Shalloween

Geoffrey entered The Slaughtered Lamb Burger, a new gastropub in Hackney. Everything was as he would expect: faux-vintage books on the shelves  (The 1863 Lunar Almanack , Whither the Lycanthrope? and Lupine Anatomy ), microbrewery in the basement, and hostile locals at the bar liveblogging their dinner.

Still, the Londonist had given it five stars and he had taken three buses to get here from Twickenham, so he wasn’t going to leave now. He browsed the menu. After briefly toying with the idea of the Wham Bam Thank You Lamb, he ordered the Lamburgini with extra pickled mouli  and a half pint of the oak-aged stout.

Later, as Geoffrey was tweeting his tasting notes (Biscuity mouthfeel, overtones of jasmine and cranberries#sameagainplease), he noticed the barman lurch over to the door and bolt it closed. He looked outside; the sun was just setting. Bit early for a lock-in, he thought. But his anxiety was overcome by the thrilling prospect of being invited into the tribe, of being accepted as one of the beautiful people. He put side his copy of Courier and had a look at the espresso menu.

Perhaps not so beautiful after all, he thought as the barman took his order for a Dancing Goats macchiato. This particular chap was in dire need of a dermatologist and the great hairy, hulking couple at the bar were…well, they were…oh Jesus…

Too late, it all became clear to Geoffrey. The plaid shirts. The small, useless brains. The bad teeth and cavalier attitude to personal hygiene. And most of all, the beards. THE BEARDS. How could he not have realised? As the now-transformed staff and clientele advanced across the room toward him, slavering and howling with a savage bloodlust, it was some small comfort to Geoffrey that now he really would be one of the Hackney tribe.

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The Gallery

15:59

mumble mumble, mumble mumble, shuffle shuffle SQUEAK. mumble mumble, mumble mumble, shuffle shuffle BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP

16:00

sniffle snuffle, shuffle shuffle, chinstroke chinstroke BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP. BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP

16:01

16:02

mumbBEEEEEEEEEEEPmumblemumblemuBEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP

“Sorry, would you mind?”

“What?”

“Your arm. The alarm. When you point across the barrier, it sets the alarm off.”

Unfriendly grimace. Silence.

“Well, it’s very annoying, you see. This is a gallery.”

“Okay.”

16:03

delightful silence

16:04

16:05

16:06

delightful silence, delightful siBEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP.

JESUS.

WHAT IS WRONG WITH THESE PEOPLE?

AM I THE LAST INTELLIGENT PERSON LEFT IN THE WESTERN HEMISBEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP.

I SAY! TUBBY! ARE YOU SOME KIND OF MORON? CAN’T YOU BLOODY WELL SEE THAT WHEN YOU WAVE YOUR FAT, FLABBY ARM AROUND LIKE A PERFORMING BLOODY SEAL, IT SETS THE ALARM OFF? DON’T YOU KNOW YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO POKE YOUR GREASY FINGERS ALL OVER THE PAINTINGS?!?!?! LOOK!!!!”

arm wave

BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP

arm wave

BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP

arm wave

BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP

NOW DO YOU SEE? HAD IT NEVER OCCURRED TO YOUR TINY LITTLE BRAIN THAT THE ALARM AND YOUR ARM WERE IN PERFECT HARMONY?”

applause

cheering

shame-faced exit

16.07

delightful silence, delightful silence

15:59

mumble mumble, mumble mumble, shuffle shuffle SQUEAK. mumble mumble, mumble mumble, shuffle shuffle BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP

16:00

sniffle snuffle, shuffle shuffle, chinstroke chinstroke BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP. BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP

“Gah!”

“Whats wrong, dear?

“That idiot over there keeps setting off the bloody alarm. How can he not realise it? Look! There he is again, pointing right at the canv…”

BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP

“…as. I’ve a good mind to say something. Idiot.”

“Try to block it out dear. Just enjoy the paintings.”

“How can I enjoy the paintings when…Noooooooooooo! He’s going in again!”

BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP

“Jesus! I tell you if he does that one more time, I am definitely saying something.”

BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP

“I swear to God, just one more time and I’m going over there.”

BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP

BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP

“Come on, let’s go. I’ve had enough. I tell you I’ve a right mind to complain. The minute I get home, I am writing those bastards a letter.”

Alchemy

Guthric rushed down the spiral staircase, his feet slapping against the damp steps. As he reached the bottom, he could see Benedict in the far corner, partly obscured in the dark. He shivered in the chill. “You called?” he said.

“Rejoice Guthric, my good fellow, rejoice! Mark this day as a change in the fortunes of man, and specifically this man. For I have turned base metals into gold!” said Benedict, still with his back turned towards his friend.

