Australian entrepreneur with FanFooty (alive) and Tinfinger (dead) on his CV. Working on new projects, podcasting weekly at the Coaches Box, and trying not to let microblogging take over this blog.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Tony Tran, the newly-made man

My business partner Tai Tran has decided to change his first name to Tony. He is following in the footsteps of his brother Miles who did the same thing about 10 years ago. Tony's family history took him from Vietnam at a very young age to grow up in England, with Miles and two of his three sisters now living in Australia along with his parents. The reasons for the name change are less cultural and more personal. Without airing details of his personal life, it's safe to say Tony has not had a smooth run of late. In his own words:

"Tai is dead... He is known to the world as Tony. Hopefully Tony will get better luck with money and women."

Googling for the etymology of the name Tony reveals it is traced back through Roman history to Marc Antony. Of course, there are many famous Tonys. Tony has been labelled the "smiling assassin" by Ben Barren which does not fit the Tony Soprano archetype, but then again if we got a Tony Soprano in the same room with Ben's consiglieri Michael "Cor" Leone, it would be too much mafioso to bear.

Speaking of which, plans are afoot to have another social event in Melbourne for local 2.0ers some time in May. There is much to talk about since the last drinkies, which went by the name of Tequp. Not least among topics of conversation would be Ben's plans to help organise an unconference involving Dave Winer. More details as they are solidified, but suggestions for date (third week, maybe?) and location (somewhere in the CBD?) are welcome.

EDIT: That's details for the May drinkies I'm looking for, not the July unconference.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Britney/suicide problem with AJAX

An article on the problems of AJAX and advertising by Fredric Paul of TechWeb, linked by Rafat Ali and Jason Calacanis, cover an issue which is important to me. I brought it up on the WebmasterWorld forums last September.

Ajax presents a problem for AdSense publishers, who rely in many cases on the user clicking on reload to refresh pages with new ads, the better for them to notice them, or visiting new pages to get different ads (which is why most long text articles are cut up into multiple pages). Automated refreshing of the AdSense frame without having a full page reload is currently banned by G.

If you have a page for which the main content is live Ajax code delivering dynamically updated information - e.g. a live sports score page, or a bunch of stock tickers, or a photo album slide show, or live news feeds - which you'd expect the user to be watching for 10 minutes or more on that same page, you're delivering a better user experience at the cost of potential revenue. With other ad networks it is possible to cycle through ads on such pages, but not on AdSense. Can anyone suggest a solution to this problem?

Fredric doesn't have an answer, and neither do Rafat or Jason (come on Jase, you thought of this topic months ago and didn't blog it? Yeah right!). I worked through in that WMW thread to something approaching an answer, although I foresaw problems with implementation, viz:

One technical problem that G's engineers would have trouble solving is figuring out how to serve updated ads relevant to dynamically-generated content. For example, say the page is a news feed. When the page gets served originally, the feed's big story is about Britney Spears so G would serve Britney-related ads. But what if the feed updates with a story about a teen suicide? Britney ads are no longer relevant. It's a worry.

My solution is for someone - most likely Google - to lead the way by introducing a new variable in their JavaScript, which for the sake of argument I'll call google_ajax_update. This would contain all text that is subject to dynamic updating in an AJAX page - which the page would have to update accordingly through AJAX, of course. So that in the Britney/suicide example, on the initial load of the page the google_ajax_update variable would contain the text of the Britney story, and on the second pass it would contain the suicide story. The fact that the variable is set at all would alert the Google server to update the ad every X seconds, which might be preset by Google but would more likely be definable by the publisher using another variable within non-spammy limits (i.e. not every five seconds, maybe 30 or 60 seconds minimum). Of course, this technique could also be used for chat rooms, so that if conversation in Campfire, 3bubbles or Newsvine moves from one topic to another the keywords could be fed into the script.

It's likely that there are other pitfalls and holes in my theory, technical or social, but I'm sure the poindexters at the big G can allocate enough of their pulsing grey matter to the problem to prevent griefing. Chop chop!

Wyaworks unveiled

During the course of my many IM convos with Phil Sim in my role as contractor for 1Eyed Sports over the past month or so, he let me know about a bloke he was consulting for who was the brains behind what Phil thought would be a kick-arse startup concept: Wyaworks. Today he blogged about the company, and linked to an introductory post by the bloke in question, John Hyde, and then talked a bit about Wyaworks' first product, entitled WyaCracker. (The company is called Realtime Applications and the project is called Wyaworks, from what I gather.)

