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EU referendum: The arguments for voting Remain

From Buttonwood's notebook:

Then there is the question of the EU budget contribution. Leave has used the £19 billion, or £350m a week, figure which the head of the Statistics Authority has twice slammed as “potentially misleading”. A rebate is applied before Britain sends the money to the EU and then around £5 billion comes back in the form of regional grants and industry subsidies. The remaining contribution is around 1% of government spending. And the IFS, a body that every politician has been happy to quote in support in the past, estimates that the hit to British tax revenues in the event of Brexit will be much larger than £8 billion. There will be no “extra money” to spend, on the NHS or anything else.

and

Finally, we come to immigration, which may be swaying the most votes. It is sad that immigrants who play such a positive role in the Britain are being so derided; especially when they make a net positive contribution to public finances. (That is quite a feat when Britain has a big deficit; the rest of us take out more than we put in.) Yes, there are local problems when services get stretched but that is something the British government should be tackling with more resources. 

and

Nor has the campaign dealt with the problem that “controlling our borders” is incompatible with the current arrangements in Ireland, where there are no controls. Either we will have to impose border controls or we will have to sublet those controls to the Irish. The Irish have free movement within the EU; so any EU citizen can currently drive over the border. And what happens if Scotland leaves? The choice will be border controls at Carlisle or letting another nation be in charge.

10 Premier League Free Agents Up For Grabs This Summer

Oh I really hope Carrick leaves in the summer.

All these players should be available for absolutely nothing when their contracts expire, and could offer teams all across Europe with a seasoned professional for a bargain.

Why the Advent Vega can be your living room tablet

7 min read

I have in my hands the Advent Vega, a 10.1" 16:9 Android powered tablet computer.This is not a thing of beauty, but I'm going to recommend that you buy one. Why? Price and it's hackable.

Even though I'm an iPad fanboy, I've come to realise that for many people shelling out £399 on a "gadget" can seem a bit much, even when that gadget is the magnificent iPad. So, what are the alternatives?

There are many Android and Windows tablets on the market right now, but they all have one major disadvantage when compared to the iPad, price. Why spend over £300 when for a few extra pounds you can get the iPad? Check out the Asus EeePad Transformer or the Motorolo Xoom both of which are top of the range Android tablets running honeycomb, but will set you back £350. If you managed to stretch your budget by £50 you would have an iPad 2 with its App store and range of accessories. Now I know these tablets are not quite like for like, but my point is that for most people the entry level iPad 2 will more than meet their needs. I know it works for me.

So, why did I buy an Advent Vega? The Vega has interested me for a while and it seemed to tick all the right boxes, however there is one glaringly obvious flaw with the Vega. The Screen.

Screen

Facts: 10.1 inch, 16:9 aspect ration capacitive touchscreen, a resolution of 1024 x 600 and also supports auto rotate and multi-touch gestures. It is very sensitive and will take some to time to get used to, but it's safe to say that from an input perspective the screen is good.

The screen is let down when viewed from an off-set angle. It's ok if you are using it on your lap or right in front of your eye line, but move off to the side and the screen becomes unwatchable or unreadable.

But let's not get caught up with that, because the Vega really is actually pretty good and certainly great value for money.

Hardware

I paid £129.97 which gets you a lot for your money. In a tablet measuring 275 x 178 x 13.6 mm (W x D x H) and weighing 750g you get: stereo speakers, MicroSD Card slot, HDMI output, front facing camera, microphone, USB port and a headphone port.

It's encased in black plastic, but it feels comfortable to hold and solid enough that I'm sure it can survive the odd knock.

Operating System

The unique selling point of the Vega is the active developer community, and before you all click away, it's really actually quite easy to install a custom ROM on the vega.

Out of the box, the Vega runs Android 2.2 froyo which is ok, but I'm used to gingerbread, and frankly shipping froyo with a tablet is a silly business decision because it highlights how bad the operating system is and thus dosen't allow the Vega to look and perform like it could.

If you buy a Vega you must install a different operating system on it. Developers call this installing a custom ROM, but don't worry, this is not dangerous and it is impossible to brick your Vega. Just follow the instructions very closely and read various forums to learn what it is you'll actually be doing. It is quite straight forward providing you have some patience and can follow instructions.

At present the best ROM to install is VegaComb which is a community built version of Google's honeycomb (which was never open sourced) and transforms the Vega into an iPad competitor. Well ok, it doesn't really, but what it does is highlight how quickly Android tablets are going to dominate the market once IceCreamSandwich gets released, because cheap tablets will flood the market that will actually be pretty good.

