The offer

He came to me at dawn, from the fog.

Stood beside me. Said: “This I can offer…”

“Time: four hours more a day, yours to enjoy.

Take your lost mornings back. Many evenings too.

And more…relief from sickness, headache, insomnia, dread.

More energy, clarity, firmness of purpose,

maybe a little slimness, possibly a little fitness.

You’ll smell better, taste better, have better teeth

and perhaps be a little harder when required.

More certainty of what you like and don’t;

of who’s worth spending time with and who isn’t.

Perspective – seeing who you really are,

where you are, where you’re going and where you want to go.

Wonderful new relationships and maybe some healing of the old.”

I marvelled, head reeling. I said, “I understand.

This I want, but at what cost?”

He replied:

“In money, nothing. I’ll even give you a thousand a year.

But there are other, heavier prices to consider:

What if you’re not who or where you thought you were?

You’ll change – maybe more, maybe less

but accept it’s an unknown.

You’ll be a stranger at times

to those you love, work and play with.

You may have to leave them, even where you live,

or change your profession entirely.

In many groups, you’ll be an outsider,

a threat, an object of pity and ridicule.

You will see the sharp edges of things you’d hidden before.

And maybe for good reasons.

You may lose home, partner, even children.

You may walk alone for years.

At parties you’ll be awkward; in the pub, shunned;

branded the loner, the loser, the killjoy.

You may withdraw, or seek new diversions

but new directions will emerge,

and with them, a new you.”

I marvelled.

“Yes,” I said. “I want this.

How long do I sign up for?

A lifetime is unthinkable.”

“Of course it is,” he said.

“These changes may take minutes or years,

but you only have to commit to today.”

I nodded, and gave him the bottle.

Roll up, roll up…

Bus crash photo, by Paul Clarke

…for all the fun of the fair

There’s a good chance you’ll see something today, if you haven’t already, about a pseudonymous online character for whom life seems to have taken a very recent and very awkward turn.

This character specialises in winding people up in extreme ways, in generating and thriving on outrage, in what we call (safely, for once) “trolling”.

“Hello people with some particular cause to be sensitive, hello public servant, hello anyone who may disagree with me – you’re a c**t, this is why, and I’m actually really on your side for saying it. Oh, and one day you’ll thank me that I stood up for those rights.” “Listen to me, notice me, tell all your friends how outraged you are and hope they join in…yada yada yada.”

I’m not linking to or referencing the specific details here, as I avoid doling out troll food – but he seems to have bitten off a big one this time. Repeated taunting and goading of a community who not only have some pretty good reasons behind their pride and sensitivity, but also a track record (first successful petition to be debated in Parliament, anyone?) of organising and supporting each other.

And support blends seamlessly into the formation of a mob, and from there, the path to actual, real-world, nastiness can spiral upwards rather quickly.

Thing is, our Defender of Freedom didn’t really do the tightest job of hiding his real identity. Pieces to camera in his natural voice behind a mask; social media accounts under his pseudonym showing real people with real names, in identifiable locations. Almost like he wanted to be outed eventually. Hmm.

And now that doxxing has happened. Personal information is out there. Whether it’s accurate or not is anybody’s guess. Whether the entire episode is some extraordinary situationist stunt to promote a brand of soap is still a possibility. (Ok, it’s not.)

Did he want to be unmasked? Was the online attention not enough any more? Did some sort of martyrdom – however you want to interpret that – represent a fitting culmination to a sustained period of effort?

OK, so what’s my point here?

It’s one of those cases that features a regular theme on this site: the gap between nice, clearly-marked, “how-the-world-should-be” and its messy reality.

My opinion is that you can’t slip a fag paper through the logical thought process that says one should have the freedom to cause the potential for offence. Any attempt to lock out that freedom will fail to work, and even if it did, would take more away from us than it gave us back. Potential is of course an important word here: the online media he uses are seen “by choice”, not forced into people’s homes…yeah, right. It doesn’t work like that, of course. Rubbernecking always trumps rationality.

Yes, we’ve built rules like banning public incitement to hatred, but they don’t adapt easily to media where my choice to subscribe (or my friends’) drive what I see. That word “public” again… but this is getting into more detail than I intend to in this post.

Back to the point: which is that this case made me think about how reactions, and change, really work. You know, in the normal world.

