Categories
culture

Consuming Culture: 16-31 Jan 2020

Here are brief descriptions of the various cultural things I did in the second half of January 2020.

Food: 12:51 (Islington, 2020-01-18)

Our second visit to 12:51, but the first time we tried the tasting menu. It’s a bit pricy (£75 a head, I think) but it’s well worth it. The food was wonderful. And on the night we were there, James Cochran (the chef who owns the restaurant) was there – although he was serving, rather than being in the kitchen.

Food: Wolkite Kitfo (Holloway, 2020-01-24)

This is an Ethiopian restaurant near Arsenal’s new stadium. Ethiopian food is really interesting. It’s usually served piled up on a flatbread called injera. You then tear off bits of the injera and use it to scoop up bits of the food and put it in your mouth. So the injera doubles as both plate and cutlery. If you’re interested (and I think you should be) then this is a nice local restaurant in which to try it.

Art: 24/7 (Somerset House, 2020-01-29)

The subtitle for this exhibition is “A wake-up call for our non-stop world”. The pieces here all examine the way that the world has changed over the last twenty years so we are now all more connected much more of the time and how that has affected us. It’s a very thought-provoking exhibition and I highly recommend you seeing it.

Film: The Personal History of David Copperfield (Screen on the Green, 2020-01-29)

I’ve never read David Copperfield. I don’t remember even seeing another film or TV adaptation. So I was probably one of very few people in the cinema who didn’t know the plot. And, therefore, I have no idea how much this film deviates from the book. It certainly feels like a rather modern take on the book (although it’s very much set in the nineteenth century). There’s a great cast and a cracking script. I loved it.

Gig: John Grant (Roundhouse, 2020-01-29)

I love John Grant’s music and see him live whenever I can (I already have a ticket to see him again at the start of May). This gig was part of the Roundhouse’s “In the Round” where artists play to an all-seated audience. This was a stripped-back set (just John on piano and a keyboard player) which meant that some of his more complex songs were skipped. But he played everything I wanted to hear – even finishing with a great version of “Chicken Bones”.

Gig: Hate Moss (Old Blue Last, 2020-01-30)

It is many years since I was last at the Old Blue Last for a gig. I was drawn back by an old friend who was first on the bill, playing as M-Orchestra. I stayed on to see the other two acts. Kill Your Boyfriends were a bit noisy for my tastes, but Hate Moss were well worth staying out for. I’ll be looking out for them playing London again.

Dance: Sadlers Wells Sampled (Sadlers Wells, 2020-01-31)

I’ve been in London for over 35 years and I’ve never been to Sadlers Wells. And if you’re going to fix that, then it makes good sense to go on a night where there’s a selection of different types of dance on display. There were eight different acts during the night – from traditional Indian dance and tango to really experimental dance from Company Wayne McGregor and Géométrie Variable. I’m no expert in dance and this was a great introduction to the breadth of options available.

Categories
culture

Consuming Culture: 1-15 Jan 2020

I want to do more blogging this year. So one thing I’m going to do is to write about the cultural experiences that I have. My plan is to write short reviews of any films, plays, exhibitions and lectures that I go to. To start us off, here’s what I did in the first half of January.

Film: Last Christmas (Vue Islington, 2020-01-01)

Yes, this got some terrible reviews, but cheesy romcoms are a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine. This isn’t up to the standards of Four Weddings and a Funeral or Notting Hill, but I really enjoyed it. And I don’t care how much you judge me for that.

Art: Wonder Factory (Dalston Works, 2020-01-03)

This was weird. Fifteen rooms have been turned into Instagram-friendly art installations. They are of variable quality, but the best installations (like the marshmallow swimming pool) are very good. It’s only around until early February (and it seems they’re now only opening at the weekend) so you should get along to see it soon.

Film: Jojo Rabbit (Screen on the Green, 2020-01-05)

The Hitler Youth isn’t the most obvious subject for comedy, but this film manages to pull it off brilliantly. It’s obviously a very delicate balance but director, Taika Waititi, gets it spot on – while also playing a very funny imaginary Adolf Hitler. I see this has been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar; and that’s well-deserved.

VR: Doctor Who – Edge of Time (Other World, 2020-01-05)

Other World is a virtual reality arcade in Haggerston and currently, one of the VR experiences they are offering is the Doctor Who game, Edge of Time. Players are put in their individual pods and loaded up with all their VR equipment (headset, headphones and a controller for each hand) by staff before being left alone to help the Thirteenth Doctor save the universe. I confess I got a bit stuck trying to get the Tardis to dematerialise, but I really enjoyed myself and am very tempted to go back for another try.

