Information

Information. Content. Stuff. There’s a lot of it about.

The challenge in our information-rich society is to try to get information into our brains which adds to our world view – brings us, as individuals or business people, actual value – whilst wasting as little time as possible on valueless or value-poor information.

Traditional information sources are newspapers, magazines, books and TV – as well as verbal interactions with friends and colleagues. These all have different pros and cons. Let’s take newspapers, for example. They are a great way to find out about ‘stuff’ currently going on in the world (or a locality), or at least they seem to be. Actually what they are are curated feeds of, usually, subjective information. You can choose how much subjectivity you want in your “news” by choosing a newspaper which tries to deliver more or less of it. But with the best will in the world, the news you receive in a newspaper will only ever be the news which someone else thinks you want. The stuff that they think that you’ll pay for. Read more of this post

Employment change begins at home

Since the industrial revolution, we’ve seen massive changes in the way our society organises itself around work. The industrial revolution brought intensive, factory-based employment to the masses who previously might have laboured in fields, mines or at home. But there’s since been a gradual decline in factory employment and a remarkable shift, in this country at least, to office-based work. Whilst Britain still manufactures much more “stuff” than we generally admit, manufacturing in the UK is highly automated and labour density therefore very low.

Office work is where it’s at, so it’s hardly a surprise to see large statistics around it. This country (the UK) has around 10 million office workers, according to one source. They take up around 200 million square metres of office space.

That’s a lot.

I have a simple message in this post, and it’s this: lets divorce ourselves from this love-affair with offices. Lets stop making the daily journeys from home to office, wasting our own time and consuming resources we cannot afford to consume. Green campaigners suggest we should ditch our cars and opt for public transport, implicitly supporting the case that offices are needed. But, for many of us, the practical reality is that if our commute is to be as painless as possible there is only one option: a car.

But with my “zero office” option there’s no longer any need to commute. There’s no office to commute to.

Is this radical suggestion pure idiocy? OK, I won’t deny it: getting rid of offices entirely is not likely to happen, now or in the future. People need to get together, physically get together, in order to bond well and create a social atmosphere conducive to maximising effectiveness. But are offices a good place to successfully bond individuals into effective groups? If they are, then why do companies invest money in team-building events, away-days, “off-sites” etc?

I would argue that offices are not generally very conducive either to work or to social engagement. Pubs, restaurants, sports fields, and the great outdoors are excellent for social engagement, but not very conducive to work. A quiet desk at home is extremely conducive to work, but not very socially engaging.

So here’s the plan. Ditch the offices, as far as possible – keep some for people to get together for specific purposes (meetings!). Axe the commute, travel only for specific purposes. Promote home-working, by which I mean government grants for renovations or extensions, company money for home office equipment, clarification and removal of tax rules for home offices.

This will work because we no longer live in the 20th century. The 21st century is a world of communications, a world where people can interact highly effectively even when they are not co-located. Sitting at home, with an effective set of communications tools, you can engage with customers, suppliers and colleagues just as well as you can from an office. You can see people, using video. You can collaborate on documents and presentations, using tools such as Google Apps. You can of course talk to people, instantly, using instant messaging, email and the audio device that simple telephones have evolved into. You can see what people are doing, whether they’re busy, and where they are. Build the right communications environment, and you can save massively on office space costs (rent/purchase, heating, lighting, maintenance) and on commuting costs (massively reducing fuel usage but, perhaps even more importantly, maybe also reducing the car count).

You don’t have to believe in the impact of humanity on our climate to see the sense in saving some of our precious time and resources by getting rid of the daily commute. If we use less fossil fuel then the supply will last longer. Abandoned office space can be re-claimed as housing, which we’re seriously lacking, and the ugliest, leakiest, unwanted offices can be removal entirely.

When we do need to get together, to iron out particular issues as a team or simply to get to know each other better, there are plenty of ways to do that – including in meeting rooms preserved from office buildings.

I really believe that our reliance on an office culture no longer makes sense in our modern world and, worse, contributes massively to costs, financial and environmental, which we simply cannot afford.

Reading for pleasure puts children ahead in the classroom

Or does it?

This recent study, by the Institute of Eduction at the University of London, on the face of it is simple: in a study, kids who read for pleasure do better at maths. The study is based upon an ongoing study and data collection exercise for what is known as the “1970 cohort” – a large set of children born in 1970.

But I would argue that the study was not proper research. It’s very interesting: it would, for instance, have been fascinating to learn that those who did not read at all, or did not like to read, were better at maths. That would imply that an ability in mathematics was, for some reason, not compatible with a love of books. That would be worthy of further study: are there certain kinds of books which would lead to better maths scores? Would it be better to restrict children’s maths activities in order to encourage reading?

But, actually, what the study shows is what we would expect: that bright, inquisitive kids like to read, like to explore there world and, in consequence, understand things better. This therefore comes out in their maths abilities.

What the study doesn’t show, yet newspapers up and down the country now appear to be suggesting, is that reading more will make you better at maths. Those who read for pleasure are more likely to be good at maths. Those who do not read for pleasure are more likely to be poorer at maths. Those statements are supported by the facts, but the statement: “Those who do not read for pleasure will do better at maths if they read more” is not.

It might be true, but the study doesn’t show it.

To make any headway on this one, then, needs further study – for instance, taking a group of kids who do not read much for pleasure and trying to encourage them to do so whilst leaving a second group alone. This begs the question: can you actually encourage kids to read for pleasure – or indeed encourage anyone to do anything for pleasure? Or is it a self-driven thing.

Anyway, my point is that this study really tells us nothing useful although it could lead to further useful work. It certainly doesn’t give us a panacea to low maths scores, as the popular press seem to wish us to believe. No doubt Michael Gove’s next policy will be increased reading activity in the national curriculum…

The Long Way Home: The first instalment in the Earth Legacy series

As well as the world-changing “An Infinite Number of Monkeys“, which looks at how organisations can maximise the value of modern communications systems, I’ve been working on a short novel, aimed at children but enjoyable for all, called “The Long Way Home”.

It is the first in what will become a trilogy (perhaps of the Douglas Adams variety, who knows?), which I’m calling the “Earth Legacy” series, which is set far in Earth’s future – an environment within which other ideas of mine are creeping onto paper too.

The whole book should be out on Kindle and in paperback soon. To whet your appetite, here’s the prologue. Enjoy!

Prologue

Brandon stared down, eyes flaming with passion and heart thumping wildly, at the scene of chaos in the town below him. The beautiful, tree lined avenues of Linfallon seethed with screaming hordes desperate to escape the soldiers who moved triumphantly, house to house and shop to shop, taking what they wanted and caring little for the lives of any brave souls who dared to stand in their way.

He felt a surge of triumph well up from deep within that blackened, twisted heart. His long, oiled hair gleamed in the light of the fires around him as he threw back his head and bellowed like some victorious great ape, fresh from a killing spree. Now his father knew pain. Now his father knew despair. Now, finally, after years of hiding his true self: now, his father knew his son!

Around him, the ancient castle burned. Stronghold of King Ferez, the adored ruler of Gondwana, it had long stood as testament to the beauty and tranquility of the kingdom: proud, noble, fair and just. Now lay in ruins, walls marred by gaping holes, towers leaning drunkenly or collapsed into rubble. The stench of destruction hung in the air where, just hours before, the sweet scents of spring had cheered the hearts of the merry citizens milling around the blossom-filled courtyards as they celebrated liberation day. The date which marked the fall of evil and the rise of the good kings was always a time of great festivity. A time when spirits were high and the populace was carefree. Brandon had picked his moment carefully.

A clatter of small stones made him turn, as he remembered that his victory was not yet complete. His father was his prisoner, but his brother, that awful bane of his pitiful existence these past 25 years; that loathsome spoiled brat of a younger brother who taunted him so with his achievements. His brother Xanda still lived free.

And instead of fleeing, as any sensible man would have done, like the fool that he was his brother had sought him out. He had somehow evaded the warriors which Brandon had sent to capture him and had fought his way across the castle, hunting out the architect of this vile treachery, intent on ending the bloodshed, exacting revenge… or dying in the attempt.

There was no denying Xanda’s physical strength or courage, he could beat any man in armed combat and had clearly bloodied his blade many times while searching for his brother, but to Brandon he suddenly seemed a comical figure and he fought the urge to laugh out loud. Did Xanda believe that blood ties would save him? Or perhaps his wit or charm? It was certainly not going to be his sword! No, none of that was going to prevent a delicious revenge. He, Brandon, held all the power now.

Xanda’s face was a mask of anger and torment, his chest heaving from his fight with Brandon’s men and his scramble up the ruined stairs. Behind him appeared the figures of two of Brandon’s men, but Brandon gestured them away impatiently. This was his moment, and his alone.

Xanda paused to regain his breath and to study the triumphant figure in front of him, conscious that his brother held all the aces in this deadly card game. For a time, neither man moved. Neither man spoke. It was as if the two men were each trying to see into the other’s mind.

‘So it has come to this,’ Xanda shouted at last across the few feet which separated them, the crashes and cries of battle below drifting up and conspiring to drown his words. ‘Hate has finally destroyed my brother. But why? Why have you chosen war over peace? What,’ he went on, his voice cracking as rage overcame the calm he had temporarily managed to muster, ‘what have you done with our father?’

Now Brandon did laugh. A deep, booming, haunting laugh not of humour but of malice. Xanda stared in disgust, then took a step forward intent on ending this nightmare there and then. Brandon raised his right hand and thrust it towards Xanda as if to throw something at him. But instead of a physical object, a beam of energy lanced out and if Xanda had not foreseen the move and raised his shield he would have joined the legions of dead which already littered the castle walls. Instead, the bolt of lightning bounced from the shield and sizzled back at Brandon forcing him to duck in alarm. This did nothing to lighten his mood.

‘The time for talking has passed, brother.’ Brandon almost spat the last word out in his fury, like it was some vile disease of which he was talking rather than his own flesh and blood. ‘Your time has passed, yours and all those like you who schemed and hid from me our family legacy, our great birthright and the true power we should wield over the subjects of this land. You and my so-called father always treated me as an outsider, but now it is you who is on the outside. The power is mine and mine alone, this land belongs to me! Your life is in my hands now. Do you wish to beg for it?’

Xanda remained cowering behind the shield, aware that with this powerful weapon he could not hope to beat his brother in open combat. Common sense finally prevailed, and he knew that if he was to right this terrible wrong then he needed to save himself, to flee so that he could muster the forces he would need.

With fumbling fingers, he tugged from within his tunic a small object which hung from a chain around his neck. It was a simple golden cylinder, etched with a delicate tracery of patterns which, to those who knew the language, spelled out its secrets. With his shield hiding his movements, he grasped the talisman tightly and mentally repeated to himself the words which he had learned off by heart many years before.

Realising that Xanda was hiding something, Brandon sent another bolt of energy racing towards him, trying to find a way around or through the silvered surface of the rectangular shield. The energy reflected and smashed into the battlements, splitting the heavy rock and raining fragments down into the moat below. He had not counted on this: this shield which Xanda had always cherished had been forged in the distant past, and clearly held secrets which Brandon had not been aware of. No ordinary shield would have been able to withstand such forces.

In fury, Brandon sent blast after blast, the impacts visibly pushing Xanda back along the walkway towards the gaping hole where, until just minutes before, the tall and magnificent east tower had stood.

The effort of bracing the shield against the onslaught was immense, and with a long cry of anguish Xanda realised his time was running out. Death was almost upon him.

With a tremendous effort of will, Xanda forced himself to ignore the tumult around him and closed his eyes, ears and mind to the world. By some miracle, he managed to create the inner peace he needed and once again started to say to himself the words of the spell of Columb.

Time stood still for Xanda, but for Brandon the seconds raced by as he roared with triumph. After the tremendous efforts of the day, the huge outpouring of energy focused on his brother’s glowing shield were tiring him fast. But with one final huge effort he forced his hated brother back just a few more inches and watched, with manic fire in his eyes, as he slid over the edge of the ruined walkway and plummeted down, down, down onto the jagged remains of the tower. As he hit the rocks far below, he was lost in a cloud of dust.

Brandon’s eyes dimmed, his pounding heart throbbed in his ears and he slumped against the battlements. His victory was complete. The land of Gondwana was his.

Privacy, secrecy, and you

We’ve all heard a hell of a lot in the media recently about our sudden lack of privacy. Comedian David Mitchell suggested on “10 O’Clock Live” that the internet has basically made spying too easy: when spies had to really work hard to cover a lot of ground, we were relatively protected from being spied on through sheer numbers (assuming you, dear reader, are not a known terrorist. I’m sure you’re not). This is no longer the case, as computers can crunch an awful lot of messages awfully quickly.

It’s a fair point.

So why do we fear being spied upon by our governments (or, perhaps, “their” governments)? And what can we do to keep our communications more private?

Well, to answer the second question first I have a radical proposal: get rid of anonymity. Yes, I know everyone is going on about how we need services which protect our anonymity but, really, do we? A greater threat to our embryonic online social scene than any foreign government is people who, feeling secure in their anonymity, behave anti-socially. And we’ve seen enough examples of just how anti-social people can get on the internet to realise that the time has come to do something about it. It’s just not acceptable to allow people to be hounded on Twitter, Facebook or anyone else by hate-filled vitriol; even death threats. We can end this quite simply: by removing anonymity.

These public services are not intended to be used anonymously. Facebook’s #1 rule under Registration and Account Security is: “You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook”. Twitter’s policy is somewhat less specific, but does clearly state that: “You may not impersonate others through the Twitter service in a manner that does or is intended to mislead, confuse, or deceive others.”

The trouble is, there is no real way for Twitter, Facebook, Google or any other provider to know for sure whether you are who you say you are. You could be using a made-up persona, or you could be impersonating someone else: either way you’re able to post anonymously.

So my radical suggestion is this: that we extend the systems we already have which give people legal identity – passports, most usually – and use them as a source for online identity. So, just like if I want to sign up for online tax returns I need to prove my identity with an official source, so too should I have to do this when I sign up to Facebook, Twitter or any of the others.

There is still scope for anonymous systems, but they serve a different purpose. Try this thought experiment. If there were two versions of Twitter, identical in every way except that one allowed anonymity and the other enforced “official” identity, which would you use? The anonymous one, because you fear government snoops? Or the regulated one? I suggest that you choose the regulated one because 1) you will know that the tweet from your favourite footballer really did come from your favourite footballer; 2) you will know that your message to your favourite footballer will be going to him; 3) you will be unlikely to receive really offensive or threatening messages because nobody wants to do time in prison; 4) your favourite footballer may actually read messages you send to him, because he won’t be using the system in send-only mode (which everyone in the public eye does, currently, much of the time, in order to avoid having to read hate-filled vitriol).

The world would be a happier place all round. Let those who wish to remain anonymous remain anonymous… but on other systems.

Does this keep our conversations more private? I’d argue yes, it does. Governments would have no need to routinely monitor messages if they knew that the proper, legal avenue – a court order – would work.

How about the other question: why do we fear being spied upon by governments? My honest view? I’m really not sure that we do. But hell, it sells papers.

No, Social Media is not dead

I’ve not posted for quite a while but, like our old friend Social Media, I am not dead. Unlike Social Media, I’ve been doing other things (writing a book no less: “An Infinite Number of Monkeys: A Guide to Effective Business Communications”, http://www.mike-barnes.co.uk/monkeys; travelling around Scotland with my family on an extended break). Social Media hasn’t gone anywhere.

We get this cycle with all “next big things”: people keep saying “is Unified Communications dead”, for instance. The truth is, marketeers like grabbing hold of concepts and warping them to their own advantage – and it is marketeers who create the buzz, even now in our socially-enabled world. Because, despite the hype (ironically), most of the information we consume comes from traditional sources – although we may be accessing them in a different form. But that’s beside the point.

We’ve gone through the first few years of buzzworthiness, and Social Media is now firmly entrenched. That means that it does not so effectively differentiate products: everything even vaguely in the space has a social moniker. The marketeers, thankfully, can now move on to abuse other things.

What remains is a core of tools which have, in many ways, been around for a long time but which are made more effective by always-on networking, impressive computing power in the home, and mobile devices approaching Star Trek cool.

The basic tools, though, are really simple: text exchange, video exchange, directories, tagging, rating, following and sharing.

A social media product (I’ll drop the capital letters now, you’ll be pleased to hear) allows people to post ideas, videos or activities (I guess this is the “media” part. I’ve never really found the term very descriptive), and allows others to share them, rate them, and discuss them. And, although it’s a far cry from your old address book, in order to share there’s a directory of contacts in the background – some of them are contacts who have added themselves (your followers). Different systems present all this in different ways but the fundamentals are the same.

A few years ago, when the internet was young, I was an active member of Fidonet. Never heard of Fidonet? Fidonet consisted of private computers which dialled each other up at night in order to exchange messages which people wrote. Those computers ran Bulletin Board System (BBS) software which provided the users with their interface. They dialled up too (yes, this was all done over the normal phone network using modems). Some were messages to each other (netmail: basically email, but not quite so swift) and others were messages in forums (echomail: like Yahoo Groups but, that’s right, not so swift). If you started an echomail group (I can’t even remember the proper term for it, it’s been a long 25 years) other people could choose to read it – but only if their chosen BBS had subscribed to it.

See? Subscribing, message exchange, social interaction: that is where all this started.

Fidonet, by the way, really is dead. The internet preserves it’s state at http://www.fidonet.org/, but as far as I can see from that there’s nobody home. Nor should there be… analogue modems and dial up BBSs? This is 2013. (wikipedia seems to disagree with me: maybe the dog is just resting?).

Social media built on these early beginnings by making the atoms of information smaller: we don’t have to subscribe to a whole echomail group, or indeed to a whole RSS stream, we can subscribe to see updates of/from a specific person, product, or “thing”. It’s actually still pretty granular: I have to subscribe to all of Stephen Fry’s wittering on Twitter, or none of it – there’s nothing in Twitter’s own system which will pull out just the gems for me.

So social media isn’t a new thing, it just reached a point a few years ago where technologies were ripe and ready to provide a step-change in user experience. Social media isn’t new, but it’s changing as it’s getting better all the time… and acquiring new buzzwords as the marketeers get involved. Will we give it a different name at some point? I expect the marketeers will see to that, but even when the name is buried alongside long lamented Fidonet

So next we will be seeing new names for subtle variations on the same things. That’s OK, but just remember: social media is not dead, it’s just being absorbed into the big toolbox of spanners which collectively forms our communications toolkit.

The Christmas Mouse

Here’s a story I wrote this Christmas for my boys. I claim copyright on it, so please do not circulate it without my permission for profit or otherwise, but feel free to read it to your own kids if you like it. In fact, if you’re artistic and would like to collaborate on creating some artwork for it then please get in touch!

Read more of this post

BYOD to Save the World

The business world, at least in the IT community, is abuzz with the concept of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD). Simply put, this just means employers allowing employees to use their own IT equipment (phones, computers, tablets) for work – either instead of, or supplementary to, equipment provided by the business itself. Read more of this post

Social Updates

Folks, just a quick post to say I’m now using Google+ quite extensively as my social platform of choice. I’m a big user of Google products, and the integration into Google+ is great – plus, it’s simply a well-crafted social media application. Read more of this post

Olympic gold for telecoms?

The London 2012 Olypmics have been fantastic – and I say that as a sceptical Brit who is generally as interested in most sports as you probably are about belly-button fluff.

Aside, obviously, from the fact that Team GB trounced every country which should have beaten us on the medals table (not including the US and China who absolutely had to beat us, and maybe Russia too who had an awesome medals tally), the games have been a triumph for technology. Underpinning the skills of organisers, volunteers and athletes has been some frighteningly good use of electronics.

The pixels in the stadium wowed us, but where I’m really going with this article is the stuff many people will have taken for granted. Mobile apps, full live and recorded streaming of all the events on-line, satellite and freeview multi-channel action, tie-ins with Twitter and some very slick on-line apps to pull the whole lot together.

This is really how Unified Communications should be. Not convinced that this is Unified Communications at all? Well you should be because, whilst many people like to pigeon-hole UC into a niche of business IM/email/voicemail/voice/video, UC is all about taking multiple forms of communication and integrating them to provide a service where each technology is put in front of the user in the most appropriate fashion. The BBC did a great job of wrapping these things together in their web and TV coverage.

According to the press, Cisco provided 1,800 wireless access points, 2,220 switches, 10,000 cable TV sockets, 16,500 telephones/ IP handsets, and 65,000 active network ports. The IP handsets are the big interest for me I guess, as I had a minor role to play there, and as they were all controlled from a Cisco Hosted UC solution designed by Cisco and operated by BT I would say that this proves to the doubters that hosted UC works – even when the pressure’s on.

If it was this good in 2012, think how it may be in 2016. I can’t wait – I might even have bought a tablet by then…