Come on BBC, that's just lame!

Documentary archive has moved

I got this message in my feed reader this morning. It seems the BBC have moved the RSS feed for the "Documentary Archive" podcasts. The lame thing is, with a single line in their web server config, they could make this move completely seamless. Worse yet, when you follow that link there's nothing on the page called "Documentary Archive". Duh!

Wow, doesn't online advertising suck?

I haven't seen online ads since about 1995, when HotWired first pioneered annoying, animated banners that detracted from the content. Initially I was using hacks like hosts files and the like, then I started using Craig's Squid-based blocker until these days I use a combination of Adblock Plus, Filterset.G and some Greasemonkey scripts to block some of the more annoying inline ads. Any time an ad gets around these filters, I quickly squish it because I've got used to viewing content without distracting, annoying crap flashing near what I'm trying to read.

Now I'm on the other side of the fence, and we're advertising through some of these ad networks and I've had to test view some of it. First of all, I'm staggered at how intrusive they've become. On some sites like NineMSN, they overlay animations over the actual content! Unbelievable and I'm amazed anyone uses sites that do that kind of thing. Mainstream sites still even use pop-ups and pop-under crap?!?!? I can't believe audiences don't go out of their way to work out how to block all this.

It's quite remarkable how useless the ads are in delivering a valuable audience. I guess it's not particularly surprising. If you're reading about the cyclone relief effort in Burma, you're hardly going to click on an advert for, say, a car. It's a drive-by impression, with similar brand-building impact to a billboard or a display ad in a newspaper.

What's more, the publishers don't help themselves by even further devaluing their impressions. Fairfax sites reload every five minutes, so if someone walks away from their computer, it happily counts impressions with nobody home to see it. That makes me very suspicious of their impression counts. I can't believe the publishers could be so stupid. Google changed the nature of this business by delivering benefits for everyone: advertisers and advertisees, which is why they're make kongbucks. Seems the dead tree purveyors, and those apeing them, haven't worked that out.

So apart from a very cheap (and it would want to be, given the publishers' efforts to devalue the product) brand building exercise, I don't really see the point of display advertising on content sites. It's generally not that relevant, not particularly targetted, and doesn't deliver.

Search engine marketing, however, is gold. I don't filter out ads next to Google searches because they're often actually what I want! If you type in "Marrickville plumber", the ads actually show better results for local plumbers than the search engine results. Everyone wins! If someone clicks on your ad, they're actually very likely to be wanting what you're selling. But it seems the publishers don't understand that to be successful, they need to find a way to make their advertisers successful.

Finally, we're seeing some rather nasty behaviour. The ad network we're using is reporting about 30% more clickthroughs (as recorded by the publishers) than we're seeing actually arrive at the landing page. They claim this is a fairly normal rate. What's going on here? Click fraud?

Disable Same Origin Policy: JavaScript

The Same origin policy ensures that your browser won't load files from sources other than the original source of the loading file. It's vital to help prevent cross-site scripting attacks, but a bit annoying when you're working to draft AJAX responses.

One way around this is to run a web server on your local machine. There's lots of circumstances where this isn't ideal though, such as on an underpowered Windows piece of crap like I use at work.

Fortunately, Firefox has an option that helps get around this. I didn't find it when searching for "Disable same origin policy", so hopefully this blog post will help future seekers.

The Firefox option security.fileuri.strict_origin_policy allows local files to bypass the same origin policy. Yay!

Goodbye eBay

I've used eBay for a very long time. Since it was first launched in Australia, I think. They had got the balance between buyers and sellers right. Recent changes of policy have forced me to think about whether or not I'll use it in future. I've decided that I won't.

They now require that you offer Paypal as a payment option, and will soon make it the only payment option. Paypal is not a bank, so your money is not guaranteed against failure of the institution. Paypal's dispute resolution procedures are opaque and poorly-implemented. Getting Paypal to connect with your bank account is a tedious, multi-day process that often fails. I refuse to use Paypal.

The recent changes to the feedback system also, I believe, skew things in favour of sellers too far.

Online auctions are really useful ways to buy and sell stuff, and you can often pick up real bargains. Conversely, when selling some people will end up paying RRP or more for used goods, which makes it great if you're selling. Now to find an alternative venue.

Any suggestions? I've found OZtion a bit crap.

Ban this filth!

Anne Geddes kiddy porn

It seems according to Hetty Johnson's version of "community standards" that any photograph of a person under the age of 18 in anything more revealing than a full burka is pornography. Anne Geddes, watch out!

The people who are sick are those who can't see a naked body in anything other than a sexual context. That's just weird and twisted. It's the Hetty Johnsons of this world who need help.

Disappointingly, our prime minister weighed in with his opinion without having seen the images themselves. He doesn't know a lot about art, but clearly he knows what isn't art.