Guthric looked around at the frankly bewildering scene before him. On a long table was laid out a bubbling fury of potions, pots and machinery. It was difficult to make sense of the commotion, but the longer he stared the more clearly a narrative defined itself. At one end was a jar of coarse metal, dark and dirty. Next to this was a simmering pot with a long, slim pipe emerging from the top, emitting a blueish smoke. That smoke was then sucked through a swooping contraption of pipes, condensed, boiled, recondensed and finally dripping into another jar at the opposite end of the table. From where he was standing, Guthric could make out the faintest glimmer. GOLD! He was shaking again, but this time with thrilled anticipation rather than the cold. They were rich, rich as Croesus. The only dark note was a faint thought that Benedict would try and double cross him. He resolved to check the contracts as soon as possible. Or perhaps…

Benedict broke into his murderous thoughts. “Yes, I’ve just received an email from Schroeders. That tin mine in Burkina Faso I took a punt on has just been taken over by Rio Tinto. I’ll be damned if we see anything less than 11 or 12% return. I think this calls for a few craft ales. What do you say, old friend?” He reached for his coat. “By the way that new test for benzoyl peroxide is looking promising. Did you hear back from SmithKline’s lawyers?” 

“Ja, zey sent over a fax this morning,” said Guthric, desperately trying to recompose himself.

“Fax! I tell you, old chap, those bloody city scalpers are stuck in the dark ages!

Nothing ever quite disappointed Henderson as much as discovering that the Devil was an accountant. Years later as he recalled the shiny suit, the neatly trimmed greying hair and the owlish expression, he would remark to friends: “It was as if Hell was one of the blander government departments – Works and Services, or the Ministry for Local Transport – and the Devil had been promoted beyond his competency level to Chief Undersecretary. I really thought I was going to die of boredom, which would have been extremely poor timing given the circumstances.”

The Devil looked up from his desk.”Yours is a very interesting case, Mr Henderson. As I understand it…”. He paused to sort through some documents on his desk with painstakingly slow precision. Henderson idly reached for the box of cigarettes in his pocket, but the lady at reception had been very clear about the regulations. He groaned and stared up at the ceiling, silently composing a cutting witticism for the clubhouse boys about Health and Safety reaching the seventh circle of infernal damnation.

As I understand it, Mr Henderson, you suffered a series of misfortunes on April 12 of this year and have been suffering the consequences ever since. You would like to relive that day in order to reverse this unfortunate sequence of events,” said the Devil.

Yes, that’s pretty much it,” said Henderson. “I have it on good authority that you are the chap for the job.”

Certainly, Mr Henderson. This is one of our most popular services. You do appreciate that there is quite a significant charge?”

Henderson shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Yes, well, after lengthy consideration I have decided that the chance to right these wrongs justifies the, er, losses that I will incur.”

The Devil smiled for the first time. “Excellent, Mr Henderson. My assistant will take you though the paperwork now.”

The assistant led Henderson back out through the waiting room. On the cold benches sat a tall, gaunt woman with her daughter, clearly the Devil’s next customer. Henderson noticed with a chill that the child looked exactly like her mother, like a perfect facsimile in a smaller size. He hurried his step as the assistant lumbered on.

…….

The next day Henderson woke to find that it was once again April 12. He rose, showered and then reached for his shaving kit before remembering just in time and replacing it back on the shelf. One pitfall successfully avoided.

He texted his lover and told her not to call round; something had come up unexpectedly at work and he wouldn’t be able to call in sick. Perhaps some day next week instead?

Before he left the house he cleared out all the empty bottles and fast food boxes from the last few days. As he now knew, his wife would be arriving back in the house at 11.53am, two days earlier than expected after her mother had recovered quickly from her fall, and he could do without the nagging. There was the added benefit that she would also now not walk into her bedroom to find him intimately involved with a much better-looking woman.

He loaded his golf clubs into his car, checking carefully that his new driver was there. He knew that at 2.47pm that afternoon his boss would come striding into the trading pit, booming at the top of his voice that it was too nice a bloody day to be working. Unlike the previous occasion, it would be he, Henderson, and not that priggish oaf Fernandez who would win the fourballs; not only because this time he would have a full complement of clubs but also because he knew that there would be a gust of wind on the tee-box at the fourth and that the fifteenth green was playing much faster than usual. And it would be he, Henderson, who would be flavour of the month as a result, just in time for the visit of the new Korean clients next Thursday.

At 10.43am he had the sexy new PA in stitches with a bon mot that had occurred to him several hours after the last time they had had this conversation. This was a much better outcome than the previous occasion, when he had ended the conversation with a slightly grubby and completely inappropriate comment about her tits.