I haven't met or talked to John, but Phil told me a bit about him. Like a number of other Web 2.0 operators, John is an experienced corporate developer who is trying to go it alone. Ex-Intelite Gabe Rivera comes to mind as another example. The first thing that strikes you as you hit the WyaCracker site is that like Gabe, John could benefit from the soothing influence of a graphic designer... fire engine red is not user-friendly! Nevertheless, you know John's code is going to be rock solid.

I have had a chance to look at the private demo. The idea of the site is to allow users to create widgets, which I would define as "small pieces of code that you can paste into your own site that reference data on another site". The most common widget in use on the Internet today is Google AdSense code, which is a JavaScript script that loads in ads from Google's servers. In the case of WyaCracker, the scripts that I got to see produced simple HTML forms. So what, you might say, I can create my own HTML forms! Ah, but the beauty of the WyaCracker system is that the data from that form is sent to WyaCracker's database (which is MySQL) and stored there for private (or public, I think) access. Effectively, WyaCracker allows you to create database tables from scratch with all the fields set up automatically, and then enables anyone to use HTML forms to enter data into those tables... without anyone in the process having to know anything about database management.

No word on an API at this early stage and some may cry about "walled gardens of content", but it remains to be seen how open the databases will be. Phil mentions Edgeio and hints that WyaCracker may fulfil a transitional role between the current mainstream paradigm of private data stores and the full edge content vision of Edgeio.

I'm still big on the edge economics that something like Edgeio is based on, but there does need to be this mindset shift before it takes hold.

Phil has built two successful Web sites by hand using the Lotus platform, and I suspect it is hard to break free from some aspects of the IBM mentality. John built WyaWorks using Java, which many Web 2.0 bods would pooh-pooh in favour of more hip languages like Ruby on Rails. As Phil says, WyaCracker is only a proof of concept so it may be that the Wyaworks team will undergo the process of shifting their minds as well before they settle on their final product. I know Tai and I have had to do the same thing with FanFooty and Tinfinger, especially given Tai's corporate experience.

I'll leave the full slash-and-burn qualitative analysis on WyaCracker to Pete Cashmore and Mike Arrington. Suffice to say that I think the concept has a lot of promise but the site needs polish if, as John states, it is aimed at the end user. There are obvious similarities with Google Base and its imitators, albeit at a smaller scale. There remains a market niche for "Google Base for grandmas", and someone's going to fill it. Throw some soft pastel colours and lots of friendly explanatory text at WyaCracker and it could fit the bill.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Set pieces versus spontaneity

It's Monday (at least where I am it is) and a story from the New York Times is at the top of Memeorandum. This is a common occurence, not just because the Times reports a lot on GEMAYA, but because it seems to save up a lot of its exclusives for Mondays. A similar thing happens in the Australian tech press on Tuesdays, when most of them have a dedicated section or three. (I have not seen a print copy of the Times lately, so I don't know if they have an IT section on Mondays... it would make sense.)

These "set pieces" are useful for the MSM because readers look forward to getting that edition of their publication because they know that a week's worth of content has been concentrated into one day. The front page of an IT section is an event in itself. Placement of stories on the page tells the reader about what stories are important to the paper and thus (in theory) to the reader. The system is longstanding, readers know about how it operates and are comfortable with it. It works.

For blogs, their advantages of timeliness and freedom from newsholes or structured publishing schedules are offset to some degree, so far, by the lack of set pieces. Are there blogs out there which commit to a single day of the week where they publish a particular type of entry, or make an effort to stick to a regular publication date for a longer article or thought piece? The only ones I can think of are digest entries, used by such prolific posters as Richard McManus with Read/Write Filter and Nick Denton at Valleywag with his Recap and Remainders. Note that both Rich and Nick are in professional blog networks, some of which use this technique excessively to cross-promote. Nick is is a network which requires 12 posts a day, which leads one to inevitably conclude that digests are being done for less than wholly positive reasons. I'd be fascinated to hear Darren Rowse's thoughts on this subject, being as he is the mack daddy of probloggers. In any case I don't think digests count as set pieces, since I doubt any reader would get up in the morning looking forward to loading up a bunch of random links or reading what they read yesterday.

