All change

All change…

For the past decade, my wife and I have been very busy, and constantly shifting. I emigrated, and started university. We were learning how to live together and be a couple, and survive Central London.

We did a lot of moving. University ended, jobs started. Jobs changed. Jobs ended. Minuscule flat in Kings Cross to run-down outskirts of Hatfield, to the friendly Herts village of Markyate, to the incredibly beautiful brace of houses in Ludlow. Then Northampton, then Yorkshire…

We both want to find a rhythm which works for us, and to have a place to feel is a base on which to begin adventures – to be less itinerant.

It seems that 2013 is not going to be that year.

Kickstarting Home Espresso: ZPM Nocturn

Update

ZPM’s espresso machine Kickstarter project failed to produce the machine.

What follows is the original interview, published back in March, 2013:


ZPM Espresso Nocturn MachineZPM‘s Gleb Polyakov and Igor Zamlinsky introduced me to Kickstarter through their Nocturn espresso machine. I’m geeky enough to know what a PID controller is, and why that’s something £5k+ professional machines tend to have under their shiny bonnets. When a friend sent me a link to their Kickstarter project, I quickly joined the—now immense—throng of backers. Following their webby approach to design and engagement, their startup-mentality, and the ultimate goal of bring professional-grade espresso home, the Nocturn sits soundly on the girders of my writing interests.

The ZPM team were happy to answer some questions I had for them, and ended up telling me a very compelling story, which I’d like to share with you.

1. I understand the Nocturn to be distinctly different from most other home espresso machines. Where do these differences lie, and what makes these important?

It’s first important to know that there’s been very little advancement in the way of manual and semi-automatic espresso machines—especially in home machines—since the first pump-driven E61 machine was introduced in 1961. Huge commercial machines have been refined to provide more temperature stability and pressure consistency, but home machines never really caught up despite a growing community of at-home espresso lovers and increases in our knowledge of what you need to make good espresso.

Even without major modifications in design, home machines that make solid espresso are really expensive. And that’s what really got us thinking about the problem. We were college students; we loved espresso; but we couldn’t afford a $1000+ home machine that would make truly good, reliable espresso. We could, however, buy a bunch of (very) used espresso machines off of Craigslist, tear them apart, see what made them tick, then Frankenstein them back together to try to make one that worked better. It started to look like we could do a better job for less.

We approached it as an engineering problem, not a coffee problem. What do you need to make great espresso? Tightly regulated temperature and pressure. Well, gee, we could do that.

The major innovations were replacing the mechanical controls typically used with digital controls, and controlling everything digitally with a native PID control loop. Once you had that in place, you didn’t need to rely on a huge hunk of expensive metal for your thermal stability, you could use a much less expensive aluminum thermoblock, and it would actually perform better because you could implement controlled temperature changes over the course of a shot, and your brew water volume wasn’t limited to the preheated boiler water.

In the past, thermoblocks have been the mark of a cheap machine, but by redesigning the block to improve its thermal properties, and improving the control mechanism, we’ve been able to make our block outperform home boiler machines. We’ve also implemented a pump control mechanism that provides the first-ever pressure control system in a home machine, which contributes to the shot repeatability.

Espresso is a game of controlling and manipulating variables, and we’ve just done that better than anyone else in our price range.

2. With all of these differences, for what kinds of home brewers is the Nocturn designed?

IMG_9612We’d like to think it’s designed for everyone. Our goal was to make a machine that produces truly exceptional espresso—the kind you get with thousands of dollars of investment in a home brew setup—and make it at a price point that is as attractive as possible.

We also know that espresso can be kind of intimidating to a lot of people. We hated the idea that people might be put off getting into the whole culture of making and exploring espresso because they were scared of messing up or didn’t want to invest in an expensive setup only to find that it wasn’t for them.

One of the core guiding requirements of the design has been that you have to be able to unpack it from the box, turn it on, press one button and make some decent coffee.

The addition of a full-color LCD and intuitive GUI also enables users to easily adjust temperature and pressure settings which, historically could require breaking open the machine and manipulating a mechanical check valve to change pressure! The screen was a response to the fact that we had a ton of backers who were choosing the Nocturn to be their very first home machine. We wanted to do our best to combine ease-of-use with complex features—after all, we didn’t make all of this variable control so people could just pull shots at 95˚C and 9 Bar for the rest of their lives!

