For your diaries: sixth and seventh Oxford Geek Nights

In the wake of the most recent geek night, we’ve just added Upcoming entries for Oxford Geek Night #6 and Oxford Geek Night #7. Maybe when we reach some milestone like #10 we can think of better names for the events.

We should have something on the “official” website soon, although that currently takes a bit longer as it’s not exactly powered by a CMS. Unless you count vim as a CMS.

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In which I put OGN5 to bed, and hope to do the same to myself later

Now that the shine is off my memories of OGN5—not least by a leak of an upcoming post elsewhere on this blog owing to a keyfumble—I can nonetheless look back on a success. From the point of view of all the guests it was one sort of a success: the speakers were wonderfully engaging; contributions from our sponsors (especially Torchbox and Google) oiled the night’s machinery to the point where people barely felt it move under them; and even as I left some huddles of geeks were still chatting. I’d like to think they were still there the next morning, huddled round mugs of coffee and talking about some new usability study.

From my point of view it was a different sort of success: nothing went completely wrong. I managed to be nice to our resolutely amiable and upbeat keynoters, who delivered their respective talks with aplomb; we not only set up our own network but managed to fix both the pub’s wireless and upstairs electrics which were blown by a dodgy washing machine; the PA pumped out sound and people didn’t chat as much during the microslots anyway.

At the time I rated everything that happened in a negative sense—the absence of anything going wrong was the only measure I was happy with—which made it hard to appreciate that frequently I just had to let things become a little bit anarchic. Let’s be honest: nobody notices all but the worst of gaffes, and the sort of control that absolutely guarantees nothing will go wrong is generally tight enough to squeeze the fun out of an event at the same time as the risk.

If I could have the evening again I’d probably have given Daniel more attention in advance, so I’d have known what he’d prepared to discuss Barcamp Oxford. They’ve got some great stuff planned, and it’s a shame that a mismatch of expectations detracted from that. When I’m able to focus better I’ll post to the mailing list and get some stuff out there about Barcamp.

I’m completely exhausted, and have spent the whole day playing catchup as I worked. Nw I just want to sleep, possibly until OGN6. Wake me in the spring, chaps.

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Oxford Geek Night #5: you do the maths

I don’t know how well this reflects on me.

As I was wondering idly when the delivery would arrive containing OGN5’s book lottery giveaways (thanks again, Friends of ED!) I started making a note of calendar dates for different bits of OGN organisation. I was working with Trac milestones at the time, so they were all in the format MM/DD/YY.

“Let’s see,” I thought, “today is 01/30/08; so the books should arrive hopefully on—let’s say—02/02/08. That means I’ve got the weekend plus a couple of days before OGN5, which is on….”

02/06/08. I stared at this date longer than I probably ought to, and noticed something about it. Can you spot what it might have been?

If so; if you’re like me and you read a date like “02/06/08″ and shortly afterwards think “2 plus 6 is 8″—just as an aid to memory, you understand; then you probably ought to join us at OGN5. We will understand.

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FixMyStreet is getting some great press, this time a Guardian article comparing it favourably to Facebook. We were lucky to have Tom Steinberg at the fourth Oxford Geek Night, and his plucky lieutenant Matthew Somerville (I may get in trouble for that) back at the third OGN. They’re both fascinating speakers (and I still turn red at the way my nerves made me hustle Tom off the stage); but, more than that, through the sites mentioned in the Guardian article above, they and many other unsung heroes have brought about real social change.

The comparison in the Guardian website is with Facebook (which is turning rapidly more socially evil by the minute anyway). I think it would be more illuminating to compare mySociety sites with such large, government-commissioned (and consultant-propelled) projects like the NHS Spine.

The Spine is a vast, overarching superproject; it’s a messy amalgam of large, penny-pinching businesses; separation of responsibilities—bizarrely—is in part geographical, so despite purporting to provide a single system there’s no guarantee (outside of the weird steampunk astrolabe brains of consultants) that Yorkshire and Humber will be able to chat freely with the West Midlands. It’s been put together without any real thought about whether the problems tackled are the ones that the problem-sufferers (NHS staff and patients) encounter most often. In a nutshell, i’s overblown, overpriced and over the top.

