Predicting the future popularity of a web page

Balloons in Trafalgar Square
Creative Commons License photo: wili_hybrid

New Scientist reports this week that a new tool developed at HP Labs could potentially predict the popularity of a web page in 30 days time. Essentially they say that by looking at the rate at which a web page picks up views in the first few days can predict the subsequent popularity of the page 90% of the time. It doesn’t seem too radical an idea – after all the pages which are more popular in the first few days are likely to get bookmarked more, linked to more, higher place on Google, etc.

The research focused around the sites Digg and YouTube so it would be interesting to see how it could be applied to other sites. You can download the paper online at arXiv.org.

On a similar note, I’ve found that I’ve been able to get some incredibly stunning useful information from the popularity of webpages on my site. For example, one of my posts about MSN Messenger downtime gets a lot of hits whenever MSN Messenger goes down. When the number of visitors for that page is significantly above normal, I know that MSN is actually down. If the number of visitors is normal, it’s typically just an issue with my connection or my local server. In fact, I’ve found this method much more reliable than using Microsoft’s own service status page for the Messenger service. Similarly, I found a huge spike in the number of visitors to my post on the possibility of VAT cuts straight after the recent pre-budget report. If only there was a way of exposing these statistics in a useful way!

UK cuts VAT to 15%

A Cookie Crumbles
Creative Commons License photo: CarbonNYC

Everybody who lives in the UK should read about the “exceptional” pre-budget report this year. There are some big tax changes which probably affect you. To sum it up, there is a new 45% band of income tax; VAT is falling to 15% for 13 months; excise duties on alcohol, tobacco and petrol are rising.

I wrote about the possibility of VAT cuts two weeks ago. Given VAT is falling from 17.5% to 15%, we should see a fall in the price of goods by 2% from Monday, assuming that the full VAT cut is passed on. In my previous article, I discussed whether retailers are likely to absorb the VAT cuts as extra profit, pass it on as-is or perhaps even cut prices by even more than 2%.

Worth keeping an eye on anyway and not making any big purchases of electronics or gadgets quite yet until we see how retailers are going to react.

For full details, see the government’s full pre-budget report, “Facing global challenges: Supporting people through difficult times”.

Universal Document Converter: Review

Universal Document Creator is a small windows application ($69) which allows you to “convert” your documents into Adobe PDF files or image files. It works by installing itself as a printer on your system meaning you can use the converter from any programme through the Print dialog.


The name is somewhat a misnomer. The label “Universal” implies that the programme converts between different types of documents; in fact the programme only allows you to export your documents as images. The advantage is you can “export” your documents from all kinds of obscure programmes such as CAD and DTP software which is overlooked by traditional conversion software. But the conversion is very much one way and data is lost.

“Export” rather than “convert” would be a much more appropiate way to describe the function of the software. This is particularly evident in the “Document to PDF” feature. Dedicated tools which are designed to work with PDF files (e.g. Adobe Acrobat and PrimoPDF) will convert your original documents that fonts, text and shapes are embedded in the PDF file. The resulting document is pieced together by the PDF reader. This is fantastic as the document remains accessible, the textual information is not lost and files are much smaller. However, with Universal Document Converter, the PDF is exported as a bunch of pixels leading to much larger and inaccessible files and grainy text

That said – Universal Document Converter is good at doing it’s core job – exporting your documents to image files. Though the Printer Properties dialog, users are able to configure various aspects such as paper size and file quality. It’s certainly a lot easier than haphazardly print screening everything. The ability to integrate it into your existing flow through the COM-interface is certainly nice and the software can be set up so that it is installed as a network printer.

At $69 for a single user license, Universal Document Converter can be a tad expensive. If you’re looking for a tool to write PDFs, my advice would be to stay clear. Universal Document Converter will do the job for you, but in a way which I do not find satisfactory. Universal Document Converter does do a good job of exporting your CAD/DTP/Powerpoints as image files and provides all kinds of options such as compression, quality and pallet choice. If you’ve got a lot of documents to convert to images and you’d like to automate the process, Universal Document Converter could be for you.

This review is an advertising feature. fCoder provided me with a full version of Universal Document Creator for this review.

How will UK VAT cuts save you money?

Tax
Creative Commons License photo: Phillip

There has been a lot of discussion in the UK lately about a possible cut in Value Added Tax from 17.5% to 12.5%. I’m not sure how likely it is that this will happen – the radio news seems to believe it is inevitable but many other news organisations seem to disagree.

A cut in VAT from 17.5% to 12.5% could lead to big discounts on every item sold in the UK. The savings can be fairly substantial – £26 off an iPhone PAYG or £72 on a £1,000 plasma TV. However, it would depend on how and whether those cuts were passed onto the consumer.

Retailers could leave prices unchanged. Imagining a £100 product, £17.50 would have previously gone towards the UK government. After the VAT cuts, the government would only take a cut of £12.50 leaving the retailer with an extra profit of £5 per unit.

Look K-mart is having a sale!
Creative Commons License photo: Cosmic Kitty

Retailers can increase their turnover at a time where their costs may be rising but they cannot afford to raise prices for fear of losing customers. But perhaps with retailers knowing that Christmas is coming up, people would buy their product without an additional discount. Hence there would be no need to pass on the VAT cut.

Retailers could pass on part or all of the VAT cut. If the entire VAT cut was passed onto the consumer, the £100 product would now cost £92.81. The retailer makes the exact same amount of money they did before; but its great news for the consumer as consumers save a lot of money. In a time when peoples disposable income levels are falling, this increase in demand could ensure retailers get the sales they need.

Retailers could discount prices by even more. The retailer may want to cut the price of the product from £100 to £90. However, that might not be too attractive to them – it represents a loss of £10 for every product sold. However, given that the government is absorbing so much of the price cut themselves this may make it a lot more attractive for retailers to cut their prices.

Warp Speed Ahead
Creative Commons License photo: Olaf

So how does this affect you? I personally believe that if Mr Darling did cut VAT, it would take several weeks, even months for that to filter through to the prices that we pay at the shop every day. Companies have price promises to honour; companies have catalogues which cannot be reprinted immediately, etc. And with Christmas coming up, consumer spending should hopefully pick up anyway. So we would be unlikely to see any big price cuts this year.

However, New Year 2009 could be a bumper one for new year sales. If Christmas sales figures aren’t as high as retailers expect, I believe retailers could offer much bigger discounts than in past years.

If there are some big purchases you were planning to make, it may well be worth waiting until after the pre-budget report and possibly the new year.

Could Free Starbucks Win the Election for Obama?

barack obama
Creative Commons License photo: patrick dentler

The day of the US presidential election is approaching. There is an expected turnout of 80%. Both parties have worked very hard to register as many new voters as possible and companies such as MTV and Starbucks have been encouraging people to register to vote.

Starbucks is offering a free cup of coffee to those who vote on November 4th. How could this distort the results of the election?

Well, It seems pretty logical that the people who feel strongly about whether they are Republican or Democrat or have a strong preference for either Obama or McCain are the people who would vote anyway, regardless of incentives such as free coffee. So this promotion probably wouldn’t affect whether they would vote.

Swing and undecided voters, on the other hand, may not vote without an additional incentive such as free coffee. If, say, undecided voters mostly lean towards Obama – the incentive of free coffee at Starbucks would benefit Obama in the polls by encouraging the undecided voters to go to the polling station and to vote for him.

Two shots of espresso please!
Creative Commons License photo: aubrey arenas

It would certainly be an interesting research to see whether this promotion or other incentives may distort the results of the election. The “Starbucks Stores per Capita” differs immensely between each of the states. The District of Columbia for example has 1.18 Starbucks for every 10,000 people – nearly 22 times as many Starbucks stores per capita to Arkansas which has 0.054 Starbucks for 10,000 people. Swing state Virginia has the 11th highest “Starbucks per Capita” of the states. If the Starbucks promotion does have an effect on swing voter turnout, we would expect the biggest effects to be in a) the states with the highest concentration of Starbucks and b) cities (which are of course more liberal than small town America) where people are more likely to have a Starbucks nearby.

I’m exaggerating the effects of a free cup of coffee on the election results you say. Perhaps so. But research has shown it can be quite easy to “prime” people to affect who and what they vote for. For example, research found that people who used a church as their local polling station were less supportive of gay marriage.

Another piece of research looked at a 2000 ballot initiative in Arizona to increase spending on education:

The authors…divided the precincts between schools and non-schools, and found that voters who voted in a school had a marginal preference (3 points) for the initiative.

I am all yours...
Creative Commons License photo: HAMED MASOUMI

And when I spoke to some local activists for the Labour Party (UK) earlier this year, they suggested that the Gordon Brown calls an election before 2009. Not because they believe he is more likely to win: they believe that Gordon Brown losing the next general election is already a done deal. It’s because the local elections are also due to be held in 2009. And having the general election at the same time as the local one would mean Brown’s personal unpopularity would rub off onto the rest of the Labour party and their local councillors.

There are many subtle ways of affecting the results of an election. Could free Starbucks have a significant one?