Play: A Kind of People (Royal Court Theatre, 2020-01-06)

The Royal Court has a brilliant scheme where they make tickets for Monday evening performances available for £12 each. That price makes it very tempting to see plays that you know nothing about. And that’s what we did for this. We really had no idea what this play was about. It turns out that it’s an investigation of the various prejudices (racism, sexism, class snobbery, …) that bubble under the surface of British society. I’d recommend you go and see it, but it closes in a couple of days.

Meeting: Tech For UK Post-Election Debrief (Onfido Ltd, 2020-01-08)

I want to get along to more tech meet-ups this year and this was my first. Tech For UK is a group of techies who volunteer their time to build tools that increase democratic engagement in the UK. You can see some examples at voter.tools (this includes my site – TwittElection). This meeting was a discussion about what the group had been doing during the election campaign and where they should focus their efforts in the future.

Art: Bridgit Riley (Hayward Gallery, 2020-01-15)

I want to make more use of my South Bank membership, and this was a free after-hours, members’ viewing of the exhibition. This is a retrospective of Riley’s whole career and, therefore, is a great introduction to the breadth of her work. She’s a fascinating artist (if one who occasionally produces art that can give you a bit of a headache). I recommend seeing the exhibition – but hurry, it closes on 26 January.

Categories
music

2019 in Gigs

It’s time that I wrote my now-traditional review of the gigs I saw last year.

It felt like I didn’t see so many gigs this year, but Songkick tells me I saw 43 which was more than the previous year (but still some considerable way short of the 60 I saw in 2013). I’ll get to the best ones in a minute, but let’s talk about a few of the disappointments first.

The first gig I saw in the year was the Residents at the Union Chapel. I wasn’t really sure what I was expecting, but it was all a bit disjointed and amateur-sounding, so I left before very long. Having really enjoyed the Bananarama reunion tour a couple of years ago, I was looking forward to seeing them (now Siobhan-less) again, particularly at a lovely little venue like Omeara – but they were a terrible disappointment and wanted to play their new album instead of the hits that I wanted to hear. I really wanted to enjoy the post-Pete Shelley Buzzcocks show at the Albert Hall, but it was a lot like a third-rate Buzzcocks tribute band and I left quite a while before the end.

And here, in chronological order, are my ten favourite gigs of the year.

  • Tears For Fears: This was postponed from the previous year. It takes a good band to make it worth going to the O2 Arena. And Tears for Fears certainly hit the spot.
  • Desperate Journalist: An up and coming band that I really want to hear more from. Oh, and they were supported by She Makes War, who is always worth seeing.
  • Grant: This was a slightly strange one. A night of Scandinavian music at the Lexington. We went because we wanted to see the first act, Moses Hightower (who were great). Grant was on next and she totally blew us away. I think we left soon after she finished.
  • Stealing Sheep: I don’t get to see Stealing Sheep as often as I used too, but they were touring this year because of their new album. I saw them twice. I enjoyed the show at Earth in Dalston the most. That’s them in the photo above.
  • Sleeper: I never got to see Sleeper back in the 90s. But I saw them twice this year. I think I just prefered the show at the 100 Club.
  • Swimming Girls: I’ve seen Swimming Girls as a support act and really wanted to see them playing a headline show. I finally got to do that at the Lexington this year. And then they announced they were splitting up.
  • Cut Copy: A band that I hadn’t heard of at the start of this year. But this show at Somerset House was great and I’d certainly see them again.
  • Sunflower Bean: I always love seeing Sunflower Bean and this was at the Borderline (just before it closed down) and I thought the days of seeing them in venues this small were long past.
  • Midge Ure: This was pure nostalgia. Midge Ure’s current band played all Visage’s first album and Ultravox’s “Vienna” – two albums that he recorded in 1980.
  • Amanda Palmer: This wasn’t really a gig. It was more of a four-hour-long, intense psychotherapy session with occasional songs. I saw the prototype for this show in Edinburgh last year, but the full version was sensational.

Just outside of this list are shows by Pale Waves, Lloyd Cole, Wildwood Kin and OMD.

Oh, and I have a new regular gig-going companion this year. I asked her what her favourite gig of the year was and she voted for the Grant show at the Lexington.

2020 is already shaping up well. I have tickets to see John Grant (twice), Tove Lo and Ladytron. And there’s some heavyweight nostalgia coming – with gigs by the Pet Shop Boys and Bauhaus.

What about you? What live music did you really enjoy in 2019?

Categories
life

2020 Vision

I’ve been working in this industry for a long time – over thirty years. For most of that time, I’ve been working as a freelancer, but it’s always been working for someone else. When I set up Magnum Solutions (my freelancing company) in 1995 I always had a vague desire to grow it into a company that wasn’t just me selling my time and skills to other companies. But I’ve never really known how I wanted to do that.