At 12.03pm he successfully anticipated a market move that earned the company more in one day than for the entire previous quarter. The adulation was incessant and although his colleagues didn’t quite carry him from the field on their shoulders, it was a close-run thing.

At 12.08pm he poured the same curdled milk into his coffee as he had on the previous April 12, prompting the thought that even 20/20 hindsight couldn’t save you from every little mistake.

On the way home, flushed with gin and the memories of sinking a 30-yarder on the eighteenth, he picked up some flowers for his wife, thus putting himself in good standing for next week when he planned to come home very late after some extramarital sex with the new PA.

At 11.43 he went to sleep on the back of a very, very good day having backed the winners of the entire card at the evening meet at Kempton.

……..

The next few weeks were a glorious festival of bragging, fucking and spending as Henderson enjoyed the rewards of his deal with the Devil. He was untouchable at work and unsuspected at home. Really, it couldn’t have gone much better for him and the smugness kept him going when his body began to flag. In fact he was never quite sure when the debauchery changed from being a celebration of a life lived recklessly into a darker, more malevolent mood: a fear of the day he knew would come soon and a desperate attempt to shake off that anxiety with increasingly excessive behaviour.

But change it did, and as October 27 approached Henderson gradually admitted that the great burst of joy had gone and he was now just a lonely drunk chasing his tail. His wife would never leave him – she was much too cowardly for that – but they had moved beyond any pretence of civility in the home (in fact he would have preferred a few rows; maybe chuck some plates against the wall. At least then it would have seemed liked she cared). Having slept with three girls in the office, he was now no longer regarded as a dangerous wild man but just a bit of a prick. The men were not too fond of him either: flushed with success he had overcooked the Billy Big Balls act and the end of the summer had seen his light dim a little as his moods became more erratic, leaving him increasingly isolated.

That gradual fading turned into a swift descent before his day of destiny; as October drew to a close and the date grew nearer, he was so cut through with fear that he could barely function in society at all. Eventually he took some time off work and sat in his den at home, watching sitcom re-runs and refusing food.

…..

You have an unfortunate mix of vanity and stupidity, Mr Henderson,” said the Devil. “If you were a miniature pedigree hound it would be well suited; prancing around the Eighth Arondissement, oblivious to everything but your own magnificence. As a human being it doesn’t work so well.”

Henderson could see now that he had clearly misjudged his opponent’s character at the beginning. The Devil was relishing every moment of this; the confused and shaken Henderson standing in the same office where only 6 months ago there had been a confident young man, dismissive of the drab surroundings and the Devil’s pencil-pushing demeanour.

He resisted the urge to retort and stuck to his gameplan. The Devil was a bureaucrat; he would respond well to a formal approach.

On October 27, you were due to assume my corporeal form for 24 hours in exchange for your facilitating my return to April 12,” began Henderson. “We had a contract. I kept up my side; yet you failed to keep yours. I went to bed on October 26 and woke as normal the following day. This disruption of my plans has left me considerably shaken and uncertain. Can you please explain your actions?”

The Devil grinned softly and took off his glasses to clean them.

Mr Henderson. I’m a little insulted that you thought my department would be so crude as to just turn up, take over your body for a day, start raping and thieving and shatter your reputation forever. It was much more fun to let you destroy yourself with your own anxiety.”

But…but…that’s diabolical!” The word was out of Henderson’s mouth before he realised what he was saying.

There was a long pause.

As I said, Mr Henderson, an unfortunate mix.”

The Devil’s in the Detail

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Silence

Gerry turned the key in the door and waited for the sound of his son greeting him home. He did the same thing every evening; the words never came and the pain of the silence never got any duller. Yet he always felt compelled to linger for just a second on the doorstep, day after day after day.

He left the bags of groceries on the kitchen table and went to greet Tobias, lifting him in his arms and holding him high over his head. Tobias gurgled with delight and Gerry brought him back down into his chest and hugged him tightly. He allowed himself a brief, wistful daydream of how different it would have been if he had got married earlier, if he had put aside the childish things of his bachelor years and settled down to family life instead. His best friend Dan’s daughter had been born three years after they left university and she was a proper little chatterbox. Tobias was almost eight years younger and like all children born in the past five years or so he had never uttered a single comprehensible word in his life.

The Silent Generation. A global catastrophe of an entire birth cohort who could communicate with each other, but not with their elders. They spoke no English, no Spanish, no Swahili. Their dark future had been earnestly dissected in the Sunday supplements and the academic journals, by disbelieving bloggers, evangelical conspiracy theorists, journalists, politicians, mums and dads. What bizarre twist in human evolution had led to this? What would happen when these children grew up and became doctors, teachers, prime ministers? Already the more paranoid sections of society had formed pressure groups and bands of vigilantes aimed at protecting the rights of the older generation, the Speakers; whipping up terrible visions of a society that would turn on its parents.

