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November 20, 2013
The BBC World Service Archive
I've been enjoying exploring some of the material in the BBC World Service archive, particularly some of the programmes tagged with "Liverpool".
I've also been improving the archive, by suggesting some better tags for the content as I listen to things. I'm impressed with the level of finish to the project, particularly for an R&D project - the registration system remembered the page I'd been trying to reach when I first registered, rather than just dump me at the homepage once I'd clicked the link in the email; the tagging process is easy as is suggesting more suitable images for the illustration. If I've one suggestion from having used it for a bit, it would be to use the user-suggested tags for the image searches (or maybe let the user suggest a search phrase). On this programme about the Anglican Cathedral's Lady Chapel I had a choice of a number of photos of random cathedrals, or generic shots of Liverpool, and the nearest I could find was one that I knew was a view from the top of the cathedral, whereas presumably at least a shot of the Anglican Cathedral itself would be available (and a better choice). But that's nit-picking really, it's a great resource.
Tristan Ferne, from BBC R&D, has published an excellent set of describing how they approached the project. Well worth a read.
November 10, 2013
Call Centres, the New Factories Making Annoyed People
Will Davies has written a thought-provoking piece on his blog about the charade of the call centre interaction. It gets to the heart of the way that call centres are engineered interactions where companies suddenly pretend to become concerned and interested in you, when in fact they're just suddenly becoming concerned about losing a source of profit.
It reminded me of an anecdote I was told a few months back, about young unemployed people in north Liverpool. There'd been some survey to try to work out why they didn't want the jobs on offer in call centres, and the young people didn't regard those as "proper jobs". When asked what "proper jobs" would be, they spoke about wanting to work on the docks or in factories like their parents, or their grandparents, had.
Now in the short-term, I can agree that taking jobs that are available (although I'm not convinced there are enough of those going around at the moment) is better than no job, but I don't think that prevents us from working out better directions in which to take society to try to improve matters in the medium-term.
With globalisation pushing more of the manufacturing abroad, call centres do seem to becoming one of the remaining mass employers of the working class.
The problem is that working in a call centre doesn't produce anything. Other than customers at varying levels of annoyed at having to fight their way to a conclusion. Whilst I suspect that sitting on a production line all day wasn't the height of fun work, at least there was the feeling that you were producing something of use, of value.
Over my career I've worked on projects that have come to naught, and others which have resulted in my code playing a part in millions of mobile phones. The work itself was pretty similar in both cases, but there's a noticeable additional reward of little blips of pride whenever you encounter the results of your labour outside the workplace - spotting somebody using a phone you helped create.
There was some discussion about mass-manufacturing and factory work during Laptops and Looms, with a charge being laid that those of us lamenting the loss of manufacturing in the UK were romanticising the past, and that factory work was hard, unrewarding and dangerous. That may well be true, but moving it further away from where we encounter it isn't going to do anything to change that.
Maybe that is part of the problem we have when engaging with call centres. Maybe work as the foot-soldiers of corporations was always dehumanising, but in the past that was mostly hidden away whereas now we come into contact with it directly?
Whatever the reason, it would be nice if we could come up with a better solution for both "consumers" and the people currently working in the call centres.
November 01, 2013
Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Merseyside in Crisis
Recently I picked up a copy of Merseyside in Crisis after coming across it in the library (the library's copy is only for reference within the library). I thought it would be interesting to compare the views of Merseyside's problems from the late-70s/early-80s with now, and was hooked by mention of the area being hailed as a future "Silicon Valley of Europe". More on that when I get into the dog-eared sections later.
The book was written by the Merseyside Socialist Research Group, which in itself is an intriguing concept. From what I can tell, it was something of a left-wing think tank, which makes me wonder if anyone(/group) is trying to fulfil that role in the city today?
And pairing that thought with recently-moved-to-this-parish Andrew Bolster's recent posts exploring Northern Ireland's innovation strategy (though you could replace Northern Ireland with Liverpool City Region in any of that and I'd not be surprised), my pondering of Liverpool's strategy, and other civic-minded locals such as Francis Irving, I do wonder if there's scope for experimenting with the think tank concept to make (in my opinion ;-) more useful proposals. It would need to offer useful, constructive opinions and not just add to the noise, but maybe there's some scope there?
