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Treasure an age of individual beauty

Rather than mourning the loss of the classic canon of literature, music or film, we should be embracing an age where those interested can create and share their own ideals of beauty and art more easily.

Reading an article on the death of the novel by Will Self, followed by a reflection on Britpop and the anniversary of Blur’s Parklife, both seemed fueled by the end of gatekeepers rather than the end of great literature or music. It’s all too easy to mourn the loss of the past when you’re getting older.

The fact is that it’s never been easier or cheaper to immerse yourself in beautiful or thought-provoking art. Or to stumble across something thought provoking. And to find what speaks to you.

Although it’s best to look for yourself or get human recommendations rather than rely on the primitive suggestion attempts that big data is still providing. One day a data scientist will figure out that someone can like and loathe films by the same director or albums by the same band.

BookSnakebyAlanLevineFlickr

Book Snake by Alan Levine (Cogdog) on Flickr – CC License

Pinning Will Self’s term of a ‘serious novel’ down is difficult, but you could probably go by the standards of English teaching throughout the years. And while Jane Austen is justifiable as an example of a writer, I struggle to recall anything except boredom from studying her work.

Whereas George Orwell, Douglass Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller etc have stayed with me. And they’ve been joined by the likes of William Gibson. Re-reading some of his books recently (Pattern Recognition onwards), I still find myself utterly captivated by the way he weaves his otaku obsession with the detail of inanimate objects into his stories. He can open with the idea that jetlag means your soul isn’t capable of flight and is still traveling to catch up with you, and inspire an interest in researching Curta digital mechanical calculators.

At the same time, I also re-read Cory Doctorow’s Homeland. If the concepts of mass demonstrations, unlawful arrests and technology-based conspiracies doesn’t provoke some interesting thoughts, it also includes afterwords written by the likes of Aaron Swartz, and links to starting a Hackerspace, building 3D printers and more.

Given the current technological issues impacting on the world alongside economics and politics, there’s a ‘serious’ argument to be made. Or for those of a more historical bent, I remain fascinated with Hagakure – Book of the Samurai and Letters from a Stoic.

Not all novels, granted. But the breadth of mediums, formats and styles underlines my point. My serious reading comes from blogs, websites, eBooks, printed books, graphic novels, comics, cartoons and more.

Harp music in the library by Henk Kosters Flickr

Harp music in the library by Henk Kosters Flickr – CC License

But besides the delivery mechanism, what has changed is that it can be a completely individual and multifaceted canon. And one which I can explore and share. And by exploring, I can easily also find people who appreciate even just one of the same choices.

I’m still discovering music today from genres I loved, bought and obsessed about 20 years ago which I didn’t get to hear at the time due to the availability of American alternative music in Kent in the early 90s, or my limited budget to risk on metal bands I’d never get to sample on the radio. As much as friends could provide some recommendations, it’s amazing how much was shaped by watching specialist music shows on at 2am in the morning.

And I could never have had enough teenage friends to cope with my desire to listen to classic 60′s soul, 80′s hiphop, 90′s grunge and thrash metal, and a few folk and country songwriters, often in the space of an afternoon.

The internet hasn’t caused the end of mass youth trends. It’s simply accelerated the process started by television, radio and access to history which meant Britpop and Grunge in the UK largely led to questionable clothing and hairstyle choices rather than attempts to try and change the world. It also means I can create a playlist of songs that make me happy that includes Alphabeat, Jimmy Cliff and The Cure. And not only potentially meet other people that somehow arrived at a similar list, but even use it to find dates or love.

If the loss of mass consensus is the cost, I’m happy to pay it. And it”ll be interesting to see how that applies to politics, for example, as parties finally realise that for every one issue which I might align with, they have several that repel me. In the meantime, I’ll be exploring the history of pirates and vikings to share with my son, the latest marketing and technology news for work, and the most beautiful writing and music for myself.

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UK smart heating alternative to Nest?

I probably ignore about 80% of the Kickstarter-based PR emails I get. Either they’re hugely irrelevant to any of the sites I run, or they’re ridiculously optimistic.

But I’ve been intrigued by Cosy. It’s a smart heating system which is controlled by an app, includes a thermostat/docking station which is portable, and has been developed just down the road from me in Cambridge.

It’s got a £20,000 goal to reach by April 14th, and so far more than £13,000 has been raised so there’s quite a way to go. It’ll be a shame if it doesn’t make it – almost every gadget I want or need is being produced in America, and is usually either unavailable in the UK or takes years to arrive.

