Monthly Archives: April 2013

Cyber faith?

My previous blog post was discussing ‘digital death’ while thinking on that subject my mind began to wander, and envisioned a way of having cyber faith. Virtual religion if you will. And, I think it’s relevant to this series of blogs. I’ve actually dabbled with something in this area before, with my Prayer 2.0 project, but what I’m thinking about now I reckon is rather more useful, and interesting.

I’d like to set up a kind of framework where anyone can create a DIY faith. Festivals, rules, belief systems…. all of these would be constructed through some kind of computer interface. Potentially the framework could be linked into systems operating in the realm of ubicomp and the internet of things. You could pick and choose elements of major religions, and weave in your own customs.

think that the majority of the (global) population actually lives somewhere between atheism and gnosticism (I’m not backing this up with any research…. unfortunately I don’t have time!). I also believe that human beings have a tendency to want ‘something more’ in their life.. some kind of spiritual element. Maybe cyberfaith is one way that this can happen. *needs further exploration*

Spesh To’ics: Week {minus some} – An end on some stuff

I one titled a tune I made ‘an end on some stuff’.. and since this is an ending it sprung to mind. The tune ended up being called Interlude to get stuff…. what the ‘stuff’ is, is up to you. It’s an instrumental piece, but here are some concluding words reflecting on my special topics experience.

In the beginning, whirlpools came
In the whirlpools, no two bubbles were the same
Out of
In rage
Some sage said “hey Joe”
“What do you know, Joe?”

I thought, who cares?

This shouldn’t be flippant
And it…. isn’t
(Supposed to be)

But the point is.. reflecting on everything…. the most difficult thing was
Remembering oneself
Remembering others

Each of those lines do mean something… I’m not going to elaborate as I’d like it to , but they’ll serve as a reminder. Special topics has been great. I’m so glad that I’ve explored the area I did (although I’m also itching to further explore some of the ideas I had in week 1!) And in fact, my masters dissertation will be on a related subject I’m fairly sure. As for the PhD itself… still not sure! :o)


Spesh To’ics: Writing doesn’t wrong

So… I’ve been immersed in the actual writing of my special topics piece: Communities of Impact. This has been some time coming, and until today has been a very daunting task. The piece only has to be 4000 words long, although that’s longer than anything else I’ve written in some time. Also  it’s the first piece of work on the HighWire programme that has involved an extended period of research (first of many I hope!)

The reason for the reflective log though is quite simple: it is good to remember the cathartic value of writing! As soon as I started actually getting words down I re-discovered something I’ve noted before, it’s almost like its relieving pressure, and its also a fantastic process for actually ideating. The latter is occasionally an issue…. as you end up having to rewrite to take account of new ideas, but other than the time consumption element of this it isn’t too much of a problem.

Note to self: writing… it isn’t that bad, and you don’t have to know all the answers before beginning.

Reflections on (cyber) sustainability

I watched the film Age of Stupid last night which documents the precarious position that, due to climate change, we are in. I recommend it, it’s a good watch (if a little in your face). Franny Armstrong is behind the film, and part of why I watched it is that I’m going to a seminar she is presenting on Saturday.

Anyhow. The reason for the blog post isn’t really related to the film, or to Franny… but watching the film made me remember this piece that I wrote, Reflections on sustainability and cyber sustainability – Can’t we just do something? Today? The piece may not make a great deal of sense when read alone – you really had to attend the lectures that it was in response to (the lectures were presented by Stuart Walker, and Bran Knowles- see here, here, and here) – but nonetheless I’ve added it to my archive of outputs generated from the HighWire MRes year.

Don’t forget to feed the cats

When I was a child a man called Charlie lived in the tiny cottage next door to my family home. He died when I was still quite young, but I remember him and his house vividly. The cottage really was tiny, and inside I had the feeling of being in some fantastical place. It felt very other worldly. Charlie shared the cottage with three cats, one of which we ended up taking care of after Charlie died. Charlie’s greatest fear was that he’d die alone at home, and that his cats would have him for dinner! It’s as a memorial to Charlie that I titled this blog Don’t forget to feed the cats. By the way, Charlie died at hospital in the end.

An image of Charlie's Cottage as it is today (screen grab from Google Street View)

An image of Charlie’s Cottage as it is today (screen grab from Google Street View)

At the start of the special topics module I made a list of fleeting ideas that I’d had and was considering pursuing as my topic. One of these I described as after death, digital legacies – and it’s something I’m still very curious about. The question is how do you deal with digital assets, when somebody dies? There is of course lots of debate around what denotes an ‘asset’, and a multitude of different ways of applying legal frameworks in different ways (which varies greatly depending on where you are, and what the nature of the ‘asset’ is).

