I’m not sure what people think of Quora these days. The only time I hear it mentioned is when friends annoyed they can’t read much on it without logging in.
I quite like it, especially since they let you opt back in to their weekly newsletter. When Jason Kottke mentioned the newsletter I’d already opted out and there was no way to opt back in. Now you can do so in the preferences somewhere. There are always several things I want to click through and read, which is unusual for any other regular email I’ve ever subscribed to.
Like the rest of the web there is a high signal-to-noise ratio so finding an existing answer to something can take time, but there’s often good stuff in there. It’s handy for asking things that (in my case) aren’t technically specific enough to be asked on Stack Overflow or similar.
Whenever I do go there to read I also find myself getting sucked in to writing. When answering a question I try not to simply repeat what others have said, or increase the noise by rambling on about stuff I don’t know much about. And yet I still find myself writing things. Here are some recent answers I’ve posted there (YES YOU’LL PROBABLY HAVE TO LOG IN TO READ THEM, WHATEVER):
It feels unusual for me to write much on a third-party site, but somehow Quora encourages me to do that just enough to make it seem easy and worthwhile. And this post is partly just an excuse to link to things that I’ve written there.
- Some 2013 conference talks to watch
I never used to go to loads of conferences but I go to even fewer these days. This year I kept noticing mentions of lots of good talks, at many events around the world, and realised that they were often available to watch online.
So I started keeping a list of them, and then asked on Twitter for more recommendations, picking up a few more that I’d missed. Here’s my list of 2013 conference talks that are probably worth watching.
I’ve only got round to watching a few, so they might not all be OMG BEST TALK EVAR!!!, but I’m hopeful. This isn’t a thorough survey of the Top Twenty Talks of 2013; it’s biased to my interests, my friends, and suggestions from a few people on Twitter. If I do this next year I’d love to find great talks that have no relation to the tech world (only Stewart Lee’s is from beyond our little bubble, I imagine).
But for now, here are twenty (probably) great conference talks from 2013 (so far), twelve hours of viewing and listening:
Amanda Palmer – The art of asking
TED. 14 min.
Big Omaha. 40 min.
Beeker Northam – The New Craft: locating the opportunities of now
Fabrica. 65 min (including questions).
Bret Victor – The Future of Programming
DBX. 33 min.
Cabel Sasser – Panic Inc.
XOXO. 25 min.
Clay Shirky – Keynote
Code for America Summit. 26 min.
Dan Williams - Unexpected Item in the Bagging Area (audio only)
dConstruct. 30 min.
Dave Birch – The future of money
Lift (2012). 23 min.
Ian Bogost – Fun
UX Week. 27 min.
Jack Conte – Pomplamoose/Patreon
XOXO. 25 min.
Jack Schulze – In conversation with Kevin Slavin
MIT Media Lab. 91 min.
Jason Kottke – I built a web app (& you can too)
Webstock. 45 min.
Maciej Cegłowski – You Can’t, You Won’t, You Don’t Stop
XOXO. 19 min.
Paul Ford – The Web and Quest for the Perfect Document
Monktoberfest. 32 min.
Stewart Lee – On Not Writing
St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford. 54 min.
Tom Coates – An animating spark: mundane computing & the web of data
Webstock. 57 min.
Tom Francis – How Reviewing Games for Nine Years Helped in Designing Gunpoint
GDC Europe. 25 min.
Tom Stuart – Impossible Programs
Scottish Ruby Conf. 42 min.
- The Twelescreen code
In my previous post I wrote about the inspiration for Twelescreen — wanting to create an overbearing, Big Brother-style screen for displaying Tweets by the government and security forces. As a result I’ve also made a self-hosted, easily customisable, themeable, one-Tweet-at-a-time, full-screen, web-based Twitter client.
Initially this whole thing was a hasty single-word joke. But I soon decided I wanted to make the code more re-usable, a decision that multiplied development time quite a bit. I started fiddling with it five months ago and it’s eaten up a lot of my free time since.
The result is the code on GitHub which is flexible enough to create a similar big-screen Twitter experience for much less scary or satirical uses. Assuming you can get a Node.js application up and running which I appreciate is, statistically, very unlikely.
But still, once over that hurdle, there is plenty that can be customised without altering any of the code. From the extensive README comes this list of features:
- Many categories of Twitter accounts can be created. Each category has its own URL.
- Each category can be included on the top-level menu, or omitted.
- New themes can be made with CSS and, optionally, HTML templates.
- Themes can be applied to all, some or individual categories, and the menu.
- Google Web Fonts can be used.
- A Google Analytics ID can be easily added.
- Customisable introductory texts on the menu page.
- Images attached to Tweets using Twitter are displayed in the slideshow.
- A list of “greeting” messages can be set. These are displayed before newly-arrived Tweets.
- A list of “slogan” messages can be set. These are displayed randomly between Tweets.
- Options for each category include:
- Show on the menu page, or hide it.
- Number of Tweets rotated through.
- Duration each Tweet is displayed.
- Duration of the fade between each Tweet.
- List of greeting messages.
- List of slogan messages.
- Chance of a slogan appearing.
Most of that can be changed by altering a single configuration file. When writing code for use by others I really enjoy trying to work out what kind of things they might want to customise, and how to make that possible in the simplest manner.
Twelescreen comes with two themes (CSS files) — the ‘Big Brother’ one you may now be familiar with (above) and the more practical default theme, seen on this example page (and below) showing public Tweets from my RIG colleagues, whose Dextr is an obvious precursor.
If you’re able, then give the code a whirl. Feel free to send me suggestions, whether for features or ways to improve what it currently does. It’s my first Node application so I’ve learned a lot by doing this.
Not least, I’ve been reminded how much longer it takes to make something with as few rough edges as possible and that has code suitable for other people to use. I estimate the whole project has taken me 15-20 days of work, even though I had something quite similar up and running very early on in that process. Designing by making, refining and polishing, refactoring nasty code, re-working the configuration, writing documentation… it all takes so long, even after the first rough attempt is basically working.
But here we are at last. It seems reasonably stable, but isn’t without problems, not least how best to load Google Web Fonts, which often seem to hold up page loading entirely. I’m sure there are other things that could be done to make it work better.
If you can get it running, and especially if you do anything particularly nice or interesting with it, do let me know!
I have just launched Twelescreen.com and this post explains what it is and why.
Back in the summer, the British government was going through a particularly and visibly authoritarian phase. Trucks displaying posters instructing illegal immigrants to “GO HOME OR FACE ARREST” were driven around parts of London. The Home Office Twitter account featured photos of people suspected of working illegally being bundled into the backs of vans. Scary Daily Mail-pandering talking points were pushed out through the government’s social media channels.
On the one hand, I can see that it’s a good idea to use Twitter et al like this. It’s what anyone with a clue about the internet would advise — go where your audience is and talk to them in a native format, hashtags and all.
On the other hand, it’s terrifying. These brief messages reduce complex issues to a handful of words, a succession of slogans, more minimal even than a carefully-phrased TV soundbite. Seeing the government and the security services relentlessly announcing their bold new initiatives in the same medium that people chat about X-Factor is unsettling. Seeing them link to photos of people bundled into vans in the same way your friends link to funny snaps of their cats seems very wrong.
Although social media are a conversational, discursive form (the clue’s in the name) they are, of course, often used as a place for announcements, very much a top-down, one-to-many form of address. Even if a Twitter account replies to individuals, as a follower of it you’ll generally only see the messages going out to everyone. And so these official Twitter accounts, announcing the Prime Minister launching robust schemes, or the military showing off new hardware, seem oddly relentless. A constant stream of digestible views from those in power to those they rule.
This reminded me, as is often inevitable, of George Orwell’s 1984 and its telescreens:
Inside the flat a fruity voice was reading out a list of figures which had something to do with the production of pig-iron. The voice came from an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall. Winston turned a switch and the voice sank somewhat, though the words were still distinguishable. The instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely.
He thought of the telescreen with its never-sleeping ear. They could spy upon you night and day, but if you kept your head you could still outwit them. With all their cleverness they had never mastered the secret of finding out what another human being was thinking.
Life, if you looked about you, bore no resemblance not only to the lies that streamed out of the telescreens, but even to the ideals that the party was trying to achieve.
Thankfully, my TV or computer screen isn’t restricted to showing David Cameron’s face, broadcasting his voice constantly, and watching my every move. But the relentlessness of telescreens, the sloganeering, the sense of being talked at, and feeling like a dissident if you disagree with the party line… these all seemed familiar.
I imagined that a 2013 version of a telescreen would constantly display Tweets from our masters and mistresses. Having thought of the terrible “twelescreen” pun, and found the domain was available, I had to make Twelescreen.com.
I’m not sure it’s as funny (in a horrible way) as I hoped, but I may have been staring at it too long. I originally thought it might be more over-the-top, more The Day Today, with Tweets from the Home Office preceded by the huge, flashing, fierce face of Theresa May. “SATIRE!” the site would have screamed.