Ideally, our machine is straightforward enough for the beginner, but offers the complex features that will allow an expert home barista to play around with. So many other machines in this price point are meant to be ‘starter’ machines, with the expectation that you’ll eventually want to upgrade to something more expensive. We think this machine has everything you need to fully explore your coffee. At the same time, it’s a great learning tool because of the consistency—it’s very hard to improve your technique when you have no idea whether the problem is you or the machine.

3. So, tell me about Kickstarter: what lead you to decide on funding the Nocturn’s development through online startup backing?

It was mostly serendipity. We were getting to a point where we thought we had a design that could really change the market, but it was starting to cost too much for us to keep pursuing on our own without knowing whether anyone else shared our interest.

Kickstarter was kind of ideal for us in that the all-or-nothing funding model provided the proving ground we needed. We knew how much capital we needed to do a very small beta run of hand-built machines based on our core design. Either we’d make that amount and move forward, or we wouldn’t and we could stop wasting our time.

We weren’t originally expecting to raise anywhere near what our funding total ended up being. The original expectations was just that we’d be able to fund a lease on the necessary equipment.

4. How have you found the process of funding and developing in full view of your potential market?

I think the most interesting thing has been the way that crowdfunding throws the typical product development process on its head. Normally you have to do rounds of funding, build a company, do tons of marketing, and build an ad campaign before you introduce yourself to your market. That process has a certain structure and familiarity to it, but it also has a pretty high entry barrier for teams like ours—and others who turn to crowdfunding.

That said, the price you pay is this: rather than experiencing all the growing pains of a project like this behind closed doors, you’re all of a sudden accountable to a big group of people who’ve backed you and are now expecting delivery. Recently there have been a bunch of stories relating to how this stress is starting to get to a handful of project creators who had wildly successful projects, but found themselves struggling with different aspects of their projects—not just with completion, but with the emotional stress that a big group of angry backers can apply. Normally you have a customer service buffer between the engineer or artist who created something and the customers that might complain about it. With Kickstarter, because the teams are usually just a few people, all of that internet trollery can really start to wear on you, especially when you’re already losing sleep over a project that you’ve put your heart and soul into.

I think that, a year ago when we started the project, Kickstarter was blowing up and everyone was having the problem of ensuring that people understood the “Kickstarter is not a store” idea, which created a lot of anger on the part of confused backers, and stress for the creators of really popular projects.

We’ve been really lucky to have a group of backers who have been exceptionally supportive and patient throughout the whole process. We’ve done our very best to be completely transparent whenever we experience setbacks, both in our updates and in individual correspondence (as anyone who has dared to send us an email probably knows, I can be obnoxiously verbose). We’ve tried to get backers in on the incredibly complex process of manufacturing a consumer product, and we think that’s part of the fun of backing projects – what challenges will you face, and how will you overcome them?

Hopefully the result is that people feel an emotional connection to the product they helped create, and walk away with a better understanding of how this type of thing gets made.

5. Have you any advice for other startups?

Ha! Celebrate the little victories. Our problem (and I think a common one) has been that we’ve had a lot of setbacks, and they can start to make you feel so down that you forget why you set out on this crazy adventure in the first place.

We have a working machine now. It still has some kinks to be worked out, but we made cappuccinos this morning. That’s exciting!

Some advice we got after we’d already been funded: “Take the timeline that your engineer gives you and triple it.” We thought, “Not us, not our engineer…” We all know how that turned out.

No matter the project, take your timeline and triple it.

6. Back to coffee, what was the last coffee you brewed at home?

Since we just took a trip to Batdorf & Bronson to do a machine demo, we’re loaded up on their beans right now. I think this morning we brewed the B&B Dancing Goats.

7. OK, tell me: how good is the coffee from the Nocturn? Be honest…

When we demoed the machine at Batdorf the other day, the response we were getting was that the shots we were getting where on par with their PID’d La Marzocco Linea (a $12,000 commercial machine), and that it was hands-down the best home machine they’d ever used. And this coming from people who know their stuff when it comes to coffee.

8. Finally, have you any new projects on the horizon for ZPM?

We’ve got a few ideas in mind. Our machine offers significantly more value than anything on the market with the same quality and features, but we’d like to work on another model that’s even more affordable – by making some key design modifications (like replacing the steel shell with plastic and eliminating the screen) – basically taking away anything that’s not directly involved in making great espresso. The accessibility of great espresso is a really important part of this project to us, and we think we can still push further on that front.

We’re also working on a model that can do simultaneous steam and brew—as that’s probably the most common request we’ve gotten since the campaign.

We’ve also got a dozen ideas for little coffee-related gadgets that need to be worked through.