Governments debate about legislation, most recently there is an ongoing debate about the ‘right to be forgotten’. An interesting story emerged this week with regard to 17-year-old Paris Brown (employed by the police) had Tweeted inappropriate material earlier in her teens. The BBC ask – quite legitimately if you ask me – could the right to be forgotten help? But, back to death… currently most online services only refer to what happens on the event of a users death in their terms of service and privacy documents. In Facebook’s terms and conditions, you grant them a license to use your content indefinitely, but these days they do cooperate when users die by memorialising pages (which is a handy thing: 2.89m Facebook users were predicted to die in 2012). In 2004/5 the mother of a dead marine took Yahoo to court (and won) in order to gain access to his email account (this was inconsistent with the Yahoo terms of service). These are just a few examples; things get more complicated if consider blogs you might run, web email accounts, online currencies, access to banking, maybe even what happens to your Bitcoin estate after you die! Despite all the confusion, at least death itself is relatively clear cut.

Demonstrating that these kind of issues are becoming more important to both users and service providers, Google yesterday announced their Inactive Account Manager – quickly referred to as the Google Death Manager – which is designed to allow you to decide what to do with your data that Google holds, in the event that your account becomes inactive. It’s pretty neat, allowing you to chose individual services, a list of people to inform (each of whom are confirmed via text messages), and even the ability to set up an email auto responder.

As more and more of the digital services we all use move to the cloud, and those services become interconnected, the issue becomes increasingly complex. My follow HighWire-er Barney Craggs has recently written some interesting blogs about the grey area between big data and personal data which I recommend reading, a particularly neat idea Barney talks about is smart data. When referring to smart data, Barney describes it as:

the gathering of only that data which is truly needed to fulfil the purpose, data which is held only for as long as is needed..

Because managing your data, and maybe even ‘deleting’ yourself from the internet, is quite a difficult thing to achieve and this seems particularly pertinent when considering what happens to data after its creator, or owner, or custodian.. ceases to be alive. I think Barney’s ideas are relevant not only to data per-se, but also to services. We can assume most online services do involve an element of data, but they also have an inherent meaning, related to whatever the service is. This makes considering how you want a service to deal with your death a more involved affair than simply considering the data that lies behind a service alone.

Although this landscape is not a steady one, with legislation almost certain to go through several evolutions in the coming years, and service providers constantly tweaking their terms of service and approaches, I believe we have the technology available to begin to implement a kind of digital rights protocol that could provide a framework for services to comply with their users posthumous desires. Digital lockers or safes do exist, and can go someway to dealing with this, but in their current state they are not a holistic solution.

While thinking about this I arrived at a vision is of an internet ‘death authority’ (DA) that any person, and any service, can register themselves with. The DA would have two core functions, firstly to have an ‘notification’ mechanism for recording whether somebody is alive or not, and secondly to be a repository for holding instructions relating to what participating services should do in the event of a death. For the notification mechanism an API would have to be accessible so that the relevant authorities could plug into it. In the UK this could be an electronic link from the General Register Office. When somebody dies, the GRO connects to the DA’s API and the records are updated to show that the subject has passed away, allowing the second part of the system to swing into action.

The second part of the is the harder to imagine, but I’m sure a workable standard could be developed, with existing technologies, that would be fit for purpose. The way I imagine it working, you’d need to be able to update settings on a service to reflect what you want to happen to your data, on that service, when you die. The settings would have to be updated on the service itself but a record of your elected settings would also have to be viewable at the DA – so you can see all of your choices in a single place. So the API to facilitate this system would just need to have a way of describing what settings were chosen on any given site, and then communicate those choices back to the DA.

When the inevitable (for all of us!) happens, the each online service related to the deceased would be informed by the DA of the sad news. Each service would then be able to update their data as per your wishes, whether that be deleting everything, memorialising your facebook page, or posting a beyond the grave Tweet to say so long and thanks for all the fish. Feasibly the DA would be accessible by your probate lawyer who will, to some extent, be aware of what online services you used, and what your wishes were with regard to each one (this would also serve as a tool to monitor whether you wishes were actually being carried out).

Obviously this would only work in regions where deaths are routinely registered, and for people who sign up to the DA, and for services that subscribe. This may seem an unlikely proposition, but as our lives are even more entwined with online services I think it will become increasingly relevant for all of our tomorrows, and is something that could be well addressed today. I hope it is addressed, because I for one want to be able to plan for my digital demise with confidence, transparently, and without having to spend my life reading terms of service small print.

PS Selina Ellis Gray, also a HighWire PhD candidate, is doing some really interesting work in this area, specifically looking at bereavement and how it manifests itself digitally, check it out.