There should be no reason why blogs can't have their cake and eat it too on this issue. The only thing that might be lost is the sense by the reader that none of what appears in a blog's RSS feed is forced upon the writer by rules, something which can be quite valuable for some bloggers who are subscribers to the amateur philosophy. Some readers might resent what they could see as the encroachment of journalistic professionalism, by effectively making those regular blog posts into a standalone "brand". But then, some other readers might enjoy that more.

I will be testing out some concepts along these lines in my new blog next month. I will be fascinated with what readers' reactions will be.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Message to world


Sheesh. Talk about someone else for a while.

One eye on the prize

This blog has been relatively dormant for a while now. There are reasons for that.

The first is that I have been fulfilling a contract for Phil Sim to develop a sports community site called 1Eyed Sports, as Phil explains. I did not feel justified in blogging much through the development period because I thought it would be rude to be blogging when that time could be better spent coding, especially towards the end of the project. I'm happy with the final product, and I wish Phil well in his endeavours.

The second is that I'm now on a rather punishing schedule for getting code out the door on several of my own projects, not the least of which is Tinfinger. I don't have VC or angel funding, or huge wads of cash left over from a high-paying corporate job, or a large bunch of other co-founders to share the workload. Just myself and Tai, and a bunch of ideas. (Cameron Reilly's post on opportunity cheered me up though.)

The third is that I'm saving some post subjects up for when I start daily problogging at a new location next month. I have been considering how to structure a daily blog for what is ostensibly a MSM outlet. How do you meet a set publishing schedule while retaining the spontaneity of blogs? How easy is it to slip back into the like it/don't like it consumerist mindset? How do I keep up consistent quality and avoid posts consisting solely of lazy linkfests or boring remainders? What sort of narrative should the blog form over the long term, so that the opportunity of such a platform is not wasted on merely parroting popular opinion, but changing it? I have a few ideas on how to address these issues, and I am looking forward to testing them out on a public stage.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The amazing Jonathan Atherton

TechCrunch today reviewed a music widget-rolling service called Tunefeed, which is a new venture by an existing company called Faces.com which had previously specialised in printing digital images... and dating. Its CEO rejoices in the name of Jonathan Atherton, and an egosearch brings up some interesting results in Google. We know JA is a skier, since he is namechecked and given his own photo in issue #3 of the Deep Powder Tours Webzine in a report on an expedition to a place in Japan called Rusutsu.

More interestingly, a person with the same name is also a well-established Brisbane stand-up comedian, after-dinner speaker, screen actor and computer game voiceover man who got his start in a walk-on part for Good Morning Vietnam. His IMDB bio reveals some startling details.

Known for his linguist talents: fluent in German, Indonesian, Malay, Thai, Lugandan and Swahili, and some Japanese, Lao, Hindi as well as several other African and Asian dialects.

He studies linguistics, anthropology and religion at the University of Queensland, Australia.

He lived in Central Africa for two years teaching English and working as safari guide in Uganda. He was initiated into Uganda's largest tribe the Baganda. In Asia, he lived in Thailand for two years and taught English in Japan for six months.

Are Jonathan the comedian and Jonathan the Faces.com CEO one and the same? If so, how freakin' easy is it going to be for some MSM journo to find a hook for a profile? Cameron Reilly, get this man in front of a microphone, stat!

Monday, April 10, 2006

b5 looks for VC

b5 Media is looking for venture capital according to Jeremy Wright. alarm:clock's reportage of the story characterises b5 as a "Canadian blog network", despite the company having two Aussies (EDIT: oops, it's three, as Jeremy points out below) and only one Canadian as principals.

Does looking for VC and/or getting it mean that b5 is going to become Canadian or American, merely because North America is where the money is likely to come from? As Syntagma points out in quoting Greg Gianforte: "Raising VC money determines your exit strategy". Is a foreign future in store for any Australian Web company which gets foreign VC?

Friday, April 07, 2006

Drug users generate discontent at major Web portal

It was a very strange segment on Thursday's edition of The Footy Show, the most popular TV program about Australian Rules football. TFS reported that the AFL Players Association had won an injunction against two Web sites for publishing the names of three players who had allegedly tested positive for drugs as part of the AFL's new recreational drug testing policy.

