Saturday, February 26, 2011

Free Web Templates

I'm not a web site designer. I willingly tell people that I can't design a decent looking website to save myself and happily offer several reference sites to prove this claim. My strengths lie elsewhere, and I feel we should largely stick to our strengths. I've seen several badly broken websites where excellent web designers showed they were even worse at database programming than I am at graphic design. There are exceptions, but generally the better you are at one of graphic design or database development, the worse you are at the other.

I was browsing around for free web templates today. These are a wonderful resource, someone's already done the work to make a site look good and I just need to plug in the content or content generation. Typically they want to be paid for their work with a link back to their for-money web design business, I don't have a problem with this, I obviously like their work enough to use it and giving them a plug is not a problem. The free templates usually aren't as good as the bespoke ones they offer, but they're good enough for my purposes without paying hundreds or thousands of dollars for a unique design.

Today I came across this page of free web design company templates and cracked up. As I'm not a web designer, I have no problems using someone else's design on my sites. The website of a web designer should be a canvas for the best work they can do, a place to show off their skills. A web designer who gets someone else to design his or her own website is a problem though:
  • Are they actually not any good at design?
  • Don't they trust their own design ability?
  • Do they really think that a free and so middle quality template sells their abilities?
But what's more, the terms of the free design means that they need to give a link back to the designer in their page footer, so either:
  • They're telling anyone reading to the bottom of the page what they think of their own abilities, or
  • They're planning to violate the licence by removing the required link.
Would you really want to do business with someone who matches either of these?

Christchurch Earthquake Community Response

A dedicated volunteer team of Internet people, web masters, programmers, and computer capable helpers have built the New Zealand Christchurch Earthquake Community Response site to coordinate help efforts.

Anyone who needs help because of the earthquake or who can offer help should go there.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Headless Chickens of the Apocalypse

Yep, that's me too. In the wake of the 22 February earthquake I officially nominate myself as a headless chicken of the apocalypse

For the benefit of archaeologists reading this in 1,000 years time, it's now 2 days since a 6.3 magnitude earthquake went off under Christchurch, killing at least 75 people (possibly as many as 300), demolishing buildings and destroying the water supply of NZ's second largest city.

On Monday, like many New Zealanders, I watched the continuous TV coverage in stunned silence. On Tuesday, along with thousands of others I asked myself "What can I do to help?". I can't do much, but I do have internet assets so I decided I could make a list of available services. Emergency services, contact services, etc. I reasoned it shouldn't require much infrastructure so I threw up a page on my personal blog. I then discovered that there are a lot of people out there creating internet resources to help and there is quite a bit of duplication. I don't want to pick winners so I listed everything I found. Eventually the page grew to the point where the blogger editior was unhappy with the nested blockquote / bulletpoint format I chose and started grinding to a halt.

Then I had my headless chicken moment. "I'll start a new blog" I said. I was alone, so nobody said "No, you fool, there are already enough blogs" so my Christchurch Earthquake Resources Blog was born. I placed it on a domain name I already had and made it with Wordpress. Why Wordpress? I don't know how to use wordpress. Why even a blog? I'm building a directory ... in retrospect I think it's because I already had a single blog page.

I worked on this for a couple of hours til around midnight & went to bed. This morning when I woke up I was a bit more logical and said "Julia, you make directories. You've got 9 of them, this is a collection of links, why not make a directory?" so 5 minutes later I had my Christchurch Earthquake Resources Links Directory set up and 10 minutes after that I had the links duplicated. I now have the blog page, the blog and the directory ... I think I'll leave them all up for now until I work out how to glue my head back on.

On the plus side, I now have a useful list of resources for peole needing help with canterbury or wanting to offer help. The red cross website has been overloaded since the earthquake. A posting of mine about this found someone who has plenty of bandwidth and is now trying to contact them to offer help (Their phones are overloaded too).

