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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March 06, 2017

Interesting Things on the Internet: March 6th 2017

  • Tech and the Fake Market tactic. Anil Dash doing a good job of laying out how the big, fawned-over tech companies tend towards monopolistic behaviour. Obviously we'll break them up, as we have with all the monopolies in the past, the question is how long do we wait before doing so?
  • Lovren: My Life as a Refugee. Although as a Red I might be a bit biased, I think it's good to see a football club putting out a video like this which gives a good perspective on the life and background of a refugee (who then went on to be a top footballer...)
  • Exponential growth devours and corrupts. Compound expectations are as corrosive as compound interest is beneficial.
  • Failing to See, Fueling Hatred. A sensible call to empathy from Danah Boyd. We need more making common cause and less division and infighting, the latter only benefits those already in charge (who are making no progress on making the world better).

And an excellent video from Danish TV...

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January 30, 2017

Interesting Things on the Internet: January 30th 2017

  • Money Talk. Open and honest blog post talking about the costs involved in manufacturing, and the challenges and issues when you try to do things better.
  • Exiting the Vampire Castle. Fantastic writing from the sadly late Mark Fisher.
  • Software Is Politics. Excellent article version of Richard Pope's excellent OSCON 2016 talk.
  • How to Culture Jam a Populist in Four Easy Steps. "it took our leaders ten years to figure out they needed to actually go to the slums and to the countryside. And not for a speech, or a rally, but for game of dominoes or to dance salsa – to show they were Venezuelans too, that they had tumbao and could hit a baseball, could tell a joke that landed. That they could break the tribal divide, come down off the billboards and show they were real."
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January 16, 2017

Interesting Things on the Internet: January 16th 2017

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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!

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January 02, 2017

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Ogilvy On Advertising

I read this years ago, but managed not to publish this blog post. I've just come across the draft again, so rectifying that mistake.

Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy ("Ogilvy on Advertising" on OpenLibrary "Ogilvy on Advertising" on BookBrainz) was an easy and enjoyable read. It's a pretty short book, but packed with lots of nuggets of interest.

Page 7

When I write an advertisement, I don't want you to tell me that you find it 'creative'. I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product.

Page 12

If you cannot afford the services of professionals to do this research, do it yourself. Informal conversations with half-a-dozen housewives can sometimes help a copywriter more than formal surveys in which he does not participate.

Page 16

Big ideas come from the unconscious. This is true in art in science and in advertising. But your unconscious has to be well informed, or your idea will be irrelevant. Stuff your conscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process. You can help this process by going for a long walk, or taking a hot bath, or drinking half a pint of claret. Suddenly, if the telephone line from your unconscious is open, a big idea wells up within you.

Page 19

'If you and your competitors all make excellent products, don't try to imply that your product is better. Just say what's good about your product - and do a clearer, more honest, more informative job of saying it.

Page 20

'Search the parks in all your cities.
You'll find no statues of committees.'

Page 24

The Benton & Bowles agency holds that 'if it doesn't sell, it isn't creative.' Amen.

Page 31

At the start of your career in advertising, what you learn is more important than what you earn.

Page 35

In your day-to-day dealings with clients and colleagues, fight for the king, queens and bishops, but throw away the pawns. A habit of graceful surrender on trivial issues will make you difficult to resist when you stand and fight on a major issue.

Page 42

[on applying for a job]
Be personal, direct and natural
You are a human being writing to another human being. Neither of you is an institution. You should be businesslike and courteous, but never stiff and impersonal.

Page 48

Brains? It doesn't necessarily mean a high IQ. It means curiosity, common sense, wisdom, imagination and literacy. Why literacy? Because most communication between agencies and clients is in writing. I don't suggest that you have to be a poet, but you won't climb the ladder very high unless you can write lucid memoranda.

Page 60

Above all, listen. The more you get the prospective client to talk, the easier it will be to decide whether you really want his account. A former head of Magnavox treated me to a two-hour lecture on advertising, about which he knew nothing. I gave him a cup of tea and showed him out.

Page 67

Don't keep a dog and bark yourself. Any fool can write a bad advertisement, but it takes a genius to keep his hands off a good one.

Page 71

On the average, five times as many people read the headlines as read the body copy. It follows that unless your headline sells your product, you have wasted 90 per cent of your money.

The headlines which work best are those which promise the reader a benefit - like a whiter wash, more miles per gallon, freedom from pimples, fewer cavities. Riffle through a magazine and count the number of ads whose headlines promise a benefit of any kind.

Headlines which contain news are sure-fire. The news can be the announcement of a new product, an improvement in an old product, or a new way to use an old product - like serving Campbells' Soup on the rocks. On the average, ads with news are recalled by 22 per cent more people than ads without news.

Page 80

Do not, however, address your readers as though they were gathered together in a stadium. When people read your copy, they are alone. Pretend you are writing each of them a letter on behalf of your client. One human being to another, second person singular.

Page 138

Some copywriters, assuming that the reader will find the product as boring as they do, try to inveigle him into their ads with pictures of babies, beagles and bosoms. This is a mistake. A buyer of flexible pipe for offshore oil rigs is more interested in pipe than anything else in the world. So play it straight.

Page 144

Next to the positioning of your product, the most important variables to be tested are pricing, terms of payment, premiums and the format of your [direct] mailing.

Page 161

Keep in mind E. B. White's warning, 'When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.'

Page 163

What price should you charge for your product? This is one of the most important questions which confront marketers, but, as far as I know, research cannot answer it.

Page 170

It is usually assumed that marketers use scientific methods to determine the price of their products. Nothing could be further from the truth. In almost every case, the process of decision is one of guesswork.

The higher you price your product, the more desirable it becomes in the eyes of the consumer. Yet when Professor Reisz of the University of Iowa tried to relate the prices of 679 brands of food products to their quality, he found that the correlation between quality and price was almost zero.

Page 202

[quoting ad-man Leo Burnett]

'Bug let me tell you when I might demand that you take my name off the door. That will be the day when you spend more time trying to make money and less time making advertising.

'When your main interest becomes a matter of size just to be big, rather than good, hard, wonderful work.'

Page 215

Billboards represent less than 2 per cent of total advertising in the United States. I cannot believe that the free-enterprise system would be irreparably damaged if they were abolished. Who is in favor of them? Only the people who make money out of them.

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December 21, 2016


Having looked back through a few previous entries in preparing to write this, I'm going to start linking them together. Not that it's hard to find the old ones, given they're all on the same date, but at fifteen years it's starting to build a collection of music that shows what I'd love to have shared over the years, and how that changes. So, from this year... previously.

Two tracks this year.

BADBADNOTGOOD's "In Your Eyes" (feat. Charlotte Day Wilson). More of a laid-back summer groove, but one I've listened to lots this year.

And then a more recent addition. Julia Jacklin's "Don't Let the Kids Win" is more reflective but similarly fantastic.

There's also a great even more stripped-down acoustic version.

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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.

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December 19, 2016

Interesting Things on the Internet: December 19th 2016

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