The AFL has a three strikes policy for this new testing regime, in which only on the third strike is the player's name supposed to be made public, something which has caused much furore within the football community. News of the first positive came three weeks ago, and the positive tests and media pressure have been mounting ever since to the stage where there are now apparently 15 players with one strike, three of whom have two strikes.

The AFLPA injunction also covered any mention of the names of the Web sites whose users had published the names of the twice-caught trio. However, TFS chose to show vision of one of the Web sites in question during their recorded piece, including the full title of the forum thread topic and the nickname of the poster who allegedly first posted the players' names, but without revealing any identifying site logos. Anyone could have written down that thread title and Googled it to discover that the site in question was the #1 result in Google's search results. The site is a major international Web portal.

Now, is what TFS did against the terms as stipulated in the injunction? After all, they did not name the Web site, but anyone with a cursory knowledge of the Internet could deduce from their piece how to find it and thus to discover the three names for themselves. This is one of the many instances where the Internet dances a merry jig around legal norms.

Would it be unwise of me to even mention the thread title in question? Does that constitute a similar breach? How about the Google cache of the offending thread? What if I merely link to the Google search result? There, the ball is in Google's court now. The AFLPA can't sue me without suing Google.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

A face that could kill the Kraken

So last night co-founder Tai and I were sitting in the room we put our servers - not where our new Web server is, but where it used to be when it was the test server in the room between our bedrooms, though now it's the production server and it's sitting in a rack somewhere in the Melbourne CBD - you still folllowing? We're sitting there, and I'm wearing a look on my face that says death. Death, it says. Much death, in horrible and unspeakable ways. It's a look that visibly frightens Tai, who desperately tries to stave off the doom emanating from my very features by fixing the problems that have suddenly cropped up with our server on the first weekend of the new AFL season. FanFooty is down (and by extension, the three other sites on the server, including Tinfinger).

I have a certain attitude about downtime. I hate it with the burning passion of a thousand suns. If my will was done, I would not just have four nines availability, not five nines, not a million nines. Not even an infinity of nines. Not, and for this you will have to accept my word as to the depth of my feeling on this topic, even 100% availability. If 'twere physically possible, I would strive for servers over which I have some control to record figures for availability that exceed 100%. Hopefully investigations into quantum physics, string theory and TOEs will yield a solution that shall deliver me such an intensely desired outcome.

Back to the problem at hand. It is only under pressure that you find out how good you are at what you do, I have found. We were in the two-minute drill, the hurry-up offence. We had to make every post a winner. Mostly, we had to find out what the hell was wrong with the server. Pure traffic spiking was certainly one strong contender as the culprit, seeing as the second game of the AFL season was in session. Our live fantasy scoring service at FanFooty was server-intensive enough at our old shared server last season, crashing it regularly enough to cause many strongly-worded missives to flow from the host's sysadmin. We thought the hardware specs were more than enough to handle it, but perhaps our RedHat 9 implementation wasn't tight enough, nor our Apache footprint lean enough. Perhaps the sendmail install was the issue, something I was very wary of given the likelihood of an unprotected server on the Intarwebs being used as a spam relay.

Fast forward to this afternoon. I won't reveal the intervening events, but suffice it to say that the end result is that one of us (meaning the ever-suffering Tai) has to make the trek up the Princes Highway to rescue our poor little boxen from the ravages of the unfeeling Vandal horde.

All we have gained is a slightly greater knowledge of the extent of our ignorance, and in the world of the amateurs of Web 2.0, I guess this is as much as can be hoped for. The vast, featureless void containing all wisdom as yet unseen by our feeble minds yawns in front of us, unmoved by our insignificant presence.

Onto far more important matters. The 2Web crew have been cold shouldering me, apparently because I once dissed one of their homies. I laid down some phat rhymes as my application but no play, playa. I'm listening to rage as I write this, and the words of Ice T resonate with this damn fool.

You think you've made it, you're just a lucky man
Guess who controls your destiny, fans
But you diss 'em cos you think you're a star
That attitude is rude, you won't get far
Cos they'll turn on you quick, you'll drop like a brick
Unemployment's where you'll sit
No friends cos you dissed 'em too
No money, no crew, you're through
You played yourself...
That's right, you played yourself...
You played yourself...
Yo, yo, you played yourself...