June 27, 2021

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Playing the Bullshit Game: How Empty and Misleading Communication Takes Over Organizations by André Spicer

Rather than the usual books, Playing the Bullshit Game: How Empty and Misleading Communication Takes Over Organizations is a paper by André Spicer. Normally it'd be something to include in the Interesting Things on the Internet... editions, but there were too many nuggets to quote so I figured it warranted its own post.

As ever, remember to heed Laurie Anderson's advice: "Get a really good bullshit detector. And learn how to use it."

Page 2

In this paper, I claim bullshitting is a social practice. I will argue that in particular speech communities people are encouraged to play the language game of bullshit-ting, and when it is played well it can bolster their identity. Under certain conditions, bullshitting is relatively harmless and can even be beneficial. But bullshitting can quickly spiral out of control and take over an entire organization or industry.

Page 3

While lying is an attempt to conceal the truth (Bok, 1978), bullshit is to talk without reference to the truth. ‘It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as the essence of bullshit’, Frankfurt writes.


Cohen pointed out that sometimes ‘the shit wears the trousers’ (p. 324). Instead of focusing on the bullshitter’s inten-tions, he argues, we should look at the structure of bullshit. Cohen goes on to identify ‘unclarifiable unclarity’ as the key feature of bullshit (p. 333). These are statements which are unclear (‘unclarity’) but for which there are no procedures to make it clear (‘unclarifiable’). A bullshit state-ment is ‘not only obscure but cannot be rendered unobscured’. Furthermore, ‘any apparent success in rendering it unobscured secretes something that isn’t recognizable as a version of what was said’

Page 4

A lie is a statement which the liar believes to be false but they present as if it is true, often with intentions of deceit (Bok, 1978). In contrast, bullshit is not presented as if it were true and the intention behind it is not always outright deception. This distinction is captured by Frankfurt (2005) who argues that a liar is concerned about the truth, but attempts to replace it with falsehood. In contrast, the bullshitter is unconcerned with the truth and speaks with no reference to it. The bullshitter falls short of lying because they make use of insincere and misleading statements rather than outright falsehoods

Boris Johnson is a bullshitter, not a liar.

Page 5

Littrell and colleagues (2020) found that bullshitters tend to have lower cogni-tive ability, be less honest, less open-minded, have lower feelings of self-worth and a higher tendency for self-enhancement. Finally, a recent study of school children found that bullshitters shared demographic characteristics; they were more likely to be males from better-off socio-economic background (Jerrim etal., 2019).

Page 9

A second sub-sector with a significant concentra-tion of bullshit merchants is the ‘entrepreneur-ship industry’ (Hunt & Kiefer, 2017). This is the cluster of mentors, (pseudo-)entrepreneurs and thought leaders who push poorly evidenced, misleading and seductive ideas about entrepre-neurship. Often their target is so-called ‘wantre-preneurs’ (Verbruggen & de Vos, 2019). In some cases, these ideas have been found to encourage vulnerable young people to adopt what are seductive but empty and misleading ideas about entrepreneurial success.


A second aspect of a speech community which can foster bullshitting is noisy ignorance. This is when actors lack knowledge about an issue yet still feel compelled to talk about it.

This reminds me of so many "digital and creative" strategy discussions in the city.

Page 10

When an actor is relatively ignorant about an issue, they do not have the wider back-ground knowledge in order to compare new claims. Nor do they have an understanding of the right questions they might ask. This means they rely on relatively crude understandings of an issue yet tend to be much more certain than an expert would be (Raab, Fernbach, & Sloman, 2019).

When ignorance is noisy, uninformed actors do not simply stay silent about what they don’t know. Rather, they are compelled to speak about an issue of which they have little knowl-edge or understanding.

Page 13

For instance, following the financial crisis of 2008, senior executives of some of Britain’s largest banks were asked to testify in front of a committee of the UK Parliament. When the bankers were quizzed about their responsibility for the crisis, many responded with evasive bullshit. They expressed regret, claimed they had already apologized and shifted blame to others (Tourish & Hargie, 2012). This evasion had a game-like quality. The inquisitors kept asking questions aimed at establishing the veracity of claims while the bankers continued to avoid the questions. This points to a significant chal-lenge for people calling bullshit: the effort they need to put in to refute bullshit is often of an order of magnitude greater than what is required to produce the bullshit in the first place (Brandolini, 2014).

Page 19

Finally, bullshit can become sacrilized when it is legitimated by wider institutions. This hap-pens when meaningless terms are embedded within commonly accepted practices, rules and cognitive schemes. When this happens, what was previously bullshitting within a particular organization can begin to seem like something which is inevitable and highly valuable across an entire field. For instance, within the cultural sector in the United Kingdom, a wide range of empty terms such as ‘creativity’ began to be used by actors in increasingly reverential terms (Belfiore, 2009). When this happened the idea of creativity began to be treated as a sacred value.


For instance, a participant in a meeting may resist being swept up in a presentation filled with manage-ment buzzwords and ask for precise under-standings of how this will work operationally. When this happens, resolute disbelief can become a significant barrier to ongoing bullshit-ting.


When bullshitting becomes part of the rou-tine processes in an organization, it is more likely to be undermined through de-routiniza-tion. One way this happens is through unlearn-ing. This occurs when actors consciously question the bullshit they use in an unthinking way. For instance, if a management buzzword is identified as bullshit, actors have to consciously reflect on their language and find alternatives. A second way routine bullshitting can be under-mined is through anticipatory defence. This means actors who expect bullshitting will put in place prophylactic measures to protect them-selves.

Page 20

As well as undermining routinized bullshit-ting, actors can question bullshit which has been integrated into the formal structures of an organization. This happens through the process of de-formalization where what appeared as legitimate organizational processes are shown to be illegitimate. One way this process can occur is through theorizing. This is when claims which appear to have a rational gloss are sub-jected to deeper and more searching inquiry by experts. For instance, overblown claims about the effectiveness of a management technique may be deflated through careful empirical tracking of actual impacts. A second way bullshit can be deformalized is through de-sanctioning. This can occur when people in for-mal positions of leadership ‘call out’ bullshit in an organization and question its use. When this happens, organizational members are less likely to routinely bullshit. Finally, bullshit can be deformalized through public repudiation. This happens when an organization as a whole com-mits itself to avoiding management jargon, unnecessary acronyms and other forms of busi-ness bullshit.

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July 11, 2020

Small Groups and the DoES Liverpool Salon

A few weeks ago in her fortnightnotes Laura James pointed to The Small Group, an article exploring what defines the je ne sais quoi of groups like the Bloomsbury Group or the Homebrew Computer Club and the like.

I held off reading it for a while, as it felt like something that I'd want to write about and would need a bit of time for that. Seems I was right.

I'm a firm believer that these long-lived, small and reasonably close-knit groups of peers are important places to nurture each other's practice, encourage explorations of new ideas and to change things. Brian Eno calls this a scenius, and there's a reason I often quote him in talks I give about DoES Liverpool.

I think I've been part of a few small groups, although only with any "success" (more on that later) since I moved to Liverpool.

Initially it was the Geekup Liverpool group, which basically gave birth to DoES Liverpool. That's been a key group for me over the past decade.

Francis Irving and I also explicitly tried to conjure up one, based loosely on his experiences with a group in Cambridge that spawned mySociety and other civic tech, and my occasional appearances at the sadly-victim-of-Covid-and-London-property Shepherdess "salon". While it led to an enjoyable regular breakfast crowd, it didn't quite spark in the way we'd hoped.

That sense of something missing, of almost-but-not-quite, lingers on.

It's not something I can ever properly pin down.

It could be that it's a more diverse group and so isn't as focused on coding, given my current feeling of going-it-alone with my "15 minute city" experiments, despite the group exploring interesting maker and activist avenues.

There's probably a hefty dose of the perennial grass-is-greener of watching other groups seem more successful.

And I think a lot is a frustration that we're not fully realising our potential. I see so many ideas and work lying around, not having the impact they could, seemingly perpetually overlooked, with people picking away at them often as an extra-curricular activity, rather than being able to devote themselves to it full time. I think that's what I mean when I put "success" in quotes earlier.

Maybe this is always what it feels like in the middle of the scenius, and it's only truly apparent to outsiders or with hindsight. Maybe we're just not as good as I'd hope we are. Maybe we just need to talk about what we're doing, and about what we see each other doing, more. Maybe it just needs one of us to break through to the next level and then help the rest up.

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June 22, 2020

Most of Us Want a More Progressive Country, Why Can't We Have It?

A few days ago I tweeted a link to the terrible list of Government behaviour and actions of just a few days of their administration.

I was appealing for even just a fairer Tory Government, because (a) the bar is set so low, I have lived through better Tory Governments myself, and (b) I'm more interested (as ever) in working out how we can all move forwards together, and lots more people voted Tory at the last election.

My mate Ross (amicably) disagreed, but I've always assumed that the alternative would be revolution, and that's not going to be a good thing to live through.

Then yesterday I came across a couple of old blog posts: What's Going On?, from 2013, and Bewildered, from 2016. Both happen to talk about how as a country we'll "muddle through". In 2013 I was "sure" that we would, by 2016 I wasn't so sure:

"I had hoped that we'd muddle through in that seemingly very British way where we don't seem to veer too extremely in any direction, but I'm scared that that won't be the case."

This morning I read Why does England vote Tory? by Adam Ramsay, and now I don't think I want us to "muddle through".

I don't want a bloody revolution either, but thousands of us are already dying every week thanks to the actions (or inaction) of the upper-classes in power, and the dead are far more likely to be Black, minority ethnic, and the working class.

As Ramsay says, "There is no non-controversial way to do this.". We need to work through the controversy and our discomfort with it.

Ramsay's earlier post Churchill must fall is also an interesting read. He points out the racist atrocities that Churchill perpetrated, partly during his leadership in the Second World War. It was also Churchill who sent a warship from the Royal Navy to sit in the Mersey, ready for use on his own people, in the 1911 Liverpool general transport strike.

I don't think a Culture War is useful, as that's just a class war between the middle- and the working-class, which serves the upper-class very well. The far right is seen by liberals as a white, working-class problem from outside the cities. I don't think that's true, there are racists all across Britain, in all classes.

We need solidarity between the Black community, the working-class, and the middle-class as we understand our differences and work towards our common aims.

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January 14, 2020

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro

The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro is a telephone-directory of a biography, but given the length of Robert Moses' reign over New York and the power he wielded within the city—despite never being elected to office—it's quite understandable. And there isn't even space for the story of his best-known fight, the one he lost to Jane Jacobs. That was the launchpad for her career as an urbanist when she wrote her similarly epic (and former blog-all-dog-eared-pages entrant) The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

The Power Broker is an eye-opening account of how someone can acquire such power and influence and interesting not least as an education in what we should be wary of with the people and companies who run our cities.

I made lots of notes in this, but then, it's nearly 1200 pages long...

Page 14

The courtiers and courtesans of [Moses'] empire wallowed in an almost Carthaginian luxury. Favored secretaries, for example, had not only bigger cars than city commissioners (as well as round-the-clock chauffeurs so that they could be on call twenty-four hours a day) but also higher salaries.

Page 20

He evicted tens of thousands of poor, nonwhite persons for urban renewal projects, and the housing he built to replace the housing he tore down was, to an overwhelming extent, not housing for the poor, but for the rich.

Page 48

Two years among her [Oxford University's] spires and statue-crowned columns, her quadrangles and cloisters, her towers that had whispered to Matthew Arnold "the last enchantments of the Middle Ages," would boil the fattiness out of the idealism, rendering out of a vague desire to "help people" not only a clear, definable concept of public service but also a specific means of performing that service. Two years among her richly paneled halls, her ancestral tankards and inlaid croziers, among begowned processions led by bedels carrying silver staves and among gardens tended by a thousand gardeners would distill the arrogance, potent though it already was, and make it still more potent by adding to its essence a philosophical base, the British belief, firm indeed in the early twentieth century and epitomized in the trappings and teachings of Oxford, in the duties—and the rights—of those born to wealth and privilege.

Oxford in 1909 was the castle keep of British conservatism. The key to its ancient gates was wealth; in the year Robert Moses entered Oxford's Wadham College, the university was largely closed to the student whose family was not rich. Conservatism characterized the attitude of its students—including the ninety Americans among them.

Page 49

As strong as Oxford's conservatism was its emphasis on public service. Its tone in 1909 had been set for the preceding three centuries by rich young men who were sent to the university as a preliminary to public life and who, from positions in Parliament or the civil service or the learned professions, actually did, after graduation, govern Britain and its vast territories overseas. But the leavening of devotion to public service with an unabashed insistence on the rights and privileges of aristocracy could not help but make that devotion somewhat patronizing, infusing it with a strong air of condescension and noblesse oblige in its most obnoxious form.

Page 53

What Moses admired in the British civil service was that it had two separate and distinct classes: a very small administrative and policy-making "upper division" reserved for "university men," and a much larger "lower division" consisting of "clerks of ordinary education" selected through examinations on the high-school level who "do the lower and more mechanical work." The class differentiation that Moses admired was a rigid one. Carefully placed technical hurdles made it difficult, almost impossible, for a young man, even one of dedication, industry, ambition and talent, to rise out of the lower division.

"Brilliant," Moses called this setup. "Far-sighted." It attracts into public service precisely the men most needed there, "the most intelligent and capable young men in universities," he said. And it keeps them in government by reserving for them posts from which they can exert real influence and authority.

Page 67

Moses was to talk again to Miss Perkins. Every time he did, her astonishment grew. "He was always burning up with ideas, just burning up with them!" she was to say. "Everything he saw walking around the city made him think of some way that it could be better." Happening once to comment that it was too bad that mothers who took infants to Central Park had to leave when diapers needed changing and go all the way home, she saw her idle words strike instant fire in Moses' mind. Why not build diaper-changing shelters? he asked.

Page 76

Shining through all Moses' statements was confidence, a faith that his system would work, a belief that the personalities of tens of thousands of human beings could be reduced to mathematical grades, that promotions and raises could be determined by a science precise enough to give every one of those human beings the exact rewards he deserved.

Page 166

The $15,000,000 bond issue, he said, must specifically authorize the Legislature "to provide for permanent improvements as well as the acquisition of land . . . for large facilities which make a park accessible and attractive to people." "Conservation"—the previous park ideal—had to be combined with "recreation," he said. Furthermore, he said, "permanent improvements" did not mean only improvements within parks; it also meant means to get to them—"parkway and boulevard connections between state parks and between state parks and neighboring centers of population."

Page 171

He wanted 124 miles of parkways. And he wanted the parkways to be broaderand more beautiful than any roads the world had ever seen, landscaped as private parks are landscaped so that they would be in themselves parks, "ribbon parks," so that even as people drove to parks, they would be driving through parks.

Page 173

Once, no reformer, no idealist, had believed more sincerely than he in free and open discussion. No reformer, no idealist, had argued more vigorously that legislative bills should be fully debated, and that the debates should be published so that the citizenry could be informed on the issues.

Page 189

"Moses never even tried to negotiate with us. He decided to seize first and negotiate afterward. There was no condemnation, no proceedings, no notice to us. They threw a cordon of state troopers around the property and now they say, 'Your remedy is to go to the Court of Claims for compensation.'"

Page 194

Wait, Smith said. He had thought of something his advisers hadn't. New York City wasn't hot in April. It wasn't hot in May. New Yorkers weren't deperate to get out of the city in April and May, desperate for a bathing beach such as the one the Taylor Estate would provide. In April and May, they hadn't yet reached the point at which they didn't care at all about the legal technicalities of park acquisition; they hadn't yet reached the point at which all that mattered was that someone was trying to provide them with a place to swim—and someone else was standing in his way.

Page 218

Another lesson Moses learned was that, in the eyes of the public, the end, if not justifying the means, at least made them unimportant. Al Smith had succeeded in blurring in the public's mind the legal technicalities of the fight—by focusing the public's mind on the end of the fight: parks.

Page 219

But what if you didn't tell the officials how much the projects would cost? What if you let the legislators know about only a fraction of what you knew would be the projects' ultimate expense?

Once they had authorized that small initial expenditure and you had spent it, they would not be able to avoid giving you the rest when you asked for it. How could they? If they refused to give you the rest of the money, what they had given you would be wasted, and that would make them look bad in the eyes of the public. And if they said you had misled them, well, they were not supposed to be misled. If they had been misled, that would mean that they hadn't investigated the projects thoroughly, and had therefore been derelict i their own duty. The possibilities for a polite but effective form of political blackmail were endless. Once a Legislature gave you money to start a project, it would be virtually forced to give you the money to finish it. The stakes you drove should be thin-pointed—wedge-shaped, in fact—on the end. Once you got the end of the wedge for a project into the public treasury, it would be easy to hammer in the rest.

Another lesson Moses learned from his first use of power was the latitude given him by its posession.

Page 222

One other thing, he said. The bathhouses were going to have at least one innovation never included in any public or private building in America: diaper-changing rooms. He had designed them himself, he said. They would be divided into cubicles and each cubicle would contain only a diaper-dieposal basket, a washbasin, a mirror and a shelf for a mother to lay her baby on. And the shelf shouldn't be table-height, he said. He had watched mothers changing diapers and higher shelves would make it easier.

Page 256

In politics, power vacuums are always filled. And the power vacuum in parks was filled by Robert Moses. The old park men saw beauty in their parks. Moses saw beauty there, too, but he also saw power, saw it lying there in those parks unwanted. And he picked it up—and turned it as a weapon on those who had not thought it important and destroyed them with it. Whether or not he intended, he turned parks, the symbol of man's quest for serenity and peace, into a source of power.

Page 257

And parks were, unlike improvements in teachers' salaries or other highly praised, but unmeasurable accomplishments of [Smith's] administration, an accomplishment that he could see, an accomplishment whose visible, concrete existence could prove to him that he had indeed done something for his people.

Page 267

Wanting Miss Tappan available whenever he needed "secretarial" assistance, Moses placed at her disposal a car and three chauffeurs, who worked around the clock in eight-hour shifts. On many mornings she arrived at his home at 7:30 A.M., her car pulling up behind that of Howland, who was picking up Moses' night-written memos, and she would get into Moses' limousine so that he could start dictating the minute he stepped in. As she drove with him, her car followed behind so that whenever he was finished with her, she could get out of his car, step into her own, and speed back to Belmont Lake or 302 Broadway to parcel out the work among the subordinate secretaries while he, chauffered by one of his three chauffeurs, continued on to his destination.

Page 315

Moses was fond of repeathing at this time a quote often used in Albany. "You can get an awful lot of good done in the world if you're willing to let someone else take the credit for it." Certainly Moses was willing at least to share the credit for the work he had done with the man he needed if he was to get more done.


[...] the realities of the democratic process in America make it almost impossible to get a road, a bridge, a housing project, a bathhouse or a park approved and built in two years—or four. The Governor who finds a man who can inject into the democracy-public works equation a factor of personality so heavy as to unbalance it and get public works built during the span of a single term of office has little choice, if he is ambitious for political success, but to heap on that man more and more responsibilities, even though the giving of responsibilities carries with it the grant of more power.

Page 323

[During the Depression] More than 10,000 of New York's 29,000 manufacturing firms had closed their doors. Nearly one of every three employables in the city had lost his job.

Page 370

Some of the new superintendents quietly handed quarters to laborers whose inability to keep up was due to hunger or frostbite; others fired them. But none of the ramrods stopped driving. If they did, they knew, they would be fired themselves. They were, after all, working for a boss who, when questioned about a new wave of firing that almost touched off riots in several parks, said, "The government and the taxpayers have a right to demand an adequate return in good work, faithfully performed, for the money that is being spent. . . . We inherited men who were working without plan and without supervision. The plans have now been made, the supervision is being supplied, and we expect the men to work."

Page 400

Chanler said in court that the new law gave Moses the right to do whatever he wanted in parks as long as it was for a "proper park use" and that Moses was the only man who could determine what was, and was not, a proper use. And Chanler was right. As the reformers read the law, the law that they had helped pass, they realized that they had helped turn over the parks that were the priceless heritage of the city to the whim of one man.

Page 463

"You've got to understand—every morning when a mayor comes to work, there are a hundred problems that must be solved. And a lot of them are so big and complex that they just don't seem susceptible to solution. And when he asks guys for solutions, what happens? Most of them can't give him any. And those that do come up with solutions, the solutions are unrealistic or impractical—or just plain stupid. And those that do make sense—there's no money to finance them. But you give a problem to Moses and overnight he's back in front of you—with a solution, all worked out down to the last detail, drafts of speeches you can give to explain it to the public, drafts of press releases for the newspapers, drafts of the state laws you'll need to get passed, advice as to who should introduce the bills in Council and Board of Estimate resolutions you'll need; if there are constitutional questions involved, a list of the relevant precedents—and a complete method of financing it all spelled out. He had solutions when no one else had solutions. A mayor needs a Robert Moses."

Page 483

Driving in automobiles had then still been thought of primarily as pleasure, a pursuit for comfortable middle-class or wealthy fathers (the only fathers who could afford automobiles) taking their families for an outing, just as driving horse-drawn carriages had been a pursuit for pleasure. And it had been important to insure that these families had the most pleasant surroundings possible to drive through and within the city's limits the most pleasant surroundings were those provided by parks. The provision of pleasant scenery for drivers to enjoy was, in fact, a primary function of parks; that was why every great city in Europe had its great driving park, Paris its Bois de Boulogne, Rome its Pincian Hill, Florence its Cascine and London its Hyde Park. Roads had belonged in parks in the nineteenth century—so much so that, if necessary, other values of a park had to be sacrificed to provide the roads with the best of the park's scenery.

Page 486

Authority is delegatable; genius is not. Some of the men to whom the work was delegated were first-rank architects or engineers—many of them, in fact, for the Depression had driven into the Arsenal many brilliant young professionals who in ordinary times would have been making names for themselves in private commissions. But they were not Robert Moses. The further Moses' presence receded from individual small park projects, the less distinguished these projects emerged.

Page 489

Whatever the reasons, "RM," an aide would say, "just wasn't interested in anything small. He used to say, 'That's a little job. Give it to so-and-so.' And that attitude filterd down, so that the fellows weren't interested in small things either." Coupled with his feelings about the people for whom the effort would have to be made—the lower classes who didn't "respect" or "appreciate" what was done for them, in particular the Negroes who were "dirty" and wouldn't keep his beautiful creations clean—his lack of interest in "anything small" made him uninterested in small parks in slums.

