37 Photographs – Sophie Nicholls

Kindle novel

37 Photographs

Once again Sophie has astonished me how she has managed to carve out the time to write another novel. Last time she did it simply by getting up earlier every day – this time it has mainly been written whilst Violetta sleeps during the day.

Go buy your copy while there’s still some left :-)

37 Photographs – Sophie Nicholls.

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Thinking about thinking… and about symbolism and of course, money

We had an excellent presentation at work today by a couple of people from John Lewis and Waitrose about their approach to delivering a fantastic Customer Service. It’s always great getting perspectives from people outside your organisation, in different industries and seeing the similarities and differences.

The point that made me sit up, and for some reason get fired up was about how all John Lewis employees “own” the business. John Lewis doesn’t call them employees, they’re partners. The creator of this idea was John Spedan Lewis who wrote a book called “Fairer shares: A possible advance in civilisation and perhaps the only alternative to communism” which has to it a whiff of before-its-time-new-labour-lefty thinking that for some reason I warm to.

It’s not hard to warm to John Lewis/Waitrose when you discover the original documents relating to Tesco’s strapline from the days when things were are bit more honest.

Every little person working in, and spending all their money with us, helps us to drive down prices for suppliers and make massive profits for ourselves, hahahhaha!

So there I was floating along on a delicious warm Waitrose croissant of general agreement about how valuing employees results in lower turnover of staff, fewer sick days and better customer services – which leads to happier customers ( who come back, again and again ) – which leads to profit.  And because John Lewis doesn’t have shareholders, remember the company is owned by the employees, ahem, partners… all that lovely profit gets paid to them as their bonus. How totally crazy and brilliant is that?

Then we discovered that, as a partner, your bonus is a percentage of your salary. Currently, depending on how well John Lewis have performed, it’s about 17% of your salary. That’s a great bonus.

But it got me angry that those with large salaries, who have already been recompensed for the work they do ( haven’t they? ) then get a bigger bonus than everyone else. For some reason that completely irked me. If a “share” of the profits is “ownership” then why does someone on a bigger salary own more of the business? Should they?

I raised this question and received some counters, from the speakers and the floor, that went:

Well, if anyone wants to earn that much at John Lewis they will be given all they need to climb the ladder.” That’s great but kind of misses my point.

The top bonuses are capped.” Oh I thought, but it depends how they are capped. Are they capped at an amount or a percentage or what.

People often value more the non-financial rewards more than the bonus.” Again, my point isn’t that receiving money isn’t good, but comparing it to a healthy working culture missed my point also.

I felt that I was maybe being unhelpful. They were here to talk about customer service and here I was wanting to genuinely discuss abstract notions of ownership. You see my thinking was, until I understand their idea of ownership which is based on a good culture for employees/partners and democracy of voices and COLD HARD CA$H – that until I could really understand their model, I wouldn’t be able to think about to apply any of their good stuff to my setting.

My point was this…

If “ownership” is being represented by money then why isn’t it equal?

… It always stinks to my ears ( ahem ) when I hear of percentage-based pay increases in the media. Percentages make the difference between the haves and the have nots wider.

Doug EngelbartIt was during the presentation, at this very point that I was reminded of Doug Engelbart who died recently. Doug seemed to get described by the media as “the guy that invented the mouse”, which he did do, but more importantly ( to me ) Doug’s work was all about using the computer to create tools to augment intellect. Not replace it. If you haven’t watched this video, The Mother of All Demos, go watch it. It’s stunning. The hard part is trying to imagine what it’s like not to know what a mouse is. Also pay attention to the things he demonstrates that we still don’t have today.

And so there I was listening and asking questions about the John Lewis bonus scheme thinking… at a gut level, I have no clue as to how the bonus scheme would change  if it were paid equally rather than on a percentage basis. Of course, there are only a small number of people earning the big bucks at John Lewis, but how much bigger is their drain of the collective profit is.

I would argue that dealing with these unusual sliding scales, like when thinking about the 99%, and like when dealing with very BIG numbers is something we as humans just aren’t very good at dealing with, at working with at a gut level. Maybe it’s just me.

And so I thought, well, what do I know? They have 85,000 employees. They will have fewer high paid execs that lower paid checkout workers. I could guess at how much roughly they get. From there I could work out what 17% bonus would be and add it all up.

So I made a spreadsheet to try and get a feel as to what the difference would be.

What I discovered…

…was that if you are on £20,000 you currently get a bonus of £3,400 and if you are on £40,000 you get a bonus of £6,800. If you are earning £150,00 your bonus is £25,500.