On the other hand, I’ve spent a lot of those thirty years building web sites in my spare time. Whether it’s my (now, long defunct) BBC Streams project or current sites like Line of Succession or TwittElection, there’s always something that I’m tinkering with. Some of them get some small level of popularity. None of them has ever made me enough money that I could consider giving up the freelancer life in order to spend more time on one of these projects.

This year has been slightly different. This was the year that the market for Perl freelancers in London finally hit the level at which I decided to take a permanent job. So I’ve been working for Equals (formerly FairFX) as a senior developer since February. But even that didn’t feel quite right. It felt a bit like a step backwards to go back to being an employee.

And then, while on holiday a month ago, something crystalised for me during a conversation with a friend. She asked how I’d really like to spend my time and I replied that I’d like to take time off from working nine to five and spent it trying to turn one or more of my side-projects into a real business. She asked what was stopping me from doing that and I replied that I didn’t have enough money. She laughed and asked me what the money in the ISA that I’ve been paying into on and off for the last decade was for. I’d always vaguely assumed it was for “the future” (whatever that means) but I realised that she was right. There was no reason at all why I shouldn’t use some of that money to support myself while I took time off work to do what I really wanted.

So that’s what I’m going to do. I’ve given notice at Equals and I’m leaving just before Christmas. And for the first six months of 2020, I’ll be living off my savings while I try to find some way to make a living from the various business ideas I’ve been doing almost nothing with for the last thirty years.

I’m going to be structured about it. I plan to try six things for a month each. I have an idea what the first two or three things will be but I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t go into any detail right now. I do want to be very open about what I’m doing while I’m doing it – I’ve set up a new web site at davecross.co.uk and I’ll be writing about my projects there. Hey, even if nothing takes off, perhaps there’s a book in the reports of all my failures.

At the end of June, I’ll take stock and decide whether it’s worth continuing the experiment.

And that’s what I’m calling my “2020 Vision”. Because bad puns are the basis of good marketing – or something like that.

Categories
music

2018 in Gigs

It’s the last day of 2018, and I know I’m not going to a gig tonight, so that sounds like a very good time for my annual review of the gigs I’ve seen this year.

Songkick tells me that I saw 35 gigs in 2018. That’s the lowest number since I’ve been counting them. It’s even one fewer than 2012 when I had the excuse of having my leg in plaster for six months. I’m not sure why the number is so low. Perhaps I’m getting pickier about what I see.

Let’s start by talking about a few of the disappointments. I don’t know what I was expecting when I booked to see Kristin Hersh, but she didn’t deliver and I left just after she sang “Your Ghost”. I was similarly disappointed by The Primitives – I left after a few songs and didn’t even wait to hear “Crash”. But easily the worst show I saw this year was Tiffany. Yes, I know. I admit it was a bit of a gamble. But when I wondered aloud on Twitter about seeing the show, Tiffany replied, so I felt it was rude not to go. I lasted three songs before leaving.

On the other hand, here (in chronological order) are my ten favourite gigs of the year.

  • Superorganism at Oval Space. If there’s any justice in the world, this will be one of those gigs that people claim to have been at. But only a few hundred of us were. If you haven’t heard Superorganism’s album, then I suggest you give it a listen. And then try to see them live as soon as you can.
  • Lily Allen at the Dome. I’ve seen Lily Allen at the Brixton Academy before and she was pretty good. But I wasn’t going to miss the chance to see her in a small venue like this. It didn’t matter that most of the set was made up of her new album – she was great.
  • Arcade Fire at Wembley Arena. Not many bands can persuade me to visit the soulless box that is Wembley Arena. But I’m glad I made an exception for Arcade Fire. They were (as always) sensational.
  • Florence + the Machine at the Royal Festival Hall. I’m not a huge Florence fan but when she announced this sudden gig at the South Bank, I jumped at the chance to see her again. Through the magic of my South Bank membership, I got a front-row seat and loved every minute of the show.
  • Pale Waves at Heaven. I saw Pale Waves twice this year, but I think the smaller show at Heaven just trumped the bigger show I saw later in the year at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. I’m looking forward to seeing them again soon.
  • David Byrne at the Hammersmith Odeon. It’s one of my great disappointments that I never saw Talking Heads live. This was my second time seeing David Byrne (the first time, he was playing with St Vincent) and this show was absolutely amazing. He did it again later in the year at the O2 Arena, so I’m glad I saw it in a smaller venue.
  • The Cure at the Royal Festival Hall. This wasn’t billed as the Cure (for contractual reasons, I think) but everyone knew that’s what Robert Smith was planning. This was an incredible, chronological journey through the band’s music.
  • Amanda Palmer at the Queen’s Hall. It’s been a couple of years since Amanda Palmer made this list and it’s great to report she’s back on top form. These shows at the Edinburgh Festival were a prototype for a tour she’s planning to take around the world over the next two years. I suggest you try really hard not to miss it. (I’ve just remembered that I saw her earlier in the year too – but that show is not on Songkick as it was a private event for her Patreon supporters. That was awesome too.)
  • Soft Cell at the O2 Arena. I never saw Soft Cell when they were first around and I walked out of a Marc Almond show a couple of years ago. But there was no chance I’d miss this. Even the O2 couldn’t suck the life out of a Soft Cell show.
  • All Saints at the Hammersmith Odeon. A little bit of cheese to end the year. All Saints were a bit of a guilty pleasure twenty years ago and they’re still a lot of fun these days.