ZPM LogoIf you would like to follow-up on this interview, you can comment below, or drop ZPM a line on: info@zpmespresso.com.

Images used with kind permission of ZPM Espresso who retain all rights to the images which are not licensed for redistribution.

Cycling: I cannot know your context

photo of the hills fit for cycling
The perfect place for cycling

It is cold.

I have just decided to carry on, trying to ignore the tightness in my chest, and the retching tickle at the back of my throat that says one thing: “Cough!”

My ears are already tingling.

“We are the Hellequin,” I pick up the dialogue from a new audiobook. It had faded as I climbed the first hill on my cycle route, which gets steeper toward the top in reality and imagination; and I began to question whether I can make it. I have been trying to count the number of times I had climbed this hill, and I picture the road at the top to prove that I had indeed been up here on two wheels before.

My nose is already running.

Today, the hill is steeper in imagination, and my breath is shorter than normal. It’s the first day in a week I have been well enough to do any exercise, thanks to a seasonal cold.

HEY!

A loud noise: a car’s horn

FAT!…

cough

STRAIGHT!

cough

SHIT!

cough

A light colour flies past my right hand—the bonnet of a car within a foot of my front wheel.

STRAIGHT

cough

A laughing face and a waving fist.

… straight.

cough

I hear the horn again, and realise it’s a Ford Ka: full of lads’ faces and Adidas jackets. Then I’m in paroxysms as I kind of start to work out that it’s bloody amazing I haven’t fallen off. I stop pedalling, ditch the bike and cough until I retch for a bit.

I can’t decide whether I’d shouted the word straight aloud, or if it was just the only thought in my head. I’m pretty sure I cried: “Shit!”

So, here I am: snot and shakes at the side of the road, and I’m wondering if I should walk my bike back, or just leave the bastard there.

It’s fine.

The bike’s fine.

I’m fine.

I’m not coughing, but I’m angry. I’m furious. Now I do shout, unquestioningly, a word I can’t type.

Do you have any idea what you just did, you Ka-ful of little shits?

Have you got any thought in the direction of just how dangerous this was, or what it means to me as I am right now?

Sure, I’ve got a cold, and I’m coughing like a man drowning in porridge. Sure, I’m on the side of the road dripping snot and cold sweat, and I’m angry that the only word I could discern from your barrage was: fat.

No.

They couldn’t know. They couldn’t guess, and I doubt they thought much before pulling that incomprehensibly dangerous stunt.

They couldn’t have known that cycling is desperately important to me, mainly because of that spat-out word: fat. They couldn’t know the feeling I get from sputtering to the top of that first of several hills, how freeing it is for me. They couldn’t have a bastard clue that I can only cycle thanks to the 4 discs destroyed in my spine. I cannot walk like I want to, I cannot play sport, I cannot jog or easily lift weights.

They couldn’t know I’m terrified of cycling.

They couldn’t know that last year, cycling took 2 days out of my memory forever. They can’t know that I’m scared whenever I get on the bloody bike. Yet, I love the feeling of doing something physical, and get to feel somewhat normal—even powerful as I pedal my gigantic carcass up steep, Dale hills.

Cycling took six weeks out of the most important and inspiring work I’ve been able to do, and kept me from supporting my colleagues at a time when every hour counted; and I regret that now that our startup has fallen-over and my friends are no longer colleagues. Cycling gave me a stammer, when my job is to communicate, and I can’t help but love getting back up on 2 wheels when the only way to balance is to go faster.

That stupid moment will be forgotten already. A quick laugh, maybe a hint of regret in one of their memories. Maybe not.

No, they can’t know my context, and I can’t stay as angry as I am.

They didn’t know, and that somehow helps.

You can’t know someone’s back story when you do something to them, and they couldn’t possibly know that balancing on two wheels is one of the most important things in my life right now.

No, I have to finish the route.

So I do, and I feel free again.

If anything, I feel freer of phlegm.

Nodmag

Every aspect of society and economy that has been touched by the Web has been changed radically. Even the way we interact socially is very different to 15 years ago. … These changes are being brought about by the Web’s ability to link documents together into a single information space. The Semantic Web extends this to link anything and as such the potential for radical change in our society is vast.

Ian Davis—Nodalities 2nd Ed

Every week, I used to receive a few emails along these lines:

Subject: Nodalities, I hope this is OK?

Hi Zach, I’ve attached my story for Nodalities, and would like to know what you think?

Best Regards,

Someone Awesome

For three years, I had the chance to read the stories of many of the Semantic Web’s most exciting developers before anyone else. I was allowed to tell them that I really enjoyed their story—and ask if we could cut it down from 5,000 words to a bit more like 1,000; you know, if you don’t mind?

Then, I would pull together a generous handful of these stories every couple months and ask our designers to put them between the thick, matte paper covers of what everyone in the office called Nodmag.

The magazine’s aim was to be the Semantic Web’s first regular industry publication. We were building a platform for sharing Linked Data and wanted to share news from across the whole industry. I had somehow ended up appearing in Nodalities’ second edition as a co-author with Ian Davis, discussing the Semantic Web as a blue-ocean opportunity.

Before the third issue, my colleague Paul Miller handed me the reigns, and I learned a hell of a lot in those first few months. I enjoyed asking people if they’d ever considered writing up their project in an article-like piece of prose. This in itself taught me much about collaborative projects, to see how many people were willing to put in extra time to write about their passion and share their skill. It also introduced me to some of the most articulate technologists, who often crystallised abstract and often staggeringly complicated ideas into a form anyone interested in the Web could appreciate.

Editing itself is something I found profoundly enjoyable, and I miss the chance to see the first version of an article, and to work through fixing punctuation and nudging syntax without altering the meaning – adding my own semantic layer to the semantic web. The most rewarding element was working with semantic web people who didn’t realize they could tell their story. With just a few nudges and hints, their enthusiasm won, and overpowered some restraints of self-conscious writing.

semantic web editors notesI absorbed a lot of information about linking data and applying web technologies, and watched the story unfold from a slightly removed position. Our first articles, for example, tended to look forward—expecting proof-of-concepts and apps in-the-wild.

Over time, the stories began to sound different in tone as they slowly shifted from expectation to sharing progress and discussing work underway. We also saw meticulous research from universities and science institutes. Although being a scholarly journal was beyond the general remit, many academics shared their findings with Nodalities’ audience, kindly writing at a level even I could understand.

At the beginning of 2011—amid some big changes at Talis—I took up the place as community manager in the data marketplace, Kasabi. As a startup, Kasabi really demanded full attention, and I could no longer commit to running the magazine. Also, despite doing the publishing several years, we had never pretended to be a proper publisher, and I had sincerely hoped Nodalities would be superseded by journalists whose coverage of our emerging industry should fare better than one blogging/community chap at a software company could do. So, I put together the last editor’s notes to appear next to a truly terrible portrait for the final issue in late spring, 2011.

I met incredibly interesting people, and editing is something I very much hope to have the chance to do again someday. I feel honoured to have been first to read these stories, and hope any influence I may have had didn’t get in the way of the developers’ voices.

Last week, following Talis’ major shift of direction, I felt nostalgic, and wanted to pour over some of the older copies of Nodmag. Alas, I found them missing. I’ve since heard that there are some plans to archive the site, and to have a home for the magazine somewhere, but in the meantime the back issues of Nodalities are available on github: github.com/beauvais/nodalities.

EDIT: Final Editor’s Notes


Nodalities has, for three years, told stories from around the ever-expanding sphere of Linked Data. As Editor, I have had the privilege of helping to tell those stories, to meet so many interesting people, and take part in the growth of the Linked Data community.

This will be Nodalities’ final edition.

At Talis, we have never been a media or publishing company–we build data platforms and applications–but Nodalities was created to help our community grow and give a voice to those joining and building with us. The magazine has fulfilled it’s purpose, and I am very happy for other media now to take responsibility for telling its stories.

As a final issue, I do not want to look back for context, but forward to new and emerging developments on the Web of Data. So, I have the added privilege of presenting a collection of stories with an emphasis on starting up for the final time.

If you would like to get in touch about any of these stories, or would like to catch up with me about what Talis is working on next, please feel free to contact me on zb@talis.com

Best,

Zach Beauvais

How do you begin a piece like this?

Does it start with: “It is time to move on…”?

Should I begin biographically, and tell a story, ending with: “and now, I’m on to something new,”?

When I met Talis towards the end of 2007, I knew very little about the web, but suffered from a problem of perspective and believed I knew quite a bit.

I had just finished my first post-university job in online marketing, project-managing some pretty big site constructions and ticking lots of boxes for “new media”. I became the webby chap for a non-webby company because my degree in linguistics didn’t finish with any direction towards a career without paying more to do MA’s and certificates, or travel abroad teaching English. I focused on semantics, and found myself applying for marketing jobs in order to pay the rent. And I knew about the web.

When I was 12ish, I played around with the web a lot, using excellent tools like Netscape Composer to learn HTML and masterfully arrange content across table cells. I have a proper geek dad, who has written millions of lines of code in over a dozen languages, so some of that must have put me into a position of thinking I understood the web better than my friends (who didn’t tend to use it at all then.) I grew from that to bothering my friends about proper standards and browsers, then secretly installing Firefox on their computers.

I was kind of trying to merge the two ideas of semantics and the web into something I could wrap my head around, and started writing about some webby trends. After a few posts to ZDNet’s Web 2.0 Explorer blog, I started writing a few pieces for ReadWriteWeb, and they asked me to profile a company down the road from me called Talis. I enjoyed our introduction, and asked if I could do anything for Talis, seeing that we were virtually neighbours and we both liked semantics.

For the next 4 years, I had my perspective realigned. I quickly realised that I knew nothing whatsoever about the web. After a few months, I started to learn that I knew very little about many things. But, conversations with insightfully intelligent people made this transition exciting instead of shattering. It’s hard to say – without sounding well up oneself – something about learning helping you understand that you know less than you thought you did: insert something attributed to Socrates.

But hearing about the web from Talisians like Ian Davis, Tom Heath and Rob Styles (to name three who put up with me a lot for several years) is a good way to learn. Through Nodalities, I learned from an even wider circle of clever people, pulled together through Talis’ industry support and open nature.

Talis has been a good friend of mine, and has taught me much about the web, and left me with a much better perspective. I know – now – that I know very little about the web, technology and semantics. But I do realise that I’m better at leaning, and have had my head expanded by kind and interesting people.

Tomorrow, I will be saying farewell to my friend Talis, and will promise to keep in touch and send postcards as I move up North to Yorkshire and start living and working somewhere new.

Why not utilise use?

Choosing a word with extra syllables seems like a kind of one-upmanship over drab, simpler words like: use; and do. Is this a form of snobbery even more unbecoming than non-standard, corporate English?

Such marked words display a kind of vanity that doesn’t add much value. Let’s look at utilise. Taking the definitions from Wictionery:

Verb

utilise (third-person singular simple present > utilises, present participle utilising, simple past and past participle utilised)

To make useful, to find a practical use for.

To make use of; to use.

To make best use of; to use to its fullest extent, potential, or ability.

To make do with; to use in manner different from that originally intended

Each definition here makes use of a particularly useful word in defining utilise: use.

No matter which way you look at it, utilising something means using it. So, in what way is it more preferable to utilise something, than to use it?

Utilise does bring to mind more than just “use,” but does it improve the meaning being conveyed? I think the extra little syllables draw attention to the word itself: highlighting it within your other words. I am surely guilty of choosing gilt words which draw the mind to them, but I do hope they at least make sense on their pedestals. Does it make sense to highlight the word “use” in a sentence?

“Our service utilises this new technology!”

Wouldn’t it usually be more appropriate to draw attention either to your service, or to its new technological wizardry?

A simpler, bolder:

“We use this new technology”

seems to emphasise the active nature of the statement by making the agent personal (we instead of our service), and naturally points toward the new technology.

I suppose utilising feels less active than using. If I use a stick to bash your car, the emphasis is on me, and my action of bashing with a stick. If I were to utilise a stick, it feels like I had less choice in the matter of bashing your car, and more in choosing my implement. It’s along a similar vein to choosing the passive over the active voice: your car was bashed, and I’m too ashamed to admit to being the basher.

Leverage and action follow utilise. Attacking the verb leverage has added pedantry points because that final bit at the end (the morpheme “-age”) changes a verb into a noun in English. For example, I might spill this beer and create spillage, I have never yet spillaged anything. I will leave leverage here, but you can read more about it in Gabriel Smy’s “Are you stupid enough to use leverage as a verb?”

To action something, makes my mind contort into funny shapes trying to follow the logic. It follows utilise in its attention-seeking added emphasis, but it also feels like a completely wrong-fit for any sentence. Here’s how it goes for me:

Generally, language works in terms of agents, actions and objects. “I do a task” is a simple sentence in which I’m the thing performing an action on an object. Using the word “action” (which is a noun meaning “to act”), makes me wonder exactly how I’m supposed to act out the action of actioning something. If it’s a task, I could perform other actions on it (complete, delegate, begin, ignore…), but what action does “to action” imply? I’d rather just do tasks and save the mental gymnastics of attempting actively to undertake an action by actioning them. I’m sure someone better at logical reasoning than I could find a way around it, but they won’t alleviate the headache.

There is more “corporate jargon” out there (misuse of reflexive pronouns, “going forward”, “solutions”… ad nauseam), and no doubt other writers are actioning a list of words to attack, leveraging additional words and utilising blogs, tweets, and postings, so what is one more?

Well, I hope it’s shown that there are real reasons for some of us not liking the words some others choose, and to poke around a tiny bit into the details. An entire book could be written on this, and I’m sure it could be done without being bullying or entirely pedantic, but I’ve got to go now and find something to mop up the beer I just spillaged.

Spite and Malice

“She’ll sit on you!” my mother said as I tried to play when I should have been quiet.

“Huh? Why will she sit on me?” i asked, confused.

“Because that’s what Gi-gi does. She’ll sit on you if you’re bad!” she said ever so seriously.

Gi-gi, my great-grandmother was out in Colorado to visit along with Bud, my great-grandad. I remember being very young, and unsure about Gi-gi. I was worried that she’d end up sitting on me if I wasn’t behaving properly. But it didn’t take me long to find out that Gi-gi was one of the coolest people ever. She and Bud told me all about West Virginia, and how nice it was back there. She’d take me for a walk and read me books, and tell me stories. She’d set me something to do while she prepared lunch, and would make an incredibly tasty salad.

“Now, go warsh your hands!” She’d say, not letting us sit down until we worked out what warshing meant.

As I grew up, I spent bits and pieces of time with Bud and Gi-gi. A couple times, we drove the 1,500 miles to West Virginia to visit them. Things grew in West Virginia, everything was green and hilly. I remember it being stunning and experiencing rain that we could play in—Colorado’s skies only rain violently and would certainly fry you with lightning if you don’t run for cover, we believed.

I learned all about their story, and Gi-gi was incredibly good at stories. I wondered why everyone called her Gi-gi, from her neighbours and family to her postman. She was quick-witted and fun, and managed to be humorous when I was a 7-year old, and still as funny when I was 13, and just as fast and funny when I visited the summer I was 25.

It was sad when we saw her for our second trip to West Virginia back in the late 90s, because she’d lost Bud to dementia. But it was nice to be moving her out to Colorado so she could spend time with us. I luckily spent my teenage years with my great-grandmother close by. I was always impressed with her wit. She’d double-majored in university back in the late 30’s, and ended up working as a chemist. She was keen on sports, too, following baseball and cheering the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Her move out to our home state was a powerful blessing. Instead of short visits with years between, I could see my Gi-gi weekly. I could enjoy the “everything” salad with dinner and funny, clever stories whenever I liked. We could play a continuous game of “Spite and Malace,” which was supposed to last 500 hands. We lost count. She was winning, I’m sure.

Unfortunately, the blessing was harder for Gi-gi. She loved spending time with us, but was no longer a pillar of the town she’d spent so many decades propping up. She wasn’t familiar with the Colorado desert, and tended to stay at home at her and her daughter’s house. She devoured books, and worked her way through hundreds of spy novels and stories. She also cooked and warshed and had always kept an incredibly tidy house. So she filled her days, but seemed to be getting tired. Her husband had gone long before her, and the remaining time was partly bittersweet.

It has taken me a long time to post this, and I feel sad that it has. It’s been about a year since Gi-gi’s time in Colorado also came to an end. This time, she won’t be coming back to visit. Before she left, she got to meet her great, great granddaughters, which is an impressive thing to consider. I am still stunned that she is no longer there to learn from, and I miss the opportunity to hear more of her long life’s stories. I’ll never hear her cheers as a Pittsburg Pirate scores a run, nor her exclamation: “oh Shoot!” as she discards the wrong one—though I cannot deny my elation at what must be a rare opportunity to score. I remember her spite and malice, and her understanding. I cherish her wit, and miss her a lot. But I am happy that her bittersweet time away from her husband has finished, and wish everyone who met her peace knowing that she was incredible.

Mozilla Festival: Media, Freedom, and the Web

Mozilla FestivalOriginally appeared on Kasabi’s Blog:

This last weekend, I found myself wearing a lab coat, meeting people working on some of the most interesting projects on the web, while in the queue to an entirely free espresso bar. And, I kept seeing human-sized foxes walking about and dancing. I was fairly sure I needed to wake up.

In fact, I was at this year’s Mozilla Festival, so all the interesting people I was meeting were gathering in London to hack and learn. The lab coat was because Chris and I from Team Kasabi were “Human APIs” at the event, and Kasabi was involved and partnered with the Mozilla Foundation. The espresso? That was because the event organisers were saints, and I’m still not sure about the giant foxes…

The themes broadly covered data-driven journalism, education, and multi-media web tools; and the Mozilla Festival was organised into learning/sharing sessions and design challenges. In the lab coat, Chris and I were able to dip in and out of many different sessions, and try and help people with any questions they have. As a result, I got to see people hacking the news, writing a data guide for journalists, and playing with an eight-bladed helecoptor-camera with Popcorn.js (I hereby coin the word: octopoptocoptor).

The hacks and learning/teaching sessions covered a lot of ground, and touched on many aspects of using the web to further society, tell stories, and uncover the truth in journalism. Data played a central role in this, especially around data journalism, and it’s a topic that needs even more coverage over the next year, I think. Many of the ideas and projects planned this weekend will need to develop strategies for dealing with vast amounts of data, and to get the most out of it! The Mozillian organisers seemed very keen on keeping the momentum rolling, too, with plenty of emphasis on this being a kind of kick-off for projects to develop, grow and mature, so I think there’s a lot of scope for great ideas getting traction.

Before the Mozilla Festival, I wrote about some of the things I’d like to cover at the event:

There is a growing, and important, trend for stories to include more than just words. I’m keen to see more data behind journalism. Partly, this is because it’s more transparent, and encourages wider fact-checking and accuracy. But it also enables a lot more interesting things to be done with stories.

I was certainly not disappointed, but would like to carry on working with people looking to make their data work better, and tell stories from it.

The Mozilla Festival blog has a lot of round-up info, so I won’t try and re-write the whole thing. It was a great event covering a huge amount of ground, and I’m looking forward to catching up about data-driven projects over the next few weeks. I’d also like to hear from anyone who’s interested in journalism and media on the web, to discuss getting your own datasets published, or building on top of others as part of your project.

Some lessons learned from injury

Sunlight-in-shade“You’ve had an accident on your bike,” a familiar voice gave me something I knew.

“You’re in the hospital,” and the familiarity fled with being awake.

A few more dreams, and I slowly recognised myself lying in bed, surrounded by scrubs and unfortunate people.

I pushed myself upright, and oddly felt the mattress move beyond my arm’s length, and the man opposite me moved from the floor to the ceiling. So, I stayed half-way up for a while, wondering which plane I was on, and where I was supposed to be comfortable. My shoulder suddenly stopped supporting me. I landed face-first in the bed, and the pain in my collar pushed its way into my understanding.

“Bloody hell” didn’t quite make it past my throat, partly thanks to the pillow surrounding my face.

So I fell asleep again, it seems, because my memory kept blinking.

Eventually, I came round more like a morning’s awakening in the dark, and again felt unfamiliar. I kept trying to patch together what was happening, and couldn’t remember anything leading me to here. I remember feeling hungry towards the end of the day, then the blinking of pastel colours, unpleasant smells, and suddenly the sound of someone screaming: “Scratch my bum! Fuck you! Scratch my bum!”

Towards the morning, I started to understand where I was. The familiarity I first experienced came from my wife, who had been by my side all night. I also noticed the number of people around me in medical clothes: nurses, staff, and who I assumed to be doctors. It was comforting that so many people about would look after me. I was able to put a rather disturbed face to the voice asking for his bum to be scratched, too.

I also began to work out which bits hurt more than others, and start to patch together what happened. I was completely deaf in one ear, but fortunately my wife sat on the other side of my bed and helped me understand why I was there. I kept asking her simple questions:

“Where was I? Did I hit anything? When was that?”

Weeks later as I write this down, I am still missing any memory of the reason for waking up in hospital. I remember working from home on something rather exciting, and feeling enthused about the things I’ve been pulling together at work for the past few months. Then, the blinking started and settled slowly into being in hospital. I’ve lost 12 hours. My wife filled in the details for me, and we’ve managed to piece together the rather underwhelming story of what lead me to pastel-coloured blinking, and a lot of pain.

After work, I took our dog for a run alongside my bike up and down the street just outside our house. This had been a bit of a treat for the past couple months for both of us. I enjoy him relishing the speed and bursts of energy as he effortlessly lopes along the wheels having more fun than the boring pace of two legs. Recently, we had taken him round a reservoir and ran him for 8 miles. He loves it. I got him a lead that attaches to the handlebars so he can’t wander into traffic. That evening, this seems to have been a mistake, because he must have paused suddenly, or bolted into a familiar patch, pulling the handlebars to a sudden stop while I kept going.

Some neighbours found me face-down on the road, creating a rather splendid puddle of blood. They knocked on my door and my wife called an ambulance, which sped her and me to the hospital. I was assessed as an emergency, scanned and kept in the resuscitation area while they made sure I wasn’t immediately likely to create a bigger mess. They kept asking me questions, but I kept repeating myself, and demonstrating my inability to think clearly. I was conscious the whole time, but cannot remember a single blink of it.

The next few weeks were occupied with many trips to and from hospitals, and I picked my way through a few important lessons. I learned how good my wife is at looking after people who mostly cause her trouble. She came with me in the ambulance, through the critical area and past weeks of me mostly sleeping and failing to do much housework. She seemed unruffled by my being basically bed-bound, and helped me to smile (even when my face stopped working). She helped me make sense of medical discussions, often using examples she knows from dogs, cats and other mainly quadrupeds. The first lesson—alongside not cycling with a dog tied to your handlebars—was to marry an incredibly gifted and kind person. If they happen to be a vet, that’s an added bonus.

Fortunately, I was also looked after in the form of my colleagues and friends as they supported me. I was sent dozens of messages from the online world of twitter, facebook and my inboxes. My boss informed me in no uncertain terms that he wanted me to go back to bed instead of trying to work, despite my rather bad timing of being ill during the public launch of our project.

Unfortunately another lessons was not pleasant. The comfort I had received from the scrubs and medical uniforms as I woke, wore thin. After coming round to my limited senses, I ended up asking half a dozen people if my collar bone was broken. It was hurting a lot, and I could not lift it properly at all. It seemed obvious to me that it was broken: I could feel the bones moving where there should have only been one, and the big bulge over the most painful bit was a beacon.

Each time I asked, I watched as they read my chart and assured me it wasn’t, that I just had a concussion and nothing broken.

“Keep it moving, so it doesn’t become stiff.”

I cannot remember a single doctor or nurse looking at my shoulder, just my notes.

I sadly learned not to trust the advice that comes first if it seems wrong. Eight days after the accident, my reluctance to move the arm (in case it went stiff) became clear as a consultant took a few minutes to look at my shoulder and nod to himself: “That’s almost certainly a fracture. It looks painful.” The X-Rays he took did not need much explanation, but made me wince. I was told to keep it still.

This lesson was repetitious, and I cannot list every study-session I had on the topic. I must admit I am still depressed about the treatment I received in hospital. Some of the stories were painful at the time, and funny now; but I am trying to work out the final thesis of the lesson. So I will tell one more story here.

After a few days of being home, I went to bed saying: “My face feels very odd. Half of it feels tired and the other half tingly.”

The next morning, half my face was paralysed, calling for another trip to the hospital. Actually, it called for 4 trips to hospital over the next two weeks. Eventually, I saw a specialist. He was optimistic, though, and I think he half-read from my face that I was shocked by his diagnosis:

“Well, you’ve done an impressive job by breaking the hardest bone in the body!”

He explained that I’d fractured my skull, through my ear canal and pinched the facial nerve. I’d known for a while that my eardrum had ruptured, but this seemed to be the cause. He was reassuring, though, and said that he could see some small movement in my face, and that he did not believe the nerve had been killed but was just impinged, and that my course of action was to let my body put itself back together.

That was my main occupation for around five weeks. Though I did have my shoulder put back together with some screws and a plate, which made it a lot more comfortable. Over the whole time, I was astounded at how tired I was, and a lesson I’ve picked up is that a body needs rest to recover. It was a shocking lesson. It was shocking because it’s obvious, but I’d never known just how much rest my body demanded of me. More weeks later, and I still struggle to stay awake for a whole day, and run into fatigue sometimes quite suddenly.

I now seem to be mostly mended, with only a few niggles remaining. My face is only slightly lopsided now, making my giving a talk to a conference last week a lot more fun than it would have been otherwise. I can now hear about half-way through my right ear too. My arm is supposed to be in a sling for another two weeks, meaning I’ve put my most useful arm out of serious action for a total of around 8 weeks! But I can type and make coffee, so it’s not unsurmountable.

Looking back through this post, I’m struck by how much this has been full of experience alongside a series of painful instances. Before a few weeks ago, I had never broken a bone—so took up an introductory offer and went for 2. I had never had surgery of any sort, and have learned not to be too nervous of general anaesthesia. I also learned not to stand up after surgery too soon. I am hoping that as I get back up to speed with work and life that I don’t become depressed, though the fatigue is beginning to become annoying.