Where I grew up, when things were changing fast, like going through school, being a teenager, finding your feet in a new area – there was a contrast between the official boundaries intended to guide behaviour, and the “corrections” that would be applied by the environment. Bluntly: if you really pissed somebody off, you’d get thumped. And the rules? Irrelevant. At some point, with enough sustained “correcting” going on, there might be a shift in the official rules to keep us all sane, and we’d all lumber onwards.

The first bit of that process might be brutal, and horrible, of course. But it’s what happens. You can say what you like – be as offensive as you like – but it doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences. They might not be legal. Or a Good Thing. But you can’t just vanish them away. Do I condemn any violent action that might result from a case like this? Yes. Do I see that it might also be an inevitable component of something more wide-ranging? Yes to that too.

We need corrections. They’re part of making change: whether that’s to a price, a set of laws or to the behaviour of a society.

There are no smooth dials on society – or levers that leaders can pull to make big things happen as planned. (From Gove to Pickles to Duncan Smith the reality of this is now hitting hard, but that’s definitely another post.)

In today’s example I can’t help feeling there’s a certain irony in a professed free-market libertarian being prepared to test the market – and its possible application of a correction – in quite such an extreme and personal way.

I am very interested to see how this plays out. And we should take an interest, perhaps from a distance – without lobbing in a ton of troll food – on how it does play out. It matters. The seismic societal change here is one where everyone can create content and reach an audience (or be reached by it). Despite a lot of fury on the internetz, there’ve been remarkably few examples of that boiling over into actual, tangible, harm.

We’ve had outrages about Daily Mail articles, we’ve had anger about privilege and so much else, but something about this one feels very different. Hard people are involved here. For whom the jokey “I’ll do time…” phrase beloved of Private Eye’s spoof comments thread may well have a different resonance.

“It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye” as they say.

We’ll see, won’t we.

About me, but not of me?

Silhouette of boy in sea

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

Bear with me here.

Lots of agitation at the moment about the prospect of our health records being flogged to the highest bidder and scattered to the four winds in the interests of progress and profit.

So here’s a thought to chew on: how are we so sure they are actually our records?

What are these records, anyway? A gathering of facts – of some very personal facts for sure – my weight, my addictions, my phobias, my illnesses. But it’s also a record of my transactions, medical interventions, successes and failures.

And that latter aspect takes us, in this contorted line of reasoning, to a more complex place than merely a collection of details about me.

For transactions have two sides. Givers and receivers. Ministers and ministered. To choke off the supply of feedback on interventions is to poke a stick in the eye of rationality and science, surely?

There’s a ready assumption that it’s “my record this” and “my record that” – but what if we were to reframe this? What if we were to accept (after a huge public thrashing-out that has shown no sign of taking place so far) that by receiving we also have to give? That the quid pro quo of that new medication is the giving up of that transaction, of its success or failure, so that others may learn, and that we all may benefit? Thus science would march onwards with its boots reinforced by the tough leather of real-world evidence.

Of course those two constructs I mentioned above: facts about us, and about our transactions, can’t be neatly separated like that. To make sense of my intervention you have to know about my underlying condition. Evidence of interaction may not have much meaning without a historical context. So while it may be more palatable to argue for the sharing of intervention experiences for the greater good, pieces of the “us” stuff will inevitably be attached.

But pause for a moment – consider what the debate about personal data would look like were we to acknowledge that just because something is about me, it isn’t necessarily of me.

Insistence on opt-outs from data collection would start to look like an act of selfish resistance, a dogmatic adherence to an ideology of paranoia, a one-way street in terms of the flow of benefits. Yeah, give me the treatments, but don’t expect to be able to learn anything based on the outcomes.

Deanonymisation (the jigsaw rebuilding of supposedly laundered data to reidentify personal records) would start to look less like an absolute evil, and more an equivocal risk to be weighed against benefits. See those benefits of sharing as benefits to us all, and the harsh black and white of much of the debate around rights and records melds to a rather more nuanced sea of greys.

This is hardly a popular line of thought. But I think it merits a bit more of an airing. Where else would you expect to preserve such transactional asymmetry? What is so sacrosanct about our physical existence that makes it right to fight against information sharing when this may act against the rational interests of our collective societal body?

