Category Archives: Personal

The Internet Life (and Death) of Me

The Internet Life (and Death) of Me

I recently came across an article about a fairly new gizmo on the market, the Amazon ‘Dash’ button. It’s unsurprisingly, a button-shaped device which can be attached to virtually any household surface and which has the ability to magically, order-up goodies direct from Amazon, quite literally, from the touch-of-a-button. How neat, right?

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Well, kind of. One of the up-sides, obviously, is that the Dash (or Dashes?) could be placed in a location convenient for ordering your fast moving consumable goods so you don’t have to remind yourself to add it to the shopping list. Instead, one press of the Dash and it would automatically order an appropriate consignment of your favourite brand. Another advantage, albeit rather more subversively, is the fact that the Dash ordering system conveniently circumnavigates the (oh so tedious and lengthy – sarcasm) process of actually logging on and buying an item in the usual manner. I did think however that with Amazon One-Click buying, which is already impossibly easy, what could be the reason for bypassing the simple and easy internet step.

Well it turns out that by ensuring that you don’t have to log on to Amazon this rather sneaky little ploy draws customers away from the conscious thought of purchasing. The jury is probably still out on this one, personally I like the idea, but I’m not keen on the idea of playing mind games and quite frankly no one likes to be taken for a mug, though in the battle of wits, I tend to think that the industry marketing experts win hands-down. I’m sure that we all like to have a bit more awareness of our purchasing habits and not just blindly running around the homestead, manically pressing buttons all in aid of completing the weekly shop.

One thing that is clear, usage of the button is also a bit like wearable technology, you are freely giving away scads of personal information each time you thumb the Dash. Instead of a wearable device being strapped to your wrist, chest, or wherever; the Dash is attached to cupboards or rooms in your house or garage etc. Clearly, usage of the Dash contributes to Amazon’s already growing ‘picture’ of you as a consumer.

As a digital shopper you’re telling the online retail behemoth (who are able to sell you almost anything), everything about the products you use, (and maybe more importantly, which ones you don’t). Information about how much you use, your brand preferences, shopping habits etc. is captured with each touch-of-a-button. It could be argued that this micro-segmentation-type behaviour can genuinely be a good thing. Increasingly, targeted advertising, cross-selling etc. are seen as benefits to the customer and are effectively the end-user consequences of big data consumption and analysis.

Generally, I am fascinated with the whole concept of the internet of things (IoT) and have blogged a bit about it before, however I’m aiming to delve a little deeper into my perceived future of what it means to have gadgets like the Amazon-Dash about the house, especially in terms of what it says about you, the consumer, and the message that is picked up by industry giants like Amazon.

The thing is, the more you interact with the internet of things, then more you create a virtual ‘image’ of yourself, ‘the internet of me’, a digital persona which, in today’s world is currently under construction, but in tomorrow’s world will no doubt be stark reality. With many agents across the internet, from online banks, to online retailers, email and ISP providers, health and social websites,  it’s all there. Metadata which is at least capable of capturing your music and TV preferences, your favourite countries to travel to, or even your most ordered five pizza toppings. It is all being generated by you and it all ends up somewhere in the cloud. It is increasing in size on a monumental scale and is being cleansed, structured and analysed at a rate never before seen in the history of data processing.

It doesn’t take a lunar leap of the imagination to envisage a time when all of the meta data that describes you, is  mashed together. It’s easy to see a world with an entirely virtual representation, (or at least a virtual representation of your likes and dislikes, habits, cash flow, location, health etc.) being one of the main the drivers of our everyday lives. Consider just a few of the online apps and facilities that we currently use on a daily basis and some of the data associated with them: Finance (Banking, Investing, Pension, Insurance); Media (Film, TV, Books, Music); Food (Restaurants, Tastes); Health (Fitness, Illnesses, Lifestyle); Travel (Destinations, Hotels); Work (LinkedIn, Blog); Social (Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest); etc. etc. etc.

If a particular organisation were capable of assembling all of the above information for any single person, I think we can agree that would be a pretty good starting point for a virtual description of you. All online, all digital (and in the future, undoubtedly) all available either at the ‘right’ price or to the ‘right’ organisations. The irony is, that we freely give up all of this info now and a lot of it is to socialise and interact with our friends and families online. This is likely only one aspect of what is actually being recorded to build up profiles of our digital-doppelgängers.

Many websites including Facebook capture information such as how long you linger on a photo of your ex, or to whose events you RSVP “attending”. The New York Times has dubbed this effect the online echo chamber, where it states that the “Internet creates personalized e-comfort zones for each one of us”.

Search results that you get back from Google are tailored to your location, initially, but over time (as I’m sure most of you have spotted), these tailored search results (and ads) become uncannily accurate, as if they really are reading your thoughts. I really don’t mind having tailored ads, since this could reduce my search time and help lead me to better deals for example. However, when it gets to a stage where a single organisation, be it Amazon, Facebook or another, has literally and virtually ALL of your personal information, this may be a bit too much, for comfort.