Gerry shook his head gently and chided himself for brooding on problems that he was powerless to change. He carried Tobias into the living room where Maria the childminder was folding tea towels. They chatted briefly but did not allude to “the situation”. Gerry didn’t feel comfortable discussing it with anyone except his partner Daphne and he had never really warmed to Maria anyway. She kissed Tobias on the forehead and said goodbye. This greatly annoyed Gerry; he hated to see other Speakers talk to the young ones as if nothing was wrong, as if they would suddenly look up and reply.

He put Tobias on the couch and sat at his desk, switching on his computer. When he looked back over at Tobias the child broke into a huge smile and gave a soft chuckle. Gerry froze in terror and his head swam briefly with the enormity of it all. Once more he remonstrated himself on his brooding nature and returned to his work.

……

Daphne turned the key in the door and listened for the familiar sounds: Tobias scratching around the house, Gerry gently tapping at his keyboard. She walked through to the kitchen and put the shopping on the table, beside Gerry’s bags from earlier. Her heart sank at the thought of what lay inside. The last time he had been to the supermarket he came home with an industrial sack of glucose and 14 cans of dog food. Resisting the urge to yell at him, she peeked into the bulging bags. Jesus fucking Christ, Gerry.

She looked through her mail. Great Ormond Street had been in touch again, asking about Tobias’s missed appointment in March. Bloody doctors and their disapproving tone. It wasn’t their family that was catatonic, their husband who went round with his head up his arse, muttering about fallen angels and the end of days. She desperately wanted to see Tobias’ condition improve before he started school in September but the endless round of appointments had left her jaded. Another three hours in the waiting room, more heavy sighs from baffled doctors. “It’s difficult to say at his age…The latest studies on his condition have been inconclusive…Learning difficulties at this stage may be a sign of talents in other areas. Has he shown any leanings towards a musical ear?”. Daphne snorted at the memory. Yeah, now you mention it, he gave us a marvelous rendition of Great Balls of Fire on the harpsichord just the other day. Wankers.

Sweeping past her husband, she sat down with Tobias and stroked his little head. No matter how dark her mood, his happy manner always lifted her immediately. There was still that nagging fear of how Tobias would manage once he got to seven, eight, nine years old. Would he still be behind the other children then? How would he cope with long division, French irregular verbs, the square of the hypotenuse? She herself had been a brilliant student and when she met Gerry at university she had allowed herself fanciful notions of producing a brood of intellectual superstars; doctors, teachers, prime ministers…

If someone had told her then that her first-born would be still struggling to form words at three and a half, she would certainly have abandoned all plans to start a family. Now that she was a mum, blessed with the most adorable little boy, she could hardly believe that she had once been so shallow.

Daphne cradled Tobias into her arms and looked over at Gerry. She could see his temples twitching as he typed with increasing animation. No doubt he was formulating his latest plan for the impending apocalypse. When they had first met, he had seemed so strong, so resolute. She never could have imagined that he would react like this. Every man has his breaking point, her mother had said. Fuck off with your cliches, Mum, she had replied.

Lifting Tobias on to her knees, she turned away from Gerry. She could handle the awkward moments in the pub, the increasing distance from their mortified friends, the cold, unfeeling nights in bed. But the silence! If only he would just say something.

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Guardian.co.uk

I worked for the Guardian sport website for two years, covering the Olympics (including the closing ceremony) the Ryder Cup, the Six Nations and the Premier League. I wrote rolling reports, news reports, match reports and football quizzes.

I even got to write about my hometown team when they were still winning games and not battling to avoid bankruptcy.

My complete portfolio for Guardian Sport.

Estonia takes the lead in online voting

In 1989, Estonian democracy was limited to a human chain that spanned 600km and two million people from the capital, Tallinn, to Vilnius in Lithuania. The chain was a protest against Moscow by the Baltic states to highlight their continued plight as reluctant members of the Soviet Union, and eventually paved the way for independence and free elections.

Only 14 years after independence, last week Estonia held what is believed to be the first nationwide online election in the world, and it appears to have passed off without a hitch.

Already one of the most web-friendly countries in Europe – leading bank Hansabank estimates that almost 90 per cent of all clients transactions are made over the internet, and the government has promised to make internet access available to every citizen – the Estonian authorities have made this move both to counter growing voter apathy and help increase confidence in their national ID card scheme.

