Fighting natural laws

I’ve always considered natural laws not to be worth fighting. It’s just the way the world works, and it’s best to roll with it.

One of my favourites is the classic (albeit clichéd) ‘information wants to be free‘, which stings people all the time. The most recent example that springs to mind, because I just finished reading the article, is the Labour smear campaign suggestion emails. Oops, and all that.

But, this is an easy one to deal with: be nice, and everything will be fine.

My other favourite is the second law of thermodynamics, which says that the universe tends towards disorder, or, it’s easier to break things than make them.

Considering these two laws together suggests to me that information follows a pattern of burst and decay. This is why your permalinks will never be permanent. This is why I have no qualms with wiping six years of my blog. This is why I don’t care if my URL shortener disappears.

I consider my activities online to be ephemeral, contributing to the machine for only as long as is necessary. I hope my children and their children’s children will be able to explore and experience this, but what’s most important is that they can experience all of this, and anything else is just ego.

Last day at Headshift

Today is my last day at Headshift, and my last as an employee.

I’ve written this post a few times, trying to find a way of describing my time at Headshift that doesn’t sound clichéd or insincere. Put simply, I’ve had a wonderful time, working with some of the smartest, most passionate people I can name. I’ve learnt a lot, produced some projects I’m proud of, and made some wonderful friends. One can’t ask for much more really. I hope to remain part of the extended Headshift family, in both work and play.

I have no expectation of what happens next, but here’s a manifesto. Being interesting is as important as being useful. Making things that delight and inspire is as important as creating value. Old systems are crumbling; the best you can do is be nimble, smart and make some trouble.

We’re on the cusp of a few things that I want to be part of. The web-of-things, post-digital, and all that stuff. The geographic web and the mobile phone as a superpower. And maybe efforts avoid ending the 21st century as we started the 10th.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m not particularly good at talking, writing or thinking out-loud about these issues. Certainly not as good as some of my friends. But I do seem to be able to make things, and that seems like a valuable skill.

So that’s what I’ll do, as a freelancer and as part of the Really Interesting Group.

But first, some downtime. On Wednesday I board a train and two days later I disembark a boat in Morocco. A well deserved road trip to Fez, the High Atlas, Marakech and back to Tangier. I’m looking forward to seeing that night sky again.

Pedal cycle incident data in KML

The Direct.gov innovation blog just released a data set of the “Pedal Cycle Accident Locations” for 2005-2007, broken down by year, in XLS.

I had early access to this at Rewired State and converted the Easting/Northings to Longitude/Latitudes through Multimap’s conversion API, and then from CSV into KML. Get the files for 2005, 2006 and 2007 and have a poke around.

It’s a really interesting data set, used wisely. There are around 16000 incidents a year (let’s not call them accidents — often one of the parties is to blame), reported to the police. The definition is:

Accident: Involves personal injury occurring on the public highway (including footways) in which at least one road vehicle or a vehicle in collision with a pedestrian is involved and which becomes known to the police within 30 days of its occurrence. The vehicle need not be moving, and accidents involving stationary vehicles and pedestrians or users are included. One accident may give rise to several casualties. “Damage-only” accidents are not included.

The locations seem to be relatively accurate (in London, at least), overlaying the road network close enough that you can pinpoint roads and even junctions.

I’d like to snap the points to the nearest road using OpenStreetMap, divide by road length and get an idea of the most dangerous roads and who is responsible for them. Alas, this probably involves me seriously levelling up in Postgres/PostGIS, which I haven’t found the time to do yet.

You could also use the data as a weighted input to a route mapper, helping to prioritise safer roads.

It’s important that it’s used positively. Cycling is safe, and more cycling makes it safer for everyone.

S3 FM

S3 FM is new thing I’ve built, from an idea by Russell, with a logo from Ben. That’s a multidisciplinary team, right there.

It’s a thing that lets anyone run a streaming radio station, with just a folder of MP3s. Put those MP3s in an Amazon S3 bucket, and give your friends the S3 FM link.

You could use it like a personal Muxtape, or to listen to Speechification, or maybe just to send you to sleep.

Under the hood, the site grabs the file listing from your Amazon S3 bucket, selects the MP3s, shuffles them into a random order and feeds them to the listener. Simple.

An important note – it’s your bucket, and Amazon will charge you for the bandwidth. But the good news is that it’s $0.150 per GB, which means that you could transfer about 1000 minutes of audio for 20p.

And that’s it. Have a go, and let me know if it breaks.

Sometimes

Sometimes, when the wind is warm and low, when the gear ratio is perfect and the tyres pumped, and when the road is soft and quiet, I feel weightless.

Hereish, nowish

We live in the great databasing of everything. Already can you step off your business class flight, into the city below and find yourself a bar/restaurant perfectly suited to your bland taste, where you can sit on your own pondering the meaning of your pitiful, mechanistic existence. And you can do it without interacting with a soul, save for pointing at a menu and handing over your credit card. And that’s just the beginning. It’s going to be great.

The problem with these geolocative services is that they assume you’re a precise, rational human, behaving as economists expect. No latitude for the unexpected; they’re determined to replace every unnecessary human interaction with the helpful guide in your pocket.

Red dot fever enforces a precision into your design that the rest must meet to feel coherent. There’s no room for the hereish, nowish, thenish and soonish. The ‘good enough‘.

I’m vaguely tempted to shutdown iamnear, to be reborn as iamnearish. The Blue Posts is north of you, about five minutes walk away. Have a wander around, or ask someone. You’ll find it.

A few months back

A few months back I donated £25 to Resonance 104.4 FM (wikipedia), because they’re awesome and poor. Mostly I listen to The Bike Show, which does exactly what it says on the tin. It recently had a great double bill on the history and future of the Moulton, which I thoroughly recommend if you enjoy tales of 60s British engineering and “the bicycle as architecture on wheels”.

Anyway, I got an email back a few days ago, completely out of the blue.

Dear Tom,

Thanks very much for your generous donation.We are currently putting up some not very glamorous but necessary and useful shelving in the studio, so this donation came in very handy.Best wishesEd

Lovely. No boiler plate, just short and sweet. Put a smile on my face, and reminds me that they still need to spend money on stuff like finding somewhere to put their files, and it’s not all about studios and expensive mixing desks.

Funding for core activities is always tricky for charities. Funders and grant givers always want outcomes and deliverables and smiling children, and there’s never any money left over for post-it notes or little things like salaries.

Perhaps more charities should project a less glamorous image, and remind us that they still have to do all the boring stuff that everyone does at work. And perhaps then we wouldn’t have such unreasonable expectations.

Sponsor a filing cabinet, sir?

Microprinter Project

I wrote some stuff about the microprinter project that I quickly demoed at Papercamp. There’s video, pictures and code, and if you’re savvy enough it should be all you need to build one yourself. Which is what some people have already started doing.

Papercamp

Saturday saw the inaugural papercamp prototype, which was excellent. Jeremy and Matt have already written up overviews, and there’s lots of photos and that.

For me, one of the best things about it was just how fresh it all felt. Compared to a standard web (un)conference where everyone knows their space, expertise and opinions, here lots (most?) of us were exploring stuff outside of our day job and business-as-usual. It was passionate and interesting and I felt completely out of my depth, which was was great.

So in 2009, less of the comfort zone stuff please, and more like this.