Anyway, on to all the dog-eared pages of Merseyside in Crisis by the Merseyside Socialist Research Group, published in 1980. There are a lot of notes for such a short book, but that has a lot to do with interesting bits of history that it exposes. It'd be interesting to compare lots of these facts and figures from the turn of the 80s with their equivalents from today.
I agree with most of their analysis of the problems, but am less convinced of their solutions. However, that doesn't stop it being worth a read.
The "Crisis of Merseyside" can not be viewed or resolved in isolation. The problems facing Merseyside exist in many of the industrial regions of Britain and in other parts of the world. The deep-rooted problems of the area - in unemployment, housing, industry, and the social malaise that follows in the wake of decline - are part of the deepening and continuous crisis of British captialism and in turn part of the crisis of world capitalism.
Thirty five years [since the post-war recovery got underway] Merseyside has one in every six of its working population unemployed, and in some parts of the area up to 50% on the dole. Youngsters leaving school can wait two to three years for their first job. Many families in the worst hit areas have two or three members out of work. Closures and redundancies have devastated the area. The dream of a better tomorrow has been shattered.
Early on the 2nd February, 1979, Merseysiders woke to the surprising news that theirs was to be a 'more secure future'. Local councillors and industrialists were busily announcing that Merseyside was to become the 'Silicon Valley of Europe'. GEC/Fairchilds new £35m micro-processing factory was to be built at Neston, providing 1,000 jobs. Tory M.P., David Hunt, called it a 'major breakthrough for the region'. Coming after a year in which 14,000 jobs had vanished from Merseyside this had to be good news. And all due to that little 'miracle chip'. But had we not heard all this before? After all, the arrival of Henry Ford and company in the early 1960s had been met with similar enthusiasm. Alderman Braddock, the Labour Leader and Chairman of Liverpool's Finance Committee, had suggested at the time that:
But nearly twenty years on, despite the coming of the motor industry, with its £60m investment and 30,000 jobs, the euphoria of such politicians still has a hollow ring.
[Over 30 years later, little - sadly - has changed. The GEC factory came and went, and is now an Aldi distribution centre. And still the cries of "inward investment" as the holy grail and end to our problems can be heard...
Later in the book, we see the problem with large employers who don't have any real ties to the region:]
Rationalisation[, the relocation and consolidation of factories,] is very frequently, therefore, associated with firms completely abandoning a region, or even a whole country - they look elsewhere in their search for increased profitability.
[...] none of Merseyside's major firms is controlled by a local management. Only three out of every ten jobs are in firms which are controlled locally. And as the rationalisations go on, the number is dropping all the time.
A crucial feature, then, of the economic development of Merseyside is its increasing dependence on nationally and internationally based companies.
[Looking further back in history...]
By 1857 nearly half of the United Kingdom's exports and approximately one third of its imports passed through Liverpool. The town became an entrepot for people as well as goods and established itself as the main port for the mass movement of emigrants from Northern and Western Europe to the New World. Between 1860 and 1900, of the five and a half million emigrants who left Britain four and three quarter millions embarked from Liverpool, a new trade in human cargo which shipping lines were not slow to take advantage of.
The heroic age of the entrepreneur and merchant prince was over. By the end of the First World War the era of imperialism had arrived. Throughout the period, British rates of growth of production, exports and productivity were all slower than in the early Victorian years. [...] As British capital fought for survival in the new epoch, whole areas like Merseyside, the North East, and South Wales were hit by the "depression". In short, the so-called "regional problem" was born.
Notably throughout the '20s and '30s a large number of companies opened plants on Merseyside. They were mainly those involved in 'Food, Drink and Tobacco' - such as Jacobs, Crawfords and Hartleys etc., though some engineering firms, like Plessey, came too. These firms were keen to exploit the 'growing pool' of female labour, and it is noticeable that all these companies relied extensively on recruiting women.
[In the 1960s and 1970s] The multinationals [GM, Ford, Dunlop-Pirelli, etc.] came to Merseyside largely as a result of the Government's regional policy, which lured them through a variety of 'sticks and carrots'. They were attracted too by the very conditions which had been unfavourable to capital previously, namely ; the existence of an 'adequate pool of labour', low wages, and the lack of an [union] organised workforce such as existed elsewhere.
