Category Archives: technology

Beware the guest blog post invitation

So, this is basically just a heads-up about something that happened a while back. I could only find one or two other posts about this online, so I thought I’d write it up in case it helped anyone else. If you don’t manage a blog or website, this might not be very relevant for you – but you might find it interesting anyway.

Last September I got an email from someone asking if they could do a “guest post” on my blog. Naturally, I was very excited! The idea of someone thinking my blog was interesting enough that they’d want to contribute themselves was really cool. It was the first time someone had been in touch, and it felt like a thrilling opportunity to get some good exposure. But something was amiss.

For starters, they hadn’t used my name in the email. Oh well, that’s understandable. People are pretty busy, and maybe we’ve got past the point of needing to use, like, introductions in emails and things. Straight to business, that’s fine with me.

But then, thinking about this, I also noticed they hadn’t referenced anything to do with me or my blog. Not even like “I saw your post about x“. Also the content they were suggesting didn’t seem a natural fit for my site. I write essays about Shrek and the Simpsons, under the general umbrella of what I call “cultural artifacts”. A blog about identity theft didn’t seem super relevant to my audience.

The author was from a site called culturecoverage.com. Checking out the site, the content there seems harmless enough. Nothing very different or exciting, but it was a real website that had real writers. What was going on?

Suspicious, I checked out the example blog posts in the email. They all seemed above board. Pretty generic filler content you’d get on any entry-level blog about technology. If this was some kind of scam, I couldn’t see the end game.

So instead, I Googled to see where this blogger had already written reviews as a guest on other people’s sites. It turned out quite a few people had taken the blogger up on their invitation, enthusiastically introducing them, seemingly as thrilled as I was to have someone offering to come and provide some content on their site.

And, again, the blogs seemed pretty innocuous. They were things like:

  • Top 6 Anime Cons to Visit Around the World
  • 5 Low-Cost Apps to Make Any Artist’s Life Easier
  • Top 5 Under the Radar Animes to Binge On

So maybe I was wrong to be suspicious? But then I noticed something even weirder. Take a look at these screenshots from the above guest blogs:

They have one thing in common: they all make references to VPN technology. Yes, every single one found some way to tie VPNs into the topic. Very strange!

So I looked up another guest post by the same author: Great Ways to Find Free E-books. And yep, there was yet another reference to VPNs there too.

Not only that, they all shared the same link to the same review site. I’m not going to put the link here (you’ll see why), but it seemed very strange to me. The author was a writer for culturecoverage.com but the linked site was a technology blog, and specifically a page on that site that reviewed VPNs.

Thus the chain looked a bit like this:

VPN Review site > Linked to in a guest post > By a writer for Culture Coverage > On other people’s blogs as a guest

It seems obvious then that the CC writer was trying to put the VPN review link into as many blogs as possible, but camouflaging them within longer content pieces on other topics. Hence the pretty random appearances of VPN mentions in otherwise unrelated guest blog posts.

Obviously this seems pretty ethically dubious. Nothing in the original guest blog post invitation mentioned including links to the VPN review page. It’s essentially an online content trojan horse. Which I think is bad.

Adding links to blog posts is a whole thing too. Last July I got this email:

Adding a link to an article for a “reasonable fee”? That seemed insane. I didn’t take them up on the offer for two reasons: 1) I have a lot of integrity, 2) They linked to a category, rather than an actual article, which indicates to me they just automatically detected the link and somehow sent this email (although they punctuated cookywook wrong, which seems like it could only be a human error to me).

Anyway, back to the links. From what I can gather, the idea behind this… marketing approach (I’m not calling it a scam, although I consider it pretty scammy), is that Google ranks your site based on lots of things, including how many other places link to it. The idea being that if your site is referenced on lots of other sites, it’s likely to be a reasonable authority.

So, if you can stuff your link into as many unrelated sites as possible, it could in theory be possible to ‘trick’ Google into ranking your site more highly than it deserves. That’s why you’ll get people offering to pay you to include a link, or writing these ‘guest’ blog posts. Pretty clever! But also pretty evil.

Clearly then in this case the site wanted to be amongst the top results for a search term like “VPN review” which I would imagine is a very competitive space. They made a deal with this blogger to trojan horse in 3rd-party links via guest content on blogs. The blogger presumably gets some kind of commission, and the poor blog owner gets a pretty low-quality blog post with zero financial recompense. Cheeky!

I emailed the blogger back.

