Going back to failures.

I’ve been thinking about repeat applications to funders.

So far, at eQuality Time, we’ve either been funded on our first go, or never.  There is no case were we have changed the applications and been funded.

This is surprising.  I would expect that, in most cases, you would fail the first time, work out what went wrong, and then get it right the second time.

Another thing is surprising: how much work the resubmission is.  I always think it will be a few minutes of copy and paste.  Instead, it’s hours of completely changing the application from the very beginning – because in the six months between the first go and the second, lots of things have changed:

 

  • We’ve been growing as a charity, and have more interesting things to add.
  • I’ve been getting better at working out what a funder is asking for in the questions.
  • We’ve been working on the project, and we’ve already done some of the things we’ve asked for money for, or found that they should not be done.

The second reason is the main one.

I’m very slowly working out what funders want, but I still think I’m missing some big parts in how they think.  Nothing appears easy in the way applications are set out.    If anything, my repeat applications are showing me both how far I’ve come (by seeing the things that need to change) and how for I’ve got left to go (by getting turned down the second time).

All this is a slow way of saying that I’ve just made eQuality Time’s third application to the arts council for money to write a new novel. It’s a completely changed application: I’ve dropped all the parts that turn out to only be important to me (transparency, and the technology) until it was completely about making publishing more diverse.

In the end, I’m putting our ‘get it right first time or never’ problem down as a mystery half-solved.  I look forward to sharing the answer with you all.

What do you eat?

Next time you are in the Supermarket, pause and look up. Probably you’ll have only eaten a tiny proportion of the food you can see.  The UK supermarket Tesco has over 60,000 things it sells but “the average household buys only 400 products a year, with just 41 items in their weekly shop”.
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Allow yourself to think about the ones you’ve never eaten. Imagine the people who buy them: they must be real because the supermarket keeps selling their food. They might be serious cooks, or busy parents, they might have lived in a different culture.  They might be your co-worker or friend.  Maybe, just maybe, they are the normal ones and you are the strange one for not eating it.
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In a year you probably buy less than 1% of the foods that you could. In your life it’s probably less than 10%, we’re all the same. But everyone who makes the effort to eat outside their 10% finds it worth the trouble.
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…and when you say ‘but what do you eat?’ to a bodybuilder or vegan, or to someone with allergies, the answer is probably that 90% of the food they eat is the same as you, and the stuff that is different is in that 90% of things that you’ve never tried.
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And if you are vegan, or veggie or low-carb or low-cal, then you should stop and think, that perhaps, there is a lot for you to look at in that 90% as well: we can all make more of an effort to look wider.  I’m starting to believe, that if you made a promise to never eat the same food twice, it would be a few years before you had to go hungry.
Screen Shot 2017-01-01 at 07.32.26All the pictures in this post are experiments that I was talked into this year, and they were all worth it.

A system that bribes its way out of change.

I took this photo myself one morning.

I took this photo myself one morning.

I wrote this almost a year ago, and never got around to putting it up because there wasn’t much of a perosnal connection.  Then, over the last few months, someone very close to me had their support massively cut. I helped fight it, and all the time we fought it, we knew that if we won, it would only mean that some other borderline case would have their support cut. We won, but I feel deeply deeply sad about the whole thing.
—————-
In my younger days I lived with someone who had the worst job in the world that I could conceive
She worked for a particular admin branch of the NHS. Doctors can give eight weeks notice to take leave, but patients were booked into their clinics about 12 weeks in advance. So doctors would take leave and the clinic would flag up as cancelled and my friend had the job of ringing people to tell them the appointment was cancelled.
All day. Every day.
And the thing that she found really sad, where the people who just accepted it. Who just meekly said “okay”.  The people who shouted and screamed until they got transferred to a manager would eventually be given a better slot, but the people who accepted it would get nothing.
We’ve ended up with a health and social care system that bribes its way out of change.  I’m not cynical enough to suggest that there are people actively engineering it,  but  the organizational organism best reflects the set of factors it works under.
We as a country have a lot of social care to do and not enough money to do it. Going bankrupt is not an option.  So we cut every corner we can, pay the bills on the final demands, remove safeguards and drop the standards far beyond those required by our social responsibilities.
That’s terrible, but it’s not the worst bit.
The darkest bit is that people can fight.  They can dig in heels, shout and scream and go to war over what they are entitled to. There are systems for dealing with ‘grievances’, and those systems redirect and frustrate – not because they were designed to do so, but because there is little motivation to change.

…and some of us get though. Because we were loud enough, because we worked out the right people to call, wrote to MPs, threatened legal action in a way that was credible, and gave off 100 other signals not that we were desperate or deserving, but that we were likely to cause problems at a high pay grade. And those of us that get though we get the payments that are statutorily required, the facilities that are needed, the support that helps.  And we go quiet, because we’re exhausted by the process and we’ve fought for ourselves or the family member and now things are moving.