[Then something of a "reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated" moment for Silicon Valley...]
This is not to say, however, that radical and even socialist redirections in policy are impossible. The state has to manage the effects of its policies and to this extent is constrained by the power of organised labour and pressure from below. The U.C.S work-in in 1971 was one example of this.
[This is from such a different age, isn't it? However, that also shows how much can change in such a (relatively) short period, which means we don't have to accept the current situation as intractable.]
However, in general terms, regional policies have failed to provide effective long-term solutions. Such policies have at best produced short-term improvements and at worst exacerbated economic decline.
The departure of Courtaulds from Skelmersdale provided the classic example of a multi-national corporation which took the money and ran at the first available opportunity.
Look around [the inner city of Liverpool]. 15% of land is either vacant or derelict. The largest amount of open space in any city in Britain. A testimony to the folly of politicians and planners. Theirs was a straightforward policy. Clear the slums, build a motorway system to the docks, rehouse people on the estates, like it or not. The population of the inner city was cut by half in these 'boom' years - 800,000 to 500,000. Of course we know the last chapter. The docks were rationalised, rates were lost and the money ran out. The motorway was never finished. The people of Liverpool have to live with the devastation that remains. The planners have moved on to their modest, but equally destructive, ring roads.
Even in the more successful estates like Skem, the priorities of capital prevail, as one commentator ruefully remarked:
In a very real sense [the council] are "managers of discontent". A point not lost on Peter Walker, a former Tory Secretary of State for the Environment who, in a Commons debate in 1978, outlined the political threat:
In the first place, financial aid is channelled to private industry in the form of grants, subsidies and employment premiums. This has the effect of paying part of a firm's costs of production. It is worth looking at the extent of these grants on Merseyside over the last few years. Since 1974 for example, regional incentives have totalled £55.7m and regional development grants £162.6m. Quite a sizeable amount. Also, under the Advance Factory Programme 59 units (a total of 45,000 sq.mts.) have already been built since 1974. Another 64 units have already been authorised.
The local authorities no doubt paused for a moment of self-congratulation. For when it comes to transport they have never been found wanting. The recent £35m proposed ring road around Liverpool City centre is only the latest chapter in a continuing sage of the sacrifice of Liverpool to the container lorry and the motor car.
Progressive or not, it is clear that the intention of [a community development project in Vauxhall] was, by focusing on the community, to establish new forms of social control over what it saw as 'problem' people. Politically important this, because it successfully diverted attention away from the real causes of deprivation. By locating the 'problem' within the people themselves, it made it seem as though inequality and deprivation were the inevitable result of 'urban' ways of life - rather than the products of a particular economic system.
In principle, the idea of the industrial estate is not to be jeered at for a socialist Britain engaged in renewal and regeneration would certainly have adopted an identical policy of starting from scratch in the fields. That the policy has obviously failed is not the fault of just about everyone's favourite scapegoats - the city planners and architects. Without in any way wishing to exonerate the architects and their political masters for such crimes against humanity as Netherley, Cantril Farm and Tower Hill, the failure of the industrial estate has got nothing to do with architecture. It has failed because the industry located in it could not provide secure and long-term employment.
The problem of Speke is neither its people nor its housing. The problem is economic: while the city council could plan organise and run the housing side of the operation, it was powerless to do the same for the industrial side of the operation. The council could provide the houses and the land and services for the factories - but not the jobs.
[Moving on to the history of the Labour Party in the city]
[The religious divide in the city] meant also that up to the 1920s Catholic working class areas like Vauxhall, Sandhills, Scotland Road and Brunswick voted for their own party - the Irish Nationalist Party, which in the early '20s became the second largest party in the council. After Irish partition in 1921 the basis of the I.N.P. in Liverpool was eroded. Irish independence, the cornerstone of Nationalist policy, had at least been partially won, even though the exclusion of the six counties from the settlement left the nationalist goal incomplete. The I.N.P. in Liverpool changed its name to the Catholic Party, and finally was absorbed into the Labour Party by the late '20s.
