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Presence: RicMac’s first foray into Sci Fi

I’ve had the great privilege of getting to read Richard MacManus‘ first foray into science fiction. His years as a tech journalist seem to give him the ability to introduce us to an incredibly believable world that’s not too far off in Presence.

Presence is comfortably in several categories in my mental taxonomy of stories – a bit noir, mystery, near-future sci-fi, young-adult – but it’s most interesting in its quality of curiosity.

Sure, there’s future tech, and plenty of predictions built into the story. It’s set in a world that heavily mixes the virtual and digital with reality. But, this isn’t technobabble or prognostication. Instead, Presence tells a very human story, while facing issues that are very real to us and our relationship with technology.

Of course, it sits alongside Ready Player One thematically through its virtual reality. But, it’s not a book that wears a dystopian label in my mind. It questions how we develop socially among ubiquitous technology, and its the questioning I like most. Throughout the story, we’re looking at big themes of security and surveillance, corporate greed, and the issue of who we can become when reality becomes hazy. But, instead of thumping down a set of answers through pure, unchecked destruction and fear (à la Ray Bradbury), I’m feeling more like someone is being curious about how we are recreating our world digitally, right now.

Richard’s light-touch with his technology makes it easy to slip into his world. You don’t have to work hard to imagine things working the way they do here, it’s almost intuitive. And that’s the setting which lets us imagine further, and ask our own questions about how our reliance on interconnectedness and continual exposure to technology could continue to change our social lives, our politics, and our own emotions.

Presence, for me, feels like an introduction. It’s brief, and extremely easy to read, but it’s also a bit moreish. I believe it’s aimed at a young-adult audience, and (though I’m not sure I qualify looking back from my 30s ;)), I think it works well here. It’s neither overcomplicated, nor patronising. But, I want to see where else Richard can go as we question our own security – and safety – around rapidly-developing technology.

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Digital Featured Perspective

Is everyone a content creator?

A couple weeks back, I spoke at a client conference for Zengenti (where I work). We split the day into two broad streams – one focused on developers and sysadmins, and the other for “content.”

It’s been interesting working for a CMS vendor, and I like the fact that they properly focus on the content side of content management systems. This talk was fun, though watching it makes me cringe terribly.

I spoke about content governance – the who side of content strategy. I also wanted people to start thinking about editorial workflows, and learn from newspapers.

[responsive_vid]

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Blog Digital Featured

Media Temple was great, but No to GoDaddy

Media Temple (mt) have looked after this site’s hosting superbly. They handled problems (all of which were down to user error) promptly and with a bit of extra care. Under almost all circumstances, I support companies who work hard for their customers’ loyalty. But, they were bought by GoDaddy.

GoDaddy has an impressive reputation for chauvinism, playing on stereotypes, and generally mocking people.

No, seriously:

and…

(video has since been deleted, but you can search YouTube for GoDaddy commercials to get the gist.)

I think you get the picture. In fact, sorry for the pictures. I feel dirty having them on my site, and I feel worse thinking that my hosting money would be supporting such a company.

More troublingly, GoDaddy played a big role in supporting SOPA. Yes, they backed down, and stopped their support… eventually. But that’s a big mark against any company.

(mt) were quick to point out, on Twitter, that they’ve taken the acquisition seriously – that GoDaddy has reinvented itself. Maybe they have; maybe they will. But they’re the same company, and they make me feel sick.

Their FAQs point out the reasons they went along, and say they’ll stay an independent, autonomous company. I wish them the best, but no. Between casual chauvinism, mocking “nerds”, and generally seeking profit above freedom – it was an easy decision to make.

Honestly, I didn’t feel there was a decision to make except on finding a new host.

For now, I’ve moved my online property over to UK-based TSOHost, on the recommendation of quite a few twitter friends. They migrated my site and domain on the same day, and seem pretty clued up on support so far. I have a few remaining domain names with (mt), one of which – mentaldemocracy.com – I might sell. The rest, I’ll either transfer over next week, or simply wind them up.

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Digital Featured Perspective

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

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Digital Featured Life

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.