But the people who got though – they were exactly the people who could cause real change, the people who have the power to change the system.  As so the system identifies these people, gives them what they need and continues cutting everyone else.   It’s an evolution of a bribe.  A bribe that lets the system avoid change.
———————-
(relevant to current affairs is that the people who have the power are influence to make a difference to public health and education are the ones who find it a lot easier to pay for private health and education.)

Mozfest: my second day.

Sunset seen thought the windows at the Mozfest venue.

Sunset seen thought the windows at the Mozfest venue.

I’m writing this on the train, and I suspect I’d only get a chance to edit after the whole thing has finished, so apologies for the slightly stream-of-conciousness approach.
I missed about half of the second day arriving just before lunch.  In the process I managed to miss the opening speeches.
Funnily enough I’m generally in two minds about opening speeches.  At most conference I avoid opening speeches and keynotes like the plague, but mozfest is subtlety different: spending an hour or two listening to words like ‘sharing’, ‘connecting’, and ‘openness’ is like a small massage for the soul even without the informational context.

Today I spent quite a lot of time on the topic of food

Regular readers will remember my rants on the topic of vegan events like ‘vegfest’ – it turns out that Mozfest, the technology conference, does vegan food and debate better than vegfest does.  That’s like finding out that Microsoft makes better cakes than Kipling.  Typically conference food for vegans is nice, but contains about 200 calories, which means that often pop out to a local pub during the session after lunch, but Mozfest provided a stonkingly good spread.
The hyperlocal low-carbon lunch.

The hyperlocal low-carbon lunch.

After lunch, wandering around without my glasses on (a random, but enjoyable way to explore) I found myself at a table sent for lunch. It turned out to be a separate lunch provided by some mozfest attendees to promote discussion – the food was ‘low-carbon’ sourced from near the conference venue (given we were near the O2 arena, this is nontrivial) and that was the topic of conversation for an hour.  It was a perfect example of the wide range of approaches and topic areas around Mozfest.
Then there was vegan cake from The Depressed Cake Shop, bought for a donation of £1, which will go to MIND.

People

It wasn’t all stomach oriented – I met Metod Beljec who was making a language of emoticons: this isn’t conceptually far away from communiKate and we had a lot to talk about. I met designers from Holland who were running workshops on what the future looked like using newspapers as prompts and chatted to some lovely 3d printing experts who gave me the keywords I need to put into Google to make a disability project happen.   I spend an hour working with a group in the ‘TV hacking’ session and enjoyed getting a wider view than the one I’d built up working on Supertitle.

The Language of Mozfest

One of my favourite things of the event is listening to the way people talk – there’s a real sense in some of these areas that people are developing a distinct set of terms and languages for working in the areas they are. I heard ‘onboarding’ used as a verb yesterday, and it got me thinking about the levels of language – there’s a language used by the programmers and developers (that I like to think I speak) but there is another one used by the designers and facilitators that is newer (and still evolving faster that a language normally does), deals with more social concepts, and is being used to map out an area that I’m slightly unsure of…

Sudden Sadness

One minor thing is, that though I was talking to a wide range of people about technologies would be really distributive in the disability space (Oh, hey, now I’ve started talking like Mozfest) I found I was generally the one bringing forward the disability space as the application.  Once I realised that late on, I started to look around and realise I hadn’t seen any wheelchair users at all at the conference, which for a 900 person technology event in a really accessible bit of London, is a bit odd. I’ll see if I can get some demographic information from the organisers but I worry that disability is a little underrepresented in the festival. (It’s very likely I just wandered past the relevant sessions without paying attention of course…)

About me.

Screenshot 2015-02-24 21.44.03
It occurs to me, as I write this, that although this is my personal blog, it’s remarkably unpersonal. For a start, much of the content is written by other people. Even when I write things from my point of view it covers projects, ideas, and rants rather than my character.
As it happens, when driving back from the airport on Saturday night (my girlfriend is flying off an an adventure) I was reminded of an experience that I thought might be interesting to share.  It centres, as such things do, on the sensible idea that you can tell an awful lot about people by what they fear.*
Some years ago I woke up and knew something was wrong.  The room span.  Span. In the truly befuddled reasoning only available to the ill, I rolled out of my bed onto the floor because it would be more stable. it wasn’t. I hung on for dear life.
An hour or two later, after literally crawled to the bathroom and back, I managed to call someone to come look after me.  By about noon I was recovered enough to feel almost normal as long as I made absolutely no attempt to lift my head from the floor or, indeed, move it in any way.
I’d like to say, proudly even, that I took this with a fair amount of emotional stoicism. Something was wrong, these things happened, it would probably sort itself out pretty quickly, most things did. Even at the rough age of 23ish I had little experience of being ill, and certainly nothing that had lasted more than a couple of days.
And then I was passed a book. As soon as I settled on a sentence my brain turned itself inside out. The dizziness came back worse than ever – like trying to read a book in a violently swerving car.**
Suddenly I was afraid***. Never mind standing up, getting dressed or any of the 101  other things that go on in a typical human say. I remember clearly the thought: if I can’t read; I’m useless.
In retrospect, it’s an odd thing to pick on. I was physically extremely active: I’d founded and was running the university Judo club (which I’m pleased to note is still running) and was preparing to take my Black Belt exam with the ninjutsu club.  Physicality was an extremely important bit of my life but it didn’t register as something to worry about (indeed, I did lose both of those things due to a back injury a year or so later). But losing reading, losing the ability process information, that was apparently something that panicked me deeply.
As it happens, it did clear up in a few days. It was an inner ear infection. It’s a fairly embarrassing to bring up such relatively minor short-lived illness on a disability-focused blog.
However it is on here, and it’s here because I think it’s important to be transparent with people. If people know what I fear they understand me better. I also think it’s important to be transparent with yourself. Before it happened I wouldn’t have known that about myself, and I haven’t thought about it in years – but it’s still there.
*I also firmly believe that you can tell a lot about someone by the contents of their bookshelf.
**This is even more awful if you are driving.
***afraid enough to overuse italics certainly; I’ll be slipping in a semi-colon if you aren’t careful, and then all hope for the post will be lost…

