left wondering…

He’s a nice chap, the man across from me on the train, jolly as we share a ‘What do you do?’ over the tops of our laptops. Mine a Mac with stickers on, his an old corporate HP struggling to boot.

His top button done up, tie pulled tight, pink pin-stripe running through the dark blue of his suit; me in my worn jeans.

“What do you do?” I ask. “I’m a head hunter” he replies. “Oh, what sector?” I ask. “Big industry; Power, Energy, Oil and Gas” he says, smiling.

“That must be interesting, do you do much in renewables?” I ask trying to turn the conversation to something I’d be very interested to hear about. “Oh no, there’s nothing in renewables, it’s just a distraction” he says dismissively. He goes on… “I just finished reading a report, renewables are fine to make us look good but they can’t provide anything like enough power for the needs of somewhere like the UK. For the big companies like Shell, BP, they’re just a distraction.”

“and all this suggestion that hydrocarbons are running out isn’t true, the oil companies are happy for people to think that as it keeps the prices high, but a project I recently hired for has found millions of barrels just off Brazil. There’s plenty of it out there.”

I sit back, wondering if he has kids; if he has noticed the chaotic weather or the news; if he watched The Age of Stupid. I resist asking.

I am left saddened and wondering, do we have any chance at all.

New (old) Telly

So, after my success fixing a Philips Plamsa TV my dad is giving me his Sony Bravia LCD KDL32V. It’s not working following lightning storms and has been written off by the insurers following a £350 repair quote, but we all know that £350 buys you a handful of capacitors and maybe a triode or three from a pro repair shop.

Hence I pick it up tomorrow to take a look at 🙂

Update 10/07/2009: picked it up yesterday and spent the evening looking at it. Some folks on #electronics (mr_boo, SpeedEvil and kludge) helped me work out that the broken bits were very likely the expensive silicon on the primary side of the power supply – difficult to replace and the main control chip, a Sony CXD9841P would cost me about £20.

So, having worked out it’s not a nice easy case of swapping out a couple of transistors or caps, I decided to hunt down a whole board. Obvious approach was to find the same model on ebay that had suffered an encounter with a wii controller, there were a couple about but nothing really cheap or really close. Next step then was to try and find a new power board.

The original quote, from BSS had quoted £180 for the board, plus a whole load of labour bringing a total over £300! Next try, Audio Technical Services who refused to quote me a price because Sony would remove their Authorised status (and stop sending them business) if they sold an internal component to an end customer. Fantastic, good business Sony, thanks.

So, a quick google for the exact part number brought up SJS Television Services who have the board in stock. A cheeky call to owner Stuart and he helped my plight to keep costs down by agreeing the board, inc vat and p&p for £75. Really nice guy, shame he isn’t local or I might have been able to point more people to him.

Now I just have to be patient for the part to arrive 🙂

four people doesn't make a meme you soft gits

So, I wrote about a great keynote by Gary Vaynerchuk at Web 2.0 Expo in New York, saying that it was a greatly inspiring piece and well worth watching. It contains such great quotes as

There is no reason in 2008 to do shit you hate, ‘cos you can lose just as much money being happy as hell.

Nad decided to wade in with one of his usual mega-soft wishy washy group hug lets all live in a fucking commune posts (NB: I love the way Nad has the courage to open up about stuff, publish poetry on his blog and stuff – maybe I should lighten up a bit more too). Nad adds a great reference to Paul Graham’s How to Do What You Love to the discussion and a couple of choice quotes.

Rhys then decided to announce that “Do what you love” had achieved meme status. Perhaps a little early. <sarcasm>While clearly I am an international thought leader on many topics</sarcasm>, if one swallow doesn’t make a summer than three posts certainly don’t constitute a meme.

But then… the venerable (yet completely unqualified, apparently) Danny Ayers joins in, also titling his post with the meme word. Danny leaves me unsure of whether he is agreeing or disagreeing with the premise, describing how he is simply compelled to do the things he does.

So on paper I’m not remarkably insane (at worst alcoholic with elective bipolarity, teensy bit Aspergian maybe), but I do things because they need to be done, IMHO. Might be slow at getting them done, but the compulsion’s there. No grand plan either. I can explain why I think the Semantic Web can help mankind save itself, but that’s not the motivation. I do this, I do that, almost hand to mouth but on projects…that last years. Love never really comes into it, just some arbitrary compulsion (it certainly don’t get you laid).

The alcoholism, bi-polar issues and Aspergers I can certainly relate to, but putting that aside…

This compulsion sounds a lot like love to me, not necessarily easy, not necessarily something you can explain, but definitely a driving force that leads you to do stuff – often stuff you wouldn’t otherwise have dreamed of doing.

Anyway, enough of that soft drivel. Stop navel gazing and get on with some work. Let’s not just do what we love, let’s build a business where people come to work because what the business is doing is what they’re passionate about. That’s what our library division has been when at its very best; that’s what Ian’s done with our platform division and that’s what we need to do with our new division too.

To achieve that requires a deep understanding of what it is we believe in. A few months back I read a great book that is intended to help people get to grips with just that.

Authentic Business by Neil Crofts describes how businesses can run more sustainably and provide far more satisfaction if run in an authentic way. Authentic for Crofts means having a purpose (beyond making money) and to pursue that ethically, honestly and sustainably. Crofts introduces the book like this:

Do you dream of stepping off the corporate treadmill? Do the politics and greed of corporate life leave you cold? It doesn’t have to be like that. Authentic Business shows that business can be positive, fun and meaningful as well as profitable.

He’s right, it doesn’t have to be like that. The more I think about it though, and the more I read through Crofts examples of Yeo Valley, Howies and Dove Farm the more I think it’s about caring about what the business is doing rather than about the business necessarily being “noble” in its cause. No matter how hard I try I couldn’t get excited about bringing really great organic yoghurt to market.

Passion, personal brand, and doing what you love…

Just found this great video of Gary Vaynerchuk keynoting at Web 2.0 Expo in New York. I found it via the Natural User Interface blog.

Vaynerchuk’s keynote is entitled “Building Personal Brand Within the Social Media Landscape” but the main thrust of it is that everyone should stop doing what they hate and do something they really love.

The timing of this is interesting as I’ve recently had a few conversations with folks at work about loving, or not, what they’re doing. At Talis it can be hard to find what it is you really want to do; we expect people to self-organize and have a high degree of self-awareness.

When I worked at Egg, we found very strongly that people joining the company either loved it and thrived or hated it and didn’t. This came down to one thing – was what Egg was doing something you were passionate about.

We’ve come round to a similar culture at Talis, one where we’re all actively encouraged to find out what it is that we love doing and supported in getting into that role. Of course, we’re not in just any business so if I decided I wanted to become a goat farmer then Talis and I would have to part company.

Knowing what it is that you love doing, and often that’s based on discovering and understanding your strengths, is crucial to understanding if an organizational culture is right for you and even if the organization’s business ambitions are right for you.

Having worked in companies that I’ve loved and in companies I loathed and in roles of both kinds within both kinds of company I’m starting to get clear on what I love doing. Right now my role involves bringing together really cool ideas like Linked Data and great interaction design with existing problems in higher education. We’re building lightweight stuff quickly and easily to test out ideas and constantly looking for the very essence of solutions. And more importantly than all of that, I’m working with people who are smarter than me and who inpsire me with great ideas.

That’s what I love, but the very same culture can be experienced by others very differently.

Right now I’ve found something pretty close to what I love doing – you should do that too 🙂

My Sense-of-Humour

XKCD is almost always brilliant. Today though struck a chord with me. Lots of people don’t get my sense-of-humour and it gets me into trouble relatively often. Usually because it’s destructive, derisive, insulting or disruptive. Anyhows… this is exactly what I have to stop myself from doing every time I see a staple gun.

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Beijing Sight-Seeing


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Busy. Colourful. Bright. Neon. Starbucks. KFC. McDonalds.

This wasn’t what I expected of the vast sprawling city of Beijing. I don’t know what I did expect. The grey stone and imposing buildings of Tiananmen Square, Mao’s Tomb and the Great Hall of the People perhaps. Or maybe the flocks of bicycles. A view built mostly on UK coverage of the Tiananmen Square uprising of nearly twenty years ago.

We see these short tableaux of places in times of crisis and they sit, static, in our minds while the place itself moves. Always having been so much more than what we saw anyway. The Beijing we met was busy all the time, streets full of people into the early hours. Not revelers and police, though there is some of that, but lots of men and women just going about their business.

Driving in Beijing appears to be a more or less constant game of lane-change chicken. Everything is done in close proximity, with cars maneuvering on the three-lane ring roads (of which there are seven or eight) within inches of each other. Horns beep constantly, but not in the aggressive way they are used in the UK, but as a constant "I’m here", "That’s my space" kind of way that no-one seems to take offence to.

The city is, of course, rushing headlong towards the August deadline of the 2008 Summer Olympics. We saw nowhere that wasn’t undergoing some work. New paving here, a new road there, replacing the tiles on hotel frontages. There was also much more substantial construction work happening with new tower block going up in many places around the center. The center, that’s an interesting aside – Beijing doesn’t really seem to have a center. Sure there are ring roads that go around an area, but the city is so large, so spread out that it really has no distinct point – apart from Tiananmen Square, of course.

Tiananmen forms a nice point from which to discuss the some of tourist sights, with the Forbidden City adjoining it to the North (?) and the Temple of Heaven just a short taxi ride (costs about 180RMB) to the south. We were also driven out to the Great Wall at Badaling by a friend of a friend and spent a couple of hours walking a short section there, Badaling is about an hour’s drive from Beijing in a car (or two on a tour bus). And of course, also a little way out of the city is the Summer Palace.

Our time in Beijing was short, seven days in Beijing, five days were taken up with the WWW2008 conference (and a bit of hotel shuffling). A further day on each end of the trip to travel. So with restaurants to try every evening and just two days to see things we had to make our time count.

Food was important, with a fantastic Chinese community here in Birmingham providing amazing food it seemed like a good idea to try equivalents in Beijing as well as looking for things we can’t get at home. Something we had not seen at home is the Hot pot, or Chinese Fondue, which involves a central pot with stock or oil, heated from below, in which you cook your own meat, fish and veggies. Really great food.

Beijing, formerly known as Peking, is famous for its Duck restaurants, so no trip would be complete without a visit. The duck was great, about a dozen of devoured wood-burning oven-roast ducks with pancakes, hoisin sauce and shredded spring onions and cucumber. What impressed me was not so much the quality of the duck here in Beijing, but bizarrely the quality of the duck we get back here in the UK which comes very close to what we we were served. The most notable difference is that here in the UK I’ve never seen the head served with the rest of the meat.

Saturday morning we got up early and hit the subway to make our way to Beijing Zoo, we already had the trip to Badaling lined up for the afternoon, so needed something easy to do in the time and we all decided we wanted to see pandas. We got to see the pandas, sleeping in the heat, trying to ignore the crowds with cameras. Beijing zoo’s enclosures look small, they’re definitely zoo and not safari park. We rushed round a few of the main large animal enclosures and headed back to the hotel.

We weren’t at the hotel for long when our host for the weekend, a friend of a friend, arrived to pick us up. He’d very kindly agreed to show us around and our first target was the Great Wall.

Pictures of the wall give you a pretty good idea of the size of it, the wall alone is intimidating. What you don’t get a sense of is the geography in which it’s built. The wall rides the tops of steep sided ridges, sharp edges with steep slopes either side, a formidable obstacle in their own right.

The most disappointing aspect of the wall was the number of little stalls and wall-walkers attempting to sell you utter tat.

After a couple of hours walking on the wall (following a busy week conferencing as well) we were all more than ready for food. Our kind host had spent a few years here in Birmingham, so was well aware of how good the Chinese food available here is. With this knowledge he wanted to ensure we got food in Beijing that we can’t get in Birmingham. We’d already had hot pot and none of us really fancied the frogs on offer so we ended up in a restaurant famous for its crab.

The crabs arrived raw, so we could decide how many we wanted between us, then came back around ten minutes later, cooked and cracked in a spicy paste. Chris and I are not great fans of crab here in the UK, they seem to taste like seaweed to me, but these are fresh water crabs and they taste completely different. The crabs were meaty and very tasty indeed.

Next day we managed to get up early, check out and dump our bags with the concierge ahead of a day exploring then the flight home. We got ourselves over to the Temple of Heaven first. Set in beautiful grounds, surrounded by lawns and paths shaded by cherry blossom trees the temple is visible from some distance. Beautifully tranquil, despite the number of people. The temple is very well maintained, a little too well maintained in some respects, you could almost believe it was new.