If the bonus was equalled out it would be £5,814 each. That, of course would be a massive increase of those at the lower end, but would it be even worth bothering to drag their sorry arses out of bed for those at the higher end of the pay scales who, in my imaginary model would be out of pocket by £20, 000.

One of the strangest things about doing this was, if you remember the Telegraph article I linked to earlier which contained the figure for the total profit announced by John Lewis for last year.  It has £415 million whereas my spreadsheet has £494 million. What I’m quite clear about there is how, given my numbers were pulled from my hat, and have no fine tuning applied and can’t take into account a myriad of factors, it’s still not a bad ballpark figure for something I wouldn’t have even been able to guess at if asked in the street.

I came away wanting to explore the numbers, only slightly, and did. The answer I got told me that ownership is never ever fairly shared out but that some ownerships are more equal than others.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Tory Illuminati

Paranoid conspiracy theorists put it to us that the powers that be are in cahoots to keep us in our place, hang onto power and get all the money.

The more complex theories suggest there are secret societies that maintain an ancient blood line, or that aliens resonating at a different frequency to our universe effectively shape-shift from one dimension to another arriving to feed off our fear. More down-to-earth theories hold that THEY want to create one world government and money system, kill most of us off to save the planet and rule the world ( sometimes with or without the help of aliens ).

Whether or not you believe these theories probably depends on how creative you are or how much you are frothing at the mouth – but I think there is something in them… I  always think that the crazies, if a little crazy, are always worth listening to… I’ve always thought that if you could see what was going on, how things really were, that alone would send you mad.

And I also think some things regarding “crazy” conspiracy theories are as true as can be:

  • we are being lied to
  • people in power do very, very shitty things
  • our imagination probably limits our ability to imagine how shitty things can be
  • people are often greedy and selfish
  • people believe any old shit

Those bullet points pretty much explain religion, but anyway…

No matter which walk of life you wander down, there quickly appear beside you two types of people, those who think they know what’s going on and want to explain it to you (in exchange for being listened to) and those who are happy to be told. People with the Power (point) and tales of doom and those buying the tickets… buying in.

So, in the “explaining what’s going on” department, conspiracy theorists are just the ones with the best stories ( aliens FFS ). They even often interlink their stories to give them readymade credence, so that a chem trail protester will happily accommodate the possibility of the existence of “greys” and the reality of magick.  It makes the “story” real somehow… just like how early christians rolled in any old pagan story that was lying around to make the idea of a zombie carpenter more palatable, more believable. Same shitcom, different actors.

And so, when we look at the U.K… it’s a bit more difficult to believe that the Queen is a satanist child abuser (although her family is pretty fucked up ) and that anyone in the New World Order would want anyone at all from the U.K in its privileged club.

To be fair, it’s the Americans that produce the best conspiracy theories. We have a benign monster in a Loch, they have Big Foot! They have an eye and a pyramid on the dollar bill! They invented bird flu and blew up the twin towers just to attack Islam.

The British Illuminati

In the U.K we have a much more restrained attitude to the stories that surround our slavehood. Yes there’s the Royal family and the class system and the Bilderberg Group but we have something WAY MORE INSIDIOUS…. The Bullingdon Club.

It’s sad that we’re back in the position that we have a Tory government, that lots of the cabinet went to the same posh school. If we lived in a meritocracy, that probably wouldn’t change though, who else do we want running the country but people from the best schools, the cleverest dicks? I actually don’t have a problem with posh schools, or smashing up restaurants in general, it is what lies behind all this that bothers me.

More scary to me, than aliens, conspiracies, poisons in sky or mind control is the of The Bullingdon Club. It is the biggest weapon being used against us, the people.

You see the thing is, the tories are happily robbing all of us, the state, the people to line their own pockets and their main defence, a very British defence is that they are foppish buffoons. I call it the Boris Factor. There he is caught with his dick in the biscuit barrel and  with a posh and witty excuse we let him off. Laughing. It has always been this way. We have always had severely incompetent posh idiots simply walking up to the cash, cocking something up and then having the gall to carry it off.

The Boris Factor is far worse than anything any conspiracy theorist can come up with. And it’s real. Unlike spaceships and aliens and all out war, being posh and affable is achievable and sustainable. You don’t need a secret society, you just need stables. It means these idiots, who we can plainly see as idiots will continue to keep doing this.

Here’s the mad part.

They don’t really believe it either.

They ( the Tories ) just have to believe it. The little ones are sent to the best schools not to learn STUFF but to learn expectation and arrogance and the best of them incorporate eccentricity, classic buffoonery or genuine affability.