But if mySociety had been brought in? You would have around a dozen projects, all quite tiny, and all solving fairly simple, easily-scoped problems. Most importantly, they would all stem from consulting the staff: each would have a valid reason for existing before even the planning began. The basic version of each site would be ready within six weeks, and a more polished version in three months. There’d be ongoing updates and improvements as user requests made them appear worth while ((the Spine, on the other hand, would shudder at the thought that the hoi polloi of front-line employees might dictate project direction, rather than a consultancy firm). And from the point of view of an end result, almost everything would be ready by now, in comparison to a couple of fringe benefits: it would be improving staff and patient experience today, across the country, in those specifically targeted areas, by a hundred times the effect the Spine will have, and for a hundredth of the cost.

mySociety produces perfect examples of the open-source maxim: find an itch, and scratch it. But what distinguishes them from almost every other FOSS project (apart from perhaps Ubuntu) is that they’re happy to treat other people’s itches.

Oxford Geek Night #5: speakers and sponsors confirmed

The fifth Oxford Geek Night is shaping up to be a really great night. Following on from our keynote confirmations, we’ve now got a full house of microslotters.

Not only that, but we’ve also sorted our extra sponsorship. Joining the ever-indulgent, ever-understanding Torchbox are Google and Friends of ED. In return for sponsoring us, Google have asked us to contribute a post-OGN article for the Google Code Blog, a request which would have been churlish to refuse. Friends of ED will be providing us with another book raffle, which is basically meant to keep people hanging around till the bitter end in the hope of free stuff. We’re of course always open to new sponsorship opportunities, so feel free to get in touch (me, of all things, at if you’ve got any ideas.

If you’re interested in coming along, you can let us know on our Upcoming listing, as that lets us keep track of interest. Either way, tell your friends; blog about the geek nights; most importantly, come along!

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Library of Congress, Flickr'd to the max

Flickr is working with the Library of Congress on new project The Commons. Currently there are around three thousand photographs up there from two collections, and according to the Commons homepage they’re all copyright-free. More information in the relevant post on the Flickr blog.

This is wonderful news, especially because the collection is being released through a slightly adapted version of Flickr’s existing website. This means, apart from it being an established interface that millions of people already know vaguely how to use, that you can do all the Flickry things with the photos—dedicated Flickr-heads will hopefully give a more qualified response in due course—and that third-party tools should already be set up to work with the content. The meta information storage won’t particularly excite any Dublin-Core enthusiasts—a block of unstructured HTML in the standard Flickr notes field, plus of course Flickr tagging—but the whole project is still a fascinating experiment, and interesting for even the casual observer of American history. How exciting does it get? More exciting than the World of Mirth Shows?

Thinking offline for a moment, this hopefully presages more leaps forward in MLA culture. One of the first would be to remove the “NO PHOTOGRAPHS” signs from all museums. At the very least such signs could be more honest, and instead read “NO PHOTOGRAPHS; unless our security guards don’t catch you at it, in which case we’ll be blissful in our ignorance. Anyway, in five years time it’ll all be online so we don’t know why we’re bothering, to be honest….” On reflection, I suppose they would need bigger signs.

Oxford Geek Night #5: all ready bar the microslots

The fifth Oxford Geek Night is on February 6, 2008. We’ve got sponsorship from Torchbox and Google—thanks for that, chaps—and two really interesting keynote speakers booked: Rufus Pollock and Denise Wilton.

  • Rufus is an executive director of the Open Knowledge Foundation and economics research fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He’ll be talking about promoting the opening of knowledge silos and removing technical and legal restrictions to knowledge for all. He’ll be accompanied by his lovely assistant Nate Olson on vibes.
  • Denise, on the other hand, is a design buff and creative director at Moo, co-designer of the Nathan Barley site, and partly responsible for anarchic online forum b3ta. She’ll tell us all how to design a web application with character!

But! we still need microslot talks. That’s where you come in. If you can spend around five minutes blathering about your ideas, work, experiences or opinions on the future of the web and how we’ll all be ruled by benevolent wifi routers by 2075… we want you. The atmosphere is friendly and unintimidating, so if you’ve got a thought and half a dozen pertinent slides then submit your microslot details.

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Unsubscibe me form this maling list... for a bit

‘Tis the season to remove yourself from mailing lists if you’re subscribed from your work address. And there’s only so much good will to go round, until it’s completely soaked up by people asking lists with automated (un)subscription procedures to “unsubscibe” them, please, right now. It’s even harder to deal with those who ask thousands of people if they can be unsubscribed, but then re-subscribed

One big problem is vacation programs, aspects of your email provision that permit automated emails on your behalf to say “I’m not here right now.” They’re horrible, all of them. Outlook Express’ system only runs when your desktop is switched on: imagine the cheery post-seasonal look on your face as you return to work after two weeks away, power up your computer and then watch everyone who’s sent you an email for the past two weeks suddenly get an email each, per email they sent, before you can hit “cancel, for the sake of the newborn baby Jesus!” Outlook’s and Exchange’s equivalents merrily reply to any old bulk mailing list, leading to incredibly annoyed readers of the same address until someone takes matters into their own hands and either unsubscribes the offender or hunts them down, ties them to a post and shoots them in the head. Even the *nix .vacation is pretty grim, and you have to be careful not to set up some sort of nightmarish positive-feedback loop and bring down a server.

It occurred to me that it would be nice for subscription management systems to let you unsubscribe for a bit. The idea is that you’d let them tick a box at the point of unsubscription, and it would set a scheduled task to run in, say, two or three weeks’ time and resubscribe them. That would in a sense trump all the current user experiences when it comes to making sure you’re absent from all your mailing lists for the vacation duration. It would be fairly easy to do, because after a prompt from cron on the right date it could pretty much run off all the existing subscription code by calling a URL internally (and hence not requiring CAPTCHA or validation).

And then I realised: the people who would best benefit from the functionality wouldn’t even think to look for it. They’d just keep on telling all their fellow readers that they want to unsubscibe.

Working out chaotic things

I’m so impressed with Radiohead. I was a fan back in the days of The Bends (y’know: before they literally, if not metaphorically, sold out), and have more affection for Pablohoney than most. But in an era when it’s trivial to get whatever music you want for free off your mate who happened to buy it, they accepted that fact and gave alternative distribution a whirl. And maybe it worked and maybe it didn’t: it depends on who you’re talking to.

Certainly marketing genius and total orphan Lily Allen, and internationally renowned cuttinge-edge futurologist Gene Simmonds are pulling the sort of pouts you’d expect from them both, and Guy Hands has a look on him like they just cancelled Christmas. But even in these hilariously gurning faces of criticism, and amid the wafting and intermittent atmospheres of genial misunderstanding of how content works these days from the TV and radio monoliths, Radiohead are keeping chipper. Far more so than I’ve ever seen them before, in fact. And when everyone’s on YouTube for free, letting rip with their Thumbs Down webcast, and accepting its reappearance—syndication, if you like—all over the shop very shortly afterwards, was a refreshing change from everywhere else exercising rigid control at the loss of an audience.

But for those of you (like me) who were thinking of taking part in Radiohead’s distribution revolution, yet weren’t keeping an eye on the time:

  • The download-only area of “In Rainbows” closed this morning. I just managed to get a copy of the tracks yesterday: I’m sure if you’ve missed out then you’ll all know someone who’s got a copy they can loan you, right? Loan you until the plain old CD comes out at the start of 2008, right?
  • Discboxes (40-quid monstrosities that I was secretly waiting till next year to buy) are actually already out and limited stock. I thought from various reportings of the event that they too weren’t going to be on sale till the new year. Get yours while it’s hot.

If there’s demand I bet there’ll be more discboxes, but frankly if Radiohead don’t stamp “SECOND IMPRESSION” over the next lot then I might sue. Actually, if my discbox doesn’t have “A TOTAL W.A.S.T.E. OF CARBON” scrawled over it then I’ll be terribly disappointed.

Total Eclipse of my broadband

Incidentally, I currently have very little network at home. Eclipse managed to transfer my broadband fine during the house move, and then cancel both my old and new packages simultaneously at the point the old house’s contract expired (December 4). Oddly, although pulling the plug took but a second, reconnecting can take five working days. I’d love to know what they’re currently up to.

In the mean time, when necessary, I’m connecting to an alt-Fon network called something like Liberty Europe. I think they might be communists.

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