Timetric

Timetric is a Cambridge based startup that, in their own words, is

here to help you make sense of data. If you think about it, most of the numbers we come across every day are things like temperatures, prices, rates, volumes: numbers which vary over time. That’s what Timetric focusses on: graphing, tracking and comparing the movements of data over time.

The fancy name for this sort of thing is time series analysis. We’re building tools to make it as easy to build models on top of time series — updated whenever the data they’re based on is updated — as it is to use a spreadsheet.

Which sounds pretty cool. I have to say, what I know about statistics and time series can easily be written on a stamp with a carrot, but even I can see some of the benefits of this, especially as Timetric makes it easy to embed graphs into blogs and websites. Like this, which I chose at random from the Timetric site:

With all the recent work in and around government to open data up and make it reusable, we are going to need the tools that will help us make sense of it all. It look like Timetric is going to be one of those tools.

On non-professionalism

David’s blog post reminded me that I have been banging on to a lot of people about some vague idea which I’ve been calling ‘non-professionalism’.

Basically, non-professionalism is the culture required to work effectively on the social web.

If you are professional, then there is a danger that you will be perceived as formal, stuffy and no fun to be around. People don’t engage on a particularly meaningful basis if you appear too polished.

But unprofessionalism is a bad thing, too. You don’t want to appear like you don’t care, or that you simply aren’t very good. People won’t want to help you because it doesn’t appear that you want to help yourself out all that much.

But there is a grey area in between these two stances, where you can be effective, yet informal and engaging too. So, your communications get the message across, but in a human way that people can respond to and build a relationship with, for example.

This, for me, is non-professionalism. It’s vital for any organisation that wants to succeed in using Twitter, blogs or online communities, be they forums or social networks.

Disposable online chat

TinyChat is a really cool new service that lets you create simple chatrooms on the fly within your browser.

Why is this useful? Well, say you want to get a bunch of people together for a chat, but you don’t know what technology they all have available. Some are on Skype, some not; some are IRC fans, others not; some have access to internet instant messaging, but not all.

Tony chat uses a really simple web interface to allow you to create your chatroom with a couple of clicks. You can then send the URL to the people you want involved, and you’re away.

Afterwards, your room and its contents disappear, so it really is disposable! It might be an idea for someone to copy and paste the contents of the chat before closing it down in case you want a record.

Another cool feature is to assign your Twitter account to your idenitity within your chat and which pings your followers with a link to the chatroom you have just created.

I like the idea of having impromptu online discussions using this, inviting people in via Twitter, to discuss an issue in a more ‘live’ environment that Twitter normally allows.

What other applications can you think of for TinyChat?

Backup! Backup!

Computing in the cloud is great: you get to keep all your data somewhere online, which means that you – and anyone you authorise – can get at it wherever you are.

But there can be problems. One is of finance – in these somewhat tricky economic timed, companies are burning out, and taking your data with them. There is also, however, technological problems. We all know we should take regular backups of our own stuff, don’t we? And surely those startups with whom we trust are stuff do the same…

Ma.gnolia users must be feeling pretty bummed right now. The social bookmarking service (think Delicious but, er, slightly different). At the moment, their homepage displays a rather bleak message in black text on a plain white background:

So far, my efforts to recover Ma.gnolia’s data store have been unsuccessful. While I’m continuing to work at it, both from the data store and other sources on the web, I don’t want to raise expectations about our prospects. While certainly unanticipated, I do take responsibility and apologize for this widespread loss of data.

Oh dear. All those bookmarks people had been accumulating over the years, with their descriptions and tags…gone. And it doesn’t seem like they are going to be back, either.

For those lucky enough to have backed up their bookmarks from Ma.gnolia, there might be some good news coming out of the open source project. Let’s hope so.

There are a couple of issues that this raises. One is around the efficacy of hosting data in the cloud. If Ma.gnolia weren’t backing up bookmarks, what about some of the webmail providers? Is Google properly safeguarding our documents? Can we trust PBwiki with our collaborative material? What about all the data inside social networks and Ning communities?

I’d think that we probably can, still, but don’t take any chances. Back up everything you have online locally. Most sites let you export content to a file, those that don’t might mean you have to undertake a tedious cop-and-paste exercise. I’ve started with my bookmarks, which are thankfully hosted with Delicious – if you do too, the export tool is here.