More than 90 per cent of Estonian citizens carry an ID card, with an individual PIN code, to carry out banking or government transactions. Registered voters who had a card as well as a special microchip reader could connect the reader to their home PC, identify themselves on a secure site, cast their vote and then enter their PIN to confirm their choice.

The system was used for the country’s local elections, but the government intends to extend it for the general election in 2007. Citizens were given a three-day window in which to vote, and could change their mind as often as they liked, with the additional option of going to a traditional polling station last Sunday, three days after the online polls had closed.

Each vote cancelled out the previous one, a move which the authorities believe will combat people voting against their will or having their cards stolen and used by someone else. The government assigned police protection to the servers and has made sure that the computer that processes the votes is not connected to the internet.

The system has its flaws of course. Citizens who wish to vote online first have to purchase the microchip reader. At €20 a reader, some observers have noted that it is hardly democracy in action.

President Arnold Ruutel tried to stop repeated voting, saying that it gave online voters a chance to change their mind, something that was denied to those who hadn’t gone online, but he was overruled by the Supreme Court.

And, of a national register of more than one million, fewer than 10,000 opted to vote online.

However, turnout overall hovered around the 50 per cent mark, signalling a steady decline which has horrified politicians in a country which has only just regained its independence after decades of one-party rule from Moscow. It is hoped that if online voting is a success, it will halt this slide as voters will no longer have to leave their living room to have their say.

This scheme, and the ones that will follow across the continent, will remind Irish people of the tens of thousands of unused voting machines, resting at the expense of the Government and the taxpayer in warehouses up and down the country.

The latest word from the Minister for the Environment, Dick Roche, is that it is most unlikely that Ireland’s assembled army of white elephants will be called into duty for the next general election, due at the latest in the summer of 2007. Given that cautious estimate, many people would be surprised if the machines were available for the next round of European and local elections in 2009.

Granted, Estonia has a population a quarter of Ireland, making it easier to run such a system. The number of people who actually voted online tallies with a town the size of Athy. Also, it is still early days – less than a week since the polls closed – and glitches and errors may yet come to light.

But it is important to remember the distinction between the two systems; the Estonians have been voting online on PCs, whereas we merely want to replace pencil and paper with what amounts to an advanced calculator.

Despite the increased ingenuity and global spread of hackers, the Estonian government felt secure that citizens could sit down at home and vote using a global network that is widely perceived to be fair game to any teenager with a smattering of techie know-how.

In this country voters would still be marking their X in the parish hall or primary school as they have since the foundation of the State, just using a more advanced system, and all we have gained so far is embarrassment. Yet we are held up to countries such as Estonia as an economic role model, due to growth that has largely been fuelled by investment from the IT sector.

For some people, the voting machine fiasco was almost inevitable in this country; a committee of unseen alickadoos inspecting rows of grey boxes, perhaps giving them a bash on the side or jabbing a couple of buttons, before passing them fit and ready until the next committee down the line rejects them, and the finger-pointing and buck-passing begins.

Given the cold, super-efficient nature of the Northern Europeans, of course they’d get it right, each dutiful citizen voting with metronomic precision, goes the thinking.

Anyway, isn’t electronic voting a dull, clinical affair? What about the excitement of the count, the convoluted mathematics of the recount, the thrill of hanging around a smoky hall until four in the morning?

But this prevalent attitude is at the root of so much apathy and bemused shrugs when something goes wrong in Irish society. We would do well to follow the developments in this field closely, if only to restore some confidence in the Government’s ability to handle large-scale projects of this nature.After all the recent back-slapping over the success of innovations such as the smoking ban, where we helped lead the way for the rest of Europe and the world, it would be a shame if every time a new country made strides with online voting, we were held up as an example of how not to do things.

© 2005 The Irish Times

Gmail extends domain of Google brand

“One high school crush: In return for a Gmail invite I will email you an image of a notebook page with all of the necessary doodles.”

“There will be little hearts with our initials in them, options on the way I’ll write my married name, and a rough draft of a note expressing how much I’m longing for you. Image will be in black and white, because I’m fresh out of magic markers.”

The above message is not a bizarre take on the lonely-hearts column, but one of thousands of entries on http://www.gmailswap.com, a website devoted to bringing Google’s new e-mail service, Gmail – the “killer app” of 2004 – to the masses.

The uninitiated post up desperate pleas for a Gmail account on the site, and the lucky few with access choose who deserves to be “invited” to join. Other offers include one used husband, a box of loveliness, the punchline of a knock-knock joke and the four elements. One eager mother even offered up her five-year-old’s letter to Santa.

When Google announced in April that it would be taking on Hotmail, Yahoo! and the rest by offering its own webmail service, internet forums were buzzing with the excitement and anticipation that accompanies any announcement by the world’s favourite search engine.

