Category Archives: Technology is cool

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Replacing Google Reader with Flipboard

Are you still mourning the loss of Google Reader? Still not found a good replacement for it? Rocking an iPhone or Android phone? Then I’ve got the app for you: Flipboard.

Flipboard was intended as a social media aggregator, allowing you to add streams from Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and et cetera. That meant my early experiments with Flipboard were doomed; I like my social media segregated rather than aggregated.

But when they announced the imminent doom of Google Reader I immediately thought of Flipboard. So many RSS readers relied on Google whereas I knew Flipboard did not. The work of a few minutes had Flipboard acting like a far superior version of Google Reader.

Adding Feeds

A screenshot from Flipboard.How a single feed looks in Flipboard.The search bar in Flipboard.

Start with the button in the top-right hand corner. On the home screen it’s that red button; the red disappears when you’re in a feed but it’s still there. Hit that and it will offer you a search bar. Use that bar to either search for the name of the blog (James T Kelly, perhaps?) or type in the blog’s URL (http:// and all, like this: http://www.jamestkelly.com/feed). Scroll through the search results until you find what you’re looking for. I find typing in the URL has better luck than searching by name. Tap the blog you want to add and a new tile will appear in the app. Each new feed gets its own tile. Not sure which blogs to add? Check out these 5 blogs every indie writer should read!

Read Pretty

RSS readers used to be bare-bones affairs, which was exactly what was needed when they first arrived. But we can afford ourselves more luxuries these days. Flipboard turns your blog roll into your own personal magazine. You can either tap each tile to read a single blog, or use the Top Stories tile to read an aggregate of all your blogs together.

Create Your Own Magazine

Flipboard has also introduced Magazines, a way of adding individual articles to a collection that can be viewed and subscribed to by anyone. I’ve been playing with it and even created my own Magazine, Writers, Right?. You can also create private Magazines to collect your favourite articles.

So I’m actually kind of glad they pulled the plug on Google Reader. What about you? Which service did you pick to replace Reader?

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Books Don’t Need Reinventing

I recently watched a fascinating presentation by Mark Waid called Reinventing Comics. If you like comics it’s worth a watch (I believe it’s a preview of the future), but today I’m writing about books. Because while comics might need reinventing, books do not.

A lot of the comments I read on this video said things like “now someone needs to do this for novels” and “when will this be done for all books?” I was surprised because it’s been tried and people are still trying.

Reinventing books is an old idea that isn’t gaining any traction.

Apple released software that makes it easy to create interactive ebooks with video, audio, multi-touch models and more. Booktrack lets you add effects and a soundtrack to ebooks. And now Socialbook wants to make reading a social experience, letting your friends scribble notes in the margins of your book, highlight portions, pull out quotes and even re-arrange the content.

But none of these gimmicks have revolutionised books which remain, largely, words on the page. And for one very simple reason:

Gimmicks are distractions from the narrative.

I downloaded the Charlie Brown’s Christmas app last year. I was all hopped up on Christmas chocolate and wanted to try an interactive book. And while it’s not an awful little app, all the interactive elements were just…naff.

•Voiceover? Switched off; I like reading, not being read to.
•Tap the pictures to make them move? Why? All they do is wiggle to a sound effect.
• Play the music along with Schroeder? All that does is remind me I’m no good at music.

And all of these things stopped the story from flowing and yanked me out of the narrative again and again. No-one likes being interrupted while they read, but in this case I had paid for the interruptions to be part and parcel of the book itself.

Trying to cram in interactivity and video and the social media isn’t reinventing books.

It’s creating a bastard of book and app, a Jack of all trades. It removes focus from the key element, the words, in favour of bells and whistles. But people who want bells and whistlea buy apps. And people who want words buy books.

So to the people who think that books need to enter the 21st Century, I have only this to say: keep all your bells and whistles. A good book needs only the words and a quiet place to read them in.

And letting your friends rearrange the content of your book? Are you high?