Although I saw fewer shows this year, they must have been of higher quality than usual. I can’t believe that Sunflower Bean (who I saw twice), the Art of Noise, Belle and Sebastian or Heaven 17 didn’t make the top ten. Even Yes were far better than I’ve ever seen them before.

So that was 2018. I already have some interesting things lined up for 2019 – a Tears For Fears show that was postponed from this year, Chvrches (for what seems the first time for far too long), ABC and Nick Mason playing some old Pink Floyd numbers are among the tickets I’ve already bought. I also have ticket to see the Buzzcocks for the first time, but I’m not sure if that will still go ahead following the death of Pete Shelley.

What about you? What did you enjoy seeing live this year?

 

Categories
tech

Simple Static Websites With GitHub Pages

Over the last few months, I’ve noticed that I’ve created a few quick and dirty websites using GitHub Pages. And when I mentioned the latest one on Twitter yesterday, a friend asked if I could take the time to explain how I did it. Which, of course, I’m very happy to do.

Let’s start with a couple of caveats. Firstly, GitHub Pages is a service provided by GitHub (the clue is in the name). If you’re not comfortable with the idea of source code control, Git and GitHub then GitHub Pages probably isn’t the best place for you to host your simple static websites. Secondly, GitHub Pages were originally introduced to enable Open Source Software projects to have a quick and easy way to create a good-looking website to market their wares. I’m not sure how happy GitHub is that people are using their services to host free websites. So please don’t take liberties with their generosity. If you’re planning to create a site that will be heavily visited or that you will make a load of money from, then please look elsewhere for hosting.

With that all out of the way, perhaps I should explain what GitHub Pages are.

GitHub Pages is a service provided by GitHub which allows you to create simple static websites and host them on GitHub’s infrastructure. You can use a static site generator called Jekyll to build your website automatically whenever you change your input files or you can use some other system to build your site (including maintaining all the HTML files manually – which I really don’t recommend).

Our first (very simple) site

Each GitHub Pages site is built from a GitHub code repository (“repo” for short), so we’ll start by creating a new repo (mine was called simple-website). Use whatever workflow you usually prefer to create a new repo and add to it a file called index.md. Jekyll works with a text markup system called Markdown, so you’ll need to pick up a bit of that (it’s really not hard – which is pretty much why it was created). My file looks like this:

Once you have committed this file and pushed it back to GitHub, we’re ready to turn on GitHub Pages support for your repo. Go to the “settings” page for your repo and scroll down until you find the GitHub Pages section which will look like this:

Change the “source” dropdown to “master branch” and hit save. The section will change to look like this:

You’ll see that the information includes a link to your new site. It will be https://your-github-username.github.io/your-repo-name/. If you click on that link, you’ll see your site. In my case, it looked like this:

That is the default look of a website that is generated from Markdown file by Jekyll. It’s certainly simple, but there are ways that we can improve it with very little effort. For a start, we can add a Jekyll theme. That’s a button on the GitHub Pages settings. I chose the “Slate” theme and almost immediately, my website changed to look like this:

Notice that the theme has added a few more pieces of information taken from the repo’s metadata If you look at your code, you’ll see that the theme chooser has simply added a file called _config.yml to your repo. That file will become more important if you choose to dig further into Jekyll.

You’ll also see that your GitHub Pages is automatically served over HTTPS – so you get all the security and SEO boosts that brings.

From here, there are a few ways to go in order to improve our site:

  1. We can add more pages to the site by adding more Markdown files
  2. We can dig deeper into Jekyll and make more use of its features
  3. We can abandon Jekyll and switch to a different static site generator
  4. We can start to use a custom domain for our website

I plan to cover some of these options in other articles.

Categories
tech

Monzo & IFTTT

When I signed up for my Monzo bank account last year, one of the things that really excited me was the API they made available. Of course, as is so often the way with these things, my time was taken up with other things and I never really got any further than installing the Perl module that wrapped the API.

