on my way to the releases I wanted to hear. But, like junk DNA, many of them have turned out not to be so useless after all. Having to stop and subject each record to the “list or listen” test has kind of re-connected me to each one of them, encouraging me to remember why I bought the record in the first place, and to imagine future situations where I might regret having sold it. And there is some good stuff in there too. I’ve discovered that even records you’ve purchased can be ‘slept on’.

    OK, this all sounds like a convoluted description of a straightforward nostalgia trip, which it is in a way. But as much as I harp on about rediscovering music and things like that, this whole exercise has one clear and unsentimental objective, which is to reduce the size of my record collection. I’ll probably always own too many records, but one day I hope they’ll all be records I actually want to listen to.


  9. Your journey to the future

    Posted November 5, 2013 in ephemera, Photos  |  No Comments so far

    Your journey to the future

    You’d think they could have at least laid on a bus replacement service.


  10. I finally made it to the Milliennium Dome

    Posted October 28, 2013 in Diary, London  |  No Comments so far

    I finally went to the Millennium Dome yesterday.

    I didn’t want to. The plan was to head east with our toddler and cross the Thames on the Emirates cable car. A bit of wind was blowing, however, so the cable cars had been mothballed by the time we arrived. The resulting toddler rage meant we needed to go somewhere else to mollify him, and as he’d shown an interest in the Dome upon passing it earlier, we decided to go there.

    The Dome

    The Dome. A building once so synonymous with costly failure that it could have been rebranded as “The White Elephant” and few would have noticed. In fact it exemplified that idiom so much that many people, when talking about wasteful follies, referred not to white elephants but to the Dome instead. Despite doing better as a metaphor than as a tourist attraction, I had lots of friends who popped down there to see the Millennium Experience exhibition even though their expectations were rock-bottom. I thought about going too – this was the Age of Irony after all – but while an afternoon of cringing at high-budget naffness sounded appealing, it was never quite appealing enough, so I didn’t bother.

    Eventually the exhibition shut down and the Dome spent years in planning limbo. Would it become a sports arena? A cinema? A metaphor? No-one knew. The uncertainty dragged on for so long that the whole story became boring and everyone forgot about it. Then the Dome popped up again, rebranded as the O2 Arena. If Bruce Springsteen or Cher were going to play in London there was a good chance they’d play there. There were restaurants and bars in there too. That’s all I ever picked up about it though – like nearly everybody else, I’d lost interest. And I still thought of it as the Dome, not the O2, whenever I thought of it at all.

    So back to today, and to our unscheduled visit to the Dome. We didn’t have a clue what we’d find in there. And while our toddler seemed keen enough when it was a distant spectacle on the horizon, his enthusiasm faded as we reached the door, shouting “other way!” as he tried to run back outside. After some cajoling, he finally entered.

    I could understand his reluctance: it’s a bleak space. The curved walkways around its inner walls are lined with the sorts of tourist-trap bars and restaurants that are rarely seen concentrated together so densely. If Angus Steak House applied for a slot here I imagine they’d be turned down for being “too authentic”.

    Dome Couture

    Makes Leicester Square seem like a foody-bohemian paradise

    Another thing that struck me about the Dome was how confused and disjointed it was. The interior and exterior are not reconciled at all. Yes, you can see the ceiling and that gives you the sense of being inside the Dome, but most other things inside it look like they were designed for somewhere else and ended up here by accident. It was how I imagine a big film studio, a vast warehouse-like space cluttered up with unrelated bits of fake buildings and props and scenery. All of the interior objects looked out of place. Although the wall in the photo below would look daft anywhere.

    Stupid wall

    I really don’t like this stupid bit of wall. What’s it trying to be?

    But most of all, the Dome feels like an earlier, failed, version of the experiments that would eventually produce that whole wave of shiny, branded spaces that make up the new east London: Westfield Stratford, the Olympic site, the new Overground stations, and so on. When you visit Westfield you might not enjoy yourself but you have to acknowledge it succeeds on its own terms, and it also makes those terms quite clear, with visitors being left in no doubt what Westfield Stratford was created to do.

    It’s the opposite with the Dome. Even though it’s now a functioning music & comedy venue, the sense of purposeless it was so notorious for in the early 2000s still lingers in the air beneath its canopy, and will probably never dissipate. Next time I visit that area I really hope the cable car is running.