I was impressed to get an actual reply, I wasn’t even 100% the blogger was a real human. I don’t buy their reply though. But at least I didn’t get burned.

In any case, this kind of approach towards gaming SEO is pretty strongly against Google Guidelines. The algorithms aren’t perfect, but they mostly aim to make sure the best content wins, and that’s what blog owners should focus on.

Good site owners don’t lie about the content on their site or others, which is why I only recommend TunnelBear for all your VPN needs. It’s fast, easy to setup, and works every time. Try TunnelBear today!

Review: Google Cardboard / Daydream

The future of reality is here! And it’s… virtual?

For a while now, everyone has been saying that VR is the next big thing. Or maybe AR is the next big thing. Or maybe AI is the next big thing. Or maybe AI AR VR is the next big thing. Who knows?

The latest Gartner Hype Cycle put VR in the Slope of Enlightenment, meaning it’s past the initial hype stage and is slowly becoming an established technology. That sounds about right to me.

The problem with VR is that to do it properly is super expensive. An HTC Vive will currently set you back a solid £600, and – worse still – you probably don’t have enough space in your rabbit hutch of a flat to actually set the thing up properly.

So when I decided to check out Virtual Reality, I didn’t go for the Vive, or the Oculus Rift, or the Playstation VR thing. I was interested in a product that Google were offering. A £15 VR headset made out of cardboard.

This is the Google Cardboard, and it’s like the cutest thing ever. Basically just two lenses in a cardboard case, it’s an entry-level solution to getting a foot onto the VR ladder. The actual VR magic is all done on your phone, hence the price point, and it actually works surprisingly well.

Using your phone, rather than a high-spec PC or console, does come with certain limitations though. You can’t do much in the way of shooting zombies in VR or playing that fun looking Rick and Morty VR game. The cardboard is much more about virtual experiences, so it’s great for VR Street View, 360 degree YouTube videos, and Paul McCartney.

It’s a great way to sample what all the fuss about VR is. And it’s incredible that you can check it out for as low as four or five pounds. All you need is a supported phone to run the thing, and off you go.

Which brings me to the other VR headset from Google: the Daydream.

I wasn’t going to get a Daydream initially, as I already had the Google Cardboard. But then I bought the original Google Pixel, which was marketed as a VR-ready phone and even came with a free Google Daydream (RRP £99). So yeah, of course I got one.

And it’s basically a more comfortable version of the Google Cardboard. It doesn’t do anything more really, other than a few quality of life tweaks. The headstrap is super useful to stop the damn thing falling off your head, the build quality is much better and prevents light from seeping in, and it’s generally more comfortable to wear for extended periods of time.

It also comes with a little controller accessory. This connects to your phone via Bluetooth and is used to point at things, select options on-screen, and so on. It’s a huge help and just makes navigating the menus so much easier. But feature-wise, it’s pretty much the same as the Cardboard. It still uses your phone for the actual VR, which by the way is a massive massive battery drainer and will make your phone feel hotter than the sun.

I don’t find myself using the Daydream that much at the moment. When I first got it, I often got it out to experience the novelty of VR. And if people come round, it’s a good talking point. There are also some good games you can play on it like the bomb defusing party game Keep Talking & Nobody Explodes. But there’s no must-have killer app. Yet.

SO, if you’re interested in VR but don’t wanna drop the big money, check out a Google Cardboard. The Daydream probably isn’t worth it at the £99 mark for what you get. Or if you’re ready to take the full plunge maybe go and buy a Vive or something and invite me round to come play it!

Review: thegrid.io

Making a website is hard. That’s why I use Squarespace for mine. I’ve tried learning how to do it myself before, and the results were…. ugly.

But what if there was another way? Not having to learn to do it yourself, but not sticking to a boring old template either? In this age of AI assistants and machine learning, shouldn’t websites be able to design themselves in interesting and unique ways? Well, that’s exactly what thegrid.io offers.

When I first heard about The Grid, way back in October 2014, I signed up right away. I paid like £50 or something to be a ‘founding member’, which meant having early access to the beta or something. I was never quite sure what I was getting exactly, which didn’t really matter – because it took FOREVER to roll out.

It wasn’t until October 2015 that I actually got my beta access. Yup, a whole twelve months of sitting around and wondering what they were doing with my money. Sure, I get how software development works, and stuff. But maybe they could have waited a bit before starting to take orders for something that didn’t exist? ANYWAY, this all meant that my expectations had substantially waned and I’d just built myself a MVP version of a personal website.

But since I actually had a beta invite to play around with, I thought I’d give it a shot. Aaaand, it didn’t quite live up to even my adjusted expectations.

I mean, there’s a lot to like about it. It does the hard work of things for you. No worrying about building mobile-friendly sites – that’s all handled. You can tell it roughly the kind of font style you want, and it’ll try some things out. Give it a colour scheme you like, and it’ll make it all look very pretty. Play around enough, and you can make something quite beautiful and professional-looking.

It did have a nasty habit of notifying me EVERY time it made a change to my website though. With both a browser AND an app notification. That was pretty annoying. But the real trouble I had with it is that I had no idea what it was for.

Take WordPress for instance, it’s pretty well set up to do a couple of things. You can just straight up build a website with it, if you know what you want. Or you can make yourself a blog, like I did. I’m using more-or-less an out-of-the-box implementation for that here. I’m using a default WordPress theme, and only a couple of plugins that help with out with some stuff. It does the job well.

With Squarespace, and other template-based sites, you’ve again got a decent framework to start off with. Are you trying to show off a portfolio of photography? Great, here’s a preset template. Same with building a website to sell stuff. Templates are unoriginal, but they’re a structure.

With thegrid, you just have to kind of feed it… stuff?

You give it links, files, or text, and it goes into it a weird limbo of draft posts, which you can then publish and they end up somewhere on your site. It’s kind of confusing, and I’m never quite sure what to give it. It seems to be able to handle most things ok, but I’m not sure what I’m trying to do.

Like, I just gave it a few photographs I’d taken recently, and it made them into a carousel. I didn’t ask for that, and it looks reasonably cool. But what if I didn’t want that? What if I preferred a grid? I don’t really get a choice. Same with the layout of the site, I don’t seem to be able to say what goes at the top versus bottom. So, right now the top thing on my site is a link to a Medium post. It doesn’t look great, in my opinion. Plus who has just like links to external blog posts as the top thing on their web page?

So, it doesn’t do the kind of things that I’d expect a website maker to do well. Like, here’s the text editor on the upload function:

It’s very very very simple, nothing more than what you’d get on a forum or something. And what kind of posts would I be writing? Is this for just little text blocks? Or is it meant to handle long-form blog entries? I have no idea.

It’s the things like this that I can’t get my head around. I just don’t know what to do with it. Whereas with my actual website, I own and know the structure. There’s a section for my poetry, a bit for my writing, a list of gaming projects I’ve got. The layout is logical and I can understand it. With my Grid site, I don’t know why things are as they are. And there’s no structure beyond the very superficial. You can make a nice homepage, but I don’t feel it’s the tool for creating your own entire website.

Here’s how my site currently looks:

There’s plenty here I like. The colours are cool, I like the font sizes, and the buttons have a modern look and feel. I didn’t pick any of this, it kind of just decided for me. Of all the images I’ve uploaded, it’s also gone with monkey-in-a-cage as the header. I mean, sure, Mr AI Assistant, if you think that’s a good call then I’m with you. But I dunno if I would have picked it. Or maybe I can change that, and I haven’t figured it out yet. I’m never quite sure when it’s updating or when it’s decided it likes the current layout.

So yeah, I have mixed feelings towards The Grid. I like the concept, and it’s fun to play around with. But I wouldn’t really recommend it to anyone who’s serious about making a website. At least, not if they want to fully control and understand their site.

As a last note, I’m totally unclear on the pricing. I’m not quite sure if I’m still paying for it or not. My ‘founding member’ payment must have gone towards something, but I’ve also received lots of emails offering me ‘lifetime membership’ if I pay them such-and-such now. I haven’t done that, and nothing seems to have happened with my site. So yeah, I can’t really speak to how much it even costs – if anything. So watch out for that!

If you give it a go, lemme know. I’m still interested to see what people make with it. I might just occasionally chuck on things I’m proud of. If only to see what it does to them.

Review: Lumo Lift

OH GOD NO NOT ANOTHER WEARABLE REVIEW.

Oh god yes, another wearable review. I just can’t seem to stop buying and wearing stupid things. Also, this one hasn’t had much attention in the UK and I want to boost my profile by being one of the first to write about how dumb it is lol.

So today we’re (I’m) talking about the Lumo Lift – “the world’s best selling digital posture coach.” Yes, really. This is where we’re at. This is what civilisation has come to.

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It’s a small little device that you wear under your clothes using a little magnetic clasp. You hold it down to activate it, then tap it a few times when you’re in a ‘good’ posture. If you move out of that posture for too long, the lumo vibrates, gently reminding you to OI STOP SLOUCHING YA FRICKIN IDIOT.

It also syncs to an app via bluetooth because everything has to sync to an app via bluetooth these days. The app is good if you like your phone telling you how much of a slouching pig you are in unkind terms.

Oh yeah, and that second bit it’s tracking there is steps. Everything has to track steps now apparently. I didn’t really use that feature so much, because my watch does that too, and my phone does that too, and also I know when I’m walking and not walking by using my brain.

I should mention that Lumo have another very similar product called Lumo Run which is basically identical except it tells you about your running instead. And maybe posture and stuff too. Who knows? I have zero interest in it.

So, how did I get on?

Well, I’ve stopped wearing it. I lasted even less time than with my Pavlok, and I encountered many of the same issues. First up, there’s the social aspect…

To put on the Lumo Lift you have to sort of hold it under your clothes and then put a little square magnet on your clothes to hold it on. All well and good if you’re wearing more than one layer, but it’s obviously super visible if you’re only wearing a top/shirt. Cue the comments from literally everyone asking ‘what is that little metal square on your chest.’

It didn’t help that I was wearing it right next to my breastbone so it looked like I had some weird metallic nipple thing going on like some killer terminator robot from the future. But it’s gonna look weird no matter what, in my opinion.

Then comes actually answering the question of what it is. Nobody can take seriously the idea of anyone ever wearing a ‘digital posture coach.’ Just imagine, someone tells you they’re wearing a device concealed under their clothes that tracks and corrects their posture all day every day. Do you think this person is some sort of future tech genius? Or do you think they’re probably a bit weird? I won’t bother going into which of those reactions I mostly got from people.

Just LOL at these ‘lifestyle’ images from the media section of their website. Mr Business Man is never ever ever gonna wear one of these to any kind of serious business meeting. And who would wear a ‘digital posture coach’ on a sexy date out? I don’t understand this marketing.

lifestyle-02lifestyle-01

Does it work? Well, yeah. But I don’t have any idea how. Something to do with accelerometers or something? I’m sure the technology is very clever, but as with the Pavlok it has its downsides.

The first is that you have to calibrate the device yourself. This means getting into what you consider to be ‘good’ posture, and then tapping the device. So the device goes off when you leave this calibrated position. But if I don’t have good posture, how am I to know what good posture is? A couple of times I stretched myself up into some impossible-to-maintain position to calibrate it, and had it going off every 2 minutes; other times I’d kind of be slouching anyway when I tapped it and it wouldn’t go off all day. I mean, yeah, I could read up on what good posture is and make sure that I’m holding a sensible position. But if I’m gonna do that I might as well just commit to have good posture anyway.

Like with the Pavlok there’s an issue with it requiring your input and willpower to solve a problem that’s primarily caused by laziness. It feels like a life hack, but it’s still requiring work on your part. So yeah, not great.

Otherwise it works just fine. The battery life in the thing is a bit short, and I had to charge it up quite often. It has a dedicated charging dock (rather than just having a USB socket or something), which means having yet another charging dock in your life to deal with. It also runs off Bluetooth, which annoys me. I deliberately have bluetooth off on my phone because battery life on modern phones is about 10 minutes. So I had to sync it to my iPod. Not sure what I’d have done if that wasn’t an option.

Anyway, to summarise…

LUMO LIFT

Pros:

  • It works well. It didn’t break or anything.
  • It’s reasonably discreet.
  • Easy to use.

Cons:

  • It didn’t improve my posture. I ended up ignoring it mostly.
  • Nobody will ever take you seriously again.
  • $80
  • You have to calibrate it yourself like some kind of caveman.

My verdict:

Probably give it a miss unless you’re desperate for a weird wearable to review like I always am.

My stupidly over-organised online life

I believe in better living through technology. Machines make our lives better. If it wasn’t for the internet you wouldn’t be reading this blog. You’d just be staring at a monitor with nothing on it like a goddam idiot. If it wasn’t for advances in medical technology you’d probably be dead too. Imagine being dead and not being able to read my blog. That’s your life without technology. So you should be grateful for it.

I know I am. Because I’ve inadvertently let it take over my entire life.

Case in point, I noticed that I was always starting books and never finishing them. Or someone would recommend a great book to me and I’d forget about it. That right there is a problem that needs fixing. How can you keep track of everything you’re reading, and maintain an ever-growing backlog of recommendations from other people? Simple: the internet.

I use Goodreads to manage my life in books. I have books categorised into three sections: TO READ, CURRENTLY READING, and READ. It’s so simple it’s stupid. And it’s addictive. Start a new book? Add it to Currently Reading. Got a recommendation? Add it to To Read.

The only problem is that dreaded backlog. You can check out my To Read shelf here, and there’s probably two things you’ll notice.

  1. The list is super long. 252 books long. According to my Read shelf, that’s like twice as many books as I’ve ever read (I’m counting all the books I’ve read ‘offline’ too). So yeah, the end is not in sight. (But should it be, really?)
  2. Some of the books were added to ‘To Read’ years ago. The earliest was added way back in 2012. That’s a bigger issue. It takes longer to read books than to add them to my collection, so the backlog is only growing larger. But maybe that’s fine too. (As long as I don’t mind behind possibly 4/5 years behind the times).

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But anyway, I now consider my book life forever sorted. As long Goodreads stays active (please don’t introduce subscriptions please don’t introduce subscriptions) I’ll forever have another book to read. And that’s great.

Having considered this an unequivocal success, I realised that many other things in my life could be fixed in the same way. And that’s where Trello comes in.

Trello is an online project management tool that essentially mimics a kanban board. In other words, you put tasks into columns representing different stages of a production process. In its simplest form, this can be: TO DO, DOING, DONE. You might have various rules about how you prioritise TO DO, or how many things can be in DOING at any time – but that’s all extras. This is all about getting really frickin’ organised.

Goodreads is essentially the same system, but dressed up with fancy things like ‘shelves.’ And that fanciness isn’t really necessary. Case in point: Television.

With TV, there’s always stuff you wanna watch. But there’s usually more to watch than you can handle. BOOM, make a trello board: TO WATCH, WATCHING, WATCHED. Well, in real life mine is actually a hell of a lot more complicated…

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 18.54.46

Lemme talk you through it. To Watch and Watching are pretty self-explanatory. I try to keep Watching as slim as possible, or it gets messy. But y’know, you might be watching a particular show with someone, which means going at a different pace. So right now I’ve got a couple in there. Watched 2016 Watched <2016 are just my way of going back over what I’ve actually completed. It helps me feel good about myself and pouring so much time and effort into this. Look, I’ve got results! Blocked is interesting, that’s my column for when I’m waiting on shows to make a new season, or get onto Netflix or something. It’s a holding area before stuff goes over to To Watch.

Phew. Did ya get all that? And once you’ve done it for TV, doing it for video games is the logical next step.

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Though obviously you need a separate one for HANDHELD video games, right?

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It’s not just fun and games though, I’ve worked boring ol’ household chores into this mix too. Cycling through them in this way keeps everything nice and fresh (I reckon).

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It helps financially too. Here’s one I made for my ‘saving goals’ – things I want, where the next thing I save for is whatever is top of the Things column currently.

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BUT WAIT THERE IS EVEN MORE OF THIS NONSENSE.

Not every film ever is on Netflix. So I’m subscribed to LoveFiLM (possibly their only customer at this point), who supply me with a weekly physical DVD picked at random from a huge list I’ve put together.

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Yup, there’s a backlog there of 343 films. Imagine what I could accomplish if I didn’t watch them and did something useful instead.

OH DID SOMEONE SAY BACKLOG.

By far my worst backlog is on Steam. Here’s a sneak peek at my ‘unplayed’ category there.

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 19.03.58

PAHAHA THIS IS ONLY GOING UP TO ‘C’ LOLS.

To get around this, I’ve had to make a sub-category of games I want to play next.

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(And don’t even get me STARTED on my Spotify backlog…)

OMG. FOOD?!

I get weekly delivery of SNACKS to the office from Graze, who randomly pick bits and pieces from me from an online list I’ve curated.

I get monthly boxes of MEALS to cook at home from SimplyCook. YUP, RANDOMLY SELECTED FROM A LIST WHY AM I SO ADDICTED TO DOING THIS TO MYSELF

I EVEN USE EVERNOTE TO KEEP TRACK OF WHAT I’LL BE WRITING IN THIS VERY BLOG. THE ONE YOU ARE READING WRITE NOW. IT’S BEEN IN MY BLOG BACKLOG FOR MONTHS AHAHAHHAAAHAHAA

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Guys this is all great and not at all a crazy thing to do.

I’m so organised and you’re just all jealous.

Good luck organising your life without meticulous over-planning lol.

I’M GONNA LIVE FOREVERRRR