I do wonder whether the relative lack of interest compared to earlier U.S based campaigns – is it a sign of the more jaded attitude people now have to Kickstarter campaigns, or is it a reflection on the fact it’s a UK based project? It’d be interesting to see Kickstarter campaign success/pledges by geography to see whether UK-based campaigns are at a disadvantage…

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DPiP is back on April 10th, 2014

I’m pleased to say that Digital People in Peterborough has gone through a bit of a reboot, with the help of Jonathan and the wise move to ask Tia to volunteer in keeping us on track.

And to kick things off, we’ve got an event on Thursday, April 10th, 2014 at 7pm, at the Eco Innovation Centre on City Road in Peterborough, with Andy McGurk presenting plans for a new Digital Hub in Peterborough and asking for our input and feedback.

eic_april2014_banner

So if you’re in or around Peterborough, and have any involvement in the creative industries, development, design, blogging, eCommerce etc, or you want advice on how to start, come along and have a chat – we’re a pretty friendly and welcoming bunch…

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The ultimate data ownership failure?

It seems that medical organisations on both sides of the Atlantic have been having major digital and data issues for some time, but given the constant questions over who owns our data (on social networks, mobile apps, internet usage etc), this sadly summed up the current situation for me.

To summarise, a government body handed over parts of my medical records to people I’ve never met, outside the NHS and medical research community, but it is refusing to tell me what it handed over, or who it gave it to, and the minister is now incorrectly claiming that it never happened anyway.

From Ben Goldacre writing for The Guardian.

 

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Hurry up, Google Glass

I haven’t had my eyes tested for a while, but an existing condition means that glasses are an inevitability as I get older. So the fact that the Titanium Collection makes Google Glass more appealing by looking a lot less idiotic is making me wonder whether it’s wrong to hold off a visit to the opticians until more styles are available and the price starts to drop dramatically?

Being longsighted, the main times I’d need to use glasses would be when I’m reading etc, when access to additional information might be handy, and when I’m also generally somewhere private, avoiding the problem of looking like an idiot or scaring people who think I might be photographing or recording them.

It’s actually starting to get tempting…

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Torn on Flickr…

Despite the plethora of photo sites that have existed over the years, I still use Flickr quite a bit. If anything it’s got worse for archiving and organising the photos I’ve taken, but it’s extremely familiar to me, having signed up originally in February 2006.

After 8 years, I’ve uploaded around 4,000 images, and around 2,000 of these are public, which have generated 47,867 views in that time. Back in 2008, I bought myself a Pro Account to allow (at the time) unlimited uploads – from memory it was while I was on holiday in Sweden and I had full memory cards to clear. It also followed shortly on from the birth of my son, which I assumed would mean I’d be taking a lot more photos I’d want to share with family and close friends in the future…

Apparently my Pro account is due to expire at the start of February 2014, right about my 8th anniversary of signing up, and 6 years after I originally started paying $24.95 a year.

That’s why I’m now torn. Because I have no problem in paying for services, but I do have a problem understanding what I’m now getting from Flickr, and why they should receive money for it?

 

Does Flickr have a business model?

Originally when I paid for a Pro account, I signed up for the main reason of unlimited uploads and storage, but it also enabled statistics on my account and an ad-free experience.

But now everyone gets one terabyte of free storage anyway (since May 2013), so I’m left with the choice of renewing my Pro account just for stats and avoiding advertising. I’m pretty sure I won’t be hitting the terabyte limit of more than 150,000 hi-res images anytime soon.

I’m assuming that if I allow it to lapse I’ll lose all my stats, along with the ad-free status – and to purchase a standard Ad Free account is now $49.99 per year.

While I’m happy that Pro account holders haven’t had a price increase, I’m still left wondering whether as a non-professional who uses Flickr partly as an archive, and sometimes to source Creative Commons licensed images, whether it’s worth it? Installing an ad-blocker in my browser and using one of a supply of other Creative Commons image sourcing solutions would avoid any payments. And as a non-professional photographer, does it really matter how many people have seen my photos, or which one has been most popular in the last 24 hours?

(For the record, it’s always this one)

And then it forces me to consider whether Flickr actually has a business model?

If it’s based on paid accounts, then boosting membership by making the free accounts comparable doesn’t work – eventually people do question why they’re paying.

And if it’s based on ad revenue, then the more content driving more page views is important. And being able to get a feedback loop on the pictures I upload is vital to encouraging me to upload more. That’s how almost every social site elicits a Pavlovian response to getting a Like, a Retweet or a comment of agreement. Losing stats that I do occasionally browse out of casual interest means Flickr becomes even more of an dusty archive into which copies of my Instagram and Facebook photos are sent but rarely seen.

It becomes even stranger when you look at the clarity of rival 500px. Free with 20 uploads, Plus for $25 to add stats and a Personal Store, and $75 for Awesome with themes, subdomains, portfolios etc.

Oddly you don’t actually get any more for the same price – Flickr has an easy option for licensing photos through Getty anyway, although it’s much less explicit, and separated off as a Getty responsibility. In fact to find the info, you have to hope a photographer has signed up for that scheme, or contact a member directly.

 

What should Flickr do?

It’s hard to solve Flickr’s issues without following the approach of 500px, although having just read about the closure of photo startup Everpix, it does seem like there is an approach and technology there which would give Flickr a much needed boost.

I’d suggest the Free account is pretty much fine, but I’d overhaul the way licensing is currently implemented to make Creative Commons and Getty licensing an intrinsic part of the package, and offer a SemiPro account for around $20. That’s not a huge expense if there’s a chance of selling a couple of photos a year, and you could offer some extra functionality.

For instance, Flickr has finally rolled out ‘Creations‘, a willfully obscure service for creating Photo Books which can be ordered as print albums. Which is currently US only. And just books – no calendars etc. Give me the options to create a range of products for the brands I run or manage, and there’s another justification for a paid account.

And finally, do a proper account for Professionals – even those with an expensive DSLR and a photography business aren’t necessarily going to have 200,000 images available. But they do want to be able to sell their work, accept commissions and probably lots of other things that wouldn’t occur to me as a non-professional. Certainly with photographer friends, they always seem to struggle with photo management on whichever CMS and web service they use to advertise their businesses and sell their images.

Then Flickr might become a viable asset for Yahoo, instead of feeling like a forgotten image archive in a dusty basement somewhere, filled with filing cabinets hidden behind an endlessly scrolling homepage which makes it harder to actually use.

Fossil

Ironically, I couldn’t embed the above image from Flickr, because then WordPress wouldn’t pick up a Featured Image for the blog post. Another niggling technical annoyance which I’m sure could be solved somehow.

 

Update: On publication, I spotted the new Flickr embed now seems to allow you to scroll through a user’s images. That’s an annoyance if I’m embedding an image from another user to illustrate a blog post (Am I going to vet all their images in case a reader gets distracted?), as well as making me question whether I’ve set all personal family images to the right privacy setting, or if I can see them just because I’m logged into Flickr. Basically a reason to encourage people to download images, and then re-upload with the opportunity to forget to credit them.

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State of Digital’s Future of Search Google Hangout

I was honored to be part of State of Digital’s Google Hangout earlier today, which was based around the question ‘What is the Future of Search’.

It was a really interesting discussion, and was expertly hosted by Bas van den Beld. In addition to myself, the other invitees were Dixon Jones, Gianluca Fiorelli, Krystian Szastok, Russel McAthy and my old friend Tim Stewart. It eventually ran to 90 minutes which you can watch below.

Beyond the fact my happiness at being involved managed to overwhelm my self-conscious desire to avoid appearing in photos and on video, it also reminded me of a few video and webcam lessons and techniques which I completely forgot to do – so for those who want to look a bit more professional in any Google Hangouts, webcam videos or live chats, I’ll run through my mistakes over on TheWayoftheWeb blog.

But it’s definitely reinforced my aim to be involved in more video and speaking opportunities this year. Just need to get a haircut first…

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The highs and lows of bootstrapping a business

Starting a new business can be tough a lot of the time. Bootstrapping a new business without the right preparation is tough almost all the time.

The sensible way to start working for yourself or to launch a business without any funding or loans would be to make a plan months before you make the leap. Start saving some cash to use as a buffer at the beginning and if you have any emergencies. If you can, perhaps trial it as a sideline while you’re still in your previous job – the best way to test demand from potential customers or clients, and also a great way to find out whether you’ve really got the drive and determination to make it work. Better to figure out you’re not bothered when you have a safety net, rather than when you have 0.01p in your bank account and it’s weeks until payday.

I wasn’t sensible.

When I started working for myself it was at short notice due to plans to restructure by my employer. I could have potentially stayed, but felt like it was time to do something different for personal, as well as professional, reasons. I’d learned to tolerate commuting, but didn’t enjoy the expense in time and money, particularly when it meant missing out on so much time with my young son.

So I didn’t have much of a buffer saved. And that quickly evaporated in the first couple of months as I started to realise that I wasn’t as motivated to find a new role for an employer as much as I was to work for myself.

And when things are going OK, or even well, that’s fine. Thanks to great friends, former employers and colleagues, lovely clients and new contacts I managed to survive and at times I even thrive. At the start of 2013, I reached the stage where I had enough income to bring in someone fulltime to help me run the business, in addition to the various people we’ve employed on a project basis.

Bootstrapping

But when things aren’t OK, the lack of preparation 3 years ago still comes back to haunt me. Bringing in a fellow director essentially meant my income from the business was halved – not a long-term problem as we were showing plenty of progress and growth with a lot more planned.

Then we were hit by an external financial issue which was outside our control, and which cost us thousands. That essentially wiped out our small safety net in one go, and took months of hard work to recover from. All the time we’ve been dealing with the day-to-day issues of delivering quality work, chasing late invoices, securing new clients, etc. By the end of the year things have been looking better, and we were planning some big steps forward in 2014 when another external factor hit us just before Christmas.

The big lesson, and advice I’d give to anyone, is to plan for everything to go horribly wrong most of the time. Make sure you have cash,contracts and a minimum viable level of income for surviving in place at all times. And ensure that you are constantly thinking about what happens if something goes wrong before it actually does. I remember reading that most successful entrepreneurs tend to resemble rabbits rather than lions, because they’re constantly slightly nervous, paranoid and scanning around for potential predators and threats. More than that, you need to know what action to take, and to get on with it, in the face of problems.

That may mean cancelling services and lowering your costs in advance of problems, or it may mean taking a gamble and actually increasing your spending on advertising or marketing before a competitor becomes an issue. The important thing is to not end up paralysed like a deer in headlights as the problem gets bigger and bigger.

As for me and my business? While the bad news is that we may not be able to invest in some of the plans we’d put together quite yet, the good news is that we still have a growing client base, we’re able to refocus some of our efforts, and it’s an incentive for us to innovate more quickly. And thankfully I also have someone I respect a lot working alongside me to share that journey with rather than doing it alone… By the end of 2014 I expect to be writing about the best aspects of building a business from nothing but a laptop, and how we’ve progressed so far in 12 months….

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Business Poison by Jonathan MacDonald

I was lucky enough to receive a review copy of the latest book by my friend Jonathan MacDonald just before Christmas. He’s been speaking and consulting for years to the likes of Google, Apple, P&G, Unilever, Nestlé and IKEA, and is also a genuinely nice guy.

But onto Business Poison, with the catchy subtitle ‘Diagnosing and treating the infectious poisons that determine your business success”.

BusinessPoison_JonathanMacDonald

It’s a reasonable length book at 84 pages, covering 24 topics. And it’s also a quick read, partly due to Jonathan’s informal but informative writing style. I went through it on the evening it arrived, and a couple of times since then, and much like A User Guide to the Creative Mind by Dave Birss I know it’s going to be a book I’ll be referring back to frequently.

And despite the concise nature, it manages to cover most of the problems I’ve encountered in my time working with businesses large and small, and running my own. Topics include ‘The Poison of Singular Personas’, ‘The Poison of Strategic Misrepresentation’ or ‘The Poison of Presumed Influence’.

Each is covered with a mix of Jonathan’s own experience, sources, quotes etc, and ways to potentially avoid or tackle each issue. I’d hate to think any business was capable of experiencing all of them at the same time (Although I can think of some that probably come close!), but over time the challenges and potential pitfalls you’ll encounter running or working for a business will probably mean you’ll end up with the full set eventually.

If I’m being hypercritical to compensate for knowing the author, I’d say that perhaps some more footnotes, case studies and further reading would be useful – various works are mentioned throughout so it would be handy to have them listed in one handy page for easier shopping.

I haven’t asked Jonathan exactly who he was writing the book for, although I suspect it was a mixture of readers ranging across the various levels of a business.

But interestingly, I found myself repeatedly wishing I’d had Business Poison ten years ago. How many times I encountered one or more issues in meetings and on projects, but didn’t have the experience to properly explain what was going wrong? And how many times did I sit with older, more experienced managers etc, and back down or keep quiet because I felt like I was the only person in the room seeing, or at least acknowledging, there was going to be an issue?

There’s a lot of talk about the rise of the ‘intrapreneur’ within organisations – an entrepreneur that stays within the larger company and attempts to innovate, disrupt and chance on the inside. But it can be a lonely crusade, and having something like this book at home or in your desk will help anyone feel like they’re not alone.

Putting aside the fact I like and respect Jonathan, I’d say that Business Poison is definitely worth reading for business owners and senior managers, particularly those in medium-to-large companies. And I’d say it’s essential if you’re working for one of those businesses and want to be aware of the potential pitfalls and dangers, particularly if you’re hopefully contributing to new ideas and projects. You’ll get an ROI on the £3 price of the Kindle version about 20 minutes into your next project or planning meeting!

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Buzzfeed use one of my photos (With permission…)

Quite nice to see a picture I took earlier this year end on on the Buzzfeed site. Their listicle compiles 18 magazine and print layout disasters from 2013.

And the contribution I made was from a local paper earlier this year, which I blogged about here.

It’s always interesting to see the coverage you can get by making a £20 or so investment in a domain name and some basic hosting…