January 31, 2023

The Platform Cooperative Cloud

Tom Critchlow has written a great essay about The Magic of Small Databases.

We’ve built many tools for publishing to the web - but I want to make the claim that we have underdeveloped the tools and platforms for publishing collections, indexes and small databases. It’s too hard to build these kinds of experiences, too hard to maintain them and a lack of collaborative tools.

Towards the end he talks about how part of the problem isn't really a technical one:

Actually - maybe this isn’t a real technology problem. Or at least not completely a technology problem. I think Substack is a good analogy here. Substack’s innovation comes in two flavors: firstly it is a lovely UX for creating, publishing and maintaining a paid email list. But secondly it’s also creating social validation and educating people that running a paid email list is a viable business.

That reminded me of a post I wrote fifteen years ago (almost to the day) - Let a Thousand Niches Wither.

In that I was grappling with how to release a tiny web service to let authors track their book's rank on Amazon. In the end I put the effort in to turn it into a service and ran it for a few years; but it wasn't ever profitable and eventually died from API-rot.

These days I'd likely just release the single-user version as open-source code, but that doesn't help most of the potential users if they don't have the technical ability to spin up their own version.

Heroku offers a solution to that, where the developer can add a fairly simple JSON file to give Heroku the instructions on how to run a version of the code. Then non-technical users could—without too much know-how—run a version of it from their Heroku account.

That used to let you run tiny sites on the free version of Heroku, but now there's no such thing. Five dollars-a-month isn't too bad, but soon adds up. More importantly, you'd want the ability to run it on a number of different services; not be tied to a single supplier.

I wonder if the Heroku JSON file would allow the bootstrapping of open-source cloud that supports such services? Ideally there would be a platform co-op (or even better, a number of platform co-ops) which would be owned by the users and the maintainers and developers. Maybe this is what co-op cloud will become?

Let me have a one-click "run this on a co-operative cloud" button to add to my open-source projects!

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January 30, 2023

Interesting Things on the Internet: January 30th 2023 Edition

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January 15, 2023

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Medium Design by Keller Easterling

At the end of last year I read Medium Design by Keller Easterling. It didn't quite click with me—I couldn't quite put my finger on why—but here are my dog-eared sections from reading it.

Page 11

It is less like designing objects and more like adjusting the faders and toggles of organization.

Page 13

The fourth part considers the cultural narratives and persuasions that must also be designed to propel a change through culture. It may not be enough to mix new chemistries of space in the absence of these narrative catalysts that can also alter the physical contours of power.

Page 47

Everything will be distributed, ad hoc, individualized, and heterogeneous, except their own one, true, monistic platform.

Page 53

On Ebenezer Howard's ideas in To-Morrow: a Peaceful Path to True Reform in 1898.

The corporation would purchase the land and issue bonds, and it would be paid back by rents yielding but not exceeding an agreed-upon profit for the investors. Once the bonds were repaid, the renters became co-operative owners. Capital was a temporary means to generate value from arrangements&mspace;proximities to employment and community as well as access to green space. Those values and affordances, now sitting on the land, could be managed through collective ownership.

Page 72

In medium design, to consider only digital data as information is to exclude most of the information that a city exchanges.

Like the situated values discussed in the previous chapter, spatial arrangements embody actions and latent potentials. These social, economic, environmental, and political potentials constitute heavy information. Organizations of all kinds become more robust when they do not parse information with a single language, whether that language is lexical, digital, or mathematical. And they are information-rich because of the coexistence rather than the succession of technologies. Most prized is not the newness of technologies but the relationships between them.

Page 106

Perhaps most important, anytime the construction industry is activated, whether to build or subtract, jobs are created. Instead of relying only on housing starts for construction jobs, the deconstruction of houses offers many other kinds of work tied to many industries. Deconstruction could have compounding effects, since the material harvested as well as the physical construction prompts even more jobs related to everything from reuse of buildings to carbon sequestration.

Page 129

The legal apparatus that works so hard to expel people might focus instead on recognizing strings of timed journeys to acquire experience before returning home, or more robust procedures for granting international credentials in exchange for this work. While, for some, a fixed destination is appropriate, for others, there is only certainty about the next ten years of their child's education, or the next four years of college, or a need for professional reaccreditation. For still others, there might be a chance to design a global life for fifteen years of changing locations and educational opportunities.