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Digital Featured Perspective

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.

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Digital Featured Perspective review

Tablets

TabletThe more I use it, the more conflicted I am about the iPad. It’s bright and renders images beautifully. I love the way designers are now taking this big screen into account when they produce apps like Pulse news reader and FryPaper. It’s really fun for showing photos to people.

But—and there are so very many buts—it’s not brilliant for writing or taking notes. It’s super fast on slideshows, but takes ages to type, correct, select, copy, and paste. Editing text is still annoying after weeks of practice.

Blogging, as I’m doing now, keeps reminding me how much easier this would be on my trusty laptop. That image I want to use isn’t quite right, so I’ll skip it. What I won’t do is try to find a good image editor app that actually doesn’t resize, then find another that does but hides the file somewhere I’ll never see it deep in the workings of the iPad, I assume. So i won’t do that…again.

Dedicated apps can be brilliant, but the ones for services I use aren’t always. The WordPress app, for example, is terrible. There isn’t an iPad version of the excellent tumblr app for iPhone at all. So, for most things, it’s site-based tools missing letters like tumblr and flickr. But these don’t always render well, and if they need Flash, you’re obviously stuffed.

I’ve also just discovered that I can’t scroll within a frame. This means that I can’t edit—or even see—the text I’ve typed here. So I’ll have to trust that it’s ok. (It isn’t, I’ve switched to my laptop, and have corrected a typo and fixed a missing markdown link.)

More often than not, I’ve got my laptop or my iPhone with me, and more often than not, the iPhone impresses me with its usefulness and size. Indeed, my relatively new iPhone 4 is the best piece of kit I think I’ve bought this year. It’s fast, the resolution is stupifying (I can finally read books on it without feeling eye-strain). Its battery life is great, and it replaces a camera, flip video recorder, sat nav, pad and paper and pen relatively painlessly. There are more dedicated apps for it than for the iPad, and they’re usually better. So the iPhone continues to impress me, and the iPad continues to fail to impress me. When I’m sat at home, coffee shop, or office, the Mac reliably does everything it’s possible to do, and is only slightly bigger than the iPad really.

It’s not that I think the iPad is a terrible device; far from it. It is an impressive piece of kit, and its screen and speed and battery life are great. I do enjoy the times I’ve passed it around to show photos, for example. I was impressed that my two-year-old niece was able to make swirlly patterns on it, and she did it without needing any explaining. It’s great for consuming: for reading Kindle books and magazines and blogs and watching video. It’s got something fun about it, and did I mention that screen being brilliant?

So, I don’t understand tablets. I don’t get the desire to touch the thing you want to work on: your hand blocks what you’re looking at! It’s also awkward compared to a laptop which angles so you can see it and work at the same time. The iPad is constantly falling off, and its keyboard only makes sense if it’s mostly horisontal, making it difficult to see. The screen is so reflective that it’s useless out of doors, even in relatively sun-free Britain. They don’t multitask in the same way that a laptop does, and they’re not as portable as a smartphone.

So, unless a tablet is running a kick-ass operating system, is small enough to be truly portable and has thousands of dedicated applications written for it (hmm, sounds like an iPhone…), I don’t think I’m sold.

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Digital Featured

ebook data?

Wooden KindleEbooks are doing rather well, with Amazon announcing them outselling their print counterparts in bestsellers lists. I’ve enjoyed using the Kindle app for various reasons including:

  • Instant purchase/download (even Amazon Prime can take too long!)
  • One device, not many books
  • Reading in the dark (on the iPad, any way)
  • Searching and smart(ish) bookmarking

Now I’d love to see various improvements, and a novel things I’m not sure I have a fully-formed idea around yet (I’d like new things with the power of computing devices, but I’m not sure yet what they might be.)

But something has interested me a lot with a piece I read in ReadWriteWeb. The piece talks about various ways in which ebooks are better than paper ones, and it mentions “social highlighting”, that is: the ability to share electronically highlighted text and notes. Richard MacManus goes on to suggest better features and improvements, and I’m fully in agreement here: the social aspect of ebooks has yet to be developed much at all, it seems.

