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A personal apology to @jeffjarvis

Tomorrow, I'm going to post a review of Jeff Jarvis's Public Parts. Before I do, I feel compelled to write this post, which I probably should have written a long time ago, and certainly before my review of Gutenburg the Geek.

I think Jeff Jarvis is brilliant. I don't always agree with everything he says, but I certainly agree with him far more than I disagree with him. And, beyond that, I respect him. I respect his thoughtful consideration of issues. I respect his decision to live life in public. I respect his high quality writing.

In fact, Jeff's one of the few people whose writing I actively seek out, as I'm always keen to hear his view. I've read BuzzMachine since the beginning. I can't remember how I found his blog – I guess somebody must have linked to it – but I vividly remember reading his first post in the aftermath of 9/11. And I don't think there's any other blog I've followed so consistently since. I also love watching him on TWiG, though I arrived rather late to that party.

But, in the spirit of Public Parts, I feel like I should say something publicly. Jeff: I'm sorry.

I'm sure Jeff won't remember a tiny interaction we had nigh on a decade ago, but it has played on my mind for some time. In the run up to the 2005 UK General Election, Jeff kindly posted a link to my blog on his. This was kind of a big deal. He was (and is) a well-respected, highly trafficked blogger and journalist. I was a teenager blogging from my bedroom. And yet, for reasons I either can't recall or didn't even formulate at the time, I wrote a snippy post about being called a "British blogger" – which I was – and admonishing him for not using the site's trackback facility. Jeff responded with a comment that I've always taken as infused with (entirely appropriate) bemused frustration. Ever since, I've worried that my post might have pissed him off.

I can't explain why I wrote what I wrote. I don't know why my response to praise was criticism. I can only put it down to a certain teenage immaturity and egotism.

You talk in Public Parts about some of the jerks that lurk online. You probably won't remember the incident, but I do, and I think, on this occasion, that I was a bit of a jerk towards you. And I'm truly sorry.

With all of that said publicly, I hope that I can get on and review Public Parts with everything on the table. Which I will do tomorrow.

This 2,219th post was filed under: Headliner, .

A new design for sjhoward.co.uk

As of 7th May, I will have been blogging for 11 years, mostly here at sjhoward.co.uk. Until today, the structure of the site had changed little in that time.

A few moments ago, I flipped the switch on the biggest ever overhaul of the site. I've rewritten every single template file (the files that power the design of the site) from scratch, and cut the number from 16 to 5. This helps to make the site zippier. More importantly to me, it means that the morass of code which I've cultivated over the last decade has been cut down to size and made navigable again, making maintenance a heck of a lot easier.

When people come to this site, they tend to access specific posts rather than the homepage. In the new incarnation of the site, the content of posts is front and centre. To make content easier to read, I've increased the text size considerably, and stripped back the design excesses. Templates no longer differ by type of post. I've reduced the colour palette and applied its principles more consistently across the site. I've drastically cut the number of extraneous links to irrelevant things scattered around the page. For example, while every page had a link to Radio 4's Desert Island Discs in the old design, this has now been removed. I think you can probably find your own way there.

Similarly, I've radically simplified the typography, now relying almost exclusively on two typefaces: Playfair Display and Raleway. I think some people might criticise the use of Playfair as the main typeface for copy – but I think it works well given the larger font size in use throughout. I'd be delighted to hear your thoughts.

I've moved contextual information to a smaller sidebar accompanying each post. This effectively reduces the prominence of this information in many cases, but by having it appear in a consistent position throughout the site, it is perhaps easier to find.

The redesign remains a work in progress, and I'll no doubt tweak it over time. That said, this hasn't been a rushed job… I've been plugging away at it, off and on, since early 2011.

Overall, the design is much cleaner, and (I like to think) easier on the eye. As I've experimented over the years, some people have commented that this sort of design is a bit sparse – especially compared to the smorgasbord of fonts, colours and styles used in the previous version. I think the new version looks better – but if you disagree, rest assured that, whatever my intentions now, clutter will no doubt accumulate as assuredly over the next eleven years as it has over the past eleven.

Anyhow, please do leave any thoughts or comments you have on the new design. After all, as the designer, it's hard for me to be objective – and the design is, in the end, aimed more at the reader than the writer.

This 2,217th post was filed under: Headliner, Site Updates, .

Happy New Year!

I’d like to wish all of my readers a happy and prosperous 2014!

As it’s a new year, I’m making a couple of changes to the site. In 2014, I won’t be publishing any 2D posts. I think the last few posts demonstrate that I’ve really lost interest in that format after almost a year, and it has become increasingly difficult to make anything other than tenuous links between recommendations as my archive has dwindled.

So “out with the old”, and in with the… old. In 2012, I did a very popular series called photo-a-day, and I’ve decided to resurrect it for 2014, starting later today.

Weekend reads will continue to be published each Friday, and book reviews on alternate Wednesdays. And I’ll try and do a bit more ad hoc blogging, too.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you have a great 2014.

This 2,098th post was filed under: Headliner, Site Updates.

Re-inventing the email newsletter

Until June 2007, this website offered an email subscription service whereby subscribers would receive copies of all posts by email, along with a few added extras now and again. By 2007, RSS feeds and the like made this seemed horribly old-fashioned, and I closed the service.

These days, however, I find myself more and more reliant on curated email newsletters from a lot of my favourite sites. I don’t have the time to trawl RSS feeds which have a low signal:noise ratio – I want somebody to pick out the best bits for me.

And so, today, I’m re-introducing this site’s email service. It is a little different to the one I closed five years ago. This time round, it will consist of a single weekly email with the best posts from this site, and other links and bits and bobs I’ve come across elsewhere but not deemed worthy of posting on here. It will come out on a Sunday, but (unlike the posts on here) it will always be sent in “real time” – so it might be late some weeks, or early others. It will always be freshly baked.

So sign up today – either by following this link, or (if you’re reading this on sjhoward.co.uk) using any of the dark grey boxes. I’ll be sending the first edition a little before midnight tonight – so if you want to collect a complete set, get signed up quickly!

This 2,041st post was filed under: Headliner, Site Updates, .

A decade of blogging

Today is my “blogging birthday” – ten years ago today I wrote my first blog post, and have continued waffling more or less continuously since! In that time, I’ve written a little over 2,000 posts, had a little over 32 million hits and just a squeak over 7.6 million unique page impressions.

Thanks to everyone that reads the stuff I put up on here. Ten years ago, it would have seemed inconceivable that I’d still be blogging in the same place when I was 28 years old and a fully qualified doctor. Similarly the idea that I’ll still be here ten years hence seems a little crazy today. But who knows? If you keep reading, perhaps I’ll keep writing!

This 2,017th post was filed under: Headliner, Site Updates.

Post no. 2,000

It seems a remarkable statistic, but this is the 2,000th published post on this blog.

In fact, the total is somewhat higher than that, as there have been some posts that have disappeared over the years through various times I’ve broken the site and had to restore from a backup, and that sort of thing. There are also some things which I’ve published as pages rather than blog posts, which don’t count towards that total. But, regardless of all of that, as of the publication of this post, there are 2,000 blog posts up on this site, ready to read. My contribution is still outgunned by yours – there are (at the time of writing) 4,893 published comments. And some 1.3 million unpublished spam comments have been caught before publication on here by Akismet.

Later this year, I’ll have been blogging for a decade, which seems a ludicrously long time. I’ll have to celebrate in some way. Maybe I’ll bake a cake.

Anyway, this is just a quick post to share that bit of statporn… and, of course, to thank you for continuing to read the blog!

This 2,000th post was filed under: Headliner.

Improving coffee loyalty schemes

There are few things that are further from my area of expertise than coffee retailing, but here’s a thought that occurred to me last week, and that’s been festering ever since.

All the major coffee shop chains and many local coffee shops have loyalty schemes these days. These are often of a particular type: buy X coffees and received the Yth coffee free. The generosity of such schemes varies widely: X=5 at McDonald’s, X=9 at Caffe Nero, and X=15 at Starbucks. Some chains do something slightly different – Costa, for example, gives points equivalent to 5% of the customer’s spend to be redeemed on future purchases, but let’s set those alternative schemes to one side.

The thing that links all of the common schemes is they are effectively fixed ratio reinforcement schedules. That is, they entice customers to buy more coffee by promising a freebie every X visits. But a wealth of literature from psychology reveals that this isn’t really very effective in getting people to form habits, not least because their motivation to consume drops off immediately after claiming free coffee Y.

A far more effective method of getting people to form habits is to build a variable ratio reinforcement schedule. As with gambling, this means that the punter / customer never knows when the win / free product is going to materialise. This keeps motivation consistently high.

In practice, what I’m suggesting is that the ratio of visits to free coffees is kept the same (X+1:1), but that the free coffees are dispensed at random. This would appeal to me: I’d love to come to pay for a coffee and be unexpectedly told that this one’s free. An infrastructure change would be necessary for some coffee shops – stamp cards wouldn’t really work well for this – but, for example, Starbucks already uses swipe cards which could be made to work this way fairly easily.

Alternatively, instead of randomising at the individual customer level, the tills could be set to randomise across all customers. Or, to make it even simpler, with every coffee purchased, each customer could be given a scratchcard with a 1 in X+1 chance of winning a free coffee. The latter might even be preferable, as there would then be two “special” visits: the one in which the customer wins, and the one in which they redeem their winning scratchcard. The customer would feel rewarded for their loyalty twice as often at no extra cost to the vendor.

If judging on cost alone, why would I visit retailer A, where there is no chance of getting my drink for free on a particular visit, when I could visit retailer B, where there is a 1 in X+1 chance? Economic discounting would probably play against traditional schemes: I’d probably rather have the chance of a free coffee today than the certainty of a free coffee after X visits.

Of course, retailers would have to be careful about how they presented this scheme: it would likely be to the detriment of any brand to associate themselves with gambling. Yet this seems like it should be a minor point, which should be easily overcome.

So here’s the thing: this idea appeals to me as a consumer, a wealth of literature suggests that it could increase trade, yet (to my knowledge) no-one uses it. Why not? Where’s the rub? What have I overlooked in my assessment? Tell me why I’m wrong!

This 1,997th post was filed under: Headliner, , .

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