Monday, December 28, 2009

How to Wordlise your Last.fm profile (WN0026)


Over the festive break, I've been wading through sorting out my browser bookmarks. There must have been literally thousands of them built up over the years that I've saved, never to return to them and take another look. I'll share them through my Delicious page when they're all sorted out.

As I'm in the process of sorting out all of my data in order to make my on and offline operations a little smoother, it seemed like a good time to tackle this oversight. I'm also tantalisingly close to having my own personal website ready to launch and have needed to deal with this as part of the background work on that.

Whilst sifting through URLs, one of the little treats I came across was this site (click on the link and follow the instructions) that enables visitors to turn their Last.fm profiles into a Wordle image. What that means to those who have or have used neither is making a word picture from the music that I most listen to.

Last.fm 'scrobbles' (sends the data to your internet profile) the music that you play on your computer and builds a picture of your listening habits, enabling you to connect to other like-minded music fans. Wordle itself is a great tool for visualising texts, and is particularly effective and finding themes in longer pieces. It does this by taking the words that are used most often in a text and making them bigger than the other words that are used less often. It's a tool that I really ought to use more in the classroom, but like with so many more of the online tools available to all these days, have yet to sift through them fully enough and actually try and be innovative with them. Guess that's part of what my data sift is about too - might help me to become a better teacher.

Although I might contest the results, it seems that I'm STILL listening to The Beatles more than any other artist. Rhombus, a dub act from New Zealand that I came across in Tokyo, seem to come in second, which I'd probably agree with. I also apparently listen to a lot of Tom Waits and David Bowie, again something I'd agree with. One or two surprises there though. Didn't think that I listen to that much Mozart.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Snow in Brighton (and free photos)



Although I lived in Brighton for about 11 years prior to moving to Tokyo, I never really saw much snow in this town. This weekend, that all changed. Brighton is one the parts of the UK that experienced much higher than usual snowfall and it makes for a beautiful cityscape. You can follow live reports of other snowfall around the UK by following the Twitter hashtag #uksnow.

Yesterday, I went down to the beach with my camera and found that it too was covered in snow. To my delight (and to be expected for an arty place like this), the seafront was full of sculptures - snowmen, snowwomen and even a large snowcat. The above photo set shows some of what Brighton looks like in the snow.

All of the pictures are issued under a Creative Commons license (Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0). This means that people are free to share (copy, distribute or transmit) or remix (adapt) the pictures, so long as they meet the following conditions:
  • AttributionYou must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work).

  • NoncommercialYou may not use this work for commercial purposes.

  • Share AlikeIf you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one.

For attributing photos, please use 'Globalism Pictures' and link back to the following URL: http://www.flickr.com/photos/globalismpictures/

I also took the plunge this week with the rest of my photos on Flickr and issued that same license for all of them. There are plenty more Brighton pictures, extensive collections of images from Japan, plus sets from several other cities and locations around the world.

Feel free to use them in blogs, flyers and posters, websites, presentations or other similar ventures, and please get in touch if you'd like to use a picture for commercial purposes (I'm happy to do that too, just would prefer to be asked before an image is used!).

Here are some of examples of what can be found:






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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Obama's Nobel Doctrine and the Pacifist's Dilemma

Image: 'The Nobel Doctrine' by D1 Designs (issued under CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0 license)

On December 2 at West Point Military Academy, President Barack Obama announced his long-awaited new strategy on US military policy in Afghanistan, pitched as a short-term escalation of the war coupled with the intention to begin troop withdrawals by July 2011. On December 10 in Oslo, he received the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded according to the Nobel Committee 'for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.'

He is the fourth US President to have been awarded the prize, following Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter, but the only one to have been awarded it during his first year in office. This decision by the Nobel Committee prompted much criticism around the world that he'd yet to do anything noticeable enough to warrant the honour.

Addressing the irony of receiving the award so soon after announcing the despatching of another 30,000 troops, along with the other criticisms made, Obama commented in his speech
I am at the beginning, and not the end, of my labors on the world stage. Compared to some of the giants of history who have received this prize...my accomplishments are slight...But perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the Commander-in-Chief of a nation in the midst of two wars.
Naturally, his remarks have sparked extensive reflection amongst the global commentariat. The BBC's Mark Mardell believes that Obama has 'pulled off a difficult balancing act in walking the tightrope between war and peace'. The Guardian's Martin Kettle described the speech as having not just a reprimand to the Nobel committee for awarding the prize before he had any notable achievements to be worthy of the award but also to liberals who refuse to understand that 'politics will always be more complicated, nuanced and messy' than they seem to understand. Steven Hurst for the Associated Press interpreted the speech as many others have also done - no less than the outlining of the Obama Doctrine, 'a steadfast defense of warfare against evil, praise of nonviolence and exhortations for mankind to affirm the 'spark of the divine' in everyone'.

I felt that by Obama's standards, it was a good speech, and not a surprising one from a man that is the President of the United States and who has both a job to do and an incredible global mess inherited from his predecessor to try and clear up. To please everybody would be an impossible task. The best that he realistically could hope for is to leave the situations he has found himself responsible for in a better state than they were when he picked up the reins, whilst striving to actually improve them rather than just leave them in a less worse state.

However, I still come to the Afghan question as an avowed pacifist, a person who believes that non-violence has to be the primary approach to resolving issues of conflict, and one that is fully aware of the history of failed intervention in that particular country - such as those of the British and the Soviet Union - that has earned Afghanistan the sobriquet of 'the graveyard of Empires'.

A dictionary definition of pacifism describes the belief that any violence, including war, is unjustifiable under any circumstances, and that all disputes should be settled by peaceful means. It goes on to describe that a pacifist will refuse to participate in war or military service because of such a belief.

This is a belief that I have held for much of my life, a fusion of family influences (such as a grandfather who was a conscientious objector during World War II - a particularly difficult position to take at the time) and the evolution of my own observations of the world and its human history, combined with my sense of justice - a sense that echoes the epithet most often attributed to Gandhi that 'an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind' (ie revenge only breeds the desire for more revenge).

This belief also contributed to my leaving the UK in disgust at what I saw to be Tony Blair's attempts at British imperial revivalism with the joint invasion of Iraq back in 2003, and subsequently my setting up of an organisation in Japan (where I moved to) for the purpose of raising consciousness amongst a younger generation of Japanese of the idea of peace - a concept embedded in their country's constitution but which many younger people seemed almost unaware of despite the suffering that their country had both experienced and inflicted during the last period of major global conflict.

Whilst working on this consciousness-raising effort, I studied the notions of conflict and peace more deeply than I had before, as a vehicle for examining my own beliefs. Having always tried to avoid conflict at all costs, my position underwent an evolution of sorts. The No-Nonsense Guide to Conflict and Peace describes conflict as having some benefits, and being therefore not a concept to dismiss completely:

Conflict can prevent stagnation; stimulate interest and curiosity, the airing of problems, the development of solutions. External conflict can promote internal group cohesion. Creatively handled, discord can enable social structures to readjust by eliminating sources of dissatisfaction and removing the causes for opting out, so creating a new balance in a society.
With such insights, I re-evaluated problems that I faced in the work I was doing. I soon found that in facing up to and tackling a problem head-on rather than accepting it and avoiding dealing with it invariably led to that problem finding some sort of resolution. This does not lead on to suggest that violence therefore becomes acceptable, but merely that conflict doesn't always have to be avoided.

During the news about Obama's Afghan escalation, I had a telephone conversation with my father, a man I can generally talk to in depth about global affairs and who has a good understanding of history and politics, amongst other things. He was raised in much stronger socialist traditions than I was and we talked about Afghanistan. I asked him what would he do or suggest as a solution, mindful that he would be fully aware of the history of failed intervention in the area.

He had no clear answers to the question either, for it seems to be an intractable problem for those who care about the fate of other peoples around the world. He described his repulsion at the medieval actions of the pre-invasion Taliban government, in particular their treatment of women, and then went on to talk about the British and European volunteers who went to Spain to fight Franco's forces during the Spanish Civil War, and the subsequent fight against Hitler and fascism as examples were using violence was deemed necessary to overcome the 'greater evil'.

Wary as I am of Godwin's Law, which states that '
as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches' and its use suggests overuse of Nazi and Hitler comparisons should be avoided as it robs valid comparisons of their impact, in the big pacifist issue of whether there is ever a right time to use violence or take up arms to resolve a conflict, it seems appropriate to invoke the Hitler analogy.

This then leads to the question of whether the Taliban posed as serious a threat to the international community as the Nazis did. On a surface level, in allegedly sheltering Osama Bin Laden shortly after 9/11, there was certainly a provocation to a recently wounded giant. However, it hardly ranks as highly as the invasion of Poland in the provocative stakes.

Did the Taliban have an intention for conquering other peoples as part of their gameplan? While it seems that some of their very strict interpretation of sharia law spread to parts of Pakistan, it is highly unlikely that the group that ruled the country from 1996 - 2001 had serious expansionist intentions. Arguably, they emerged only due to the power vacuum left in an Afghanistan divided by the warlords that stepped in after the Soviet withdrawal.

Should Allied powers have intervened militarily then on humanitarian grounds? Following the Battle of Mogadishu, the US refused to intervene in the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 and was criticised heavily for not doing so. This act of non-intervention by Western powers had clearly changed when, even prior to the Bush Administration, Tony Blair sent troops in to places such as Sierra Leone under 'humanitarian interventionist' grounds. Yet if saving native populations from vicious regimes is the policy of Western military powers, why not Burma, Zimbabwe or Darfur?

The case for ending further war has been made most eloquently by Malalai Joy - an Afghan - in a column published in The Guardian. She states that '
it is not a case of a 'bad war' and a 'good war' (Obama's describes a 'just war' in his Nobel speech) – there is no difference, war is war'. Should the people of the country, devastated by decades of foreign invaders and civil wars, should they not have the ultimate say in how their country is managed?

Ultimately, these kind of conundrums raise more questions than they provide answers. While I can say that I'm overjoyed that the President of what still remains the most powerful country on the planet is a thoughtful and intelligent man who clearly has peaceful intentions rather than warmongering ones, I remain sorry that he has chosen to prolong the military actions that his country (and this one, amongst many more) will continue to inflict on that ravaged place. I remain saddened that he has chosen to have the blood of innocent women and children (for they are always the unchosen victims of war) on his hands. I appreciate his position and the massive challenges he faces, but still disagree with him over the most vital questions of war and peace.

I haven't solved the pacifist's dilemma over the Hitler issue in this post, but will end with the words of Buffy Sainte-Marie from her song 'Universal Solider':
He’s fighting for democracy,
he’s fighting for the reds
He says it’s for the peace of all.
He’s the one, who must decide,
who’s to live and who’s to die.
And he never sees the writing on the walls.

But without him,
how would Hitler have condemned him at Dachau?
Without him Caesar would have stood alone
He’s the one who gives his body
as a weapon to the war.
And without him all this killing can’t go on.

He’s the universal soldier
And he really is the blame
But his orders comes from
far away no more.

They come from him.
And you and me.
Oh, brothers can’t you see.
This is not the way we put an end to war
.
Comments welcomed.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Global Editorial on Climate Change and Copenhagen

Image by David Blackwell, issued under a Creative Commons licence

On Monday last week, UK newspaper The Guardian published a unique editorial initiative ahead of the Copenhagen Convention on Climate Change. Forging a common position between 56 newspapers in 45 countries, they spoke with one voice about the challenges facing us all with the prospect of global temperature rises and what leaders must do in Copenhagen to take action on arguably the greatest challenge that humanity has ever collectively faced.

Impressed with their achievement, I wanted to be able to reproduce the editorial here and so emailed the newspaper's rights department about issuing the text under a Creative Commons licence, to enable the blogosphere to be able to share it around. Although I never received a response, I discovered today that they have done just that, and so here it is in full:

Today 56 newspapers in 45 countries take the unprecedented step of speaking with one voice through a common editorial. We do so because humanity faces a profound emergency.

Unless we combine to take decisive action, climate change will ravage our planet, and with it our prosperity and security. The dangers have been becoming apparent for a generation. Now the facts have started to speak: 11 of the past 14 years have been the warmest on record, the Arctic ice-cap is melting and last year's inflamed oil and food prices provide a foretaste of future havoc. In scientific journals the question is no longer whether humans are to blame, but how little time we have got left to limit the damage. Yet so far the world's response has been feeble and half-hearted.

Climate change has been caused over centuries, has consequences that will endure for all time and our prospects of taming it will be determined in the next 14 days. We call on the representatives of the 192 countries gathered in Copenhagen not to hesitate, not to fall into dispute, not to blame each other but to seize opportunity from the greatest modern failure of politics. This should not be a fight between the rich world and the poor world, or between east and west. Climate change affects everyone, and must be solved by everyone.

The science is complex but the facts are clear. The world needs to take steps to limit temperature rises to 2C, an aim that will require global emissions to peak and begin falling within the next 5-10 years. A bigger rise of 3-4C — the smallest increase we can prudently expect to follow inaction — would parch continents, turning farmland into desert. Half of all species could become extinct, untold millions of people would be displaced, whole nations drowned by the sea. The controversy over emails by British researchers that suggest they tried to suppress inconvenient data has muddied the waters but failed to dent the mass of evidence on which these predictions are based.

Few believe that Copenhagen can any longer produce a fully polished treaty; real progress towards one could only begin with the arrival of President Obama in the White House and the reversal of years of US obstructionism. Even now the world finds itself at the mercy of American domestic politics, for the president cannot fully commit to the action required until the US Congress has done so.

But the politicians in Copenhagen can and must agree the essential elements of a fair and effective deal and, crucially, a firm timetable for turning it into a treaty. Next June's UN climate meeting in Bonn should be their deadline. As one negotiator put it: 'We can go into extra time but we can't afford a replay.'

At the deal's heart must be a settlement between the rich world and the developing world covering how the burden of fighting climate change will be divided — and how we will share a newly precious resource: the trillion or so tonnes of carbon that we can emit before the mercury rises to dangerous levels.

Rich nations like to point to the arithmetic truth that there can be no solution until developing giants such as China take more radical steps than they have so far. But the rich world is responsible for most of the accumulated carbon in the atmosphere – three-quarters of all carbon dioxide emitted since 1850. It must now take a lead, and every developed country must commit to deep cuts which will reduce their emissions within a decade to very substantially less than their 1990 level.

Developing countries can point out they did not cause the bulk of the problem, and also that the poorest regions of the world will be hardest hit. But they will increasingly contribute to warming, and must thus pledge meaningful and quantifiable action of their own. Though both fell short of what some had hoped for, the recent commitments to emissions targets by the world's biggest polluters, the United States and China, were important steps in the right direction.

Social justice demands that the industrialised world digs deep into its pockets and pledges cash to help poorer countries adapt to climate change, and clean technologies to enable them to grow economically without growing their emissions. The architecture of a future treaty must also be pinned down – with rigorous multilateral monitoring, fair rewards for protecting forests, and the credible assessment of 'exported emissions' so that the burden can eventually be more equitably shared between those who produce polluting products and those who consume them. And fairness requires that the burden placed on individual developed countries should take into account their ability to bear it; for instance newer EU members, often much poorer than 'old Europe', must not suffer more than their richer partners.

The transformation will be costly, but many times less than the bill for bailing out global finance — and far less costly than the consequences of doing nothing.

Many of us, particularly in the developed world, will have to change our lifestyles. The era of flights that cost less than the taxi ride to the airport is drawing to a close. We will have to shop, eat and travel more intelligently. We will have to pay more for our energy, and use less of it.

But the shift to a low-carbon society holds out the prospect of more opportunity than sacrifice. Already some countries have recognized that embracing the transformation can bring growth, jobs and better quality lives. The flow of capital tells its own story: last year for the first time more was invested in renewable forms of energy than producing electricity from fossil fuels.

Kicking our carbon habit within a few short decades will require a feat of engineering and innovation to match anything in our history. But whereas putting a man on the moon or splitting the atom were born of conflict and competition, the coming carbon race must be driven by a collaborative effort to achieve collective salvation.

Overcoming climate change will take a triumph of optimism over pessimism, of vision over short-sightedness, of what Abraham Lincoln called 'the better angels of our nature'.

It is in that spirit that 56 newspapers from around the world have united behind this editorial. If we, with such different national and political perspectives, can agree on what must be done then surely our leaders can too.

The politicians in Copenhagen have the power to shape history's judgement on this generation: one that saw a challenge and rose to it, or one so stupid that we saw calamity coming but did nothing to avert it. We implore them to make the right choice.

