Monthly Archives: March 2009

Virtual Home Camp


As one of the organisers of Home Camp, I dropped in to see how Virtual Home Camp is shaping up. There are already some really interesting toys and gadgets in there – had a brief chat about how to feed weather data in, looked at the virtual version of Chris’ ducks, and was generally really impressed to see the progress that has been made. Thanks to the folks from ReactionGrid for hosting us. If you can’t come to the real event on April 25th in London, I think this could be a great way of participating.


Another Polish social network – for microblogging

I’ve written before about how I find it fascinating that country-specific social networks and tools exist. I suppose I shouldn’t be so amazed, given that company-specific and other group/interest-specific networks are springing up all around.

My fellow Pole-espoused friend Chris Dalby pointed out, which appears to be a Polish-language Twitter clone / microblogging service. I’m already aware of the massive popularity of Nasza Klasa, which is kind of a cross between Friends Reunited and Facebook. There’s also a Polish IM service called Gadu-Gadu. While I don’t think that everyone should be made to speak English, I do find it intriguing that there are so many of these language-specific networks, and that they appear to be profitable or at least able to continue in the face of consolidation – when you look at the fact that a giant like Facebook has a Polish-language setting, for example, it’s interesting to ponder why Nasza Klasa continues to be successful.

(side-note: I heard the interview with Jeff Yasuda, CEO of, on net@night episode 91 – he pointed out that there is no relation between and – now there’s a third blip in the mix!)

The end of email?

I caught a comment from SXSW yesterday, where my friend Suzanne Minassian sent a tweet from a panel she was at:

are we going to lose email to social networking – discussing in panel #sxsw (minassian)

*insert backward-playing tape noise sound effect here*

So when I left university in…. oh… 90-something 🙂 I ended up joining the UK Post Office IT Services (weirdly, this is my second PO-related post today, albeit more tenuously-linked than the first). As part of the interview process I was asked to give a presentation about ways that the organisation could adapt to the electronic age and the challenges of the Internet. The content of the presentation has long been filed away somewhere dusty, disposed of or lost, but I do remember that my main points were:

  • Physical mail won’t ever go away. People like to receive physical objects, letters, and parcels. Humans are fundamentally social and tactile.
  • As e-commerce grows, parcel mail will grow.
  • There were other ways that the PO could get value from the Internet – I didn’t suggest the ISP route but did talk about, for example, local printing of electronically-transmitted letters as a kind of bridge between the physical and electronic worlds (well, it seemed like an idea as a student at the time, what can I say?!).

I like to think that my first two predictions were pretty accurate – since the mid-1990s the volumes of mail have indeed grown. In my own case I suppose I get a lot less post in the way of bills and statements since much of that is done online; and I write and send fewer personal letters, although birthday cards and the like remain physical objects of importance. I do a lot of online shopping and physical shipping of goods, and ebay has of course increased that trend (and helped the rise of the Mailboxes, Etc chain, as far as I can tell). So in a very real sense, snail mail has not been lost to email. In one way it’s been multiplied by it, and looking at it another way, you could say it has become more focussed by the rise of the Internet and online business.

*fast-forwarding tape sound effect*

And now, back in the present day…

I think the same thing is true of social networks and their effect on email. Much as I admire and respect my good friend Luis Suarez‘s assault on the tyranny of email, I think what he has found is that there’s a base level of mail which he continues to get, as email is often still the most appropriate channel for certain, private or behind-the-firewall communications, for example. In fact, I’m willing to bet that he also gets a bunch of messages that have been generated by the social networks he’s part of, too – I get emails when I receive direct messages, or someone new follows me, or whatever, although it’s possible to opt-out or filter them out.

The core of the email I receive though, is also focussed or narrowed down by the networks I participate in. It’s often far quicker to drop a short line to a friend over IM or direct message then it is to send an email, and I can broadcast status and information to groups more effectively via a Facebook profile or whatever than I could by mass-mailing them all.

I think the effect we’re seeing is a levelling out and an adjustment whereby the relevant tools and means of communication – phone, text, mail, email, IM, and social network messages – all come together and start to be used in the most effective ways, where one size does not fit all.

