Exams & Blogging

Tutti i colori della mia vita.
Creative Commons License photo: mao_lini

So the first batch of summer exams at university are over. One of my comprehensive summer exam questions involved calculating the CO2 footprint of a Google search. By a stroke of chance, I happened to have blogged about that exact topic just a couple of months ago and made my own calculations. So it really does seem like being a blogger can really help you out in places you really never would have expected it to.

And in another example, last November I wrote about how I used my blog statistics page as a MSN Messenger service status page. Whenever I’ve had issues accessing the MSN/Windows Live Messenger service, Microsoft’s official status page has never had any useful information. Yet on my blog, I often immediately see increases in traffic in the order of 10x-15x on certain pages. That signals to me that there is a service outage for everybody — as opposed to a network connection problem on my end. I’ve toyed with the idea of creating my own “unofficial service status page” which would be automatically generated using some statistical techniques (to determine whether there are irregular service problems) and geolocation (to determine exactly where people are finding problems connecting from i.e. whether it’s a worldwide issue). Alas, I’ve never had the time to put this together properly.

So anyway, blogging is really rewarding and it really can help you gain insights which you just wouldn’t have otherwise.

Anyhow, I’ve decided that this blog needs a bit of a change as I feel it’s identity and purpose has changed a lot over recent times. Long time readers will be used to articles about programming, economics & current affairs and science. But more recently, I feel the blog has changed pace – focusing more on how to get the best out of technology and communications technology. This was a result from the fantastic feedback on these posts.

I’ve tried to reconcile the two visions of what the blog should be about but I feel that it’s best the blog is split into two:

  • A consumer-focused technology and communications blog
  • A possibly more technical blog with random experiments, bits of science and economics and thoughts on life.

So you’ll be seeing a couple of changes – hopefully improvements – round here in the coming weeks. Thank you so much for your support with the blog and I hope you’ll enjoy the new blogs!

Adding Facebook Connect to WordPress

motion gears -team force
Creative Commons License photo: ralphbijker

In June of last year, I demonstrated a proof of concept of using Facebook as an identity system for your blog. My proof of concept used the standard Facebook Application API as opposed to the Facebook Connect API (which didn’t exist back then).

The Facebook Application API is designed to be used for applications which live on apps.facebook.com. In my proof of concept, I redirected the user to apps.facebook.com which “set up” the session before redirecting back to the blog.

The Facebook Connect API provides a much better experience for the user as it’s designed for integration with external sites.

For WordPress users, you can use WP-FBConnect to integrate Facebook into your blog today. It will integrate the user system of Facebook (i.e. your identity), profile pictures and news feed publication of comments.

Literally hot of the press (it’s been available for less than a week), I strongly recommend testing the plugin on a local WordPress install before making it available on your public blog. See the Facebook wiki for more info and Q&A about the plugin.

It seems like a fantastic idea to me to be able to use a Facebook identity around the web. My concern though is that, so far, I’ve kept my Facebook identity within people I know in real life and I hesitate about opening up my Facebook identity to the public on all kinds of random blogs and forums. Only time will tell if Facebook Connect will work well and whether people will be happy with the privacy aspects of it.

Happy New Year!

happy new year 2008
Creative Commons License photo: mugley

So just to wish all of you a very happy new year and a big thank you for sticking with the blog over the last year. It’s been a very exciting year to be a blogger. 2008 was the year of the iPhone 3G and smartphones, the Facebook redesign, innovative new sites to obtain and listen to music, the US presidential election, the Beijing Olympics, the Large Hadron Collider… But it was also the year where we all felt the effects of a global recession and the credit crunch. With the dawn of the new year, it’s unlikely that we’ll see anything changing straight away – the first big change will probably be the inauguration of President Obama on January 20.

So let me go out on a limb and make a few predictions of what 2009 might be like…

  • I don’t think we’ll have much more action on climate change. Obviously the global recession means that governments don’t want to implement policies which could further harm the economy on the short term. But a new president in the US does offer a glimmer of hope. But given most scientists and governments now agree on the urgency for action, we could see some moves towards environmentally-friendly policies. I would like to be proved wrong on this prediction!
  • MySpace is gonna die out. Sorry, but MySpace is already on it’s last legs. Meanwhile, OpenSocial has made no inroads. Facebook will dominate social networking in 2009. Get used to it.
  • Internet services on the mobile phone are going to be a lot more popular. Smartphones make the internet much easier to use and I think the combination of the “social web” with mobile phones is a killer. 3G comes of age.
  • More people will buy netbooks. Netbooks are awesome and given so many things now live on the web, there really is no reason for many people to lug round heavy laptops with huge amounts of processing power. Meanwhile, laptops will make further roads into replacing desktops.
  • Better weather. Not a hard prediction to fulfill as 2008 was terrible…
  • We’ll see some light at the end of the tunnel for the global recession. I know economic analysts say the recession is likely to last through the whole of 2009 but I’m optimistic: I hope we’ll get over the worst of it in the first quarter of the year.
  • We’ll get some data in from CERN but nothing particularly exciting.
  • Google Docs & Spreadsheets won’t take off. It’s still nowhere near a viable replacement for Microsoft Office. And given the huge discounts Microsoft now sells Office at, it’s unlikely to get displaced by any free alternative either.
  • Dandelion Fireworks-PHOTO 183-The halfway mark
    Creative Commons License photo: aussiegall

