Monday, 28 November 2011

Lost in a virgin forest

What were humans like before the internet (BI)? Can you remember? I didn't think so.

But I can help. You see, I've been conducting cutting-edge, ground-breaking, in-depth analysis on this issue - dropping bombshells and all kinds of bad reportage clichés.

Return to nature. 
My research project was sponsored by my internet service provider. By "sponsored" I mean they went and spent all their pocket money on marketing and had none left in the kitty for engineers.

Bless them - they appear to be perpetual first-timers. And we're all rubbish our first time, right?

So I spent a week - that's right an entire week - with no Octonauts. Not even that fake-pirate one, Kwazii.

My field research indicates that when not wholly occupied with beating up Neanderthals and making mastadon casserole, BI Woman and BI Child partook in the following activities:
  1. Denial. 
  2. Anger.
  3. Bargaining. 
  4. Depression. 
  5. Wandering aimlessly.
  6. Collecting leaves. 
  7. Bickering. 
  8. Discovering a wonderful secret urban gardens. 
  9. Hunting for fairies.
  10. Locating fairies.
  11. Smiling. 
  12. Octonauts? What octonauts? 
  13. Returning in high spirits. 
  14. Drifting into a contented sleep. 
  15. Acceptance.
  16. Waking up with the evil plague. 
  17. Realizing that the entire family has woken up with the evil plague.
  18. Reverting to denial.
Back in from the cold.
I'm pleased to report that service is back up. And the evil plague has passed. The memory of our primitive cousins is fading. 

Thank goodness. 

In sum, life BI was a bit rubbish, but pretty awesome when it worked. Kind of like now. 

I have nothing so kind to say about my research sponsors. 

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Thankfulness pie

Auntie A is one of my longest-serving friends. She is an exemplar of human kindness, which goes a long way to explain why she's remained my friend all these years.

But the greatest of these is pie. 
Auntie A gave me a wonderful book last summer called 14,000 Things to be Happy About. The writer, Barbara Ann Kipfer, as you may have guessed, is American.

It's a lovely book. I recommend it to anyone suffering from chronic grumpiness syndrome.

It being Thanksgiving and all, I'm going to invoke a time-honoured yankee tradition that causes at least three Britons at American tables to spontaneously combust every year. I mean that part before dinner where everyone around the table is forced to say - earnestly - what they are thankful for.

As a warning, anyone who employs irony or understatement at this juncture will be DEPRIVED OF PIE.

Barbara Ann Cheerfulness Kipfer, being an expert in such matters, may go first. Over to you Barbara:
  • Sunlight streaming through trees 
  • Dilbert
  • The whack of a bat against a baseball
  • A baby's yawn
  • Fiber optics  
Well done Barbara. You may have pie.

Me? I am thankful for love. Family. Friendship. Health.

I am thankful to have this brief moment of wakefulness, like a butterfly in wintertime. I reckon time has transfigured the words of Philip Larkin into truth: "what will survive of us is love."

Now there's your pie, and here's your bucket of water.

Stop cringing and be thankful.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Robot update

All your toys are belong to us. 
The eagle has landed.

Here he is, flanked by the Iron Man (Ana's birthday present).

Regular readers of the Chaos Chronicles (Hello Mom!) will recall that this little guy was designed by Papa and Ana online, and printed by the fine humanitarian geniuses at My Robot Nation.

I suggest you run over there right now and design your own robot. Even, er especially if you are a grown-up.

For those kids six and over, there is another exciting way to get stuck into robot world. Katy Lindemann, herself a robot expert, has introduced me to MakieLab, where Alice Taylor and her team are busily creating "future-smashing, customisable 3D-printed, game enabled" toys.

And apparently they are looking for some extremely lucky young volunteers to try them out...

Friday, 18 November 2011

Robot in the rye

A magical thing happened last week. I walked into a roomful of strangers and gibbered on about kids and robots. Actually, that's not the magical bit - it's just something I do every day.

Ye olde office robot. 
The magical bit is that instead of hissing or throwing vegitables, these strangers responded with warmth, and with wonderful stories of their own - tales about how the internet is a place of kindness and human connection.

TaleTorrent was the inspired brainchild of James Mitchell at BBH Labs, as part of Internet Week Europe. I had the pleasure of meeting a handful of gifted storytellers, like ye olde weblogger Katy Lindemann and the serendipitous Claire Burge.

The evening was simply about sharing for sharing's sake, and it may have been the least cynical thing ever to happen in London.

This week I have been looking after plague-ridden children and hating on deadlines (generally). Additionally, I have been shouting at my ISP for being ye olde rubbish and breaking my internet connection for a week. So instead of writing up a fresh batch of nonsense from scratch, I will share my TaleTorrent robot story here.

Regular readers (hello Mom!) may recognise this episode. Names have been changed to protect the innocent. No actual robots were harmed in the writing up of this incident.


I want to talk about where robots come from.

My Ana is four. She lives in a world of her own in a galaxy far, far away. It is a place far more magical and bonkers than all of Camden and the interwebs mashed together.

Ana only stops by my world when she is hungry, sleepy, or lonely for human conversation. Which is not every day.

Ana is one part chaos. One part destruction. One part rocket fuel.

She is too young to question where babies come from in any detail. As per guidance from Ofsted, that sadly non-virtual government body, it will be at least three months before we need to talk about birds, bees, and the soul-crushing quantities of paperwork that signify adulthood in human terms.

However, Ana is definitely old enough to know where robots come from. They come from the internet.


It was a premature exposure to the The Iron Man that planted the idea in Ana’s head. By The Iron Man, I
mean a 1968 book by Ted Hughes. This is not to be confused with the comic book hero in red and yellow tights – with whom Ana is also well-acquainted.

But if you’ve read The Iron Man, you may recall that there is some ambiguity as to the Iron Man’s origins. He just lands one day – sploosh – in the middle of the sea.

Is he from space? Is he from Russia?

Of course not. Any four year old worth her salt can tell you he’s from the internet.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Geeks and bookworms

The wizard of OS.
You may remember the 5th of November as that time when a Guy got hanged, drawn and quartered by The Man. Happily, little drawing and quartering gets done around here these days.

My daughters send me out robot-hunting in London on a regular basis. I found two good ones for them this week. Firstly, the Tin Woodman's cyber cousin (see left) in the basement of Fluent Studios, a usability lab in Clerkenwell.

The second robot really took the cake: a camera-mounted Octocopter that a guy built in his garage. This was surely the coolest way that anybody arrived to Mozilla's November 5th festival on Media, Freedom, and the Web, at Ravensbourne  in Greenwich.

Mozilla, of Design Jam and Firefox fame, has now decided to hack the news. Yes, THE NEWS. Which is why the festival featured a data journalism sprint, a Popcorn hyper-video documentary, and a talk by Frontline SMS on using text to spread the news.

Being in the midst of so many wickedly clever people felt invigorating and humbling. It reminded me of a line from my favourite children's book, where a tiny snail gazes at a huge whale and says: "I feel so small."

All your news are belong to us.
But from the hacks/hackers hangout upstairs, to the kids web playground downstairs, these 600 bright people from all over media and the interwebs were focused on that most ancient of human things: storytelling. 

In the future, who will tell the stories?

I'm a huge fan of story-centred systems as the latest Mozilla add-on. From my dorky obsession with the Federal Writers' Project, to my Ray Bradbury fixation, I think I can reasonably claim to be a story-centric human.

Mozilla's focus on getting kids excited about technology is pretty cool. I can't wait to take my kids to this sort of thing when they are a little older than 2 and 4 and less prone to actually chewing on the interwebs.

Douglas Adams once said: "Anything invented before your 15th birthday is the order of nature." David Rowan of Wired offered a good example of this at Internet Europe Week on Tuesday. To today's child, he said, a typewriter is "a laptop that prints as it goes along and doesn't need electricity."

Sometimes geeks and bookworms look down their noses at each other. Mozilla's festival last Saturday wasn't one of those occasions - in fact the geeks and the bookworms were actually the same people.

Baby hackasaurus. 
Last Saturday the sun sank early as per winter opening hours. The bright lights of Ravensbourne danced in the cold Thames alongside the megalith skyscrapers of Dog Island. 

A smell of gunpowder leached out into the air from the darker corners of England, like ozone before a thunderstorm. Across the island, bonfire logs succumbed to their fate, uncomplaining, as they have done since pagan times (Guy Fawkes was not hanged for inventing bonfires). 

Down the river at St Paul's, a gathering tide of discontentment stood on the temple steps and stared at the city through Guy Fawkes's dead eyes. Like a scene from another of my favourite stories.

Friday, 4 November 2011

With all due respect

Generations are different from each other.

Thank goodness for that.

I suffered the deprivations of The Oregon Trail as a child. My children by contrast are touchscreen apps.

People from different generations can teach each other things, even daughters and mothers.

Last week I put on a Mary Poppins DVD in a moment of exasperation - the younger generation was literally climbing the walls. Ali settled down and watched. But Ana took on a mischievous look and slunk away to the kitchen with the DVD case.

The kitchen is the only room in the house with a slippery floor. But I didn't realize what Ana was up to until she went flying past my head like a ninja, landing with both feet squarely on the DVD case. She shot across the floor shouting "This is my Mary Poppins skaaaaateboard!"

I had never before in my life connected Mary Poppins and skateboards. Never. Short people are clinically creative. The stuff they can teach you is endless.

After a lengthy skating session, I went to check on Ali. I found her studying this wonderful scene with her serious face on.

I watched, transfixed, shocked to learn that even Mr Banks is the 99%.

This scene neatly captures the dignity OccupyLSX and their supporters. Perhaps they can use Mr Banks's riposte if the money changers ever make good on their eviction threat.

I stopped by the temple steps today. I saw a piano in one of the tents. And a woman shouting 'Shut up and go away, you idiot!' to anyone who would listen, inanimate objects included. I saw about two billion camera crews grinding out the news from anoraks, slightly bonkers posters, student debt, and broken dreams.

But the thing I remember most is an impromptu argument I witnessed between a younger man and older man.

He could not, the younger man said, afford a home for his family.

Then work harder, said the older man.

No point.

Why not?

Should he, said the younger man, work like a dog all the days of his life he would never afford a home.

People from different generations can teach each other things. Even sons and fathers.