The second issue is whether there is much of a future in social bookmarking. Mashable questioned it last year. I disagree and still believe that social bookmarking is an inherently useful tool to have available. Not least because it is a great introduction to the core social web technology for newbies: tagging, sharing, RSS, mobility – it’s all there and is easily understood, especially in terms of its usefulness.

What appears to have happened at Ma.gnolia is an administrative cockup, which has broken the service irreparably. I don’t think it spells the end of social bookmarking as we know it.

Update: Wired notes that Ma.gnolia folk are using Friendfeed to try and repopulate their database!

Cloudcamb notes

Cloudcamb

Here are the notes I mananged to make at CloudCamb, which was organised jolly well by Matt Wood (MZA on twitter).

Simone Brunozzi, Technical Evangelist, Amazon Web Services (simon on twitter)

Cloud computing helps answer the ‘prediction problem’ – knowing what your tech needs will be in the future

Need to expand to take advantage of an opportunity

What about periodical demand?

Results in extra cost and delays

lack of power and flexibility in infrastructure

Cloud computing allows a business to: focus on your skills, limit cap ex, scale quickly, reliable, innovate and save money

Principles of AWS: cloud computing, easy to use, secure, flexible, on demand, pay per use, self service, platform agnostic

Services: include S3 – storage, EC2 – virtual server, Cloudfront – content delivery, Database – SimpleDB

By end 2007 AWS were using more bandwidth than all Amazon retail sites put together. S3 objects (basically, files hosted) 800m in q3 2003, 29bn q3 2008

Cloud computing suits cloud computing. No upfront investment, cost effective, follow your success, shorter time to market

AMAZON S3 – Smugmug.com saved $500k pa using S3 (ie just by moving storage of files). Scalable online storage, cheap & reliable, simple APIs (REST, SOAP)

AMAZON EC2 – Vitual servers on demand, from $0.10 per hour, Linux, Windows, OpenSolaris all available. Elastic IP , Elastic Block store, availability zones, SLA 99.95% Licences for software can be paid for by the hour. Animoto Feb 08 80 ‘instances’ of EC2. Then launched facebook app went up to over 3500 by April. Would have been impossible to scale like that traditionally.

AMAZON CLOUDFRONT – Improve content delivery through caching. Easy setup, no committment, 8 locations in US, 4 in europe, 2 in Asia. Elastic and reliable. Tiered pricing.

AWS offers: fault tolerance, scalability, rapid innovation possible, no barriers of adoption, better pricing model, no upfront investment, faster time to market, choice, partners

Who uses? NY Times, Nasdaq, Washington Post, Linden Labs, amongst others

Future: operational excellent, security, certification for developers, international expansion, management console, load balance, auto-scaling, monitoring

EC2 now available in europe – though no Windows stuff

Amazon yet to not be able to provide service to a customer

Toby WhiteInkling Software (tow21 on twitter)

Toby is talking about ‘Running a startup in the cloud’

All of Inkling’s servers run on EC2. But cost so far has been more than traditional servers, but that is not what matters. S3 is cheap, EC2 less so.

Ease of use – Inkling have few staff, have better things to do than server admin

Amazon makes process very easy, setting up new instances etc. Scriptable, repeatable and testable. Version controlling of AMIs. Forces you to consider these issues, which is a good thing.

Karim Chine – Computational e-Science in the Cloud: towards a federative and collaborative platform

Karim started by showing just how easy it is to use Amazon EC2. ElasticFox is an FF extension that helps manage the service.

There is a lot of science in this particular talk. I’m not sure I can keep up. It’s something about reproduceable computational results. I think. Just read this, if you want to know more.

Seriously, though, some of the stuff I understood about this show that the ability for people involved in scientific projects to collaborate over the internet in this way is superb, and the technology is clearly pretty innovative, not to mention hugely complicated. Given that I am attending a meeting in a building called the Centre for Mathematical Sciences, I would imagine that a lot of other people here would know a lot more about this than me.

Web based or desktop?