Editorial created by The Guardian and issued under a CC BY-ND 2.0 licence. Original article found here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

'Japan From The Inside' - Blurb Contest results


The winners of the Best Blurb Books Contest, which my book was entered in, were announced last week. Although 'Japan From The Inside' didn't make the final round of judging, it was up against very stiff competition and I was thrilled with the results of getting the word out. The book got a total of 72 votes and some great comments from people that came and previewed it, including a tweeted review from the Tokyo Correspondent of the New York Times.

I'd like to extend a massive thanks to everyone that voted, looked through the book, helped spread the word or even bought a copy. Without readers, books are little but the remains of what was once a tree. For visitors who've not seen this one, click on the image or link above to go through to the book's web page.

Although it might be a little late now that the contest is over, I've taken some of the feedback and added it into a flyer for the book. The intention was to get it done whilst I was still marketing it, but sometimes there's just not enough hours in the day to fit in everything you want to do. Marketing the book itself was an educational experience and it's left me with a stack of ideas for getting the word out about future projects.

There's plenty more writing stuff in the pipeline at the moment, but the next project is going to be a new Control K track. Yoko Ono's released the stems of a song from her latest album under a Creative Commons licence and is inviting remixes. Couldn't resist this one - the question is whether I'll be able to get something decent completed in time for the deadline!

One can only try. So here goes...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

'This is Japan!': fast-paced video tour round the country (WN0025)

This is Japan! from Eric Testroete on Vimeo.



While doing the promotion for 'Japan From The Inside', I got plenty of feedback in terms of emails and comments (coming here soon). My cousin also sent me a link that had been forwarded round his office, which I couldn't help but put up here.

The video above is about as frantic a tour around Japan as you can get in a few minutes. Stacked with plenty of classic Japan iconography, it also comes with a bit of a health warning - this tour is fast.

Best enjoyed in full screen.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Tale of Two Presidents

President George W. Bush declares 'Mission Accomplished' for combat operations in Iraq, 2003 (Associated Press)

During the course of a lifetime, six years can be a very short time. Yes, an individual will go through many changes during that period, but for many people, their sense of how they project themselves will change very little.

In global geopolitics however, six years can be an eternity. When responding to a journalist's question of what is most likely to blow a government off course, former British PM Harold Macmillan famously described 'events, dear boy, events', telling us that no matter how forcefully a government plans and enforces its ideals, there'll always be something that can force it to change direction.

As a government represents a nation on the world stage, so the Head of the Government thus epitomises that nation to the peoples and governments of all other nations. I have chosen two pictures for this post that I think represent such a radically different projection of a nation that they could almost be two entirely different countries; one picture of which has just been released and the other of which is now over six years old.

Above, is an image of the previous President of the United States (still currently the most powerful and influential country on the planet). In the picture, George W. Bush stares confidently and defiantly into the camera, backdropped with personnel and apparatus of a navy warship and a banner declaring 'Mission Accomplished'.

The picture tells the viewer that the US is strong, a military force not to be reckoned with, and a dominator over its foes (by extension, over all). In the picture, Bush is clearly addressing a domestic audience to reassure them of the nation's strength, yet the message is also aimed at a global audience to reinforce fear or deferential respect for the US.

President Barack Obama greeted by Emperor and Empress of Japan, 2009 (Reuters)

In the above picture of current US President Barack Obama, depicted at the beginning of a tour of Asia, we can see an utterly different projection of the US to the world. Obama has his eyes cast downwards rather than staring directly into the camera, and he is giving a deeply sombre bow to the Emperor, the traditional form of Japanese greeting given to anybody regardless of their standing in Japanese society. Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko and clearly delighted to receive their guest, given the expressions on their faces.

Such a picture would simply not have happened prior to Obama's presidency. During the Second World War, Japan and the US were prime adversaries. As a condition to their surrender during that war, Japan traded keeping their emperor in return for accepting American occupation. Prior to his radio announcement that Japan was surrendering to the US, Emperor Hirohito (Akihito's father) was considered to be a god by ordinary Japanese. Therefore, hearing his voice was a shock to a war-torn nation and amounted to a renunciation of his divinity. Bush's father even famously vomited in the lap of Japanese prime minister Kiichi Miyazawa at a diplomatic dinner in 1992.

The picture of Obama says that the US is respectful of local traditions or customs, and will act appropriately as an invited guest rather than insist on imposing its own way of doing things. It projects an image of the US that no longer takes a 'with us or against us' approach to international relations, but one of 'we're all in this together' and of equals on the world stage. Obama is stepping out of the confines of a purely domestic audience and addressing a global one (although whether he would be seen addressing Hamid Karzai in a similar manner remains to be seen).

Doubtless, there are many criticisms of the above reading of such an image that could be made, including that one single picture does not demonstrate a complete reversal of US foreign policy and that the US still has military bases across the planet that enforce its will. However, in our symbol-driven, always-on instant-media, modern world, I'd argue that this development is a massive and positive shift in the balance of global power relations.

If the United States can act with humility in the presence of former conquered adversaries, we are indeed living through most intriguing times and should at least have stepped back from the brink of the fears of the Bush era.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

'Japan From The Inside': my first book


Promo video for 'Japan From The Inside'

Spending close to five years living and working in Japan (as regular readers of this blog will know), I travelled extensively around the country and amassed a large collection of photographs from my forays. As I was documenting the place in this way, I also ran off several articles and other pieces of writing inspired by my experiences. Expatriation can be a wonderful source of inspiration for the creative mind, and it often offers up opportunities or insights that locals miss out on or let slip. So it was with me and Japan.

Amongst the many projects I got involved with there and after countless years of deliberation over the idea, I also finally got around to starting my first novel - even managing to get as far as writing something like 70,000 words of it. However, as the idea of being a novelist took greater hold in my imagination, I realised that the book I was writing was actually more of a third or fourth novel rather than the first out of the stable. A bit too complex to be my initial offering, and I'm keen that my introductory tome should be a little more palatable to new readers. Nevertheless, I still had a burning desire to get my first book out before I hit 40, now just a couple of years off.

Returning to the UK in 2008 and as a part of processing what I'd been through, I hit upon the idea of putting my archives to use to introduce Japan to those who'd never been there and hopefully provide a little deeper insight for more seasoned Japanophiles. Using print-on-demand service blurb.com, I assembled my first full book release and issued it last year.

Life being what it sometimes is, there was no real opportunity to let anyone know about it at the time. There were also a few kinks to iron out in it, the result of some rather hurried proofreading. Now I'm back in Brighton and things have settled down enough to the point that I'm able to at least finish off some of the projects that had been shelved, I've created and issued a second edition of the book.


Views of 'Japan From The Inside'

Out now, 'Japan From The Inside' is a window into a land of superlatives. Including 238 pages, over 500 photos and my collected writings on Japan from 2003 to 2008, it unmasks the world’s biggest city, explores the heights of the frozen North and the pleasures of the subtropical South. Readers can also investigate the ancient capital of Kyoto, witness Hiroshima’s recovery from the atomic bomb, and wander amongst the great beauty of the Japan Alps.

Showing sides to the country that visitors rarely get to see and which the Japanese are often too busy to take time over, the book covers the old, the new, and unique. It looks at some of the customs, food and heritage in Japanese culture, examines a Japanese approach to gardens and nature, and captures some of the 127 million people that call it their home.

It is currently entered in the Best Blurb Books Contest, which runs until Nov 9th, 2009. Books that receive the most votes in three separate categories (Family, Travel, Pets) go through to a second round of judging by an expert panel, with each category winner receiving a Grand Prize.

To vote for the book, visitors create a profile at blurb.com (with username and password) and click on the 'Vote For This Book' button on my book's page. Every vote is very highly appreciated! I'm also keen to get some comments on it too, as the more comments the book gets, the easier it is for other people to find it.

I'm usually a bit shy about marketing my own products (it sounds a bit like blowing your own trumpet, which can be a little crass if not done tastefully), but am biting the bullet and giving this one the big push. So if you really like the book or are stuck for what to buy someone for Christmas this year, feel free to buy a copy! The softcover is priced at £30.95 while the hardcover is going for £39.95.

Thanks in advance for any extra votes that come via this blog!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

'The Future Of Collaboration', and Cory Doctorow in Brighton


A final post to end what has been rather a long day. After a morning and afternoon spent at BELTE (the inaugural Brighton English Language Training Event), where I picked up all sorts of tips, tricks and connections that should be able to help with my teaching, I ambled down from the train station to the seafront, only to be confronted by the glorious vision of the sunset over the West Pier pictured above

Renowned net evangelist and author Cory Doctorow (who is exactly one month older than me, according to his Wikipedia entry) was in town for a panel discussion at The Brighton Salon, with Nico MacDonald and Michael Bull. The event was eagerly awaited by certain sections of the Brighton geekerati and I'd been looking forward to it for a while.

Macdonald, Bull, Robert Clowes (Salon chairman) and Doctorow at the Thistle Hotel

Doctorow spoke first to kick off the panel, describing how the internet was not just the world's greatest copy machine, but also its best collaboration machine, and the importance of keeping the copyright industries from 'wiretapping us'. He delivers at quite a pace - fast enough that some in the audience less up on the terminology of our networked times struggled with and which I wasn't able to take notes fast enough either - but the assembled crowd lapped it up.

Bull went on to talk about the challenges of communicating with people that aren't sitting next to you and the contradictions of increasing connectivity leading to greater isolation. Macdonald wrapped up with waxing lyrical about 'the profundity of open source' and how we create and deliver the work that we do better than ever (summed up as 'I share, therefore I am'), but opined that open source culture doesn't tend to create new forms and a concern that the 'hive mind' could reduce innovation. Panel discussions and questions from the audience followed.

Doctorow checks the event's tweet stream

Naturally, things got heated at some points, with firm rebuttals of a few of the issues raised. Doctorow denied that open source culture has reduced innovation, stating also that we are living 'in a period of permanent revolution'. Macdonald claimed that we are not living in as revolutionary times as the move from the land to the cities, rebutted by Doctorow with 'Change today is radically faster than agrarian to industrial change.' A rather intriguing feature of the discussion was that both speakers were monitoring the tweet streams of the event (hashtag: #bssharing) and responding to tweets from the audience in addition to their panel contributions. Some serious multitasking.

There were a few other choice quotes from the night that I tweeted from the audience, including
'We can combine the talents of humanity for the first time' and 'The future's going to be weirder than we can now predict.'

All in all, plenty of thought-provoking material (even if there were no ideas that were particularly new to me) and a most engaging evening. One thing's pretty much for sure - whatever the future's going to look like, we can be pretty damned certain that it's going to look very very different from how we might imagine or predict it now, and weirdness as the order of the day would be most likely!

(update: for a well-written and more extensive report on the evening, visit tomhume.org)


Wednesday, October 07, 2009

A future of Chinese innovation (WN0024)

PhotoSketch: Internet Image Montage from Tao Chen on Vimeo.



As sometimes happens with Twitter, sometimes you stumble across something that's undeniably very cool and have to tell other people about it. Retweeting is the customary way, but having come across this gem, I had to tell my blog readers about it too.

Described by Mashable as 'just mind-boggling', this ingenious piece of software comes out of China - an interesting sign of the place becoming a future source of great innovation. Although it doesn't seem to be publicly available yet, the video above demonstrates quite clearly what it can do.