 The moral of this story, are
  1. To help, pick something you actually know how to do
  2. Don't rush in before you're sure it's the best thing you can do
  3. Don't unnecessarily duplicate other people' efforts. Check sites like mine first and try googling. This is so new that the search engines may not have caught up, but at least try.
  4. Do tell me & others with similar lists about your sites
  5. Do co-ordinate with others who can help.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Placebo effect works on real medicine too

I remember an old TV comedy where a character said she is such a bad hypochondriac that the doctor has prescribed broad spectrum placebos. I was reminded of this today when I read this article in New Scientist. Quote:
"Before you pop that painkiller, you might want to focus on how much better you'll feel afterwards. Positive thinking could double your pain relief."
Why was anyone surprised? Tell people they are getting a powerful drug but give them a sugar pill and some people will get better as a result. This is the placebo effect, it's a real effect, it works.

So now, we find that placebo effect + real medicine is better than either real medicine or placebo effect on their own. I'm not surprised. In the world of real medicines you can get a drug-drug interaction, for example an antacid will affect the efficiency of blood thinning drugs. What would be interesting to discover a drug where the placebo effect has a negative effect on the efficiency of the real drug ... a med that only works when you don't know you are getting it. Would that surprise me? Probably not, but it would be cool to know one exists.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Hone Flies Again

There's a huge fuss on at the moment about Maori Party MP Hone Harawira. He's been suspended from the party caucus and there's apparently a process that will decide if he will be expelled from the party. The mainstream media are baying for blood, the NZ Herald editorial "Maori Party should cut Harawira loose" while the Gisborne Herald printed a letter saying "Harawira not keeping to Maori values"

Fifteen months ago there was another big fuss over intemperate and allegedly racist language from Hone Harawira. At the time I said
"Hone Harawira is quite safe, as long as his support remains a lot less than theirs, Sharples and Turia won't touch him as they need him, or someone so like him to make no difference appeal to the minority segment of Maoridom he holds for the party. They'll make tut-tutting noises, but they are both to clever to alienate him or his electorate."

I'm going to make the same prediction today. This is an election year, like all parties, the Maori party, need to attract as much attention as they can and they need to reconnect with their electorate. After two years in the governing coalition the poorer among in society, including the poorer among the Maori, are feeling disadvantaged and they need to feel that continuing to support the Maori Party is in their best interests. The middle class Maori electorate can see that the Maori party has delivered for them, but this has been a hard two years for the working class and unemployed.

What does Hone say about all this? In his blog on the issue he says
"I know I don’t have all the answers. I know my colleagues have just as much to offer as I do, but I also know that our people are crying out for us to reconnect with them, with their lives, with their situations and with their hopes and dreams."
You're right there Hone, your party needs you to connect with the Maori radicals and keep their vote for your party and your party needs you, or someone like you, to raise your party's public image. Meanwhile Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia will continue to connect with their parts of the Maori Electorate. Every time you and they have robust discussion in public you get press and TV coverage that the other small parties aren't getting and you raise your party's public profile.

Finally I'd like you to consider that Hone's mother was a founder member of protest Ngā Tamatoa in the early 1970s and has been a Maori activist since at least that long ago. Hone has been an activist since at least 1979 and says "When people refuse to do what's right, at the end of the day you step in, do what you've got to do." He wasn't some unknown, the Maori Party selected him as a candidate knowing full well what he believes and what he stands for. It would be hypocritical of them to turn around and say that he doesn't fit in the party he helped bring into government.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Oyster death hysteria

"Oysters being wiped out around the world" The Herald headlined on Monday "Wild oysters are now 'functionally extinct' in many places where they were once plentiful. More than 85 per cent of their reefs have been lost through overfishing, a study says." More...

Of course things aren't always what they seem. Note the "In many places", then read to the bottom and discover on the very last line that the article is a re-print of an Independent (English Newspaper) article.

Tuesday they followed up with "Bluff oysters defy trend towards extinction, says industry" a genuine local article with NZ details. This time they make it clear that they are talking New Zealand. Would have been good if they made that clear in the original article.