The suspense was heightened further by the fact that Gmail would only be available to a trusted group of employees and friends, who, in time, would be allowed to invite people to join them in the secret circle. Hence Gmailswap, a non-profit organisation (motto: Because People Are Nice) set up to give people a chance to get their hands on an account.

Apart from the one-upmanship, however, why should you change from your old account to Gmail?

Google’s primary boast is the space offered to all users – 1000 megabytes (MB), enough to hold 500,000 pages of emails, according to the company. Hotmail and Yahoo previously offered 2MB and 4MB respectively, but have since upped their free storage limits to 250MB and 100MB in response.

Google also offers a search facility that allows you to search both the web and their own mail. This makes finding individual mails a lot easier than trawling through the subject lines.

Gmail is also billed as being more user-friendly and having a cleaner interface than its rivals. When Google launched its search engine in 1998, the market was already crowded with giants such as Yahoo! and AltaVista. Yet in a few short years, Google became, and remains, by far the most popular search engine on the web, so much so that the verb “to google” is now a generic term.

One of the reasons attributed to this rise was Google’s clean, white interface: the homepage carried little more than the logo and a dialogue box, and all ads were listed beside the search results. Out went the flashing banners, pages crammed full of data and endless pop-up ads.

Google now aims to repeat history by taking on the established giants and once again it aims to use innovation and economy of design as its primary weapons. The overriding advantage of Gmail is the ability to be able to summon up any mail, from any contact and any date, with minimum fuss. And it looks great to boot. What, then, are the disadvantages?

There are a few minor quibbles, according to web development and usability guru Mr Paul McClean, from TDH Interactive: “Contacts can’t be listed as a group, so each one has to be entered separately. Gmail won’t work on some browsers and platforms, including Mac OS9, and old versions of Firefox, Explorer and Netscape. Plus, there is no access to a POP3 server, so you can’t link it to your Outlook account.”

“However, these complaints are all related to the fact that Gmail is still being tested, and will be sorted out by the time the full version is available. The biggest problem for many people is the privacy issue,” he says.

The privacy issue concerns scares that Gmail will “read” your mail. Ads in Gmail are placed in the same way that ads are placed alongside Google search results. Automated search technology scans the content of your emails and matches ads relevant to that content.

The original announcement caused a furore amongst privacy campaigners and one California state senator, Ms Liz Figueroa, tried to block the service through the courts. The campaigners did win some concessions. Google will not be allowed to collect personal data and give them to third parties or produce records using the data, and all searches must be conducted in real time.

Despite all this, it must be borne in mind that many webmail services already scan mail to block spam. Google assures all users that the ads are family-friendly and that “no humans will read the content of your email in order to target advertisements”.

Even at this early stage, Gmail’s success can be measured by the frantic response of rivals who have redesigned their interfaces, increased their storage limits and condemned Google’s alleged “‘privacy invasion”. The full global rollout should begin in a few months. Until then, all you have to do is worry about getting your hands on an invite.

© 2004 The Irish Times

Flickr of personality behind website’s success

Photographs allow people to share a special moment with friends and loved ones. But unless you were a part of that moment, other people’s photos can be like other people’s holidays: not very exciting but still requiring feigned interest.

Photo-sharing sites on the web mean that people can inflict their snaps on you no matter where you are. And, of the hundreds of sites online, the one grabbing the most attention at the moment is committed to giving you access to thousands of strangers’ collections as well. So popular is http://www.flickr.com that it has been bought by Yahoo, which already has its own photo-sharing facility.

Yahoo’s strength lies in its eagerness to offer users as many services as possible and, since its inception, it has achieved this by incorporating small successful operations rather than potentially waste time, energy and money on developing these services itself.

Unlike other sites, Flickr members’ collections are openly accessible to all unless they declare otherwise, and less than 20 per cent choose to do so. This offers a staggering catalogue of images, so to assist browsing through the almost six million photos, Flickr uses a tag system. Users tag their photos and collections with keywords. Recognising that millions of anonymous photos can potentially create a cold online environment, Flickr embraces interaction. Members can leave a description on each photo and other users can leave a comment.

Like-minded folk can join into groups, adding a community feel to what might otherwise be an impersonal experience. The site offers a list of the all-time most popular tags, from Africa to zoo, and of the most popular groups.

Flickr is swiftly becoming a default service, a generic brand. Its ubiquity is another example of how internet brands tend to swallow their particular market.

If it didn’t exist, it is likely that another similar service would dominate the photo-sharing market in the same manner.

MSN Hotmail was so prevalent in the 1990s that for millions the words hotmail and email were interchangeable. Google is so dominant amongst search engines that the term has passed into the lexicon.