The problem is that writing code against an API takes too long. Oh, it’s generally not particularly difficult, but there’s always something that’s more complicated than you think it’s going to be.

So I was really interested to read last week that Monzo now works with IFTTT. IFTTT (“If This Then That”) is a service which removes the complexity from API programming. You basically plug services together to do something useful. I’ve dabbled with IFTTT before. I have “applets” which automatically post my Instagram photos to Twitter, change my phone’s wallpaper to NASA’s photo of the day, tell me when the ISS is overhead – things like that) so I knew this would be an easier way to do interesting things with the Monzo API – without all that tedious programming.

An IFTTT applet has two parts. There’s a “trigger” (something that tells the applet to run) and an “action” (what you want it to do). Monzo offers both triggers and actions. The triggers are mostly fired when you make a purchase with your card (optionally filtered on things like the merchant or the amount). The actions are moving money into or out of a pot (a pot in a Monzo account is a named, ring-fenced area in your account where you can put money that you want to set aside for a particular purpose).

You can use a Monzo trigger and action together (when I buy something at McDonald’s, move £5 to my “Sin Bin” pot) but more interesting things happen if you combine them with triggers and actions from other providers (move £5 into my “Treats” pot when I do a 5K run – there are dozens of providers).

I needed an example to try it out. I decided to make a Twitter Swear Box. The idea is simple. If I tweet a bad word, I move £1 from my main account into my Swear Box pot.

The action part is simple enough. Monzo provides an action to move money out of a pot. You just need to give it the name of the pot and the amount to move.

The trigger part is a little harder. Twitter provides a trigger that fires whenever I tweet, but that doesn’t let me filter it to look for rude words. But there’s also a Twitter Search trigger which fires whenever a Twitter search finds a tweet which matches a particular search criterion. I used https://twitter.com/search-advanced to work out the search string to use and ended up with “fudge OR pish OR shirt from:davorg”. There’s a slight problem here – it doesn’t find other versions of the words like “fudging” or “shirty” – but this is good enough for a proof of concept.

Creating the applet is a simple as choosing the services you want to use, selecting the correct trigger and action and then filling in a few (usually pretty obvious) details. Within fifteen minutes I had it up and running. I sent a tweet containing the word “fudge” and seconds later there was a pound in my Swear Box pot.

Tonight, I was at a meeting at Monzo’s offices where they talked about how they developed the IFTTT integration and what directions it might go in the future. I asked for the latitude and longitude of a transaction to be included in the details that IFTTT gets – I have a plan to plot my transactions on a map.

Monzo is the first bank to release an integration with IFTTT and it really feels like we’re on the verge of something really useful here. I’ll be great to see where they take the service in the future.

Categories
tech

Brighton SEO – April 2018

Yesterday I was at my second Brighton SEO conference. I enjoyed it every bit as much as the last one and I’m already looking forward to the next. Here are my notes about the talks I saw.

Technical SEO

Command Line Hacks For SEO

Tom Pool / Slides

I misread the description for this. I thought it would be about clever ways to use command-line tools for SEO purposes. But, actually, it was a basic introduction to Unix command-line text processing tools for people who were previously unaware of them. I wasn’t really the target audience, but it’s always good to see a largely non-technical audience being introduced to the powerful tools that I use ever day.

Diving into HTTP/2 – a Guide for SEOs

Tom Anthony / Slides

A good introduction to why HTTP/2 is good news for web traffic (it’s faster) and a great trucking analogy explaining what HTTP is and how HTTP/2 improves on current systems. I would have liked more technical detail, but I realise most of the audience wouldn’t.

Diagnosing Common Hreflang tag issues on page and in sitemaps

Emily Mace / Slides

To be honest, I was only here because it was the last talk in the session and I didn’t have time to move elsewhere. I have never worked on a site with pages that are translated into other languages, so this was of limited interest to me. But Emily certainly seemed to know her stuff and I’m sure that people who use “hreflang” would have found it very interesting and useful.

One thing bothered me slightly about the talk. A couple of times, Emily referred to developers in slightly disparaging ways. And I realised that I’ve heard similar sentiments before at SEO events. It’s like developers are people that SEO analysts are constantly battling with to get their work done. As a developer myself (and one who has spend the last year implementing SEO fixes on one of the UK’s best-known sites) I don’t really understand this attitude – as it’s something I’ve never come across.

It’s annoyed me enough that I’m considering proposing a talk called “I Am Developer” to the next Brighton SEO in order to try to get to the bottom of this issue.

Onsite SEO

Optimizing for Search Bots

Fili Wiese / Slides

Fili is a former Google Search Quality Engineer, so he certainly knows his stuff. But this talk seemed a bit scattershot to me – it didn’t seem to have a particularly clear focus.