Mashable defines it like this:

Step 1. Draw the outlines of the figures you want in your picture – anything from seagulls to a Mercedes, whatever tickles your fancy,

Step 2. Add labels for each of the items, as well as for the background.

Step 3. PhotoSketch will then find real-life images to match your doodles and put them together in a Photoshopped image that will make your jaw drop.

The Telegraph describes it more simply as a piece of software 'which transforms basic stick-figure drawings in to a photograph', not quite doing it justice but an effective summary all the same.

The site for PhotoSketch is here, but such was the initial interest in it on the web that it crashed their servers. Goes to show perhaps, if you have a really good idea and can present it well enough, there's no better platform than the Web for getting the word out and building huge demand.

It looks to me like it has the potential to be a powerful disruptive technology that could go massive. Rather than me speculate about how it could end up being used by people and the social implications, I'm inviting comments below to see what readers think.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Of beasts and cocoons

video
T-Rex, the animatron

My wife and I spent the day in London today. The weather was on our side, with glorious sunshine for this time of year, and we had one of those days that just work on every front (despite Central London always being pretty exhausting to get around in the daytime). We got in some good food, with a sushi selection from Harrods, and I finally managed to take her to see Big Ben - something I'd promised to do since we moved to the UK but somehow hadn't had the time to sort out.

In the afternoon, we paid a trip to the Natural History Museum. I hadn't been since I was a child (and a good few of the exhibits don't seem to have changed since then), but it was great to visit again. One of the highlights was the dinosaur area, which brought back memories of my earliest aspirations in life. As a boy of about six or seven, I envisioned myself growing up to become a palaeontologist, travelling the world and uncovering creatures buried in the shifting sands of time.

As far as I can remember, the intention to work with the natural world carried on for some years after. Then, at fourteen I went to stay with my uncle in Germany and heard 'Rubber Soul', thus getting me hooked on The Beatles and changing my ambitions to rock 'n' roll instead of old bones. I got closer to that than I ever did with palaeontology, but it's probably an even more difficult path to make a living from. Totally unrelated to either, these days I teach to put bread on the table. I guess we all have to run with the practicalities when life becomes a reality rather than a dream.

After the bottlenecked walkways at the beginning of the museum's dinosaur zone, with its Triceratops skeletons and all manner of other beasts low-lit and suspended by cables from the ceiling, we came across the treat in the video clip above - an animatronic T-Rex. I must admit, it was very effective and slightly eerie too. The creature seemed pretty lifelike and when the imagination wandered a little, it wasn't too tough to picture him edging forward from his patch and taking a chunk out of the crowd. While there is so much to criticise in terms of government policy over the past decade, I don't think that making the museums free is one of them.

The Cocoon, which houses the Darwin Centre

In a complete contrast of lighting, we wandered past the Cocoon too, which houses the newly opened Darwin Centre. Unfortunately there wasn't enough time to head in and see what was going on inside, but there was structure, space and light to appreciate from the outside all the same. Darwin was my first childhood hero, way before I'd ever heard of John Lennon, and I'm pleased to see that he continues to play a significant role in the public imagination.

London's museums being as vast and crowded as they are, we didn't get to see much of the rest of the place. Perhaps in another 20-odd years, I'll make it back there again. There'll be a few more modern treats to reflect whatever innovations are going on at the time, but I expect there'll still be the same old shabby lions in glass cases, gathering yet more dust. Much like the rest of the country, really.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Peace Day Vs The Age of Stupid (WN0023)

The Age of Stupid Global Premiere Trailer from Age of Stupid on Vimeo.


It's a tough call over which one of these two videos to put at the top of the post. In a surprising convergence of highly connected issues, today (September 21st) marks Peace Day, while tomorrow (September 22nd) is the global premiere of 'The Age Of Stupid', the already widely-acclaimed documentary film about climate change.

Above is the trailer for 'Stupid', while the clip below gives an explanation about Peace Day. It needed really be a choice between one or the other. By all accounts, 'The Age Of Stupid' is a film that literally everyone should see. Peace Day is an annual day that all signatories at the UN General Assembly have agreed should be a day for cessation of hostilities.

Neither initiatives on their own will automatically make the world a better place, but both show that forces pushing back against the challenges the planet is facing are getting stronger.

Find or give a screening of 'The Age Of Stupid' and tell everyone who'll listen about it.

Make peace. Every day.



Sunday, September 06, 2009

'Geek And Ye Shall Find': a report on BarCamp Brighton 4


BarCamp? Unconference? What?

Call it going viral, call it protocol migration, call it global memes or whatever you will. Nowadays, it's not just corporations that spread across the planet at dizzying rates. There are also an increasingly large number of ideas, events and happenings that start somewhere and through a combination of 'being a good idea' + 'the existence of the Internet', spread across the world rapidly. This trend is becoming more and more interesting as it develops, both in terms of the emergence of a globalised yet decentralised world culture and with the blurring or even disappearance of barriers between the online and offline worlds.

One example is Pecha Kucha, which I wrote here about the last Brighton event. Another is TEDx, a larger scale and more formalised format of presentation event that blends sharing knowledge with franchising to grow the TED community and the reach of 'ideas worth spreading'. Yet another is BarCamp, the latest Brighton version of which I spent most of this weekend at.

On the main public wiki page for the idea, a BarCamp is described as
an ad-hoc gathering born from the desire for people to share and learn in an open environment. It is an intense event with discussions, demos and interaction from participants who are the main actors of the event.
Wikipedia describes it as 'an international network of user generated conferences — open, participatory workshop-events, whose content is provided by participants.' This also works to define an unconference, where participants all contribute to the agenda which is set at the beginning of the day and often changed during the course of the event.

I attended my first unconference in London last year, but never quite managed to get round to blogging about it (find the full public released book for the 'One Media Unconference' here). The first BarCamp was held in Palo Alto, California in 2005 - organised in less than a week, from concept to event, with 200 attendees. Since then, BarCamps have been held in over 350 cities around the world and six continents (anyone up for BarCamp Antarctica?).

BarCamp Brighton is now on its fourth event. While previous ones were held out on campus at the University Of Sussex (where the birth pangs of the modern internet were first unveiled by its midwives, Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn), this year's event was switched to the Old Music Library in the centre of town.

Day One




chriskeene1's video tour around the building

The venue was very appropriately Brighton, looking like a squatted art gallery, with dusty floors, chunks of plasterboard missing from walls and ceilings, and crammed with exciting, esoteric or exotic street art and sculptures. Given that this town always tends to make effective use of abandoned space, particularly in times of recession, it was a most suitable place for a geek meetup. It also enhanced the informal nature of the event, rather than putting the happenings into a more sterilised environment.

The Beast tries to escape through the Old Music Library window

Given that from Monday to Friday these days, I deck myself out in a suit to go to work, it was good to don my geekware and slip into the crowd for a while, who were a motley crew of techies, creatives, Brighton geeks, amateurs, professionals and the self-taught, leftovers from the dConstruct conference and visiting BarCampers from out of town.


What is BarCamp Brighton? - a few words from a couple of the organisers

As with most conferences, the common complaint was that there was too much going on of interest to be able to take it all in. There was certainly plenty to take in. Given that it was my first BarCamp, I wanted to get a feel for the thing before diving in and playing a more active role. The first sessions that I sat in on were outside ones, while the sun was still shining. Steve Purkiss hosted a session on developing the building into a more permanent hub for Digital Media in Brighton (Google Group here), while Richard Vahrman took a nostalgia trip through analogue computing and his part in its downfall.

Heading back into the building, I caught a little of a talk from Melinda Seckington, who blogs as missgeeky and was offering up tips and tricks. I picked up a few interesting snippets, such as inviting guest posters being a good way to grow a blog, and the point that a large number of blogs serve particular niches but as readers tend to have a wide range of interests, it's not a bad idea to reflect that in the content provided. There was also a free wine-tasting event going on as part of the Brighton Food and Drink Festival, so I ducked out of the place for a while to join my wife in tasting samples. Sometimes, one is really spoiled for choice in what to do in Brighton!

Lunchtime sandwich breakout

A difference with the London One Media event was that hosts seemed a little more surprised when participants left their talk to wander off into another one. One Media was notable for participants behaving just like they would in online chatrooms, by dropping in and out of conversations, contributing nothing, something or plenty to a discussion. In Brighton, it seemed that there was a bit more of the feeling that it was not so much 'the done thing' to disappear when someone else had got going on their presentation. There must be all manner of other varieties of social behaviour at other BarCamps that reflect the local area more.

The afternoon included a session on Web Typography from digitalblonde, Visualising Home Energy Use with Laurence and a tour of The Skiff, one of several coworking spaces in Brighton and Hove. The first session went through a brief history of type families from the fifteenth century to today and covered general rules on font usage, which was rather handy.

The second one had plenty of useful information on how much energy is used in the home and different ways to monitor it. Items like air conditioning, fridge freezers and plasma screen TVs consume a lot of power, and desktop computers suck up more than laptops. There are, however, items such as smart meters that can be used to monitor one's home energy use directly, meaning that it's a lot easier to see when you're using too much or have left something on that doesn't need to be.

Costing around £50, they can be clamped on to existing mains supplies to monitor the data, which is then fed into a PC and then some sort of visualisation software. This means that surges are easier to spot and users can get to know how much energy they use (rather than just waiting for a utility bill that will likely charge them for using energy that they have to waste). Useful resources to find out more include Google PowerMeter and Current Cost for monitoring, and Pachube or Sensorpedia for visualising.

In The Skiff's basement, with extra large cushions

The Skiff was very near to the main venue, so the tour was a short trot away. Described as 'like BarCamp every day', it is modelled on San Francisco's Citizen Space, one of the many initiatives that bubble out of the US East Coast's prime location for the blending of the tech/creative worlds. Taking the best elements of a coffee shop and of a workplace, these are combined to provide a sociable, productive and affordable space for independent workers to do their thing without having to stay at home stuck in front of a screen all day. They also have a webcam that shows live whether a desk is available or not. People drop by to network, participate in activities like robot building or join in with some of the events the space has been able to host.

Ambling back after the tour, I got down to a bit of networking and mingling, given that the main workshops seemed to be winding down by then. I had a very interesting chat with the organiser of a UK version of BarCamp Africa (and was surprised to later find out that there are several BarCamps all over the continent), before heading upstairs to find out what all the noise was about - discovered myself amidst a geek singalong of Foreigner's 'I Want To Know What Love Is' (see video here).

Pizza frenzy begins

By then, all that remained was to hang out and eat pizza, drink beer and wait for the musical entertainment to start. An intriguing feature at this stage was the way that information was delivered. Pizza, beer and band times got juggled around a little, and given the informality of the event, it wasn't necessary to go around making big announcements about time changes. As all participants were permanently clamped to some sort of mobile web-enabled device, all that was needed was to tweet the information using the '#bcb4' hashtag. That way, anyone could follow a live information stream about the event and contribute to it themselves by tagging their own tweets in the same way. Twitter Search became a powerful tool for real-time information dissemination.


Described by cminion as 'Brighton's geekiest band', an accolade later wistfully refuted to me by drummer toastkid, 100 Robots took the floor as house band when all work-related stuff was over. An electrorock trio reduced to a duo for this performance, they let go in the subterranean basement to the gathered crowd, who dug them very much. The material was fast-paced, it rocked and included songs about subjects like the recent financial meltdown, the election in Iran and a gene therapy cure for AIDS.


'Deep Underground' by 100 Robots, live at BarCamp Brighton 4

With the day clearly done I made my way home, not having the desire to sleep on a dusty floor in an abandoned building when I had a bed to go back to. The next day, I was due to pop my BarCamp cherry and hold my own session. After all, everyone's expected to make some sort of contribution at these things.

Day Two

The agenda for the day

The second day was shorter yet (for me) deeper, as I dared to get a little more hands-on. The first session I ended up in, almost by accident but actually being one of the most fun, was titled 'Using Agile to Build a BarCamp Theme Park' and was hosted by Jez Nicholson. Agile is something that I'd heard of before but didn't really know a great deal about. Essentially, it is a software development methodology (see original Manifesto for founding principles), but seems to be a way of working that is very suited to the connected post-Web world we are all building these days.

Working with physical tools (plasticine, pipe cleaners and string) to meet a client brief rather that virtual ones, it made it easy to follow the operating methodology. The team that I was part of were tasked with producing 'something to do with Google' as part of the 'theme park' and came up with the 'Google Search Bar', as seen below. Although the picture may not convey the entire project that fully, it was fun and an effective exercise in collaborative teamwork to a timescale.


As with the other participants, I got rather caught up in the exercise, to the extent that I almost missed my own session. Titled 'Shall I Give My Stuff Away For Free?...or The Creative Commons Dilemma', I decided that I wasn't going to use my slot to present my expertise in one area or another (my skills are widely but thinly spread), but instead try to crowdsource a solution to a quandry I've set myself (in other words, ask some other people what they would do in a similar situation).


Full slideshow of my pictures from BarCamp Brighton 4

I have almost 2,500 pictures hosted on my Flickr site. I tend to get a good amount of views most days and have occasionally had people ask me to use them in their blogs or websites. However, I'd like it if this resource were put to greater use and get a wider audience, perhaps with the possibility of even covering the costs of a Flickr Pro account or at least driving more traffic back to my other sites. Therefore, I've been debating with myself whether to issue them all under a Creative Commons licence.


'A Shared Culture - Saving the world from failed sharing'


What is Creative Commons? It's a form of licencing that offers an alternative to full copyright and which enables increases sharing and improved collaboration. Essentially, while a content creator retains the copyright to their work, they also allow other people to use, share or remix that work, thus giving a bigger audience for the original piece. It's all very well creating great work, but if no-one knows about it (increasingly more difficult with the vast volumes of material available on the Net) an artist doesn't get anywhere with their work. As Tim O'Reilly said:
Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.
There are six kinds of licence. These are
Attribution, Attribution Share Alike, Attribution No Derivatives, Attribution Non-Commercial, Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike, Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives (further information about each licence can be viewed here).

The discussion went well, with contributors giving me good advice based on their own experiences of using these licences. I was even thanked at the end for 'one of the more interesting sessions' at BarCamp, which I was pretty pleased with. After giving it much thought and throwing the debate open to the crowd, I decided to go ahead with freeing all my photos. One thing that I still have to decide is which licence to use, but that's an issue for another post!

The remaining sessions that I ended up in - all very enjoyable - were on haiku and other forms of Japanese poetry, fetishism (the emotional value we attach to our possessions rather than sexual preferences - thanks Ellen!) and differences between Western and Eastern styles of animation.

At session end

How was it for you?

General consensus garnered from conversations and the tweetstream seemed to be that it was a very enjoyable event, with a range of great sessions, an amazing venue and a lot of appreciation for the hard work put it by the organisers plus the back up support from the sponsors (Paypal, Yahoo! Developer Network, The Guardian Open Platform, Metranet, Madgex and Vodafone My Web) for enabling it to happen.

It was also fascinating to be a part of a localised version of a global movement, and will be most intriguing to see where this BarCamp thing goes in the future. I'll certainly be signing up for BarCamp Brighton 5. It goes to show that if you're in need of an answer, geek and ye shall find!

+++++


Appendix

Obviously, at such an event it's impossible to see everything. I've put a small handful of some of the content from sessions I missed but which have since gone online below. If you have something that was presented at BarCamp Brighton 4 and would like it included here, please drop me a line through this blog and I'll update the post.

Other presentations

Start Screencasting in 7 Minutes with Jing - Workshop at BarCamp Brighton 4 from IanProCastsCoUk on Vimeo.












Shouts

A mention here to other attendees that haven't been covered above. Again, if you were at the event and would like your name, Twitter page or blog link included here, drop me a line through this blog and I'll update the post. Likewise, if you are linked to on here and would like the link removed, get in touch. Apologies to anyone missed out - I think everyone appreciated everyone's contributions!

Comments on this post also highly appreciated...:)

Jay Caines-Gooby, Premasagar Rose, Chris Foot, Al James, Jonathan Markwell, Ollie Glass, Marrije Schaake, Leeky, Greg Lloyd, Sevan Janiyan, Victoria Walberg, Tim Dobson, Jamie Matthews, martin88, Ian Ozsvald, Mark Pugh, Jim Purbrick, Rainycat, Tim Nash, Remy Sharp, Pei Chi Lo, Terence Eden, Jack Appleby, Anna Fuller, Dave Phelan, Seb, Matt Pearson, carolynlyn, Dawa Riley, Mike Pountney, Carl Jeffrey...

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