Amazon and eBay are similar examples: 10 or 20 per cent of internet users might have other offerings they prefer, but the majority will go straight to the market leaders.

On the high street, you might prefer one bookstore to another because it has better deals, a wider selection or a nicer coffee shop; but if you’re just buying a common paperback, the one that’s closest to you is probably the best choice.

On the internet, in theory all the services are as close as each other. This idea doesn’t take into account that it will take you a much shorter time to find what you want on a site that you have used before, that you know well, have an account with and is included in your bookmarks.

Many sites require registration and for those reared on a diet of hyperlinks and favourites, filling out forms is a turn-off, which encourages the popularity of one standard site rather than a multitude of options.

Why is Flickr ahead of the other options? For starters, its democratic credentials and open access system mark it out from the crowd. It also has the quirky feel that helped propel Yahoo and Google to world domination.

Members are greeted in different languages every time they log on, links are phrased in a chummy manner and the words “you” and “your” are everywhere.

Although to some this might seem a little forced, it is preferable to the sterile atmosphere offered by the major camera companies. Clearly a lot of work has gone into the little details.

“There are lots of theories and ideas as to the reason for Flickr’s immense popularity,” says Caoimhe Burke, a researcher in multimedia at DCU. “Essentially it is the most user-friendly photo-sharing service online, but it offers far more to its users than online photo storage.

“The communities that the service facilitates help to ensure its popularity among existing users and add a unique dimension that serves to attract new members.

“Admittedly it probably has more of a trendy image than other services. The service was conceived and developed by a group of young internet enthusiasts and has become the service of choice amongst the young and hip.” Perhaps the most important of all the factors is Flickr’s appeal to bloggers.

More often than not, a blog will carry the phrase “view my Flickr”, rather than “view my photos”. As blogging becomes more and more popular in the mainstream, it is carrying Flickr with it to ever-increasing exposure.

“Bloggers are attracted to Flickr because the service provides tools that are specifically used for uploading images to blogs,” says Burke, who has looked at the blogging phenomenon as part of her thesis and runs her own blog at caoimheb.blogspot.com

“The majority of blogging software and services are compatible with Flickr, making it an easy choice for users with blogs.

“Flickr also provides code that can be inserted into blogs to produce a badge that displays some of the user’s recently uploaded images and provides a link to their account. This adds a nice extra element to weblogs and a huge number of users are choosing to incorporate their Flickr account into their weblogs.”

Flickr’s generous offerings to bloggers may be paying huge dividends for Yahoo. “News of innovative online applications and services tend to spread at a phenomenal rate via blogs,” says Burke. “Consequently it’s only logical that as bloggers are so well catered for by Flickr it has become a popular choice amongst them.”

© 2005 The Irish Times

Lending website banks on the eBay generation

During a World Cup first round match this week, a soccer fan caught an official match ball booted into the crowd. As the camera zoomed in on the delighted fan clutching his prize, the commentator remarked that the ball would soon appear on “that website where you buy things”.

Assuming he was referring to eBay, this episode highlights just how much the concept of the auction website has invaded our consciousness (the name still appears to cause some people trouble though). It is in this global climate that Zopa.com – an online service that allows people to buy and sell loans from and to each other, rather than the bank – has been slowly gathering pace.

The service works as you would expect: borrowers request loans online, and lenders agree to give them the money for a certain return. However, to minimise the risk of default, Zopa divides the lenders’ money into small amounts and distributes it to potential borrowers.

All lenders and borrowers enter into a legally binding contract with their respective borrowers and lenders. The UK-based firm manages the collection of monthly repayments and if any of that money is not paid on time, it uses the same recovery processes as the high-street banks.

Zopa earns money by charging lenders and borrowers a 0.5 per cent fee, and if borrowers take out repayment protection insurance on their loan, it receives commission from its insurance provider.

So far, there are more than 77,000 members. Average gross returns to lenders since the launch has been 6.8 per cent and, in some markets, over 10 per cent, while bad debt levels remain less than 0.05 per cent. Zopa has also topped consumer watchdog lists for best buys.

Lenders can loan as little as £10 (€14.63) over a period of six months to five years, and from the beginning of next month, there is no maximum limit on the amount being loaned. Money is transferred into the lending account either by a regular bank transfer, or by PayPal. Borrowers pay off their loans by the same method or with direct debit, and there is no charge for early repayments.

The tone of the Zopa site is the same light-hearted, personal tone found on other peer-to-peer sites such as Flickr. This taps into the public perception that the service offered by high-street banks is artificially personal, impersonal or rude.

Zopa positions itself as an institution for the modern age. It utilises the social community aspects of the web that have proved so successful for internet giants such as Bebo, Amazon, eBay and Betfair.