Now, these social tools could follow a very predictable path, taking in the evolution of social tools elsewhere: multi-site sharing options, tweets, facebook connecting (I “like” the Kite Runner) etc. No doubt they will. But the thing that really grabbed me was the little gem of a site showing the most highlighted passages in the Kindle bookstore. This means that Amazon knows what’s being highlighted. It means—I’m just guessing here—that publishers could begin to know how much books are actually read. You know that copy of A Brief History of Time you bought?

That’s a very straightforward metric, but one that’s immediately useful to amazon, publishers, and authors. What else could be gleaned from vey simple and anonymous data like these?

What other data are Amazon using, and what else could be done with finer-grained data from users? Imagine language studies over tricky phrases in intralingual dictionaries! Finally, how can this be turned directly over to consumers?

I’d love to know my own reading patterns, which words and phrases I highlight.

photo: “kindling” by oskay via flickr. CC by

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FryPaper: an interview with the man behind Stephen Fry’s iPad app

Stephen Fry FryPaper App

Following my post about using the iPad recently, I’ve spent some time using more of the content-focused apps. As I mentioned before, the iPad has turned out to be a great device for consuming, reading and just experiencing media. This has obvious benefits for video, and many of the examples I’ve seen have made use of multi-media and show off the screen. But I tend to read a lot. I tend to read news from content publishers (BBC, Guardian, Gizmodo) and blogs.

One of the first apps I downloaded was Stephen Fry’s “FryPaper” app. It’s basically Stephen Fry’s blog manifested as an iPad app, and it’s one of the most exciting things I’ve seen. This isn’t because it’s swish, flash, or gimmicky. Indeed, it is none of those things. It simply provides the content from Stephen’s blog in a format that is very, very easy to read on the iPad. It seems to focus on simple design, and that’s it. It’s got a very limited set of features, all of which I’ve used—like using the sharing feature to tweet or email links to individual articles.

So, why is this so exciting?

Because it’s a glimpse of the future of well-published stories. It’s a snapshot of a time when anyone can buy/download an app for a single blog, and get all this content beautifully laid out.

So, I contacted Stephen’s FryPaper person, Andrew Sampson of SamFry about building FryPaper.

Here is that quick interview:

Zach: Why make an app for a blog? What does the iPad bring to the table that a browser doesn’t?

Andrew: Stephenfry.com’s blog is a very popular website in its own right. We wanted to offer that content in a newspaper format, for free on the iPad. We wanted to show how you could strip back other contend and concentrate on what was popular. Less is more, was our rule. It was a good first stepping stone for our company to develop an iPad App on our own.

Zach: What did you have to consider in designing it?

Andrew: We considered that the iPad is a new device and that whilst newspapers and magazines are glamouring for it, many would argue that a user interface is yet to be defined. We went for the most elegant and simple user interface we could develop. We also wanted to make sharing it easy. I might add that I don’t see how magazines and papers will be able to sustain the large multimedia elements of their initial iPad offerings. It’s brilliant that they did but it cost them a fortune to produce the content, let alone the app itself.

Zach: Any major challenges or hurdles?

Andrew: Cost. We were very lucky to find a Canadian firm that presented their credentials and production pipeline from the beginning. We’ve had many false starts on app development in the last year, primarily because of cost. Marco Tabini and his team became SamFry’s partners for FryPaper.

We were also lucky to secure the sponsorship of G-Technology by Hitachi. This was the first time we’ve ever had another company believe in what we were doing. They showed extraordinary faith and trust in us, even to the degree of letting us design the sponsorship placements within the app. It only adds up to two ads but boy, it’s allowed us to fund the FryPaper for iPhone, which is due out in the next few weeks.

Zach: From your experience, is there any advice you’d give to someone wanting to build a similar content-focused app?

Andrew: Be confident in the depth of your content. Stephen, Nicole, our graphic designer and I, have a strong focus on design. We think content and the user interface synergy is the single most important aspect in delivering electronic content. It harks back to our traditional theatrical beginnings.

Zach: Thank you Andrew!

Image taken from stephenfry.com.