Once again, the traditions of Liverpool are unusual The Labour Party in Liverpool has always been weak. It did not win a Parliamentary seat in Liverpool until a by-election in Edge Hill in 1923 (how ironic that Labour's first seat in Liverpool should be the one to be taken from Labour by the Liberals in 1979). It did not win a majority of Liverpool seats until the Labour landslide of 1945. On the council, Labour only gained an overall majority as late as 1955, and since then has only ruled intermittently. Compared to the other major working class cities of Britain this is a very poor record.
In 1955 the Labour group became the controlling party on Liverpool City Council. The secretary's annual report fairly accurately records the event.
Opposition to high-rise [blocks of flats] was beginning to grow. Sheenan the Tory leader of the council said he didn't like putting people in the sky and a survey carried out by the Daily Post suggested that only four in every hundred of those questioned wanted to live in flats. But the housing committee was not disheartened. In 1954 they sent a deputation (expenses paid) to New York to see the multi-storey flat construction methods.
[...] none of the local parties were prepared to even take on the task of doing something about the problems of the city. It is hard to see the Labour Party of today mounting a coherent campaign to resist the run-down of Merseyside. There seems to be a crisis of confidence within the party itself.
[Did that provide the opening for Militant? Not that they achieved any resistance to the running down of the area.]
Men on Merseyside schooled in the casual [contracts of work] tradition [mostly on the docks] did not easily or willingly submit to what they believed to be 'union dictation'. Casualism, despite its associations with poverty and general insecurity, conferred a degree of independence and control over the job which many workers would not easily relinquish.
One group which did not come within the structure of the union until 1942, and then only under the exigencies of war, were the cooks and stewards, who consistently fought the union throughout these years. They were the epitome of the tradition that insisted that you "got your own job, worked your own company and if it was no good got out". Given that the bulk of the transatlantic liner trade was conducted from Liverpool in the inter-war years the cooks and stewards were in a strong bargaining position. They could bargain for themselves without any "big brother".
Mass production makes intolerable demands on workers - The discipline of the clock; the speed of the line; the tyrany of supervision; the ever present threat of lay-off; the power of management. In this context the struggle for job control takes new forms.
So do we beg and grovel for any crumb that comes our way? A council-created small firm, another grant from central government for grass seed or even a private company attracted to the area by its "cracker-jack" workers. We don't necessarily reject any of them - we merely say that from the point of view of the nature of the crisis and its acceleration they are not even palliatives - they're insults.
The solution, such as it is, lies not in their hands but in the hands of the people of Merseyside.
All struggles, whether it be over closures, the defence of living standards, against health service cuts, or the fight for equal treatment of women or minority groups, require wider horizons than the trade union movement at present has.
If investment decisions are to be made more accountable, the criterion of efficiency has to be something other than profit. Efficiency ought to be measured by such things as: does it answer real as distinct from manufactured needs; does it enhance the quality of life; does it conserve rather than squander natural resources; and not least, does it provide an outlet for people's creative talents?
October 21, 2013
Over the past month or two, since the Edward Snowden leaks surfaced, there have been a number of articles and stories written about both privacy and the security services. However, particularly in the UK, there has been something of a collective shrug and not as much outcry as I believe there should have been. Yet I haven't written anything about it so far, which makes me part of the problem as much as anyone else.
I still don't have a good handle on what I think we should be doing in response, but consider this a first stab at helping to correct my silence on the issue.
This is more of a marshalling of an assortment of the articles that I've wanted to write a response to, hopefully grouped into something approaching a sensible number of ways to frame things.
Firstly, there's the should the state be gathering this much data on its citizens? side of things:
- Quinn Norton, Seen By the State: Walking Through the Stasi Museum While Watched by the NSA
- The Snowden files: why the British public should be worried about GCHQ by John Lanchester, probably the most accessible explanation of the issue I've seen
- James Bridle talking about CCTV, law enforcement, and how it tends not to work as well as we'd hope Ring of Steel
- Paul Bernal provides a good discussion of why we should worry about the loss of privacy
Then there's the what can I do as a concerned citizen to make my life more private and secure (from everyone, not just big brother). I've lost some of the links I'd have put in here, as this blog post has been too long in gestation. However, contributing to the Open Rights Group, and particularly their Privacy Not Prism campaign is a good start. And not particularly security-focused, but Redecentralize.org is looking to highlight people working on ways to break the centralisation of the Internet - and thus its increasing single points of failure.
Finally, what us technologists should be doing in how we approach building the services people use:
October 15, 2013
LJMU Talk Links
Yesterday I gave a talk to some of the final year Computer Games Technology students at Liverpool John Moores University. I'll post the slides up later next month (after I've reused them for a talk for some Mathematics and Information System second years ;-)
In the meantime, here are the links to some of the stuff I talked about...
For more about the Internet of Things, my company blog would be a good start, particularly my slides from CodePool 13 or alternatively check out Enchanted Objects: the Internet of Things for Humans, written by my co-author, on the blog for our book.
Lifehacker has a good round up of possible RSS readers so you can keep tabs on all sorts of blogs and websites.
Russell Davies wrote an excellent blog post a few years back on how to be interesting. Worth reading.
Get a github account. Use it.
October 08, 2013
A Maturing Web?
It makes me feel a bit sad reading posts like this from Dan Catt and this one from Aaron Cope (that Dan links to), and on some level a shame that they have to be written at all. However, I'm also thankful that they are writing these posts. And that they are exploring better ways forward that don't place our faith in external silos of content.
I never really got into Flickr - there was much I liked about it, but entrusting all my photos to some other hosting system was too great a barrier for me to use it properly. Not that I built anything useful for myself to use in its place, that's still an annoying when-I-get-round-to-it task.
Had I known more about the philosophy and approach of Aaron and Dan in the early days of Flickr, I think I'd have been a happy adopter. Particularly if I'd known about Parallel Flickr.
The optimist in me hopes we can learn from these experiences and build better, less brittle systems in the future. The Indieweb movement seems to be a move in this direction too.
October 06, 2013
Thoughts on the High Line
Just over a year ago I was over in New York - mostly to attend the Open Hardware Summit and New York Maker Faire, but I had a few days to explore and do some writing. The hotel I stayed in was only a couple of blocks from the start of the High Line park, so I often wound up on there for a morning coffee and some writing until the battery gave out on my laptop. Then I'd have the rest of the day to head off and do something else.
My morning walk along the river in the autumn sunshine today was very reminiscent of similar strolls in New York, which reminded me that I'd still not published the notes on the High Line that I scribbled down in my Moleskine on the first day I walked along it. I'm remedying that here, with minimal editing - just to help the flow a little.
It you want to see what the High Line is like, Treehugger has a nice slideshow of the first section, from back when it opened.
It's really busy. And there are lots of film crews on it too [mostly filming news or documentary pieces, but I also encountered an episode of CSI:New York being filmed one day].
I've just read Jane Jacobs on parks and how they need a purpose. Don't think it would work at night but is definitely popular enough on a Sept mid-weekday morning [and borne out over the rest of my visits over my stay - always lots of people around on it].
I'm not sure you'd use it for short journeys but if travelling further then maybe it does work as a kind of pedestrian expressway.
Tricky to work out why I like this but not the "streets in the sky" of 1960s Britain. Maybe it's the fact that it's threaded through the existing city rather than replacing it? Maybe it's the design - it's a very designed space in some ways - the echoes of tracks in the concrete (and in places still left in place), the benches coming up from the track, or built on little bogies on the old tracks. But at the same time the design is muted - the materials chosen are rusting or the woods fading: chosen for the patina they'll acquire over time rather than to look best at installation.
It also has a lot of staff and volunteers - will those running costs prove to be its downfall?
I love the views you get for, unsurprisingly, the same reason that I like arriving in cities by train. You get a feel for the true city, with all the warts and neglected corners that you see because most buildings are busy presenting their best side to the street while the (ex)railway sneaks round the back. There are signs of this changing with the High Line though, presumably because the passing traffic is more obvious, more personal - or actually, just slower moving. Advertising to trains only works with big bold advertising - pedestrians can appreciate more nuanced and subtle approaches and there were many more examples than the one pictured here.
September 30, 2013
Blog All Dog-eared Pages: The Designful Company by Marty Neumeier
It wasn't an amazing read, a bit of an "airport book" - some useful stuff in their, but a fairly light and quick read. My notes follow...