Page 492

Knowinv how important small parks were to the city's poor, the reformers could hardly believe the implications of Moses' policies when they began to discern them. By banning public transportation, he had barred the poor from the state parks. In the same way, he was barring the poor from the best of the city parks, the big parks on the city's outskirts such as Jacob Riis and Alley Pond. And now he was saying that he would not provide the poor even with small parks. He was pouring tens of millions of dollars into creating new parks in New York—but he was creating almost none for the people who needed parks most. The philosophy that parks were only for the "comfortable middle class" had been outdated for at least ten years. But, they began to see, that was the philosophy Moses was following.

Page 504
Anticipating that the matter would become public knowledge, Moses went to the press—and he did so with his usual blend of demagoguery and deception: breaking the story himself to get his side of it before the public first; oversimplifying the basic issue to one of public vs. private interest; identifying the "private interests" with the sinister forces of "influence" and "privilege"; concealing any facts that might damage his own image.

Page 510
Robert Moses built 255 playgrounds in New York City during the 1930's. He built one playground in Harlem.

An overspill from Harlem had created Negro ghettos in two other areas of the city: Brooklyn's Stuyvesant Heights, the nucleus of the great slum that would become known as Bedford-Stuyvesant, and South Jamaca. Robert Moses built one playground in Stuyvesant Heights. He built no playgrounds in South Jamaica.

Page 513
[Moses] himself solved a problem that had always baffled designers—how to force swimmers to wash their feet before entering the pool—by building what the Architectural Forum called "tactful depressions"—hollows too wide to be jumped—clear across each corridor leading from the locker room to the pool so that swimmers had no choice but to walk through them and through the special foot-cleansing solution with which they had been filled.

Page 514
"We [Moses and Corporation Counsel Windels] were driving around Harlem one afternoon—he was showing me something or other—and I said, 'Don't you have this problem with the Negroes overrunning you?' He said, 'Well, they don't like cold water and we've found that that helps.'" And then, Windels says, Moses told him confidentially that while heating plants at the other swimming pools kept the water at a comfortable seventy degrees, at the Thomas Jefferson Pool, the water was left unheated, so that its temperature, while not cold enough to bother white swimmers, would deter any "colored" people who happened to enter it once from returning.

Page 515
The new parkways solved the problem for about three weeks. "It wasn't more than three weeks after they opened that I decided to go out to Jones Beach on a Sunday," Paul Windels recalls. "I got on the Interborough and by God it was as jammed as the Southern State ever was."

Moses announced that he had the solution: build forty-five miles of new parkways, including a great "Circumferential Parkway" around Brooklyn and Queens that would provide motorists of these boroughs (and of Manhattan if the proposed Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel was built and linked up with the parkway) with an easier way to reach the Island—and, since the parkway would run for twenty miles along the edge of the Brooklyn waterfront, with a wonderful view.

Some city planners noticed that the traffic pattern on Long Island had fallen into a set pattern: every time a new parkway was built, it quickly became jammed with traffic, but the load on the old parkways was not significantly relieved.

Page 519
But provisions for [running a railway alongside the new parkway] should be made immediately. All that was required was to make the bridge wide enough for two lanes of tracks as well as for automobiles or to build a second deck for the tracks—or, if Moses did not want to adopt either of these courses at the present time, to make the bridge foundations and towers strong enough so that , should at some later date the rapid transit link be desired, the bridge could support a second deck that would be built at that time. If provision was made now, while the bridge was being planned, the RPA said, it could be made cheaply, at a minor increase in the cost fo the bridge. If it was not made, a whole new bridge would have to be constructed from scratch when the rapid transit link proved necessary, and the cost would be tremendous. [...]

But Moses refused event to consider its proposal, and the RPA received no editorial support. Without opposition from a single city official, he built the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge without any provision for a rail link, opening it three full months ahead of schedule, on April 29, 1939.

Page 522
The El had cast a shadow over Third Avenue, but the El had been forty feet wide. The Gowanus [highway] was ninety-four feet wide. Its shadow was more than twice as broad.

Page 545
In that age, parks had been for the upper and "comfortable middle" classes and one of the things those classes wanted most to do in parks was to drive through them—at the slow, leisurely speeds of the era—and enjoy their scenery. In that age, therefore, it made sense for a road through a park to be placed at its most scenic location—in the case of Riverside park, at the river's edge.

But things had changed. There had been 125,101 motor vehicles in New York City in 1914; there were 804,620 in New York City in 1934—and additional hundreds of thousands in the Westchester and New Jersey suburbs that would also pour cars onto the Henry Hudson Parkway.

Page 561
"Always the man in the car has the river in full view," wrote a newspaperman. That was true. But to give the man in the car that view, fleeting at best and harried, to let him enjoy a brief glimpse of beauty as he passed by it, hurriedly and with his mind on other things, Moses had taken it away from the man not in the car, the pedestrian walking beside the river or sitting beside it, picnicking or just looking at it, soaking it in for long minutes and hours, the man who would have had time to enjoy and savor the view, the man whose life could have been enriched by it.

Page 572
Urban improvements on such a scale had never been seen—had, perhaps, never been dreamed of—in America before; there were, for example, more miles of divided through highways uninterrupted by intersections at grade in the New York metropolitan area in 1940 than in the next five larger cities in the United States—Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Los Angeles and Cleveland—combined.

Page 610
And this difference made the 1936 Tunnel Authroity fight a watershed in Robert Moses' life. Always before, Moses had conceived a public work, and then had sought the power to bring it into reality. In the Tunnel Authority fight, someone else conceived the public work. Moses sought the power to take it over. Before, his motivation had always been the work—the project, the achievement, the dream. Now the motivation was poower.

Page 626
"He had figured out a gimmick," says Reuben A. Lazarus, drafter of the original Triborough Act and himself a master of the gimmmick—and as Lazarus spoke a smile broke over his old, wrinkled face despite his attempts to conceal it, and his voice was filled with admiration, the admiration of a master of a difficult craft for a man who was more than a master. "That sentence looked so innocuous. But it changed my whole act completely. With that sentence there, he had power to issue forty-year bonds and every thirty-nine years he could call them in and issue new bonds, for another forty years. La Guardia had thought that authorities . . . would be temporary creations that would build something and then turn it over to the city and go out of existence as soon as it was paid off. But with that gimmick in there, it would never be paid off."

Page 634
If, moreover, Moses' authorities were becoming an independent empire, the heart's blood of that empire was money: tolls. The bulk of those tolls were collected at the huge Triborough Bridge toll plaza. If the empire had a heart, that was it. Moses built his new office in the very shadow of that toll plaza.

Page 644
When they opened, and the Board filed back onto the horseshoe dais, it approved unanimously the expenditure of $16,000,000 for [Moses'] Circumferential Parkway—and, to enable the city to spend the money, eliminated from the list of previously approved projects $8,000,000 worth of schools and hospital improvements, $5,000,000 in subway extensions and $3,000,000 in other projects.

Page 670
It was not, of course, only the reformers who opposed Moses' proposal—or at least the haste with which he was trying to ram it through. Also in the opposition were most of the city's most important elected officials—right up to the Mayor—and, speaking with a virtually unanimous voice, the city's press. Always before, elected officials, backed by the press, would have possessed more than sufficient power at least to get a few weeks' time to study a proposal if they wanted to study it. But they possessed such power no longer. The city had a problem that desperately needed solution. It had no money to solve the problem itself. Moses had the money. And if the city wanted a solution, it would have to accept his solution—or none at all.

Page 715
[...] a total, during the first fifteen years after World War II, of close to three and a half billion dollars which he dispensed in the city on behalf of federal and state agencies largely beyond the control of the city's government.

Page 720
A charting of the legal fees and other emoluments that Moses distributed to lawyers during the postwar era—a year-by-year analysis of who got the fees, when they started getting them and when they stopped getting them—provides almost a year-by-year chart of the fluctuations in the political influence of certain key Democratic lawyers.

Page 739
New York's big contracting combines needed to keep working and they needed to keep working on big projects. Moses controlled such projects, so he controlled the contractors. And he controlled their political contributions.

Page 751
But in reality a single power—the power of money—could render all those powers meaningless. And thanks to his public authorities, Robert Moses had the money. A borough president, searching desperately for a means of obtaining large-scale public works for his borough, could find only one way: to cooperate with Moses. He had no choice in the matter. Supposedly the servant of these elected representatives of the sovereign people of the city, Robert Moses was in reality their master.

Page 796
And the cost of neglected maintenance is astonishgly high: the West Side Highway, for example, could have been kept in perfect repair during the 1950's for about $75,000 per year; because virtually no repairing was done, by the 1960's, the cost of annual maintenance would be more than $1,000,000 per year; and in 1974 the highway had begun literally to fall apart—a condition that would take tens of millions of dollars to repair. By the time Moses left power in 1968 the city would be utterly unable to make even a pretense of keeping its physical plant in repair.

Page 808
The mail, a huge stack of it, would be waiting for him on the desk of whichever one of his four offices he was using that day. Summoning three secretaries to ring his desk, he would plow through the letters so rapidly—scribbling instructions on some, snapping off orders about others, dictating replies, tossing the letters to the three women in rotation—that within thirty minutes the huge stack of paper would have melted down to the bare desk top.

During the 1920's, Moses haad turned the big black Packard in which he had to spend so much time into an office, holding conferences in it with aides whose own limousines trailed behind, waiting to take them off when the conferences were finished, carrying with him always a supply of legal note pads and sharpened pencils and using the time in the limousine for work. Now the limousine was a Cadillac instead of a Packard. But it was still an office.

Page 826
The excursion marking the opening of the Robert Moses Power Dam at Niagara in 1961, for example, lasted three full days. It became a legend among the reporters lucky enough to go along.

Page 827
To crack an especially tough opponent, Moses might invite him to a lunch at which he would be the only person present besides the Coordinator and his aides: then, if the guest tried to argue, he would be in the position of trying to argue alone against a whole platoon of "informed opinion." It was even more difficult to disagree when the man with whom you were disagreeing was your host. Manners set limits on such disagreement; even if convention was disregarded, the host ahd the not inconsiderable psychological advantage of fighting on his home grounds, ground to which, in fact, the guest might even have been transported by his limousine, which he needed to take him home again.

Page 849
When he replied to protests about the hardships casued by his road-building programs, he generally replied that succeeding generations would be grateful. It was the end that counted, not the means. "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs." Once, in a speech, he said:

You can draw any kind of picture you like on a clean slate and indulge your every whim in the wilderness in laying out a New Delhi, Canberra or Brasilia, but when you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat ax.

The metaphor, like most Moses metaphors, was vivid. But it was incomplete. It expressed his philosophy, but it was not philosophy but feelings that dictated Moses' actions. He didn't just feel that he had to swing a meat ax. He loved to swing it.

Page 868
The poverty of their community made fighting all the harder. Years later, an acquaintance casually remarked to Lillian Edelstein that another group of housewives, Central Park West housewives, had, in a battle over expansion of the Tavern-on-the-Green parking lot in 1956, won a victory over Robert Moses—and was startled to see the eyes of the tall, dignified woman filling with tears of remembered frustration. "Do you know why?" she said bitterly. "Because they had the money for an injunction, that's why."

Page 902
Build railroads at the same time that you were building roads, and solving the metropolitan transportation problem would be greatly simplified. Pour all available funds into roads without building railroads, and that problem would never be solved.

Page 916
The fact—a fact documented for the first time in Bulletin 77—was that although the population was increasing just as fast as people thought it was (the number of families in the counties surrounding New York had increased by 50 percent between 1930 and 1950), the commuting wasn't. There had been 301,000 commuters coming into the city daily in 1930; in 1950, there were 357,000—an increase of only 19 percent. The difference was not in the number of people coming into and out of New York every day, but in how they were coming. The number of rail commuters had actually declined, from 263,000 in 1930 to 239,000 in 1950; 38,050 persons had commuted by automobile in 1930, 118,400 persons commuted by automobile in 1950. While the number of commuters was up 19 percent, the number of automobile commuters was up 321 percent.

Page 947
But even the initial, ultraconservative figures had remarkable implications. Robert Moses was planning to spend $500,000,000 for an expressway that would increase the one-way automobile-carrying capacity of Long Island by a maximum of 4,500 automobiles or buses per hour—during the two-hour peak period, by a total of 9,000 automobiles or buses. For $20,000,000—one twenty-fifth of that cost—he could reduce the automobile-carrying capacity needed by 6,500 automobiles and 400 buses. He could do as much for Long Island by spending $20,000,000 as by spending $500,000,000—if he spent it on rapid transit.

Page 970
But it was an educational experience. For the people living in the ruins of Manhattantown taught the good ladies of the Women's City Club something about slums that they hadn't learned in their textbooks. In the textbooks, "slums" were synonymous with "dirt" and "blight." But, recalls Mrs. Black, "the thing that hit me was that most of the apartments you went into were well kept, clean." Time after time, City Club volunteers would walk off the filthy street, up the filthy stairs, down a filthy hall, and knock on the door of an apartment—and when the door to that apartment was opened, behind the frightened face peering out ("Oh, they were always frightened," one of the volunteers said. "They always thought you were from the developer or the city") was a room neat and clean. "What hurt the most," Mrs. Black says, "was just the feeling of people trying to make a decent place for their family to live in these conditions."

Page 1006
But new facts were not necessary. Plenty to document the true shape of the Moses version of urban renewal were already available—had been available for years—in heearing transcripts or in club or commission pamphlets, rich nuggets of news just lying around waiting for someone to pick them up, put them together—show them not as isolated incidents but as part of a pattern—and print them.

And on July 30, 1956, just a month after the conclusion of the Battle of Central Park, the World-Telegram and Sun began printing them.

For all its omissions, this first series on Title I—researched by Gene Gleason and written by Fred J. Cook—painted a disturbing picture of the way New York City was being reshaped. It showed, as no one had previously shown, the relationship between the fact (previously written about in any real depth only by Kahn) that on many Title I sites no development had taken place in the four years since the city had handed them over to private interests and the fact (brought out in the Caspert hearings but never before documented in all its shocking details by anyone) that Moses' system financially encouraged failure to develop. It showed that the "slum clearance" program was clearing not just slums but healthy, pleasant residential and business sections—and was not building anything to replace them.

Page 1007
Investigative reporters quickly become aware of a phenomenon of their profession: information so hard to come by when they are preparing to write their first story in a new field suddenly becomes plentiful as soon as that first story has appeared in print. Every city agency has its malcontents and its idealists and its malcontent-idealists—officials and aides and clerks and secretaries unhappy with the philosophy by which it is being run or the pay-offs that are being made within it—who have been just waiting, for years, for the appearance of some forum in which their feelings can be expressed. When they realize that there is one at last—when they see that first story—they cannot get their information to its writer fast enough.

Page 1083
But it was to be a tough dream to realize. No project on which Robert Moses had ever embarked was to document more definitively his statement: "It takes more than a good idea to make a great public improvement. The fact is that such things happen when there are leaders available, ready and eager to take advantage of the logic of events. Even then the whole result is accomplished only by a series of limited objectives, over a surprisingly long period of years."

Page 1141
What was necessary to remove Moses from power was a unique, singular concatenation of circumstances: that the Governor of New York be the one man uniquely beyond the reach of normal politcal influences, and that the trustee for Triborough's bonds be a bank run by the Governor's brother.

Posted by Adrian at 12:26 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 09, 2020

Tactical Civics? Municipal Making?

As ever, one of the background processes going on in my head is wondering about how to improve the city, specifically Liverpool because that's where I live, but I'd expect anything we do to be useful ideas/patterns for others to absorb...

There are blips of more active thinking prompted by Dan Hill's writing, or conversations with our neighbours in the Fabric District, but I've been trying to find ways to get back to some doing for a while now.

I think that's going to look like a fairly low-key meetup of some sort. Probably not much more than me deciding to spend an evening or weekend day hacking on things, and extending the invite to whoever else is interested. I want to do some experimenting and making myself, not run a meetup where (only) others get to do that. At least not in the short term.

However, despite all that, the blocker has been what to call it.

There are elements of what would be tactical urbanism, but tactical sounds too militaristic for my liking, and urbanism implies that it's all about cities. It's not. Ruricomp is just as interesting, and villages and the countryside are just as capable of leading the way.

Maybe it could be something like Municipal Making, given the rise in municipalism (we can gloss over the fact that the Council recently sold the Municipal Buildings to become a hotel...), but that feels a bit like using big words to sound important, which risks putting off parts of the city whose interest I'd rather be trying to pique.

Traditionally I'd run this under the #CodeForLiverpool banner, and that could yet be the best option, but Joe Bramall will be pleased to hear that his influence and my experience at Liverpool Global Service Jam have given me pause for thought on putting the coding cart before the service design horse.

Perhaps I should keep it simple and go with the more established civic tech...

While I'm worrying too much over the name, I'm actually going to swerve it for now and build some stuff.

In a great bit of serendipity, the Ladies of Code Liverpool group are having a Code Hangout this Saturday at DoES Liverpool and don't mind me gegging in. So I'm going to sit quietly in the corner at that and most likely get back to playing with planning application scrapers.

Posted by Adrian at 09:37 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 29, 2019

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Do/Purpose by David Hieatt

I've long been a fan of David Hieatt's approach to branding and story-telling, and try to adopt bits of it for MCQN Ltd and DoES Liverpool. So I recently bought Do/Purpose, his book about that (I'd like to go on his marketing workshop, but haven't managed that yet). It was a pretty quick and enjoyable read, although I'd have preferred a bit more substance to it - but maybe I've absorbed too much of it already from reading his blog for donkey's years.

Page 27

When [Jack] Lemmon was asked why he plays small theatres, he replied that it was his duty to send the lift back down to help others.

Page 39

The exit strategy is what every startup is geared up for, and yet after selling Vimeo [Zach Klein] couldn't help but feel that he missed it. The last slide on his talk summed up his learning from his adventures: Build something that you would never sell.

Page 81

If you're going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don't even start.

Page 99

Bare your soul. Tell your struggle. Tell your pain. Tell your lows. Be vulnerable. Be honest. Tell them how the world could be.

Page 111

Change is your secret fuel. People want to be part of change. People want to be part of history. Teams gather around ideas that will change things.

Page 150

Enjoy the ride, it's your ride.

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September 16, 2018

Ignore the Innovators

How do we encourage engineers to get better at talking about their work, and to talk about it more often? How do we improve the public's ability to spot the difference between the blaggers and those who have a clue?

It's something that exercises me far more than it probably should. I think it comes from a general belief that all of us should take an active role in our society, that we should engage with the dark matter of policy and politics, and generally try to help others understand what we know so that we can all make progress.

Mostly I need to get better at ignoring it and focusing on my own work, and talking about my own work. Ignore the innovation theatre, the performative industry that exists to soak up all of the money we're investing as a country into things that purport to make life better but mostly just chase buzzwords and spend their time talking themselves up.

This article, Delusions of Grandeur, sums it up nicely.

At some point I'll make the time to write up the dataset analysis example that I developed as part of Ross Dalziel's course on data tools for artists. It analyzed some work that looks from a distance like the organisations involved are fulfilling their remit and moving the UK forward, but if you look any closer, soon dissolves into pointless busywork. Not that those organsiations are special, I'm sure you could build similar critiques of the Catapult centres or Innovate UK or...

I think the problem is that they're all tasked with the wrong thing: the pursuit of "innovation". It's ridiculously difficult to separate what might be truly innovative with what is just a crazy idea, even for the experts. And these organisations rarely attract the experts, because they're generally busy exploring the edges of their field, rather than casting around for quango jobs where they can't win.

Judging projects solely by whether or not they appear innovative favours things that are full of buzzwords and which promise easy wins. Scientists show how this one neat trick will save the world...

Where's the catapult centre for finding who's already solved the problem and doing the hard work to adopt it? We could make a good start by ignoring anyone and everyone who uses the word "innovation".

Posted by Adrian at 12:43 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 10, 2017

We Should Stop Using AI As a Way to Duck Responsibility

I've been reading Eric Rodenbeck's Fake-but-good-enough-for-robots satellite imagery, drawn by artificial intelligences. It's a good and interesting read, but there's something in its language that needles me.

We shouldn't surrender agency to algorithms. As software engineers, system designers and technologists we should be wary of explanations that imply that "the AI did it". It's a convenient, and understandable, defence because the alternative is to admit that we built a system that doesn't work as we intended, that has bugs. Even if the bugs are really subtle and dependent on datasets used for training, or combinations of sensors that are hard to predict.

However, it's all a bit "a big boy did it and ran away".

It feels to me that it's similar to the "code isn't political" myth that I hope we can all agree was a lie.

Eric's examples, and I'm as guilty as he is for reaching for the same metaphors when trying to explain what I do, aren't really "how robots see us" or "how robots talk with us".

The green circles overlaid on the video imagery aren't something a robot has created, they're written by people to help said people get a better understanding of how their code works. When I build things like that they're little meta-tools to help me work out why my code isn't doing what I thought it would.

I think that if we frame it in that way - tools and techniques to help humans understand algorithms - it leads us into a different but more useful rabbithole. Chasing down that one leads people to ask better questions of the technologists about what they were trying to achieve, why that has ended up in this unintended consequence, and how we might fix that or build better tools to explain it further.

Posted by Adrian at 03:46 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 13, 2017

Commoning Before Trademarks

Earlier in the week Jo Hinchliffe spotted that a company was trying to trademark the term "Makerspace". Following the community reaction, they've stated that they aren't going to pursue it, which is good to hear.

I'm not going to cover what happened, Jo's MakerspaceGate blog post is a much better source for that.

Marc Barto's post about the incident The trademarking of maker culture asks what sort of response we should make for the next time this happens.

The default assumption is that we should trademark the term (and other related terms that the community is interested in) ourselves as a defensive measure, but that leads to discussions about who the "we" there should be, how they might police it, and who pays the registration fee.

The perceived wisdom (i.e. IANAL...) is that trademark holders have to defend any infringement lest they lose it through genericization (when "hoover" becomes the term for any vacuum cleaner, etc.). What if we could find ways to deliberately push terms we didn't want anyone to own into the generic category?

How do we common the terms which may otherwise be captured as trademarks?

Posted by Adrian at 10:51 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 03, 2017

Is the "Maker Movement" a Movement?

At the recent Lucas Plan 40th anniversary conference (see my thoughts on the day for more detail) Liz Corbin said, deliberately provocatively, that the "Maker Movement" isn't actually a movement.

I'm glad she did. It wasn't really something I'd given much thought to before. I've been involved in Maker culture, the Maker community, the Maker Movement, whatever it is, since pretty near the start, and so have just taken it somewhat for granted—and done my bit to help shape it—as it's grown.

But I'm not sure I could define what it is.

Looking in the dictionary, it defines a movement as "group with a common aim".

Judging it thus, Liz is right. I don't think there's a common aim among makers, other than to make, which seems rather broad a definition for a movement.

It's definitely a community, and probably a whole host of overlapping and intermingled communities who mostly share an ethos (that's not a proper capturing of a maker ethos, but it's one readily to hand).

There are advantages to not being a movement. I think that makes the maker community more inclusive and easier to adapt to new opportunities.

However, it also makes it easier to dismiss or to misunderstand. Most commonly by categorizing it as an updated version of the Arts and Crafts movement.

There's definitely an element of that, and I've made the "William Morris with a 3D printer" criticism myself. And there's definitely a risk that we may similarly fail to substantially change the mainstream culture.

However, I think that there could be a Maker Movement. That it is more than just an updated Arts and Crafts Movement.

I believe that the Maker Movement aims to democratize production and innovation.

The Arts and Crafts movement was defined by its celebration of traditional craft techniques and its rejection of industrialisation. The Maker Movement sees no such distinction—it embraces both the hand-carved wooden bowl and the CNC-routed desk.

What matters to the Maker Movement is that everyone who wants to produce some thing, has the ability to produce that thing. Not everyone has to be a maker, but there should be a universality of possibility.

It isn't just about the universality of who can be a maker; it's also about the universality of what can be produced, of the aesthetics of what can be produced. Not just items that are obviously hand-made but also objects that are indistinguishable from those mass-manufactured in factories.

Obviously a lot of this is driven by the falling cost of tools like 3D printers and the increasing digitalisation of manufacturing, coupled with borrowing the open source software community's sharing culture and assumption that you can (and should) make your own tools.

Added to that are elements of a much older tradition of people coming together in groups to achieve more collectively than they can alone, amplified by the Internet's ability to ease group discoverability and communication. That manifests in the collective purchase of machinery which would be out-of-reach for the individual and—arguably more importantly—the cross-pollination of skills and ideas that both accelerates the development of and improves the quality of the resultant innovations.

Democratizing production and innovation has the promise to improve our lives in many ways, from individuals 3D-printing themselves a new prosthetic hand through to new companies and products and communities building their own infrastructure.

We need to nurture and celebrate this movement and be vigilant against (and seek to better inform, to take under our wing and help) well-intentioned but ham-fisted approaches which miss the greater opportunities and cherry-pick the easier aspects such as filling workshops with shiny tools.

Here's to a better, Maker-fuelled future!

Posted by Adrian at 04:29 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

December 20, 2016

The Left Needs to Get Over Its Fear of Technology

Forty years ago, when faced with a declining order book and redundancies, a group of the workers from various sites of Lucas Aerospace banded together and drew up an alternative plan for the company. Rather than continue to chase defence work, they proposed diversification into technologies like wind turbines and hybrid vehicles. Sadly the corporate management, when presented with the plan, decided not to implement it.

You can find out more about the Lucas Plan in this article by Adrian Smith, or this recent piece in Red Pepper, or watch a 1978 documentary about the plan.

A few Saturdays back there was a day-long conference to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the plan.

It was an interesting day and one that left me with mixed feelings - some rays of hope with the level of awareness and desire to get stuck into the immense challenge of climate change; but a much greater feeling of an opportunities missed and of disappointment.

There were four tracks of talks and discussions, so there was plenty that I missed; however, it felt like there could have been more time spent trying to explain why the Lucas Plan failed. The simple answer is that management decided against it. That's true, but why? Was it that they were trapped in the 1970s framing of work as an adversarial battle of the bosses against the unions, and so couldn't accept a proposal from the workers? Maybe. But it could as easily be that betting on wind turbines and other revolutionary-for-their-time technologies was a big ask of a huge corporation. Were there other approaches the workers could have made after the plan was refused? Could they have set up smaller firms or workers co-operatives to pursue some of those ideas? How might the unions support that? Could they invest in them? Unite seem to own student housing here in Liverpool - do they also own factories? If not, why not?

Many of the same challenges that faced the authors of the Lucas Plan hold true today (and some are far more pressing). It feels like such an approach is even less likely to succeed now than it was then, so what should we be doing differently?

Not that all of the missed connections came from the traditional left. Despite a fair overlap with the sort of approaches taken in hackspace and makerspaces (especially when you factor in the Greater London Council's Technology Networks - a series of community-based workshops providing access to shared tools - which came out of the aftermath of the plan), there were few representatives from the Maker community. Only a handful that I was aware of, although that did include two speakers: Liz Corbin and the aforementioned Adrian Smith.

There are two threads I want to pick up in response to this.

The Maker Movement is a Niche Movement

Liz's talk was a good exploration of the "Maker Movement" and the possibilities for it meeting with those in the unions/left who are interested in plans like the Lucas Plan.

However, there was hardly any awareness—when Liz asked at the start of her talk—of makerspaces, hackspaces and the like. When you're immersed in the world of Make Magazine, the tech press talking up 3D printing, and academics doing research around the number of makerspaces, etc. it can easily feel as though this stuff is mainstream. This was a welcome (if uncomfortable) wake up call to that. There is much work to do in taking it to a wider audience. [I'd managed to miss that last sentence from the original piece, until Jackie Pease pointed it out]

Liz also argued that the "Maker Movement" isn't actually a movement. It's not something I'd much considered before, but I think she's right. There's a strength in that, because it means it can be more inclusive and futher-reaching, but it also makes it harder to achieve momentum because there's no articulated mission to run at.

I've often wondered about how we avoid the idealism and optimistic futures being lost as (/if?) it becomes mainstream, in the way that hippie movement, punk, and the Internet were as they were co-opted by capitalism/consumerism. Maybe it's just inevitable, and maybe you can only get to nudge the supertanker in a more equitable direction, but how do we maximise the size of the nudge?

The Left Ignores Technology Until it's Too Late

Throughout the day there was an undercurrent of mistrust and hostility towards any technology. This was despite us convening to celebrate a plan to develop all manner of cutting-edge technologies. There was even an entire session on automation and AI which was just to organise the resistance to the assumed job losses.

I went to the resistance session, and the level of neo-luddism was dispiriting. The bright-spot within it was when a younger (20-something I'd guess) suggested hydroponics as a way to reconnect urban-dwellers with growing (in response to the speaker from the Land Workers Association proposing that we need to get more people back tilling the land). Sadly, in response, rather than explore that and constructively-critique the idea he was just subjected to ridicule and instant dismissal.

I'm not in favour of using technology to consign more and more people to the "useless" bucket, but looking at how successful the original Luddites and the unions in the 70s (including the Lucas Plan itself) were, it seems that history shows that such approaches are unlikely to work.

Why does the Left (in the UK at least, I'm less sure of how things are elsewhere, and it feels as though groups like Podemos might be more tech-savvy) surrender all use of technology to the capitalists? There's lots that technology and digital tools could do to help workers organise, or to protect their safety, or assist in asserting their rights.

There are many topics within technology which require debate and informed argument, but ignoring and resisting all new tech (is there a list of what technologies are okay? Is it just ones invented and popularised before you got a job?) means that the Left won't understand the issues until it's too late.

The Left hasn't always been fearful of technology. Stafford-Beer's Project Cybersyn is the most obvious example, which was cutting-edge in its day. I'd love to hear about other examples.

I'm hopeful that Adam Greenfield's new book, Radical Technologies, will help point the way to some solutions, or at least provide a direction in which to head.

There are many technologists, coders, designers, who want to make the world a more equitable and nicer place. If we can find ways to marry that to the energy and history of the unions and organised Left then maybe together we can bring that to pass.

Posted by Adrian at 10:40 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 10, 2016

The City as Change Vector

When I went to Laptops and Looms II one of the four "things I'd been pondering" was the role cities might play in building a better future. I was reminded of it at Oggcamp recently when I chaired a session about Code for Liverpool, and so thought I'd finally write up some thoughts here.

My mindmap on the opportunities afforded by cities

Above is a photo of the notes I jotted down on the train over to Laptops and Looms. Obviously there's a bit about how we get to the sort of "smart" city that we citizens want, rather than the one that's most profitable for big tech firms (or new tech startups). However, it's the "City as lab?" part that I think is most interesting.

There are many challenges and possibilities facing society today. However, I don't think I'm alone in a general feeling of malaise that we're failing to address any of them.

Actually, it's not that we can't address any of them, it's that there seems to be a limit to the size of project that we can tackle. Kickstarter, pop-ups, artist collectives, hackspaces, etc. mean it's easier than ever to complete certain types of project, yet once you get to a certain size or scale of project we seem to hit a barrier.

Graph of project scale versus difficulty

As you can see in this highly scientific graph, once we get above the red line we tend to be overwhelmed with the difficulty of tackling things. Dan Hill sums it up well with his comment that you can't crowd-source a light-rail system.

I have a theory (not exactly a new or unique one) that cities are the best environment to tackle the problem of scale.

Although some of these projects - for example, climate change - sound like they're best dealt with at a national or even international level, I think we've had far too much evidence to the contrary. I think - despite all our fawning over technology - we're fundamentally social and interpersonal beings and as our organisations grow in size, that's something that gets lost along the way.

That's why the city is an interesting and fertile ground for new ideas and experiments. It's big enough for newcomers to reinvent themselves, yet small enough that bad actors' deeds are noted and the community can be wary of their actions in future; and it's big enough that successful initiatives can gain the critical mass to transfer elsewhere, yet small enough that individuals and small bands of people can develop the connections and networks to make an impact.

Liverpool as a possibility space

Since moving back to Liverpool this is something I've been half-consciously working towards. Helping to nurture the existing fertile ground for experimentation, social change, and prosperity and open up the city as a possibility space for such initiatives.

I'm not sure that DoES Liverpool counts as one of Tom Steinberg's new digital public institutions, but I think there's a nod towards that with our efforts to define and promote the DoES ethos.

And in addition to expanding the DoES community itself we also look to the wider context.

Some times that involves working with the Local Enterprise Partnership or talking to the "sector support" organisations or engaging with local councillors.

And it also involves an element of JFDI. Hence projects like the "somebody should" list for the whole city, which has started to gain some movement thanks to the more recent Code for Liverpool idea and hackdays.

I don't know what we'll achieve through those and other initiatives, but that's not the point. It's not just down to me, it's also the responsibility of my fellow Liverpudlians, and those who choose to join us. Interesting times indeed.

Posted by Adrian at 04:51 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 26, 2015

Threads of Diversity

Rather than fold them into the usual Interesting Things on the Internet(tm)... post, I'd like to point to a few articles that have crossed my path of late...

I think there's a thread of diversity-is-good running through all of them, alongside - with the exception of the FT article on the petrification of London - thoughts on better ways to organise things. They also all challenge the orthodoxy, so although there's a fair chance they'd improve the lives of the many, there's a risk (and only a risk) of that being to the cost of the ruling classes, and so would need actively pursuing as ideas.

As ever, it shows most things have been done before, despite our love of the seemingly new. There are plenty (almost too many - I'm not sure where to start... any pointers?) of writings from Stafford-Beer, but less information about the Lucas Plan (discussed, including video of a documentary about it, in the Fab Lab article).

I wonder if any of the people behind the Lucas Plan are still around, and if they'd be interested in sharing their experiences with those of us experimenting with the latest wave of similar projects...

Posted by Adrian at 12:23 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 11, 2015

Spreading the DoES Liverpool Ethos

I don't have a good name for the approach I'm hoping to explain in this blog post, which is increasingly annoying as more and more I want to refer to it.

It has elements of the hacker ethos, but that term is so overloaded and abused these days. Some of it is algorithmic thinking, or Internet/networked thinking, but that misses the maker tools in the practitioner's toolbox. There are elements of design thinking in there too.

When I was planning to talk about it at Laptops and Looms II (this is as close as I'll get, I think, to writing this bit up) I used the term "Digital by default" everywhere but the more I think about it, the more that feels like a mis-appropriation of that term.

My mindmap on the DoES ethos

There's more in that sketch than I'm getting to today. Hopefully I'll expand on that soon. There is at least a half-written blog post to cover a chunk of it.

The nearest I've got to a catch-all term for it, is the DoES Liverpool ethos - because that's where I see it most strongly. But some of that is because that's also where I hang out with like-minded people with this approach the most.

Hopefully some examples will help clarify things.

A couple of days before I started writing this, Stuart Ian Burns sent these tweets.

He's actually quite far along the road of working out how he could use computers to solve the problem he's got. But unfortunately, not far enough along to actually get the answer. He knows some of the language, but still can't achieve the result. For someone with even a reasonably limited level of coding, it's not a hard task, but it's not something you'd ever hire an agency to build for you.

We have it all over the place at DoES - small tools which bring the power of bigger, existing systems to bear on solving problems and helping to automate and smooth operations.

The script that trawls Twitter, IRC and our Google calendar to gather the weeknotes, and then creates a blog post on Wordpress for them, and emails the organisers to remind them to check it over and publish it. The simple use of a hashtag gives us a multi-user authoring system for contributions, without the overhead of building our own user database or a UI for submitting contributions. Likewise, Google calendar gives us a cross-platform, desktop and mobile calendaring system

Or the script John wrote to automate the process of filling in our availability for the week so we make sure someone is around to open up and close up. It uses the same Google calendar to know when our opening hours are extended by an evening meetup or weekend event, and creates a Doodle poll to provide the UI for people to populate which sessions they can cover. Doodle isn't designed to solve that problem - it wants you to narrow down on a small subset of possible days/times, rather than spreading participants across all of the options, but it suits our needs. Then there's the enhancement script to that, which checks each day and emails reminders if there's still a gap.

I expect that no more than a few days work has gone into building all of that, and it's been spread across a number of months as the needs arose. It's the sort of solution you get when you're aiming for maximum automation for minimum effort, with an eye to integrating into the systems that people have already built to solve parts of the problem.

It's really difficult for an agency to solve the problem in that way, and as a result I'd be surprised if it came in as less than a few weeks of work, and quite possibly a few months. It would take them too long to gain the deep knowledge of the workings of the organisation to be able to propose the integration with the existing tools, and they'd tend towards minimising work for themselves (naturally) by reusing tried-and-tested content-management systems with their one-size-fits-all user logins and content creation.

It isn't just in the software realm. Our Doorbot door-entry system requires plenty of software to enable our RFID-card access control - and has been enhanced to log hot-desk usage in our accounts system, and further enhanced to play personalised theme tunes upon arrival (or pirate- or halloween-themed alternatives on Talk Like a Pirate Day and Halloween) - but is also leverages Raspberry Pi computers and electronics, coupled with laser-cutting for the RFID reader enclosure. Not to mention how it piggy-backs on the existing RFID infrastructure to allow people to use their Oystercard or touch-n-pay credit card as their access card if they want to.

It's the way that the organisation has an internalised sense of the malleability of the world that software and digital fabrication brings.

And once you bring electronics and digital fabrication into the mix the number of firms you could hire drops to a vanishingly small number (at least for the next few years).

It also includes a culture of sharing. If you design a 3d-printed attachment for your Dyson, you post the files online for others to use, adapt and share. You might not publish all of the parts, if keeping it secret gives you a competitive advantage, but if not then you contribute it to the commons as you know someone else might find it useful to rework for their situation, and understand that next week you might be using their cooker knob design as the basis for a control panel.

Adopting this culture of embedded software and making know-how would give a company an advantage over any of its competitors who haven't yet realised how the world is changing. In the short-term it will help smooth their processes and increase productivity; and in the long-term make them more likely to spot new possibilities enabled by software letting them communicate better with their customers; or more easily reconfigure their production workflow; or creating entirely new services and products.

Working out how we encourage more of our existing companies to do that will let the city, or the country, thrive. The Silicon Valley approach would be for a new startup to "disrupt" the incumbent, with little regard for any of the people involved in that incumbent. What if we found a way to help the incumbents (particularly the smaller ones) embrace the new possibilities? Would that let us transition to a better future with a lower human cost?

Posted by Adrian at 03:36 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 19, 2015

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Jane Jacobs is, rightly, regarded as a defining influence in human-centred urbanism or city planning. Her first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities is considered a classic and so was required reading for someone like me, with an interest in how we look to affect our cities.

It's a bit of a behemoth - almost 600 pages in the edition I have - and took me a while to work through. I'm not sure how much of a feel you'll really get for it from these notes, but it's a really interesting and thought-provoking read. It's taken me quite some time to get my notes written up (I finished the book sometime in 2013!) but that's because of the sheer density of notes I made through the book.

I didn't agree with absolutely everything in it, but we could learn much about how to improve our towns and cities, and how to improve the way we go about "regenerating" them if more planners, politicians, and citizens had read this.

Page 24

The plan [Ebenezer Howard] proposed, in 1898, was to halt the growth of London and also repopulate the countryside where villages were declining, by building a new kind of town&em-dash;the Garden City [...] As in all Utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planners in charge.

Page 60

The second mode [of coping with the risks of walking in dangerous areas] is to take refuge in vehicles. This is a technique practices in the big wild-animal reservations of Africa, where tourists are warned to leave their cars under no circumstances until they reach a lodge. It is also the technique practices in Los Angeles. Surprised visitors to that city are forever recounting how the police of Beverly Hills stopped them, made them prove their reasons for being afoot, and warned them of the danger.

Page 78

This reminded me of the way that our parcels in Italy were held by the woman in the little bread shop in our apartment block. It also brought to mind Kevin Harris' thoughts on the difference between knowing your neighbours, and knowing the names or being friends with your neighbours.

Perhaps I can best explain this subtle but all-important balance [in a good neighbourhood between residents' privacy and the help and contact they have with their neighbours] in terms of the stores where people leave keys for their friends, a common custom on New York [...]

Now why do I, and many others, select Joe [who runs the local deli] as a logical custodian for keys? Because we trust him, first, to be a responsible custodian, but equally important because we know that he combines a feeling of good will with a feeling of no personal responsibility about our personal affairs. Joe considers it no concern of his whom we choose to permit in our places and why.

Page 155

A city's very wholeness in bringing together people with communities of interest is one of its greatest assets, possibly the greatest. And, in turn, one of the assets a city district needs is people with access to the political, the administrative, and the special interest communities of the city as a whole.

Page 182

Over intervals of time, many people change their jobs and the locations of their jobs, shift or enlarge their outside friendships and interests, change their family sizes, change their incomes up or down, even change many of their tastes. In short they live, rather than just exist. If they live in diversified, rather than monotonous, districts - in districts, particularly, where many details of physical change can constantly be accommodated - and if they like the place, they can stay put despite changes in the locales or natures of their other pursuits or interests. Unlike the people who must move from a lower-middle to a middle-middle to an upper-middle suburb as their incomes and leisure activities change (or be very outre indeed) [...]

Page 187

[James] Boswell not only gave a good definition of cities, he put his finger on one of the chief troubles in dealing with them. It is so easy to fall into the trap of contemplating a city's uses one at a time, by categories. Indeed, just this - analysis of cities, use by use - has become a customary planning tactic.

Page 191

Wherever lively and popular parts of the city are found, the small [retail businesses] much outnumber the large.

Page 196

To generate exuberant diversity in a city's streets and districts, four conditions are indispensable:

1. The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two. These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common.

2. Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.

3. The district much mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly close grained.

4. There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there. This includes dense concentration in the case of people who are there because of residence.

The necessity for these four conditions is the most important point this book has to make. [...]

Page 211 (in a footnote)

The innate inefficiency of serving a single primary use is one reason (in combination with several others) why so few shopping centers are able to support any but standardized, high turnover enterprises.

Page 238

Long blocks also thwart the principle that if city mixtures of use are to be more than a fiction on maps, they must result in different people, bent on different purposes, appearing at different times, but using the same streets.

Page 244

Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings I mean not museum-piece old buildings, not old buildings in an excellent and expensive state of rehabilitation - although these make fine ingredients - but also a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings.

Page 245

Chain stores, chain restaurants and banks go into new construction. But neighborhood bars, foreign restaurants and pawn shops go into older buildings. Supermarkets and shoe stores often go into new buildings; good bookstores and antique dealers seldom do. Well-subsidized opera and art museums often go into new buildings. But the unformalized feeders of the arts - studios, galleries, stores for musical instruments and art supplies, backrooms where the low earning power of a seat and a table can absorb uneconomic discussions - these go into old buildings.


As for really new ideas of any kind - no matter how ultimately profitable or otherwise successful some of them might prove to be - there is no leeway for such chancy trial, error and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.

Page 258

Improvement must come by supplying the conditions for generating diversity that are missing, not by wiping out old buildings in great swathes.

Page 282

It is hardly possible to expect that many really different types of dwellings or their buildings can be added at any one time. To think they can be is wishful thinking.

Page 289

The task is to promote the city life of city people, housed, let us hope, in concentrations both dense enough and diverse enough to offer them a decent chance at developing city life.

Page 293

Genuine architectural variety, [Eugene] Raskin pointed out, does not consist in using different colors or textures.

Page 303

Indeed, the notion that reek or fumes are to be combated by zoning and land-sorting classifications at all is ridiculous. The air doesn't know about zoning boundaries. Regulations specifically aimed at the smoke or the reek itself are to the point.

Page 331

This means, often, constraints on too rapid a replacement of too many buildings. I think the specific scheme of diversity zoning, or the specific combination of schemes, that an outstandingly successful city locality requires is likely to differ with the locality and with the particular form of self-destruction that threatens it.

Page 333

In short, public and public-spirited bodies can do much to anchor diversity by standing staunch [in keeping their buildings] in the midst of different surrounding uses, while money rolls around them and begs to roll over them.

Page 348

Many such semicommercial or commercial uses [of space in public parks] belong on the city side of a park border, placed deliberately to dramatize and intensify cross-use (and cross-surveillance) to and fro. They ought generally to work in partnership with border uses on the park side: an example would be a park skating rink brought immediately up to a park border, and across the street, on the city side, a cafe where the skaters could get refreshments and where watchers could observe the skating across the way from enclosed or open raised terraces.

Page 349

[Kevin Lynch writes that "An edge] then becomes a seam rather than a barrier, a line of exchange along which two areas are sewn together."

Page 350

Waterfront work uses, which are often interesting, should not be blocked off from ordinary view for interminable stretches, and the water itself thereby blocked off from city view too at ground level. Such stretches should be penetrated by small, and even casual, public openings calculated for glmpsing or watching work and water traffic.

Page 353

Our present urban renewal laws are an attempt to break this particular linkage in the vicious circles by forthrightly wiping away slums and their populations, and replacing them with projects intended to produce higher tax yields, or to lure back easier populations with less expensive public requirements. The method fails. At best, it merely shifts slums from here to there, adding its own tincture of extra hardship and disruption. At worst, it destroys neighborhoods where constructive and improving communities exist and where the situation calls for encouragement rather than destruction.

Page 356

Unslumming hinges, paradoxically, on the retention of a very considerable part of a slum population within a slum. It hinges on whether a considerable number of the residents and businessmen of a slum find it both desirable and practical to make and carry out their own plans right there, or whether they must virtually all move elsewhere.

Page 363

[Quoting from a Harrison Salisbury article about delinquency in low-income projects]
Segregation is imposed not by religion or color but by the sharp knife of income or lack of income. What this does to the social fabric of the community must be witnessed to be appreciated. The able, rising families are constantly driven out . . . At the intake end the economic and social levels tend to drop lower and lower . . . A human catch-pool is formed that breeds social ills and requires endless outside assistance.

Page 364

The foundation for unslumming is a slum lively enough to be able to enjoy city public life and sidewalk safety. The worst foundation is the dull kind of place that makes slums, instead of unmaking them.

Page 365

I do not mean to imply, however, that every slum which gets itself enough diversity and a sufficiently interesting and convenient life automatically unslums.

Page 369

Furthermore, although these people at the bottom are hardly successes by most standards, in their street neighborhoods most of them are successes. They make up a vital part of the web of casual public life. The amount of time they devote to street watching and street management makes some of the rest of us parasites upon them.

Page 373

Generation after generation, nonslum dwellers stick to the same foolish ideas about slums and slum dwellers. The pessimists always seem to feel that there is something inferior about the current crops of slum dwellers themselves, and can point out supposedly dire differences that distinguish them from previous immigrants. The optimists always seem to feel that there is nothing wrong with slums that could not be fixed by housing and land-use reform and enough social workers. It is hard to say which oversimplification is the sillier.

Page 376

An unslumming slum is peculiarly vulnerable in still another respect. Nobody is making a fortune out of it. The two great moneymakers in cities are, on the one hand, unsuccessful, perpetual slums [not necessarily moral or entirely legal moneymakers] and, on the other hand, high-rent or high-cost areas.

Page 381

[...] money is a powerful force both for city decline and for city regeneration. But it must be understood that it is not the mere availability of money but how it is available, and for what, that is all important.

Page 383

Unslumming - much as it should be speeded up from the glacial pace at which it now proceeds - is a process of steady but gradual change.

Page 395

All three kinds of cataclysmic money have been involved [...], as they often are in city decay. First the withdrawal of all conventional money; then ruination financed by shadow-world money; then selection of the area by the Planning Commission as a candidate for cataclysmic use of government money to finance renewal clearance. This last stage makes possible cataclysmic re-entry of conventional money for financing renewal-project construction and rehabilitation. So well do these three different kinds of money prepare the way for each other's cataclysms that one would be impelled to admire the process, as a highly developed form of order in its own right, were it not so destructive to every other form of city order. It does not represent a "conspiracy." It is a logical outcome of logical men guided by nonsensical but conventional city planning beliefs.

Page 401

Lack of money has hardly been the trouble in East Harlem. After the drought came fantastic floods. The money poured into East Harlem alone from the public housing treasuries is about as much as was lost on the Edsel. In the case of a mistake like the Edsel, a point is reached when the expenditure is reappraised and halted. But in East Harlem, citizens today have to fight off still more money for repetitions of mistakes that go unappraised by those who control the money floodgates. I hope we disburse foreign aid abroad more intelligently than we disburse it at home.

Page 410

Public housing money is employed cataclysmically instead of for gradual, steady street and district improvement, because we thought cataclysms would be good for our slum dwellers - and a demonstration to the rest of us of the good city life.

Page 414

It is so easy to blame the decay of cities on traffic . . . or immigrants . . . or the whimsies of the middle class. The decay of cities goes deeper and is more complicated. It goes right down to what we think we want, and to our ignorance about how cities work.

Page 429

The physical standards and regulations applying should be those embodied in a city's own codes and body of regulations, and should therefore be the same for guaranteed-rent dwellings as they would be for any unsubsidized building at the same place. If it is public policy to improve or to change dwelling standards for safety, sanitation, amenity or street design, then this public policy must be expressed for the public - not for an arbitrarily selected, guinea-pig part of the public.

Page 432

[By forcing developers to certain plots, and to choose tenants for those developments from the existing area] It would be possible, for instance, to stimulate new construction in currently blacklisted localities where the lack becomes crucial, and to do it by helping to retain, at the same time, people already within the neighborhood.

Page 435

Deliberate, periodic changes in tactics of subsidy would afford opportunity to meet new needs that become apparent over time, but that nobody can foresee in advance. This observation is, obliquely, a warning against the limitations of my own prescriptions in this book.

Page 442

Nowadays there is a myth that city streets, so patently inadequate for floods of automobiles, are antiquated vestiges of horse-and-buggy conditions, suitable to the traffic of their time, but...

Nothing could be less true. To be sure, the streets of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cities were usually well adapted, as streets, to the uses of people afoot and to the mutual support of the mingled uses bordering them. But they were miserably adapted, as streets, to horse traffic, and this in turn made them poorly adapted in many ways to foot traffic too.

Page 447

Trucks, by and large, do accomplish much of what might have been hoped for from mechanical vehicles in cities. They do the work of much greater numbers of horse-drawn vehicles or of burden-laden men. But because passenger vehicles do not, this congestion, in turn, greatly cuts down the efficiency of the trucks.

Page 451

Except in the most intensively used central downtown areas, it hardly seems that the service complications accompanying thoroughgoing separation of pedestrians and vehicles are justified.

Page 453

[...] the main virtual of pedestrian streets is not that they completely lack cars, but rather that they are not overwhelmed and dominated by floods of cars, and that they are easy to cross.

Page 473

For just as there is no absolute, immutable number of public transportation riders in a city, so is there no absolute, immutable number of private automobile riders, rather, the numbers vary in response to current differentials in speed and convenience among ways of getting around.

Page 474

Tactics are suitable which give room to other necessary and desired city uses that happen to be in competition with automobile traffic needs.

Page 477

To achieve [greater efficiency of public transportation], the buses going into and through downtown must be speeded up. This can be done without doubt, says [traffic commissioner of New Haven, William] McGrath, by regulating the traffic light frequencies to short intervals and not staggering them.

Page 479

Trucks are vital to cities. They mean service. They mean jobs. At present, we already have, in reverse, truck selectivity traffic tactics on a few city streets. On Fifth and Park avenues in New York, for instance, trucks are forbidden, except for those making deliveries.

Page 481

Attrition of automobiles requires changes in habits and adjustments in usage too; just as in the case of erosion it should not disrupt too many habits at once.

Page 483

To concentrate on riddance as the primary purpose, negatively to put taboos and penalties on automobiles as children might say, "Cars, cars, go away," would be a policy not only doomed to defeat but rightly doomed to defeat. A city vacuum, we must remember, is not superior to redundant traffic, and people are rightly suspicious of programs that give them nothing for something.

Page 489

[...] modern city planning has been burdened from its beginnings with the unsuitable aim of converting cities into disciplined works of art.

Page 490

A city is not put together like a mammal or a steel frame building - or even like a honeycomb or a coral. A city's very structure consists of mixture of uses, and we get closest to its structural secrets when we deal with the conditions that generate diversity.

Page 493

The tactics needed are suggestions that help people make, for themselves, order and sense, instead of chaos, from what they see.

Page 498

Districts with many visual street interruptions do not, in real life, tend to intimidate or overwhelm people; they are more apt to be characterized as "friendly" and also to be comprehensible as districts.

Page 499

Actual physical cut-offs to foot traffic in particular are destructive in cities. There should always be a way around the visual interruption or through it, a way that is obvious as a person reaches it, and that then lays out before the eyes a new street scene. This seductive attribute of designed interruptions to the eye was summed up neatly by the late architect Eliel Saarinen, who is reported to have said, in explaining his own design premises, "There must always be an end in view, and the end must not be final."

Page 502

Sometimes attempts are made to give a building landmark quality simply by making it bigger than its neighbors, or by turning it out with stylistic differences. Usually, if the use of such a building is essentially the same as the uses of its neighbors, it is pallid - try as it might. [...] Except in very rare cases of real architectural masterpieces, this statement that style or size is everything gets from city users, who are not so dumb, about the affection and attention it deserves.

Page 515

The general aim should be to bring in uses different from residence, because lack of enough mixed uses is precisely one of the causes of deadness, danger and plain inconvenience.

Page 522

[...] the tie of residency to income price tags [in rules over who can live in public housing] must be abandoned altogether. So long as it remains, not only will all the most successful or lucky inexorably be drained away, but all the others must psychologically identify themselves with their homes either as transients or as "failures."

Page 530

The trouble is, [the board members at a public hearing] are trying to deal with the intimate details of a great metropolis with an organizational structure to back them up, advise them, inform them, guide them and pressure them, that has become anachronistic. There is no villainy responsible for this situation, not even the villainy of pass-the-buck; the villainy, if it can be called that, is a most understandable failure by our society to keep abreast of demanding historical changes.

The historical changes relevant in this case are not only an immense increase in the size of great cities, but also the immensely increased responsibilities - for housing, for welfare, for health, for education, for regulatory planning - which have been taken on by the governments of great municipalities.

Page 533

"A Region," somebody has wryly said, "is an area safely larger than the last one to whose problems we found no solution."

Page 535

Each of the many internal divisions of responsibility, vertical or horizontal [in a city administration], is rational in its own terms, which is to say rational in a vacuum. Put them all together in terms of a big city itself and the sum is chaos.

Page 538

Persons of hope, energy and initiative who enter into the service of these empires almost have to become uncaring and resigned, for the sake of their self-preservation (not for job preservation, as is so often thought, but for self-preservation).

Page 550

Citizens of big cities need fulcrum points where they can apply their pressures, and make their wills and their knowledge known and respected. Administrative districts would inevitably become such fulcrum points. Many of the conflicts that are today fought out in the labyrinths of vertical city government - or that are decided by default because the citizens never know what hit them - would be transferred to these [proposed more local] district arenas.

Posted by Adrian at 11:16 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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.

Posted by Adrian at 04:53 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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

Posted by Adrian at 02:38 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 07, 2014

Growing a Culture

"Culture eats strategy for breakfast"
- Peter Drucker

Even before I learnt of this quote, I was generally of the impression that the culture of a company, or organisation, was an important part of how it operated or what it could achieve. However, as that sentence shows, Peter Drucker did a much better job of summing it up.

Setting, or guiding, the culture and ethos of the space is something I've consciously tried to influence ever since we started DoES Liverpool back in 2011. Not (I hope) in a controlling or machiavellian way, but it's something I have an awareness of in choosing some of the ways I respond to events.

Culture is important because, as Scott Berkun says (and you should go read that link, it's very good. I'll wait...), it comes from what you do, not from what you say. The culture of somewhere is built from the actions of the people who inhabit that space.

The culture of a group also changes over time, as it grows and as different people join or leave the mix. This is both a good thing - as it means that there's scope to "fix" things that aren't helping the group - and a "bad" thing - as it means that looking after the culture is more akin to gardening than carving inscriptions into stone.

Which means that to have a lasting effect on a culture, you need to be in it for the long-term. This is why leaders of a startup community "must have a long-term commitment".

I think we've done a reasonable job at setting the right sort of culture at DoES Liverpool. We don't always get it right, but I think in general we've got a welcoming and inclusive vibe with an emphasis on doing rather than talking, and an appetite for trying new things and helping pick each other up and get us back on track if they fail.

The elusive insight in all this is how do you make it scale? Specifically, how can you scale it more quickly and effectively? There is much to do, and we are all impatient to have more impact, more quickly.

That said, I'm wary of growing the community too quickly. If you want to do things differently, which almost by definition we are if we want things to change, then you need to protect and nurture the culture as it grows. Adding too many new people will, if you're not careful, create a completely new culture which will swamp the existing one - and the chances are the "new" culture will be some strain of the local status quo.

I watched this happen at STNC when we doubled the size of the company in six months or so, and wasted a lot of time and effort reintegrating it into a single company. DoES' continual slow, steady growth means we aren't as well known in the city as we could, or possibly should, be, but it also means we've had time to find our feet.

Culture is all about the people. And that's why it's so difficult to influence with capital expenditure or money. Which is a shame, because that seems to be the standard approach taken by anyone charged with trying to encourage a more entrepreneurial culture. The country is littered with deserted office buildings full of expensive, underused machinery and equipment, because we keep creating the symptoms of successful places under the illusion that we're recreating the causes. Cambridge isn't full of startups and tech companies because it's got a science park; it has a science park because it's full of companies who'd rather be right in the city centre, but the colleges own all the land and property and don't want to ruin all the old buildings with office blocks.

Did I mention that culture is all about the people? That's also why you can't write a recipe to explain how to seed the rest of the city, or country, or planet, with DoES outposts. Or at least, if you did, it would be something along the lines of:

  1. Find the interesting people who live locally, and who'd be likely to commit to five or ten years working at it.
  2. Pay for them to live in Liverpool and have a desk at DoES Liverpool.
  3. Then give them their head to return home and start something of their own.

None of which is me trying to claim that we're particularly special, or different. Just that what makes DoES DoES is something that's nebulous and almost impossible to write down (just look at how much trouble I'm having...). It's something you get infected with through repeated exposure to other carriers, by observing what they do, how they interact, through a hundred different incidental conversations, accumulated over time.

This recent blog post about spread and scale, from the Mindlab blog, does an excellent job of explaining these challenges.

So, how to move forward?

Keep on doing. Success will be mostly down to hard work and persistence, as ever.

On top of that, we should endeavour to share more of what we're up to, and how that fares. Not sharing best practice, but trying to share as much practice as possible and reporting what has and hasn't worked for us. Hopefully that will encourage others to share their experiences, and between us we can spark copying and remixing our ideas and experiments.

Posted by Adrian at 01:53 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 22, 2014

Dislocated and in Fear of Being Co-opted

Last night I thought I'd finally found a way into writing the blog post I've been labouring over for the past week (and in fact, parts of it have been percolating in my brain in various forms for months). However, I happened to read this article railing against the gentrification-through-shipping-containers of a pop-up shopping mall in London, which took me off down a different rabbit-hole. So you'll have to wait a bit longer to hear about viruses, culture and innovation. Sorry.

The rabbit-hole led to Byron, Brewdog, and the recuperation of radical aesthetics which left me with that feeling you get in certain restaurants, when you suddenly realise that the "other half" of the room is in fact a reflection in a wall-length mirror.

It's rather depressing to spot the pared-back aesthetic born of thrift being adopted by corporations who'll use that to fatten existing profits, rather than the small indie's counterstrike to offset the lack of economies of scale and enable any profit.

Grungy design isn't the only thing being co-opted of late. In the tech world things like hackdays are–depending on how cynical you're feeling–being used to provide a sheen of tech solutionism or advance the neo-liberal agenda.

I think there are two ways to frame this.

One is to rail against the powerful as they absorb the radical and interesting movements and ideas, while neutering anything likely to change the status quo.

And the other is to acknowledge that 'twas ever thus, that the mainstream always adopts the successful alternative cultures: just ask the punks, or the hippies. This isn't failure, but in fact success. It's evolution rather than revolution, but has moved society in a better direction and fewer people died.

The reality is likely to be somewhere in the middle, but I don't think it particularly changes what to do next.

As Dan Hill says, we should continue our dance with the dark matter, recognising that the problems of the world cannot be solved by technology alone. Continue pushing to make the world a more equitable place, while keeping a critical eye on how our work could be misused to the opposite effect. And find ourselves some new edges to inhabit, which will take the next wave of gentrifiers to places they wouldn't expect.

Posted by Adrian at 10:28 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 16, 2014

Words Are Important

This year Liverpool is hosting a big business shindig, the International Festival for Business. Today, art and culture blog The Double Negative had an article about it, IFB 2014: What's In It For Me? Part One, which bugged me enough to write this blog post :-)

What annoyed me were the comments from Nick Birkinshaw, who works for local-regeneration-quango Liverpool Vision. When talking of his aspirations for the city, all of his language is about how the city is seen.

"The challenge is to make sure we’re now (and continue to be) seen to be a vibrant, diverse and distinctive welcoming 21st century city" (emphasis mine)

He doesn't care whether Liverpool is a vibrant, diverse and distinctive welcoming 21st Century city, just that it is seen to be one.

Initially I wondered if I was being overly sensitive to it, but he uses it on three occasions so either it's an unfortunate crutch word, or the culture he's operating in is more interested in style over substance.

Sadly there are definitely groups within the city who seem to worry all about appearances, rather than execution. It's definitely much easier in the short-term, but it distracts attention from those of us trying to improve the city in the long term.

It's doubly frustrating as the people who should be helping the city's businesses and organisations find out about each other and work together - Liverpool Vision, the council, etc. - end up as a barrier between them as I don't believe any of their pronouncements about the world-class work going on. He who praises everyone, praises no-one.

I don't mean to single out Nick Birkinshaw, he was just unlucky to be the person quoted who demonstrated my point. It's something the NWDA was guilty of, and this isn't the first time for Liverpool Vision either.

We should be focused on delivery, not appearance, lest we fall foul of the old Liverpool phrase and appear all fur coat and no knickers.

Posted by Adrian at 05:58 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 22, 2013

What's Going On?

I'm trying to pick at something that's been on my mind quite a bit of late. I'm not completely sure why, possibly it's the season of peak commercialism that's upon us, or maybe it's the continued gulf between the direction that the Government is intent on taking us and the direction I'd rather we were headed (the line in Smith and Burrows' song "When the Thames Froze" God damn this Government, will they ever tell me where the money went? seems to capture it nicely).

Quinn Norton (who is writing some excellent stuff of late - well, possibly has always been writing excellent stuff, but I've only discovered her recently) has written a wonderful article, ostensibly about Bitcoin, but more about money and poverty and family and community. All of it rings true with my experiences.

Then I read this piece about empathy, and the concern that the decline of our concern for our fellow citizens is a cultural problem.

That also rings true, bound up in the perpetual financialisation of language (everything is discussed in terms of return on investment or value for money, as if that were the only possible scorecard for measurement); ever increasing bureaucracy in an attempt to reduce risk; and a lack of consequences for gross abuses of power by some corporations (take your pick from the aforementioned bankers, alleged fraud from G4S and Serco, general tax avoidance of multi-nationals...)

I'm sure we'll muddle through regardless, as ever (although, as ever, those who could easily make a difference will be getting on just fine...). I just continue to hope that together we might come up with a better idea.

Posted by Adrian at 01:18 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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.

Posted by Adrian at 09:50 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 21, 2013

Post-Snowden Linking

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:

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:

Posted by Adrian at 11:48 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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 runs *under* a hotel!

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.

A view along the High Line

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.

Advertising in your windows
Posted by Adrian at 07:15 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 30, 2013

Less Command and Control, More Network Thinking

I was reading this announcement about a green partnership to make Liverpool more sustainable, and this sentence jarred as I read it:

"One of the key recommendations from the launch event was the need to develop a single Sustainable City Vision and Plan."

I don't mean to pick on this particular initiative, it just happens to be the one I was reading that prompted this blog post. You get it all the time with pronouncements on smart cities or the Internet of Things. The idea that once everyone has just sat down and worked out the one true protocol/plan/project... then we'll reach utopia.

It's bollocks.

It's all a recipe for lots of stuff that looks like progress and hard work but in fact is just endless meetings and talking. Forming groups to commit to action is a great idea, but rather than then suck all the life out of it through bureaucracy, wouldn't it be better if the commitment was to move towards one goal in whatever way made most sense for the organisations involved?

What is more important: that we have one solution to climate-change/an-open-Internet-of-Things/social-issue-du-jour that everyone agrees upon; or that most people have coalesced around a more-sustainable-lifestyle/using-a-mixture-of-open-protocols-for-IoT/a-good-enough-solution-du-jour?

Maybe we should modify the old Internet axiom "we believe in rough consensus and running code" to "we believe in rough consensus and concrete actions".

Posted by Adrian at 10:42 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 19, 2013

Debating Democracy

While pottering around the workshop this afternoon building another Bubblino for a customer, I've had the Downloading Democracy 2013 debate on in the background. There were some really interesting points raised, particularly from Catherine Howe, but also from the other panellists and some of the audience. It's worth a watch if you're into citizenship or democracy.

Downloading Democracy 2013 - Archived Live Stream from John Popham on Vimeo.

I found it via a blog post introducing Lobbi from David Wilcox. I'm less convinced about Lobbi itself - my first impression is that it's someone throwing Web 2.0 buzzwords at politics, but I could be wrong.

There are real challenges with the digital divide, but also with building a system that doesn't just replace one elite with a geek elite instead - it's not just about getting people online, it's about who understands the technology at a deeper level, and ensuring that they don't gain an unfair advantage from that (and not by holding them back - more by informing and helping everyone else do the same).

All of which led me to wondering what sort of civic democracy discussions we should be having. And how we should be having them. I'd love it if there was a debate (or a series of debates) where a panel of Francis Irving, Dan Lynch, Maria Barrett and maybe one of the local MPs and some more "off-line" community members discussed some of the issues and started to tease out how we might move towards a more inclusive and better debate on society. Maybe chaired by David Bartlett or Stuart Wilks-Heeg.

Anyone want to organise it? Send me an invite when you get it sorted... ;-)

Posted by Adrian at 01:26 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 30, 2013

How (Not) to Get Picked

Seth Godin has had a good couple of posts about getting picked, or the alternative of picking yourself.

It reminds me a bit of one of the "strategies" in getting on with stuff that I'm fond of quoting (and mis-quoting). It's based on the view that "the Internet views censorship as damage and routes round it", and I tend to reappropriate it as applying "Internet thinking" to problems - see them as damage and route around them.

Lots of the societal issues seem deeply entrenched and hard to fix, yet rather than pour all our efforts into challenging the status quo, it's better to find ways round it that will (hopefully) in time create a new status quo where the established players find themselves irrelevant - at least with respect to the issue you were trying to solve.

It's not about them losing, it's about you creating something new. Focusing on being for that, rather than against the roadblocks has the handy side-effect of a more optimistic outlook, which feels more likely to succeed. It's more enjoyable along the way at least!

The other strategy to help you pick yourself is to follow what's interesting. Russell wrote about how to be interesting ages ago, and lots of it proves true.

Five years ago when I built Bubblino I was just following what interested me. Last week we had the prime location at the Internet World conference showing off Bubblino and a collection of other things.

When you do interesting things, people want to put you in interesting places.

Posted by Adrian at 12:32 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 17, 2013

Making the Civil Service More Technical

Russell has written an interesting blog post where he explains a bit about the team at GDS: the new, fashionable startup in London that just happens to actually be a part of the civil service - i.e. the Government.

In it he says:

"This is not about a bunch of private sector digital experts parachuting in to save the day."

From my perspective, a few steps removed (i.e. although I know quite a few people working at GDS, I've not had a conversation with any of them about any of this), this is just what happens when you get some people who are both passionate about what they're doing and who have the technical abilities to implement or understand it, and give them the authority to get on and build it.

It feels like this is us rediscovering what it's like to have people with good technical abilities in public service. As the existence of organisations like mySociety shows, there are plenty of geeks who aren't driven purely by a billion-dollar IPO, but the tendency towards outsourcing and private provision from big IT firms has meant that the scope for doing interesting and important technical work in the civil service (and in public service in general) no longer existed.

As a result, the civil service role had been reduced to a more managerial one, and you lose a lot of the practical knowledge. Couple that with a risk-averse environment, and you end up with the big - and by inference (though in practice size doesn't correlate with ability) safe - IT firms able to propose solutions which are skewed in their favour.

Hopefully the work at GDS will show that it's possible to have at least some of the technical team within the public sector walls, and with a more agile and responsive approach to building the services they can both be more flexible with working with private-sector teams and provide a better solution for less money.

I also wonder if this lesson maps onto other over-managerial parts of the public sector? Can we take this approach to free up the good, passionate teachers or the doctors and nurses who care about their patients above all else to do their best work?

Posted by Adrian at 04:29 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 30, 2013

Towards a More Equal Tech Culture

Given the timing of this blog post, it could come across as a response to the Adria Richards incident. It's not, at least not directly, I don't know what specifically (if anything) prompted the posts I'm responding to. For the best commentary on the Adria Richards debacle, see On being adult about childish behaviour... by Tom Coates.

Right. On to the matter at hand.

There are often blog posts and initiatives to encourage more women into technology, and as with all things I'm interested in what actions we can take to make engineering and technology more diverse.

I thought it was great that Alexandra (founder of Good Night Lamp, company I'm CTO for) kicked off a Tech City International Women's Day event and I'd love there to be a programme like the Etsy Hacker Grants here in Liverpool. See this talk on it for more details...

The companies I'm involved in at the moment aren't solvent enough to launch that right now, but hopefully in the future. I did suggest it to ACME/Liverpool Vision for their upcoming digital strategy for Liverpool. Maybe drop them a line to encourage them to do it if you think it's a good idea.

So what else to do? It's one of the (many) things that we worry about among the organisers here at DoES Liverpool. Our Dave ratio isn't that bad, but sadly that's because we don't have very many Daves.

I've always felt a bit paralysed on the issue but, indirectly from Suw's blog post agitating for a female Dr Who I found this post from John Scalzi explaining the issue in a way that I finally understood - Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is.

In particular, in a follow-up post he included this:

12. You wrote the article and pointed out the straight white men live life on the lowest difficulty setting. Okay, fine. What do I/we do next?

Well, that’s up to you, isn’t it? What I’m doing is pointing out a thing. What you do with that thing is your decision.

That said, here’s what I do: recognize it, and work to make it so the more difficult settings in life becomes closer to the one I get to run through life on — by making those less difficult, mind you, not making mine more so.

It's about levelling the playing field for everyone, but not by making it harder for straight, white males - by making it easier for everyone else.

However, that's the only place (I feel) where Straight White Male isn't the lowest difficulty setting - working out what would help matters. We have, thought not as much as we could/should, tried things out: we had a women hot-desk for free to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day, and the last two Barcamp Liverpool events have been Friday/Saturday rather than Saturday/Sunday so that people with childcare to think of can still attend some of it (which shouldn't be a women's issue, but tends to be proportionally so in the UK today).

Our, my, concern is that such attempts are missing the point, at best, or patronising, at worst.

Hence this blog post. What should we be doing to improve diversity at DoES Liverpool and in technology in general? If you're starting a meetup or want to celebrate the next Ada Lovelace Day (13th Oct this year) or International Women's Day or something more useful that I can't think of, and you think I can help, then get in touch.

Posted by Adrian at 02:36 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

December 10, 2012

Planning Indie Retail?

Julian Dobson's latest blog post, Shopping centres: At the heart of the community? reminded me of a thought that occurred to me recently, and what is this blog for if not holding random thoughts I have about regeneration and the like...?

It was sparked by the recently opened row of shops at the bottom of the new student accommodation block that's just been built at the end of my street. There are three shops open (with a fourth being fitted out I think) - a Greggs, a Caffe Nero, and a small Co-op supermarket. Not a terrible mix, but disappointing that they're all national chains.

At least the supermarket is a Co-op - providing some much needed diversity in the local supermarket scene. Of the supermarkets I could (and do) easily walk to, there's now one Co-op; two Sainsburys; an Aldi; four Tesco Expresses and two bigger Tescos. All bar the Aldi and bigger Tescos are of the smaller convenience store size. If I get on my bike, I can take in another Tesco Metro, Aldi and Asda. Anyway, the Tescopoly in Liverpool is a different issue.

It seems such a common pattern - new build goes up, all the retail is identikit chains rather than local businesses (I'm glossing over the fact that some could be franchises as that's just a middle-ground). Is it just because that's an easier sell for the developer? Or don't they get any local applicants because the lead time is too long?

I don't know, but for housing it's pretty common for a chunk of the new development to be mandated as "social housing" as a condition of the planning application. There are issues with that, but it's a step in the right direction. Could, should, the same apply to the retail units? What if a proportion of the retail units in any development had to be "indie retail", and could only be taken by independent businesses? That would be one way to encourage Julian's fourth suggestion, without having to rely on the benevolence of the shopping centre owners.

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August 09, 2012

The Heart of Darkness and Dark Matter

This post from Euan shows exactly what's important and good and (possibly, hopefully) revolutionary about blogging. Blogging isn't disruptive because it lets some random Joe build their own competitor to existing media outlets - they're just finding a different route to become company men of their own.

Blogging is disruptive because it allows people like Euan and me to share thoughts, make connections and have conversations that wouldn't ever make it into mainstream media, because that's not the point - it's about compressing the geography and dis-jointed timescales and letting a million niches of misfits work out that they're not alone, and support each other as they try to do things differently.

And to draw in another thread from the excellent Dan Hill, when we start to engage with the dark matter of the company men in the existing institutions then maybe we will be able to shift the world to a place where it's easier to get ahead without giving up your soul.

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July 25, 2012

Signing Your Work

Last week I was pointed at this blog post about the work of Tayler and Green. Tayler and Green were two architects who upped sticks from London to move to Norfolk in the late 1940s and ended up developing their own slant on modernism, much more grounded in traditional housing through an ongoing relationship and work for one of the district councils there.

There's lots of interest about architecture and place-making in there, but the bit that prompted this blog post was this section...

a plaque from one of the buildings, inscribed with 'Davy Place, for Loddon R.D.C.  Architects Tayler and Green...'

"For unassuming types there's a lot of branding on T&G's work. Their name pops up a lot, not just on formal plaques but carved into special bricks or inserted subtly into a decorative wall, as if they were making it easy for architectural pilgrims to seek out. Despite the seeming modesty of their designs, the architects were very aware of its quality."

It reminded me of one of my favourite parts of shipping products - the fact that there are then things out in the world that you were part of. I first encountered it in visits to Halfords in the the mid-90s, where their point-of-sale tills were running code from my time at RTC; then even more so with Psion Series 5s, or any of the Sony mobile phones from the late 90s, which contained chunks of code that I, and the team around me, had spent months and years developing. There was always some little indication to those in the know that we were involved and these days, where possible, it's literally etched into the back of anything to leave the MCQN Ltd studio...

Picture of one of my products, etched with 'Made in Liverpool, UK by MCQN Ltd.'

It's not a new idea - the case of the original Apple Macintosh famously includes the signatures of the team who designed it, and I'm sure the engines of Bentleys used to have a plaque with the name of the person who built it - though I can't find a reference for that right now.

That's beside the point, I just wonder if the world would be a better place if more people were more willing to sign their work. Wouldn't we end up with better quality work, and less "ooh, that's terrible, I had no idea other parts of the company were [insert dubious or illegal practice here]..."?

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July 09, 2012

Openness and Creativity in Cities

As part of their Open City project working with European Capital of Culture Guimaraes, Watershed have published an excellent piece about openness and creativity in the context of cities from Charles Leadbeater.

"Creative cities are too large, open and unruly to be regulated in detail, top down by an all-seeing state or experts. They have to encourage collective, voluntary, self-control. A city that could be planned from the centre would also be dead."

Of course, Liverpool is four years ahead of Guimaraes in looking at how the Capital of Culture helped the city. The cultural legacy has been pretty successful, but we need to expand the creativity from the narrow confines of cultural offering to find ways to make the city more resilient and more diverse - both in embracing different elements of society and in the variety of ways to engage with the challenges and advantages of the city.

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June 25, 2012

Data Commons Licensing?

At the Open Internet of Things Assembly recently, one of the topics that came up repeatedly was about how we handle the amount of data being generated, particularly when it's often personal and near-impossible to anonymize.

The issues were less to do with the technical difficulties in handling all that data, and more to do with the privacy and ethical concerns, and the commercialization of the resulting findings.

This article in Nature magazine covers scientific data in general, rather than the Internet of Things, but does a good job of explaining some of the problems and challenges.

In reading through that, and during some of the sessions at OpenIoT, I wonder if there's an opportunity here for something individual/citizen-focused to flourish and help start to address some of the problems.

Commercialization of data and science isn't necessarily a problem, but naturally any legal document drawn up by the companies looking to profit will tend to favour and protect the rights of the company as a first priority, as well as allowing the company to maximize its profits.

Dealing with occasions where the actions of those using the data diverge from what the people "generating" the data feel is acceptable is likely to be slow and adversarial. Creating new laws is (should be?) necessarily slow and thought through.

["generating" is in quotes to show that there are problems with just defining easily where the data is from. At the Open IoT Assembly we ended up with the term data subjects to refer to those to whom the data refers - which may be distinct from those using the data, or even those who gathered or generated the data (installed the sensors, etc.)]

What if we were more proactive about setting the terms for using and sharing all of this data being generated? That could allow us to have a range of approaches which would reflect the range of attitudes to how this data should and shouldn't be exploited.

Something similar to Creative Commons licensing but for data rather than creative works would allow individuals to donate their data to the scientific commons under terms with which they're comfortable. CC licensing allows you to choose whether or not the people using it can alter it to make derivative works; whether they can use it commercially; and whether they need to be named as the creator of the work.

What attributes would a Data Commons licence cover?

This would restrict whether the licensee could use the data to identify individuals or not
Whether the data can be used commercially, or not
This is maybe an intermediary step in the commercialization attribute - where licensees are allowed to use the data commercially, but not allowed to use it to generate patents

The last is probably the most contentious version, but I'd hope that over time the availability of a (much?) bigger dataset available to be used commercially but not for patents would improve the commercial viability for funding companies that weren't driven by exploiting patents.

Maybe there are other issues that should be explored, such as its use in creating weapons, although as noted by Matt Biddulph (if memory serves) in one of the OpenIoT panels: one of the strengths of the CC licences is that they settled on a small family of licences - enough to give some flexibility and choice without creating too much fragmentation.

So, who's going to define the set of Data Commons licenses I can start using to share my data?

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May 08, 2012

How to Be More Like Berlin?

Dan Hill has posted an excellent report on a wander round some of Berlin.

Lots of food for thought there, not that I've drawn any conclusions yet.

The pavement gardening is yet another example of the sort of stuff bubbling under the surface here in Liverpool, with projects like Cairns Street in Toxteth, and the almost-but-not-quite-yet groundswell of urban farming from projects like The Mediated Garden.

And the civic engagement and "YIMBY" (rather than NIMBY) attitudes and projects provoke "how do we replicate that here?" pondering, but the report on acceptance and diversity at the end is, as Dan says, brow furrowing. One of the concerns I have with both the slow gentrification (or is it re-gentrification, given the original occupants of these houses?) of the Georgian Quarter (that I'm as much a part of as anyone else), and moves to clear out the cheap-lager-fighting-rings of Concert Square is where all the people currently inhabiting and using the spaces are supposed to go? Out of sight, or into some area away from the city centre, so we can easily avoid them aren't good enough answers.

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April 03, 2012

Thoughts on Craft and Manufacturing

This video is a nice bit of manufacturing pr0n, which shows mostly how some cufflinks are made in a pretty industrial manner with a nice automated CNC machine. However, it also shows that there's a human scale attention to detail with the quality checking of the finished items.

AliceMadeThis: Promotional Film from Brickwall Films on Vimeo.

If you head over to the website for the company that's responsible for them, you get a more craft-based feel from the copy:

"Alice Made This makes cufflinks just for you. Each collection of cufflinks is true to their production process in its form and material. Simple, honest and elegant, your cufflinks have an edition number from 1 to 1000."

So, they're using the latest (well, actually that CNC machine doesn't look all that new...) industrial processes but using them to make something where the scarcity and quality provide the value.

A thousand of something on a global, or even just a Western economies, scale still means you're unlikely to encounter someone else with the same item; yet it's more than an individual artist or craftsperson would want to make by hand.

This is the first example I've seen of this sort of hybrid approach, but maybe that's just because it's not very visible. If I'd only seen the website I'd have assumed that the manufacturing process was much more traditional and hands-on - my initial reaction to the text was that it was almost disingenuous... hiding the industrial process so as not to alienate the customer.

That might just be me, but if it is true, then surely there's scope for opening things up and showing how there's a continuum of processes from handmade, local craft all the way through to the mass-produced in sweatshops in China. Maybe then we'll see more people moving into the middle ground, like Alice Made This have, providing both increased prosperity for craftspeople and more employment in local manufacturing?


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December 28, 2011

Jonathan Meades on Regeneration

Uncomfortable watching for anyone in Liverpool or Manchester in places, but an excellent dissection of the regeneration industry. Hat tip to Mike Chitty for sharing it.

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December 26, 2011

Blog All Dog-Eared Pages: Shaping Things by Bruce Sterling

Although I went to the launch of the Italian version of Shaping Things by Bruce Sterling way back in 2007, it wasn't until recently that I owned a copy, and only last weekend that I started reading it. I'm sad to say that it wasn't the Italian version, but at least that meant I could understand it...

It was a very quick read, and I haven't dog-eared many pages. However, that's not because there's nothing useful in the book - just that it works best read as an entire work, rather than as excerpts. If you've any interest in design or products then this is a good manifesto for how they should become more sustainable as well as more futuristic.

Page 22
Everyone can't be a designer - any more than everyone can be a mayor or a senator

Page 23
[...] with enough informational power, the "invisible hand of the market" becomes visible. The hand of the market was called "invisible" because Adam Smith, an eighteenth-century economist, had very few ways to measure it. Adam Smith lacked metrics. Metrics make things visible.

Page 95
Suppose that I'm trying to create a new kind of object, to shape a new kind of thing. I don't want to be burdened with the weighty physicality of the old one. I want a virtual 3-D model of the new one, a weightless, conceptual, interactive model that I can rotate inside a screen, using 3-D design software.

Then I'm not troubled by its stubborn materiality...

The dog-ears don't add much I'm afraid, and this last one I included because I think it shows one of the common mistakes that non-product-designers (and I include myself firmly in this camp) make when getting into making physical objects. The digital it's-all-about-the-new-tools-and-digital-fabrication mentality rarely survives its first encounter with reality. The new tools do unlock new ways of working, but they don't mean you can ignore the physicality of the materials and avoid iterations and prototyping in the real world. That said, Shaping Things is definitely more good than bad.


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November 22, 2011

Barcamp Liverpool 2011: What is the Point of Liverpool?

At Barcamp Liverpool last Friday I gave a talk entitled "What is the Point of Liverpool?". It was an attempt to look at Liverpool's place in the world and the ways that it might evolve over the coming years. Luckily the guys from PodFactory.org were roaming around with some video cameras and happened to capture the talk. Given that they weren't formally covering the event, I wasn't miked up and so the sound levels aren't as good as they would be normally. Still, if you want to hear what I said, you can watch the video after the jump.

I've included the slides here so you can see them better, and included my notes, which will give you an idea of what I was planning to say - I think it bears some resemblance to what I actually said...

And if you want to find out more about the event in general, there's my write up and more over at the Barcamp Liverpool Lanyrd page. Anyway, on with the slides...

What is the Point of Liverpool?

So, what is the point of Liverpool, now that it's no longer the gateway to the new world? Well, it’s a city. And that’s a good start.  A city is a small enough entity that it can change how it does things, yet large enough that if it works, it will influence the rest of the country, and maybe the rest of the world.  Hell, it wouldn't be the first time this city has done that.

What is the Point of Liverpool?

And that's how these things always start.  Well, actually, it's not.  It's some smaller group within the city, who listen to some crazy guy suggesting that there's a different way of doing things.  But that's handy, because we haven't got the whole city here right now, and I'm not sure I know what the better way of doing things is.

Some questions

But it is something I spend a lot of time thinking about, and I've at least made a start on some of the questions...

The Economy

There are big problems... The economy...

Climate Change

Climate change...


Rising unemployment – and even in places where the economy is showing some growth, like the US, we’re not always seeing the jobs coming back at the same time.


Coupled with a low skill base provides a challenge to the perceived wisdom that we have to focus on education and "knowledge work". But at the same time, means there's a huge resource of people available, if we can find things that they can do.

Career Options

It feels like, whereas in the past there was the opportunity to leave work without many qualifications and get an apprenticeship and, if you were good, work your way up - these days the career options look more like parallel tracks, where you either work in retail, or call centres, or the much vaunted "knowledge economy", and it's hard to jump the tracks between them.


So, do I have any answers?... Maybe...

Do you have any?

More importantly, do you have any answers?


Because the problem is, if we don't come up with any answers, well, there are other people making suggestions and making plans, and we'll have to live with that.

More and more big chains taking over from the local shops and pulling the profits out of the area sooner.

Inward Investment

For the past thirty years or so the grand plan has been to focus on attracting "inward investment". Get some big firm to move in and create loads of jobs and we'll all be saved.

Peel Waters

It seems that the latest idea is that it hasn't worked because it wasn't big enough, or in a nice enough position, so of course the next step is to do it on an even grander scale...

The comment from a recent Seven Streets article really depressed me. This is the only option we can envisage?

The WAG Economy

Or maybe working in shops to service the WAGs and footballers... At least they’re supporting local car firms...

Inward Investment is a Lie

We’re still waiting for it to arrive in all sorts of places, and even when it does come it will be in the shape of call centres and regional sales offices, which is why the much vaunted skyscrapers will be cheap knock-offs pretending to be “landmark” developments.

The only real growth is going to come when we stop waiting for The Powers That Be to save us, and get on with saving ourselves.

A Vision of the Future (Guaranteed to be Wrong)

So I want to present another vision of the future. And like all visions of the future, this one will be wrong.

A Future.  Part 1

I don’t have any flashy fly-through videos, so you’ll have to make do with a couple of photos and your imagination as I describe how it will change...

It’s a warm summers morning, in 2015. I’m sat at a little aluminium cafe table, on the pavement just over here, checking my email. As I finish off, one of the waiters from The Rat Coffee Shop comes to clear my espresso cup and take it back across the street to the cafe. I walk round the corner and into the bottom floor of the DoES Liverpool building.

As I swipe my card to gain access the door reminds me that I need to go and talk to the web designers who are refreshing the MCQN Ltd website. They’re on the first floor, so I don’t venture into the ground floor workshop – which is packed with all sorts of interesting bits of machinery – laser cutters, CNC mills, 3D printers, lathes... But instead head up stairs.

The first floor has fewer of the machines, and it’s split into an assortment of open plan areas with desks and a couple of meeting rooms. There are more people working from laptops here, though there’s some soldering going on over in one corner and one of the meeting rooms is awash with bits of blue prototyping foam.

After checking over the latest designs from the web agency, I head further upstairs to my desk. The top floor-and-a-bit is taken up with MCQN Ltd, and it’s from here that we design, prototype and code the devices that are making peoples lives easier and a bit more fun. Bubblino is still sat doing his thing, but has been joined on the “shelves of things” by a wealth of other items.

As I sit down at my desk, one of the project leads gets a call on her mobile. It’s the factory, to let her know that the run of prototype PCBs she sent them yesterday is ready to be picked up. She grabs her keys, and a minute later is heading out onto Duke Street on the office cargo bike.

A Future.  Part 2

Ten minutes later, she’s parked up outside the factory. Most of the work is mechanised these days – there are all sorts of CNC machines, pick-and-place machines building PCBs, and reflow ovens doing the soldering, but robots are as cheap to run in the UK as they are in China, and this means we can see what working conditions are like and provide this sort of more responsive work.

There are still staff here, and there’s nothing to stop the talented and more ambitious ones from working their way up from supervising the machines to designing products.

We’ve also given over a bit of the building to DoES Toxteth, because DoES Liverpool is pretty busy these days, and not everyone wants to head into town to do their hacking...

Place Your Bets

I’m not a betting man, but I am betting my company that my vision of the future will be closer to reality than Peel’s.

The Internet of Things is becoming one of the “next big things” – and Liverpool has a good chance of riding that wave, but only because there are people here who are passionate about it and working at it. And if we’re successful, we’ll be hiring people from both inside and outside the city, and will attract others who want to work in the field to move here because that’s where the interesting stuff is happening.

But it might not be the Internet of Things that brings the city its big wins – I’ll be disappointed if it’s not – but it could just as easily be something around open data – with ScraperWiki based here, and the new open healthcare group that Ross Jones has co-founded; or maybe something around podcasting, given the success that Dan and Don McAllister are already enjoying.

Or it could be something completely different, that you’re passionate about. But that’s the key point – it’s not going to be something that the council has stuck in a strategy document somewhere. Not because we can make better bets than they can about the future, but because there’s someone already in the city who wants to drive it forward. It’s all about the people.

And interesting things can come out of Barcamps. The first Bubblino was built for the last one, and he became MCQN Ltd’s first Internet of Things product.

Stupidly Proud

And now we’re building all sorts of things. This is from an Internet-connected radio that Russell Davies commissioned, and I’m just stupidly proud that there are things going out into the world with “Made in Liverpool by MCQN Ltd” written on them.

It was also at the last Barcamp that I met Andy Goodwin, and without that connection, Ignite Liverpool wouldn’t have happened. It was where ScraperWiki was announced, and it’s where Thom and I hatched plans for Howduino and to start a regular meetup for Arduino tinkerers. That grew into Maker Night, which then grew into DoES.

Show Us Your Ideas

What’s going to come out of this one?

Show Us Your Ideas

All of the photos of old buildings in Liverpool that I've used in this presentation have one thing in common - they're all empty. Waiting for you to fill them with your ideas.


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October 01, 2011

Laptops and Looms: A Modern History Lesson

This is another post sparked by the recent Laptops and Looms event. To see the rest of my thoughts on it, and links to other people's reports, check out my main Laptops and Looms write-up.

One of the themes running through Laptops and Looms was the decline of the British manufacturing industry. Given the old mills that we visited, a lot of it was around the decline of the textile industry, but also the heavy industry of steel, shipbuilding, etc.

The heyday of most of those industries was in the 1800s and the first half of the 20th Century, and most were in steep decline before any of us discussing them were born. As a result, most of our experience of them is second-hand, and there was (quite rightly) a concern that we were romanticising the past.

Thinking about things after the conference, it occurred to me that in my career so far, I have already lived through the rise and fall of an, albeit much smaller, industry here in the UK. This is a very personal, and potted history, and so I'm not presenting it as the definitive story of how things happened. However, hopefully there's some value in relating the tale.

I graduated from uni in 1995, which was around the time when the Internet was starting to gain traction, and mobile phones were just beginning to reach the point were ordinary people might get one. It was a time when the ability to send text messages was a high-end feature that not all phones had, and portable computing was the domain of PDAs - devices like the Psion Series 3a or the Palm Pilot, which were standalone devices that only synchronised with anything else when you plugged them into your PC at your desk.

In the summer of 96 I joined STNC, a fledgling startup based in Cambridge who were writing software to add connectivity to PDAs. We worked closely with OEMs and low-level operating system providers to give them email and web browsing capabilities.

Thanks to a continent-wide standardisation on GSM, Europe was leagues ahead of the US in mobile phone adoption and innovation, but that's not to say we had it all our own way. As it became clearer that a combined mobile-phone and PDA would provide exciting new possibilities, it was US firm Geoworks who seemed to be in the lead. They'd managed to sign up two of the top three mobile phone manufacturers to use their GEOS operating system. However, their coronation as mobile OS kings was short-lived: although Nokia released it in the 9000 Communicator (and later the 9110), Ericsson fell out with them and canned their smartphone project at the eleventh hour - even after getting to the point of having it featured in the latest James Bond film (remember when he steers his BMW 7-series from his phone on the back seat...?)

Alongside software startups like ourselves, there were also people in the UK building hardware. One of those was TTPcom, based just South of Cambridge. They built mobile phone hardware platforms that the OEMs (people like Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola, etc.) could license and use as the base for their own phones. In 1997, a collaboration between STNC and TTPcom saw us create the first ever web browser on a mobile phone - a fully-featured (for its day) offering with HTML3.2 and GIF and JPEG image support.

Come 1998 and Psion morphed into Symbian, going one better than Geoworks and pulling all three of the top manufacturers as partners/customers - Nokia, Ericsson, and Motorola.

As the millennium loomed, the heart of the mobile Internet was firmly centred on the UK, but the sector was becoming big enough that it attracted the attention of Microsoft - who decided to refocus their efforts with Windows CE and build their first smartphone.

As it turned out though, that only bolstered the UK's position. In July 1999 STNC was bought by Microsoft, but unlike other technology or expertise acquisitions, it made sense for them to keep us in Europe.

There were other UK tie-ups with Microsoft too - Orange debuted the smartphone platform (which was completely unrelated to the work we were doing at STNC), in the form of the Orange SPV, and Sendo, based in Birmingham, were an early licensee before a controversial eleventh-hour switch to Symbian.

Integrating into Microsoft turned out not to be all it promised. An eight-hour and three-thousand-odd mile separation naturally means you've not got as much contact with surrounding groups as those based in Redmond, and the fact that funding was no longer a pressing concern meant that we lost our focus on getting customers and getting products out. Coupled with some short-sighted decision-making from the leadership of Mobile Devices Division, and in early 2002 our group was shut down and the scattered across the globe and across the industry.

I spent the next few years working with a number of other mobile-related startups in the UK: Trigenix, who were later acquired by Qualcomm, and the final iteration of Pogo Mobile, who had a rather nice Internet-focused, keyboard-less touchscreen device (ooh, who else has done something like that...) that sadly didn't get beyond prototype stage.

In the same time period Symbian struggled to make good on their initial promise, largely through trying to please all of its partners all of the time, Sendo went into administration and were bought by Motorola, who also acquired TTPcom a year later.

Not long after the acquisition of TTPcom, I spent six months contracting with Motorola. I led a skunkworks team hidden in an neglected corner of the ex-TTPcom-now-Motorola site just outside Cambridge where we prototyped a new (and most importantly, usable and not horrific) UI for a low-end handset.

The UI was developed by the team who'd done a really nice job on the Motorola Z8 (a Symbian-based handset from the Sendo group in Birmingham) and five of us learnt how to code for the TTPcom AJAR OS and built most of the basic apps in less than six months. Unfortunately, we then had to engage with the Motorola bureaucracy which deemed the TTPcom engineers too expensive, and so ruled out a small team in Cambridge/Denmark in favour of a big team in India or China or Russia, possibly project-managed from Italy. Not surprisingly, none of that came to pass, and I don't think it would have produced anything cohesive and usable if it had.

Within two years both the Cambridge and Aalborg sites had been closed, and with it the TTPcom legacy gone.

The ex-Sendo group didn't fare any better. There was a successor to the Z8, the Z10, released in 2008 but even in 2007 it was clear that the Motorola smartphone focus was no longer with Symbian, and the Birmingham site was closed in 2008

Symbian survived a little longer, slowly becoming more and more subsumed into Nokia, who then basically pulled the plug earlier this year with an announcement of their switch to Windows Mobile. With it the last glimmers of the UK's mobile phone industry (rather than third-party app development) died away.


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September 29, 2011

People, Canals and Regeneration

Today I visited FabLab in Manchester. It was a lovely day, and the route from Manchester Picadilly station is very picturesque - along the towpath of the canal. However, on the way back it also felt somehow empty and soulless. Lots of nice enough little flats, all next to the water, but it felt as though it was lovely in the warm sunshine, it would be all rather more oppressive and foreboding on a winter's evening.

Maybe that says more about me than the realities of life in Ancoats. However, it still seems like a lost opportunity - somewhere that a few shops, cafes, pubs or just things other than houses and flats would mean it had some life and animation outside of the odd sunny weekend.

Something that starkly apparent as I read through this fantastic article from Jane Jacobs, Downtown is for People. First printed in 1958, but just as relevant today, which is when I got to read it.

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August 23, 2011

Laptops and Looms. Not Your Typical Conference

I spent the latter half of last week in the Peak District, participating in the rather wonderful Laptops and Looms conference. Russell Davies, Dan Hill and Toby Barnes pulled together an amazing selection of people and persuaded them all to congregate in an old mill in the village of Cromford just on the strength of spending three days exploring how to turn making into manufacturing.

For such a loosely defined event, we managed to cram in so many thing that I'm still trying to unpack it all four days after the event drew to a close. I'm going to try to provide some of the background and raw facts of the conference in this blog post, and leave the more thoughtful stuff to emerge in subsequent thinking and blog posts as it filters through my brain.


Checking back through some of the emails sent before the event, it turns out I was wrong to refer to it as a conference. Russell says "This isn't a conference, it's a conversation." And he's right, that's a much better description, even if it's rather cryptic for anyone who didn't attend.

The agenda was deliberately loosely defined - the introduction to the themes was Russell's August column for Wired UK, and the organising principle was to get a bunch of interesting people, stick them into (one of) the world's first factory and see what happened.

How It Worked

It was an event which addressed a lot of the problems that I outlined in my long conference post. The mornings were the nearest to a traditional conference, with a number of presentations acting as scene-setters or almost provocation pieces, but they often veered off into group discussions on the topics raised.

The afternoons had flexible and varied activities which saw us taking a tour of Masson Mill; a kickabout on the nearby park; a train excursion to Derby to visit the Derby Silk Mill (which argues that it is the oldest factory); and rounding off the three days with an afternoon of cricket at Chatsworth House.

The evenings saw us exploring the delights of Matlock Bath, chatting over a communal meal, or just reflecting on the day in the pub.

All of which meant that there was ample opportunity to discuss things and get to know each other. I think I probably had at least a five minute chat with something like 90% of the people there, which was fantastic.

General Themes and Topics

So what did we talk about?

Digital fabrication techniques, how well they do and don't work. Mass personalisation, with Alice Taylor from Makielab giving an open and inspiring talk about how they're aiming to make everything in the country where it's sold. Matt Cottam made everyone (I think, he definitely did me) jealous of how he's got funding to let him run an awesome new project. Toby played devil's advocate about the drive for shedloads of growth, and asked whether there's a way that the oft-derided "lifestyle" businesses could be the answer. Matt Ward took a stab at defining some of the terms we were using and some of the conditions which fed into the debate (hopefully he, along with everyone else, will publish his slides somewhere). We talked about what's stopping more makers from turning interesting hacks into real products, and wondered how we can more easily replicate Newspaper Club's winkling out of printers in other areas of expertise. We noticed that we don't build our tools any more (coincidentally something that came up in a recent item about HP losing its way) and asked if that fed into the decline in manufacturing. Dan did an excellent job of setting things in a wider context, looking at the decline of the British manufacturing industry, and the rise of China, whilst showing that Germany had managed to cope with the changing world without losing its industrial base. At one point he challenged us to define "what is the point of the West?" How do we engage with the "dark matter" of policy and government so that we end up with a society more attuned to our ideals and values, and less towards finance or call centres. The Makielab guys were helped to build a Makerbot. We talked about ways to collaborate and new ways of working, and I talked a bit about DoES Liverpool. And we debated what is stopping the network of makers from becoming a new wave of industrialists?

There are people whose presentations I've missed, and hundreds of other topics that I wasn't aware that were discussed, because I was busy involved in a similarly interesting conversation elsewhere.

What Now?

In his closing comments, Russell asked us what we wanted to do next. He didn't have any grand vision or plan, he'd just had a hunch that interesting things might happen if he got us together.

He was right. I'm hoping that the discussions and connections continue to ripple out in the coming months. It looks like there'll be another event held in the future, which is excellent news, because I can't state how awesome those three days were.

Tom Taylor said that he hoped that it would spark a raft of good blog posts. I want to echo that hope, and this is the first of my contributions to the pool (and hopefully it won't dilute the quality too much).

There's very little that I'd change if it were run again. That said, I expect that the themes will be a little better defined after we've had a year to continue the conversation.

I think it might be useful to replace some of the industrial heritage sections with trips to some of the local "supply chain" sized firms. Rather than a tour of an 18th Century mill, visit a working injection-moulding factory or similar. See if we can unearth some of the remaining industry to give talks about how they work, so we can see how to use them and also look for new possibilities a la Newspaper Club.

What about having a "gallery" area, and encourage attendees to bring something along to show off. There was so much creativity in the room, and there won't be time for everyone to give a talk about what they do, so fill the area where people get coffee with objects or posters showing what the other attendees do. If you could find someone to staff it, you could even open it up to the public in the times when the attendees are out on some other activity...

Further Thoughts

I'll be revisiting some of the themes thrown up by the conference in the coming days (/weeks..?) and will add them here. I'm also going to try to collect any other writing spawned by the conference from others, and will include links to them too (and I've not read any of them yet - I wanted to get my thoughts down first before diving into the thoughts of others...).


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August 12, 2011

Food for Thought

One of the outcomes of the public disorder from the past few days has been a huge supply of analysis and thinking around society and related issues.

I've not been reading very much of it (I've got a rather fractured relationship with things like Twitter, and 24-hour news, at the moment - hopefully I'll find the time and the way to unpack some of that into a blog post soon) but these are some of the things that I have read which have seemed the most interesting, or the most thought-provoking.

I don't agree with everything that they all say, but they seem to provide some use in giving me different ways to explore my take on events...


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August 02, 2011

Thinking Out Loud

Far too busy with this, working on this, and getting this up and running, but wanted to share a couple of things in the hope that writing a paragraph about each of them would help get my brain processing them.

Wicked Problems. A really interesting post, and given a similarly interesting discussion I had last night (which I'm afraid I'm not going to write up here, sorry), wonderfully timely. The universe as serendipity engine in full flow.

Google+. Have been on it for a week or so, and I'm not really seeing how it's different/better than Facebook or Twitter. And I'm getting a little disillusioned with both of those two (though I was never really illusioned with Facebook...). Pete Ashton covers lots of the problems over here. Lots of good stuff in that blog post - owning where important stuff of mine is stored is important; advertising-funded models aren't good; blogging as a useful tool for the writer, rather than the reader... That last point is what I get most out of my blog, and something that's been lost as an explanation in the professionalising of blogging.

I think Google have taken the wrong direction with their more recent approaches to helping people cope with the amount of information out there. They're sticking the filter at the wrong end - it's happening with search, where we'll end up in little echo chambers based on our social network, and Google+ has it built in. Filtering at the source is good for privacy, but a bad solution to information overload.

It feels like we're experiencing an enclosing of the Internet. Facebook turning off RSS feeds; Twitter restricting client apps... Maybe it's Apple's fault, they've shown how nice closed systems can be, and closed systems are definitely easier to build. But it stifles innovation, and locks people into one platform. Good for the companies who "win", bad for society.

I think Schroeder is right (at the end of the Wicked Problems post), that open source hasn't lived up to its potential. It could be building the tools that we need to cope with the modern world, and instead it seems to be driven by people who want to build a free version of whatever the latest cool commercial app is.

Finally, there are murmurings of another Barcamp Liverpool, and so I'm starting to ponder what a follow-up talk to this one would be. I wonder if I could persuade Dan to do some bigger-picture thinking and give a talk challenging the open source movement to look to a higher purpose. That'd be a superb talk.

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June 13, 2011

Four Things I'm Thinking About

Ben Hammersley is on fine form at the moment. Go read his latest blog post about society and thinking about what government should be doing. And then watch the video of his talk in Derry for the British Council:

British Council Annual Lecture 2011: The Internet of People from British Council on Vimeo.

This is all feeding into the maelstrom that is my thoughts on society and cities and the future. It's proving hard to pin down into any sort of narrative, so I figured I'd stick some of it in my blog as a work-in-progress, helping think things through sort of thing. Showing my working as it were, and hopefully at some point in the future I'll blog about it more coherently.


What should society look like? What would a good society feel like, sound like, look like, taste like? Pulling in bits of Julian Dobson's recent post about separating ourselves from poverty, and wondering how we persuade people (myself included) that it's a good thing to encounter some dodgy characters in your neighbourhood; that the alternative is creating no-go ghettoes and then having to live with policing and trying to help people escape from them.


Mostly using Liverpool as a lens through which to view and try to shape what the city should be. Lots of this from the discussions I had while walking round the Baltic Triangle, waterfront and Liverpool One with Owen Hatherley.

Whole sets of contradictions: we should encourage a more mixed occupancy of the city centre - families and old people as well as "young professionals", but the 1980s suburban housing estates of bungalows with their backs turned to the surrounding streets don't feel like the right solution; the problems with the private land and big-chain commercialism that is Liverpool One - summed up perfectly by Hatherley as "a bad idea done well", compared to the revitalisation of that part of the city and a better linkage to the Albert Dock; the need to get around the city easily contrasted with the damage done to the walkability of the city with the six lanes of traffic that cut the Pier Head and Albert Dock, and the northern docks and Everton off from the city centre...

"Smart" Cities

This is my professional interest, given that I run a company which, in part, builds some of this stuff. So thinking about what is useful, bella, life-affirming about the possibilites... from a citizen's perspective rather than that of the state or big business. None of which is to say that it can't, or shouldn't, be of value and benefit to business or the council, but that there needs to be more than just that narrow group who benefit.

And thoughts of who benefits from a city that's easier and more enjoyable to inhabit reach into thoughts about how to implement systems so that everyone benefits - not just the iPhone-wielding "city is my battlesuit" types.

Adam Greenfield is the go-to man for this sort of topic. There's very little I disagree with in his take on the issues, and I particularly agree with his opening sentences in this video about "smart cities" being an abhorrent term for the subject...

The Future of Work

So once we've worked out how society should function, what the city should look like, and what technology will be in it, we'll need to build that...

I'm (half) kidding - I don't think the big top-down vision works, it's more a case of choosing a general direction and heading off that way, correcting as we go. However, I think we need more making things and less selling services and fancy financial confections; and we need to tip the balance back towards the North some more to stop the South East from becoming a paved-over, gridlocked hell of offices.

And while we do so, we'll hopefully get beyond the tired arguments of us versus them and realise that we are the ragged trousered philanthropists, particularly with the capital required with the latest digital manufacturing possibilities.

The Sum of the Parts

This is already too long and too dis-jointed, but I'd be interested in other people's take on the subject, or further input for me to mull over. It feels like there's some sort of commonality to all of this, and it remains to be seen if I can tease it out.
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May 08, 2011

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?

The Observer today has a collection of articles about "public intellectuals", and whether we have enough of them, or think enough of them here in the UK. That reminded me of this long-neglected draft blog post containing my notes, and some extended thoughts on the topic, from reading Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?.

Given that I haven't gotten round to finishing it off in the past eighteen months, it's unlikely that I'll get any closer to finishing it than I am now, so with some minor tidying I'll publish it now...

"The growth of specialization is fuelled by a culture where intellectuals are discouraged from looking at the big picture, and encouraged to find meaning in their specialty. Discussions are increasingly self-referential and not designed to communicate and engage people outside a specific field of speciality. [...] Instead of Knowledge we have developed the tendency to develop micro-knowledge."
Page 70

"Apathy and disengagement breed both anti-political and apolitical reactions. The political class is aware of this: but instead of attempting to address the underlying malaise and disillusionment through developing challenging political ideals that could inspire the electorate to vote, its response has been to acquiesce in dumbing down."
Page 80

"Politics has gone into early retirement. The big issues of our time - the impending environmental catastrophe, threats to our health, killer bugs, weapons of mass destruction - are presented as perils that stand above politics. It is widely believed that the world is out of control and that there is little that human beings can do to master these developments or influence their destiny. Deprived of choice and options, humanity is forced to acquiesce in a world-view that Margaret Thatcher aptly described as TINA - There Is No alternative.

If indeed there is no alternative, politics can have little meaning. Without alternatives, debate becomes empty posturing about trivial matters. Politicians are forced to inflate relatively banal proposals to the level of a major policy innovation."
Page 83

"The more the act of voting has lost its purpose and meaning, the more deperate attempts are launched to give people yet another opportunity to 'have their say'.

UK commentators have noted, with more than a hiint of envy, that more young people vote for their favourite personality on the reality TV programme Big Brother than they do in elections."
Page 88

"As [French political theorist Bertrand] de Jouvenal states: 'the businessman offers to the public "goods" defined as anything the public will buy; the intellectual seeks to teach what is "good", and to him some of the goods offered are things of no value which the public should be discouraged from wanting'."
Page 108

On the problems of a policy of maximum inclusion:
"In June 2001, a statement on widening participation issued by Universities UK observed that 'the key issue for the sector now is attracting people with no background of (or current aspirations to) study in HE to courses and universities'. In other words, widening participation has little to do with meeting a real demand for a place in a university. It means getting people to come to university regardless of whether or not they have such aspirations."
Page 120

"Norman Fairclough's study of the language of New Labour suggests that social exclusion is conceptualized as a 'condition people are in, not something that is done to them. Social exclusion is rarely presented as a process but rather something like illness that people suffer from.' It is not so much about poverty or economic disadvantage, but the feeling of not being a part of the important institutions of society. The premise upon which this version of the problem is based is that people become excluded because they lack the sense of self-worth to participate in the institutions of society."
Page 126

"The exhortation [from the American Conference for College Composition and Communication (amongst others)] to remove the barriers posed by spelling, punctuation and usage illustrates the kind of education that the access agenda offers to the ordinary student. It is a form of education that is more interested in giving students a sense of achievement than in educating them."
Page 144

Maybe a lot of what is wrong with our country is the triumph of marketing and consumerism in persuading us that there's always an easy option and that hard work is to be avoided at all costs. The way to be successful isn't to work hard and persevere, it's to get lucky by catching the public's interest on some "talent" show or reality spectacle and become famous for being famous.

Hard work in the pursuit of something in which you really believe, or in a field that interests and excites you, is fulfilling and rewarding. It could be the pursuit of greater knowledge to understand and cure disease, but it need not be; academic difficulty is just one of the peaks available to be climbed - it could be the physical challenge of athletes; the problem-solving required to run a business; or the satisfaction of having fed and enriched the lives of the customers at your cafe.

"One of the distinctive features of the contemporary so-called postmodern era is the loss of convition in the idea that the public is capable of being enlightened. But scepticism about the project of public enlightenment is rarely expressed in a coherent and explicit form. In an era of inclusion and participation, doubts about the capacity of people cannot be raised in a clear and open manner. We live in an era where clear statements about people's ability are obfuscated by a vocabulary that relies on terms like 'special needs students', 'differently abled people', 'non-traditional students', and 'the intellectually challenged'. This confusing language coexists with the rhetoric of flattery that declares that everyone is special and creative. But at a time when normal university students are routinely described as vulnerable, it is evident that the mental capacity of the public is not held in high esteem."
Page 151

Part of the problem, Furedi claims, is down to the development of a docile public who don't have the opportunity to argue and debate the issues at hand.
"Communications are organized in such a manner that it is difficult for people to 'answer back or with effect'. Most important of all, 'the mass has no autonomy from institutions; on the contrary, agents of authorized institutions interpenetrate this mass [the public], reducing any autonomy it may have in the formation of opinion by discussion'."
Page 153

Here is something I feel is beginning to change. The Internet, and in particular things like blogs or Twitter, is providing a much more level playing field when it comes to discussion and communications. There are still issues with reaching less computer-savvy groups of society - see Julian Dobson's excellent piece about Reboot Britain - but I'm optimistic that, for the most part, these barriers can be overcome and we will all benefit as a result. The rise in the number of unconferences (and the way that they bleed out from the real world onto the online, through live video streaming, twitter hashtags, blog posts and recorded video) shows a reconnection to groups of people coming together to discuss and solve their common issues. It's nothing new, but maybe the digital tools give us the ability to scale it beyond the town hall to a national or global scale.

"Deference to traditional authority is being replaced by reverence for new ones. [...] Increasingly victims are endowed with a moral claim to authority. Victims of crimes are assigned authority to make pronouncements on the issue of law and order. Parents of casualties in the Iraq War are frequently treated as is they were experts in military affairs. Victims of an illness are transformed into expert cancer sufferers. Patient groups insist that their representation of their malady is the final word on the subject and that decent people have a moral duty not to offend them by refusing to affirm their claims."
Page 174

"Contemporary culture continually incites us to defer to a bewildering variety of relationship experts. Parenting coaches, life coaches, makeover gurus, supernannies apparently possess the authority to tell us how to live our lives."
Page 175

Maybe these seemingly contradictory paragraphs, from successive pages of the book, show the heart of the problem: we live in an age of contradictions, and it's difficult to navigate a path through them. Maybe that's always been the case, but I haven't lived in other times and so can't tell. Or maybe it's a flaw in the drive for specialisation. Fields of study have had to become so focussed in order to continue to make progress, but with that focus can come a lack of perspective of how that fits into the rest of the world. It's time us generalists stopped deferring too much to the specialists' greater knowledge of a particular topic, and started to assert the importance of our ability to weave the specialists recommendations into a wider context.

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April 13, 2011

Can the Working Class Save the Middle Class?

There's an excellent interview with Umair Haque on the GOOD blog. In it he wonders why so many people are protesting against cuts rather than attacking the institutions that caused the problem in the first place, the banks? He argues that a better response than marches and protests would be grassroots organised economic action. I think he's right

The UK Uncut movement et al have shown that they can mobilise lots of people and generate lots of action. What if instead of occupying shops and going on marches, they persuaded people to move their bank accounts elsewhere? Would that succeed where Government is failing, at curbing bank bonuses and making credit more available for businesses that need it?

What if people banked with a local credit union or building society?

What if, indeed.

Why aren't the local credit unions (e.g. Partners Credit Union who are for anyone in Merseyside) working out how to persuade me to move my account across? Surely having lots more people using a local, non-profit savings/loan institution would be a good thing, and widening the customer-base to include conscientious objecting middle-classes would improve the image of credit unions from the reputable lender of last resort?

And what if we mixed in the technical chops of groups like One Click Orgs and the open-source movement? Just think how awesome and secure a way of banking that would be...


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January 21, 2011

Rainy, Grey-sky Thinking

When it comes to designing better ways for our cities and us to interact, it occurred to me just now that what we definitely don't need is "blue sky thinking". That sort of "start afresh", "everything can be re-imagined" approach is what gave us Corbusier's aesthetically-pleasing yet soul-less and aggressive in practice grand modernist projects - most evident in the slum clearances and war-damage reconstruction in the UK cities of the 60s.

What we need more of is almost the opposite - "rainy, grey sky thinking" perhaps. Thinking that embraces the constraints of the city-as-is and works out clever ways to reuse and refactor what already exists, and which replaces as little as possible.

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December 27, 2010

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: The Craftsman

Reading Richard Sennett's The Craftsman has been rather a slog. After breezing through most of the books I got last Christmas in a matter of days, it's taken almost a year to finish this one. It's not that it's a boring book either - there is plenty of interesting information about tools and how we use them, and how work was organised in the past. For the first half of the book though, it was really slow going.

I got through the second half much more quickly, but there were still plenty of occasions where I'd find my reading interrupted; however, that was mostly because a certain passage had triggered a bout of thinking and contemplation. I wasn't expecting to find treatises on city planning or IQ levels for example, but was happy that I did.

I'm not sure they make a lot of sense and, particularly with the earlier parts of the book, it's too long since I made the notes to remember exactly why each quote was worth marking. But here are the dog-eared selections that I made...

Page 2:
Oppenheimer reassured himself by asserting, "When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb."

Page 6:
The good teacher imparts a satisfying explanation; the great teacher [...] unsettles, bequeaths disquiet, invites argument.

Page 11:
The Enlightenment believed that everyone possesses the ability to do good work of some kind, that there is an intelligent craftsman in most of us

Page 73:
This is why we should not give up on the workshop as a social space. Workshops present and past have glued people together through work rituals, whether these be a shared cup of tea or the urban parade; through mentoring, whether the formal surrogate parenting of medieval times or informal advising on the worksite; through face-to-face sharing of information.

Page 108:
Failure [by the craftsmen to develop and create machines themselves] has magnified the symbolic threat of the machine. Skilled operatives live with and through machines but rarely create them in modern industry. Technological advance comes in this was to seem inseparable from domination by others.

Page 199:
Put simple, it is by fixing things that we often get to understand how they work.

Page 202:
In response to [the Great Fire of London in 1666] Wren sought to apply the principle of dynamic repair [i.e. understanding something by dismantling it and reassembly] he had learned scientifically to the healing of a wounded city.

Page 226:
The natural world appeared to these faulty disciples of Charles Darwin as a place of strife only; society, they argued, was ruled by self-interest, absent any altruistic cooperation. To [philosopher John] Dewey this seemed a macho fantasy that missed the real issue: working with resistance is the key to survival.

Page 229:
A city needs constantly to absorb new elements. In healthy cities, economic energy pushes outward from the centre to the periphery. The problem is that we are better at building boundaries than borders, and this for a deep reason.

From its origins, the centre of the European city has been more important than its periphery; courts, political assemblies, markets, and the most important religious shrines have been located in the city centre. That geographical stress translated into a social value: the centre as a place where people are most likely to share. In modern planning this has meant that efforts to strengthen community life seek to intensify life at the centre. But is the centre, as a space and as a social value, a good place in which to mix the cocktail of cultural diversity?

Page 232:
In the years immediately after the Second World War, the architect Aldo van Eyck began filling up Amsterdam's empty spaces with playgrounds - in trash-filled backyards, at traffic circles, on forlorn corners and the edges of streets. Van Eyck cleaned out the trash and graded the ground; his team sometimes painted the walls of adjoining buildings; the architect himself designed playground equipment, sandpits, and wading pools. Unlike school playgrounds, these street pocket-parks invited adults in as well. Many had comfortable benches or were located next to cafes and bars, allowing adult child-minders to nip inside for a quick drink to steady their nerves. [...]

The designer's aim for these small parks was to teach children how to anticipate and manage ambiguous transitions in urban space. Infants taken to the Hendrikplantsoen playground, in its 1948 form, could for instance wallow in sandpits that had no neat separation from grassy areas. [...] The lack of clear physical definition again provided a challenge; there were edges, but not sharp separations; probing that condition was meant to stimulate inquiry.

Page 249:
[...] transparency can counter [the danger of organisations being infiltrated by corrupt staff], but transparency of a certain sort: the standards of good work must be clear to people who are not themselves experts.

[...] Standards comprehensible to nonexperts raise quality in the organisation as a whole.

Page 285:
If no one could deny that abilities vary at the extremes, the shape of the IQ bell curve raises a question about the middle. Why the blind spot to its potential? The person with an IQ score of 100 is not much different in ability than the person with a score of 115, but the 115 is much more likely to attract notice. There's a devil's answer to this question: inflating small differences in degree into large differences in kind legitimates the system of privilege. Correspondingly, equating the median with the mediocre legitimates neglect - one reason why Britain directs proportionately more resources into elite education than into technical colleges


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November 14, 2010

Thoughts on Conferences

I'm back from an excellent day yesterday at Interesting North yet I'm feeling strangely disappointed.

Interesting North

It's not a reflection on the event itself - that's what's so strange about it. IntNorth was one of the most enjoyable conferences I've attended:

A gorgeous setting. The bar set high with the polish and smooth-running that Tim and his team achieved. The typically "Interesting" variety of topics, all lovingly presented by people obviously passionate about their subject. A lovely lunch - popping over to the cathedral for soup and bread in support of a local charity was a great idea and meant we could meet more people rather than scatter across the city. I haven't seen that done at a tech/geek conference before and frankly it's something that should be done more frequently.

Conference Format

So. If it was such a fabulous conference, which it was, why was I left wanting more?

I think the problem is with the conference format. My discontent has been building over the past few events that I've attended. The whole broadcast dynamic of one person imparting knowledge or ideas to the audience feels at odds with the more egalitarian, discursive world of blogs and twitter.

Barcamps are a step in the right direction, but they just open up the speaker slots - they don't change the basic structure.

In theory there's nothing to stop me proposing a discussion or a debate or something similar for a barcamp session, but the trouble with that is that I (and I suspect many others) need to let ideas and arguments gestate for a while before I'm comfortable sharing them.

I had a flavour of this at the Arduino DevCamp earlier in the year. Rather than present, I held a session discussing favourite libraries. Some useful info came out of it, but I think a lack of preparation all round (me in thinking about how to kick the session off, and other participants because the idea was new to them) made it a bit of damp squib.


Another problem with the conference format is the lack of time available to talk to other attendees. Not networking in the "how to get ahead sense", hence the quotation-marks round it in the heading, but meeting new people, chatting to old friends, talking about what you're all experiencing... that sort of thing.

There were a raft of people at IntNorth with whom I wanted to catch up, but just got to say a passing "hello" to. I don't, personally, want longer breaks - I'd prefer more of them. I find it really hard to end a conversation - as often because they're so interesting as because they're boring - so externally enforced breaks in the breaks would be good too.

There's also the inverse problem of starting conversations if I don't know anybody. Short breaks would help there too as there's less time to stand on your own like a lemon. Maybe there are more ways - which aren't the enforced fun of networking games - to help break the ice?


Lots of questions. Any answers?

Not yet. Not really. In the best blogging tradition, this is me writing stuff down to help my brain process it, and to see if it resonates with anyone else. However, I wonder if blogging itself could be part of the solution.

So, to recap: broadcast dynamic... bad; meeting lots of people... good; new ideas... good; no time to prepare... bad; mixing people up... good.

The Long Conference

Blogging, in one of its forms, can be a debate held across space and time. I write something on my blog; you link to it from yours and either expand upon it or argue against it; I can respond, others can join in.

What if we did some of that and then met up in person to continue the discussions? That would provide for the engagement and preparation of everyone beforehand, and because the discussions are stretched either side of the meeting event it would be a bit of a long conference.

In addition to getting your ticket, you'd have to have published a blog post on one of the conference themes beforehand. There'd be no judging of the quality of your writing or of your ideas - it's just to prove that you've spent some time thinking about it. No blog post, no admittance to the conference.

Some of the conference topics would be announced at the same time as the conference dates, and people would be able to suggest additional topics and themes. A conference committee would decide which additional ideas were accepted and add them to the proceedings.

The blog posts around the conference would be aggregated onto the conference website, so people could engage with the topics beforehand, and the committee would select a list of speakers from all of the blog posts. At the conference itself, there'd be short talks from the chosen speakers to act as starting points for an ensuing discussion. After each talk/discussion session there'd be a break to either let people continue debating, or drift off to other things.

There'd only be room for two or three sessions in each track in a day, but there'd be space for people to commandeer a room for a longer session if need be. The idea is to focus on connections between people and quality rather than quantity.

Right. There are holes in this that I could drive a bus through, but it's getting long enough already, and more importantly, I've finished my pot of tea. So I'll leave it there for now.

What do you think? Is there a germ of something interesting here? Would you want to come along if I organised it? Please leave comments, blog about it, or tweet your thoughts. I'll be watching the Internet for items tagged with #longconf.


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July 20, 2010

Unmaking Urban Mistakes

John Tolva has written an excellent essay (it's a bit long to be a blog post really) entitled Lessons from unmaking urban mistakes. In it he looks at how the inner-city highways have improved traffic throughput in the city, but at the expense of the human-scale interactions, and also looks at how the highways affect the surrounding architecture.

It's a difficult problem to solve. When I travel around the city by car then it feels like it's quicker on the trunk roads, although given the number of sets of traffic lights, maybe it isn't. Here in Liverpool the docks and the Pier Head feel cut off from the rest of the city centre by the six lanes of traffic on the Strand. The problem is even more pronounced when you get to the north edge of the city centre and the inner-city motorway that is Islington. I think the resurgence of city-centre living would have bled out to the north much more if there wasn't this huge gulf of inhospitable tarmac in the way.

Is the answer better public transport, maybe an underground system to provide capacity without taking up surface space? Or to separate the cars and pedestrians? If the latter then we'd need a better solution than the desolate pedestrian subways and underpasses that resulted when we tried that with the new towns in the 1960s and 1970s.

Maybe block-level one-way systems help - basically separating the carriageways of the highway to adjacent streets so that there are fewer lanes of traffic for pedestrians to navigate at any one time. That seems to work reasonably well with Dale Street and Chapel Street in Liverpool (although these days Chapel Street has reverted to two-way traffic).

As you can see, I don't have any answers to these questions yet. It's just something I ponder about in some of my thinking on how to improve Liverpool. And the question is made all the trickier because the solution needs to work with the existing fabric of the city - demolishing and rebuilding swathes of the city are only likely to generate a different set of unintended consequences.


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November 18, 2009

What's With the Obsession About Big?

Pete Ashton has posted a great entry recently to his blog, wondering whether Birmingham City Council has an obsession with big, grand, look-at-how-great-we-are events that seem more about showing off to the rest of the country (and world, if the world happens to care) and engaging in woolly activities like "improving the brand" than it is about putting on enjoyable and great events for the population. He asks why it has to be about the big, major initiatives and why it can't celebrate more smaller events - something that might, paradoxically, differentiate the city more than another me-too big lighting switch on.

Reading Pete's article, it seemed to me that you could switch some of the names and some of the projects (although thankfully I don't think we've had a similar failure with people getting injured) and it could easily be about Liverpool. There's a similar desire for big projects that swallow up millions of pounds of funding and promise grand regeneration, prosperity and job targets in the middle distance. It all makes for great headlines in the Echo, but does it really achieve much more than that?

I suppose it depends on whether you think that the way to improve the city is through a top-down or bottom-up approach.

From my (admittedly somewhere near the bottom) perspective, the top-down style seems to provide good media soundbites and short-term bragging rights, but at the expense of much of the money trickling down the lowest level and a high risk of failure. Liverpool One isn't perfect but is about as well executed as a big shopping mall project could be, but the Innovation Park seems to be a grand project casting around for a purpose still.

Maybe the problem is with a focus on trying to attract prosperity from outside the city, rather than nurturing the potential of the people within it? Do we have to create these grand schemes in order to successfully bid for regeneration funding? Are we building big science parks and office complexes with a view to attracting big companies to relocate to Liverpool and bring their jobs with them? I don't know; it would explain things better if that's true.

Is that how successful cities operate? "Move here and we'll give you loads of handouts". I'm not sure I'd want to live in a city populated by people who are only around because they were paid to be here. I think it's better to take a longer-term approach and help the people already in the city, who want to be in the city, to create interesting and new businesses. Some of them will fail, but some of them won't, and I don't think it's immediately obvious beforehand which are which. We should be encouraging all of them, and helping people dust themselves down if things do go wrong. That way we'll end up with a much more resilient mix of businesses and who knows, maybe the next Meccano or White Star Lines or Littlewoods...


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August 06, 2009

Britain's POST?

The Reboot Britain event took place a couple of weeks ago, and some of the information from it seems to be filtering through into my "digital neighbourhood" (for want of a better way of explaining it).

I think Julian still has the best analysis of the problem, with his blog post on the danger of it being a digital-savvy love-in, but there are some good nuggets lurking within what was presented.

It's disappointing to see that event the digital-savvy don't properly get the new way of doing things. They've fallen into the all-too-common trap of thinking that they're embracing social media just because they've worked out how to use it as a source of extra content for their website. But if I want to talk about part of the event over here on my blog, the best I can do is direct you to this page with the video for all of the presentations and ask you to scroll through the list to the right of the video until you find Lee Bryant almost at the bottom. Then if you click on his face (because of course, making his name or the description a link too would be too tricky...) you'll finally be able to watch an excellent talk about how government should approach IT projects.

It seems there's also a Reboot Britain conference wiki, but as that also fails spectacularly to embrace the new open, transparent ethos of the web by requiring you to register before you can even read it, I don't know if there's anything useful in there or not. If anyone else can be bothered, feel free to let us know in the comments whether it's worth our while.

However, I'd rather not end on such a depressing it-looks-like-Britain-has-failed-its-Power-On-Self-Test note, you should have a look through the photos of Reboot Britain in Lego and see some of the inspiring and interesting ideas that the delegates at the event had about what should be done. I think getting them to build little lego models to illustrate their postcard notes is a superb idea; it makes the notes prime presentation fodder, which surely will help them to spread.


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July 05, 2009

Liverpool Architecture Society's Integrated City Project

A few days ago I found out about a project that the Liverpool Architecture Society is in the process of launching. The Integrated City Project is a challenge to look at ways of reconnecting the various districts and areas of Liverpool and working out a cohesive set of suggestions and plans for how best to develop the city.

There isn't anything as yet on the LAS website, but the LAS President elect, Robert MacDonald, has kindly agreed to let me publish the details in a web-friendly format here.

I'm not exactly sure how I can help with the project, but it seems that it could be a great opportunity (and possibly that final push that I need) to try out some of the really interesting "civic software" initiatives that are springing up.

Could the findings feed into a set of requirements for some DIYCity.org projects?

Would something like the Sutton Green Map help inform people about amenities, planning and infrastructure issues?

Can we experiment with the recently released source code for EveryBlock?

It also feeds nicely into the sorts of technology and ways of working explored by the Be2Camp group, and that initiatives like Talk About Local are starting to address.

Of course, it's quite possible that this is the sort of technology-focused response that fails miserably because it's targeted at the iPhone-wielding web native. But I think there are ways round that, and that's maybe where the geeks of Liverpool can help - rather than just installing all these whizzy Web2.0 services, we can extend them and look for ways to integrate them into peoples lives. Maybe text-messaging can provide enough interaction and richness to bootstrap the service; or we could integrate with The Newspaper Club to provide hyper-local, customised paper versions of the content; or work with local shopkeepers to install simple information kiosks... We'll need to work out what the problems really are first, but if services like this are useful then the technical challenges can be overcome.

I don't want to publish Robert's email address online, so if you want to find out more or get involved with the project then let me know and I'll happily pass your details on. My email address is over on the left.

Liverpool Architecture Society's Integrated City Project

Map of Liverpool showing the assorted districts within the city

Just imagine a ‘do it yourself’ city. Crises in government organisation and financial development are leading towards the self organisation of people in urban situations. Liverpool Citizens need encouragement to take creative and cultural urban control of architecture and inner city developments.

As an upbeat creative response to the economic recession, The Liverpool Architectural Society (established 1848) and others are planning a positive city wide project as part of the forthcoming cultural years of the Environment and Innovation. The society aims to address architectural, cultural, planning and social issues in the Inner and Outer City of Liverpool. The LAS aims to be inspired by local communities and situations. Multi-professional teams of architects, landscape architects, artists, students and communities will set out to create a series of practical and theoretical urban propositions for the inner city. A locally designed and constructed integrated light rail tram system is also being considered as a way of re-connecting different parts of the fragmented Inner City.

Currently, the Inner City is very much a hollow vessel without people. It needs new urban activity and density. In 1931 the overall population was 857, 247 and in 2002 the population was 441,500. In Merseyside, 83,000 jobs were lost between 1981 and 1986, representing 1 in 3 jobs. The average annual income in Liverpool was £7,363 in 2001, which was £4,127 under the national average. Unemployment is well above the national average. The biggest single knowledge gap is that we do not know whether the vacant land and empty building problem is getting worst, or better, or staying the same. The population increase in the 12,000 of new build apartments, in recent years, has been in the City Centre. Why has the inner city and outer areas been excluded and disconnected from these new developments ? The LAS ambition is to include the Inner City in future speculative visions for the city.

The best way to appreciate the shrinking Inner City and polarisation of Outer City of Liverpool is to just take a short walk out from the City Centre or take a bus ride to The Dingle, Toxteth, Kensington, Edge Hill or Walton or Seaforth. Any number of empty buildings, houses and vacant sites immediately become apparent. These neighbourhoods, districts and locations will be the focus of The Integrated City Project (see adjacent map, copyright James Mellor) This map highlights 33 urban districts including Speke and Garston. There are also numerous zones of vacancy ‘inbetween’ the perceived urban neighbourhoods.


The urban design methodology will be to invite 33 independent and autonomous teams of designers to adopt one the Urban Districts or neighbourhoods. Each group will then be invited, over a twelve month period, to develop local contacts and participate with their communities to create new Urban Models for the neighbourhoods. The community connections might include Liverpool City Council, Merseyside Network for Change, Tenants Spin, City Planners, industrialists,developers, schools, businesses, creative industries, social groups, libraries, hospitals, health centres, GP’s, public houses, cultural, sports and entertainment. This process of design participation will be recorded by public progress presentations.


The objective will be to hold an exhibition in a Major Public Venue in 2010 attracting National profile and publicity. The 33 individual projects will be presented as 1.500 models, photographs of the inner city communities, illustrations of the new projects, interactive multi-media, film and moving image. The Liverpool City Council will be invited to take a lead and participate by displaying the updated Shankland City Centre Model. There will be opportunities for public participation, sponsorship, either financial or in kind with the involvement of various city wide agencies.


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December 10, 2008

BarCamp Liverpool: Don't Just Change the World... Improve It!

In the run up to Barcamp Liverpool I set myself a challenge, and was even stupid enough to spell out the rather ambitious idea here on my blog. I decided to prepare two talks: the beginners guide to Arduino I've already posted; and a second which would be about inspiring people to start a business, or work out what's "wrong" with Liverpool and fix it, or use technology to counter climate change.

I didn't want to steal two slots in the schedule if that would stop someone else from presenting anything, so I held off adding the second talk until late morning on Sunday. There was a slot free for the end of the day, which fitted nicely with my ideas of rounding off the weekend with something of a call to arms.

I tried to pull the possible threads together under the umbrella term of improving the world, but I think my current business-focus skewed things a little. Still, I hope the dozen-or-so people present take the general idea and twist it to their own experiences and passions, and that me rambling about doing great things does have some small effect.

I've done what I can, whether this is "the spark that started things happening" will be up to others.

As ever, the slides are on Slideshare. After the talk, Alex asked about the assorted business networking events I'd mentioned, so I've thrown a list of places that I find out about business events and networking onto the GeekUp wiki. Feel free to add to that if you know of any similar links in the NW. The other way to find out about more of the events I attend is to keep an eye on my Upcoming page.


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November 15, 2008

The Most Important Topics to Discuss or Disseminate?

In a couple of weeks it's the first Barcamp Liverpool. One of the "rules" of Barcamps is that everyone who turns up should have a talk ready that they offer to present. I've been pondering over what I should prepare for my talk.

So far I've generally hinted at doing something Arduino-related, and have been assuming I'd either talk about monitoring your home (show the Mazzini prototype, talk about that and some of the similar projects from others, or some of the things I learn about at Homecamp); or running a more general "Getting started with Arduino" session where I plug some LEDs and a switch into a breadboard and write a bit of Arduino code. And I expect I'll still have something along those lines as one of my proposals.

However, I've just realised that I should be turning my thinking on its head. Rather than coming up with ideas based on the knowledge that I've got that others might find interesting, I should instead be answering the question:

You've got the attention of a couple-of-dozen motivated and intelligent geeks; how do you want to change their lives?

Now you could improve their knowledge, which is what my initial ideas cover; but maybe it would be better to inspire them to go out and improve the world, or challenge their thinking and affect their future behaviour.

I'm setting myself the challenge to go to Barcamp Liverpool with two proposals: one along the lines of the Arduino tutorial, and another that falls into the second category. I'm just not sure what it will be about. Maybe I'll talk about starting and building businesses that make a difference; or lead a brainstorming session to work out what's going wrong in Liverpool and how to fix it; or implore people to find ways to improve the reuse and recycling of technology to improve the environment; or...

I'd love to hear anyone's ideas, comments or thoughts on what this second proposal should aim to achieve. I'd love it even more if you came along to Barcamp Liverpool and presented something along these lines to inspire me. How cool would it be if we could point to Barcamp Liverpool as the spark that started things happening?


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October 23, 2008

Do Computer Networks Hinder, Rather Than Help, World Changing Movements?

Whilst reading this entry on Socialreporter I began to wonder if computers and the whole social media shebang are part of the problem rather than a solution. I found this paragraph particularly apt:

"There are lessons here to be drawn from the greatest social innovations of the past. While Facebook may be a jolly efficient way of setting up a campaign against HSBC’s overdraft policy, the Paris Commune of 1871 managed to raise mass resistance to Thiers and autocratic government without as much as single laptop, and while blogs may help us to feel we are cooperating in some ethereal way I don’t think the cooperative and international development of quantum physics before the 1950s used a single byte of stored computerised information or a single email. The point is that, if computer-mediated networks are all that stand between Britain and an effective community of social innovators, how do you account for the Salvation Army, extension education, or much else of our civic heritage?"

The Internet makes it much easier to find a group of like-minded individuals, which gives you that initial buzz of something happening, but does that insulate you from the reality of convincing the masses? In earlier times you'd have to convince a fair number of non-(or not quite-) believers in order to gain enough bodies to do anything. So you were better placed to move onto the next phase of convincing even more people. Nowadays, whatever niche you represent, you can easily find everyone else who has the same viewpoint and set about doing things based on that belief system without ever having to hone the skills necessary to propagate the message outside of your clan.

Don't worry, I'm not about to stop blogging and stop answering emails (despite how it looks to those of you who've sent me one recently...). I'm just taking this as a reminder that the real world still isn't the same as the one online; I should try to find sources that challenge my thinking and ideas; and that actions trump talking.

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October 14, 2008

Money As Debt

I thought I'd linked to this back when Euan first posted it, but it seems that I haven't. It's very interesting and maybe explains some of the reasons we've gotten into such a financial mess.

(via Euan)


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May 06, 2008

More Thinking By Doing Needed

A friend one commented that some people think by doing, whilst others do by thinking. By that he meant that some people work through their problems in their head, thinking through all the options and possibilities before acting, whereas other people have to start playing with things in order to map out the problem-space and help them to understand what they think about the problem.

Both approaches have their merits, and I definitely fall into the "doing by thinking" camp. The problem with that method is that sometimes you don't have enough information to be able to reach any conclusions.

Of late, all the projects I'm involved with seem to be suffering from that problem, but I hadn't quite put my finger on it until I read Gordon's post about practising more of what he preaches.

I don't have any problem practising what I preach, my difficulty is practising things that I'm not confident to preach, and similarly talking about things when I don't have all the answers (or at least, a lot of the answers). Some of that is because I don't know enough about the subject (like marketing, or the hardware I'm hoping to finish before geeKyoto 2008), and some of it is because there aren't any hard and fast answers (marketing again, and the "best" business models for these projects).

So I need to let myself, and encourage myself to, think more by doing. This blog post is a start.


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April 24, 2008

A Taste of TED on DVD

Recently my mate Kieran has been helping me get my head round marketing as I try to get word out about tedium. I was trying to work out something I could do to say thanks, and as he's been reading The Paradox of Choice it occurred to me that I could share some of the TED talks with him (including the one by Barry Schwartz, the author of The Paradox of Choice).

Kieran isn't a geek by any stretch of the imagination, so I burned the talks onto a DVD so that he could watch them from the comfort of his sofa rather than having to sit in front of his computer. I think that's about the only problem with the presentations from TED.com - it's hard to watch something for twenty minutes if you've got all the distractions of the Internet.

The talks themselves are superb - interesting and insightful topics being talked about by passionate, clever, famous people. If you haven't seen any of the talks before then I heartily recommend having a poke round the TED website or downloading this TED Taster DVD.

That's right, now that I've put the DVD together, I might as well share it with the rest of the world. All the TED presentations are covered by a Creative Commons licence, which means that it's completely legal to copy them and give them to your friends and colleagues... even to random strangers on the Internet ;-)

There are six talks on the DVD. I picked ones that I enjoyed watching and that seem to be well thought of on the web:

  1. Dan Gilbert asks "Why are we happy?"
  2. Malcolm Gladwell on spaghetti sauce
  3. Sir Ken Robinson say schools kill creativity
  4. Hans Rosling shows the best stats you've ever seen
  5. Barry Schwartz on the paradox of choice
  6. Gever Tulley on five dangerous things for kids

Screenshots from the talks

Obviously I can't share physical DVDs over the Internet, so you'll need a DVD burner if you want to make your own TED Taster DVD. And because the files are pretty big I can't just set things up so you click on a link and download it - you'll need to use BitTorrent, but (as well as saving some of my bandwidth costs) that will mean that it will download more quickly.

Despite the scare stories you might've heard, BitTorrent isn't hard to use. Lifehacker have a good beginner's guide to BitTorrent and Gordon McLean wrote an excellent starter guide for anyone using Windows.

Enough! Give Me The Files!

Okay, here are the torrent files you'll need to download the DVD. Choose the right one depending on where you live (well, really depending on whether your DVD player is NTSC or PAL). Each download is about 3.4 GB in size, so please be patient - it'll take a while to download, particularly at first when there aren't many copies around. And after it's finished downloading, please leave your BitTorrent client running for as long as you can to help share it with others.

And if you just want to watch them on your computer, I've collected all the original files from TED.com and gathered them into the TED Taster mp4 torrent (704 MB).

Spread the Word

I know they aren't as easy to watch as your standard YouTube clip, but I think that the more people who get to see the TED talks the better. So, feel free to burn some extra DVDs and give them to your friends, or blog about the TED talks that you love the most, or point people here so they can download the DVD for themselves. Feel free to use the image above, and either link to this blog post or use http://www.mcqn.net/tedtaster (that's just a snappier URL that also points here).

Finally, thanks to Gordon McLean, Andrew Dixon, Adrian Sevitz and a collection of MeFites for their help in launching this crazy idea.


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April 06, 2008

Which Vision Thing?

Once again I'm late to the party with my blogging. A week or two back, Paul Robinson posted an entry to his blog lamenting the state of the computer industry. I agree with a most of what he said: services like Facebook could be a really good way to keep in touch and engage with our friends, but have devolved into an endless parade of me-too, frothy, time-wasting games.

By the time I'm getting round to writing about it, things have already moved on. There have been a few responses to Paul's initial post; he's posted a summary of them; and thrown up an area of his website to discuss "The Vision Thing". On there they've even started to draft a manifesto.

All of which is highly commendable, but having read through it I'm left feeling a bit like a goth who's arrived late to a rave. Paul talks about wanting some meaning, and a vision that goes beyond building something "a bit like eBay but with a social graph". I don't see anything like that in the draft manifesto. "Down with IE6" is just froth in geek flavour. "Look after yourself" is just good advice, not something to fight for.

It's a very British manifesto: full of good intentions, but lacking ambition. Microsoft didn't set out to "make businesses lives a bit easier", they wanted "a computer on every desktop and in every home". We should be aiming for "renewable power generation on every home and every office" or "computer and Internet access for every single person in the UK" or...

I know that I'm doing no better than Paul in just writing this blog post. I don't have a solution. Yet. tedium is hardly going to revolutionize the world, but similarly it isn't just froth. It's also just the first step towards building something bigger. I don't have a full handle on my mission to change the world, but I'm beginning to grasp the strands that will weave together to produce it.


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March 11, 2008

The North / South Divide?

Ian Forrester was at BarCamp Manchester the other week, and in his write-up wonders why he encountered some hostility to Southerners. I can't claim to speak for my fellow Northerners, but thought I'd offer my thoughts on the subject.

First off, I'm not sure that it's a North/South divide, but more of a The Provinces/London divide, and we're just being lazy ourselves by equating London with the South.

Serendipitously, Nick Robinson's latest blog post highlights the issue quite neatly. It's an article about celebrating Britishness, and the photo chosen depicts a Routemaster bus, black cab and the Houses of Parliament. I don't know what image I'd choose instead, but it shows the default London-centric view that's used as shorthand for English or British. We have black cabs in the North, but not Routemasters, and I was ten before I first saw the Houses of Parliament in person. And in the ten years after that I think I saw them again once.

Some of the tension is jealousy, as there's lots of interesting stuff going on in London, most of which is completely inaccessible. From Cambridge it's quite possible to head into London for Mobile Monday, or the London Geek Dinners, but any further away and it becomes a major mission.

London also seems to be the de facto location for any bigger event or conference. The argument being that there are a lot of people already there and the transport links are much better. Which they are, because the roads and railways are all skewed towards the capital. The North-West is at least lucky enough to have a couple of motorways that run across the country rather than towards London.

People in London don't want to travel to events, but expect the rest of the country to come to them. Obviously this is a broad generalisation (and can't be levelled at Ian because he travelled up to Manchester), but when Geoff organised the OurSocialWorld conference in Cambridge it was a struggle to get enough people to attend, and that's day trippable from London. What chance do events further afield have?

For people of my generation and older there's also the hangover from the 80s. This is my least rational reason, but watching huge chunks of the employment and prosperity of the region disappear with the death of heavy industry was painful. Whilst I don't think the government should have propped up industries that were no longer viable, the Thatcher government's "get on your bike" and move down South attitude, coupled with the in-your-face materialism of yuppies in the city didn't help.

Again, these are just my perceptions and thoughts, and I'm interested in hearing what other people - Northern, Southern, Scottish... whatever - think about the issue. I'm not sure I can articulate what I want people to do differently, if anything. Maybe just consider how easy it is (or isn't) for people to get to your event if you're aspiring for national reach. Or just to continue to support events that are being held outside London. I understand that if you live in London you aren't necessarily going to want to organise something miles away from home.

I'm trying to help make a difference by moving back to the North West this summer. So if anyone is looking to arrange something in the area and wants some help, please get in touch and I'll do what I can to assist.


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August 29, 2007

Changing the World is Not Enough

It's strange sometimes how the world conspires to present a wealth of thought strands which I then fail miserably to weave into anything beautiful. At least this time I've got as far as writing something down about them, rather than just flail about in my mind before giving up.

A Sense of Purpose

Number 25 of Mike's 25 things to do before I die is "[c]reate something which people can remember me by". Tom Coates has been bemoaning the degeneration of commenting systems and writing a well thought-out piece about advertising. Jeremy Paxman has urged his fellow broadcasters to rise above the obsession with the bottom-line.

On a national, or even multi-national level, it feels as though capitalism and consumerism have won, and all that matters is how much money you can make with almost no regard for how you make it.

Yet individuals everywhere seem torn between an underlying need to feel a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning; but which is at odds with their day-to-day pressures to fit in and work with the world around them.

Facebook has an app called "My questions", which lets you pose questions for your friends to answer. I'd had to install it so I could answer the questions my friends were asking, but resisted its attempts to get me to ask a question. As a result it has defaulted to some random poser - "What is the one thing you always take with you?"

On Friday, given that a few people had taken the trouble to answer it, I decided that if people were going to the trouble of answering "my" question, it should at least be something worthwhile. I changed it to "How do you change the world?"

Today I've decided that that isn't a good enough question. Although it has a noble aim, and easily converts to a great slogan (as shown by Hugh in the Blue Monster "Change the world or go home" campaign) there is scope for misunderstanding.

Changing the world isn't enough we need to strive to improve it.

Improve the World, or Go Home

What a great idea. No-one's thought of that before... And that's the problem isn't it - How?


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June 28, 2006

How Low Can You Go?

Jon Udell points to this mp3 of a thought-provoking speech given by Brian Schweitzer. Schweitzer is the charismatic, common-sense talking governor of Montana and in this talk he lays out his ideas on how to solve the problem of climate change.

Cleverly, he doesn't label it as such, and instead talks about removing America's dependence on foreign oil and about creating jobs and new businesses. His take is that in the short-term we can save 20% of our energy use through efficiency and conservation; 20% with renewables (interestingly, he points out that a new wind power plant in Montana is providing electicity at $38/megawatt, but a new coal power plant they've also built can only manage $41/megawatt); and a further 20% with bio-fuels.

That leaves a gap of 40%, which he argues could come from new, cleaner coal technologies. These aren't perfect, but his argument is that until the hydrogen economy arrives (or whatever the yet-to-be-invented solution is) we're going to be using some fossil fuels and the newer technologies already exist to strip the toxins from coal before it's burnt (so no mercury and such is released into the atmosphere) and they can capture the carbon-dioxide and sequester it in old oil-fields (it's ideal for helping extraction of oil, and the oil companies will gladly pay for it).

It sounds like a better short-term solution than the expansion of the nuclear program that's being promoted in this country.

The only change which has an immediate pay-off is reducing energy consumption. We need to make saving energy cool, and Brian Schweitzer's rallying cry is "How low can you go?"

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June 21, 2006

The National Grid of The Future?

Jon Udell has posted up the mp3 from a conversation he had with Mike Frost about intelligent energy management. It's an interesting discussion about how Mike's company, Site Control, are building telemetry and control networks in businesses to let them monitor and control their electricity usage.

The main drive in take-up seems to be cost-savings through increased efficiency and control of the businesses energy usage, but as Jon notes, as you get finer-grained control over your electricity it opens up opportunities for the grid to manage usage. Rather than cut power to entire companies, or entire streets of houses, when there is a shortage the power companies can ask (possibly just through dynamic prices) users to scale back their usage. Which would you prefer - brownouts and power-cuts, or a heating system that ran a couple of degrees cooler every now and then?

Jon has written more about the energy web in the past and hit's one of the big problems head on when he says:

"It's crazy, when you think about it, that your phone bill is exquisitely itemized but your electicity bill is a single number"

I think if we had better ways of visualizing our energy usage, maybe even some of these more imaginative, almost ambient displays as detailed on Open Loop's Energy Projects links page or Open Loop's own Buried Light project, then it would reduce the amount of energy wasted needlessly and increase pressure on appliance manufacturers to improve their products.

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June 20, 2006

The Rise of Awareness

I considered including this in my earlier post but couldn't find the right link between the two, so this gets its own entry.

Karen has posted an excellent post exhorting people to do what they can and providing some links to let you find out how (btw, I'm not the Adrian in the comments, that's Mr. Sevitz).

She'll hopefully be pleased to read that thanks to the Attenborough documentaries, we're upping our environmentally-friendliness beyond the home composting; cycling virtually all journeys under five or six miles; using panniers to reduce the number of plastic bags used; and growing some of our own vegetables. I'll post more about the extra things we're doing after they've kicked in properly.

Posted by Adrian at 05:46 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Climate Chaos

Did anyone else watch the David Attenborough documentaries Are we changing planet earth? and Can we save planet earth? I wasn't expecting to learn too much from them, as I think I've got a pretty good awareness of the issues and some of the solutions, so I was shocked at the impact watching them had on me. They really brought home just how big an issue global warming is, and how important it is that we start to act now.

With the entire BBC Climate Chaos season and Al Gore's film, it feels like we're reaching a tipping-point of public opinion - but I suspect that I'm noticing these things because of my "green tendencies", and in fact most of the country (and the world) are largely unaware of the size of the problem facing us.

I think the BBC should make the documentaries freely available for download on its website. Surely it would be a masterpiece of public service "broadcasting", and a perfect way to promote the Creative Archive? Does anyone have David Attenborough's email address...?

Posted by Adrian at 12:39 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 05, 2006

Defending Against The Clones

Now I don't know enough about Sheffield to say whether these ideas and claims are realistic, but I think it's a superbly written manifesto and call-to-arms in the defence against the homogonisation of British towns and cities and the rise of "clone town Britain".

"Have the balls to run with a big idea."

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December 22, 2005

Give Me A Future I Can Believe In

Over at the London Review of Books there's a rather interesting essay - The Destruction of the Public Sphere - about the political landscape of the UK.

I think Ross McKibbin, the author, is particularly insightful in his comments about the NHS and education - "Few ask why the educational and health systems seem now so subject to (failed) permanent revolution, given how stable their regimes were before the late 1970s. One answer is that ideological utopias can never be achieved precisely because they are utopian. The other is that the competitive market simply does not work in such systems."

It's rather depressing reading though, for there's no clear solution to re-connect the electorate with the politicians, and none of the major parties look they might be capable of sorting out the NHS or the education system, and make it somewhere where the actual people staffing the services don't have their enthusiasm and drive ground out of them with bureaucracy, league tables, and performance targets.

Maybe now it's time for some leaders who actually acknowledge that the world isn't perfect, and that it won't be possible to make it so. Then we can stop this futile pursuit of a world where nobody dies, no mistakes are made, and every child is a genius mathematician who can write better prose than Shakespear...

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December 19, 2005

I Want To Praise You Like I Should

Good, evil and technology an essay by Scott Berkun.com

"In essence, he didn’t want to annoy me with praise. Annoy me with praise! Is there a more absurd phrase in the English language?

It made me think how many times I’d seen or read things that mattered to me and how rare it was I’d offered any praise in return."

Offer more praise. Now that might be a good resolution for the new year.

(Thanks go to Tom Smith for pointing out this essay.)

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December 01, 2005

Open Rights Group Inaugural Event

As I said the other day, on Tuesday evening I headed down to London for the Open Rights Group (ORG) digital rights event.

It was an interesting evening. As the group is very new, it is still finding its direction, and choosing its battles; so as a result the meeting was a collection of concurrent group brainstorming sessions. I'm surprised there hasn't been more discussion of the event on peoples blogs, but maybe that will come when ORG wiki is in place and the notes from the meeting are collated there.

Rather than summarize and provide all the links to the speakers, some of the attendees, etc., I'll just point you at this write-up over on Preoccupations.

I still haven't worked out what I'll take from the meeting. These non-technical - political? moral? ethical? - computing issues are important. If nothing else, there'll probably be greater coverage of them in this blog.

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October 24, 2005

Give Peace A Chance

Despite all the doom-and-gloom in the media, there are signs that the world isn't too bad a place after all: the number of armed conflicts has declined by more than 40% since 1992. The deadliest conflicts (those with 1000 or more battle-deaths) dropped by 80%.

TEDBlog: Huge story... largely ignored puts it well:

"The global media also, of course, largely ignored the report. Chances are this is the first you've heard of it. I'm getting more and more angry about this... the strange, unspoken, self-reinforcing alliance between media and public, which results in such a distorted world image being created. Drama, celebrity and parochialism inevitably trump insight, reason, and the global view."

Maybe if we could acknowledge the progress that's we're making, we could be more optimistic about what can be achieved; which would free us to attack the really big problems facing us.

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February 14, 2005

Now This Could Be Handy

Learn About Procrastination and then get help overcoming it. I've definitely been using the "not in the right frame of mind" excuse recently.

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January 10, 2005

The Paradox Of Progress

The Paradox of Progress by James Willis.

This book should be a set text for the induction course of new civil servants. It's also a rather good read for the rest of us. It drew me in and I had it finished in a few hours of non-stop reading, but if were widely read by those implementing our public services then maybe James Willis' Ministry of Leaving Well Alone would come to pass, and the UK would be a better place.

Starting with an analysis of some of the problems facing the powers that be, and the trouble with media-scale hype and an excess of specialism, the author moves on to present the case for generalism and to suggest some solutions; all presented in a very readable style, peppered with anecdotes from his life and his time as a GP.

You can read it all online for free, or buy it in book form for a tenner, signed by the author himself. Maybe we could set-up some sort of adopt-a-public-servant scheme, where we read it online and then our ten pounds is spent sending a copy to a chosen official...

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November 26, 2004

Kill Your Inner Demon

"If you don't like the story your life has become tell yourself a better one."

Bloodletters - Hack Yourself, well worth a read.
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November 01, 2004

Can The Natural Enterprise Save The World?

I haven't read all these links yet, this post is partly so I don't lose what looks like some very interesting reading.

Richard MacManus links to this interesting article by Dave Pollard exhorting the creative types in knowledge management and IT to embrace entrepreneurship as a way to solve the world's problems. A rather bold claim, but it appeals to me as that's one of the long-term aims of my entrepreneurial venture.

From there, I found links to another of Dave's essays, A Prescription For Business Innovation: Creating Technologies That Solve Basic Human Needs, and also Natural Enterprise, the majority of his upcoming book in online form. I have a feeling this will make an interesting companion read to the next book on my reading pile, The Ecology of Commerce.

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July 13, 2004

The Death Of The Best

In days of not so old, when most people didn't stray far from where they were born, everybody could be the best. At something. You are the best baker; I am the best mechanic; she is a farmer, as is he - he is the best farmer, but she is the best singer; your brother is the fastest runner; my cousin is the best climber.

Everyone could find their niche, and make it theirs.

Then we all moved to the global village. Now there are far more people than there are things to be best at. Now there's always someone better than you. At everything.

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