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January 09, 2023

Interesting Things on the Internet: January 9th 2023 Edition

  • Optometrists, Octopii, Rubber Ducks & Centaurs: my talk at Design for AI, TU Delft, October 2022. Matt Jones always gives me new things to think about. This time it was more rediscovering the idea that I should be able to train a local "AI" to make my life better, without having to hand over all that data, and learnings, to some tech startup.
  • After self-hosting my email for twenty-three years I have thrown in the towel. The oligopoly has won. I'm not giving up on my own email, but this lays out how the big providers are abusing their power.
  • Network effect. "But Mastodon is not a platform. Mastodon is just a tiny part of a concept many have been dreaming about and working on for years. Social media started on the wrong foot. The idea for the read/write web has always been different. Our digital identities weren’t supposed to end up in something like Twitter or Facebook or Instagram." This.
  • We Live In The Age of The Bullshitter. "There is no quick fix for the problem—if I offered one, I would be the very kind of bullshitter I strive to avoid being—but we at the very least need to recognize what it is we are trying to change. We are trying to create a culture of thoughtfulness and insight, where people check carefully to see whether what they’re saying is true, and excessively egotistical people are looked upon with deep suspicion."
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January 03, 2023

What If Co-operatives Aren't the Answer?

Co-ops or workers' revolution? is an interesting critique of lots-of-co-operatives being how to move to a better society. I'd been tending towards co-ops being the way forwards, but having read that I think (as ever) the answer is more nuanced.

I'd also been assuming that DoES Liverpool is a co-op in all but legal structure. However, there isn't an intent in ownership of the means of production in there; rather, it's a stewardship of the means of production. Aiming to expand access to tools, capabilities and space for everyone, and to sustain that access in the future.

It's made me realise (even more) that commoning is a better description of what we're doing. Maybe there are better legal structures that we should be aspiring to apply? If there aren't, maybe we should be looking to construct them and set examples.

The difference is arguably in what we don't do. For example, it's often suggested that we run courses, or bid for funding for art projects like the River of Light Festival, or Eurovision celebrations. That would be the easier option, and I think we'd be pretty successful with such an approach; however, that would put us in competition with our community. We'd much rather support members of the community when they're running courses or bidding for work.

It's also in how we don't let any one party monopolise use of the facilities. Whether that's turning down community groups that want to take up too many of the available evenings to use the events room; or the rule that you can only book your next (single) visit to use the laser-cutter.

A fair bit of that isn't explicitly written down, and comes under a general "don't take the piss" rule. That's useful because it allows some discretion in how it's applied, although it runs the risk of falling foul of the tyranny of structurelessness.

In general, that and the culture of the space do a reasonable job of protecting this commons from bad actors, but we should be working out how to strengthen it with more formal and legal options. More homework to do then I guess.

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December 12, 2022

Interesting Things on the Internet: December 12th 2022 Edition

  • The Billionaire and the Anarchists. Choose anarchy, you're not a temporarily embarrassed billionaire.
  • What if failure is the plan?. "I highly doubt that Twitter is going to be a 100-year company. For better or worse, I think failure is the end state for Twitter. The question is not if but when, how, and who will be hurt in the process?"
  • The small things Manifesto. The next big thing will be a lot of small things.
  • ooh.directory. An excellent resource from Phil Gyford. As he says: "For years I’ve seen people moan that “nobody blogs any more”, all while my feed reader was overflowing with new blogposts I never had time to read. I want to demonstrate that there are lots and lots of people blogging, about all kinds of subjects!"
  • Becoming Athletic In My 50s. Get a bike. Play out on it.
  • Word Persons and Web Persons. I wonder if I'm more of an Internet person than a web person, but...
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November 14, 2022

Interesting Things on the Internet: November 14th 2022 Edition

  • Don’t Read Off The Screen. Good presentation advice, well presented.
  • The Hollow Core of Kevin Kelly's "Thousand True Fans" Theory. I think we're (too slowly) getting a bit closer to the good parts of 1000 true fans, but there's a lot to this critique.
  • After Twitter. "The internet’s town square should never have been one specific website with its own specific rules and incentives. It should have been, and should be, the web itself."
  • That last link isn't really about Twitter, or Mastodon. However, I should note that the Fediverse (which includes Mastodon, but also Instagram-a-likes such as Pixelfed and more and they all work with each other!) is better. I'm over there as @amcewen@mastodon.me.uk and there's a company instance so you can follow @MCQN_Ltd@social.mcqn.com too if you like.