From there we cut across through Tiananmen Square passed Mao’s Mausoleum and into the park around the forbidden city. It was getting hot by now, the sun very bright, so the shade of the woods was very welcome. The sun, and the impending need for some lunch, made u decide not to spend the apparent two hours queuing to get into the Forbidden City. Instead we met up again with our kind host and he took us to a great barbeque place where we had lamb, beef, big green chilies, chicken wings and squid. All served on kebab sticks. Very spicy, very good.

From there we wanted somewhere to unwind a bit, so a trip to the lake at the Summer Palace was perfect. We wandered around for a while (trying to find a loo and cussing the unhelpful signs) and then hired a boat for a trip out on the lake.

Being out on the water was cool and relaxing, Chris’ advanced driving skills came in handy controlling the high-powered vessel we had, blasting across the water at just under strolling speed.

The lake (Kunming Lake) is huge and beautiful, so huge that you would never guess that it was man-made. The Emperor had it dug out, combining two previous ponds, to make the current lake.

A short shopping trip later and we were back at the hotel to pick up our bags and off to the airport.

One of the great things about working for Talis is that we take conferences seriously. Having sent five of us half-way around the globe staying an extra couple of days, eating well and being expected by those back at the office to make the most of it is part of having a great work/life balance.

I don’t know how many other companies have quite such an enlightened outlook – I guess it’s because we’re employee owned, so Talis is us.

WWW2008 Photos

This week’s gone so fast, a totally awesome conference, loads of really great people. Papers and papers to go back and read to really get into the meat of what was presented.

There’s loads more to say, as it starts to unpack in my head, but for now you’ll have to make do with a selection of photos from various sessions, meals, drinks and ceremonies. More photos to come as Nad, Chris, Paul, Tom, Liv and I go out to explore a Beijing a little more before heading home.

The photos are on flickr, click to jump over, if you’re logged in you can comment and/or tag them – feel free name anyone you know in the tags.

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Late Night arrival in Beijing


I landed in Beijing at 23:00 last night with Chris, Tom, Nad and Paul. We’re here for WWW2008 – yep, work sent five of us to Beijing. How cool is that.

It wasn’t great to find we had no rooms when we arrived at the hotel – we finally got there at 02:00 this morning – it took us 3 hours taxiing around the airport, through immigration, picking up bags and getting a taxi to the hotel. Having no rooms wasn’t fun, but watching how each of us chose to handle ourselves was really fun. 2am problems after 36 hours traveling apparently doesn’t bring out the best in everyone! 😉 Nobody lost their rag – which was cool.

The hotel did the honorable thing and quickly got us into another hotel, paid for the cabs, accompanied us there and paid the bill, which was much more than they had to do. They then came over this morning and picked us up to move us into our nice, fresh rooms in the right hotel. Bad mistake, good recovery. The view of the Olympic stadium above was taken from my temporary room.

The next problem then, is how to get to see Planet of the Ood (this week’s episode of Doctor Who, the link will expire sometime soon) which was on while I was sat at BHX waiting to board. Problems… I’m in China (known for restrictive networks)… BBC iPlayer doesn’t like people outside the UK… BBC iPlayer doesn’t allow downloads for OS X users…

So, the solution…

Grab a script that pretends to be an iPhone (iplayer-dl by Paul Battley), thus getting access to the non-DRM MP4 stream. VPN back to the UK, so on a UK network. Find that only specific traffic goes over VPN. Use VPN to SCP iplayer-dl script to a server in the UK. Download Planet of the Ood MP4 to UK Server. Use VPN to SCP Planet of the Ood back to laptop in China.

Getting to talk about Planet of the Ood with my 7 year old, from Beijing? Priceless.

Should the President Use E-mail?

Should the President Use E-mail?

That’s the question posed by Freakonomics a few days ago, but not for the reasons you might suspect.

Apparently email is a good format for delivering bad news. That seems interesting, apparently the dropping of many social cues allows people to receive information in a less defensive attitude. That may well be, but my mother always said

If you’ve got something nice to say write it down, if it’s not so nice say it to their face.

Of course, she also said

If you haven’t got anything nice to say don’t say anything at all.

And if we’re on the subject of things parents tell their children you should check out today’s xkcd

Going back to the question of Presidents receiving bad news, I’m not sure my mom’s second piece of advice would go down so well.