There's nothing wrong with reporting that overseas species are threatened, but please make it clear at the top of the article that this is what you are talking about.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

O tempora o mores; Oh Times, Oh Daily Mirror

Until a very few years ago the professional news media: owners, editors, and journalists had a huge power to limit the information that was available to the ordinary person. If any step in the chain didn't consider a piece of information was "fit to print" the ordinary person never got to hear about it. More subtly the professional news media had the ability to slant the news according to their prejudices (as we all do) but unlike today the other slant often didn't get a chance to get out.

In the 1940s and to an extent the 1950s Britain (in reality England) had the largest empire the world had ever seen and considered the world to be their oyster. The ordinary Briton was regaled by tales of the colonised people, admittedly not a very nice picture of them, but a picture none-the less.

We left Britain in 1959 when I was under 2. In the mid 1970s my father took me & my younger brother back to Britain to meet the relatives and see the home land. He was socked by how insular the British press and local TV news had become. In retrospect, the loss of empire and the adjustments to being a part of Europe had simply changed the views the news media chose to present. For the locals this had been a gradual change, for Dad Britain was frozen in his mind at 1959 and it was a sudden wrench to bring his world view forward 25 years in a couple of weeks.

New Zealand media have always been focused on the world. We know we're a small and relatively unimportant part of the world and so our press has always covered events in England, USA, Western Europe and Australia very well. In recent years it has expanded its coverage of Asia and Africa.

The United States is an interesting case. Despite being the strongest nation on Earth militarily and first or second economically, they have retained an incredibly insular media, and most people in the United States are woefully ignorant of the world outside their country; and what they do know is horrifically slanted by the views constantly trumpeted by their news media. Americans are no more stupid than any other nation, and if given better and more honest coverage of the world would be much better able to use their democracy to make far better choices. The keeping of them in ignorance by big media is almost a crime.

Also in today's world I can choose where I take my news from. 25 years ago I had a choice of 2 newspapers; today I can read the on-line version of any newspaper on earth. If I want an English daily I can read it, if I want a US paper I can read it, I can read the Chinese government news ... typically I don't but I have that freedom. I can choose the slant I want.

Things are changing though, and what is changing it is that big media is losing control. In 1975 it was incredibly expensive to have a voice. Today a home PC and Internet connection and anyone can. I'm currently "following" an obscure Icelandic politician on twitter and commenting on world events. Sure, there are a huge number of differences between me and a professional journalist, but I have the freedom to make my voice heard and an increasing number of independent voices are out there being read. So where is the journalist today? At least in theory I'm free to be as slanted as I like while journalists are supposed to give "unbiased reporting" ... the reality is both the journalist and myself can only report what our internal filters let us see ... I think I'm fairly open about my biases and I would like to see big media and professional journalists come out about their biases and prejudices, so when we read their words we have the ability to know where they are coming from.

I'm picking that the future of the professional journalist is going to be interesting. The independent commentators and amateur reporters in places like Wikinews are going to be increasingly pressuring them and they are going to adapt to survive. I can see a few futures that don't really work out. I'm sure that the professional journalist will survive, but I don't have a good handle on what that survival will mean ... it could be raw news feed with an ability to get to the right place at the right time ... it could be the ability to conduct interesting penetrating interviews with the key people ... it could be a slanted journalism that would make today's US media look unbiased ... it may well be something else.

Whatever professional journalists become, they won't have the ability to filter information in the way that their predecessors in the 1970s and earlier enjoyed. 

[The title of this blog entry is a quote from Michael Flanders, who in turn was quoting Cicero.]

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Web Directories

I'm taking time out from braying at the moon to be a little self serving.

When it first started, the web was pretty small and either academics or fairly geeky hobbyists. They built links between their pages based on webs of interests. People would find interesting sites based shared interests. The web grew, Yahoo came along and built a massive directory, then the search engines arose.

Today web directories are nowhere near as important as they used to be, but some still have a reasonable amount of influence. I've applied to list this blog on a few of the more important and have created this post to share some of the love back at them.

My directories

First I should mention my own directories.
Search New Zealand
Finding New Zealand on the web
Search Me New Zealand
Another list of New Zealand websites
Interesting New Zealand web sites

General Directories


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