    It’ll be a good year for Google Chrome which will gain in market share. Firefox will still be unrivaled as the best browser though, and some of the stuff going on at Mozilla is very, very exciting. Mozilla is one place to watch over the next year.

  • Twitter – I still don’t understand it, or see why people like it so much, but it’ll go from strength to strength. Maybe get gobbled up.
  • Microsoft Windows 7 info will be largely ignored and derided. The fact is, all of the exciting development work now happens on the web platform. Microsoft’s future is in consumer applications such as Office, Surface and so on.
  • Gordon Brown calls an election to take advantage of positive public perception of his economic policies. Fingers crossed!

All the best for 2009 and I hope you will continue to read the blog in the new year!

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!

Hello from London!

River Thames
Creative Commons License photo: wili_hybrid

Just a quick note to let you guys know I’m still alive! I’ve been in London for 2 weeks now, studying a degree course in Physics. London is a really great city and the pace of life here really has taken some getting used to!

Over the last two weekends, I’ve also taken the opportunity to see some of the wonderful places in the UK including the snowy mountains of Snowdonia in North Wales and the white Seven Sisters coastal cliff range.

As well as that, I’m really trying to get myself more involved in the application of science to real world issues and scientific journalism. Of course, this blog has been my primary platform for my writings in the past and I hope it will continue to be a lively weblog to interest you, the readers, and to provoke thought, debate and discussion. Watch this space!

September 2008

weekend inspiration
Creative Commons License photo: muha…

It’s been a very hectic month! The news was dominated by the global financial crisis and that’ll have knock on effects on everything in the next year or so. When companies are less confident about the future, they’re less willing to invest in developing new technologies. With more tax money going towards bailing out failing financial institutions, it could change the climate for spending on science and technology. It remains to be seen what the effects on our industry will be.

We started off September with the launch of Google’s new Chrome Browser. It recieved some lukewarm reviews but many of us were surprised to see Google promoting the browser to the masses amongst the big security and privacy issues.

We also had some interesting research relating to social networking sites such as Facebook. Sociologists have described “ambient awareness” from Facebook and microblogging taking society back in the direction of intimiate village networks. Research by O2 found that due to modern communications, the six degrees of freedom are now just three.

Highway Insomnia
Creative Commons License photo: Nrbelex

We had the official opening of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN which caused a ridiculous panic about the world ending. Unfortunately, there are a few issues at CERN at the moment which have caused it to be delayed for a few months so I hope all goes well and they’ll be able to get the LHC fully operational soon.

In the UK, we also had the launch of the iPhone on Pay As You Go. I asked what the alternatives to the iPhone were.

Elsewhere on the blog, I discussed how we could solve the issues of climate change and environmental degredation by using simple economic schemes. I also asked, “What is the most efficient language?“. I was very surprised at the number of speakers of the Esperanto language there are on this blog and they’ve contributed some really interesting thoughts which are worth reading!

We're Back!

Welcome back to the blog! Unfortunately we had a few issues related to Gentoo Linux over the last few days which has caused the server to be inaccessible. I hope this didn’t cause too much inconvinience for anybody! If you have sent me an email in the last few days and did not recieve a response, please send it again!

Neondragon did an absolutely fantastic job setting up a brand new server from scratch, encoutering issues like not being able to gain access to the server facility at weekends and various software incompatibilities with hardware. The server issues obviously came at a very bad time for all of us soa special thank you must go out to him for managing to find the time and expertise to sort everything out! The Evolution MMORPG and other sites running on the server should be operational; if you encounter any issues, please let us know!

Obviously time flies on the internet! I’m very pleased to be able to report that I received 4 A grades in my Advanced Level results on Thursday. This means I’ll be studying Physics next year in London! I’m currently working full time and I’ve recently been doing a lot of work with XML schemas and validation routines. I’m also doing a fair bit of work on the Mozilla Platform which I hope to write about soon!

Anyway, it’s great to be back, and we’ve got a lot of blog posts to be made up for!

Making Money Online (and a living?)