This week's RSS additions (see aboutfeeds.com if you don't know what RSS is, RSS is how I find most of these Interesting Things...):

  • Tom Critchlow's blog, although reading more of his posts will just make me want to tinker with making more web tools myself...
  • Heather Burns' blog. Good to keep track of challenges to privacy and how the Government is messing this up.

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November 07, 2022

The Regeneration/Innovation Cycle

Of late there's been another round of articles in the local press discussing the lack of "inward investment" and "Grade A office space" in Liverpool.

It's a perennial topic, and these articles haven't added anything new. They'll blame the Council for not attracting the big employers; argue that we don't have enough Grade A office space, and that maybe there needs to be public investment to bail out incentivize the property developers; and add a dash of the "compete with Manchester..." bogeyman.

These supposedly hard-hitting articles never explore the attempts which have been made to solve this issue because—possibly unwittingly—they're part of The Innovation/Regeneration Cycle. As a result we never learn from our mistakes.

It's not specific to Liverpool. We have it all over the UK, and elements further afield too. Liverpool is just where I run into it the most, given that I live here (and where I'm part of an alternative approach).

Those playing the game claim that they're trying to make the locale/country/world better, and that succeeding at innovating or regenerating an area is hard (which it is). However, I find Stafford-Beer's razor more useful here: The purpose of a system is what it does. Not what you say it will do, or hope it will do.

Like any game it has its rules and players. The rules aren't laid down in a convenient booklet, and it's presented as if it's just the natural way of the world. That's not true. There are many different ways we could approach revitalising our cities, towns and villages.

I tend to take Joshua's advice that "the only winning move is not to play". But I'd much rather we could work out a new game with better outcomes for the city.

Back to the current game. What does it look like?

The Innovation / Regeneration Cycle: 1. Talk about how your big project is going to solve the city's problems; 2. Get public money; 3. Build white elephant (the property developers or other benefiting parties do quite well out of this phase); 4. Quietly forget about the failing project; 5. Goto 1

It's best if you can play multiple cycles concurrently, somewhat like singing a round. That way steps 1 and 3 (top and bottom in the diagram) for new projects can provide opportunities for press releases and activity, which will distract and excite people, thus helping with step 4 (the failing) of any earlier projects.

Not everyone playing the game is just in it for themselves. However, those trying to improve the city are up against a system that is indifferent to that outcome.

It's not always property. There has to be a grain of truth in it all to make it vaguely believable, but you can overhype it because you never really have to deliver on it. There are versions of the game going on around any latest buzzword in tech (which is why it's important to heed Laurie Anderson's advice to "Get a really good bullshit detector. And learn how to use it.")

Occasionally you get one that isn't a complete white elephant and actually achieves something beyond enriching the players and perpetuating the cycle. This is by chance, rather than design. It will be held up as an example that the system works, while overlooking the poor efficiency of the approach.

Sensor City, a Cycle Case Study

There are many, many examples of this in Liverpool, but let's look at Sensor City. It's neat and self-contained. (As far as I know). I'm not an accountant, nor an expert in funding, but I think I'm reading the annual reports right. I am an expert in the Internet of Things and sensor technology, so have had a pretty good view of developments professionally. Despite—or perhaps because of—that, I've only visited the building twice.

Step One: Hype

In 2013 the Government announced plans for a £15 million boost for local business growth at universities. Liverpool University and Liverpool John Moores University, with help from the Local Enterprise Partnership, submitted a bid; each uni will chip in £5m to match £5m from the Government, as outlined in the propsal...

To establish a unique sensor-systems business incubator focused on creating, nurturing and establishing commercially-viable, hi-tech companies; and, over a 10-year period, drive growth both locally and beyond, creating a cluster of over 300 new businesses and over 1000 jobs in emerging technologies.

We hosted them at the IoT Liverpool meetup to share their plans. There were grand announcements from the Chancellor, events to share the architect's plans, opportunities to roll it into the "£2bn Knowledge Quarter vision", and so many more...

Step Two: Get the Money

Actually, they get the £5m from the Government, and then a further £5m from ERDF to cover some of the amounts they were due to chip in. The company is incorporated in 2014. The 2017 accounts list another £2m of "other grants": £1m from each university.

Step Three: Building

With the money secured, they do need to actually build something. They manage that, although on the face of it it doesn't seem to be value for money.

During development the "assets in the course of construction are valued at cost". Once built they're revalued and "depreciation and impairment losses are subsequently charged on the revalued amount". In the 2017 accounts, they note that "an external valuation" valued the building at £2.19m. "This valuation is below cost [...] resulting in a £7,701,102 charge". Does that mean they made a £7.7m loss on building the building?

With the building open, in 2018 you can invite the press in, show visiting ministers and dignitaries around, enter award competitions, and make a go of things. If you're lucky, you might also get further rounds of public money for other projects, such as £3.5m from Innovate UK. Remind everyone of your key objective to "Create 300 new businesses and 1000 new jobs within the next 10 years".

Step Four: Reality

The wheels had started to come off the project in 2019. The executive director had left at the end of 2018 and there were rumours of it being folded into the management of the Science Park. Then in the 2020 accounts there was a further £1.5m impairment charge—with the building being revalued at £467k, about the same as my 3-bed ex-council terraced house in the Cambridge suburbs!—as it booked a loss of £1.8m.

The interim executive director left in May 2020, handing over control to Colin Sinclair of Sciontec. In December the building closed for a refit to "transform the Sensor City building and its internal facilities", aiming to reopen in Autumn 2021.

The 2021 accounts are, compared to previous years, relatively uneventful. Only a £250k loss this year, with the building being further devalued to £430k. The accounts continue to state the objective to "Create 300 new businesses and 1000 new jobs within the next 10 years". However, a single paragraph at the end of the accounts noted:

Events after the reporting period

As of 15 October 2021 all Sensor City Liverpool Limited employees were made redundant, as previously discussed at an Emergency Board meeting of 17 August 2021, and subsequently agreed by the directors. The costs associated with the redundancy process totalled £56,044.08 which includes an element of P3 salary.

The building, unsurprisingly, failed to reopen in Autumn 2021, or at all since. In a Freedom of Information request Julian Todd found that "Sensor City is loss making with the pre-Covid-19 loss of £1m per annum requiring both HEIs to invest £500k each to ensure that it is maintained." (section 10.4).

Back to Step One

Conveniently, while I was drafting this post, they have completed the loop. At the end of September there was the grand announcement that £2m will be invested to relaunch Sensor City "as a global hub for innovation, technology, digitalisation and the internet of things". So, err, the same thing that we spent £12m to do five years ago?

Infinite Loop?

I don't like complaining about things without suggesting some alternative approaches as possible solutions. However, there isn't "one weird trick" that will solve Liverpool's ills, despite our desire—and our leaders' exhortations—that one exist.

Given the universities, with some level of access to academic IoT and sensor expertise (there's always an insulating layer of usually-limited-in-knowledge business-dev folk between us and the academics), couldn't turn Sensor City into a global hub of sensor tech, I can't see how giving control to property developers is going to fare any better.

I'm not especially bothered about the new buildings, or the wasted money; I'm frustrated by the fact that it crowds out genuine activity, and is a barrier to the development and growth of the local tech community. The exact opposite of what it claims to want.

We were promised 300 new businesses and a 1000 new jobs, in sensor and IoT technologies. The construction firms got £10m. The property developers got a new Grade A asset. Those new businesses and jobs are conspicuously absent. And the answer is to spend a further £2m on the building?!? How about we acknowledge that it didn't work last time, and have some difficult conversations about how we might fix it?

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October 17, 2022

Interesting Things on the Internet: October 17th 2022 Edition

  • It was the Festival of Maintenance last weekend, and the talks are online. Liz Slade's talk about the cultural evolution and decentralized nature of the Unitarian Church stuck many chords with my thoughts on the makerspace and hackspace communities. Hopefully they can grow into similar longevity of the centuries old church.
  • The opening statement by Josep Borrell Fontelles at the EU Ambassadors Conference. video version. A clear-headed and mature explanation of our situation and challenges. "Our prosperity has been based on cheap energy coming from Russia. Russian gas – cheap and supposedly affordable, secure, and stable. It has been proved not [to be] the case. And the access to the big China market, for exports and imports, for technological transfers, for investments, for having cheap goods. I think that the Chinese workers with their low salaries have done much better and much more to contain inflation than all the Central Banks together.

    So, our prosperity was based on China and Russia – energy and market. Clearly, today, we have to find new ways for energy from inside the European Union, as much as we can, because we should not change one dependency for another. The best energy is the one that you produce at home. That will produce a strong restructuring of our economy – that is for sure."
  • Developer Landlords Are Trying to Take Over Liverpool. Not sure "trying" is the right word there, sadly.
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October 03, 2022

Interesting Things on the Internet: October 3rd 2022 Edition

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