Presenting…

Screenshot 2015-10-18 02.34.32
A little while ago I was searching though my inbox for something and found an email I’d written to a friend who’d asked for feedback on a presentation.  Reading it though I think a lot of it applies more generally.  It’s really my take on both presenting and getting better at presenting.
I’m posting it here almost unaltered, apart from rewriting some identifiable material to protect the privacy of everybody involved (and fixing more typos than I care to admit).  I hope it might be interesting to some of the early-stage researchers I know who keep an eye on the blog.
Feedback?
 
First of all it must be said that it is extremely hard to judge your own presentation performance – nobody is a unbiased judge of their own performance.  The ways that count are:
 
1) Will the people who saw you present this year, come back and see you present next year?
2) There is no 2)
 
…and you can’t know that yet.  People talk about the number of emails you get, the number of people who ‘tweeted’ your talk and such, but most of that is about how high you are in the pecking order of the community, not how well you presented.
 
To give you an example, I felt that the presentation I did this year was pretty average. The presentation you saw me give last year was good.
 
There are a bunch of reasons why I wasn’t as good this year, but the thing that is important is that almost everyone who came to the first presentation this year was in the presentation last year. Given that there is a choice of 8 presentations at any given time (and a lot of people wouldn’t have been back this year) I’m counting that as a win (I certainly don’t expect the same level of retention this year…)
 
The next thing to say is that as far as I’m concerned the *only* feedback worth getting is a videotape of yourself giving the presentation (or at least an audio recording).  It’s a horrific thing to watch, but it’s also very beneficial. You watch it once though, then once with only the sound, then once without the sound (because you are looking at body language) then you watch it again. And you’ll get more out of that experience than you ever will having people tell you if they liked it or not. (Don’t get me wrong, I love people telling me how awesome I am – the problem is that it’s not scientific, and I don’t think it’s the best way to either sustain or improve the level of awesome)
 
Having said all that, we can now do some specifics. 
 
<SNIP>
 
On the topic of worrying about audience questions.  One should never feel inferior.  Intimidated… possibly. Certainly the audience can always ask questions that are designed to make themselves look good at the expense of the presenter (and it’s generally obvious to the rest of the audience that this is happening).  But you should bear in mind you have friends in the audience too. Part of the responsibility of the chair is to avoid someone getting metaphorically beaten up and they should help in. And you can always call for help if you need it (If I’m in an audience I can (and have) give a spirited defence of just about anything on short notice…). 
 
If you are not willing to rely on yourself you can rely on your friends. You are alone at the front, but you’re not as vulnerable as you think – I’ve had friends in the audience busking for me for 15 minutes while I frantically rebuilt some software we were showing…   So if you are nervous take some people with you.  

Jugglers are dangerous people

Juggling metaphor

Jugglers are extremely dangerous people. Not because of the deadly nature of the art: the MMA octagon is going to remain free of their kind regardless of how many knives and flaming clubs get tossed around.
No, jugglers are dangerous people because of their minds.
You see the secret of learning to juggle is that it consists of failure.  Complete failure.  Not ‘oh we’re getting the hang of it now’ failure or ‘gradual improvement’ failure. But complete and abject failure.  Failure so complete that the feedback is that you should give up forever. The first thing that you find out when you try to learn to juggle is that it’s clear you have no talent for this, admittedly, relatively pointless skill. Your failure will show without doubt that even the attempt was unwise.
…and this lasts for hours.
and hours! 
After an amount of time that defies measurement you make, perhaps by fluke, four catches in a row. This is just long enough to for you to realise “I’m juggling!” and drop everything. Inspired, you pick your balls up and then proceed to fail just as hard for another two hours until finally you can consistently juggle.
The important thing to take from this, is that jugglers are people who can stare the most abject failure in the face for hours and hours and keep going. 
It is superb life training.  If you are yet to learn to juggle – give it a go. Fail utterly until it starts going your way. And when you do, burn it into your mind.  Because then, whenever, and wherever you suffer a setback, you’ll remember that the signals you are getting now are nothing compared with how abject your juggling failures were.  When you realise that, you are much more likely to pick up your metaphorical balls, and keep trying.

Climbing…

Screenshot 2015-09-20 18.12.17
I’m currently putting off writing a review of Communication Matters 2015, where I spent  last weekend.  Instead I find myself writing about climbing.
When I started regularly writing online, I began to develop a slightly strange attitude to events.  I like things to run smoothly, but I also like full scale cock-ups. Minor cock-ups are useless – they are both inconvenient and difficult to get an amusing 800 word rant out of.
I also end up collecting half-finnished anecdotes; like the man who refuses to throw away broken items because the necessary tool is bound to turn up in a car boot sale at some point.  I have a large collection of half written posts that are just waiting for me to have a the necessary life event before they can emerge, fully formed, as grown-up rants.
This week I had the pleasant experience of having both halves of a post arrive within days of each other.
Staying in conference accommodation at the University of Leeds, I took my more-enthusiasm-than-skill climbing kit down to the University Sport Centre.
“Hello, I’m here with a conference and I’d like to go bouldering please”  (for the uninitiated, bouldering is climbing without ropes only a short distance from the ground, over thick mats).
The bright and attentive student working on reception put a slight kink in my plan:
“I’m afraid you’ll have to do a belay test first” (belaying is what you do when you’re on the ground holding the rope for your climbing partner)
“Sorry, I actually just want to go bouldering… there’s only one of me you see…”
“Yes, you have to do a belay test before you go bouldering. It’s the policy.”
I digested this. The receptionist looked at me in the manner of someone who had made an obvious point to a slightly dim customer. I’m aware there is little point arguing with a ‘policy’. More to the point – while I’d happily take the policy author to task, I have my own policy of avoiding taking out frustration on customer staff who are generally blameless.  I decided to comply.  Besides, while I haven’t belay’d in a little while, the test would be a few minute job (I particularly enjoyed one at White Spider which just involved showing you a photo of a climbing scene and asking you to point out the dangerous bits).
“Okay then, can I have a quick belay test done”
“Sorry, none of our instructors are here… It’s health and safety you see…”
I gave up.  But it had been a long day
“Okay, so can I ask about the sauna then?”
“Oh yes, you can use the sauna”
“I don’t need to pass a swimming test or anything” (It really had been a long day and I apologise to the staff, although to be fair, I was also clearly amused rather than irritated – and she laughed too)
“No, no swimming test”
“Okay I’d like one entry for the sauna please”
“Oh, you can’t use it at the moment, because water polo are using the pool…”
So I had a night in instead.
Of course – the main factor here is that university sports centres aren’t judged like local authority ones – local authority ones are judged on the experience of the public – university sports centres are judged entirely on their performance with the university teams.
The other half of this came a few days later.
I, as a would-totally-be-carrying-a-card-if-there-was-a-card-available introvert, avoid conference dinners as a general policy and I slipped away after the last conference session to try a different climbing wall in Leeds.
City Bloc is nestled in a industrial area so generically nondescript that it defies even the emotion that would be conveyed by ‘grey’, but it turned out to be a wonderful find.
I wandered in to find a friendly receptionist behind a much-used desk and under a slightly too-dim bulb. She asked a few sensible questions – produced the standard ‘are you doing to die in my building’ form and, unprompted, told me that the Monday technique class was most of the way through, but she’d introduce me to the instructor anyway.  (I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but you’ll note that this helpfully also introduces the instruction to the fact that there’s a new person at the wall and they might be worth keeping an eye on).
The instructor had just finished his session – but very kindly said he’d stay on and show me around anyway. He worked out my level (V2-V3 for context), pointed out a bunch of nice routes that stretched me the right amount and introduced be to at least 11 of the 15 people on the mat.  He even mercifully choose the 11 who climbed at about my level rather than the four who where climbing much higher problems.
I’ll say this – the area was relatively small, the shower didn’t work, and there was probably relatively little to do for strong climbers coming very regularly – but it was still the friendliest climbing place I’ve been to.
Small venues like City Bloc live and die with their community, and in future, I’m going to be a little more careful to seek out a place that lives by its community, rather than one that lives by its status.

Cargo Cults… and why Novelists are people who finish books

Quick note for readers. I think it’s important that I consider my back catalogue of posts to be part of the site and that they get maintained, looked after and followed up on. So each Friday I’ll be picking a post I did from that week last year, and see if my opinions have changed, or find out how the story develops.  This post was originally published 17th September 2014.

 

 

 

 

Time to Get Angry, Plate 2
This man is not, necessarily, a brilliant scientist.

Would you like to know what the most chilling aspect of working in a computer science department is?

Computer science departments have a tendency to forgive their great figures certain oddities of behaviour. Sometimes this is because they genuinely have missed the cues and I have no problem with that. Some of them just enjoy being unpleasant, and I can understand that even while I deplore it. 

The chilling problem is that people around these figures have a terrible tendency to assume that the more unpleasant a person is to deal with – the greater the intellectual calibre must be.

When I was an undergraduate we had lecturers who were astonishingly bad at teaching; instead of demanding that we be given the basic respect of the department, we thought to ourselves “wow he must be a really brilliant man”.  We were working on  the reasonable grounds that if he wasn’t employed for his teaching he must have been employed for his research.  (In all cases it turns out that there is no such correlation – I have literally never seen a case where quality of teaching had ever had anything to do with a position being filled). 

The bit that upsets me is when I see the cargo culting. I see bright research students arrive: they are polite and friendly, nice and social.  Indeed, the ones that work with decent supervisors stay that way. 

However, the ones that work with other supervisors clearly have the thought “this person a brilliant scientist and also an awful human being. I want to be like them!”.  Except that brilliant is hard to emulate and awful is easy, so you end up with with research students turning feral; picking up all the nasty habits for none of the good ones.  Unfortunately for them, dickishness does not actually confer intellectual greatness except in their own minds.

 

So that’s upsetting. And avoiding this sort of thing is one of the key goals of TooManyCooks.

The TooManyCooks adventure (particularly in its school form:  White Water Writers) fairly regularly attracts people who have talent but who have let their idea of ‘an author’ get in their way.  They’ve been convinced that an author must be angry, angsty even. That writing is about ritually cursing your own work and ripping it up again.  Inevitably they find themselves tending towards this strange cultural identity of ‘tortured writer’.

One of the things I find I say a lot when I’m running a writing camp is this:

“Novelists are people who finish books” (with full credit to Chris Watkins, from whom I first heard the phrase)

Not people who had an great idea, not people who really wanted to be a writer, but people who finish books.  Not curse books. Not talk about books, but who finish them.

…and to their credit, one of the things that happens around day three of a writing project is that the crew start to see the words mount up and they let go of the other things they thought mattered. They lose all of the pretensions and they write better because of it.  I think that is one of the best things that the TooManyCooks project teaches people.

'Daily Rituals' book cover

‘Daily Rituals’ book cover

For those that can’t get to a TooManyCooks or White Water Writers camp I recommend having a read through Daily Rituals. It’s a lovely little book that chronicles the working habits of a massive range of creative people. And the major theme running through it is how little pretension there is: we have such wonderful examples as Anthony Trollope: 

If he completed a novel before his three hours were up, Trollope would take out a fresh sheet of paper and immediately begin the next one.

…which is the most refreshing change from ‘angst writing’ that I’ve seen.    Beethoven is another excellent example: 

Beethoven rose at dawn and wasted little time getting down to work. His breakfast was coffee, which he prepared himself with great care—he determined that there should be sixty beans per cup, and he often counted them out one by one for a precise dose. Then he sat at his desk and worked until 2:00 or 3:00, taking the occasional break to walk

W.H Auden: 

Auden rose shortly after 6:00 A.M., made himself coffee, and settled down to work quickly, perhaps after taking a first pass at the crossword. His mind was sharpest from 7:00 until 11:30 A.M., and he rarely failed to take advantage of these hours. (He was dismissive of night owls: “Only the ‘Hitlers of the world’ work at night; no honest artist does.”

It’s quite clear from reading the book that everyone we think of as a ‘great author’ had the sensible approach to writing of ‘sit down, stop complaining, and write’.  

There are, of course, exceptions: 

Toulouse-Lautrec did his best creative work at night, sketching at cabarets or setting up his easel in brothels.  

…and we shall also draw a bit of a veil over the number of the great artists who were clearly serious alcoholics or addicted to drugs. 

I particularly like Mozart – 

My hair is always done by six o’clock in the morning and by seven I am fully dressed. I then compose until nine.

I love firstly that it’s such a good example of someone carving out a slice of their day to do what they love, but also that it sets one to wonder what was he wearing that he took an hour to get dressed every day?

Vegan events

bag head

So there’s something I should get off my chest.

I occasionally find myself at a vegan event – something like vegfest or the vegan festival (yes, maybe these names are a touch similar) and there are a great many stalls selling things that promote saving other things.
It’s interesting; but only just.

In vegan supplies, everything is web-driven. So all the companies selling, for example, raw coco beans, or vegan face creams, make almost all of their money online. Almost of all the campaigning that the campaigning organisations do is by email.