What no one ever tells you about blogging
Creative Commons License photo: andyp uk

Much has been written about people who’ve quit the day job and taken up blogging or maintaining web sites full time. The claim is that you can spend a bit of time setting it all up and updating it with new content every so often and earn a lot of money very easily. In this post, I want to analyse whether this is true in practice. Further on in this post are also a couple of bits of advice to anyone who wants to monetise their website.

How much do you want to earn?

The most important question regarding making money online is how much you want to make and whether you can make it.

If you wanted to make a living from websites or blogging, the absolute minimum income you’ll want would be to have income equal to the level of “relative poverty”. This is how much money you’ll need just for the basic neccessities. In the US, its $10,787 a year. In the UK, it’s £11,326 a year ($21,900).

For my fellow Brits: you can already see how the exchange rate is stacked against us and the high costs of living don’t help. It’s always recommended that your primary sources of income and expenditure are in the same currency so you aren’t at risk from exchange rates volatility. It’s a source of worry if you want to become a full-time blogger and you live outside the USA.

Anyway, that means earning £215 a week just for the basic essentials. As the current exchange rate, that means a minimum income of $420 per week.

Let’s say your primary source of income is advertising. And let’s assume an eCPM (Earnings from 1,000 page impressions) of $1. So you’ll need 420,000 page impressions per week, or 60,000 per day. And if you want to earn a decent living, you’ll need at least 100,000 impressions per day.

It’s just a rough back of the envelope calculation. Of course, eCPM depends on all kinds of factors such as the subject of your site, the source of visitors (e.g. Digg traffic gives poor eCPM) and the number of advertisers.

Blogging tools, at Nerja Parador...
Creative Commons License photo: Ben30

Hopefully, I’ve quickly demonstrated that making a living online isn’t easy. Perhaps the exchange rate will become more favourable to website publishers in the future. Perhaps by redesigning your site you can increase your eCPM. But you’ll need close to a six-digit number of page impressions every day if you’re going to stand a chance.

What skills do I need?

If you want to be a professional blogger or webmaster, there are a whole range of skills you’ll need.

First and foremost, you’ll need to be able to write and to enjoy writing. After all, people come to your site for content and you’ll need to be able to write good, coherent content regularly.

You’ll need all the technical skills: web design, HTML, some CSS. You’ll need to know how to use a CMS or blog software. You’ll need to be able to optimise your pages for search engines.

Running a webpage professionally means you’re running a business. You’ll have to know how to communicate with advertisers and readers, manage cashflow…

It’s certainly possible to have all these skills, but making money online certainly is not easy or a “lazy” way of making money as it is often claimed on sites across the internet.

But if you do want to give it a go, a few bits of advice:

  • Make sure you find the topic of your blog/website interesting – otherwise it won’t be fun!
  • Think supply and demand. If you can supply something that is scarce (not many other people supply it) and high in demand (lots of people want it), you’re onto a winner. The fact that you need technical skills to run a blog means that blogging attracts the technical types. That means there are billions of blogs on computers and technology. If you do want to make a living, you probably won’t make it as a technology blogger. Sorry!
  • Keep experimenting with different ad programmes, placements and formats to maximise your earnings. Sometimes, rather surprisingly, fewer ads will give higher earnings.
  • You’ll probably find AdSense earning reports very addictive and check them many times every day… don’t.

Anyway… I hope this isn’t too demoralising for anybody! I write this blog entry as a technology analyst and an economist rather than somebody who has expertise or experience trying to make a living online. But I think people do need to know that it’s not the easy and lazy way of making money that people make it out to be.

June 2008

It’s been another really enjoyable month to be maintaining Cow’s Blog. Again, I feel like I’ve really learnt many worthwhile things and read some comments which really challenged my views. So thank you for all participating and I hope you’ve read something here which has peaked your interest or made you look at something in a different way!

A particular thank you to the major commenters this month: Ramble, Carl M, ghassan, Lewis, ciju, Tim, felicity, James Baker.

My personal favourite posts from June include:

As usual, I’m always looking for feedback and thoughts on the blog. One avenue I will be giving thought to is a new name for the blog in the next few weeks; it doesn’t really mean anything and “Cow’s Blog” hardly conveys the right message!

June was a really busy month for me with examinations at college; now it’s all over I’m going to get a breath of fresh air and to do something different! The blog might be slightly quieter over the next few weeks!

McAfee Security Centre Spam

Let me ask you: would you buy security software (which protects you from spam) from this company?

That’s a grand total of 20 spam e-mails reminding me to renew my McAfee subscription, with the first in September of last year. 9 months later, I’m still recieving them at what seems to be an increasing rate. You can also see that “last chance to renew” and “offers end soon” don’t mean that.

For the curious, I uninstalled McAfee after a single day of having it on my system.