Recent Blog Posts

6th June 2012

Optimising the Hacker News community

We all love Hacker News for similar reasons. We share common interests in subjects such as hacking, technology and startups. As a community we also love to create things, with many of us putting large amounts of our free time each week into creating new products and services that will hopefully be used and enjoyed by people like ourselves.

Even when you have a great idea it won't always make a great product if the execution isn't perfect. We often need a little feedback on what we're doing wrong along the way, but we also need to know what we're doing right. Hacker News provides us the perfect community to obtain feedback from more experienced users through Show and Ask HN submissions.

I recently read an interesting article by Alex Ramadan explaining why we should always up vote Show HN submissions, and I agree, we generally should. I don't think we should stop there though, we shouldn't just blindly up vote the post, take a quick look. What's the first thing you like? What's the first thing you notice could be improved? When you've found something you like and something to improve leave a comment, it only takes a minute or two. I often see Show HN submissions with a quite a few upvotes with 0 comments or often worst, 1 or 2 comments along the lines of, 'I don't like the menu, it's too confusing'. That isn't helping anyone. Someone has probably worked extremely hard building that and they now have no idea if anyone actually found it useful or not. Sure let them know the menu could use some work, but they need to know what they're doing right.

So let's try to be a bit more positive. Often users aren't just looking for criticism but also for a little bit of encouragement and reassurance that what they've worked on for the last 6 months has been worthwhile.

6th May 2012

Is the UK becoming a bad place for internet startups?

The UK has been making some really bad decisions for encouraging tech startups.

For those unaware and reading from outside of the UK, a UK judge has ordered British ISPs to block access to arguably the biggest BitTorrent search engine, The Pirate Bay. Alone, this is a worrying act of censorship over internet access especially when you consider The Pirate Bay is currently (according to Alexa) the 77th most visited website in the world, and doesn't even host any pirated content on its servers.

Unfortunately this isn't the only poor decision the UK has made recently... They're also planning to make it effectively illegal for UK webmasters to use analytics and other cookie tracking services that can be used to collect information on their visitors.

In my opinion this kind of action displays a clear misunderstanding about the workings of the internet and will more damage in an attempt to address the problem they're trying to solve. It's evident that many users have a problem with websites tracking their browsing activity, but for concerned users this can be quickly fixed by disabling cookies. Ironically, if you are someone who's worried about being being tracked online, you'll be delighted to hear the UK government are planning to monitor all your personal email, phone and web traffic soon.

It doesn't end there though, the UK goverment are also considering to block all pornographic websites by default, requiring users contact their ISPs to first opt-in before being allowed to access adult content.

If these measures are put into action the UK would be making one massive step towards the great firewall of China, where the government has the power to dictate what the people can and can't do online. And how exactly are we defining a pornographic site? Many family friendly websites occasionally have pornographic content, take Tumblr, most users never upload any pornographic content to their Tumblr account, but occasionally users do, so do we block access to the entire website? Do we block access to any website with user added content? And what does this type of censorship do to the functionality of the web? Well here are some problems a software developer had when living behind the great firewall of china.

Any internet entrepreneurs looking to based their company in the UK should be worried; your website may be under threat of being heavily censored or even blocked completely over the next few years. If you're startup hosts user uploaded content, you could be under threat already.

If you're a UK webmaster leave a comment below, I'm interested to hear you're thoughts.

27th March 2012

Become a pirate, save the world.

I have a proposal for the people (and robots!) of the internets. Stop downloading your music legally. Whenever you find yourself about to buy a song legally from iTunes navigate to The Pirate Bay instead.

You're crazy, why would I want to do that?
Hear me out... I've had enough of the music industry criminalising our kids for simply using their favourite Justin Beiber song as a backing track for a video shot on a school camping trip, which they shared with Gran.

The truth is if we want to criminalise piracy, then we have to be willing to sacrifice our civil liberties and allow what we share and download be watched. If we're against having our private channels of communication watched 24/7, then we might as well legalise piracy because we would have no way to enforce it.

But legalising piracy would put people who work in the music industry out of jobs
I don't think we should be valuing some people's jobs over our civil liberties. There will always be a demand for art and if there's a demand there will always be a way to make money. It might not be as simple as merely creating a piece of art and selling it for a fixed price, but times change and businesses need to adapt with that change to find new ways of making money. Take Spotify, they're doing great and even helping to convert pirates into paying music lovers.

We can't protect every business from change, and we shouldn't, as technology and society evolves so should businesses. This is what happens in others industries, take newspapers, they are being forced by technological changes to have an online presence to ensure their survival in the digital age.

Wouldn't it would stop artists from wanting to create art?
There are plenty of artists that don't make anything from the art they make and they love making it. It's also a myth to believe the reason they're not making money is just because they're not as talented as other artists. The truth is an artists' sells are usually equivalent to how well the record labels sell them.

Services like PledgeMusic allows artists to make money from fans by allowing them to buy things such as hand written letters, phone calls, personal possessions and merch. This is a great way to support the arists you love without having to give a penny to the record labels.