Advanced and Practical Structured Data with Schema.org

Alexis K Sanders / Slides

This was probably the talk I was looking forward to most. I’ve been dabbling in JSON-LD on a few sites recently and I’m keen to get deeper into to. Alexis didn’t disappoint – this was a great introduction to the subject and (unlike some other speakers) she wasn’t afraid to go deeper when it was justified.

Here first slide showed some JSON-LD and she asked us to spot the five errors in it. I’m disappointed to report that I only caught two of them.

Cut the Crap: Next Level Content Audits With Crawlers

Sam Marsden / Slides

This started well. A good crawling strategy is certainly important for auditing your site and ensuring that everything still works as expected. However, I was slightly put off by Sam’s insistence that a cloud-based crawling tool was an essential part of this strategy. Sam works for Deep Crawl who just happen to have a cloud-based crawling tool that they would love to sell you.

Conferences like this are at their best when the experts are sharing their knowledge with the audience without explicitly trying to sell their services. Sadly, this talk fell just on the wrong side of that line.

Lunch

Then it was lunchtime and my colleagues and I retired just around the corner to eat far too much pizza that was supplied by the nice people at PI Datametrics.

SERPs

Featured snippets: From then to now, volatility, and voice search

Rob Bucci / Slides

This was really interesting. Rob says that featured snippets are on the rise and had some interesting statistics that will help you get your pages into a featured snippet. He then went on to explain how featured are forming the basis of Google’s Voice Search – that is, if you ask Google Home or Google Assistant a question, the reply is very likely to be the featured snippet that you’d get in response to the same query on the Google Search Engine. This makes it an ever better idea to aim at getting your content into featured snippets.

From Black Friday to iPhones – how to rank for big terms on big days

Sam Robson / Slides

Sam works for Future Publishing, on their Tech Radar site. He had some interesting war stories about dealing with Google algorithm changes and coming out the other side with a stronger site that is well-placed to capitalise on big technical keywords.

[I can’t find his slides online. I’ll update this post if I find them.]

A Universal Strategy for Answer Engine Optimisation (beyond position 0)

Jason Barnard / Slides

This tied in really well with the other talks in  the session. Jason has good ideas about how to get Google to trust your site more by convincing Google that you are the most credible source for information on the topics you cover. He also talked a lot about the machine learning that Google are currently using and where that might lead in the future.

Reporting

I was at a bit of a loose end for the final session. Nothing really grabbed me. In  the end I just stayed in the same room I’d been in for the previous session. I’m glad I did.

How to report on SEO in 2018

Stephen Kenwright / Slides

All too often, I’ve seen companies who don’t really know how to report effectively on how successfully (or otherwise!) their web sites are performing. And that’s usually because they don’t know what metrics are important or useful to them. Stephen had some good ideas about identifying the best metrics to track and ensuring that the right numbers are seen by the right people.

Top GA customisations everyone should be using

Anna Lewis / Slides

Having following Stephen’s advice and chosen the metrics that you need to track, Anna can show you how to record those metrics and how to also capture other useful information. As a good example, she mentioned a client who was an amusement park. Alongside the usual kinds of metrics, they had also been able to track the weather conditions at the time someone visited the site and had used that data to corroborate ticket sales with the weather.

Anna seemed to be a big fan of Google Tag Manager which I had previously dismissed. Perhaps I need to revisit that.

The Math Behind Effective Reporting

Dana DiTomaso / Slides

And once you have all of your data squirrelled away in Google Analytics, you need a good tool to turn it into compelling and useful reports. Dana showed us how we could to that with Google Data Studio – another tool I need to investigate in more detail.

[I can’t find her slides online. I’ll update this post if I find them.]

Keynote

Live Google Webmasters Hangout

John Mueller & Aleyda Solis

Two things struck me while watching the keynote conversation between John Mueller and Aleyda Solis. Firstly, I though that Aleyda was the wrong person to be running the session. I know that Brighton SEO tries hard not to be the usual stuffy, corporate type of conference, but I thought her over-familiar and jokey style didn’t go well in a conversation with Google’s John Mueller.

Secondly, I had a bit of an epiphany about the SEO industry. All day, I’d been watching people trying to explain how to get your site to do well in Google (other search engines are, of course, available but, honestly, who cares about them?) but they’re doing so without any real knowledge of how the Mighty God of Search really works.

Oh, sure, Google gives us tools like Google Analytics which allow us so see how well we’re doing and Google Search Console which will give us clues about ways we might be doing better. But, ultimately, this whole industry is trying to understand the inner working of a company that tells us next to nothing.

This was really obvious in the conversation with John Mueller. Pretty much every question was answered with a variation on “well, I don’t think we’d talk publicly about the details of that algorithm” or “this is controlled by a variety of factors that will change frequently, so I don’t think it’s useful to list them”.