Having set your stall out against data sharing or anonymisation, or in favour of informed consent to share, are you still so sure of the moral rock on which you’ve built it?

High speeeed data

2012-12-08 13.17.00

A few quick notes after my first month-and-a-bit as a field-triallist* for EE of their 4G mobile data service.

After Andrew Grill had a rough experience trying to be a 4G early adopter, he worked with EE to try and make something constructive from the experience. His original blog post about it had got a lot of attention, so he proposed giving five ‘advocates‘ the chance to use the service, and write honestly about it. I am one of those users, and my mobile data needs are pretty demanding.

As a photographer, I’m uploading content every day. Lots of it. I also need to look at a fair few images, but it’s the upward speed that would make a real difference to me. When I can’t get hold of decent, fast, reliable wifi – so that includes most events – I turn to my Three all-you-can-eat data plan.

That’s pretty good, and I’ve had speeds around 11/3 (up/down in Mbps) with a general expectation of about 6/2 and a regular 8/1.5 at home. (Yes, at home. Broadband here delivers a measly 2/0.4, and often bogs down completely.)

So how has EE been working? Well, sadly I live just outside the 4G coverage, near the M25, but the H+ service is still a bit faster than Three’s (at 10/1.6). Though it does seem to drop out for no apparent reason about once an hour, requiring a handset restart and relinking to its wifi to pick back up again. So I’ve found myself tending to use Three instead, as that remains uninterrupted for as long as needed.

In 4G territory though, it’s devastatingly fast. The best I’ve seen (in Shoreditch) was 26/12, but I’d say in London generally 18/5 is more representative. Still incredibly fast, though. Twice I’ve seen uploads at 20Mbps when testing.

But it’s not about the numbers, really. Has this made me more effective in my work? The picture is still a little mixed so far. The first reason for this is that at speeds that fast, the 8GB package that we’re on (that’s the maximum being offered to the market at the moment by EE although I’ve had two arguments with people now who swear they know someone who’s on a bigger limit) gets eaten up very quickly. After four days of usage (and not that heavy, I think) I saw I’d churned through 5.6GB, so had to back off a lot for the rest of the month. Not that I was worried about getting hit with a surcharge, I think they’ll let me off that, but because I really wanted to see what happened in trying to living within the confines of the tariff.

As a result, I didn’t hit the sweet spot of combined a) poor wifi, b) a fat 4G signal, c) a pressing need and d) confidence that I had the headroom left in my allowance for another month. Which is an interesting first finding, I think.

The second cause for pause is that a couple of times I’ve had tests showing me a 6-10Mbps upstream connection, but Dropbox synchronisation has remained stubbornly slow. Flickr and Dropbox are my two big uploading destinations. Yet when I switch to Three, I get a much faster upload. I will test this further, controlling as far as possible for different factors, and report.

But yesterday, at an event in Westminster, it all came together. I got Flickr uploads with amazing speed and consistency, the purple bar racing across the screen as fast as I’ve ever seen it (with the one notable exception of Google’s Victoria office, where it actually warmed the screen a little as it moved.) So it really will work. More testing required.

[The image at the top of the post is very unfair. But it made me smile. In a remote Derbyshire village it was amusing to see a signal so low it barely registered.]


UPDATE2 8pm, 24 Jan

Might be helpful to show the 4G service performing through the laptop:

4g test

vs the in-house offering:

qeii test

But more importantly, mine actually performed consistently faster for actual uploading, and was stable. And mine. Etc. (How that changes as the 4G network comes under greater load, time will tell.)


UPDATE1 4pm, 22 Jan
As luck would have it, a few hours after I wrote this EE announced a big increase in the maximum allowance available and price cuts.

*Best shorthand I can think of, really. I’m not a formal tester, or reviewer, and certainly not a company stooge for EE. This small group is using the service to see how it performs in reality, and writing about it occasionally. The service has been provided for free for a year but no other fee comes with it.

#uksnow – one of a kind?

I still get a buzz out of seeing this:

Snow Map

The seed of the idea appeared in the same room that I’m writing this post in today, almost four years ago. I wrote about it conceptually at the time, before any mapping had been done. And yet, after all this time, is there anything that’s come close to sharing its characteristics of simplicity, popularity and usefulness?