Can I expect to receive a digital dream notification whilst I sleep which offers an umbrella and porridge to be delivered first thing in the morning (since it will be raining and I usually skip breakfast), for my journey way to work? It sounds good, and maybe a little scary, especially if my porridge arrives hot and steaming, accompanied by a note from the local undertaker asking if I would be interested in an eco-friendly coffin. It seems the same online data has indicated an imminent departure from mother earth, swept away by a vulgar little tumour. They were right after all, ignorance is no longer bliss.

The digital frontier is upon us, where will it take you?

Remote Working: Office Not Required

Remote Working in Modern Times

One of the workplace topics that I have seen hotly debated on occasion, is the issue of remote working. Can it truly work? Are employees genuinely motivated? How can quality, working relationships be established and maintained? And so on. I have been involved with remote working and managing remote teams for a number of years, but I was still intrigued when I received a copy of ‘Remote: Office Not Required‘, written by 37 signals co-founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. I knew of the company and their products, and that they have a very successful business run entirely by remote workers.

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I have long since finished the book and have only just now gotten around to blogging about the concept of the remote worker. It is not my intention to review the book here, suffice to say it is an exceptionally easy read and has a fluidity of prose rarely associated with tech-related books.

It currently has four stars on Amazon, and what could have been a potentially mundane subject to write about, is actually a well-crafted, enlightening and sometimes an amusing read.

So what’s the big deal? Why does the concept of remote working elicit widely differing responses and why do some people say they could never remote work whilst others are highly successful, mini-managers? The reason is really simple, it’s all a matter of trust. You have to trust your colleagues and trust yourself to fulfil your end of the deal.

What do I mean? Simply, you have to trust that you have the drive, motivation, desire and ability to be able to work away from the rest of your team, not on your own, but not co-located either. I really believe it’s that simple. Colleagues should be assured that you are the type of person that given a lull in the general day-to-day activities, will look for something to do, an improvement in process, finishing off the operations manual from 2 projects ago, or simply chasing down customer responses to emails.

Still, there is one area where I think remote working is lacking. Ironically enough it’s the tech needed for a typical remote team operation. It’s definitely not up-to-scratch in certain areas, but not to the point where the experience is unpleasant’. It’s just clear to me that it can be improved upon. Although tools such as Skype, TeamViewer and Join.me have improved by leaps-and-bounds over the last few years, I still find that they are easily affected by bandwidth/signal/wi-fi issues and in some cases lack a clear, intuitive interface.

With 4G availability and coverage ever expanding, and devices offering ever more facilities through powerful, rich apps this should be the impetus telecoms companies need to provide a true internet society with always on, always connected and always secure technology. Fast, secure, intuitive apps are key components to happy, remote workers.

37 Signals’ secret to success is pretty evident from the manner in which they openly recruited remote developers from all over the globe. By ensuring that each member of the team had appropriate tools and a solid service provider, there are few, if any complaints in the book that the lack of tools and/or suitable internet connection hindered their progress in any way. It’s also clear in the book that the interview process is rigorous and aimed at weeding out candidates that don’t suit the remote worker profile they have studiously crafted over the lifetime of their business.

And the secret for you as a remote worker? This excellent article by Zapier outlines a number of traits that remote workers need to possess in order for them to be successful and happy. They include more obvious things like being trustworthy and having an ability to communicate effectively via the written word, but also, and I think, just as important is having a local support system. This means of course having a life outside of work where interaction with people occurs on a level different to Skype and TeamViewer conversations. Clearly all digital work does indeed make Jack a dull boy.

Proverbs aside, it is a vital point and one not to be taken lightly if you are thinking about entering the remote working arena. Having a good network of friends and family is really necessary to help fulfill the void potentially created by the remote working environment.

I have found that working remotely can be, and is, just as rewarding as going to the office. Having successfully managed a number of remote teams I can say with a sense of achievement and satisfaction that being co-located isn’t that important, but having the right attitude is.

The Madness of Multitasking

Multitasking Madness

These days the phrase multi-tasking is bandied about quite often within the workplace and of course the battle of the sexes and their respective abilities to multi-task is well known. More recently however, I have seen references to scientific studies that are beginning to show that contrary to common belief where multi-tasking is good for the brain, in that it keeps it active; it appears that this may not be the case at all. Initial studies have shown that the more people multi-task, the less able they are to do it. It seems that if you lead a life which is of the seemingly perpetual, multi-tasking kind, then it’s a downward spiral for the old grey matter, which ultimately seems to suffer from forgetfulness, concentration lapses and in extreme cases, difficulties with communication.

So what’s the reasoning?
Well, quite simply multi-tasking does not allow for the brain to be fully engaged to a degree where learning, reasoning and logic are actively committed. An obvious statement maybe, but one that’s necessary, since this is at the crux of the problem. By it’s very nature the brain is forced to monitor several tasks at the same time and is almost in a state of constant distraction, simply because there is not enough time available, or perhaps not enough effort involved to focus on one item at a time. It takes time for the brain to adjust to each new task and it has been shown that the rate of retention of information is substantially less when a person is multi-tasking compared to being focused (assuming the same overall time is spent at the task in hand). A person has a certain amount of ‘working memory’ which is used to complete any given task and may involved remembering certain items of information vital to the correct and appropriate execution of the task. Now if other distractions are thrown into the mix, the working memory can become confused and forget or swap information. The results can be catastrophic as we well know in cases where drivers have been talking or txting on the phone and were subsequently unable to avoid a collision.