I quite like this state of affairs, but the problem is that most of these organisations have no real clue what to do when running a stand at a physical event. It’s bizarre. Deeply bizarre that you have effectively (in the case of vegfest) a tradeshow that is entirely populated by people who have no idea how a tradeshow works or even what they are doing there.
Last year I turned up to vegfest on the third day; it was astonishing how few people could give a good answer to simple questions like “what does your organisation do?”.
On the third day.
When you go to a practised event (like even BETT can be) you deal with people who do a minimum of 20 trade shows a year and who have tightly setup spaces with a range of materials that are useful for a variety of people.
The people you chat to are attractive, attentive and personable. You never get as far as “what does your organisation do?” because they are leading with a couple of well chosen questions to find out about you.
If you come with a problem they can tell you how their product will save you money. If you come as press you get talked to about their cool new launch and if you are sorted into one of the many other categories you get given the relevant response or carefully passed on to someone who knows. If it’s a busy event you’ll be triaged carefully with timewasters given a pen and a smile. If it’s a quiet period then timewasters will be kept close and courted because everyone knows that people draw people and having an empty stand is the kiss of death.
Such events have a darkside as I moaned about at BETT but professionalism counts for a lot.  Some people do it better than others, some concepts are inherently more likely to draw a crowd, but everybody can win. There’s a nice interaction; both sides understand what the other wants and they decide if they want to pursue further interaction.
Whereas vegfest was as endearing a mess as one could hope for.   I spent much of my teenage years working on a market stall or at a flower show and I’m aware of the stamina it takes to do a full day of event work at a stand. Apparently that’s rare knowledge: at vegfest  I saw stand after stand where the standholder was sat staring at nothing or with head in hands, plainly exhausted.
It doesn’t help that people running online business for niche groups are likely to be on the introvert end of the spectrum and thus even more exhausted by the process, but they should see it coming.
I spoke to many stands that really didn’t quite know what they were expecting to get out of the event. The reasoning appeared to be “a lot of groups like ours have a stand so many we should do to” which is admirably community spirited but terribly underthought.
Those were the stands that I could persuade to chat. Now I’m first to admit that I’m pretty far to the introvert end of the scale – a decade of attacking complex mathematical problems has hardly equipped me to be a charming conversationalist. But I can take a workmanlike attitude to the process and retrieve information with a reasonable amount of smiling all round. Nevertheless in some cases it was like drawing information out of a stone. Not only were standholders completely uninterested in us (as people to sell things to,  who might be looking for a volunteering opportunity,  who might have an event they were organising or be interested in writing a blog article about them) they seamed remarkably uninterested in telling us about what they did. While the professionals had 20 speeches for 20 types of customer, these guys had chosen to rely only on the full range of monosyllables.
Is this a thing that everyone has experienced or am I going to the wrong events?

Mini rant: Amazon delivery addresses.

IMG_2168
 I occasionally buy friends presents though Amazon.  Mostly I have stuff sent directly to them because a) they get it sooner and b) it saves the postal service the extra trip.
When I send someone a present this way I have to put in their address. This is normally a bit of a faff – people move, and if I’m yet to visit their house then I have to text them and suspiciously ask for the their address (which ruins surprises).
…and then I have to work out what happens if there is nobody to take delivery. The last thing I want is for one of my friends to take a half day off work to head down and pick up a package from the sorting office – particularly if it turns out that the only reason they had to go to all that effort was because I sent them a comedy keyring.
You know what particularly annoys me about this?
AMAZON ALREADY HAS THEIR ADDRESS
Ebay does to. There’s a reasonable chance that Etsy does.   So where is the:
This is a present for another Amazon customer
box?   I’d tick the box and Amazon would ask me for the person’s email address, I’d put it in and my bit would be finished.
At the other end of the transaction, my friend would get a email like this:
From: Amazon
Subject: You have been bought a present! 
 
Someone has purchased you a present on Amazon.  We’re planning on delivering it to address: 
 
XXXXX
XXXXX
XXXXX
XXXXX
 
on the 12th of August.  if you’d like to change this destination or time, please click here. 
That’s if I wanted it to be a secret.  I’d like their to be a non-secret option so my friend could click the “Actually I already have this book/equipment/thing” link and save me some money (it would also be nice for their to be a anonymous option so that I get the credit.
It seems like such an obvious thing, why doesn’t it exist? It makes it easier to spend money, gives customers a better experience, and, interestingly, means that we can protect our addresses better from people if we want to keep them private.
Indeed – why do any websites have my address? How about I give my address to the Royal Mail (I live in the UK), tell them my email address (and some authentication) and whenever I order a package I can say “tell the Royal Mail it’s for joe.reddington@gmail.com”.  I’d get more privacy (within a certain pricing code), and less effort of typing my address in forever. Indeed, I’d pay extra for a service that homed in on my phone and handed the package to me personally….
What’s particularly annoying (as pointed out on reddit, where I trialed this post) is that this is nearly possible, if you’ve jumped though a few hoops first.  If you’ve connected to them on Facebook (likely) and you’ve both connected Facebook to Amazon (considerably less likely) then you can do a (fairly complex) setup (http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html/ref=hp_left_v4_sib?ie=UTF8&nodeId=201108090) that lets it happen.  But come on! All you need is the email that they use for their Amazon account!

