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September 02, 2014

Laptops and Looms II: The Return to Cromford

Tent pitched, with a view over the surrounding countryside

Three years on from my favourite conference experience ever and Russell, Greg and Matt arranged a sequel.

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.

And given the work many of the attendees have since done at GDS and what we've achieved so far with DoES Liverpool I wondered if we could push things on a level.

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 II

I'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...

Reports from others

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September 01, 2014

Interesting Things on the Internet: September 1st 2014

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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.
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August 18, 2014

Interesting Things on the Internet: August 18th 2014

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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.
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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:

"My guess is that my depression is significantly less visible to people who know me only professionally. I’ve never missed work or another professional obligation. I teach classes, give talks, advise students, attend meetings. The difference is almost entirely internal. When I’m my normal self, those activities are routine, easy, and leave a good bit of physical and emotional energy for creativity and expression. When I’m depressed, the everyday is a heavy lift, and there’s little space for anything else. The basic work of answering email and managing my calendar expands to fill any available time in the day. I’m far less productive, which triggers a voice that reminds me that I’m an unqualified impostor whose successes are mere happy accidents and that my inability to write a simple blog post is proof positive that I’m in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing, in need of walking away from my life as currently configured and starting over. It’s an exhausting dialog, one that crops up for moments at a time when I’m well, but can fill weeks and months when I am not.

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...

"So that's where I am now. Toughing it out in the freelance world, sometimes turning down opportunities because I can't reconcile my own feelings while at the same time running out of money and wondering if it's more or less morally responsible to make sure my kids get fed vs working for an org where I'd feel uncomfortable."

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.

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August 04, 2014

Interesting Things on the Internet: August 4th 2014

And a video, Numbers, by Robert Hloz imagining a world where some people see numbers above everyone else's heads:

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The Academy of Curiousity's Manifesto for Liverpool

This recent Twitter conversation led to me hearing about the Academy of Curiousity's Manifesto for Liverpool.

On starting to read it, I discovered the manifesto contains a series of questions to work through. So I figured it would be interesting to blog my answers, and it's taken a little time to find the free space to do that.

In response to the preamble before the questions, I think that the artists (and other citizens and society members) should be looking to set the agenda, not follow it. What does Liverpool need, what does the UK need, what does the world need? We should play an active role in the discussions about society and the world around us.

And onto my responses. Ping me if you end up doing the same, I'm more interested in the conversation than in my responses...

1. Write down as many artist-led collectives operating in Liverpool as you can:

The Kazimier; Re-Dock; elements of DoES Liverpool... Is The Royal Standard a collective? What about 90squared?

2. What does it mean to say you are an artists from/or working in Liverpool? Does it matter to you? Why? Why not?

The Liverpool bit is important to me, all my physical work is signed as such. It matters in a simple way because I moved back to help make the city better, having grown up with it in a pretty poor way. It matters in a bigger way because the city is open to new ideas and thought in a way that Cambridge never was (to me at least). And it's a city, so big enough to have an impact on the world, but small enough that an individual can make a difference in the direction, the meter of that impact.

3. Does Liverpool have a specific aesthetic or shared vocabulary? If so, how would you describe it? Is it necessary to have one?

I don't think there's one aesthetic, nor should there be. The city is far too big and contains far too many artists for that. However, there's definitely an strand of laser-cut birch ply, Arduino-powered interactivity and interaction with the Internet running through my sub-section of the arts scene.

4. What underpins what we do as unique in comparison to other cities?

I think there's more crossover between technologists and artists in Liverpool than you get in most other cities, save maybe Bristol, in the UK. I think that benefits both the arts world and the technology community.

5. Where do artists in Liverpool engage with each other in critical discourse?

Twitter. The Double Negative. Seven Streets. In the bars around the Ropewalks. In the Camp and Furnace.

6. What is the best version of ourselves?

When we're honest with ourselves and each other. When we look out to the rest of the world and participate in it, rather than merely setting ourselves against it. When we celebrate work because it's good, not just because it was created within the city boundaries.

7. What opportunities for artists would you like to see developed in Liverpool?

A more porous seam between technology and the arts - allowing technologists to influence the arts, but possibly more importantly encouraging artists to influence technology.

What type of environment do you need to be successful in Liverpool? Draw what it would look like or feel like in the space below:

It's a work-in-progress (and probably always will be), but DoES Liverpool provides a large part of what I need.

View of DoES Liverpool's workshop

I'm not sure I'm ready to become a fellow of the academy, but I'm definitely up for continuing the conversations and critical dialogue. More of this sort of thing, please.

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July 28, 2014

Interesting Things on the Internet: July 28th 2014 Edition

  • What is public? Anil Dash doing a great job of setting out how public/private isn't a black and white issue. "Ultimately, we rely on a set of unspoken social agreements to make it possible to live in public and semi-public spaces."
  • ‘Hello there’: eight lessons from Microsoft’s awful job loss memo "An experience is something that leaves an impression on you; everyday activities ought to do no such thing, or we would all be exhausted within minutes of waking up. Using your phone, except perhaps when it’s brand new, should not be an experience."

And a video of Bruce Sterling's talk at FAB10:

"I'm a smart city but my brain is run in California"

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July 21, 2014

Interesting Things on the Internet: July 21st 2014 Edition

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