Here’s the really mad part. Even when we realise this, that Gove and Osborne and Cameron and Johnson aren’t remotely competent, but can happily be relied upon to mention “whiff whaff” when required…. even then… we still let them carry on.

In the recent Levenson inquiry, we heard how Cameron finished his text messages to Rebekah Brooks with LOL and laughed. And laughed. And failed to notice that it was the rest of the text message that was the story. Prime minister in cahoots with Media boss and perverting the course of justice or laugh at the posh twonk? A Genius stroke. Boris would have been proud of the sheer whiff whaffery.

Jeremy Hunt. Need I say more? Baroness Warsi. Need she ever open her mouth again?

And so now, the Tories, on a roll are essentially on a rolling program of releasing any old right wing policy ideas, and if we laugh more than we actually protest, we’ll get stuck with them. Mark my words, pasties aren’t finished with yet, we’re still laughing at the definition of “hot”.

How’s that for hanging onto power, keeping us in our place and stealing all the money?

 

 

 

 

 

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The Problem With Buying A New Guitar

I recently received some royalty payments for work completed years ago. It wasn’t heaps, but it certainly felt like moula from heaven. It was enough to be able to think about buying a nice (enough) electric guitar. How lovely.

And that’s when my problems started.

I know nothing about guitars…

 

The Problem Of Brand Snobbery

First there’s Gibson vs Fender thing. I include into that Les Paul. You have to KNOW which you like and why and to be honest I don’t. You start looking at your favourite bands and noticing what they play. For example, Killing Joke guitarist Geordie Walker plays a semi acoustic Gibson but they cost about two grand, so that’s out. Before that, he used to play a Gibson SG which are much more affordable.

I noticed that lots of glam bands, or odd bands that I liked also chose the Gibson SG. It seemed to have a raw sound I like.

Modern vs Vintage. So, guitar afficionados seem to prefer certain eras of guitar which again seems to make them expensive.

Epiphone and Squier. And then there a companies that make ( or made ) copies of more famous guitars. And whether or not these are “as good” as the original, or woeful rip-offs seemed to vary. There’s even the legendary Ibanez copy of the Gibson Explorer that was better than the original. I quite liked the idea of that. And it was cheaper.

There’s also the knowing the difference between single coil and humbucking pickups thing. Which, it started to seem, is the big difference between Fender and Gibson. It’s about the way the magnets work to pick up string vibration ( I think ) and humbuckers have more raw oomph and single coil ones more zing. I like oomph and zing.

The Problem of Tonewood

Fenders are a bit thinner, more jangly or trebley and Gibsons have more raw grunt. Some people claim that is due to the wood the guitar is made from. Other people call those people idiots.

The Problem Of Being A Bit Of An Individual

Like lots of people I’ve always had a problem with herd mentality. Sure a Gibson SG or a Fender Stratocaster are both so lovely that they are a waste on me… but I still think I wanted something a bit different.

The Problem With Ebay

I found the array of options available to me daunting, there was Fender Jaguar ( cherry red ) that was £400 delivered from Falkirk, or one for £380 but was pickup only from Birmingham. I’d have to go on the train. Once I was watching ten guitars, the matrix of possibilities fried my mind.

The Problem Of The Illusive Bargain

Ebay is a pain because sellers know the real value of things. I wanted to find a U.S made classic for £100 at a boot sale. That was not going to happen was it.

The Problem Of There Being No Limit

There is always a more expensive guitar you can buy. Always. Always. And even then you can start tinkering with it.

The Problem With Music Shops And Being Shit On Guitar

To say I can’t play is maybe over-doing it, but I definitely can’t play solos, or in public. Going into a music shop and cranking up a guitar and thrashing an E chord is waaaaaay too embarrassing.

But I did it. I went to three guitar shops and played lots of guitars.

 The Problem With The Guitars Themselves

Squier Telecaster for about £100 played better than a £600 Telecaster. Can you believe that? The £600 one simply had been poorly set up and had string buzz.

Les Pauls are indeed ace but somehow, despite the Sex Pistols and Ziggy Stardust, don’t move me. And Flying Vs are a pain to play sitting down – they slip off your knee.

The Gretch was quite nice. The SG was undeniably beautifully adequate. The Epiphone was akin to being a recent Skoda owner after Volkswagon took them over.

I tried a Jaguar and was really surprised. I loved it. I decided I needed a whammy bar and hoped I wouldn’t regret not having humbuckers.

The Problem With Having Made The Wrong Decision In The Future

The problem with finding out about guitars was that it was stopping me buying a guitar. How crazy is that? Having tried the Jaguar I went to the pub to read about it in the hope of discovering that I hadn’t bought a complete turkey.