The industry is largely stumbling about in the dark. We can apply the scientific method – we propose a hypothesis, run experiments, measure the results, adjust our hypothesis and repeat. Sometimes we might get close to a consensus on how something works. But then (and this is where SEO differs from real science) Google change their algorithms and everything we thought we knew has now changed.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fascinating process to watch. And, to a lesser extent, to be involved in. And there’s a lot riding on getting the results right. But in many ways, it’s all ultimately futile.

Wow, that got dark quickly! I should finish by saying that, despite what I wrote above, Brighton SEO is a great conference. If you want more people to visit your web site, you should be interested in SEO. And if you’re interested in SEO, you should be at Brighton SEO.

See you at the next one – it’s on September 28th.

Categories
music

2017 in Gigs

New Year’s Eve seems about the best date for my review of the gigs I saw this year (I know I’m not seeing another today).

I saw 41 gigs in2017. That’s two more than in 2016 and a lot less than my average number (which is more like the high forties).

Let’s get the disappointments out of the way first.  Tanita Tikaram was just dull, as was Natalie Imbruglia (I waited to hear “Torn” and then left). Normally, Amanda Palmer gets an instant pass to the top ten list, but the album she recorded with Edward Ka-Spel wasn’t my cup of tea at all and the gig they played together promoting it was terrible. She played a few other shows in London over the year, but they were all on nights when I couldn’t be there. The Stone Roses at Wembley was all you’d expect it to be – overpriced and uninteresting. And I left the Magnetic Fields show at the interval. Oh, and for the first time ever, I did the same at an Icicle Works gig.

And here, in chronological order, are my favourite shows of the year.

  • Laura Marling at the Roundhouse. I see Laura Marling play whenever I can. She’s always just stunning. The Semper Femina tour wasn’t quite as impressive as the one for Short Movie. But it was still one of my best nights out this year.
  • HAIM at Islington Assembly Hall was a large-minute, fans-only, free gig which was filmed for a documentary to promote their new album. It was full of the false starts and repetition that nights like that often suffer from. But it had been years since I’d seen them and they are still as great as they ever were.
  • Belle and Sebastian at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. Belle and Sebastian always put on a great show and this was no exception. I was particularly happy that they played “Lazy Line Painter Jane” – which I’d never seen them do before. And the support, Honeyblood, are a band I’ll be looking out for in the future.
  • Kraftwerk at the Royal Albert Hall. It had been 25 years since I last saw Kraftwerk (on their The Mix tour). In the meantime, technology has really caught up with their vision of what a performance should be. This run of gigs probably had more of my friends in attendance than any other tour this year. All my gig-going friends seemed to go to one of the shows.
  • Kate Nash at the Shepherds Bush Empire. I saw Kate Nash twice this year. This was the second show I saw and it was only better than the Village Underground show because she was celebrating the tenth anniversary of the release of Made of Bricks and played the whole album.
  • Lorde at Alexandra Palace. Incredible to believe that Lorde is still only twenty-one. She’s like a force of nature. Melodrama was such an advance on Pure Heroine.  And this show was so much better than her previous tour (which was also great).
  • Radiophonic Workshop at the British Library. Something a bit different. A group of geriatrics playing the most futuristic music you’ll ever hear. They don’t play often, but try to catch them when you can.
  • Midge Ure at the Shepherds Bush Empire. This was basically Midge Ure playing Ultravox’s greatest hits. Which is enough to make me happy. And when you add Altered Images as support, it becomes an awesome night. Even the boorish Christians as the second support couldn’t spoil the evening.
  • Bananarama at the Hammersmith Apollo. This was a bit left field. And stupidly expensive. But it was worth every penny for the grin that was fixed to my face for the following three days. This was, hands-down, the most enjoyable gig I saw all year.
  • Wolf Alice at Alexandra Palace. I was late to appreciate Wolf Alice. I just failed to get a ticket for their previous tour where they played somewhere like The Forum. Ally Pally isn’t my favourite venue, but the band were on top form and having Sunflower Bean at support helped make this a great night.

And a few that fell just outside of the top ten.

I’ve seen and been very disappointed by the official current Yes line-up a couple of times, so it was good to see the “less-official” Yes featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman who were great. And who proved to me that if you’re singing Yes material, you need Jon Anderson as lead singer.

Sigur Rós at the Royal Festival Hall were great. And very loud.

The fact that St. Vincent didn’t make the top ten is a mark of how great this year’s gigs. Masseduction is a great album and the tour was fabulous.

Wildwood Kin are a band to look out for. Two sisters and their cousins playing modernist folk. One day (soon) it will seem astonishing that I got to see them somewhere as intimate as the Borderline.