Organisational Debt

Messy Desk

Organisation Debt is a term that we need to start using.
We understand financial debt. Sometimes you need more money than you have available to you so you go into debt; you eventually have to pay back that money along with some extra money called interest.
Programmers have to deal with technical debt. Technical debt is when making something work well will take more time/energy than you have available – so you make it work ‘kind of okay’ with the resources you have.  The problem is every time you go near that part of the code again you have to spent more time/energy dealing with the downstream problems it causes.
Organisational debt is the debt you set up in your own life.  You’d like a clean kitchen with everything in the right place, all knives sharpened, all broken things repaired, and everything in place.  You haven’t got time to sort all that you (it would take a day).  You’ll eventually spend that day organising, but until you do you pay back 30 seconds interest whenever you are trying to find a particular spice, you pay interest in energy every time you can’t have nice hot chocolate because you’ve failed to put a battery in the frother and you pay interest in a 100 other ways every time you use the kitchen.
This is organisational debt and it’s a very worthwhile thing to think about.
I did some filming recently for a little bit of an AAC video, and I should apologise for the shakiness of the filming.  It’s not like the filming should have been shaky, I have a stand that I bought especially to avoid this some time ago.  The problem was that when I opened my cupboard to get the stand out I was confronted by such an enormous amount of a random objects piled on top of each other and tided together with a bewildering array of wires that it was clear that looking for the stand would take much longer than it was worth.
So my disorganised cupboard makes life slightly less nice and easy, and it does get worse, because I’m falling deeper into organisational debt.  And it gets worse still: because I can’t find something then I’m late for an appointment and so whatever I was working on before just gets thrown haphazardly into the cupboard.

It’s getting nasty in there.

So why is this in any way interesting? Because there are some very sensible things said about technical debt that you should bear in mind when you think about organisation debt.  For starters, software engineers are aware that the proper way of doing things is not just tidying up, it’s refactoring.

Refactoring is (ideally) when you take some code that works, and then to rearrange it so that it is simpler, or easier for other people to understand, or uses more secure approaches, or just so it looks nicer to deal with.  Paying down technical debt is done mostly by refactoring things that currently work, but could work a lot better.

And it’s applicable in your own life.  Paying down your organisational debt is not simply tidying up, it’s thinking about exactly how you ended up in this position and working out how your needs have changed since last time you looked at it.

So my climbing gear is normally stored in various places in the cupboard.  By comparison, since I was at university I’d always had a packed and ready-to-go Judo bag easily accessible from the front door.  Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to judo for various mild injury reasons for the last year. So while the tidying up would be
get my climbing stuff together and make sure it's clean,
the refactoring would be
my climbing pack is packed and stored by the front door.
In the kitchen- the tidying up is
I wash up and put the pans properly away in the drawer
whereas the refactoring should be that
put the sharpener closer to the knives.

Computer games promote better mindsets than the rest of the media.

Nintendo DS

I’ve been spending some time playing Plants verses Zombies with my God-nephew recently.  It’s been quite a fun experience.  Partly, of course, it’s a nice to see generational changes.  Where’s old people used to say to my generation “Why are you playing that stupid video game? it’s wrong!” my generation can say to the next “Why are you playing that video game wrong? it’s stupid!”
So my poor nephew (he’s six)  is swiftly finding that the price for asking me to help on hard levels is that he gets an extensive lecture on resource management (spoiler alert: you aren’t building enough sunflowers).  He’s getting rapidly better ever time I visit but it’s pretty hard for him because it’s invisible to him what I’m doing differently.
When he plays, he sees the zombies eating a lot of his plants and he spends a lot of panicky time getting almost to the end until finally one of the zombies breaks though.  When he watches me play he sees a lot more plants and the zombies being kept at a fair distance away with relatively little panic.  He’d be forgiven for thinking I’ve just sneakily switched the difficulty down.  Actually I’m just recalling the lessons learned in a misspent youth of video gaming and managing the resources differently.  You make ten decisions a second in a video game and the ones that make life easier for me right now are the ones I made three minutes ago and that’s tough for him to appreciate.
I have great hope for video games and the education of the next generation because video games promote strategic thinking particularly compared with TV.
In the very marvellous game Pokemon, you win NOT by playing well in the battles,  you win by having carefully managed your resources for the last couple of days of playtime, grinding your way up the levels until you have a team that successfully solved all of the problems you could possibly come across.  The major message of Pokemon is that winning is about having worked hard before taking the test.  On the other hand the message of the Transformers series of films is that by doing nothing until you are directly threatened, you can just keep being lucky and finding plot-useful things until you are saved by another series of random occurrences.
The message of Grand Theft Auto, which may surprise its detractors, is that success depends on turning up prepared. If you are causal about starting a mission in Grand Theft Auto, then you are going to have a much less fun time than the guy who took the time to explore. That guy found the body armour and the high-powered guns, he turned up in a fast car, and did enough of the bonus missions that his stats are prementenly boosted.  By comparison the message of most of the Marvel films is that success depends on being born a genius/accidentally being turned into a rage monster/randomly being chosen as a medical test subject/being born a god – none of which are quite the same ‘hard work’ message.
Now I’m aware that you can argue the point – Iron Man can be seen as ‘success is having designed a better suit’,  but it’s still a film mostly about impressive tactical solutions to massive strategic disadvantages (the icing issue is the only time I can think of where it’s clear that Stark had a superior testing system to Stane).  I’ve pulled off my share of outrageously lucky driving in GTA, and will happily admit that there is little in the way of wide strategy in Tekken and Street Fighter (although I will contend that the more strategic your approach is in Tekken the better you will do)
So I’m quite optimistic about computer games shaping the thinking of youth. At least compared to their most likely competition.

A book I’d like to write

Evil

I grew up before the Internet kicked in and read insatiably at the time.

Insatiably.

I came to reading relatively late but quickly outdistanced the expectations of parents and teachers. I read everything in the house. I read entirely without judgement. I could no more have told you the difference between a good and bad book than between a good and bad tree.

Being entirely unfussy about how I consumed information was quite the blessing. The bizarre hodgepodge of generally contextless facts one acquires was one of the things I had working in my favour at school.

In more recent times this tendency manifests in being a)  unable to walk past a bookshop in general and b)  willing to pick up and learn from anything lying around.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading I Can Make You Thin, by Paul McKenna in an independent bookshop in Aberdeen (I’m the same weight now that I was when I was 18 and I generally haven’t moved more than maybe 7kg in any direction), Twilight, large chunks of Haynes Manuals, odd bits of religious texts, cookbooks for things I find it cruel to eat and histories of things that definitely didn’t happen. I like to think I got something out of all of them.

And so we come to The Game, which I picked up in all innocence in a bookshop somewhere and found myself reading open mouthed at what appeared to be a proofread version of hell.

I do a couple of long rants on the topic of the Game. I suspect there are better on the Internet. The Mash (of course) has it’s own take on the ‘community’ as does xkcd. Suffice to say that, the Game is a book that defines seduction as “Step 1 approach literally every woman you see. Step 2: lie to them until someone sleeps with you. Step 3: repeat”.

The Game was a profound influence on me in that I swore very early on to never ever find myself looking at the world in the way it promoted. It’s generally fairly creepy to even contemplate.

…and this started a trend for me of reading some very strange books. It’s an interesting process. There’s a quote that goes:

“Choose your enemies carefully
because they will define you”

…and this became the literary equivalent. What I want from life hasn’t changed, but by comparing it to the power and money obsessed ideologies of things like  The 48 Laws Of Power I was able to chip away the things that I definitely didn’t want to be.

 

So I think these books can have a place, in the same way that records of crimes should be kept. Not to glorify, but to warn.

Buuuuut…

The majority of people who buy them treat them differently. They buy them because they accept the central premise that life is about power and control and that the answer to their problems is to act more like an lab rat and less like a human; to lie; to glorify oneself; and to steal status.

I find myself wondering how to ‘fix’ this. A cultural way to end this ‘positive’ feedback loop: the cultural reinforcement that means people keep using these authors to justify more and more dark behaviour.

The solution?

I’m starting to think that the answer may be in the other great weakness of the texts – that they clearly don’t ‘work’. The business practices of the The 48 Laws Of Power (A Joost Elffers Production) would work in a world were you never worked with the same person twice and people didn’t talk to each other – but you will and they do. The ‘tactics’ of The Tame would be great – if your idea of a rewarding courtship is to have pre-written the script for every conversation, and your idea of a relationship involves hiding 90% of your life from your other half.

This leaves an opening. So how about a new book. One that is written in the same hyper-masculine style, one that motivates in terms of power and force and influence. One that breaks down the previous approaches and gives all the reasons why they fail. The reasons they fail are pretty obvious at the meta-level: if you are a nasty unreliable piece of work, people don’t want to work with you. Co-operation is what civilisation works on. Crime really doesn’t pay.

But the meta-level is no use to this target audience. The message needs to engage on their terms. They need to hear, for example, why paying the right amount of tax makes you richer (because all the time and effort you have to put in to getting away with avoiding tax is enough for you to make much more than you are paying. Why treating people with respect and decency means that you’ll have the high status girlfriend that everyone else wants (because it turns out that women aren’t stupid and do talk) and why being honest and open about what you want from life means that people will loyally follow you and help you get it.

…and you have to put the message in exactly those terms. Talk about power and control and sex. Don’t mention respect and decency and love. Present the ideas not as a moral foundation but as a set of tactics that trick the world into giving you what you want.

There are thousands upon thousands (48 Laws of Power sold over 1.2 million copies in the United States) of people who have absorbed the idea that the way to live is to take power and to value status over people. So far society’s answer has been the same as it’s always been: to recognise such people by their methods and then frustrate their path at every turn. Some do get the life they desire. The vast majority don’t.

How about we attempt to harness this power, this raw ambition. If we can turn only a fraction of that number into people who channelled their fire, their greed, their ambitions into creating rather than destroying, then that would be a sight to see, a real sight to see.

All this is simply to tell you that I might take a chance (making use of this sort of technical analysis) at preparing a short set of posts aimed at evil people.  Watch this space.