Just recently, I have stopped using the WordPress inbuilt editor, which runs in the web browser, and have started using MarsEdit – a piece of desktop software I have previously been rather unkind about – to write my blog posts. Since getting a PC, just recently I have continued in this offline blogging vein by using Windows Live Writer.

This started me thinking about the ways I use online services – through web based or desktop applications. As always, the first thing I did was to ask my Twitter buddies:

  • Me: What makes you decide whether to use a web app rather than a desktop one? eg webmail vs client, or google reader vs feedemon or netnewswire?
  • Simon Wakeman: functionality functionality functionality…it depends, I use a mix of each, although my multi-PC multi-site work life lends itself to a cloud-based apps (newsgtr excepted)
  • Nick Booth: experimentation or if someone shows me something I like – then I’ll use it.
  • Matt Kelland: web apps are a last resort for me – only if I need collab access to the data AND I know I will always be online when I need it
  • Kevin Campbell-Wright: I’m with Simon Wakeman
  • Steven Tuck: using desktop for things where I want alerts eg twhirl, feeddeemon and web based for portability google docs, email.
  • Andrew Beekan: Accessibility. When it comes to readers and mail I like to be able to access wherever I am. Docs, I use a mix of Office & Zoho.
  • Michael Grimes: Because I can access them easily from anywhere (with an internet connection).

The answer, it appear, is ‘it depends’.

Let’s have a look at some examples of what I use and where.

Email

I use webmail all the time – Gmail in this case using Apps for your domain. However, I have also set up Apple’s Mail client to download my email through IMAP for backup purposes, which I do roughly once a week. The main advantage of using the client application on my desktop is that it works when I’m not online… but that is rarely the case and my iPhone can be used for emails that just can’t wait. So, I’m happy with webmail. Unless anyone wants to convince me otherwise?

News reading

I started out reading RSS feeds late 2004, using Bloglines (Google Reader didn’t even exist in those days…). Then, as a Windows man, I discovered the wonder that is FeedDemon, a desktop application that really is the Rolls Royce of aggregators. When Google Reader came out (for the second time, the first version was rubbish) I toyed with it for a while before returning to FeedDemon.

When I switched to a Mac, I immediately downloaded NetNewsWire, the equivalent to FeedDemon. Sadly, I found that it just wasn’t the same experience, both in terms of ease of use and features. So, I switched to Google Reader, and that was that.

(It’s worth pointing out that both FeedDemon and NetNewsWire are part of the Newsgator family of RSS products, including the online RSS reader. All three sync together, so you could use NNW on a Mac, FD on a PC and NG at a third machine, and all would be up to date with what you have read and what you haven’t. Pretty neat.)

I really got into some of the features of Reader, like sharing items, with and without comments, which get automatically re-reported in FriendFeed. I also have got used to using Google Gears to download an offline copy of my feeds to read on the train. So, am also a web-based man when it comes to RSS. I have, though, just reloaded my latest subscription list into NetNewsWire to give it another go – along with the iPhone app and the fact that I now have a PC with FeedDemon on it – which could convince me to switch back…possibly.

Blog writing

A quicky this as I seem to write about it so much – I prefer writing blog posts offline. It’s irrational in these days of always-on broadband, but I feel rushed using the built in WordPress editor. There’s more on this topic here. On a Mac, the only sensible choice of offline editor is MarsEdit, whose lack of rich text editing is, frankly, a strength. The only time I use the built in editor these days is when I am using a different machine to my MacBook, or if I need to use a lot of bullet points (which are a bit annoying to do in MarsEdit).

Twitter

I use a client for TwitterTwhirl. Others may rant on about the benefits of others, like Tweetdeck (which is big and ugly and horrible in my view) but I have found Twhirl seems to do stuff just the way I’d expect and like it to. Which is more than can be said for the Twitter web interface, on the homepage. The brightest thing Twitter ever did was to outsource its UI, if the website is anything to go by…

Word processing

See blog posting. I just like typing into a desktop app more than a box on a web page. Even when the document I am writing needs to be shared, I’d still rather type it locally first, then upload to Google Docs or whatever. What are your thoughts on the online/offline decision? I’m clearly pretty confused about which I prefer and when!

Which do you prefer – doing everything in the browser, on the desktop or a bit of both?