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Why Amazon Needs To Be More Like Facebook

Amazon’s review system is broken and open to abuse. Certain writers were posting damning reviews on competitors’ books and glowing reviews on their own. Others were paying strangers to leave reviews. And readers were swarming good books with bad reviews because they didn’t like what it had to say and wanted it to fail. It’s all bad voodoo and something needs to change. So Amazon decreed that no writer is permitted to review books in their own genre. But that punishes every writer for the sins of the few. And it doesn’t stop the swarming problem. So what are they to do?

Easy. Make Amazon more like Facebook.

Sounds strange? Not at all. There’s three good reasons for my cockamamie scheme.

1. Transparency

A major problem with Amazon reviews right now is the anonymity; anyone can create multiple accounts and hide behind a username. Obi1 can swarm a book and drag down its star rating. lukes88 can post fake reviews of his book. But Facebook demands your real name. And a picture. There’s nothing to hide behind.

2. Conversation

Furthermore such a system wouldn’t even require formal reviews. Each product page could collate conversations about the product. So sending a public message to a friend suggesting they check out a book pops up as a “review”. And though these people are strangers, a shopper can see someone making the effort to recommend the book. That’s a strong review in and of itself!

3. Judge and ye be judged too

Doing all of this will also mean that when I review a book you’re better equipped to judge me as well as my review. After all you can see my activity. You can see I’m a writer, for instance. You can also see that I have a hardcore devotion to Michael Jackson. And look, I’ve liked a page called “Vote down this Michael Jackson book”. My review probably isn’t legit…

If this all sounds like an extreme solution to the problem, it shouldn’t be. If readers can’t trust the reviews on Amazon then Amazon itself becomes viewed as unreliable as the reviews it allows to remain on its site. And the same applies to others; Goodreads, for instance, has suffered from swarming as well.

Trustworthy reviews are vital to any online book seller. Removing the anonymity and adding a social element can go a long way towards restoring them. And then I can review books again.

Would you like to see Amazon become more like Facebook? Or would you avoid that like a big, corporate plague? Please let me know; I’m interested to hear what people think!

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Buy an Ebook, Own an Ebook

I’m about to step in from a limb, open myself up to almost no criticism and pretty much snub controversy by stating the following: if you buy an ebook, you should own it.

I know, me with my crazy ideas. I’m not the only one who thinks so. In the wake of the news that Amazon wiped a Norwegian woman’s Kindle and denied her access to her paid-for ebooks, plenty of people have complained that we should own our ebooks. After all, Waterstones aren’t busting down your front door and stealing back your paperbacks. But this isn’t a one-off. In a move so beautiful it might collapse under its own irony, Amazon secretly deleted copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from hundreds of Kindles. You couldn’t write this stuff.

But I’m not writing this to complain or demand reform or justice or what-have-you. Amazon are a business. If we don’t like the way they do business, we can only vote with our wallets. The reason I’m writing this is to make a recommendation to you.

Download Calibre.

Calibre allows you to backup your ebooks to a computer. So if Amazon decide you’ve been naughty and wipes your Kindle, you have backups. You haven’t lost what you’ve legitimately paid for.

Calibre is also useful because you can convert ebooks into different formats. Kindles, for example, won’t let you read .epubs, the format Apple and Kobo and a lot others sell. But Calibre can convert an .epub into a .mobi which the Kindle can read. The conversion might violate some terms of service, however. (The ethics of those terms is for another day.) I’ve also heard that you can download some plugins that let Calibre strip out DRM. But, if they exist, that would definitely violate terms of service and I can’t recommend you do that.

But the backup thing? I can’t recommend that enough.

I’m still interested in hearing your thoughts on Amazon wiping Kindles, though. Are they stealing back paid-for property or are they within their rights?

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What Should Bloggers Do About The EU Cookie Law?

Not heard of the EU cookie law? Neither had I until this week. But any business based in the UK has until 26th May 2012 to start asking user’s permission before their site creates cookies. But what does this mean for bloggers who aren’t necessarily in control of the cookies their sites create?