I had not used an Android tablet before (aside from a quick play in stores) and although I use an Android phone, the UI is different (thanks google!). However, it really isn't hard to pick up and thanks to the Android Market all your previously purchased apps are available for you to download to your new device.

Apps

There really isn't a lot of apps available for android tablets, but what I've found is that phone apps actually scale quite well on the Vega. On the iPad you get the choice of original 1x view or a 2x zoomed view which dosen't always do the iPad justice. Apps on the Vega just stretch or zoom to fit the screen which can lead some odd views, but overall they seem to look ok.
I'm happy with the apps I have, I've basically just duplicated what I have on my phone and they all work fine.

Video

One of the main reasons I bought the Vega was so I could plug it into my TV and watch movies that I would store on the Vega, thus the Vega would become my main media hub. Unfortunately this isn't quite perfect on vegacomb as it leaves a 2" black bar down the right side and along the bottom. I can live with this for now and I'm sure it will be fixed soon enough. Apart from this, the HDMI out works well mirroring the Vega in every way. When you see the Vega outputting over HDMI to a 32" LCD it looks great but this just demonstrates how poor the screen on the Vega actually is.

The Vega is perfectly happy to stream flash videos such as iPlayer but it will also play .avi and .wmv files through the QQ Player which is free to download in the Market. Video play back is smooth.

Camera

The Vega has a 0.3MP front facing camera which is compatible with Skype and Google Talk. It's actually ok and you will use it to make video calls if that's your thing. I can't imagine ever using the camera to take a still image but it works, and so would do in an emergency.

Keyboard

There are many keyboard apps in the Market, but the stock honeycomb keyboard works well so I don't see the need to recommend anything else. For instance I use Swype on my phone, but I would have no need for that on the Vega. I can type comfortably onscreen and there doesn't appear to be any lag.

Battery

Battery life on the Vega is fine for a working day but I've found that it doesn't hold it's charge more than a couple of days on standby which is disappointing. I think the perfect example of battery life is to compare it to your smartphone. The more you use it the faster the battery dies! I haven't run any tests but I reckon you can expect to get 5 or 6 hours of screen time which is acceptable.

Form

When holding the Vega in your hands it feels light and comfortable but also a little strange due to its 16:9 aspect ratio. However, I like this view and it sits well when rested on my lap. You can of course view it in portrait mode which is great for reading books and webpages. When compared to the iPad 2 the Vega feels better in the hand.

Real world use

I will mainly use the Vega in the house as a consumption device. I can see me surfing the web, reading email, updating twitter, or watching movies via the HDMI out, but other than those I'm not sure what else I would want to do on it. So if you're in the market for a cheap Android tablet you could do much worse than the Advent Vega.

If you want to find out more about the Vega check out these resources:

MoDaCo, TabletRoms PC World, Currys / PC World outlet store (where I bought mine), myadventvega.co.uk, manual (PDF)

Use Sentiment Analysis To Understand Your Customers

12 min read

Sentiment analysis provides the tools which enable you to learn what your customers are saying about your product. This will help you build a better understanding of your customers.

[caption id="attachment_833" align="alignright" width="100"] Download this article as a PDF[/caption]

“Sentiment analysis or opinion mining refers to the application of natural language processing, computational linguistics, and text analytics to identify and extract subjective information in source materials.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sentiment_analysis

Eh?

Basically it’s good to know what people are saying about your company or your product.

So how do you gather this information?

In the old days, companies spent lots of cash doing consumer research by surveying people on the street, in focus groups and via the telephone. Today, companies can ask people to complete online surveys when the visit their website or contact them via email to follow up an online purchase. Despite the advancement in technology, the questions remain the same.
What do you think of the service? How easy was the transaction? Would you recommend the product? And so on.
However, people lie in surveys. Think about it. How truthful are you when you complete a survey? Do you always tick the right age box? What about your financials, do you pretend to have a £10k or a £100k a year job. I mean what harm does it actually do?

The point I’m making is that the research is only so good. It’s like stats.
63% of people who visited this blog ‘liked’ the page on facebook.
Over what time period?
The previous stat doesn't reveal that! Stats can be used to hide a lot of relevant information.

So what are the options?

Customer surveys are only part of tracking feedback. We live in a culture which publishes blogs, reviews, status updates and emotions online and in public. This is good as it allows companies to mine that data for references that are relevant to them. Sentiment analysis allows you to use that information to find out what people are saying about your company / brand / products / staff.

How to start.

Define your overarching objective and be realistic.
Why do you want to know what your customers are saying?
Is it going to affect your price point, your marketing strategy, what products / services you provide?
Be honest.

What’s your budget?
Do you have the resources to carry out customer surveys?
Ask your customers a direct question. If you are on social networking sites, ask your followers for feedback. You can use the front page of your website to promote a customer feedback survey or just ask people to complete a comments section.

Let’s talk about conducting online research

You could go to google and enter a search term and collate the results, but how useful would that be?
Sentiment analysis is all about getting real data together that you can then use to shape your future strategy, policy, or product line.

Before discussing some of the tools that can help you conduct your research I want to explain how you will score content so that it is actually useful.

Let’s use the example that you’re trying to find out what people think of the “iPhone”.

Example content from a review site:
“I bought an iPhone 3GS. Well I say bought, but it was free with a contract. The contract is expensive but the phone will be worth it. I hope! After only a few hours use I can see that the battery wont last all day, but I don’t mind as I’ve already downloaded lots of cool apps. I love Apple products.”

Example content from twitter:
“One thing I can't live without? My iPhone 4.”

Example content from facebook:
Woohoo!! Just got a white iPhone. I’m now one of the cool kids ;) Anyone know any good apps or have tips on how I can really make use of it? I can’t figure out how to get my music onto it either, any help would be great. Thanks.”

Example review from Apple.com:
“The iPhone 4 is the best phone ever, not just by design but it also has the best apps. I use it everyday.”

Example review from Play.com
“The HTC Sensation is way better than the iPhone. While people claim the iPhone has better apps, that is no longer the case. The HTC has a far better battery than the iPhone and while the iPhone has a great screen, it’s smaller than the sensation as it therefore not as good”.

From the five examples above the iPhone would seem to get favourable reviews. However, let’s take a closer look.
To quantify the data you need to set some parameters.
Who is writing these reviews? Let’s assume that they are written by ordinary people.
Do they seem genuine? I believe that the reviews above are genuine.
What are they talking about? The iPhone of course!
Really?
Which model?

This is the first obstacle you will encounter. From the outset the search term was too broad and produced results that weren't specific enough. Each of the examples could be talking about a different iPhone. Not one mention the size of the included memory.

Keep thinking about your overall goal. If your objective is just to research the brand “iPhone” then the examples above can still be used. If it’s to assess the iPhone 4 then the first review can be discounted.

Once you are sure that the data you have collated is valid i.e. refers specifically to the task at hand, you should then try and score each statement. You can do this by asking the following questions:
Is the statement positive?
Is the statement negative?
Is the statement neutral?

You will need to develop a scale which you can then score the statement against e.g. a positive statement receives a score of +2, neutral 0 and negative -2.

It’s not always easy to judge whether a statement is positive or not. There are additional factors that will need to be considered.

  • What are the emotional components of the sentence and how do these influence the classification e.g. anger, sadness or happiness?
  • We would need to how much influence that statement could have e.g. is it a tweet to 20 people or an article on Amazon?
  • Is the facebook page private?
  • Is the statement opinion or fact?
  • Is the statement provided by the owner or is the statement a quote by another?

In the examples above I have added the bold font and red colour, but what if the original author used different fonts to create emphasis on their words?
The intended message could have a different meaning with certain words written in bold. It is important that you factor this into you calculation. Consider why a person has taken the time to highlight a positive (or negative) feature.

Where does the author mention the pros and cons of the product within the review? These positional features indicate the strength of the piece. A review that starts on a negative tone will most likely be negative overall. People tend to lead with their strongest emotion.

Here is a quick guide on what to do:
1. Determine objective - “I bought an iPhone”.
2. Determine document subjectivity - is it a factual statement or opinion?
3. Determine document orientation - is the statement positive, negative or neutral?
4. Determine the strength of the orientation - i.e. weakly positive, mildly positive or strongly positive.
5. Determine the sentiment - what emotional components are in the statement i.e. it’s a nice phone.
6. When was the statement written? This can help deduce what product model the review refers to.

If you follow these six steps you will have a good understanding of what the statement says about your company or product.

What if an article contains both positive and negative phrases? How can that be evaluated? Is there a weighting formula?
Break up the statement into scoring chunks.
Weight the statement by keyword, emphasis (e.g. bold type), where it’s published, small following, how influential, private / public etc.
Things to remember: how many times is the keyword mentioned? Is there a lot of emphasis? Does the person have a small social media following? Is it a popular website? Is the post public or private?

I suggest that you plot this data on a chart
Bar charts can help you visualise the data

1 = keyword
2 = positive orientation
3 = negative orientation
4 = level of influence
5 = negative orientation

This is just an example to give you an idea of how useful plotting your data on a chart or a graph will be in determining the overall sentiment associated with just one phrase.

Of course, you will be able to find many different sources of information regarding your company or products, the trouble is how do you quantify them all? Is that realistic? I firmly believe that depending on the volume, companies should only take a snapshot of data e.g. information published one week per month or one month per year and analyse that. I would account for any outside influences e.g. product launches or news related items about your company during this time period.

You should look at each resource individually i.e. score updates on twitter, then score updates on facebook, then product review sites, then blogs etc. Once this is completed you will have total scores for each network that you can then plot on another graph which will give you an overall snapshot of opinion.You may decide to weight each network differently e.g. if you sell on Amazon, an Amazon review is going to be more influential than a blog post.

A simple formula that could help you with this process is:

Ci = {C1, C-3, C4, C0}

and

D = {Ci, Cii, Ciii, Civ, Cv}

C can be used to represent a classification e.g. a keyword. So if your company was trying to assess sentiment against a range of products each product would be identified by a different keyword and hence would be represented by Ci, Cii, Ciii etc.
Ci is the sum of the figures within the series {C1, C-3, C4, C0}.
C can also represent different places you have researched e.g. Ci = twitter, Cii = facebook, Ciii = Amazon etc.
You just need to make sure that you understand what you need C to represent and then run with it.

D will represent your companies / products overall score and will provide a representative sentiment analysis.
D is the sum of the figures within the series {Ci, Cii, Ciii, Civ, Cv}

A screenshot of the twitter sentiment website
If you find that you are swamped by data you can try using an automated service such as Twitter Sentiment(screenshot above) which is “a Twitter sentiment analysis tool. Research the positive and negative opinions about a product or brand.”

Tools

There are many tools that you can use to track sentiment online, but you can start with google alerts, twitter and facebook searches.
With google alerts you can establish a search query specifically relevant to you and have google email that to you each day. Google will search websites, blogs, news sites etc and email you the results, thus saving you from having to repeat the search on a daily basis.
Twitter allows you to save searches and to track , but I’d recommend using a tool like Seesmic or tweetdeck to view these searches. These will allow you to see every time you have been @ mentioned or how many times someone has tweeted about your brand name or product. You can have many ongoing searches making it easy to monitor on an ongoing basis.
Seesmic and tweetdeck will also monitor your facebook pages and notify you when someone leaves a comment against one of your posts.
Bing has agreement with facebook that gives them access to facebook profiles, so head to http://www.bing.com/social and enter your query.
Blekko is another site that searches facebook e.g. http://blekko.com/ws/iphone+/facebook
so don’t limit your tools to just a few applications.

One trap that you definitely do not want to fall into is spending all day everyday searching social media sites. If you set these tools up correctly, you should only be checking in a couple of times per day. Respond where necessary and record sentiment when it comes up. Only analyse the data when you can set aside the appropriate amount of time. So your work flow could be that you check your data once per day for 10 minutes and you spend another 10 minutes capturing feedback. Compile that information in whichever way suits you e.g. copy and paste into Word or onto a spreadsheet. At the end of the month you can then spend a few hours going through the data with the aim of producing a sentiment analysis which you will then use to review your existing products or services.

Conclusion

With sentiment analysis it is easy to get carried away and spend too much time focusing on finding and rating content that describes your product, which can take your focus away from developing great products or services. You definitely need to find the correct balance between conducting the research and actually carrying out your business activity.
However, the importance of sentiment analysis cannot be stressed enough. Even a little research into what people think about your products can help your business overall. If you are deaf to customer complaints your business will start to get into trouble.

Feedback! I’d like your thoughts on this article.

Do you think it is wrong, factually incorrect, glosses over important topics?
What has been your experience with sentiment analysis?
Is your company doing it?
Do you have any tips that you’d like to share?

Thanks for reading.

Caught Stealing by Charlie Huston

2 min read

This was the first Charlie Huston novel I read and I have since read seven more which should indicate how compelling (to me) his books are. Not for the faint hearted, Huston has a brash style that resembles a (good) Tarantino movie. Profanity and violence are frequent players in all of Huston's work and 'Caught Stealing' drops the reader straight into the action and immediately leaves you wanting more.

The book is centred around the character Hank Thompson, who was a promising high school baseball player with a big future in the game, that was until he broke his leg. After that things took a turn for the worse, more from bad judgement and luck than anything else, all of which makes for better reading. Let's face it, no one wants to read about the guy who almost made it, only to end up working the 9-5 and conforming to societies preset values.

So after Hank agrees to look after his neighbour's cat, his life spirals into a series of extreme drama and the inevitable twists lead you to like a character that you will initially label as a loser. Without giving too much away, the story revolves around the cat, his ability to escape bad situations and how he ends up making it across the Mexican border with the cat and a bag load of money.

Caught Stealing is available to read (below) and download free on Scribd.com
Visit Charlie Huston's website or follow him on twitter.
Caught Stealing by Charlie Huston