May 22, 2017

Interesting Things on the Internet: May 22nd 2017

  • The Engineer/Manager Pendulum. Great post on the differences between management and being an engineer. Also describes pretty well how my career has gone - especially earlier on. At STNC, I went from engineer to project manager to software manager (probably the equivalent of VP of Engineering now), then dropped back to engineer with sole responsibility for a key product around the time we were acquired by Microsoft, then became team lead as we built up the networking team around that, and was in line to step up the management chain again but the higher management decided to close down the entire product group instead. Hopping between the two has definitely given me better development practices as well as helping my management skills.
  • Notes from an emergency, the latest talk from Maciej Ceglowski and it's as on the money about tech, its influence on the world, and what we should be doing, as ever.
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May 15, 2017

Interesting Things on the Internet: May 15th 2017

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May 01, 2017

Interesting Things on the Internet: May 1st 2017

I tend not to be quite so overtly political with my postings here, or maybe it's not so partisan, but the recent Tories in particular are responsible for making such a mess of the country that it's important to get rid of them at the looming general election.

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April 17, 2017

Interesting Things on the Internet: April 17th 2017

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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?

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April 10, 2017

What's Wrong With Calendars?

Keeping track of what events are going on in your area is hard. If you're as embedded within the community as I am, you'll generally hear about regular meetup groups when they start, but their visibility can quickly drop if you don't actively seek them out, so you don't know any detail of the topics being covered, nor how active they are. If you're outside the community, discovering that it exists can be near impossible.

When I first moved to Liverpool in 2008 it wasn't too tricky, as there were really only LivLUG and GeekUp available. Three years later as the community grew the list had somewhat filled out and now there are more than ever.

Navigating through this to find the meetups that interest you isn't easy. It's beneficial to the individual meetups if the people most interested in them can find and join them, and the more we can cross-pollinate between different groups and ideas the more it helps the whole community.

As I wrote years back in the blog post Gardening Liverpool's Digital Community:

Events are a way to engineer serendipity - give lots of people with different backgrounds and skills and ideas a reason to mix and get chatting to each other, and interesting stuff will result. I don't think you can, nor should you try to, be more specific than that. Ignite Liverpool is a perfect example of this although I don't think we'll ever know if it's succeeded.

Every now and then someone comes along who wants to help solve the problems. Usually that's in the form of creating a new website where people can add their events. After all, building new websites is fun and there are lots of off-the-shelf parts to make your MVP pretty easy. If you're lucky you'll also get an ical format export for free, so people can add all the events to their calendar.

They tend to get disappointed when I don't enthusiastically embrace the extra work they've given all us event-organisers and ask them if their site can import an ical feed.

If nothing else, hopefully this blog post will serve as at least a partial explanation of my lack of enthusiasm. If you're reading this after I've pointed you here because you've built one of said systems, hello! Sorry to have rained on your parade, but stick around and maybe between us we can make events better for everyone.

Aggregating Events

Collating events together in (yet another ;-) one place is great, but giving event organisers more work to do in just entering their event details into (yet another) web form doesn't help.

Copying information from one place to another and doing things automatically is what computers are really good at. We should use them for that. We've already been here once, with blog posts; we solved that with syndication: RSS and Atom feeds. We need to do the same with events.

There's already an obvious format to use: ical. As ever, Jon Udell has already laid some of the groundwork.

Jon's Elm City project looked to solve just this problem. It also spawned a wiki with details on how to publish and (just as importantly) validate ical feeds.

Sadly Jon has retired the Elm City site, but calagator looks like a good starting point if you want to deploy an aggregator of your own.

The easiest way to generate an ical feed is from a Google Calendar. However, their interface fails to surface one of the key attributes of the ical format: the URL. If we want to share event details widely, it's vital that there's a way to refer people back to the source to get more information (and RSVP or book tickets if applicable).

For the "coming this week" section of the DoES Liverpool #weeknotes we work round it by including the URL in the event description, and the #weeknotes generator script assumes that's the case (and relies on a human checking things over to catch the odd time when it isn't).

It would be good to find a way to generate ical feeds including URLs as easily as Google allows you to generate ones without them.

Add a simple embeddable HTML widget to show an aggregated calendar, and that would let the DoES Liverpool website show a calendar built from the aggregated view of the various meetup.com groups and a Google calendar to mop up any others.

Other Useful Tools

It feels to me that a collection of small tools, all using common, standard data formats for interchange, would be more flexible and useful than integrated do-everything websites.

Being able to collate entries from a collection of ical feeds, and similarly split them up based on keywords or times/dates, etc. would let us wrangle calendars into whatever shapes suits.

Then taking a set of events in as an ical feed and output an HTML file or a collection of HTML files from a template to put on a website... or generating plain text to include in a newsletter... or a set of slides to preview upcoming events in the downtime before/after the presenter at a current event...

We could further enhance things by adding a bit of extra metadata to the meetup's website.

Just like there's RSS autodiscovery, we could take the same approach for pointing machines at our event calendar. Then browser's could—in time—make it easier for people to add it to their calendar and (more commonly, I'd expect) make it easier for related calendar programs to find and consume the calendars.

For some scenarios—I'm thinking particularly of the case where we generate a slide deck to preview/promote upcoming events, and want to include the event logo and maybe a brief description of the meetup it's part of—where some general information about the meetup itself, rather than the specific event, is useful then maybe we could extend/reuse the Twitter and Facebook "card" metadata.

So, those are the sorts of areas that I think are ripe for development. I'm slowly picking at them and collecting anything I build for it over in this calherder github repo.

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April 03, 2017

Interesting Things on the Internet: April 3rd 2017

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March 27, 2017

Interesting Things on the Internet: March 27th 2017

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March 20, 2017

Interesting Things on the Internet: March 20th 2017

  • Putting strings into databases and then taking them back out again. Lovely post about why we need to make tech and coding less scary. In my experience, people using big words and jargon are generally those with less ability to deliver on what they're talking about. My equivalent of "putting strings..." is that I connect strange things to the Internet. I've found that a much more productive answer to "what do you do?" than talking about the Internet of Things.
  • Wealth, risk, and power. There is hope.
  • The Economic Policy Delusion. Country economies aren't like household economies, and the Tories aren't fiscally responsible.
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March 19, 2017

Listening to the Weather

I've been writing up some entries on the MCQN Ltd catalogue today (that in itself is something I'll be writing about at some point, and when I do then entries #ibal155 and #ibal164 will link to the explanations, rather than basic holding pages), including #ibal53, a project I did for Russell Davies to help him with his experiments in background audio.

That reminded me that these days I tend to tell the weather aurally rather than visually.

Not when I want detailed information about the weather, then I look out of the window and often at passing cars' windscreen wipers as they're a good indicator of how heavily it's raining (when it isn't raining heavily enough for that to be obvious).

But for a general ambient awareness of precipitation levels I use my ears. I'm particularly interested in whether or not it's raining because that's the overriding factor in my decision to go for a ride. Cycling in warm, sunny weather is always nice, but I have the correct attire to be equally happy when it's cold or dark or windy. I do end up cycling in the rain a reasonable amount (and do have waterproofs to wear if need be) but that's usually when I skip it.

Both at my desk and at home, I'm near enough to a main road for there to be a background level of road noise, and there is a distinctive difference between the sound of rubber on a dry road and rubber on a wet road.

I do get an additional ambient visual indicator of particularly good days at home. The blinds in my bedroom allow a reasonable amount of daylight through, so I can tell the difference between a sunny and a non-sunny day when I wake up.

And all that reminds me of a conversation I had with Rob Annable. One of the "problems" with his lovely highly-insulated new home is that it ends up a little disconnected from the outside world.

I wonder if you could replicate that with a minor extension to Russell's sound boxes? Add a controllable light source (something a bit like an uplighter, which provides a wash of colour across a wall) to build a single-pixel display with a speaker for background sound. Then it could provide a weather forecast in the same ambient form that I get the current weather.

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