Upon hearing about this new law I did a little research. I discovered that:

• the law doesn’t just apply to business sites; all websites need to be compliant;
• those websites need to ask a user’s permission before any cookies are created;
• WordPress, for example, creates cookies for comments, social sharing and so forth;
• Google Analytics, for example, creates cookies before the website even loads;
• there’s no off-switch for those cookies; bloggers can’t go cookie free.

It’s an ugly little picture, isn’t it? Blogging platforms create cookies whether we want them to or not and, if we want to use any analytics, some cookies will be created before we even have the chance to ask permission. With the ICO, who is responsible for enforcing this law in the UK, making it clear they can impose fines of up to £500,000 for non-compliance, you could forgive bloggers for being a little concerned.

In the words of the great Mr Douglas Adams: don’t panic.

Looking at the ICO guidelines, they seem to be taking a fairly calm approach to the new law. For instance, in respect of analytics cookies, the guidelines state:

Although the Information Commissioner cannot completely exclude the possibility of formal action in any area, it is highly unlikely that priority for any formal action would be given to focusing on uses of cookies where there is a low level of intrusiveness and risk of harm to individuals. Provided clear information is given about their activities we are highly unlikely to prioritise first party cookies used only for analytical purposes in any consideration of regulatory action.

And they also state:

The Information Commissioner does however recognise that currently many websites set cookies as soon as a user accesses the site. This makes it difficult to obtain consent before the cookie is set. Wherever possible the setting of cookies should be delayed until users have had the opportunity to understand what cookies are being used and make their choice. Where this is not possible at present websites should be able to demonstrate that they are doing as much as possible to reduce the amount of time before the user receives information about cookies and is provided with options. A key point here is ensuring that the information you provide is not just clear and comprehensive but also readily available.

This seems to suggest that a blogger could probably get away with their blog creating a Google Analytics or WordPress cookie before asking permission.

We should also remember that bloggers are not really the intended targets here. This law has been passed to stop things like the Facebook cookie that tracks your browsing even after you’ve logged out. As long as you’ve made a reasonable effort to comply with the legislation, the ICO probably won’t be coming down on you. In fact, they’ll probably never check our sites for compliance! And by the time they do, the platforms we rely on will have reacted. They’ll be making it possible to create all of those cookies after we’ve gained permission.

So after all the fascinating research, I took a few simple steps. I installed the EU Cookie Directive plugin which displays a small window asking permission to create cookies. I checked how well this worked by using the free cookie audit tool at CookieCert. I also created a small page explaining what kind of cookies are used on this site. I decided it would be best to be as open and honest as possible without overwhelming any casual reader. What do you think? Did I do a good job?

As for this legislation, I’d love to hear your take on it. Is it a good idea to seek permission to create cookies? Or are they so integral to the Internet that it’s akin to asking if we want to see the search bar every time we visit Google? And what action will you take on your own sites?

Update: The ICON have updated their guidelines to say that implied consent is now perfectly acceptable. This means it’s now permissible to have a notice to the effect that cookies are in effect on a site and that a user accepts this by continuing to use the site. This should relieve the worries of a lot of bloggers!

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Three Great WordPress Tweaks

The more observant of you may have noticed that things looked a little odd over the weekend. You may even have noticed that there’s no more annoying grey line in my header image. Or that my sidebar doesn’t disappear on a mobile device. Or that my Twitter widget doesn’t show replies (when it works). I hope you have because they had me scratching my head for ages! But those problems are solved at last and, to save anyone else’s scalp from unnecessary friction, I thought I’d share the secrets.

First you need a child theme

If you make changes to the coding of your theme, chances are strong that those changes could be wiped by an update. A child theme is a mini theme that takes all the looks from the main theme but allows you to fiddle to your hearts content. But don’t be lazy. I used the One-Click Child Theme plugin because it was quick and easy. I paid for that when WordPress decided to punish me for my laziness and eat it for lunch. Do it properly.

Got a grey line above your header image?

I thought I’d messed up my image dimensions but this is actually down to a little line of code in the style.css file. Open it and find the line that reads margin: 2em auto. Change that to margin: -.2em auto and kiss that grey line goodbye!

Twenty Eleven display problems on a mobile device?

The Twenty Eleven theme adapts itself to the width of the screen and will dump your sidebar(s) underneath your pages if it detects a small screen. You can stop this misbehaving by going into the header.php file and deleting the line including the text:

meta name=”viewport” content=”width=device-width”

This will mean your website will display on a mobile device just as it does on a computer.

Want to hide replies on the Twitter widget?

Nothing to do with WordPress or themes but this one drove me a little mad! I don’t like to sees replies in a Twitter widget; it’s like listening in on a conversation and it doesn’t tell you if the tweeter is worth following. But hiding replies isn’t an option in the Twitter widget, so you need to get clever.

When creating the widget on the Twitter site, you’ll need to copy some code and paste it into a text widget. Simply edit this text by inserting &exclude_replies=true after your Twitter username. (Using mine as an example, it should look like this:

}).render().setUser(‘realjtk&exclude_replies=true’).start();

And there you have it! I hope sharing that was helpful and, if any of it didn’t make sense, feel free to ask questions.

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5 Ways to Get More Twitter Followers

Twitter has over 100 million active users. That’s a lot of people and they all want more followers. So how do you stand out from the crowd? Do you need to go wild, wacky and winsome? No, but I think the following will stand you in good stead. It works on me!

Be Interesting

You need to provide great, useful content. Whether you create your own or aggregate others’ (properly credited, of course), providing me with content I want to consume is a sure-fire way of earning a follow.

Be Funny

If you’re not interesting you can always be funny. People like to laugh and they like (and follow) the people who bring the chuckles.

Have a good bio

Speaking for myself, no bio equals no follow. If you can’t be bothered with a bio, it’s not unfair to assume that you can’t be bothered with Twiiter in general. A good bio draws people in and gets them looking at your tweets.

Be Social

It is, after all, a social network. Reach out to people and engage them in conversation. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m on Twitter to meet new people and I think others are too. So engage with their tweets and they’ll probably engage back.

• Be Reasonable

If you haven’t tweeted in weeks, tweeple could be forgiven for thinking you’d abandoned the account. Of course if you tweet too much that’s just as off-putting. I unfollowed Stephen Fry (I know, blasphemy!) because he was drowning out everyone else in my feed and I got sick of seeing him. Don’t be that guy.

Now, if I can just practice what I preach I’ll be set! What do you think? Anything else a Twitter user should be doing to gain followers? Or did you stop reading as soon as I admitted to I following Stephen Fry?

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5 Things I’ve Learnt About WordPress Sites

The more observant of you will have noticed I’ve moved. No longer do I blog on a WordPress.com site, but on my own self-hosted website powered by WordPress.org! Admittedly, the place is still a little basic. I’m rocking an oh-so-original Twenty Eleven theme. But the basics are here and I’m looking forward to making this a place you’ll want to visit. If there’s anything you’d like to see, drop a comment!

But what you see here are the results of my efforts this weekend and I’ve already learnt quite a few things. In the spirit of warning anyone following a similar path to me, I present my findings to the board:

Don’t be a hero: I decided that it would be best that I install WordPress manually, using an FTP client and all sorts. I thought it would teach me a thing or two. It did. It taught me not to be an idiot and to use the one-click option my host provided. It was called Softaculous and it managed in two minutes what I couldn’t in sixty.
Get plugged in: There’s a lot of great plugins for WordPress and getting them sooner rather than later can make your life a lot easier. Trust me. I’d recommend Jetpack for a whole host of WordPress extras, Google Analytics for WordPress for a quick and easy install of Google Analytics and Google XML Sitemaps to make your site easier for Google to index.
Find your inner child: Creating a child theme is vital if you’re going to start customising a theme, as any updates will wipe your changes. Doing this looked a little tricky so I cheated; I used a plugin that did it for me. Gotta love those plugins!
Nothing doing: Nothing found for wp-login or wp-admin? When I got that error it was my theme causing the problem. I had to use an FTP client to change the name of the theme’s folder in wp-content/themes, which forced WordPress to default back to Twenty Eleven. That fixed it, and I deleted the offending theme.
Fitting in: The Twenty Eleven theme liked to display the side bar underneath my posts. This was because of a line of code in the header file. Making a copy of “header.php” and pasting into my child theme’s folder and then deleting solves the issue.

I’m still digging around so I’ll share any more tips I discover. Any you’d like to share? Let me know!

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Is Apple Looking to Get Into Self-Publishing?

It’s being reported that Apple are hosting an education-focused event on January 19th, and a fascinating quote has emerged over the last few days: “GarageBand for ebooks”.

What does that mean?

We know GarageBand enables mere mortals like you and I to make a professional sounding song, allowing us to record live instruments as well as adding loops and editing tools. But for ebooks? Whilst ebooks can be difficult to format, it seems unlikely Apple would be happy offering a formatting tool. It’s not whizzy and exciting enough for Apple. And, let’s face it, formatting a document is neither whizzy nor exciting.

It’s far more likely that this will be an app for creating interactive ebooks. Interactive ebooks can range from children’s picture books with narration, sound and touch elements to adult books that incorporate sound and video. The iPad is a perfect platform for such books and could help Apple challenge Amazon for dominance of the self-publishing market.

What does this mean for writers and readers? Well, up until now, writers who wanted an interactive ebook would have to find and hire a developer to do all the work for them. But if they can buy an application from Apple that makes it easy to do it themselves, they can create that ebook for a fraction of the cost. So more creators can create the ebook of their dreams. And for readers? Just as with more traditional ebooks, readers will have the opportunity to enjoy a greater variety of books and often at a lower cost than those with expensive developers behind them.

Of course, this is all conjecture at this stage. But Apple have a golden opportunity to challenge Amazon’s dominance of the self-publishing market. Here’s hoping they take it.

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Hands-on with the Kindle 4

So amongst the usual stack of books I received this Christmas was a shiny new Kindle 4. I had reservations over ereaders for a long time and few who know me thought I would ever own, let alone enjoy, one. But were they right?

No.

I love my Kindle. It’s fab. Here’s why:

• It’s like reading a book; e-ink really is as good as the printed page. There’s no glare, no eyestrain, no headaches. Brilliant.

• It weighs less than a book; War and Peace will no longer break your wrists.

• It’s not a book; I don’t have to worry about breaking the spine (I’m the sort of person who makes a sound of agony when I see someone breaking the spine of a book. I figure it’s my way of helping the voiceless book express its pain.) It also means I can read with one hand and still turn the pages, allowing me to multi-task.

Downsides? I won’t lie, there are some. It is, of course, never going to be the same as reading a real book (for which I have a true love). If the book has a great cover, for instance, you don’t get to see it when you pick it up (this also means you can’t show off the oh-so-clever book you’re reading to your fellow commuters). You can’t flip back a hundred pages or so; flicking the pages involves finding a location (how the hell do I know what location the dining room scene was at?), and the real page numbers mean nothing on an ereader. And it’s a little hard to get attached to a digital file in the same way as a physical book. Although some might say I could do with a little less attachment to books.

But then an ereader shouldn’t be seen as a replacement for books any more than mp3s were a replacement for CDs. It’s an enhancement, and I’m thrilled to be able to expand my reading experience with a new tool.

A few tips for anyone thinking of picking up the Kindle 4:

• Registering is no picnic; the Kindle decided my username and password weren’t valid and forced me to register on the Amazon website using the serial number. If you need this, you can find it in Device Info, under Settings.

• The onscreen keyboard is pointless; you’ll use it if it’s an absolute necessity only. This makes buying ebooks on the Kindle itself a chore. I recommend using your computer or smartphone. If you’ve not got one or you want to buy books on the Kindle, pay extra for the Kindle Keyboard.

• The Kindle ships with a USB cable only. This means you can only charge it from your computer out of the box. If you want to charge it from a wall socket you’ll need to buy an adapter. You can use any USB adapter, though. I use the one for my iPhone.