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September 15, 2014
Interesting Things on the Internet: September 15th 2014
- Labour Pains, Labour of Love. For selfish reasons, mostly because the North (of England) can't easily join Scotland, I'd rather the Scots vote no to Independence. However, this article shows how, were I living in the home of my surname (I think it's great- or great-great-grandfather you need to return to for this branch of McEwen to be in Scotland) I'd be seriously considering voting yes. Whichever way, let's hope it shakes some of the torpor from the political debate here in England.
- The Death of Adulthood in American Culture. Maybe we all need to grow up a bit.
- With genetic testing, I gave my parents the gift of divorce. Humans are messy, lives are complicated, people keep secrets. While there's quite possibly a similar story with a marvellously happy ending, we should design our systems to acknowledge the possible downsides.
- Here today, gone tomorrow. Being productive is difficult. If there was one insight I gleaned from spending a year or two failing to build a successful to-do list startup, it's that it isn't about making lists, it's about crossing things off.
September 08, 2014
Interesting Things on the Internet: September 8th 2014
- Waffle on Social Media "The things that will last on the internet are not owned. Plain old websites, blogs, RSS, irc, email."
- Antilogs: How To Draw The Right Lesson Learned
- Putting Awesome into words. Zarino doing a great job of explaining Awesome Liverpool and the Awesome Foundation. A lovely project.
- Limits to Growth was right. New research shows we're nearing collapse " Wars could break out; so could genuine global environmental leadership. Either could dramatically affect the trajectory." Fingers crossed for the latter, eh?
- My Cousin Is Not a Hero "Sometimes, a bunch of terrible things happen right in a row, and it’s just terrible. It doesn’t make for a good story. It doesn’t make you a better person. It just sucks."
- Not Safe for Not Working On. A good look at the wider issue (for developers, and which should be demanded by users) around the exposing of celebrity nude photo trading networks.
- What is “fairness”? Great piece about the fairness of algorithms by Danah Boyd
- There's poverty in the UK, but we are better off calling it inequality. John Lanchester on good form.
September 07, 2014
Laptops and Looms II: The Californian Ideology
As I mentioned in my main Laptops and Looms II writeup, I'm writing up the four "things I've been pondering" in separate blog posts. This is the first one. See the main write up for links (once they're written) to the others. I don't have any firm conclusions to draw, these posts are part me-working-out-what-I-think and part starting points for further discussion (comments or, even better, trackbacks/links to other blog posts welcome).
The picture above shows the mind-map I'd sketched out around this topic on the train over to the Peak District.
I guess a good starting point would be for me to try to define what I mean by "the Californian Ideology". It's a convenient shorthand term that I think I picked up from Dan Hon. It's definitely something he's been digging into in his newsletters (his round-up/recap centenary issue is a good starting point for some further reading).
It's the prevailing narrative in the tech startup world. Come up with idea; raise venture capital to fund you running at it; aim to disrupt some incumbent market, by finding new efficiencies enabled by smartphones and/or the Internet; either crash and burn when your funding runs out or, for the lucky few, achieve fame and fortune when you're the latest unbelievably-priced acquisition for Google or Facebook.
It's covered breathlessly by the media, and lauded by politicians from the Prime Minister down to local councillors looking for regeneration wins as the way the country is going to climb out of the great recession.
It's also just as likely to result in eye-rolling and knowing sighs when discussed by the less blinkered inhabitants of Tech City.
The problem isn't with people making a fortune building businesses, nor with them using digital technology and the Internet to do so.
The problem is that if that's the reward system then those of us who don't fit into that have a harder time succeeding with our ventures, and fewer people will take an alternate path, because they don't realise that the alternatives exist.
As Deb Chachra eloquently explains, these startups may be the Indicator Species of a wider problem.
I'm wondering if there's a European alternative to the Californian Ideology. One that's more equal and inclusive, more empathetic (to steal another of Dan Hon's threads (section 1.2)). Maybe one which has a less centralized architecture? One that looks at moonshots to solve some of society's bigger challenges, rather than finding "clever" hacks around regulation to provide a slightly smoother life to the already privileged smartphone-wielding classes.
Or if disruption is so prized, maybe Matt Jones is right and we need better imaginations which can improve upon (or disrupt) consumer capitalism as a way to organise the world.
What are the new myths we can build around a better world? Which companies, projects, individuals... are the indicator species of an improved society?
There are a few early signs of a different way. Not nearly enough success stories yet, but that's something I'm hoping this dialogue will help encourage.
There's Newspaper Club, I Can Make and I hope my efforts at MCQN Ltd will add to that in time. In his talk after mine at Laptops and Looms II, Paul Millar related the story of Fairphone, showing that it isn't necessarily about being anti-VC and against scale.
That's an important part of it for me, and something I'll return to when I write the blog post in this series on Scale. There's nothing wrong with keeping the company small and profitable and friendly, and in the discussion during my session Tom Armitage (IIRC) made the excellent point that tools like Kickstarter let people deliver smaller projects and then move on, in a way that would've required (and tied them to) formation of a company in the past. However, some of the problems demand a lot of solving and I'd like some of the successes to be huge as well.
Many of the things we want to do will require funding too. The risk with the venture capital route is that it ties you into an exit. If you're building a business to make difference to more than just your bank balance, as most techies working in startups believe they are, then your big moment of success can often turn out in retrospect to be the time when what you were building started to die. I've lived through that personally when we were acquired by Microsoft, and we've seen it happen to enough others now (although I guess Yahoo! has stopped acquiring people, right?) to stop falling for it.
At present the poster child for a better approach, at scale, is Government Digital Service. It's no surprise that there were enough attendees from GDS that we could joke that Laptops and Looms was a GDS off-site...
Their Design Principles are a good starting point for the right approach, coupled with their (and the loomerati's) mantra culled from Tim Berners-Lee's Olympic ceremony tweet that "this is for everyone".
Tell me your reckons.
September 02, 2014
Laptops and Looms II: The Return to Cromford
It followed the same format as last time, with talks in the morning, activities after lunch, and communal eating/socialising in the evening. All loosely but deftly organised, meaning there was much time to catch up with pretty much everyone and lots of space for thinking and talking in smaller groups. This time our activities included a visit to Crich Tramway Village and the Heights of Abraham
I camped again, although this time stayed at The Miners' Standard campsite, which was cheap and cheerful with a nice locals' pub (with some decent food) at the campsite entrance.
I have mixed feelings about the event. Not because it wasn't a wonderful few days catching up with old friends and making new ones, it was. And not because the discussions and talks weren't interesting and illuminating, they were.
But I've got a tiny nagging feeling of dissatisfaction at it all. I think it's a sense of an opportunity missed.
I had a touch of that after the first Laptops & Looms, as I'd have liked us to dig deeper into Dan Hill's questions on engaging with the dark matter of policy and how technology fits into the wider world.
That was always going to be a big ask, and I went into the conference fully aware that my expectations were going to be too high for anything to match the first one, never mind exceed.
With that in mind, the fact that I've only mixed feelings now shows how good an event it was. I'm worried that this blog post will come over all negative, when what I'm trying to do is (a) explain my frustration at myself, and (b) invoke some #longconf asynchronous blogging, etc. discussion around some of the themes (that I wanted to discuss at L&L).
In the run-up to the event I did some thinking about what I was interested in discussing. I didn't have a good narrative or thread to tie them all together, although they overlap in different ways, and so I settled on a more general "four things on my mind" title (although that's rather a grand name for it).
On the train on the way over I mind-mapped my thoughts around the topics, expanding on the rough outline I'd done previously. I didn't, still don't, have any firm conclusions to draw, so my intent was to present some themes that I hoped we'd expand upon in some of the ad-hoc conversations over the duration of the event. As a result, I figured that it would be better to present them as a more informal talk rather than something with slides and slick presentation. This is a paper-prototype of my thoughts, hopefully encouraging engagement from others, rather than Things I Have Pondered handed down on
tablets of stone Powerpoint slides.
My frustration comes from my imposter syndrome kicking in when we got there on the first day, which meant that I didn't explain that I was ready to go, sans-slides, and made it sound like I needed some more time to pull things together.
As a result of that and general circumstances, I ended up presenting on the final day. Which wasn't an ideal slot for a talk conceived to give us room for further discussion.
When, as is often the case during Laptops and Looms (and something Mosse Sjaastad rightly noted as part of what makes it such a good event), it grew into more of a group discussion I let it run. Not that I had much choice after the first few minutes - my facilitation/interruption skills aren't that finely honed.
So we dug a bit into my first theme - the Californian Ideology. As Matt points out, we ended up re-treading old ground a little, although my intent was to move beyond that onto solutions, better language, and new ground.
With hindsight, if we were only going to cover one of my four topics, then "Digital by default for everything else" would have been a much better choice, but I hadn't expected us not to get to it until it was too late. Sorry about that.
Anyway, my talk's loss is - hopefully - everyone else's gain. I'm aiming to make time to cover each of my four topics - the Californian Ideology (and a search for a European alternative?); digital by default for everything else; cities; and scaling - in separate blog posts.
I disagree with Matt (in the linked post above) that Medium is the place to thrash that out, because I think we can iterate through it more quickly over a pint. But maybe blog posts (Medium feels like the place we'd whinge about the toxic startup culture, whereas blog posts are for teasing out solutions ;-) will help set some background an let us do some initial thinking on the topic. Then maybe we can pick a place/time for a mini-laptop and looms session (is that tablets and looms?)
My writings around Laptops and Looms III'll update this post as and when I get my thoughts collected and written down, and will link to the four blog posts of the apocalypse then too...
- Laptops and Looms II: The Californian Ideology [added 7/9/2014]
Reports from others
September 01, 2014
Interesting Things on the Internet: September 1st 2014
- How to be Polite… for Geeks. I don't think this is just for geeks, personally.
- A right to build: An open approach to housing provision: self-provision. An interesting take on the UK's housing situation. It'd be great to, for example, see Liverpool's Mayor Joe Anderson experimenting with this approach in some of the areas with great community, like Granby, rather than the business-as-usual approach.
- I have every admiration for Linda Sandvik in following her conscience even when that means resigning from something she loves.
- Adman in Techland: 8 Points of Perspective. Some good thoughts/tips on running a business in here.
August 25, 2014
Interesting Things on the Internet: August 25th 2014
- The broken Promise of the Mobile Web. It is depressing at times how long some of this stuff takes to make it into the mainstream. We were working on tight integration between the phone and the browser for Microsoft Mobile Explorer back in 2000, but the handset manufacturers were (understandably but disappointingly) afraid of ceding their UI to the browser. The WAP specs made a nod towards it in the WTAI stuff, but it was pretty clear when we tried to implement the spec that no-one else would succeed with it in its WAP1.0 form. Then in 2007 I co-founded a startup that was going to provide an alternative to iPhone UI, all browser-based, but rumours of Android nixed us finding any funding. Hopefully the FireFox phone or Indie Phone will finally realise the promise...
- What does “Agile” mean? Nick Pelling gives a good buzzword-free explanation of Agile - "Really, to make a good practical contribution to the majority of the projects I see happening these days, you need to have the skills both of traditional software engineering and of contemporary Agile practices. (It’s not an either-or choice, you almost always need the two simultaneously.)"
- What’s Neutral about the Net. The sage Doc Searl's takes a good stab at explaining why "net neutrality" is an important concept, and one we should fight for.
- Social media is humanising – it’s how we use it that can dehumanise and this excerpt (pdf) about trolls from Jamie Bartlett's new book (also via Alison) work well as a pair of articles on the dark side of ourselves, and how we need strive to contain it.
August 18, 2014
Interesting Things on the Internet: August 18th 2014
- Would a citizen’s income be better than our benefits system? "There would be other advantages from such a system. First, it would be universal and hence avoid the stigma attached to benefits. Secondly, people taking a job or starting a business would have the security of knowing that they would still have their citizen’s income if the venture did not work out."
- Five Years of "Not the Valley"
- How to Be Polite. Bits of that reminds me of my approach to my first year (and maybe a bit longer) at uni. I don't practice quite as much now, but maybe I should.
- Ten years of OpenStreetMap. A nice overview of all that the OSM community has achieved so far.
August 11, 2014
Interesting Things on the Internet: August 11th 2014
- The Public Service Internet. This predates Adrian Hon's TEDxLiverpool talk, but it's not far off a write-up of what he was advocating.
- PSI Force. And once you've read that first link, then read this and think about how you can help. I know it's hard if you've only ever known the commercial Internet, but those of us who experienced it before commerce came to dominate know that it could be all the wonderful things it is now and so much more!
- Snow on the Water. Hmm, seems to be a web-we-lost theme emerging to this week's links, although maybe a better term is the web-we-haven't-built-yet...
- Seeing Like a Network. Turns out you already learned how to safely use the Internet, by passing notes in high school.
- A good state would give each of us the chance to thrive. "the state should engage independent civil society not for profit but in the experimental and competitive provision of public serves without ever endangering the universal minimum."
- What It's Like Raising Money As A Woman In Silicon Valley. We've a long way to go, but I guess at least we're starting to acknowledge the problem.
August 10, 2014
Moderately Messed Up
In some ways this is a long overdue blog post, but in other ways I'm not 100% sure of the conclusions I'm drawing. I guess I need to take my usual approach of writing about it, and see where things go.
Getting on for the past year, life has been hard.
Some self-inflicted and some just unfortunate combinations of circumstances and events that on their own wouldn't really be much of a big deal.
At the same time, there have been lots of examples of life being great, like having my book published (I still haven't written anything about that here, have I? I don't have "all the words need to go in the book" as an excuse now...) - and actually, the Italian translation: L'Internet delle Cose was published recently! - given talks in Bahrain and Ireland and at TEDxLiverpool...
As Sam Altman alludes to in a recent blog post Founder Depression, it feels like I've spent most of 2014 living with the cognitive dissonance of life that seems on the outside to be going fantastically, while privately that's far from the case.
I don't think I'm depressed, although lots of this honest and touching blog post from Ethan Zuckerman rings true. His comment that "smart friends counseled me that publishing a book often leads to feelings of loss and mourning" seems amusingly appropriate.
I'm sure depression is a spectrum rather than a binary state, so there's probably an element of that in there; however, it feels more like a combination of exhaustion and stress. This passage from Ethan's post sums up how things have been of late:
Everything scales until it doesn't. And in retrospect (and stupidly obvious when written down in black and white), writing a book alongside being CTO of a startup, continuing work on my own startup with a rather sizeable side project was always going to be asking too much.
Partner that with GNL stretching my cashflow to near breaking point and a an approach to consulting that's far too principled for my own (financial) good, and I think that neatly sums things up.
Rev Dan Catt does an excellent job of explaining life when trying to do the right thing by your conscience. I battle the same issues, and look for ways that I can prosper at the same time as making the world a more equal place and leading the Internet of Things into more open and better territory. At least, unlike Dan, I don't have any dependents...
I think the end is in sight. DoES Liverpool has been going through growing pains for a while now, and we seem to be getting things in place for that now (mostly thanks to Steve, Andy and John, rather than me).
Another of Rev Dan Catt's blog posts, detailing how he spotted, and dealt with, mild depression helped keep things on track, as I spotted a similar cause-and-effect in myself. Getting stuck into writing code, and making things, definitely helps keep me sane - so I've been indulging my interest in that, outside of client projects and whenever I've felt that I needed a break.
Even within paid work, the coding is always good, and that's been part of the problem this year - I've had lots of small projects on, and plenty of speaking gigs, and while I enjoy all of that, it's meant the creative-work-to-admin ratio hasn't been very good.
This blog post isn't a cry for help, as I say, things are mostly fine, and definitely headed in the right direction. That said, if you've got creative paid projects that I could help with, as always, get in touch. I've got some great family and friends, who are all very supportive.
I'm writing this more for future-me to refer back to, and because I always appreciate similar blog posts that I read from others. And to acknowledge that life is hard, and we don't all have to pretend it's wonderful all the time, despite what the advertisers want us to believe.
August 04, 2014
Interesting Things on the Internet: August 4th 2014
- The Internet of Things Will Ruin Birthdays. The perils of giving more control to people who want to find excuses to insert their brand into your life.
- Privacy Economics. Tim Bray showing a different (to last week's Anil Dash link) way that privacy is a grey area, and how that's good.
- A recipe for starting & prototyping new projects Good tips for life in the digital age.
- Amazon v Hachette: The enemy of your enemy is not your friend. This pretty much sums up this author's take on the Amazon/Hachette battle.
- 'Artists and makers, it's time to be leaders' From John Maeda. Indeed, otherwise we cede control to the beancounters and form-fillers...
- IFB shows Liverpool’s business needs more diversity. Laura on good form exploring how the recent business-jamboree International Festival for Business could be better when it next runs (in 2016).
And a video, Numbers, by Robert Hloz imagining a world where some people see numbers above everyone else's heads: