Five memories of Phil

Pretty simply, I had five memories of Phil that I wanted to set down here.  They’re just small things, and beside the obvious enormous smile and constant enthusiasm, they’re the way I’ll remember Phil.

Embracing Phil

If you met him, you soon worked out that Phil really touched people – not just through his exuberance and interest in other people, but literally – he was an affectionate person and always happy to share a hug.  I am pretty much the opposite, not a warm person, and quite English and embarrassed about physical contact except with my most immediate family.   But Phil was so open – and almost impossible to embarrass – and we always had a hug when we saw each other.  It’s a small thing, but it was pure Phil, and I’ll miss that.

Working with Phil

Me and Phil made a film about a frog (“Processed“).  It was eight bloody years ago, and that time has gone fast.  It wasn’t just me and Phil, plenty of other people helped.  But it was me and Phil who got ourselves into it.  And it was probably me and Phil who found ourselves most out of our depth too.  It’s easy to remember Phil as always happy-go-lucky, always positive, always full of energy.  He was those things of course, more so than perhaps anybody else I’ve known, but for me it doesn’t do him justice to only remember him that way.  I’ve seen Phil tired, hungover, frustrated, upset, and a bit lost.  There was plenty of that during the film, which took much longer to make than we hoped, and turned out to be much harder than we thought.  We dug ourselves out and got it done though.  We didn’t win any Oscars, but we didn’t quit, we didn’t screw it up, and we did get it done.  I know there were times when Phil wanted to be somewhere else, not staring at slow renders on a sunny weekend, but he stuck with it.  Character wins out.

London and back with Phil

Some years ago I was on my way to London for the weekend.  At Temple Meads I got on the train and there was Phil in my carriage.  Ok, so this was a nice surprise, and we sat together and talked rubbish as far as Paddington, where we split up and went off to wherever we were going.  Returning to Bristol on Sunday I changed tube at Oxford Circus, and walk out the stairs to find Phil waiting on the platform.  Spooky no?  Well probably not.  Probably an almost-certainty if you’re both taking the same journey at the same time.  But we thought it was pretty odd, and when I think of Phil, I’ll remember that.

Climbing with Phil

In 2003, I lived about 5 doors along from Phil in Clifton.  I’d taken up indoor climbing and Phil wanted to have a go.  So Phil, me and another friend went down to the climbing wall in the church in St. Werburghs.  We taught Phil how to tie the rope and how to belay – climbing is in pairs, with one person climbing and the other on the ground belaying the rope, and hopefully stopping their partner from hitting the deck if they fall off the wall.  With three people, the third can keep an eye on a trainee belayer and help them out if they’re unsure.
After we’d been a few times, I thought Phil was getting on fine with the belaying, so just the two of us went down there.  I tied onto the rope, and cheerfully started climbing, assuming Phil had the belaying all under control.  Phil wasn’t quite so sure, and asked one of the staff to check if he was doing it right.  After observing his technique for a bit (and taking over the rope as Phil tried to descend me safely to the ground at the end of the climb) she concluded that perhaps we weren’t quite ready for rope climbing, and that maybe we should have a cup of tea and try some bouldering instead (no ropes required).
So perhaps Phil wasn’t always the most co-ordinated in his movements.  But he had the sense (and lack of embarrassment) to ask for help, where someone else might have just dropped me on my silly head.  Me and Phil thought this escapade was pretty funny, which is hard to convey here, but it’s something I won’t forget.

Trading train and lego pictures with Phil

Phil and I didn’t see so much of each other in the last few years.  Houses, work, kids, life.  That I’ll regret.  But me and Phil like trains and Lego and machines and stuff.  Not everyone does, but we do.  So every so often out of the blue one of us would send the other an epic train picture, or a video of an insane Lego creation, or some giant piece of machinery.  I’ve put the best ones here, because Phil liked them, and I liked Phil, and that’s about the size of it all.  I’ll sorely miss him.

Closeup 500fps saturn 5 rocket engines at full pelt… Stick it on full screen and enjoy! 
killer, have been wetting myself all day to these…
You are gonna cream your Lego pants!
the drive wheels are 1.7 metres diameter!!!!!  Nuts.

Looking for #python #plone #pyramid devs, won’t suck

Looking for devs, we’re in UK, AU, but we’ll work with anyone English speaking anywhere.

Working with us doesn’t suck. Really.

Essential tools of my job these days

dashboard by Andy Facts
dashboard, a photo by Andy Facts on Flickr.

How much, are they awake? :)Also

Bookend: sunset in #SiliconGorge

Nice morning in #SiliconGorge

Nice morning in #SiliconGorge, a set on Flickr.

Some not-that-good pictures of Bristol in beautiful sun

Parenting is near-terrifying, so get on with it

Having a child is an awesome responsibility, and I mean awesome in the purer sense of the word: inducing awe, one step from terrifying.

And then you just kind of get on with it. Because although I have to somehow guide my child through a world of riots and swine flu and cyber-bullying and climate change (my how that’s fallen off the agenda recently) and economic woes and terrorism and a terrible show on CBeebies called ‘Me Too’, my parents had to raise me with the 4 minute warning, AIDS, IRA terrorism, economic woes, oil shocks, acid rain, real-world-bullying, 25% male unemployment, the highest per-capita murder rate in the UK, and no fricking TV in the house. And as people they’re no less anxious or concerned than me, and they lacked some of the access to ideas and support and networks and things to fall back on that I have. And here I am. So here’s to getting on with it.

Me, at an earlier age, getting on with stuff

1979 02And ColchesterPUB H

“In The Night Garden is a singular vision”, Picasso and other thoughts about making stuff

So this is one of those posts that starts ‘as the parent of a young child…’ But we’ll end that; there are better mummy and daddy blogs elsewhere.

Meanwhile, I often find myself watching In the Night Garden while the child has roamed off in search of danger elsewhere, and in an n-screen world, I like to visit Wikipedia for a bit of background on what I’m watching. It was fun to learn that “Andrew Davenport created, wrote, and composed the title theme and incidental music for all 100 episodes.”

I like artefacts that proceed from a singular vision. When it comes to making something beautiful and coherent, a single mind can produce unity in a way that multiple authors can’t – whether it’s a children’s TV series, a piece of software, a painting, or a nice mug. Single-mindedness is highly effective. But is it the only way to get stuff done? Of course not.

In my experience, beauty and coherence are partly the result of inspiration, and mostly the result of editing (originality is valued at a premium that it doesn’t deserve).

A single mind can obsess productively over a problem, sifting relevant and irrelevant ideas and facts.

For a (possibly) unexpected insight into this, check out Poincarre on Science and Method. Henri Poincarre was a polymath who excelled in maths, engineering, theoretical physics and philosophy.

Poincarre describes a process of scientific discovery which is much less sterile, and much more human than the white-coat image of science that might be commonly perceived. It boils down to: fill your brain with facts and theories; then have a shower.

So it’s best if one person makes something alone?

A singular vision can provide coherence and unity. But collaboration is powerful.

Taking responsibility for providing a singular vision doesn’t mean retiring to a garret and toiling alone. Putting production aside – for producing an artefact may obviously be collaborative – the author of a single vision doesn’t work in isolation, but in an environment of others. Whether that’s W Somerset Maugham who relied on Gerald Haxton to obtain many of his stories, or Alfred Hitchcock’s trust in his wife as an editor and sense-check. This much is obvious, although the myth of the solitary creator is strong and oft-perpetuated.

But so much for environment, what about working in teams?
I think for functional items like software, or a toaster, it’s possible for team members to make extensive design choices with a coherent, usable result without one person supplying a singular vision. I’ve seen this in open source projects, in designing office layouts, in organising an event. I’m sure toasters and cars get designed this way often. I’m not convinced it produces beauty, but it can be Good Enough, especially where large parts of the problem can be solved by applying known patterns.

Other methods

  • Design by committee. A process for producing an apparently singular vision, but with all the beauty drained away. A process where nobody is responsible for the vision.
  • Small group, single composite vision. Pairs, triples, quads of people who instigate and edit ideas to produce a coherent single result. Scriptwriters often work this way. I enjoy working this way, because with the right people it’s fun. Working in a pair works best for me; with more the communication overhead increases, you get factionalism, you have to observe more social graces when telling one person their idea sucks etc.

Where does Picasso fit in?
The quotes “bad artists copy, good artists steal” or “talent imitates, genius steals” are attributed to Picasso, although they may be inventions or misquotes (no-one appears to be able to source them definitively).

We don’t need to be sure it was Picasso; I like the idea of recognising that a singular vision is built on the work of others, and relies a great deal on accident; originality is over-rated. Choosing what to include and what to discard is significant. But enough on that. Picasso is much wittier than me, go read some quotes.

Ochlocracy, moral scruples + liberals + other crap inspired by #ukriots, phone hacking and feral politicians

Riots are stimulating. I wanted to write a nice set-the-world-to-rights post about them. Bollocks to that, I don’t have the answers. Here’s some links and rants and stuff instead.

WTF is Ochlocracy?

Ochlocracy or mob rule is government by mob or a mass of people, or the intimidation of legitimate authorities” (Wikipedia). Concept is familar, the Greek / Latin term is not. I must have skipped that politics lecture. Found via an interesting Economist article about riot control gear.

Was this Ochlocracy. Didn’t look much like it. In Mumbai, home of many a mob, you can feel it on every street, latent, waiting to catalyse around some outrage: a traffic accident, a politician who doesn’t pay for votes purchased, an unpopular boss, a religious infraction, a fight between brothers. In Mumbai, if anything, it’s the relative rarity of mobs, rioting and looting that provides the surprise (as far as I can see, they’re only daily or so). But I digress.

Hello liberals (1)?

Peter Oborne of the Telegraph wrote a blindingly good piece: moral decay is as bad at the top of our society as at the bottom. Cue epic amount of retweeting by all kinds of people surprised to find themselves in agreement with the Telegraph (I’m one, Stephen Fry was another). To use an old quote, even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day. Was the Oborne piece similar to this satirical piece by Nathaniel Tapley? Perhaps. Hmm. Good article anyway.

So that was then followed by gleeful tweets along lines of ‘liberals find themselves right wing’ and ‘telegraph moving left’. And this tribal, ideological idiocy irritates me; I wish we could put the ideology back in the box and keep the tribalism out of it, but I’m probably just an aging hippy (my relatively high mach score and pragmatic realism are surely just cheerful personality quirks). (Want a mach score test? Here’s one)

Anyway, having pissing contests over left and right may be a tad silly. Of course it might make total sense to organise all of our political views into left and right because the UK Houses of Parliament happen to have benches on the left side and the right side. A side-effect of interior design is no doubt a great way to figure out how to create a decent society that can overcome problems and threats in society, our environment and our economy.

Or – if we have to have labels (and some of us seem to like them, me as much as anyone) – we could try something a little more sophisticated. Nothing scary, just a square not a line. If you’ve seen Playschool you won’t be freaked out by a square. Have a go for yourself at the venerable Political Compass site. For the record, here’s mine.

Hello liberals (2)?

This I don’t have an answer to: few of us are angels. We may not be looting, or misunderstanding what we’re allowed to claim for as an MP, or conveniently forgetting the law about phone hacking. But we drive too fast, and ‘mis-file’ our own expenses and ‘borrow’ office stamps and copy music we don’t own, and jump red lights on our bikes and do or have done naughty pharmaceuticals. All of which is illegal. Morality aside (and the legitimacy of these laws aside), this stuff is illegal. Serious offences? Individually, no; but added up, it makes ignoring law commonplace. Is it toxic? Maybe. Dunno. Are we all going to stop it? Not convinced. Is a moral crusade in the air?

Moral crusade-schusade. Too many tweets like: ‘omg, now they’re hitting independent shops.’ Yeah right. Hello nice middle classes, you find it rather exciting to see chain stores you don’t approve of blazing, but you’d be truly outraged if they hit that lovely cafe or that place where you bought that darling summer dress? Oh yeah, and the Apple store. Really, omg, don’t hit the Apple store. Hmm. Bring on the moral crusade. And the army, because that always goes well .

So that bit has me all confused. Meanwhile nobody dares tell off kids who are throwing sand at other kids in our lovely twee local park full of nice professional people. And somehow that’s at once a ridiculous thing to be concerned about, and at the same time it’s all connected.

So I only had this conclusion, and it’s an old one. If liberalism is individual freedom, then it needs robust defence. Freedom demands being protected from harm caused by others. And I’d prefer like…law and stuff, because I don’t fancy the route where we all have to stockpile guns and ammo. Suspect I’m not a great shot.

And finally

Some stuff in other places:
Rioting is a disease spread from person to person (interesting application of epidemiology).
Riots, game theory and empathy. Something I wrote on the Team Rubber blog, half-a-thought I couldn’t develop further.
#ukriots – not a soapbox, but some insights + some interesting positives – a piece I wrote on the Delib blog, basically ‘Twitter + the riots’.

Also – because words are easily misinterpreted: I am a liberal. That’s liberal with a small l.

“Stop gawping at riots and rejoin the tour…” <- or "how to prop up capitalism by selling more open source software" :o

I’ve spent the last couple of days with half my brain following riot news (and far too often, riot conjecture) on Twitter. That’s probably best described as ‘stimulating’: a good roller-coaster ride of dopamine and adrenaline and whatever chemical causes ‘lol’.

Today it was time to stop fooling around and do something ‘satisfying’. Jess and I have been improving the product site for our Citizen Space open source consultation software, which is used by government and public bodies for managing public consultation and engagement (a riot is probably also an open source form of public engagement, but probably isn’t GPL compatible).

We’ve shipped a much-upgraded feature tour (not 100% finished yet, but much better than the single page we used to have). We’ve also tidied up the format of our tips & tricks blog in small but significant ways, sorted out the layout of the case study page, and cleaned up a few other loose ends.

We also included a nice error page for 404s and other troubles. That won’t help us sell more stuff, but handling failure gracefully is a classy thing to do. We could do a lot more, but there wasn’t time for that today. We should probably include an email address, although I did include a link to Delib’s Twitter, which is a pattern I like for handling failure as it’s decoupled entirely from any issues with our domain or hosting providers.

And that’s kind of done – for now. 🙂