Why did it work? Because it was, and is:

accessible: Anyone could contribute if they could send a tweet. Even if they had no snow (I’ve seen lots of 0/10s).

fast: Instant gratification, really. Nobody had to moderate or process anything. Even before Ben Marsh created his map (and others had a go, too) the hashtag let you see what was going on immediately (spammers notwithstanding).

minimal: Two tiny character sequences are all you need. Part of a postcode, and your opinion on snowiness. Other services look after all the rest, pulling information together and mapping it. No fancy abbreviations or protocols to adhere to. Clever Ben also made it very flexible, so that placenames could be interpreted and the order of information within the tweet didn’t matter.

safe: An information standard that only revealed the first part of your postcode would probably not see you inundated with stalkers.

sporadic: We get this a handful of times a year. If we had the opportunity to do this every day, I think we’d quickly tire of it. I can’t see it catching on in Canada.

disruptive: Lots of us do different things when it snows. We might have extra time on disrupted journeys, or be unable to get to work at all. And we want that to be a shared experience.

inherently fascinating: Brits love weather. End of.

useful: Is the snow coming towards me? How bad is it where I’m planning to go? Who needs a metereologist’s projection when you can just gaze down as if from your own satellite, at what’s happening right now?

not owned: Nobody’s “in charge”. Nobody claims it’s “their system” – although there was one notable attempt. It is genuinely owned by the people, for the people. Ben has made a cheap IOS app for those who want that experience, and good luck to him. But you can see it on the website he’s built for nothing.

traditional: After three years in a row, any quirky British behaviour qualifies as a tradition. Nobody has to blow a whistle to indicate “ok, we’re starting some snow-mapping now,” or go on a training course to learn how to do it. It just happens.

What else could work like this? I hate to say it, but I fear the answer might be: not much. This is a unique combination of characteristics, when you think about it.

The root of the problem

Spent a hugely enjoyable day today in Cardiff in the company of Learning Pool and their customers. I’ve got a lot of time for the way this bunch have built their business, and – for once a word neither hijacked nor misplaced – their community.

As with the event I went to in London a fortnight ago, any suggestion of post-lunch torpor was shattered by the charismatic Donald Clark, something of an Antichrist of E-Learning. (I trust he’d enjoy that description. He’ll no doubt let me know if not).

Donald likes to shake it up a bit, and did some pretty efficient demolition of many of the cargo cult behaviours of learning and development. He’s not an easy listen for some of the professionals in this field, which is probably why he makes such an excellent choice as a speaker.

But then… he turned his beady eye to content.

“How many of you,” he boomed, “…can remember the formula for solving a quadratic equation?”

Silence. (I’ll come back to that in a moment.)

I couldn’t hold back, and did a sort of ten-year-old’s squeak and arm-raise from the very back of the room.

“One. Right.” Point proven, clearly. “There’s no value in all these things we ‘learn’. You’re never going to need that formula. You don’t remember it.”

And so, dear blog-clicker, I was prompted to write these few words in defence of this humble equation.

Along with Pythagoras on triangles, Newton on force, and a couple of (slightly rusty if I’m honest) ones about speed and velocity, it’s pretty much the only tone poem featuring a, b, x, y and their friends that I can still effortlessly recall.

(Once upon a time I could reel off the Kutta-Joukowski equation and other fancy rhythms. Sadly most of those are now long, long gone.)

And here it is:

Do I actually use it? Well, yes, I have done. Quite recently, in fact. I wanted to remind myself of the precise derivation of the golden ratio, in some thinking I was doing around graphic composition. Constructing the equation is ridiculously easy, but solving it is a little less obvious.

To be able to achieve this solution of an equation of a higher order (where one of the terms is multiplied by itself), using this very simple bit of maths, was in itself very pleasing.

And more than just giving me the solution, it also satisfied me to know that more basic algebra wasn’t going to do the job – that it had to be this particular formula in order to unlock the secret.

The quadratic equation also did something else for me when I first met it; something that persists today. It broadened my mind to the idea that a problem could have more than one solution. And beyond this, to the corollary that mathematical processes might be asymmetric. Or even irreversible. That really helped when I later came across public key cryptography.

Thank you for all that too, little equation.

I suppose, to generalise even further, that even if I had never used it again, it had done a job in my mind. Planted a seed. Given a concrete foundation to the idea that problems can be solved with tools. Find the right tool, and great power can be yours.

So, all in all, I was quite fond of it.

And yet, in this room of prosperous professionals, not one other person was prepared to admit they remembered it.

Actually, two other people did subsequently come out to me in the corridor, saying they did know, but they didn’t really want to say so in front of everyone.

And that, dear reader, is a problem for me.

To begin, as our speaker did, by rubbishing “traditional things that are taught” sets us on a precarious slope. It’s the same slope that excludes the nerd, that silences the swot, that rewards mediocrity, the low-brow and the trivial.

Do too much of that and you’ll engender a fear of the complex and an avoidance of more far-reaching lessons of abstraction, extrapolation and generalisation. You really don’t want to do that.

I’m not going to go all Gove about this, but, well, if you’ve read this far, you know what I mean.

So go to bed tonight chanting softly, x equals minus b plus or minus the square root of b squared…


What a lot of shite

This post has been almost written dozens of times over the last few years.

I nearly wrote it after this.

And this.

But today I’ve seen this, and I can hold back no longer.

Whether the message is about mobile phones, bank notes or our hands, the underlying story’s always the same: we’re a grubby bunch, there’s all shit on everything we touch, and this is very bad news.

Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Because this coverage is spectacularly unhelpful in telling us what the real risk actually is.

To do that, it’s completely beside the point to offer us statistics of contamination, bacterial density, or any other big numbers in the way that these reports present them.

What we need to know is: does this matter?

And to do that, the research needs to focus on different questions. Try these:

1) are the levels high enough to cause some of us harm? …and if so,

2) who is at risk, of what, and by how much?

3) are these levels significantly higher than in comparable societies?

4) is there evidence of a progressive trend, whether for better or worse?

That’s the meaningful stuff.

The fact is that we’re pretty tolerant of these bugs. Think of some of the places – extraordinary places – that your mouth might have been. You know what I’m talking about. And you didn’t get ill, did you?

The claim that kitchen chopping boards have about 200% more bacteria on them than toilet seats? (I will skip over the omission of a base unit of measurement, and the old favourite of whether 200% really means “three times” but written more scarily.) Evidence, surely, that the best place to chop carrots is the loo?

We’re not all collapsing just because we prepared the veg in the kitchen, are we? Or boaking furiously after every phone call?

A little more sense is required, in the writing and the reading about this topic. Numbers by themselves mean nothing.

Look for the outcomes and the trends. That’s where the meaning lies.

You can quote me on that

“Truth is delivered in yellow boxes.”

That was my first thought when I saw this popular little graphic posted last week. Then I saw it a few more times, and had a few more thoughts.

Guilt, at first, if I’m honest. You mean that the grumpy morning voice enquiring as to how the school shoes can possibly have disappeared overnight, AGAIN, will end up providing the timbre for Jimmy’s inner monologue for the next eighty years?


It’s a hugely resonant thought. Any parents, or indeed anyone who’s ever had parents can identify with it. And the way it was expressed in this quote… so clear, so stark. The voice. That’s where the sound comes from. Must be true. Says so on the internet. Has a zillion Likes.

It’s not a bad thought, of course. Nothing malicious about it. It carries some truth, I’m sure. Parental influence shapes one’s inner life, along with stories, games, teachers, friends, wider society, religion and all the rest. Of course the sound of one’s parents plays a part. Of course the act of treating our kids with greater consideration, mindful of being That Voice In Their Heads For Evah, is for the good.

So nothing wrong here?

Except, except, except… It just didn’t resonate with me in terms of actually applying to me. I could see it plausibly applying to everyone else, but did my inner voice sound like either of my parents? Actually sound like? Or even use similar speech patterns? Not so much. I asked a (very small) sample of others. Same.

Time to look at where it came from. To look for the evidence behind the claim. And that became a bit tricky. When you have a hugely popular soundbite like that, searching for a source only brings back references to the quote itself, over and over again.

The site referenced at the bottom of the quote, TheSilverPen, were only responsible for the formatting of the typeset graphic, and of course sharing the version that I spotted. But when I contacted Hollye there, she didn’t know where it originated. “I wish I could tell you where I found the quote, but I have absolutely no idea. I collect quotes from books, magazines, newspapers and online… then convert them into graphics and off I go,” she wrote.