That's all great, but why should I stop buying music legally?
It's simple, if you don't want record labels dictating what you should listen to and who's successful, if you want to support your favourite artists without the record labels taking a cut and if you want freedom to browse the web and share content without having your every click monitored, then we need to show our support to our favourite artists in different way than just buying CDs.

If you really love music support the advancement of the music industry into the 21st century then choose how you use your wallet carefully. Sign up for a service such as Zune Pass, stop downloading songs from iTunes, heck listen to them on YouTube if you have to, believe it or not a lot of money can be made from YouTube.

Regardless of what the entertainment industry says there is plenty of money to be made and a lot to gain from the non-commercial legalisation of piracy.

15th February 2012

Consciousness, coming to a machine near you.

What is consciousness?

It's one of the biggest questions, what is consciousness? And it's a question that is becoming more relevant with increasing computational abilities and promises of ever more 'clever' robots. To help us answer that question a good place to start is by asking some simpler questions. For example, is an earthworm conscious? Even this is hard question to ask but we would probably agree that it doesn't really. Now how about a cat? It's harder to be sure, cats seem to be aware of their surroundings, they get scared and feel pain but they wouldn't recognise themselves if you put them front of a mirror. So we can say they are more conscious than an earthworm but still probably not to the same extent as us. But what makes a cat different to an earth worm or a human? Well it probably something to do with how big the brain is. We know that consciousness at least has something to do with the brain because we know when someone has damaged their brain their consciousness can be effected it a variety of ways, more on this in second!

Consciousness and the brain

So now we know consciousness is linked to the brain we can apply our first set of questions to the brain, how many neurons does it take to be conscious? How about a single neuron? That's simple, no. 10,000? Nope.  What about 75,000,000 (about as many as a mouse)? It's harder to say. So is it just the number of neurons and raw brain power that make conscious or it something else?
Imagine we built a robot that had equivalent processing power to the human brain, something that should be easily done by the end of the century, would it have conscious? Well we're not sure but it's unlikely. So it's probably not just raw brain power that makes us conscious, that means it's got to be more to do with how it's wired.
We know we experience conciseness as being aware of what we are sensing. So could it be to do with the areas of the brain that deal with our senses? Studies show that not to be the case. There are phenomenon's such as blindsight in which a patient is unaware of any visual input. The interesting part is just because they are unaware of the visual input doesn't mean they can act on it. Patients with blindsight are able to predict visual stimuli such as the movement of objects with reasonable accuracy.

Is it all an illusion?

So if there isn't a single area of the brain we can connect to consciousness what causes us to be conscious. I hate to disappoint but we just don't know yet and we may never know. There are many different hypothesis, it could be a side-effect from complex processes in our brain or maybe we appear conscious but we're really just victims of cause and effect.
One of the most fascinating things about consciousness is that we don't have any way of telling if anyone else is really conscious. For all we know everyone around us could just be acting unknowingly on inputs they're receiving from their sensory inputs. If we ever did create a conscious robot we would never really know if it was truly conscious or just acting in a way that made it seem conscious. Being able to merely say you're conscious doesn't make it so.
If you're interested in learning more about consciousness I urge to check out the links below and to submit your thoughts on where consciousness comes from to this survey:

More information on consciousness

22nd January 2012

I quit Facebook today

I've been getting annoyed at Facebook for a while not because of the privacy concerns which many have expressed but because of the way facebook wants it's users use the site.

When I first sit down to my computer I probably do what a lot of people do, open up my internet browser, sometimes Chrome, sometimes Firefox and log on to Facebook. What do I find? A place where I can read about the daily happenings of my friends? Maybe a few pictures of their recent holidays? Sadly not, at least not anymore.  What I find, and have now come to expect is a bunch of stupid images from that guy that used to be in one of my high school classes. Maybe a few depressing posts from someone who found my profile from a fan page I liked. Then, worse of all, the endless pages liked about some guy who just got kicked off of the latest reality TV program.

I don't know about most people but this isn't what I want to see from a site like Facebook. When I signed up, a few years ago now, I used to find it interesting reading about what people were doing. This was back before people could like everything on the internet and I wasn't made constantly, and automatically, aware of the articles my ex's friend is reading.

It's not the sharing of more and more content that bothers me, it's more to do with how it's being displayed. Again back before the times of automatic sharing and internet-wide liking, I could easily read through everything on my news feed since I last time I checked it. I had about 100 friends back then, now that number has slightly risen to around 160, but I find it completely impossible to keep up with the content being posted, and almost always, I just don't care anymore. That's because it's almost entirely made up of content friends have liked or have had automatically published by an app they've enabled. I rather see what my friends are personally posting, how did the job interview go, did they pass their driving test? These things are still being posted but they're being lost more and more often in the amount of junk being published.

I think Facebook needs to start thinking about how the display content from their users. In my opinion I think a social network should focus on promoting real social interaction, not just displaying a long list of everything it's users have been doing. I don't think they will be changing anything anytime soon, and I hope it may mean another website with a clearer view on what a social network is  will be able to step up.

In conclusion I don't think I'll be returning to Facebook. With all the recent studies relating Facebook to increased stress and with the lack of decent social interaction I find there, I'm quite relieved to leave.

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