As it is, I’m almost concerned that I’ve simply created a nice, and useful, Twitter display for government. But hopefully the context is different enough from conventional Twitter to make the overbearing pronouncements more visible as what they are.
Usually these Tweets mingle among the chat from @StephenFry and your friends in your timeline, as if “Minister Esther McVey: Clearly old system was wrong & fairness had to be brought back #SpareRoomSubsidy ow.ly/qMB3l” is merely an off-the-cuff witticism, rather than a piece of eery, carefully-crafted, doubletalk that hides a horrific mess of a policy damaging the lives of the poorest people in society, all decorated with a euphemistic hashtag and a cutely shortened URL.
Taken out of the context of a tasteful Twitter timeline and presented in this shouty, stark manner, on as big a screen as possible, hopefully these examples of the very best in modern social media policy will look as scary as I find them.
I didn’t want this dubious pleasure to be solely for those in the UK, so there is an American option, featuring similiarly slick, often more peculiarly chatty, demands from your nation’s leaders and protectors. I would add more countries but I don’t know which Twitter accounts would be suitable. Get in touch if you’d like to help.
If you find a web browser on a screen in a public place somewhere, feel free to fire up Twelescreen on it. Maybe take a picture if it’s in a particularly impressive place, on a particularly big screen. Big Brother would be proud of you.
- Ask About Going Home
Recently the UK Border Agency were in the news again because of posters at immigration offices suggesting immigrants “Ask about going home”. This followed the Home Office trialling mobile advertising hoardings which suggested passers-by should “Go home or face arrest” if they were in the country illegally.
I tweeted the fleeting idea of “Photos of famous, successful and popular non-British-born but considered-British people stamped with UKBA logo and ‘GO HOME’.” Thanks to the ease and free-ness of Tumblr, there’s almost no excuse not to follow through on such ideas, and so Ask About Going Home has been running for a few days now, with plenty more famous immigrants lined up. You can also follow the posts on Twitter with @UKBAGoHome.
Obviously, this is an overly-simple, hasty and slightly silly concept that will make no difference to anything. But still, the UKBA’s and Home Office’s techniques are hardly subtle and targeted themselves. They and their heavy-handed forces’ demands for the “papers” of potential illegal immigrants (i.e., non-white people) create a climate that suggests immigrants aren’t welcome here. They must make people who are, or hope to be, in the UK legitimately fear for their and their families’ security.
And so, I thought that highlighting how many famous and accomplished people we regard as “British” were born in other countries would help a tiny bit. Hopefully it highlights how ridiculous these over-the-top demands for immigrants to “Ask about going home” are. For many, they already are, or hope to be, “home”.
- ‘Measuring America’ by Andro Linklater
I recently read the 2003 book Measuring America by Andro Linklater (Amazon UK, US). The subtitle, “How the United States Was Shaped By the Greatest Land Sale in History” is too flippantly dramatic to do the book justice. It’s a fascinating read, all about how and why the United States was mapped, starting in the east, working westwards, using nothing more than poles, chains and ever more elaborate brass instruments. Imagine measuring a continent, on foot, using long chains, hacking through the wilderness to get a clear line of sight from one position to the next.
There is also quite a bit about attempts to standardise and decimalise weights and measures, with varying levels of success. Sometimes this felt like a diversion from the main mapping narrative, and it didn’t grab me as much. But still, it’s an impressive story, explaining why so much of the continent looks like this bit of South Dakota:
There are lots of fascinating nuggets in there, and these are some that I noted down as I went through…
1 rod, pole or perch = 16.5 feet
1 daywork = the amount of land one person can work in a day
1 daywork = 4 sq. rods (2x2 rods)
1 acre = 40 dayworks
1 sq. mile = 64 sq. furlongs
1 sq. mile = 640 acres
All divisible by four, making calculations of area easier. In 1632 Edmund Gunter came up with the chain, combining this with decimals. (Decimals were described by Simon Stevin in 1585.)
1 chain = 4 rods = 66 feet or 22 yards (divided into 100 links)
10 square chains = 1 acre
So measurement could be done in decimals then converted to acres by dividing by ten. A cricket pitch is one chain long and US city blocks are often a multiple of chains in length.
10 chains = 1 furlong
80 chains = 1 mile
Also, p.88, the daywork had equivalents in other countries: the journée in France, the Morgenland in Germany, the giornata in Italy, and the journal in Catalonia.
16-17 Sizes of measures used to vary: “what was being measured was not a quantity but its local subjective value.”