I can’t believe that I haven’t mentioned Tegan & Sara, Adam Ant, St. Etienne, Amy Macdonald, Suzanne Vega, Dweezil Zappa, Billy Bragg, Penguin Cafe, The Unthanks or Kate Rusby – all of which put on great nights that sent me home smiling (and humming).

What am I already looking forward to in 2018? Beth Orton, Superorganism, members of the Art of Noise recreating In Visible Silence, Belle and Sebastian, Arcade Fire, Sunflower Bean, Tears for Fears, The The and King Crimson. It’s already looking like a great year for gigs. Perhaps I’ll see you at one.

What about you? What gigs did you enjoy in 2017?

 

 

 

 

Categories
life

When Smart Meters Aren’t

In a process that took ten years, from 1986 to 1996, the Conservative government privatised energy supply in the UK and turned it into a competitive marketplace. The British public resigned themselves to a lifetime of scouring pricing leaflets and frequently changing energy suppliers in order to get the best deal. This became simpler with the introduction of comparison sites like uSwitch and nowadays most switches can be completed online with very little effort on the part of the customer.

Of course, one of the crucial reasons why this works is that nothing actually changes on your premises. Your gas and electricity are still supplied through the same meters. The actual changeover is just a flick of a switch or a turn of a tap in a distribution centre miles from your house.

I’m a member of the Money Saving Expert’s Cheap Energy Club. This makes my life even easier. They know all about our energy usage and a couple of times a year I get an email from them suggesting that I could change a bit of money by switching to a different plan.

They also set up deals for their customers. They have enough clout that they can go to big energy suppliers and say “we’ll give you X,000 new customers if you can give them a good fixed deal on power”.

And that’s how I switched to British Gas in February 2016. I got a good fixed deal through the Cheap Energy Club.

The next innovation in British power supply was the recent introduction of smart meters. These are meters that can be read remotely by the suppliers, eliminating the need for meter readers. Because it’s automatic, the suppliers will read your meters far more frequently (daily, or even more often) giving customers a far better picture of their usage. You even get a little display device which communicates with the meter and gives minute by minute information about how much power you are using.

Last August I investigated getting a Smart Meter through British Gas. They came and fitted it and everything seemed to work well. All was well with the world.

Then, a couple of months ago, British Gas announced massive price hikes. This didn’t bother me at the time as I was on a fixed deal. But that deal was going to end in October – at which point my electricity was going to get very expensive.

A week or so later, I got an email from the Cheap Energy Club telling me what I already knew. But also suggesting a few alternative plans. I glanced through them and agreed with their suggestion of a fixed plan with Ovo. My power would go up in price – but by nowhere near as much as it would with British Gas. I clicked the relevant buttons and the switchover started.

Ovo started supplying my power this week and sent me an email asking for initial meter readings. I contacted them on Twitter, pointing out that I had smart meters, so there was no need for me to send them manual readings.

Their first reply was vaguely encouraging

But actually, that turned out to be untrue. The truth is that there are (currently) two versions of the smart meter system. Everyone who has had a smart meter installed up until now has been given a system called SMETS1. And SMETS1 meters can only be read remotely by the company who installed them. There’s a new version called SMETS2 which will be rolled out soon, which allows all companies to read the same meters. And there will be a SMETS1 upgrade at some point (starting late 2018 is the best estimate I’ve been able to get) which will bring the same feature to the older meters (and by “older”, I mean the ones that have been installed everywhere).

Of course, the SMETS1 meters can be used to supply power to customers of any company. But only working as dumb meters which the customers have to read manually. And, yes, I know this is very much a first world problem, but it would be nice if technology actually moved us forward!

I see this very much as a failure of regulation. The government have been in a real hurry to get all households in the UK on smart meters. At one point they wanted us all switched over by 2020. I understand that target has now been softened so that every household must be offered a new meter by 2020. But it seems that somewhere in the rush to make the meters available, the most obvious requirements have been dropped.

The power companies keep this all very quiet. The market for power supply in the UK isn’t growing particularly quickly, so they’re all desperate to grab each other’s customers. And they won’t tell us anything that would make us think twice about switching supplier.

Ovo will come out and fit new smart meters for me. And (like the original British Gas installation) it will be “free”. Of course, they aren’t giving anything away and customers are paying for these “free” installations in their power costs. It would be interesting to see how many households have had multiple smart meter installations.

Of course, if you’re switching to save money (as most of us are), then I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t switch if your smart meters will no longer be smart. But I’d suggest asking your new supplier if they can use your previous supplier’s smart meters. And making a loud “tut” sound when they say they can’t.

And when you’re offered new smart meters, don’t get them installed unless they are SMETS2.