All posts by tom

Killing Joke / MMXII

Firstly, I have to say, this isn’t going to be an even handed review of Killing Joke’s latest album. I can’t not like everything they do. Well, almost. There were the perm years (1984 – 92 ) when to be honest, they were very crap. But apart from that… EVERYTHING!

Whilst I’d hate to limit any artist to a precise definition of what they are, I’m going to do it anyway. Killing Joke are an alchemic substance made of:

  • the most deliciously distorted guitars – with no solos
  • tribal drums – few cymbals
  • synths with sounds nobody else would use
  • loose and flappy funk bass
  • repetitive, or mesmeric
  • arse-rumbling vocals
  • paranoid

… and so this album is a bit of departure. It’s more melodic than the previous album Absolute Dissent ( most of the time ) harking back at times to the Love Like Blood era with slightly syrupy pad synths sounds and single notes from Geordie Walker on guitar.

The opening track, Pole Shift is a wonderful 8mins 57seconds long! This is where Killing Joke should be heading, day long albums would suit me.

Fema Camp has echoes of the Glitter Band for me.. that sort of slow swaggering basic stuff.

The opening bars of Rapture are Requiem and Exorcism all over again… Synths set the scene and noise follows. Dancey. Love it. Similarly Colony Collapse, which (is this just me) sounds glam. I could imagine Gary Glitter ( the shit ) coming out stamping in diamante to this. I love the weirdly extended chorus vocal on this song – but it needed a mad harmony ( trust me Jaz ).

Corporate Elect (live) is a lovely heavy song – but very simple. It doesn’t half remind me of Bauhaus’ Lagatija Nick (Top of the Pops).  Go listen… can you hear it?

I don’t think I like In Cythera at all. I think it may because the lyrics are basically quiet thankfulness from an old man reflecting on life and ultimately, death. I probably have enough of that going in my own head. Killing Joke are my escape. It’s all just a bit too sentimental… like those moments where you know if you start crying you might never stop.

Primobile has a nicely doom laden synth… backed up with CHRISTMAS BELLS? What…

Glitch reuses an old Killing Joke riff. Which is a shame because I like the rest of the song.

Trance. I wonder what this would sound like with more old style Joke drumming from Big Paul? The song, particularly the bass line reminds me of really early Turn To Red era stuff – indicating that they “made it up on the spot”. Which is OK.

All Hallow’s Eve opens like a Rolf Harris number. I the lumbering rhythm with Jaz’s vocals at the end. But it sort of plods.

A New Uprising. Opens like all good Killing Joke songs should. Bonkers synth, joined by noise and Jaz’s growls.

Overall. This album doesn’t have enough bite for me, and when it’s soft, it’s not soft enough. Of course I like it but I’d struggle to pick two that I’d be happy slotting into regular Killing Joke gig.  It’s not that I don’t want Killing Joke to never change and keep re-releasing their 2nd and 3rd albums in rehash form ( except that, deep down, we know I do ).

Given that Killing Joke seem to be ramping up their output, this is a great album. It doesn’t have to be perfect, I just have to go along with what they’re trying to achieve… And because I know ( Apocalypse willing ) that there’ll be another album next year… Sooner maybe…

So. Keep up the good work. Don’t make it better, just make it faster.






Prograph – Back in the Day

You’ll never guess what. Someone actually asked what Prograph was like back in the day. No, really, they did. Here goes…

To begin with, I must put my cards on the table. I’m not, nor have ever really been “a programmer” as such. Which I think may be where some of the value might be in my Prography reminiscences.

To put it all in context. It was probably around 1997 or 1998. The internet has just happened. Up until then I was lucky enough to be working in a pretty incredible research lab trying to make the craziest educational software we could come up with. We used HyperCard a tool so beautiful it still makes me cry. Although I say “used”… Sam, Richard, Kris and Stephen were our proper programmers… I tended to join in excitedly, but mainly made black & white graphics or icons.

By 1997 we’d made what you’d call a CMS ( Content Management System ) in HyperCard. It made making web sites easy. So easy that school kids did it, in their Mosaic browsers and even won awards. I remember one class project that was a site about World War II, that just grew and grew. You could start to see what all the fuss about HyperText was.

But HyperCard was struggling to deliver the web pages fast enough. Our real programmer had moved on and I started looking at Prograph, a tool for visual programming. Being a bit artsy, I loved the visual bit. But also, rumour had it that, once compiled, Prograph code could run as fast a C++. There was no way I could ever learn C++, but the idea of creating funny flow charts seemed doable.

So. For what looking back was quite a prestigious project funded by the DTI (UK government) I started creating a tool called Spinalot. My only other experience with doing this sort of thing was hacking AppleScript CGIs with Filemaker. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I also had to learn HTTP and SQL ( Prograph could talk to a tiny little database called dtF ). I started work and made a prototype web environment, in which people could fill out a profile, join in discussions, put post-it notes on pages, create web pages and send messages to each other. Yes, it was Facebook for kids and it was 1998ish.

Here’s the bits I, to this day can still go glassy-eyed and frothy mouthed about Prograph and how wonderful it was…

Adding comments didn’t alter your code in ANY way. This meant you could comment something to death and nobody minded, they could be hidden. People even used to sort of DTP their comments. THIS meant people DID comment. This meant I had a leg up in figuring things out. Oh, parameters were commentable too, so if you called “/Do This Thing” you’d be  prompted say for an <object> and a <number>… Wow!

You could “code going forward”. This was a weird one. You simply create a few connected method call, with inputs and outputs and run your code, stepping through each bit. If the method didn’t exist when the running code got there, it simply asked if you’d like to create it now… which the live code patiently waited. You’d then step on a few more steps and if it errored, step back a bit. The WEIRD part of this was that you often, truthfully wrote code that “ran first time” … kinda.

Scrunching. One of the biggest tricks of Prograph, that I’ve yet to see in other tools like say Yahoo Pipes is scrunching. Or as they called it “Opers to Local”. This was a magic feat where a lump of code could be scrunched into one object. Any visual language without this is doomed, there’s only so much 2D space…. this opens up another dimension where clumps of messy code can be “tidied up” and be left with one input and one output. Very cool.

Pair programming. Great idea… how often do you do it? The visual aspect of Prograph meant that working on a screen together, with people cleverer than me, actually WORKED at the human level. This is hard to explain. Similarly, you could smell bad code… visually 🙂 If with Prograph’s beautiful OO abstraction and scrunching you couldn’t create visually readable code, you were doing something wrong. Obviously.

Having got the Object Oriented bug, the first thing I did was set about creating an object database, not knowing that this was quite a hard thing to do. OK then, it’s impossible. But I made something that resembled an object database to me, not knowing what they were and not able to find anyone who did. It was basically a sort of pickle store that I queried with SQL but got Prograph objects back. It was fast and malleable and crude.

It was around this time that Don Norman, usability god came for a look around our offices on a visit. I showed him my work and asked me to go an work with a quiet genius called Kurt Schmucker in Apple’s Advanced Technology group who was working on some educational web site / Newton (eMate) project. It all seemed very natural at the time, that a non-programming artsy idiot could just get asked to go hang out in the coolest place on earth. Looking back, although Kurt was a Prograph user and advocate, it seemed that each person used their very own programming environment at ATG…. I remember SK8, Lisp, Smalltalk, and Dylan variations and there were others Ive forgotten…

Whilst working with Kurt, he showed me how, if I used HTML templates, rather than pure code to output HTML, that my tool Spinalot could be much more easily adapted. He was right. It seems obvious now but it was genius, trust me. I remember Alex Blanc took my educational community tool and made a ticket sales system out of it. You could sort of do anything that you could conceive of as objects with web pages.

Kurt, at the Prograph conference strongly suggested that if Prograph stored its code differently then it could be used with versioning tools, meaning more people could then work on one project. I didn’t get this, but he was right. Prograph was easy to learn, OO, ran interpreted for degugging and compiled for speed but was geared for “one brain” sized projects.

At the Prograph conference, in Halifax, everyone there seemed to be working on amazing projects. That to me was clue enough that I was using the right tool. Someone had even made a visual Prograph-like spreadsheet ( LKISS ).

On the down side of Prograph, I can’t think of any. Pictorius, the company that made Prograph – described by Kurt as a “boutique language”. bet on Apple’s OpenDoc technology which Apple killed. Trying to stay afloat after this predicament they attempted to make a Windows version… which worked, but seemed somehow to lose their focus… and their users… From a distance it just sort of fizzled out.

In the real world, I’d move jobs and had found the closest textual language to Prograph I could find having tried PHP, Perl and Java… Python. The concept of “open source” was proving itself. With python I could use regular expression libraries or simply download and run tools like Zope that blew my attempts at doing something similar out of the water.

I’m still occasionally hacking with python nowadays, playing with Google App Engine etc.

I used to imagine that one day, if UML compiled to Zope code and was mashed up with Yahoo Pipes that one day, all my Prograph based fervour would mount to something. I’m still waiting.

Prograph, or visual programming, is still the future. Text is very convenient and cheap but crap. All other visual programming environments I tried missed the point somehow, they were locked in 2D space where flow charts just got bigger and messier and less comprehensible. Or worse, they reduce your tools to baby hammers and spanners. Prograph kept everything simple and small, even the big things.

There’s a million other features Prograph had, but I’d need to jog my memory. I do remember demo-ing Prograph to super cool BT research engineers in Marklesham who fell incredulously off their chairs in astonishment. Were Prograph to make a comeback now, I have no idea WHAT it would be. What would you want to make with it? The world has changed so much since then. I lie, I have loads of ideas but they hurt too much 🙂

With Prograph I could create things more complex and simple than I could conceive. This still blows my brain. Prograph was like a brain extension, for me at least. Maybe that’s the point… it let non-programmers create very cool stuff. I’ve always been into that idea.











Shameless Plug for The Dress

This weekend has been incredibly exciting watching Sophie’s latest book, The Dress, make Amazon’s top twenty Kindle bestseller list. It’s been going up and down, and up and down… and up and down. At times it seemed almost cruel of Amazon, watching a chart position and hoping to make sense of it, thinking, “Ah, it’s bound to slow down now as people go to bed” … and seeing the reverse happen.

The highest point it reached in the charts was #11 … tantalisingly close to being a TOP TEN book. It does make you wonder why we place such arbitrary divisions on numbers, I mean, it’s a TOP DOZEN book isn’t it? It’s starting  to slide now.

At one point, it even was higher than We Need To Talk About Kevin, which has a film out, if you hadn’t noticed.

Up to now, I can’t say I’ve been a huge fan of the Kindle. The “it does one thing well” argument always seemed like a cop out of sorts. But Sophie loves hers. It’s increased the amount and variety of things she reads. Before the Kindle she said she didn’t buy certain books because we just don’t have the shelf space.

From a distance, I must say, I do like its battery life, that’s impressive compared to my iPhone which now, on a good day, lasts a day. And I’ve always liked black and white screens, and the Kindle’s is nice. Oh and the price is good too.

But the most exciting thing about the Kindle is not about the device, it’s about the removal of middlemen and what that does. The Dress is self-published, and is one of Sophie’s experiments to find out what all the Kindle fuss was about. Sophie has taught writing, at universities, and online with her Word Sauce courses, and some of her students have gone on to do wonderful things. It was her dad who said to her, “when are you going to do this for yourself?” … and so, partly in response she started getting up earlier every day, and wrote The Dress.

Now, I know nothing about the publishing industry, but you need at least a literary agent and then a publisher to agree that your book is worth the risk of printing and shelf space and the effort of promotion. Getting a book from draft into a shop must take about two years. And that is the successful ones.

And then there’s the overheads to consider. I mean, how many books does a literary agent run with? Ten? A hundred? More? With their wages to pay out of your sales, the more books they work with, the less you get for your money. And whilst publishers seem to often claim that they are shit filters removing the swathes of crap that inevitably gets sent to them, have you walked into any bookshop recently? The HAVE to sell crap by the barrow load. Scale is the only model that works for publishers.

Self-publishing taps neatly into the whole Long Tail meme, which even though I kind of believe, it has always seemed somehow elusive, for me at least. That is to say, most niches have either proved to be too small to be sustainable or big enough not to be considered a niche. But what is becoming clear, probably for any business is that if you can knock out a couple of layers of middlemen, then you stand more than a chance of creating new possibilities. In Sophie’s case that possibility has turned into a reality where,  from start to finish, in six months she has suddenly connected with thousands of new readers.

So what is it that publishers actually do? Especially in a world where high street book sellers are disappearing? And in a world where Sophie is competing with We Need To Talk About Kevin, if only for a few days… Being published by a “proper” publisher has long been the benchmark of quality, but that idea starts looking stupidly snobbish when the publishers themselves start chasing authors they previously turned down once their sales make their work suddenly interesting to them.

It makes you think… not only about what a progressive publisher should be doing, but also about what else a cheap bit of plastic connected to the internet might shake to the foundations next.






Presentations, Collaboration, Co-creation and Engagement

I’ve had an idea lurking for a while now. It’s this.

The “format” of “doing a presentation” is a tried and tested one. It has been around, probably for millennia. Someone turns up, talks for a duration. Sometimes at the end there a questions.

And to some degree it could be said that the format works. We all know what to expect, how to behave ( shut up and laugh at the right moments ) and we leave, hopefully having learnt or gained something. If you were only mildly entertained most people would chalk the experience down as “not a total waste of time”. Sometimes, on the good days, it changes the way you think, blows your mind and changes everything. Most times are not sometimes.

For the presenter, a presentation is, pretty much a known entity. Often a presentation has been rehearsed or performed before, being tweaked and improved as it goes.


So, if the presentation format works, why fix it?

I don’t really want to change the presentation format as such, but what I’d like to try are some experiments to see if by doing things only slightly differently that we end with a totally different outcomes… for the speakers, for the audience and for the wider world of interested people.

And much of the thrust of this comes from the huge pools of potential that, to me at least, seem un-tapped…

Firstly, there’s the technology: Technology is great isn’t it? And yet most of the time it’s only used to project the Powerpoint slides of the speaker. Some people argue that using slides has hobbled the presentation format and we’ve all been there squirming when someone reads ( badly ) their badly written slides.

I’ve been to some conferences where they display a Twitterfall using a shared conference #hashtag. This can sometimes let the audience ask questions or suggest links. In general it is disruptive because the speaker wasn’t planning on speaking about that then, or because some idiot like me has posted a crap gag.

The problem with technological augmentation of conferences is that it often just makes it worse. I haven’t seen QR codes used at a conference yet. I live in fear. The issue with adding technology… whatever it is… to a conference like event is that in order to accommodate it, the event ( or the event format ) has to change. Slapping technology around normally doesn’t help matters.

But the most obvious problem with technology at a presentation is that it isn’t playing to technology ( or even peoples’ strengths) because it needs to exist in real time… and to be honest, I’d rather set my attention on the speaker than start pecking at an ipad.

Technology, in this case, probably works best asynchronously… before and after the event, not during.

So typically, before the presentations, the presenters may forward their PowerPoint slides. That’s it. The sum total of “using technology” to support the event. Some posher conferences might have a simple site where the speakers and/or delegates are listed so you can nosey around a bit, but this is far from the norm. So if presenters turn up with their slides on a USB stick… then, despite there being ( allegedly ) a whole heap of ways of working together online, presenters either choose not to or can’t.

Surely there must be SOME technology that we might want to use BEFORE a conference/presentation events more than an email with directions in?


Secondly, I believe in people and collaboration: Sure, there are some excellent, charismatic speakers out there but I also like hearing from reluctant speakers too. They may be talking about their life or their work or their passion – it doesn’t matter. I’ve seen and enjoyed too many people like this to think that the slick Steve Jobs delivery is the only show in town.

I also believe, or know, I’m not sure which that lots of people do their best work in collaboration. Often people genuinely don’t think they have a story worth sharing. It’s the “why would anyone be interested in little ol’ me – I’ve been been training hamsters to juggle for years” syndrome.

So if it’s a given that there’s oodles of technological opportunities just lying around AND that there are more inspirational people than the shining polished show offs … what can we do with those two surpluses to stir things up, maybe do something better.


Lastly, I believe in people and collaboration again: Maybe it’s because I’m a big-mouth AND a chicken that I find myself in the audience at a presentation and want to participate more. I may not have anything earth shattering to say, maybe I just want to add a link to what is being said, a quick heads-up type thing but the current presentation format ( except for the twitterfall ) doesn’t really allow that. It’s just not allowed. You are here to listen and shut up.

Again, I’m left thinking that there’s a huge potential here, the audience, just being wasted or at best ignored… and surely, shouldn’t technology be able to allow contribution without ruining the experience.


So What Can We Do About It? Some ideas…

I’d like to be clear about this. I don’t have a clue what I’m trying to do here, except that it’s something to do with the audience being less separated from the speakers, the speakers are more connected or aware of each other and the audience and that the best people are chosen, and they are encouraged ( maybe via collaboration ) to produce their best work… and all of this is enable by some technology… somehow…

What it boils down to is a number of simple interventions, that, by doing things differently, might be incredibly useful… So here goes some ideas…

  • What if everyone shared their slides and a heap of URLs before the event? Maybe instead of slides, what if people posted ideas on PostIt notes on a shared wall? Like this. Would anyone take part? Would it change anything?
  •  What if the speakers could poll the audience before hand… not in a “does anyone like ice cream way?” … but in a more involved way, that might include more in-depth free-text responses? Would it work?
  • What if, rather than an event being a collection of presentations or experiences, the end result was a book, with chapters that we would all be co-creating.
  • What if there was the idea of an over-arching META-narrative and so rather than the speaker taking up their allocated time-slot, they would fit what they wanted to say into a bigger story.. maybe speaking more at the beginning, a little in middle and just for one slide at the end.
  • What if the speakers had to introduce the next speaker up… with some insight?
  • What if, rather than working on individual slides, the speakers worked on ONE HUGE PREZI presentation? Would your content occupying the same 2D space as someone else force new connections to happen?
  • What if people “pair presented”? Presenters would be matched by people designated to ask questions, join in, maybe refer to the twitterfall for inspiration. I saw Dan Catt and someone else from the Guardian do this and they were brilliant… I wonder if this would work if done cold?

Now of course you might be thinking that all this sounds like a lot of work ( for the speakers ) but I’m not convinced it is.. it might not take much time at all, but it IS a very different way of working – that needs to happen before the actual get together.

My belief is this… that if you can find half a dozen people interested in presenting, who are themselves interested and interesting then isn’t a total waste of the latent potential of 6×6 peoples’ shared power if you simply ask them to fill a time slot?

Getting six people together doesn’t guarantee wonderfulness. Some people don’t play that way. It could end up in a fight ( it often does ) but there is always that potential lurking. I’ve seen it happen too many times not to believe that it is probably there more often than not.

So, finally finally, two questions…

1. Does anyone have any more ideas for ways you might fiddle with the presentation format to get more out of it, to have more fun?

2. Who’s in?







Sophie’s New Book: Ruby Slippers

Shameless plug for Sophie who has a number of books coming out in the near future and it just so happens that this is the first.

It’s a novella for sale on Amazon for the Kindle called Ruby Slippers. I can’t really tell you what it’s about because I first read it about 6 or 7 years ago and it’s changed since then.

Last night she was so excited that it was actually selling that she didn’t get any sleep whatsoever. Let’s hope it continues….



Take Two Google Accounts Into Shower?

Did you know that you can be logged into two Google accounts at once? This is particularly handy if your organisation uses Google Apps AND you have a personal Google account.

All you have to do to enable this feature is to go to your account settings and edit your Multiple Sign On setting IN BOTH ACCOUNTS. You’ll find you need to log out of the other account when you try to do this or because you have one foot in an multiple account world and one in the old fashioned single account world.

You’ll also find very funny things happening if you only do one. Funny if you like being logged out half way through editing a document.

Enabling the Multiple Sign On setting means you will get the ability to “Switch Accounts” from your account menu.

Warning: Being logged into two Google accounts is a bit cludgey. 

Once you’ve set yourself up to access two accounts, you’ll probably start coming across this dialog a lot. I do…

It’s a corker isn’t it? EVERY time I encounter it it twists my melon man because it’s almost not a double negative somehow isn’t it? The ordering of the two accounts in the message seems wrong ( or confusing ) somehow.

How was I to know which account I was trying to access my mail with? What SHOULD happen when I click “Cancel” – as it happens it redirects to a Google search page ( huh? ). I really don’t care what Google thinks I’m logged in with ( that’s their problem) , I simply want to do the thing I wanted to do.

And conceptually, Google are introducing a subtly different idea here, and that is, that although I can be logged into two accounts, when doing something like “reading mail”, there is the concept of there being the currently active account. I know this might technically be the case, and that instead of “reading my mail” I’ve actually tried to access a “read my mail URL that doesn’t exist for the other account” but the interface suggests that that is what might be going on.

Shouldn’t the dialog message go…

  • You are logged in with tom.smith@york etc..
  • But you need to be logged in to remarkability@ etc

[ OK – Go ahead and us to remarkability@ ] [ CANCEL – and take me to Google ]

A simple re-ordering, stating explicitly will happen when you click a button would make this crappy, mind-boggling UI much better. Or is it just me?

I’m reminded of the excellent work of Jef Raskin ( go read Humane Interface now ) because what he regularly managed to pull off was looking at something as ordinary as a error dialog and find a way to break conventional thinking and make it better. And using his “interface notation” idea, he’d be able to prove it was better…

So, with that in mind, and thinking about it for less than 5 minutes ( it might need work ) … isn’t this version better and more humane? It’s at least a bit clearer what is happening and what you might do about it.. the green is meant to show what you probably want to do as the default too. This would of course be off brand and optional.

Or is it just me?

My only reason for posting this is knowing that if York “go Google” then without a doubt we will have a shed load of people who want to keep using their personal Google accounts and make use of the Multiple Log In setting.

I have knack ( based on years of working on my own personal stupidity ) for knowing what will confuse people and I’m really not looking forward to trying to explain this one over and over again. I’m not sure if I’ve got the right solution, but at least it’s a bit less-is-more-y.

p.s I’ve just discovered that Google + doesn’t want to play nicely with the whole switching accounts idea… sigh…










Thinking Digital 2011


Another week, another conference. Last week it was Thinking Digital in the Sage on the Tyne in Newcastle. The Thinking Digital conference was appealing to because of it’s sheer geeky ecclecticism, from big social media businesses to blue sky technology research and all the soft and chewy bits in-between.

The conference started with what they called Thinking Digital University where I signed up for the session on the visualisation language with Jer Thorp ( who has done a heap of the Wired infographics I believe ). The day was intensive but incredibly useful, it gave the ability to pretty much do all I would want to do with Processing before going to ask an adult for help. Jer emphasised the playful, exploratory nuances of the tool saying Processing gives you “a licence to suck”. There’s a tagline I can live with.

The next day I opted for the far more scary workshop… Singing. I was terrified and sweated profusely. It was great fun and although we didn’t get to work individually at all, which is what I’d expected and feared, we did end on “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” in three part harmony. The whole experience was strangely uplifting and refreshingly un-digital.

The conference began with me nearly passing out in the “cheap seats” up top. I boiled, then bailed and found a cooler chair in the “Live Lounge” which streams the conference to the people sensible enough to find the comfy chairs.

I can’t say I was too impressed with the initial sessions. Things weren’t boding well. Gerd Leonhard was presenting remotely and both for this content and style of presentation just didn’t work. It seemed stripped of life somehow, the ideas like washed up Wired covers with the meat of the articles missing. Maybe it was just that, for this crowd, futurology is a bread and butter subject and difficult to say anything insightful about. The session with the Tech Journalist seemed to work better, maybe because it was less formal and more chatty in a gossipy way. It was definitely funnier.

Atau Tanaka from Newcastle University told of a strange project that involved taking “digital” instruments to deepest, darkest Africa, having a party then leaving ( WITH their generator ). This talk actually got some of the delegates around me angry that this sort of stuff is paraded as research when to be fair, “holiday with computers” might have been a more honest description. I do often find issue with lots of arts/digital crossover stuff just because a lot of it isn’t very good. At all.

Walter de Brouwer gave a personable pointer to where medical data-logging is heading when we’re all monitoring everything all the time.

Nicole from Ogilvy Labs alluded to the cool stuff they’re doing and then showed a “sizzle” showreel… which again, could have actually been interesting but the surface was lacking in any take-away insights. Some of the projects skimmed over could have had depth, I know, I know, they’re in advertising, but instead we were given product rather than process.

Bobby Paterson shared his social media platform for helping people to develop “happy habits”… And whilst I totally subscribe to his broad goals, the whole idea of spending a time on a computer to be happier runs against my grain. In fact, I’d go as far to say as soon as all your friends and followers are explicitly demonstrating how happy they are is exactly the point I’d consider topping either myself or them.

Conrad Wolfram showed off some of the things that people as clever as Conrad can do with Wolfram Alpha. He put forward the idea that Wolfram Alpha is an “Answers Engine” rather than a “Search Engine”… and I think he has a point. I sometimes get the feeling that Wolfram Alpha isn’t for mortals though. Idiots like us unable even to properly define a question often struggle to get the answer we’d like.

Sam Martin presentation about “man spaces” left me wanting to go make one and fill it with musical instruments, paint and computers.

Steven Bathiche showed the “out there” research that Microsoft is doing, making computing surfaces and full-screen 3D windows and kitchen worktops that do the things sci-fi kitchens should do.

Nancy Duarte, one of the most obviously gifted public speakers came on and told us how she was raped as a child, then wove it into an explanation of story arcs – the classic: a. Likable character b. Overcomes obstacles and then c. Emerges transformed. She then went on to show how she’d broken down lots of successful and persuasive speeches and found common elements in them.

Erin McKean delighted everyone with her work on Wordnik, an online dictionary.

Heather Knight  ( wore bright tights) and demo’ed her work and art related to Robots.

On the second day, having had “chair issues”, I discovered quite by accident that the front row had little cushions on them. Not knowing these seats were meant for the speakers I availed myself of less arse ache and was lucking enough to sit next to Matthew Postgate ( an old colleague from years ago ) who is now head of research at the BBC. It was nice to catch up and to get a peek at some of the interesting experiments. One that caught my imagination ( which means it’d probably never work ) was a sort of projection of what you would see from the corner of your eye around the TV screen with the aim to make a show more immersive. The projection was more abstract but requires a different form of film shooting … but results in effects like looming shadows on your lounge wall when someone is being followed. It was sort of a half way house between a full surround cinema and brought up a number of artistic possiblities ( if not answers ) that could be fun… They’d even experimented with using the peripheral projection stuff to show flashback sequences, almost subliminally… And whilst I don’t think this will necessarily go anywhere useful, I still found it fun to chew over what you might do with this approach.


Carlos Ulloa a 3D designer revealed how they’d made an iPhone app to design flowers and just let it loose on the world. I’m not sure where this was about, but somehow, the attention to detail, the sheer lack of definable purpose and charm somehow carried this along. I think Carlos kind of admitted that he didn’t know… and somehow it just didn’t matter.

Casper Berry tried to convince the audience that most of the worrying about uncertainty in our lives is misplaced simply because life generally slaps such unpredictable suprises in our way that our fears and plans pale in comparison. I’m not too sure about this myself…

I enjoyed Chris Hatala from Massive Black ( check their logo… snigger! ) who’s worked on the special effects for Lord of the Rings and the like. I loved how he de-mystified the animation work he does, making it seem acheivable by mere mortals but also flagged up how much of a team effort creating special effects is. There is one guy who is a 3D cloth expert… they just do cloth. Yes, cloth ( maybe hair too… which as it happens is just strands of cloth ).

Ewan McIntosh revealed some of the work, from a social media perspective, how he helped the SNP come to power in Scotland. Great talk

Vincent Li shared his research about angiogenesis, which looks at how certain foods help starve cancer cells of blood.

Jer Thorp’s ( the processing guy ) showed some of his visualisations of a ret-tweet, which showed how a news story might have a life and then be taken up and re-promoted by different communities. He also worked on the 9/11 commemoration pools and helped to layout ( or visualise ) the names of the victims. The families had asked that poeple have their names “near their friends” rather than be arranged alphabetically, which was strangely moving somehow.

Dan Serfaty runs a competitor to Linked in,  Viadeo, which takes the approach that one size doesn’t come close to fitting all and that each region needs a business networking site that takes the local customs and cultures into account.

The only presentation that made me swear ( in a good way ) was Tan Le who showed some kit with which your brain waves could be used to control software ( or a wheelchair or a car ). Someone from the audience actually moved a box on screen by thinking about moving a box.

Tom Scott closed the conference in typical Digital Johhny Ball stylee showing how easy it was to trawl to social media accounts, filch and collate data and ultimately end with an entire conference saying hi on your ansaphone. Scary fun. Now go check your Facebook settings and delete your Twitter account.



The Thinking Digital conference was much more professional than I’d expected. I think I’ve got used to more grassroots events of late and I wasn’t sure how I’d take a more regular, old fashioned conference format… but I loved it and would definitely recommend it to anyone. I particularly like Herb’s friendly and laid back compering. I think he should make a few bedtime audio books.

My only minor criticism of the event can be applied to most events and that is to do with the information layout of the programme. This is ALWAYS an issue for me ( it gets worse when you’re attending two or three other conferences too ). For example, the workshop sessions were listed in a random order with varying date formats 25/05/11 and Thursday, 24th May etc… That nearly made my head explode then and there.



p.s I was going to nicely interweave my photos with the relevant paragraphs but the UI of WordPress has beat me ( what a pile of poo it is ) … so here in one lovely splurge are some pictures.




FutureEverything 2011 #futr

This week I’ve been lucky enough to go to FutureEverything 2011, a UK arts, digital, media conference-cum-festival even WIRED have heard of and enthuse about it. Any event THAT arse-achingly cool and I’m sure to fit right in.

My hopes for attending this event were probably way too unrealistic, like deciding what you want before you visit a jumble sale… I was looking for inspiration. Looking for inspiration can be a dangerous thing… You might not find it, or worse, you might find it where you didn’t want it to be in a shape too awkward to carry home with you.

The whole event began beautifully. I stumbled off the train and over a footbridge and straight into the FutureEverything (FUTR) exhibition. I love the feel of easy, relaxed and accidental discovery. In the exhibition, apart from the free vodka cocktails were some pieces that really made me think.

A darkened area combined bamboo, a Kinect and projection and a light that you passed your hand through. What intrigued me about this is that although it kind of interacted with you, it was difficult to work out WHAT it was doing. It was really pretty anyway… ( the picture below doesn’t do it justice ).


A collection of “masterpieces” with nutritional facts were very witty. Although they did kind of make the same gag over and over I still liked them ( I have a short memory and a good gag is a good gag).

There was a music piece ( you had to don earphones) that was, if I remember rightly, based on weather patterns and data. I’m always a bit dubious of scores that look like this below. They make me think that really the composer is just playing with a load of nonsense and coloured toys then when you wheel in a trailer load of gifted musicians they make the squiggles sound wonderful.

I think I’m saying if weather REALLY had been turned into music, then maybe today’s weather data could be “played” and sound nice. Or to put it another way, whilst there is that interpretation going on, it feels like cheating, as if a new language or mode hasn’t really been created, but just alluded to. Like saying, we have a secret language that you can’t quite fathom and you discover they can’t either. Anyway, despite these misgivings which I find difficult to articulate, it was great.

Ooh, one more thing I just remembered ( I have a great memory ) is that whilst it was playing I would have loved to see where we were in the score, maybe a playhead or something.

The box below has a counter and the text, “This artwork has been visited XXXX times”. Lots of people peeped in the hole and some people didn’t register, some registered two or three times. Made me laugh out loud.

There was a “money” oriented idea which I didn’t quite get. I think it was that there was a game where you bought bonds, but were only given half the ticket. Finding who had the other half would win you a cash prize. I’m afraid this piece raised my heckles and I let loose my full prejudices. It sounds like one of those ideas that needs everyone to take part before it works, one of those wild and lame fantasies that creatives knock out. But, there must have been more to it than that because it won the FUTR Award… I wonder what it was. I’d love to be wrong.


Of all the pieces, the one that intrigued me most was the cup. It sat their quietly doing something with data ( see the inside of it ) but I’m not sure what. I couldn’t guess what those lines meant or why they were there.


Later, we saw this guy. He was playing drums and a xylophone that was wired to things that made noises. I loved him. He had a helmet that flashed.

So that was all that happened in the first few hours apart from meeting a heap of interesting people over terrible but free “cocktails”.

The conference proper got off to a strange start with David Bausola from Philter Phactory demoing Weavrs, which are put simply twitter bots finding things on the internet, like this. I’m not sure I got this at all… it was an artsy muddle around notions of identity, avatars and alter egos which despite being nice in itself failed to get across more than muddy message… It felt like an exploration that was interesting but opaque and vague. Maybe just too subtle for me.

What I thought it could be is a great alibi provider in that, not only could your alter ego be checking out places, leaving a trail across Google Maps, stealing other peoples’ geo tagged pictures, whilst doing so it would also be interacting with other “hard to prove that they didn’t exist” collections of people.


Chris Speed from Edinburgh College of Art told us that THINGS aren’t things, they are events (or occurances) and showed us how his work involved adding stories to objects (with VR codes) and adding stories to “placeholder objects”. I liked his ideas around things as mediums, literally revealing the ghosts behind things. In a way, although exciting, it sort of just points at the importance of story in us humans.


Elizabeth Turner demoed her excellent visualisation work with the Tanzanian goverment, making budgets transparent and navigable.


Luis Bettencout, Santa Fe Institute, gave a great presentation about understanding cities. Why they exist, what they are doing and when is a city a city. He asked “Why do people choose opportunity and squalor over subsistence and rural living?”… what IS going on. He mentioned that New York’s economy is bigger than Russia’s. Tokyo bigger than India.Double a cities size and GDP grows by 160%. Violent crime grows by only 16%. Is this right? Did I get the numbers way off there?

At the end of it I think we felt that maybe we weren’t special talented snow-flakes but just data points in an algorithm, which is both liberating and disappointingly humbling at the same time.

@TomChatfield talked around identity, how the Sutton Hoo helmet is a digital identity object in an analogue world, and how control is lack of control… I’m not sure I got his analogue vs digital metaphors though.

There was a journalism panel  with Paul BradshawChris Taggart (Openly Local, OpenCorporate). It was great to see Martin Belam (Guardian), who always talks a whole heap of creative common sense ( I don’t know how he does it ).

MegPickard and Dan Catt gave a delightfully engaging presentation about their data-oriented work at The Guardian, at one point saying something along the lines that most “social media isn’t social at all, you are not collaborating with friends – you are ruthlessly exploiting the pain of others, of strangers.”… pointing to TripAdvisor and Amazon reviews. They showed their excellent work of tracking stories, making that data usable by journalists and ultimately driving novel interfaces like Guardian Zeitgeist.

Kars Alfrink mentioned the horror that is Kidzania ( I’d not heard of it)  in a talk that argued against those crappy games that creatives knock out… He said ” Life doesn’t need to be more like game”… and alluded to more life-affirming, positive alternatives.

@jamesbridle was hilarious. His talk, Where The Robots Work, looked at how the robots are moving in to real estate near you. He called data centres the new civic buildings and shared his obsession(s) with them.

In the evening I went to see Dark Dark Dark and Black Heart Procession play in a beautiful chapel.

They sounded like this… totally lovely. I particularly liked the acoustics in the chapel where the “Ooh ooh ooh” bits sort of resonated, gaining a life of their own.. it sounded like this…




Sue Thomas shared some of her research about Why Geeks Go Camping. , pointing to the fact that maybe all geeks aren’t all stay-inside sorts at all… I was interested in her chats with the O’Reilly team – looking to inject some hope into the digital industry after 9/11 with their FooCamp experiments.

At the We Are Forest talk, I liked the “Every Project Should Have a Theme Tune” angle they began with. They showed us their phone-experience piece in which about ten people would dial into a conference call that would direct their movements, repeat their utterances back at them and create a strangely orchestrated event about 20 minutes long.

Ela Kagel (below) shared her work in a Free Culture Incubator in Berlin sharing their different approaches to helping make sure that culture happens including crowd-funding approaches.


I then saw the people at DIYgeo, who are engaging the public in the process of Biology. Not only were their projects fascinating, but also scary. Scary because every project they work on has all sorts of legal and ethical and financial and political implications. The guy pictured below is from Machester’s “Novel Technology” department in Bio research.


I watched a session that seemed to be agonising about the models for replicating community initiatives, sort of saying that existing business models don’t apply ( franchising, sale, subscription etc) because it’s all about the community. I felt that that was the point, that foisting your (perhaps excellent) solution to (in this case) helping people with disabilities into self-employment, merely needs to be shared and interpreted anew by whoever follows your lead… like the Open Source approach that you were alluding to.

Ironically , I came to the event looking for inspiration and by accident ended with my head in the clouds.

Lists Made Social

A million years ago, I was asked to help someone improve a business listing site… and one idea I came up with was, in essence, Listly (see below). It’s not for me to say I’m a genius …. waits …. anyway… ahem. It was my belief that people would rank their favourite chip shops.. this was the North of England remember, not your fancy San Fran.

We had loads of lovely ideas how it’d work but I have to say, the Listly team have done an excellent job with heaps clever features. And who doesn’t like a list? Go on… who? Name them…


Betta Kultcha VII Review

Last night was Betta Kultcha VII at the Corn Exchange, Leeds. It was a night of Pecha Kucha 20:20 style presentations ( that’s 20 slides, 20 second each) . I won’t go into too much detail about the presentations in case you get to see them at other events. But the evening was made up of ….


  • @leejackson taking us through the history of scratching and hip hop. With two decks and live demonstrations.
  • @paulruk gave us the story of Tetris, which is essentially that the Maxwell empire is evil.
  • @icanInspire shared his experience of being the son of the first Yorkshire Ripper victim. I was interested in the fact that he’s written a book about it… and now is an *inpirational speaker*.
  • @wiseHomeopath told us to “live in the moment, have a good sob and follow our dreams” . Check.
  • @Manthorp Reviewed the cultural history of men sharing beds (Eric and Ernie etc)… but omitted Bert and Ernie
  • @timineaux Argued for the projector, it’s many and varied uses.
  • @spinface Told us why time travel wasn’t all it is going to be cracked up to be.
  • @mikechitty Shared the work of  artist Tony Earnshaw who said “discovering surrealism was like coming home from a foreign land” and wrote the book “Teach Yourself Ignorance”. I’ll be finding more out about him for sure.
  • @ebsnare Shared why fashion is necessarily female, transient and stuff.
  • @mattedgar I managed to miss because I was in the loo, which is a shame since he’s reliably brilliant.

The presentations were rounded off with four brave souls who spoke to random slides… there were casualties.


At the time I said “This #bettakultcha thing is like middle class variety acts. It’s bloody brilliant“… and I meant that, in the good way.  What an evening of mind-boggling edifying variety. What a venue too… just sitting there, with a beer, looking at the ceiling (aren’t lights ace) was worth the ticket price.

I came away wondering what I’d just been part of. It felt a bit punk rock, in that the performers clambered out of the audience (they were one of us)… it felt educational – in that I learned a lot. It was extremely professional yet had more than a whiff of grassroots about it.

The event was definitely fun but with 150ish people there it also felt like a bit of a phenomenon. Who ARE all these people? Do they all have an arts degree? Can this sizeable turnout be maintained? What if it got bigger?

I had a great time. I’d go on more about it but don’t want to miss getting a ticket for the next one.












Another attempt at the Death of RSS Readers

When I recently wrote about the Death of RSS Readers, it seemed that there was a wave of similar posts around the web (like this RSS is Dying ). A lot of people reacted to these Death of RSS sentiments with Sure, RSS is dead, just like the web is dead) which, for me,  sort of misses the point(s).

I was interested in RSS reading from a teaching perspective. I’m not saying for one minute that RSS is dead as a technology, it’s just that is knowing about RSS really necessary when introducing people to the whole world of Web2.0? Lots of the people I know who use RSS Readers have been using them for at least 5 years, maybe 10. They’ve grown with them, slowly and carefully built up a collection of feeds worth reading. Is this roughly how long it takes to massage and mulch RSS reading into something you like? Given tools like is learning about Google Reader really worth the effort?

I’m sure part of my, and others’ ennui with RSS, or rather news in general was in part similar to how newspapers are woefully slim at Christmas, when you need them most with some time to kill in the post-Boxing Day lull.

In my swapping OPML experiment with Doug and Andy, I noticed they had about 200ish feeds each. I had 200ish feeds too. Is that a natural limit? Is it point where you start to see the phenomenon I noticed whereby with different feeds you can start to receive roughly the same news. Is 200 the point when the benefits of looking for new feeds stop paying off because the news they report starts to overlap with news you already get … from sources whose names you can remember.

Interestingly, I’ve found that by adding BOTH Doug and Andy’s OPML subscriptions to my subscriptions (now 600ish instead of 200ish) I’ve found that it’s breathed a breath of fresh novelty, of similar but different news into my old favourites. Either that or people who make the news are back at work again.

I’ve also found the Feedly iPhone app has helped too (see below) because if RSS Reading can’t be done on the train then you do begin to lose interest too. (And if you are Google Reader user AND a Firefox/Chrome user and haven’t tried Feedly, go give it a go… Paul! )

So, some questions…

Is 200ish just a magic number when it comes to RSS subscriptions? If you use Google Reader, how many subscriptions do you have?

Why is subscribing so binary? Often, you want to hush a feed, rather than unsubscribe forever. Or maybe you only want to hear from a feed if people from your social circle (or network) are into a feed…

Why is there an artificial split between writing and reading? Why is there a separate application, like Delicious, for tagging web pages (that you can also write notes on)?

… and an idea!

Imagine if you will a mashup between Delicious, Google Reader and WordPress. It’s a simple enough idea called “Reading & Writing & Organising”.

All three of those tools share tags, content (posts) and URLs… why not work with them in one place rather than three.

  • You create a blog post, it contains some links and add some tags. The aggregator in the background notices both the links and tags and suggests new content from that site or author, or other content based on the tags. But ultimately you never have to “subscribe” to particular feed.
  • You tag a page as interesting and it shows up, to you, alongside blog posts you’ve written earlier as “maybe of interest. If you start creating a blog post with those tags, those pages will be “to hand”.
  • Whilst reading some news, you share a few items. Adding more text and notes as you go you decide that you’d like to publish this on your blog.

The tags you tag random content out there in the wild internet, the tags you tag “subscriptions” with ( the difference between Delicious and Google Reader starts to blur if you imagine that Delicious had have auto-discovered newer items from the ones you’ve tagged) and the tags you tag your own content with, become, or can become, the same tags.

The random notes you add to tags, can become blog posts… or not.

Your subscriptions are like your “best bits” blogroll.

And all it needs is to blur (and remove the replication of concepts ) Delicious, Google Reader and WordPress… and to remove the separation of reading and writing. As ideas go, it’s about taking stuff out rather than adding stuff in…


A blogroll that auto-subscribed to new items, and was shareable (does anyone really bother with blogrolls anymore?)

Bookmarks that were linked to YOUR WORK… and your news.

A Tag Cloud of news subscriptions… tags AND/OR content.

…. just a thought ….