So I wrote to Peggy O’Mara herself. Peggy is publisher, editor and owner of Mothering magazine, a long-standing US publication. She happily provided the original source, an editorial from Mothering Issue #128, Jan-Feb 2005.

Here it is, with a little more context:

When I think of a mothers’ movement, I don’t think of only one organizing group or one cause. I think of a vast array of networks, a web of organizations working to increase awareness and to influence social change. All parts of the web are important, just as all kinds of social action are important. A mothers’ movement is really about finding and expressing your voice as a mother. Here are some actions you can take to feel part of a mothers’ movement. Some take only a little time, but their results are long-lasting. Others are easier to accomplish when children are older. All are valuable. You can perform them in sequence or just pick and choose.
See your mothering as a political act. The way you talk to your child becomes his or her inner voice. The way you model acceptance of your own body becomes the way your daughter learns to accept hers. The way you model the distribution of chores in the household provides a blueprint for your children’s marriages. Bringing consciousness and awareness to the small acts of your life with your family can change the world. Your mothering is enough.

The wording of the quote in question was later tidied up a bit, and it probably gained its standalone popularity after inclusion in the 2009 Mothering calendar, when images were paired with a quote for each month of the year.

So that’s what it is. Part of a series of assertions and opinions. They’re coherent, but they’re not robust research findings. Neither do they pretend to be. Peggy isn’t, and makes no claim to be, a development psychologist or any other type of scientist.

But on the internet, any sufficiently resonant claim can be picked up, turned into a graphic, and accelerated to the point where it not only swamps a search result around the topic in question, but is very likely to be assumed into popular thinking as a “fact”.

“Hey, Sue, you know when you talk to your kids, that’s the voice they’ll have in their heads for the rest of their lives” – “Oh, really??” – “Yeah, google it if you don’t believe me.”

So whenever you see any startling insight that makes you stop and think, use the “stop” bit to question it in a little more detail before just merrily sending it on to all your friends.

Here are a couple more of those quotes as handy reminders. Go on, share them why don’t you?

And this one, which is probably the most valid of them all:

You can quote me on that.


The West Coast main line procurement has fallen apart in spectacular fashion. Investigations are under way and three civil servants have been suspended. No doubt this is intended as an early sign of how seriously this will all be taken.

Or is it something else as well – an early indicator of misdirection? Note the interesting words of the Transport Secretary that the “fault lies wholly and squarely” with the department.

Of course the department bears that accountability. In fact, it’s clearly traceable right up to a minister. That’s how these things work.

But there’s more to it than this. Others are involved in complex programmes of this nature. Many others. I know. I used to be one of them.

The procurement has legal advisers, financial modellers, benefits realisers, analysts, budget planners, investment appraisers, change consultants and many, many more. Some from external professional services firms, some as “independent” contractors, and all paid a vast amount for their expertise.

The kaleidoscopic language is one reason, in my view, why simply releasing single line “open” information that X project cost £Y can never truly convey a sense of what’s going on. But I digress.

When these things go wrong, there seems to be a frantic scurrying for cover for anyone whose brand is anywhere near the failure.

It’s amusing (in a sad way) to compare this description of one project with the rather more pertinent analysis from Campaign4Change. A little more searching around the subject suggests there’s been some distinct brandwashing going on.

I mean, here’s a peculiar search result, wouldn’t you say?

In the FiReControl/PA case, Tony Collins was bang on the money. But should it be left to journalists and campaigners to ask these hard questions long after all the official reports? Those who have the politicians in their studios right now should be doing it as well. From the start.

Who was involved? How much were they paid?

And will they be allowed to scuttle away with both their money and their reputation intact?

Plain weird

Seen in a sweet shop, Strand, 2 October.

Who put it there?

Who are people likely, at a glance, to think put it there? I mean, it’s got website addresses at the bottom, and everything.

It’s just promoting a consultation, isn’t it?

Oh, wait…is that a suggested answer there on the left?

Is that even what a “real” plain-pack box looks like?

Did the shop owner get paid to put it there? Why else would he be interested?

So who looks at this sort of thing? The Advertising Standards Authority? (But what is it even advertising?)