Postcodes should be free?

Free The Postcode! 2.jpg

Something I picked up from a tweet recently (can’t remember who from) was the effort to create a free database of UK postcode data via a site called Free The Postcode!. For those who don’t know, UK postcodes are essentially the same as zip codes in the US – Wikipedia tells me that we’ve had them in this country for 50 years now, since 1959.

note: in what is now the dim and distant past, I used to work for the Post Office’s IT division. I have no current association with the UK Post Office and what follows are entirely my own random thoughts on the subject.

The essential thrust of Free The Postcode is this: the Post Office currently charges people for access to their database beyond a certain number of queries per day. [I think they used to send updated copies of PAF (the Postal Address File) on CD to companies every month or so – presumably there’s now some online mechanism for distribution but I have no idea]. Much as Wikipedia has “freed” the world from having to buy hardback copies of Britannica, and OpenStreetmap is crowdsourcing a global map which is not bound by Ordnance Survey fees or Google control, wouldn’t it be great if we could do the same thing for postcode and address information in the UK?

Well… I guess. There are a few problems that I can see with the approach. The first is that only the Post Office can allocate, update and change postcodes in an area. In fact, every now and then they have done this over wide areas (Southampton’s SO codes were all changed or reorganised in the last ten or fifteen years I believe). The second is that in order to submit postcode information you need to know your GPS location (not so difficult these days with GPS being built into an increasing number of mobile devices) and the postcode you are currently in. Now, unless you are at home or at the office, this is potentially a bit more tricky – so actually building this free database could take a very long time. Also, in order to draw accurate boundaries, you will need a lot more than a single reading from each postcode area.

In the interests of experimentation, and my doubts notwithstanding, I thought I’d give this a try. There’s a free iPhone application called iFreeThePostcode which works out where you are and then allows you to submit your location and the postcode online (by the way, there are also Android applications, or a web form).

iFreeThePostcode 2.png

A couple of interesting points here. Firstly, I found it fascinating to see how long it took my phone to get a location lock with better than 50m accuracy – it started off at over 1000m and gradually narrowed itself down (jumping up over 300m on a reasonably regular basis). The other thing is that I had to fill in my email address in order to go through a validation process – they send you an email with a “confirm that you submitted this” link, presumably to avoid spammers. That’s fine, but as many of the comments in the iTunes store reviews say – I’m handing over personal data here, and there’s no statement as to how that might be used. To be fair, the current content of the database is available as public domain, but that doesn’t mean that the people gathering the data don’t have other purposes.

Besides that, there are some interesting legal discussions on the associated wiki page, and no overall stated privacy policy for the project.

If you’re interested, by all means give the FreeThePostcode project a look. I can’t quite say whether or not I’m in favour of the idea – frankly, I think this is a tricky problem to solve through crowdsourcing.

Update: the source code of the iFreeThePostcode app is available.

Not a peep

Oh yeah. I know you come to The Lost Outpost for your highbrow technical information and photography stuff. Here’s something totally different!

On Friday’s Dogear Nation, Michael Martine announced that we are going to be sponsoring something called “Peepfest”, an event apparently dedicated to marshmallow things called Peeps.

The rest of the podcast crew was amazed that I had no idea what these Peeps things are. Well, you know what – they aren’t sold in the UK so, no, I ha[ve|d] no idea what they are. Never a peep has passed my lips, you might say, in one sense. It turns out that there’s an entire subculture dedicated to them, though – most impressive is this gallery of dioramas featured on the Washington Post site (my favourite being “May the Peeps Be with You”, closely followed by “The Peepsons”).

Crazy, crazy people. And a fun interlude for a blogger.

Update: somewhat alarmingly, I’m now receiving peeps-related submissions, like this study of the research behaviour of peeps. Enough already! 🙂

Update: OK, I’m getting reports that these things are not as yummy as they are made out to be. So I’m instituting my first ever poll. Let me know where you stand on the peeps controversy with just a couple of clicks!

Final update: initial poll results indicate that either folks are as clueless about Peeps as I am, or that they are not the nicest sweets in the world. Also, somewhat inevitably, I’ve discovered that the Peeps themselves are actually on Twitter…