Spesh To’ics Week(s) 5-10(ish): Awkward talk

At the start of the special topics module I had no inkling of what kind of space I’d like to work in, in fact I had a list of disperate ideas (that indeed I spoke about at our initial presentation). From that initial session, during which I was pointed toward the work of Eugene Garfield, the terrain of my inquiry has emerged gradually, with some moments of great realisation within it. Along the way I’ve discussed my thinking with my peers, with lecturers from other taught HighWire courses, with the module leaders for special topics, and with anyone else who would care to listen to me! Alongside the less formal discussions I also attended workshops and had some one-to-one meetings as part of the ‘official’ special topics support offered. I guess as a whole, this could be considered my community of practice.

I want to reflect on this because, interestingly, some of the conversations have been bordering on confrontational and certainly came to occupy space on the edge of my comfort zone. I think it’s probably to do with my chosen subject, and in particular – in the early part of the studies on the module anyway – my naivety about it. I realise that occupying a space that involves contention isn’t at all unique, in fact it is probably desired in order to be truly innovative, but I’ve been intrigued about the range of feedback I’ve had on this piece of work, which I’ve perceived as being unusually strong – the whole way through the module. While the strength of opinion about my ideas has been consistent throughout, the depth of my knowledge has continued to grow. I’d say I have a fairly good handle on these ideas now (I’ve written various blogs on the subject, as well as a dummy grant proposal, actual grant proposal and literature review).

So what to make of this, why bother writing a reflective log about it? Well there are two angles that interest me. Firstly I guess the reason for a significant interest is that I’m working with something that is directly relevant to all of my peers and all of our mentors; it’s no secret that in this realm we pretty much live or die my the success of, or the lack of, our publications. This interesting piece in the Essex Student Journal gives an interesting introduction to why publication is so important. What was really interesting though was that there seemed to be a strange distribution of how strongly worded peoples opinions were. Generally speaking, students are intrigued and encouraging. Professional academics are much less positive, although having extended conversations, after a time seem to become more positive about my desire to explore this area. Some academics have been extremely anti, and made me feel like they would rather that I didn’t pursue this line of study. All of these are of course according to my subjective viewpoint, they’re also moving targets. What is really interesting, however, is that in the early stages of my inquiry I was as I already mentioned, very naive. I didn’t have the confidence (or knowledge) to stand up for my thoughts, and hence felt slightly ‘battered’ by some of these conversations, at the time at least. Looking back at those kinds of conversations, if I were to have them now I think I could stand up for myself properly. I think my initial hunches were actually quite good. So on reflection, I think although being respectful of ones mentors is of absolute importance, having the confidence to challenge them and enough self-belief to stick to a your own trajectory. That.. that…. that is a valuable thing, and I think it worked for me on this occasion.

Not missing a mouse and why it makes me angry

So I got burgled recently, which sucked. I was actually just settling down to watch some terrible sci-fi featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger with Daniel Kershaw, when I was informed that my house had been broken into. Now cutting a long story short this was a horrible experience, both scary and incredibly inconvenient. Thankfully most of the data that was on the stolen computers was backed up on the cloud, and alike, but its still quite awful to have you space invaded, not to mention the material loss. Thankfully insurance covered replacement items, although in the overall it ended up costing me about £500 to cover excesses, etc. The key thing that needed replacing for me was a laptop computer.

For the first time in my life I opted to get an Apple Macbook. I’ve actually been quite actively talking down Macs for a long time, let alone contemplating owning one. I don’t like the company’s approach (to be honest it’s hard to like the approach of any of the big tech/computing companies) to restricting upgrades and designed-obsolescence. Plus the price of the hardware has always been a big turn off. Also I’ve always been a Windows user, I know the Microsoft OS very well, feel comfortable with it and the software that runs on it. What made me decide to get one now isn’t that interesting.. but is largely because the vast majority of my peers at HighWire (and the academic staff too actually) use Macs. It’s not (just) because I just wanted to be part of the club either but there are also some rather more noble/practical reasons for why this is useful: mainly that its easy to compare notes on different softwares that may be required in the line of duty (think reference managers etc). Other factors are relevant too: that fact that Macbooks generally have a decent battery life (as compared most other laptops) is a consideration when working in the way – so far as I can tell anyway – most HighWire PhD students do (unpredictably, all over the place, flexibly – as I write this I’m sat in Fuel Cafe). Finally the high-resolution (retina) screen really does improve my workflow: text documents are so much easier to read, and I have a wealth of screen real-estate to play with (happily handles two apps side-by-side).

Working on a laptop in Fuel

Working on a laptop in Fuel

The thing that spurred me to blog about this, however, is to mention to track pad on Apple Macbooks. It is, to be quite frank, vastly better than any other track pad I’ve ever used before. In the past I’ve always had to use a mouse for anything but the simplest of tasks because otherwise my workflow would be disrupted so much by the terribly bad trackpads that pervade on non-Apple laptops. So, still only a few weeks into owning the Macbook, I’m quite shocked to think that not only do I not require a mouse any more – I actually prefer working without one! I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so in love with a bit of technology as I am this computer, and the biggest single reason for this is the trackpad. I’m not going to go into laborious detail as to why I think this is the case, but as far as I can tell, the salient points are:

  1. Quality hardware
  2. Not too big, not too small
  3. Sensitive and accurate
  4. Excellent integration with the OS (via gestures)
  5. (whatever it is they’ve done to make it) Intuitive to use

I’m sure there are many reasons why it’s such a good piece of kit, and so central to the Macbook experience… but that’s not the point. My point here is: why is the Macbook trackpad (apparently) unique?

My hypothesis is that there are plenty of patents around and about that protect the sort of hardware (and probably software) features that make the Apple trackpad so good, thus ensuring that others are unable to use similarly well designed systems. I wonder whether this is because others can’t afford the licence fees that Apple would want to charge? Or maybe, because trackpads aren’t ‘essential’ (as per standards-essential patents) so maybe Apple can hold everyone else to ransom, refusing them the option of using the patent? Basically the root of my enquiry is to ask the question why is it that nobody else can get trackpads right? I’m all for protecting intellectual property, but I’m also all for the idea of encouraging innovation – something that I think the patent system was originally intended to do. For whatever reason it isn’t working in this instance as there seems precious little that even comes close to comparing to the efficiency of working with an Apple trackpad. I’m no expert and I may be wrong, so I’ll phrase it as a question: is the patent system just protecting Apple’s (apparently unique) ability to sell hardware at impressive profit margins? (and meanwhile preventing anyone else from making a decent trackpad!)

So… I’m really happy to have this Macbook: in a round about way the burglars did me favour, as I probably would never have willingly ‘converted’ to Apple without having the opportunity to get a brand new machine. The OS is really better than I knew, and it only took a little while to get used to it (after nearly two decades of working with Windows). So far I haven’t had any issues with software not being available for MacOS (at least not where there hasn’t been an appropriate alternative). The trackpad is amazing, and has transformed my mobile working. However, the lack of competitors for the trackpad (in particular) makes me somewhat depressed. I’m yet to see a compelling argument for why the kind of patents granted to the likes of Apple, Google, Samsung etc, on very generic hardware concepts are beneficial in terms of innovation. It’s even worse for software. I wish every trackpad in the world could be as good as this one, and I think if everybody using trackpads used one of these.. you’d be able to measure the effect via global productivity within weeks!!! (:-P maybe a slight exaggeration)

Patent Wars, from Business Week (

To slightly balance my disdain for Apple’s use of the patent system, I have another brief story. I was at a talk by Clive Grinyer, a designer working for Cisco. The presentation was part of the HighWire ‘Digital Futures’ series, so most of the people in the room were PhD candidates. Clive noted that every single laptop in the room was an Apple-designed machine. Initially I thought he would say something negative about this fact, however on the contrary he wanted to say that he thought this was encouraging.

Macs - Finishing off some work on our 'Deep Dive' project - showing off 4 Apple Laptops.

Macs – Finishing off some work on our ‘Deep Dive’ project – showing off 4 Apple Laptops.

The reason Clive saw it as encouraging, is that it indicated that all of us in the room were appreciative of an integrated approach to design (whether we knew it or not). Clive was arguing the importance of multi/cross/or maybe ‘post’ disciplinary working. So, not just coders talking to designers, but coders that appreciate design, and can have a realistic conversation with a manufacturing manager, taking into account what the manufacturing manager is telling them about supply chains while also being able to converse with the marketing department about branding….. and so on. Apple work in an integrated way, and the result is products designed holistically and integrated into the whole corporate ecosystem, and, into the consumer ecosystem…. and that… I guess… is why despite being ubiquitous Apple products remain so attractive, sell so well and as a result Apple have a (correct at time of writing) 137 billion USD cash pile. Well done Apple! Clive took pleasure in seeing that ‘we’ (HighWire PhD candidates) had ‘voted with our cash’ and collectively all appreciated the value in this integrated approach, and hence the room only had Apple computers in it. Well done us. But I do hope, maybe sooner rather than later, that a room full of PhD candidates in the future might have slightly more diverse tastes in their hardware, resulting from a better use of our intellectual property legislation.

Contrast Making it Tasty

So with food… if you mix up hot and cold, or crispy and smooth, or sweet and sour: you tend to get good results. The same exists with innovation. The same exists with creative thinking and outputs. Latest example 3d printed music (and that works on several different levels). Check it out: