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October 27, 2014

Interesting Things on the Internet: October 27th 2014

  • The quarryman's symphony. It doesn't sound like much, but this video of a quarryman orchestrating the moving of hugs blocks of marble like a conductor does an orchestra is captivating.
  • Yes We Can. But Should We? We need more critical thinking around the maker movement, IoT, and probably life in general :-)
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October 20, 2014

Interesting Things on the Internet: October 20th 2014

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October 13, 2014

Interesting Things on the Internet: October 13th 2014

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September 29, 2014

Interesting Things on the Internet: September 29th 2014

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September 28, 2014

Speaking at TEDxLiverpool

I started an entry hear to link to the talk I gave at TEDxLiverpool back in July, but then decided it made more sense, given that it's entitled The Internet of Nice Things, for it to live on the MCQN Ltd blog. So it's over there, if you'd like to watch.

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September 22, 2014

Interesting Things on the Internet: September 22nd 2014

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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.
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September 08, 2014

Interesting Things on the Internet: September 8th 2014

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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).

My mindmap on the Californian Ideology

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.

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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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