I found out that they were loved by the grunge scene ( Kurt even ) because they were unpopular but were great ( and therefore cheaper ). The Pixies used one.

By the time I got back to the shop, ready to buy, it had been sold.

The surreal shock to my system, at having actually made a decision was only made worse by being attacked by three piss heads with an inflatable sheep outside the shop. Really.

Making A Decision

So. I decided it was time to stop listening to the experts ( although this guy still makes me laugh ) and make my own choice. I’d got over the Fender ( thin sounding ) snobbery… and besides when you crank stuff up with 8 layers of fuzz, distortion and drive, does it really matter?

I then discovered a new version of old guitar from Fender called the Blacktop Jazzmaster.  It’s a cousin of the Jaguar. It has a whammy bar. It has a humbucker pickup. It is made in Mexico. It has simple controls. Johnny Marr didn’t play one. It is beautiful. And absolutely perfect ( for me ).

I noticed Rowland S. Howard with something that looked similar ( probably a black Jaguar, but close enough ).

There’s probably a whole heap of “but am I worth it” lurking that drove this almost painful OCD that I’m not ready to look at yet… but that’s another story. Maybe one day.

I still now notice EVERY guitar that ever appears on TV ever but I’m no longer lost in an awful never-ending matrix of should I / shouldn’t I / What if I have done the wrong thing and regret this forever?

But at least I’ve escaped my lovely guitar buying hell. The only reminder of how big an idiot I am is the persistent adverts for guitars on the side of EVERY SODDING SITE I VISIT.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Cult – The Mission – Killing Joke

Killing Joke are playing next month and I probably won’t be going. What?! I hear you scream…

Well it’s like this. When I first heard that they were on tour with The Cult and The Mission I thought, wow what a goth fest, that’ll be great. Then having thought about it and looked at the line-up, which suggests that Killing Joke are on first, the alarm bells started ringing.

The Mission Thing

First, The Mission are billed higher than Killing Joke? What? The Mission were bloody awful. They can be single-handedly held responsible for every worst aspect of goth… which if I’m honest I never really identified with anyway… goth has always been when fashionable pretty girls latched onto punk and started wearing black lace… like the Mission.

My loathing for The Mission knows no end. Not only were their songs derivative, the were crap derivative. Listen to this… it opens like a Psychedelic Furs song and lurches towards Simple Minds.  But it gets worse, isn’t Wasteland The Mission ripping off themselves in a way. It’s basically Marian from the Sisters with different words? Not content with ripping off, goth-i-sizing everyone else, they even did it to themselves.

The Mission are, for me, the band that sold out the Sisters of Mercy. That’s it.

And are they on AFTER Killing Joke? Really? Even as time-fillers whilst they change the stage equipment I know I’d find them annoying from the bar. Galling.

And then there’s the other thing

Killing Joke on BEFORE The Cult? I know Killing Joke haven’t quite had a She Sells Sanctuary hit, but The Cult have only had one. Really?

And then there’s the other thing

I’ve always felt let down by The Cult, or as I should say, The Death Cult. That is to say, I really, really liked The Death Cult. They were incredible. They had Nigel Preston on drums doing the most tribal sounds ever, a wall of sound guitar from Billy Duffy, strong bass and warpaint. Killing Joke were in tatters around now (1982 – 3ish) and Death Cult were emerging as leaders in the world of post punk. Just look at them.

They even had Killing Joke scared. I have a video of Jaz ( since removed from YouTube of Jaz ( obviously drunk ) making veiled threats to the band that “calls themselves tribal for the sake of the music press“. They’d become The Cult and they brought in a frillier, psychedelic sound. When they went rock I danced along, in a way, thinking it ironic… but it carried on.

I mean, listen to Wild Flower. Yes, the riff may be reminiscent of AC/DC but they’re dressed like Status Bloody Quo. And the drumming in BUM – THUD – BUM- THUD. Dull.

The demise of Death Cult from brilliance into popularity was almost a bad as Adam Ants. And Ian Astbury kind of went the same way.

The last thing…

Whilst I’m not quite yet completely convinced by Killing Joke’s last offering, I do like it. They are still trying, still making, still kicking, still relevant. Maybe forced by a lack of “success” to remain true to themselves and producing wonderful tracks like Pole Shift that begin gentle enough and end in an 8 minute transcendental noise mosh pit.

And I don’t think I can grit my teeth whilst The Mission float around and The Cult fail to do Horse Nation ( albeit in the style of ZZ Top).

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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….

 

 

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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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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. EatToDefeat.org.

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.

 

 

 

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