And like any good web community, Zopa users are known only by their anonymous user names, eg warlock3000, kroonmeister and spiderwoman. There is a monthly newsletter, discussion forums and a blog.

But the “team” – not the “board of directors” or “management” – is keen to back up the jaunty graphics and jokey content with serious credentials. Zopa has its own credit referencing system, is authorised and regulated by the UK financial services authority and is backed by venture capital firms Benchmark Capital (which backed eBay’s launch and has taken a stake in Bebo) and Wellington Partners. Even the term Zopa has the advantage of both sounding likea fresh, edgy brand name as well as being a financial acronym for ‘”zone of possible agreement'”, the bounds within which both lender and borrower are prepared to work.

Immediately after its launch in the UK, Zopa was applauded for its ingenuity and even bravery, but many commentators felt that it was a bridge too far and doubted its longevity. However, 18 months later the model continues to function, and co-founder James Alexander believes Zopa is now in a position to prove the doubters wrong.

“We launched in the UK in the middle of March last year. It’s a new model and people are still getting comfortable with the idea,” he says.

“At the time of the launch, the press coverage was very much: ‘Well, this is a great idea and all, but we’ll have to wait and see’. At this stage, a year and a bit later, we’re still here and we’re doing well and we’re in a position where we can share information. We can say why people are using it, we can say how people are using it, we can say what the default rates are and so on.”

He continues: “It started when three people left the online bank Egg to start a business. We had no real specific idea, but we had done a lot of consumer work and the idea for Zopa began to grow.

“Firstly, we wondered why doesn’t eBay do money? Instead of buying and selling stuff, it could buy and sell money. Secondly, why do companies borrow money at lower rates than consumers? Around 200 years ago, if a company wanted to borrow money, they went into the bank and haggled with the manager for a loan and then they went off to the West Indies to try and find nutmeg or whatever. Now they issue debt on a bond market, and we wondered: what if there was a bond market for individuals?

“And the third thing we thought of was family loans. When I went to college a few years ago, I needed some money, so I went into the bank and I asked for a loan and they said ‘here’s the money, you can pay it back at 10 per cent over three years’. So I grimaced at this, and thought about it, and then I went to my dad and asked him for a loan,” Alexander recalls. “He offered me the money at a price lower than the bank but that would earn him more than his savings account. This kind of deal has been going on for hundreds of years and we wanted to explore the possibility of using the internet to increase the numbers of dads and families.”

As well as cutting out the middleman, Zopa boasts it can benefit people with irregular earnings who may have the means to pay back a loan, but slip under the radar when it comes to credit rating.

It caters for people who earn good money but not necessarily into their bank account on the last Thursday of each month, and it allays the fears of those who worry that their savings are being invested by the bank in a manner that they would find unethical.

Of course, borrowers still have to go through a credit rating system, and Zopa is not run by a commune, but the appeal to the consumer is the personal choice and the minimal costs.

“Zopa puts people who want to lend in touch with creditworthy people who want to borrow and it cuts out the middleman, so everyone gets a better deal – it’s better, fairer and more transparent,” he says.

“For lenders, you’re getting a better return for your spare cash. The banks will typically offer you 4-4.5 per cent while we are averaging 7 per cent gross and if you’re prepared to take a punt on a bigger risk, you can earn up to 10 per cent. And it’s not like you’re loaning all your cash to one person; it’s split up between at least 50 people.”

Not everyone may feel kooky newsletters belong in a financial service, and there will always be those who have a basic mistrust of lending money to someone called mooseguy37, or indeed of conducting such arrangements online.

And no matter how badly you paint the image of “greedy fat cat bankers”, it is hard to replace the face-to-face interaction with a trained professional.

The banks are hardly running scared at the moment, but if Zopa continues to grow, expansion and/or copycat firms would seem inevitable. So far it is only available to UK residents, but there have been approaches from firms in over 50 different countries looking to import the service.

There has been no specific interest from Ireland yet, but the Irish Financial Services Regulatory Authority has confirmed that as Zopa is already registered in the UK, it would only need to apply for a licence to be registered to trade over here.

For the moment, the international spread begins with Zopa’s launch in the US, where a similar service, Prosper, is already running. And as Alexander admits, even if Zopa doesn’t work out, the precedent has been set.

“Zopa is working and it’s working well. We have 77,000 members and have transacted millions of pounds, cut out the banks and people are getting better deals. It’s not just financial returns but also the social rewards,” Alexander says.

“Regardless of what happens to Zopa, lending and borrowing exchanges will take a large chunk of the market, because it is a better and more efficient system that works for the consumer.”

© 2006 The Irish Times