Gmail gets better with labs

If you are a Gmail user, you’ll be used to the many benefits that this webmail service provides, like massive storage, great search, powerful filtering and labelling of email, inbuilt instant messaging and voice calls over IP, and the ability to access your email anyway you like with POP and IMAP controls.

However, for a while now Google have been sneaking extra features into Gmail, which you can find by clicking Settings on the top right of the Gmail screen, then on the Labs tab on the settings screen. You’ll then see a big list of extra features you can add – some useful, some silly. Here are the ones I have enabled:

1. Tasks

The Tasks feature is great – building in a simple task list to Gmail, which makes it a doddle to create as many lists of stuff that needs to be done as you like, and attaching emails to them is made really simple: just select the email and then click on ‘Add to tasks’ under the ‘More Actions’ menu. I’m using this at the moment to list all the emails I need to reply to.

2. Quick Links

Adds a box on the left hand side of the Gmail screen allowing you to add as many bookmarks as you like. I’ve got things like admin link for the various blogs I am managing at the moment listed on mine.

3. Superstars

Superstars enables you to click through different types of stars to add to emails to make them stand out a little bit more. Makes things a little more colourful if nothing else.

4. Default ‘Reply to all’

I’m always forgetting to choose the Reply to all link when responding to group emails. This, as it says, makes reply to all the default. Must be careful with this when being rude about people…

5. Forgotten attachment detector

Not perfect, but this scans emails for words like ‘attachment’ or ‘attached’ and, if there isn’t a file attached to the emails, pops up with a warning when you click send. Useful for avoiding those occasional d’oh! moments.

6. Custom label colours

Just like Superstars, helps you differentiate between the different labels you give to emails with colours.

7. Mark as read button

Dead handy this, let’s you mark emails as read with a single click rather than the, er, two clicks it took before. Seriously, I save nanoseconds with this.

8. Google Docs gadget

This gives me a sneaky peek at my Google Docs, letting me open them from within Gmail, which is quite handy.

There are a few other gadgets I don’t use, but which, like the ones I have outlined above, help to make Gmail a kind of portal (I  know I’m not meant to use that word…) to all your online organisational stuff. For instance, there’s a Google Calendar gadget which gives you a preview of what you have on that day. So if you are a user of all these Google services, you can make Gmail your home page and not worry about the rest.

What – if any – of these gadgets are you using? And how do you feel about your inbox becoming the hub of your online life?

Cloudcamb, 17th December 2008

This is why I moved to Cambridge – stuff like CloudCamb happening on your doorstep:

All are invited to attend the first Amazon Web Services user group in Cambridge, on Wednesday 17th December. Learn more about getting started from the experts, or discuss your own use of Amazon Web Services with like minded start ups, businesses, scientists and entrepreneurs.

More details at the CloudCamb site.

More cloud working stuff

I missed a couple of bits out of my recent post on stuff I am/will be using to work once I am self employed (not long to go now, folks!). Here’s a couple more:

Communications

Being at home alone more often will mean I need to have good communications links with other folk to help me keep on top of things as well as keep me sane. So, I have Skype which is as useful for instant messaging as it is calling people over the web. I’m davewbriggs on Skype, if you’d like to connect on there.

I also use Meebo, which in an in-the-browser instant messenger client which allows you to chat to people whether they use Microsoft, Google, AOL or Yahoo! instant messaging. Very useful! These days it’s also useful to keep an eye on Facebook chat, which seems to be becoming increasingly popular.

One communications medium I would like to make more is online video, both by using ‘webinar’ (ugh!) type services like DimDim and GoToMeeting and video conferencing like ooVoo. It would certainly be cool to be able to provide support or even coaching online using these sorts of methods.

Intranet

It might be a bit strange for what is effectively a one-man-band to have an intranet. I see it as another tool with which I can organise myself, though. I’m using a wiki I created with Google Sites, which makes use of several templates to create the functionality I need. Each bit of work I undertake has a page in the wiki, and an entry in a big to-do list. All the files for a project are attached to the relevant wiki page, which also lists everything I know about the project: who I am talking to about it, URLs etc so I can’t forget anything. It also means I have a record of completed projects that I can refer to easily. It seems to be working pretty well so far.