Fear of failure, aversion to unpredictability, preoccupation with status - these are the prime assassins of innovation. The ruthless elimination of error is one of the givens of the 20th-century management. Yet error should be embraced as a necessary component of the messy, iterative, creative process.
In the meantime, we're seeing the breakdown of a management model so bereft of ideas that it has resorted to "unlocking" wealth through financial manipulation rather than "creating" wealth through designful innovation.
Roughly translated, [13th-century philosopher Thomas Aquinas] was saying beauty requires three qualities: integrity, harmony and radiance. INTEGRITY is the quality of standing out clearly from the background. HARMONY is how the parts relate to the whole. RADIANCE refers to the pleasure we feel when we experience it. And the language of beauty, according to Aristotle, is AESTHETICS.
Buckminster Fuller once said, "When I'm working on a problem, I never think about beauty. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong." In mathematics, Poincare could judge the quality of a solution solely on its aesthetic elegance.
Good design exhibits virtues. What virtues? You know, good old-fashioned virtues like generosity, courage, diligence, honesty, substance, clarity, curiosity, thriftiness, and wit. By contrast, bad design exhibits human vices like selfishness, fear, laziness, deceit, pettiness, confusion, apathy, wastefulness, and stupidity.
Starbucks founder Howard Schultz put it this way: "Who wants a dream that's near-fetched?" If your goal is to out-perform the competition from day one, dream large.
What wicked problems exist at your company? How can you turn hairy obstacles into high-status rewards? Who out there looks hungry for a challenge?
September 25, 2013
Links... to Me... to You...
Jon Udell once said that a blog post can just be an email that you share with many people. This wouldn't quite be an email, it would've been a draft email (that's my default way of taking notes, as my email client is usually open, and it's shared to everywhere I might need it) to me so I could copy them from one operating system to another. So, a collection of random things that piqued my interest while I've been editing Designing the Internet of Things (and so hanging out in Windows rather than Ubuntu...)
- Why Satisfying Needs is Not Enough
- Stamen Design's Backchannel visualisation project
- A good post appealing for web developers to think beyond just replacing native apps from Scott Jenson
- Pocket CNC, an affordable 5-axis CNC machine
- How to boot your Raspberry Pi into a fullscreen browser kiosk (this will let us update the DoES Liverpool Doorbot)
- Cousins UK (a good source of clock parts. More on that once the project that'll need it is finished...)
- The digital touch: Craft-work as immaterial labour and ontological accumulation (academic papers are far too long and dense for my blog-post conditioned brain, so I'm not sure when/if I'll find time to read through this...)
September 22, 2013
Making More Makers
Nick Sweeney has written an interesting blog post about adding fuel to the small fire of kickstarter campaigns and the maker movement.
I covered some of the problems in the talk I gave at the RSA the other month - The Valley Between Makers and Manufacturers. I don't have (m)any solutions just yet, but am interesting in working towards some. Some thoughts/observations/challenges (in a lazy list, as I'm not sure how to weave them into a useful narrative, but I think it's good to get them out there...):
- Getting more people introduced to the maker movement. DoES Liverpool is growing steadily, but it would always be nice for it to be growing faster, and for more of the people who come along and use the space every now and then when they've got a project to move to people who hang out and help others learn what's possible.
- Rediscovering the supply chain. As people work on more projects, word spreads on how to get X or Y done, and who can do it. I've also been doing things like attending the inaugural Merseyside Manufacturing Council meeting start to try to bridge the gap. There are a few problems in that area:
- Finding who exists locally that you could use.
- Working out who is good or bad - which is mostly solved by word-of-mouth as people use different services and share experiences.
- Helping the suppliers, fabricators, etc. understand that there's a new market for their services emerging. I can completely understand why some of them are rather spiky to first deal with - it's a defence against the many people who'll waste your time (not deliberately) because they've got a "great idea" and you have to educate them either in how they can use your services, or in why their great idea isn't going to fly.
- Artisan-scale electronics devices don't really fit into the existing regulation framework. There are good reasons for certification, but the cost of testing at present is a huge barrier to more people scaling up their cool maker project into a finished product.