…the Latvians quoted a single price on the salt fish they sold to Russian merchants, Ukrainian nobility and their Hanseatic partners, but measured them out in different scales and containers according to the importance of the customer. … [In France] by using smaller containers to measure out flour in remote villages, traders could charge those far from the market the same price as those nearer to it.
…an acre of rough pasture was larger than an acre of meadow which could produce hay… a bushel of oats, which could only make porridge, held more than a bushel of wheat, which could be made into bread… An ell of coarse cloth was longer than an ell of fine material.
17-18 Measurements like the palm and cubit derived from parts of the body, and so varied.
…still less exact, were units like the bowshot (the distance an arrow would fly), the houpée (how far a shout would carry) and, among the Plains Indians of the United States, the horse-belly view (the furthest a person could see over the prairies when squatting beneath a mustang — approximately two miles).
[That reads like a McSweeney’s article.]
…Henry III in 1266, introduced the sterling system linking weights to coinage, so that there were 240 pennyweights to the pound, a ratio that persisted in the currency for over seven hundred years until 1972 in Britain… [but weights still varied, eg the Troy pound replaced the sterling pound in 1496]
21-22 Elizabeth I standardised weights and lengths in Britain and
…sent copies to fifty-eight market towns with instructions that a description of them was to be pinned up in every church and read during the service twice a year for the next four years.
[Noted for this being the method at the time of setting and publicising a standard.]
29 In Virginia [in 18th century?] planters measured out their acreage (often 50, 100 or 1000 acres) by measuring back from the river bank by a mile, then measuring along the river (ignoring bends). 25 rods along was 137 yards, 1 foot, 6 inches. Multiplied by the 1760 yard depth made 242,000 square yards, or 50 acres. These were often spread out, with later plots fitted in the remaining gaps.
“People live so far apart,” the German immigrant Gottlieb Mittelberger complained in 1756, “that many have to walk a quarter or a half-hour just to reach their nearest neighbour.”
30-31 In New England [in 17th century?] surveying was different. Land was “granted in rectangular blocks, six or ten miles square, to an association or church which then allocated [square or rectangular blocks] to individuals.” Later proprietors used this model, rather than that used in Virginia.
52-3 Thomas Jefferson, “in old age”, to John Adams:
“I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid, and I find myself much happier.”
Although the legal tender remained officially the British pound, divided into twelve pennies, its value in America differed from one state to the next. The commonest single coin, the Spanish dollar, was worth five shillings in Georgia, but thirty-two shillings and sixpence across the border in South Carolina, and six shillings in New Hampshire, while the official London rate was four shillings and sixpence. Still more confusingly, it was divided into eight bits in Pennsylvania, but contained ten bits in Virginia. Along with Spanish dollars and doubloons, there were also French louis d’or and écus; Portuguese moidores, pistoles and half-Joes, so called because they carried the image of King Johannes V; Dutch florins; Swedish dollars or riksdallers; as well as the sovereigns, shillings and pennies of Britain.
95-6 The first measurement of France, by triangulation, a meridian from Dunkirk to Perpignan, was started in 1669 and finished in 1733. It was inaccurate so another team started re-measuring in 1738 and finished in 1789. A 120 year project.
171 Land sales in Georgia were even more corrupt than elsewhere. In early 19th century [?]:
The Surveyor-General’s office was discovered to have a box full of plats [plans] of imaginary thousand-acre properties which only required compass bearings and dates to be filled in to become apparently legal documents.
180-1 Legislation reduced the smallest amount of land that could be bought, originally one section (640 acres) at a minimum price of $2 per acre. In 1800, half section (320 acres), down-payment now only a quarter of the price. 1804, quarter section (160 acres). 1820, half-quarter section (80 acres) at $1.25 per acre. 1832, quarter-quarter section (40 acres, or 440x440 yards), “the minimum area needed to support the average family”.
Each quarter section had its own address, eg: 1/4 South-West, 1/4 Section North-West, Section 8, Township 22 North, Range 4 West, Fifth Principal Meridian.
183 Surveying a 36 square mile township started from the south-east corner. “Shrewd speculators learned to avoid land in the north-west corner, because any errors in measurement showed up there, and that was where most arguments over boundaries occurred.”
199-200 The railroads required a depot every 12 or 15 miles, so that farms weren’t more than half a day’s journey away. They had a standard plan for towns, with the depot at the centre. Three 160-acre sections on each side of the track, each section split into forty-acre lots. Easy, quick and cheap to survey. Hundreds were laid out. North-south streets were numbered or given letters, east-west streets named after trees.
252 19th century homesteaders lived far apart:
“In no civilised country have the cultivators of the soil adapted their home life so badly to the conditions of nature as have the people of our great Northwestern prairies,” wrote E.V. Smalley in the Atlantic Monthly in 1893. “Each family must live mainly by itself, and life, shut up in the little wooden farmhouses, cannot well be very cheerful … An alarming amount of insanity occurs in the new prairie states among farmers and their wives.”
What Smalley blamed were the squares. Each settler family tended to build near the centre of their holding, so that no field was too far from the house. Because the survey allocated no land for roads, they usually ran along the section lines, which left the average farm a quarter of a mile from the nearest road. On two neighbouring 160-acre claims, that meant half a mile between farms as the crow flew; but by road, down the track to the section line, along the section line and up the neighbour’s track, it was closer to a mile.
- My new(ish) job and a decade of freelancing
Four months ago I got a new job. I mentioned it on Twitter at the time but it appears that not everyone I might vaguely know reads every single one of my tweets. I know! I can’t think what you’re all doing with your time. But I’m pretty sure that everyone I have ever known, and everyone I will ever know, reads this blog. So mentioning the new job here is definitely going to clear this up, once and for all. Yes.
I’m now working with the very fine people of BERG. Full time. Like, a proper job. You know, going into the same office every day, where I see the same people, working on the same things. Weird! Because, when I say I’ve got a new job, it’s not so much the “new” bit that’s a change, it’s the “job” bit. Before this I’d been freelancing for ten years, so this has been quite a shift.
I’d known for some time that I wanted a change, but it’s taken a while to make it. In 2009 I realised one major thing that was missing from years of freelancing. At SXSW that year I watched a video stream of Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com talking in another room and realised that in freelancing I was missing “being part of something bigger than yourself”.
Assuming you’re fortunate enough to get plenty of suitable work there’s a lot to be said for freelancing. I got to work with a series of different people and companies over the years, so there’s variety in ideas and working methods. I had a variety of work, and managed to do something new on almost every project, so I was always learning. Most projects were interesting and different in some way; not too many dull, “We need a company website,” tasks. The paying work paid enough that I only needed to do it around half the time, so I had plenty of time for personal projects (in retrospect, more of it should perhaps have been used for not typing into a computer).
And freelancing can be wonderfully simple. I was usually hired because there was a temporary role to be filled and a job to be completed. I’d complete the work, get paid, and move on to the next job, not necessarily in that order. I was fortunate enough to avoid long-term commitments, or having to maintain multiple projects over long periods of time. While there’s some administrative work involved in freelancing, being a gun-for-hire is nicely simple.
However, I think it’s hard to keep up this style of work over the long term. Eventually this routine — get hired, complete a project, move on — can become monotonous, and it did for me. Most of the projects were of a similar size. If it was programming work I was generally the only developer, or the only one involved in a particular aspect (back- or front-end). So, while I was always learning new technologies, I rarely had the opportunity to collaborate directly with peers and learn from them. And with every project being similar in scale, I’d never learn much about how larger projects worked. And, as I was only ever around for the planning or building stage, I’d never be involved in the longer-term work of running a service, and everything that goes with that: maintenance, customer service, and building and improving a product over time.
To keep freelancing going for this length of time you need a good reason for doing so, to consciously know why it was the right thing to keep doing. If it gets you free time then maybe that’s the reason, whether you use it for side-projects, being with family, or sitting on the beach. Or maybe you have longer-term aims that are best achieved by being solo, by making a name for yourself rather than as part of a company. Or maybe your aim is to start a company, and freelancing seems like your best route into that.
But I didn’t really have those reasons and, ultimately, the convenience of freelancing’s simplicity became repetitive, and I wanted to be involved in something longer term. A product (or products, or service), a team, a company and a culture.
Obviously, it’s taken me a few years since realising that to finally get a job, mainly for the reasons I went freelance in the first place — there were few organisations I was really keen to work for, and I didn’t know how to find any others. Being a bit of a generalist, it was also hard to imagine having a job in a company, because advertised roles are often so specific. I wasn’t confident that I could fit in and be happy anywhere, through a combination of feeling simultaneously superior (“I’m so much more than just a developer!”) and inadequate (“I’ll never be good enough to be a proper developer!”).
But, here we are, and I now have a job. The fact that my job title — Creative Technologist — is the same as when I last had a job, at UpMyStreet.com, suggests a decade of jumping from one freelance project to another hasn’t done wonders for my career progression. Or, maybe, that it’s simply a usefully vague title for one of the flexible and ill-defined roles of which this industry has so many. Yes, that’s definitely the reason.