What are the symptoms?
Well so far the following have been identified as likely to be caused by, but are not exclusive to, extensive multi-tasking:
Lapses in attentiveness
Loss of concentration
Gaps in short-term memory

I’ve certainly had times where my concentration has just not been up to par because of the fact that I have been trying to do too many things at the same time and haven’t really sat down to focus and complete tasks in an ordered fashion. At times it’s just not possible and multi-tasking can be the only way to get things done quickly, but we should remember that we are likely to make more mistakes when in this mode and it certainly isn’t good to juggle too many balls or spin plates all the time.

How can we make it better?
The simple answer is to not multi-task. Ensure that you remain focused on one task for at least 20 minutes before moving on to something else. Apparently meditation can help too, a kind of brain conditioning if you like, but the best answer is to just stop and take a break, re-focus the mind with a renewed clarity and vision of what it is you have to do in that particular moment. It has been shown that kids can multi-task more effectively, but it’s unclear why this is the case, perhaps they are more accustomed to it, being generally surrounded by gadgets, phones, laptops, games consoles, TVs etc., or perhaps our brain degrades in this respect with age. Only time and proper scientific study will tell, but for now, try spinning just the one plate at a time. Tomorrow is another day.

Happy New Year – The Blog Must Go On

New Year

The New Year has finally arrived and it’s back to work, all hands to the pump. 2013 already promises to be the busiest ever, even though I now think 2012 was, in terms of work, travel and social. However, exciting work challenges have arrived and there are already plans afoot to travel to new and exotic destinations. Last year travel-wise was a reasonable success with three new countries visited, Sweden, Sri Lanka and Hungary, but I would like to see if I can better that this year, and a trip to parts of south east Asia could help with achieving that target.

So, what about the blogging, has it been a success so far, is it worth it?  Well, I have noticed that my blogs now go back until March last year, so whilst I haven’t quite put in a full year’s worth of blogging, I have been trying to get a blog an article a month on top of the usual ‘Video of the Month’, hammered out. It can be difficult to make the time to sit down to do it, but since I enjoy writing and I knew that starting a blog would be a great way to get stuff out there, it’s worth persevering. I also know that the point of a blog is to write about anything that comes to mind, but it still has to have quality, right? Hmm, well yes, definitely, there has to be some sort of measure to a decent blog, otherwise readers will turn their attention to any one of the myriad of other less boring blogs on the web.  Let’s face it, there is a hell of a lot to chose from and making any one stand out from the crowd is a decent enough challenge.

I’ve got some ideas on the go already, ideally I’d like to combine tech, London and a personal interest of starting a business so maybe a small blog about start-ups could be useful. I also think it’s useful to put in a book review, but I’ll try to keep it to books that are work’ish related and I have got one in mind. Travel would be another great subject to blog about, but I simply don’t do enough travelling and I think a good travel blog should involve the writer blogging whilst travelling, but nevertheless as mentioned above I will try to keep my travels updated. Also, for DJ fans, I think I should add something more in that category, perhaps a simple guide to DJing for the uninitiated. I’ve been doing it for so long now it’s  second nature, but I can guess that there are still ‘newbies’ out there struggling with the basic concepts. For sure I remember my first set of decks and the (then) steep learning curve of dropping a seriously good mix.

Anyway, let’s see what they year brings, there are doubtless many topics to cover, hopefully I can keep on track and put out a few interesting pieces together over the next twelve months or so. Also don’t forget to check in on my Instagram feed (http://followgram.me/soniclime), 2012 produced some funny/odd/cool images, and I really think it’s a worthwhile addition to any blog. I really like making ‘proper’ pics on a DSLR, but it’s difficult to beat the ability to upload pics from a phone straight to your blog and capture the moment, there and then.

Best of luck for 2013 and happy blogging/instagramming.

Science Fiction Books Everyone Should Read – The SF Masterworks Series

Science Fiction

With the numerous ways that one can actually read a book these days, Kindle, Nook, smart phone, and all the rest, it’s a wonder that any of them get sold at all, but I have to say that I still like books and I still find it easy to while away a few hours browsing through book shops. Die hard book fans will be shocked when I say that I am also a big fan of Amazon, but that’s really about getting good value for money, second-hand or otherwise; and the service is exceptionally good for those times when a few clicks of the mouse wins over visiting the local store.

In my blog so far, I have reviewed one book before and although I am always reading something it’s not really my plan to review everything I read here, but rather to review those books that are a bit special, or a bit more related to the blog, so usually tech or similarly related.  That said, it’s pretty easy to determine that I’m quite a big fan of sci-fi (at least on screen), I mean, who isn’t, right?  When I thought about it I realised that over the years I had not really read that many sci-fi books, maybe the odd Phil Dick, Arthur C, or Azimov, but nothing like the superb collection I happened upon fairly recently, namely the SF Masterworks series.  This is series of books now into its second publication run that originally began in 1999 and is a comprehensive list of sci-fi novels from the 1950’s onwards.  The list was described by science fiction author Iain M. Banks as “amazing” and “genuinely the best novels from sixty years of SF”, [1]  and since Mr Banks is himself a world renowned sci-fi author, that’s a pretty good commendation.

One of the useful things that Amazon allows you to do is to create ‘Listmainia’ lists, that is to say, lists of books that are possibly personal favourites, genre specific, best sellers or lists that are related in some other way. In the case of the lists I have created it is both genre and publisher. Another, way too useful feature is that once your Listmania list has been created, all of the books on that list can be added to the Amazon shopping basket in just a few clicks, too easy by far, but it does mean the start of a really cool collection of genre-specific novels.

If you are interest in reading the books, here are my Listmainia lists of the series, please feel free to use them to purchase until your sci-fi need has been fulfilled and don’t be shy to report back on which were your favourites.

 

1 Man + 2 Weeks = 3 Technologies

3 Technologies

It’s not often in the tech world that one has the chance to take part in conferences, training and workshops using completely different technologies operating in a number of distinct arenas, and  all within the space of a fortnight; but that’s pretty much what has happened to me fairly recently and I enjoyed every minute of it. Never underestimate the power of coincidence and how it can suddenly fill your diary with a potentially frightening schedule of events and always be prepared to smart-phone your way out of a situation. I can’t complain too much though, I have a healthy interest in all things tech and I feel myself lucky not to be bound-over by technology or the other. Whilst having a specialty is good, so too is having a broad interest and personal knowledge base, and the tech world is certainly one area that lends itself extremely well to this philosophy.

Technology 1 – Mobile Applications
Let’s start at the beginning and the ‘Apps World’ conference back in early October. It was the start of a hectic fortnight and my foray into some completely new tech. Apps World was a two day mobile phone applications event held at Earls Court which was  “designed to create a unique platform to bring together the next generation of this rapidly developing sector. An event for App Developers, Network Operators, OS Vendors, Brand & Marketing Managers and Technology providers; looking to connect, build partnerships and network whilst becoming educated and inspired by the latest developments within this exciting industry”, [1]. Like most conferences the days were broken into subject areas and within those, time tabled events. The subject areas included were, ‘Developer Zone’, ‘Droid World’, Technical Briefing’, ‘TV Apps & Multi-screen’, ‘Apps & the Enterprise’ and ‘Operator Apps & VAS’ and over the two-day period I managed to squeeze in around 16 different events from most of these areas. The biggest debates not surprisingly surrounded cross-platform technologies and the ‘best’ approach for development, closely followed by mobile apps and the enterprise, and why many big firms such as SAP have still not fully committed to what is clearly a market in high demand. I also witnessed some cool demos on mobile payment technologies and how electronic wallets were likely to replace many common forms of payment around today as well as facilitate cash withdrawals from ATMs. There were between 200 and 250 stands from all walks of life in the the mobile apps world and encompassed just about all of the technologies involved. There were also some great opportunities for networking and getting to know people who were involved in designing, writing, selling and promoting apps, and of course one of the highlights was the first annual ‘Appster Awards’ with London based “Mubaloo, the firm behind the MET Office’s weather app”,  “winning both the App Developer 2010 title and Appsters Champion 2012 award, after receiving the highest cumulative score from the panel”, [2]. Next year’s Apps World is already in the planning and I suspect it will be very exciting to see just how much things have changed in 12 months.

Technology 2 – eProcurement
As a consultant I am relatively new to the business of eProcurement, but I understand the concepts and most of the terminology. When the chance came up to get some proper ‘hands-on’ with a new tool emerging strongly in the UK in this area, I felt pretty lucky to be participating in a three-day training session with some new tech in the week directly after the Apps World conference. The tool is called Coupa and is finding increased favour with many companies in the UK and Europe, having already established itself as a serious eProcurement contender in the United States. Coupa is designed to ‘harness transactions to optimize spend’, [3] and already has a following of loyal customers from numerous business sectors. Whilst the training was comprehensive, the tool was relatively straightforward to use and I could immediately see the attraction for end users. It is offered as an SaaS, multi-tenanted platform so it benefits from the usual good stuff that this model has to offer such as; high, guaranteed levels of service, no required infrastructure, users have instant access to updates, exceptionally quick to deploy, relatively affordable, excellent security and of course the users have the option of working anywhere etc. I completed the course by sitting a multiple-choice and practical exam totaling some 4 and a quarter hours and am currently awaiting results, but it certainly would be excellent to have something as new and interesting as this, as one more skill in an ever-growing list.

Technology 3 – Agile Project Management
This is the last section completing my trio of tech and even though I have spoken about this particular tool before when I first used it, it is definitely worth mentioning again. I refer of course to another SaaS tool, this time for agile project management, called Rally. I first used Rally whilst working for a client and was impressed by its ease of use and ability to set up and manage agile projects with little trouble. The day after I completed my Coupa training, I attended a Rally one-day workshop (RallyOn Europe) in the London Museum. By this time my head was beginning to feel a little like spaghetti junction, for even though I had slept well, my mind was buzzing with everything that I had seen and learnt in the past week, from the fantastic and multi-faceted world of mobile apps, to the equally interesting world of eProcurement and Coupa. At RallyOn I attended two specific workshops and learnt about custom apps and pages and how there is now a whole community writing apps that can be plugged-in and used to accomplish all sorts of specific activities, including graphical visualisations and increased reporting, and metrics. During the day the one-hour workshops were interspersed with presentations from various people, one of whom was Dean Leffingwell. He presented a superb overview of lean development outlining the Goals of Speed, Value and Quality, as well as the importance of ‘respect for people’, Kaizen (Japanese for “improvement”, or “change for the better”) and the principles of product development flow. The ‘Scaled Agile Framework’ was also discussed at length and is illustrated remarkably well here. The day even had lean coffee breaks and finished up with a session on ‘How to Plan Like a Pro’ which discussed tools like the Kanban board, an app for which can be found in Rally.  All-in-all for a one-day workshop, this was incredibly well organised and informative, and those people that I spoke to during and after felt the same.

In summary, the scope of tech can be wide and varied, or specific and detailed, but it is rarely boring. I have seen that mobile apps hold a whole new world of promise and that projects are now managed in ways that were not conceived only a couple of decades ago. The process of buying and selling has been reinvented, redefined and made easier than ever before to meet the demand for more goods and services, and there is no doubt in my mind that technology in all it’s forms is a dynamic and rapidly evolving response designed to help meet those demands. It seems that this is one race that will never end.

Consulting – Build Your Own Bap!

Consulting

Sometimes there are things in life, work and business that remind me of a funny anecdote I occasionally recount to friends over a beer or two, and it relates a previous place of employment, their rather antiquated basement, a military-style canteen that opened every morning for breakfast and the humble bap. You may or may not be familiar with the term ‘bap’, Miriam Webster’s online dictionary offers up a somewhat short description; ‘a small bun or roll’. In my world baps are a little more involved than that, and they are definitely not small; especially not breakfast baps or late night, on the way home from a night out, scooby-snack type baps. No. The baps I am talking about are designed to comfortably accommodate a fairly substantial meal whilst at the same time acting as a field-dressing type of absorbent material for the interlaced layers of ketchup, mustard and whatever selection of condiments that may have taken your fancy. That is what I call a bap.

The funny part comes (hopefully) when I describe the notice board which was presented each morning in that same basement. It was a chalk board  looking rather resplendent and sitting just beside the breakfast bar. The board was there to helpfully inform hungry breakfasters what was on the menu that particular morning.  This in itself was actually a little bit odd, since the breakfast was the same every single morning, it was a cooked breakfast consisting of the ever faithful; bacon, sausage, eggs, mushrooms, toast, beans, hash browns and a military standard mug o’ tea. Below that however, and this is where the bap comes in, there was a fairly long list which listed items from the breakfast menu that could also be obtained, ‘in a bap’. The board appeared to be lovingly recreated every morning and a breakfaster typically had the choice of:

Bacon bap
Bacon and egg bap
Sausage bap
Sausage and egg bap
Bacon, sausage and egg bap
Egg bap
Double egg bap
Bacon and hash brown bap
Hash brown bap
Egg and hash brown bap
And so on…

The absolute killer blow for me was, at the bottom of this list, there was another option mentioned…

“Build your own bap!” … Ha!

Now, having seen the various bap options, combinations and permutations on the board, I was always in fits of laughter when I saw that final option giving an adventurous breakfaster the ability to create their own, fully customised breakfast bap. Later, when I gave this some consideration and pondered the reasons why this extra option was there, I began to realise what was actually on offer. The simple fact is, that even though there were numerous suitable options available, one additional option was to provide the customer with the ability to create a unique option, a special bap that was particular to each individual. Very cool indeed when you apply the same premise to other scenarios.

Some years later having worked as a consultant for numerous clients on-premise, with near-source teams, as a developer, as a manager, etc. I am beginning to see the value of extending the bap analogy to my clients. Clients may well know what they want, and a good consultancy may know how to offer it, but truly excellent consultancies offer that something extra, that ‘build your own bap’ option. Consultancies can provide the ingredients (people, skills, technology for example) and they can even provide the pre-made baps (outsourcing, managed services, procurement, development teams, BI, mobile apps for example), but ultimately they should also provide the ability for a customer to ‘build their own bap’. So what are we talking about here?

Well simply, we are talking about consultancies having the ability to release resources as and when they are required so that clients can pick and choose the resources, skills, technologies, they require; when they require them and for the desired length of engagement. We are also talking about presenting the ability to ramp-up teams for short or long assignments, about individual consultants working closely with clients on-premise, or remotely. It’s about going the extra mile to provide that something extra for clients and giving them the freedom to choose.

Hopefully you can now see my simple but effective analogy, and that the important point is that any consultancy worth its salt should offer the ‘design your own solution’ as well as the ‘pre-made’ or ‘bundled’ solutions. Clients should have the freedom to choose as they see fit, the consultancy business is after all, full of choices. Now go, and build your own bap!

Greg Broadmore – Where Science Meets Violence

Greg Broadmore – Infallible Aether Oscillators & Lord Cockswain

I have been meaning to write this for a while now because fairly recently I discovered the genres of steampunk and retro-sci-fi and found them oddly fascinating. Whilst at FedCon XXI, (a sci-fi convention in Dusseldorf), back in June I came across the concept of retro-futurism through the rather amazing talent of Greg Broadmore, a New Zealand based artist. Strictly speaking Greg’s work is more retro sci-fi than steampunk but nevertheless many people make an association between the two as some elements are easily juxtaposed.

At one of the many Q & A panels during the conference I had the privilege of listening to a presentation given by Greg and I found myself both charmed and excited by the world he had created namely ‘Dr Grordborts Infallible Aether Oscillators’. Usually with art I find that it is fairly easy to describe the style, type or even genre that is on display, but with Greg’s exhibition things were a little different and a little less easy to label. Many of the pieces were like nothing I had seen before, although there were broadly recognisable elements of fantasy, science-fiction and space travel etc., some of the stuff on show was just plain bizarre.

Greg had not only created art, he has created an entire pulp universe and his exhibition contained numerous paintings, sculptures, models and books that provided an insight into a most intriging and it has to be said, slightly disturbing place. The sense of Victorian era, stiff upper lip meeting sadistic future-trash seemed to be a recurring theme and the whole ethos was one of chivalry, dames in distress and death to anything non-human, using a multitude of astonishingly cool-looking ray guns or as Dr Grordbort so quaintyl puts it, ‘aether oscillators’.

There also seemed to be a rather large helping of world war one era tanks rumbling about alien landscapes blasting everything in sight which just added to the surrealness of it all. Non-earthlike creatures that were dinosaur-esque permeated many of the paintings’ wierd landscapes and there was a fantastic display of 3-D models arranged in such a way as to imply that they were big-game hunters’ trophies. It was all very reminiscent of the Engish in Africa era, an era of man against beast and to hell with the consequences.

Some of the artwork on display could be described as both vulgar and beautiful, most of the frames were fantastic looking, old-school, art-gallery gold, inset with robots and rockets; again classical meets modern in a clash that should be ugly, but just wasn’t. There were portraits of alien creatures as well as cyborg men and of course our main character ‘Lord Cockswain’, a stylised Victorian image of heroism, ignorance and brute force, complete with large mustache and smoking a pipe, looking valiantly over his newly conquered world. I can almost hear him now, “eh what? Bring me a fill of fresh pipe tobacco and let’s be done with these filthy rascals!”

Greg’s panel was extremely interesting and that’s why I decided to blog about it, I wanted to introduce more people to the world of ‘Dr Grodbort and the Infallible Aether Oscillators’. Greg has also worked on a number of well-known movies including King Kong (the remake, he’s not that old), District 9 and The Lion the Witch and The Wardrobe, and it’s very easy to see where his skill set would come into play during concept artwork, prop and costume design and anywhere else where an unusual sense of reality combined with exceptional talent was required. For the last eight years Greg has worked at Weta which as I understand it is a group of companies with two distinct arms, Weta Digital and Weta Workshops. Their website can be found here, www.wetanz.com.

If, like me, you find yourself strangely enthralled by the satirical world of steampunk, retro sci-fi and our pulp hero Lord Cockswain; bastion of society, armourer of the free Earth and a smoker of fine tobacco, then please follow the links for Weta and Greg.

All images reproduced with kind permission of Greg Broadmore.

Outliers Found in Chennai Airport

Outliers

Recently, on a visit to India and Sri Lanka I was passing through the decidedly dated but somewhat quaint airport of Chennai. Actually, quaint is probably an optimistic description created from a fond memory. As I recall I was over-tired and an incapable of caring what the airport was like, I was more interested in hopping on a plane and getting out of there. In reality, I suspect that Chennai is better described as an airport where ‘minimally functional’ meets ‘just about clean’ and the whole building appears to exist in a bygone era where the smell of nicotine mixes incongruously with left-over floor polish and the starch of manically pressed uniforms.

Out of a desperate need to pick up a book to consume for the rest of the trip, I traipsed around for a while and happened upon a rather odd bookshop that also sold all sorts of holiday tat. As I walked in, a quick glance around dashed my hopes of finding anything remotely interesting. Yes it was OK for fans of Danielle Steel, Jackie Collins or even Hindi pulp; and of course there was the ubiquitous and endless supply of self-help stuff, the kind written by people with pseudo-science credentials and degrees purchased on eBay. There were shelves upon shelves of plain old mumbo-jumbo, [that reminds me, see ‘How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions’ by Francis Wheen; it’s another excellent read], where the sheer abundance of stupidity on show was overwhelming. I had just finished the most excellent The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz which was so fictionally fantastic that I had pre-decided to look for something a little different, a non-fiction book, something not too heavy, but easily digestible and hopefully interesting enough to keep me going for a week or so. I didn’t think my chances were good, perhaps 7% at best.

After browsing for some time I had just about given up, the air-con wasn’t quite making it and I was already formulating a plan in the back of my mind to go kill some time examining the finer Whiskey specimens in the nearby off-duty outlet. As I turned to leave something caught my eye, a book called ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’ by Malcolm Gladwell. It immediately rang a bell since it was recommended to me some months earlier by a work colleague. I had even made a note of it with my online note catcher and had since forgotten to buy it. At first glance it definitely seemed to be interesting and after I briefly skimmed a few random pages, I decided that it was going to be a pretty easy read, ideal for relaxing on the beach in the week ahead. So, with little other choice evident, and patience rapidly running out, I handed over the requisite number of rupees and left the shop, not without a hint of satisfaction having found what I hoped to be a hidden gem discovered in a mountain of unreadable trash. With hindsight, I now realise I had actually discovered an ‘outlier’.

A simple definition an outlier is ‘A value far from most others in a set of data’, [1]. In other words it is an abnormality in an otherwise ‘normal’ set of data. The book asks questions like, how can we apply the term to people, what determines who an outlier is and how did they get to that point in the first instance? Malcolm Gladwell attempts to define and reason what an outlier is and provides good evidence and examples to support his claims. The book is largely divided into three sections, Opportunity, Legacy and an Epilogue which describes the success story of Malcolm’s family by citing examples of outliers in his ancestry. Since my business is IT, I was particularly interested in the sections dealing with Bill Gates, Bill Joy and various other massively successful people who cut their teeth during the birth of the home computing industry.

In the first section, ‘Opportunity’, Gladwell illustrates that it is opportunity that is the first step towards success, and gives the example of Bill Gates who “says that unique access to a computer at a time when they were not commonplace helped him succeed. Without that access, Gladwell states that Gates would still be ‘a highly intelligent, driven, charming person and a successful professional’, but that he might not be worth US$50 billion”. [2].

Another interesting point illustrated in the book is the concept of the 10000 hour rule. This is a theory which claims that it takes 10000 hours of practice before a level of exceptional ability can be achieved and presents numerous examples of musicians, chess grandmasters, software programmers, writers, sports men and women etc. who would (probably) not have achieved their level of greatness had it not been for the endless hours spent practicing at home, in the office or in the sports arena. Bill Gates is again used as an example and it is shown that by the time the home computing industry really started to take off, Bill Gates was one of very few people in the entire world who had already put in 10000 hours of programming and had that experience to hand. Opportunity meets hard work resulting in success is not surprising but it is presented in an interesting and captivating manner. It is Gladwell’s intention to make us think about the factors that contribute in a major way to life’s successes and that is the real beauty of the book.

The second section deals with ‘Legacy’, as in cultural legacy and how the moral codes of generations gone by can and do, still influence the behaviour of people today. For me the most interesting example was Korean Air and their disastrous legacy of fatal air crashes, before an American flight training firm turned the whole operation around by retraining the crews in a manner that was wholly different to the ingrained, old-school attitudes of previous aircrews. Since the completion of that programme of work, apparently not a single Korean aircraft has been lost and the airline is now as safe to fly with as any other.

Gladwell argues that legacy also can be used to illustrate why western cultures are continually outperformed by eastern cultures in math and basically states that this is due to the fact that in certain Easter cultures there is an extremely robust work ethic, typified by the Chinese proverb, “No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich”. What this really means is that a lot of hard work will eventually pay off and this is borne out in official international math exam results. Again, pretty obvious stuff one might say, but why then do we not implement similar work ethics such as summer schools where children can continue to learn instead of spending time gaming their summers away. There is also good evidence to suggest that schools from deprived areas can produce high achieving students simply by modifying their work ethic and ensuring that students have a full study schedule during the summer break for example. Google the Knowledge Is Power Programme (KIPP), New York for more information on this.

Finally, the book provides an example of Gladwell’s own family and the opportunity that was provided to them a number of generations back, and of his own 10000 hours spent writing over a period of ten years before he eventually made it as a successful author culminating in several books on the New York Times best seller list. Malcolm Gladwell has definitely given us something to think about here and I have alluded to only those parts that stick in my mind in this blog. There is much, much more, but what is really interesting is the fact that no one ever makes it to success alone, rather it is a combination of opportunity, hard work and a determination which could be provided by a culturall legacy which we thought had been lost which all collude to produce an individual’s success.

We can’t always be sure that opportunity will come knocking, but we can certainly be prepared to rise to the challenge when it does. I believe that we should all think of ourselves as outliers in some sense, each with our own opportunities and cultural identities all contributing to one unique individual, and all with a potential for greatness.

i-DJ Magazine – The Rise & Fall

i-DJ Magazine

Serious hobbying is a serious matter and any serious hobbyist requires a serious magazine; seriously!

It’s that simple, and anyone with an ounce of hobby in them ought to know that there are, in all probability, several magazines that specialise in their preferred field of personal pastime; be it photography, model building, cupcake baking, running, stamp collecting or in my case, the rather tasteful art of ‘DJing’.

Definitely, there is something a bit special about building up a mass of magazines all dedicated to the same particular pursuit, each very much the same but all, entirely different. It brings out the secret hoarder in all of us and that’s no bad thing, thought it must be said that it can be a sign of an early onset of OCD. Who hasn’t at some point in their lives owned a bundle of National Geographic magazines and then gave them away to a local jumble sale or charity shop, only to later regret it when considering a trip to some exotic destination.

Many years ago when I first learned the art of spinning vinyl, a good friend introduced me to a great magazine called ‘i-DJ Magazine’, the ‘i’ being short for ‘international’. At the time it was a revelation and each month was cram-packed with big name DJ interviews, gear and tune reviews, gig listings and vinyl spinning tutorials. Where else could I have learned the techniques of beat-matching, phrasing and mixing in key, all essential skills for any budding ‘tune-spinner’. It may be considered by some to be nothing more than bedroom knob twiddling, but there’s substantially more to it than banging out beats, bass lines and synthesiser melodies at 3 in the morning. i-DJ was my foot in the door to a fantastic world of very cool music.

The magazine was well written, well presented, intellectual and at the time exceptionally fresh in it’s outlook of popular dance music. It challenged the formats of other DJ magazines which, I might add, are still in print; and it brought electronic music to a generation of people who ‘understood’ music at a level a little deeper than twelve hours of solid clubbing. It could almost have been considered high-brow reading for the DJ masses, the articles were short, but in-depth; the interviews, enlightening and the tune reviews, honest. The only downside that I can now see with the benefit of the proverbial 20-20 hindsight, is that, it was the catalyst to two more of my hoarding episodes; the first with vinyl and the second with DJ gear, most of which was reviewed, mentioned or illustrated at some point in the magazine over the years.

So after a serious i-DJ trumpet blowing session, this is where our story takes a dramatic turn. Sadly at the end of 2011 the British dance music magazine i-DJ closed, over ten years after it was launched as a rival to the other popular dance music magazines. As I understand it, the last ever magazine came off the press in September taking the print run to 140. It’s rivals were unsympathetic and tweeted as much in the month before the last magazine was released. My personal angle is that they were glad to see off a rival magazine which at its peak, had been serious competition.

Without inside information it’s difficult to gauge what went wrong, so bearing in mind that this is an opinionated blog and not an investigative journal, I think I can offer a few insights as to where the i-DJ train started to derail. The clues are actually not that tentative, when one fully examines the evidence.

First, I believe the magazine tried to spread itself too thin by appealing to more and more music genres. Now while the business case for this is sound, I believe the magazine should have launched a sister magazine and at least loosely grouped genres together, i.e. progressive, trance, hard dance, house etc. in one magazine and perhaps, drum ‘n bass, hardcore, dubstep, hard house etc in another. A corollary to this could be that a lack of loyalty to the fans who initially got the mag of the ground, (i.e. trance and progressive) started to pervade the office of i-DJ.

Second, the downfall of (trance) clubbing in general, quickly followed by closure of a number of dedicated trance club nights like ‘The Gallery’ at Turnmills and Trance Generation. Whilst ‘The Gallery’ lives on at Ministry of Sound, it will probably never achieve the energy and sheer vibe that was Turnmills.

Finally, and I could be totally wrong here, I felt there was a diminishing of the writing talent, the interviews were bland (or was that the interviewees?), the tune reviews, minimal and there seemed to be more space dedicated to ravers across the country, with pages of senseless splatterings of photographs of clubbers doing what they do best; not pretty and certainly not interesting.

The only upside to the format was the exceptional ‘gear review’ section, however when one considers this, a magazine of this ilk could hardly have failed to have picked up on the absolutely cosmic explosion in DJ gear that has taken place this past five years. That had to be a given, so critically, there really shouldn’t be bonus points awarded for this.

I could reasonably think of couple more reasons why the magazine took a tumble, for starters it was pretty darn difficult to find in a lot of high street newsagents. It should have been sat on the shelves, competing with the rest of the field and at least giving itself a chance, magazine on magazine. The only way I could obtain a regular and reliable copy was to subscribe and have it posted to me. Why there were so few copies distributed, I’ll never know.

Next; I never recollect seeing the magazine advertised anywhere, not on club flyers, music websites, street posters or any other form of media that could and should have reached its intended readers. The last nail in the coffin? Perhaps, perhaps not, but these days educated and skilful marketing can mean optimistic survival of many an industry, especially with social media numbers going ballistic.

And so on.

So there we have it, the (unofficial) Rise & Fall of i-DJ Magazine, may it rest in peace.