Tools to stich photos

Map
of existing land use in the County of Cumberland 1945

A very helpful man from the Critical Mass list took a bunch of photos of a map I've been hunting for. The map is Map of the County of Cumberland showing Interim Plan No.2, 1947 from the NSW State Records. I want this map because it demonstrate's how the RTA (then DMR) has been hell-bent on implementing this ancient plan, which was conceived as Sydney's answer to LA's freeway network, before LA realised you can't build your way out of traffic congestion, which is something the RTA hasn't realised yet either.

So he's taken a big swag of photos with a digital camera of this very large canvas-backed map. Of course all the photos are at different angles, with different light and with differing perspectives. I need to stitch these together.

Hunting around online, most of the tools seem to be designed to stitch together linear panoramas, taken from the same vantage point and with very similar perspectives. Not useful for this job.

So, lazyweb, any ideas on the best approach?

PS: The photos are already in the public domain, and my stitched-together version will also be.

Bing Lee pricing is very strange

So I want to buy a heater and search for its model number to find who sells it. Last week Bing Lee were showing it for $850 before it mysteriously changed to $1,095 early this week. I just called the store to find out the real price and it's $845. WTF?

Why would they put a price that seems designed to turn you off buying it on the site? If I hadn't seen the cheaper price a week ago, I would have looked elsewhere to buy it.

A friend of mine bought a Rinnai heater and part of the reason she bought that one was the fixed price, Apple style, with no discounting. At least then you know what you should pay.

Competition policy isn't that hard

Politicans seem to have been constantly making a hash of competition policy in Australia. The idea behind such policy is to smooth the way of competition, and allow markets to improve the lot of consumers. It's pretty simple stuff, but in many markets in Australia, there's very little competition.

Take, for example, private health insurance. If you earn more than a certain amount, you're effecively forced to have it. So you want to find out which plan suits your needs, but it's almost impossible to work that out. Health insurers use all kinds of sneaky tricks to exclude certain benefits, restrict you to specific care providers and make it difficult to claim. Sneaky tricks like allowing private doctors to decide, case-by-case, whether they'll work with your insurer or not mean it's impossible to make an informed decision when you're choosing a policy.

It doesn't have to be like this. What's needed is for the government to set a common set of criteria that companies operating in the market must disclose to enable direct comparisons. The former government had a half-hearted stab at this with private health insurance, offering a database of available policies. But because it doesn't cover the sneaky tricks, it's virtually useless.

This is an approach that could be taken across industries. I work for a telco and see the marketplace swamped with conflicting offers using sneaky fine print to con consumers into thinking they're getting a good deal, when of course they aren't. The offers change constantly, with some providers offering genuinely good deals to build market share, before switching to sneakier deals that aren't anything like as good.

This means that comparison services like Choice really can't offer simple advice. Instead, consumers are left to try and make up their mind without adequate information.

Common criteria for comparison

The ACCC should be empowered to act in markets that aren't working. They should be able to direct industries to come up with their own common criteria for comparing products, and force them to disclose the information in a machine-readable form with an open-access license, which will enable the data to sliced and diced to help consumers make informed choices. Even better, industries where online billing is the norm should be forced to allow consumers to extract their bill data in a standard format, so they can upload it to comparison sites and be recommended the best offers based on past usage.

Coming up with common criteria would be hard, there's no doubt, and you can just imagine the cries of "stifle innovative offers" from the industries. That's the cry of people scared of competition. With a decent review mechanism, new pricing models could be easioly incorporated into the standards.

Easing the switch

The other are that will improve competition is easing switching between providers. This can be applied in just about every market. Banks are likely to be forced to make switching accounts easier, with direct debits carried across. The big ones are screaming about it, because they like their cosy little lock-in on consumers. If they're screaming, the policy must be doing something right.

Other areas that desperately need work include the telecommunications sector. To switch ADSL1 or ADSL2+ providers can be incredibly complex. To do it smoothly, both providers need to have signed up for the "fast churn" process, and there's a different agreement for ADSL1 and ADSL2+. Telstra, of course, haven't signed up for ADSL2+, which means consumers wishing to transfer from Telstra ADSL2+ can be without their internet connection for weeks when switching providers.

The solution here is simple: force all providers to support a fast churn mechanism. If they don't want to, it's clear they fear competition. What other reason could there be?

A war of attrition with whitefly

Yellow sticky traps

We've had an infestation of whitefly on our herbs and lettuces. Absolutely smothering them. They've killed off the purslane, and they're retarding growth on all the rest. Little buggers.

I tried the brew described here of garlic, oil and soap. It seemed to work for a couple of days, but then they came back stronger than ever. Now I'm trying these yellow sticky traps. They certainly seem to be catching the bugs, but whether it'll make a dent I'm not sure. Might try combining the two techniques.

These sticky traps are really just glossy yellow cardboard with honey or some kind of sticky sugar syrup on them, so they wouldn't be hard to make. In fact, here's a howto for the project.