Paul Mason at Bristol Festival of Ideas

This post was written 4 years ago.
Sat, 11 Jun 2016
When I saw that Paul Mason was coming to Bristol, I knew straight away I wanted to go to the talk. After following his coverage of the Greek Euro crisis last year, I had read 'Postcapitalism' and it had touched a nerve. Here was the story of how we had ended up there, and the reasons why global finance in its current form had become unsustainable. The book is about much more than that, of course. But economic theory and the history of capitalism form a big part of it, and Mason explains them really well.

It was a warm summer night, when people streamed into St George's off Park Street to hear him speak. I noticed that many in the audience were older than me, in their 60ies or 70ies, though there were also quite a few people my age or under. I wondered if all the audience were lefties -- My husband Matin once joked that what I really want to do is dig potatoes on a Russian farm (actually, no I don't). In fact, Mason's main point should be of interest to everyone, although arguably he doesn't show much love for the conservatives.

The talk was billed as "Paul Mason in conversation with Andrew Kelly", but it was effectively mostly Paul Mason talking, with Andrew Kelly giving cues. Perhaps it was done that way to make sure every planned topic was covered. And Mason did get through a lot. From the ills of neoliberalism to the question if things would have happened differently "if Thatcher had ended under a bus", from Kondratieff waves to the development of the labour market, the massive and game-changing impact of technological progress, and the impossibility to foresee social structures of the future ("Shakespeare could not talk of Dickens's London"). And more besides.

Mason started, as the book does, with neoliberalism and its consequences. Interestingly, if I understood that right, Mason sees the digital revolution as an outcome of neoliberalism. Propping up the economy by simply printing more money (fancy name: "quantitative easing") has enabled technology to progress in the way it has. Although there was a recession, the iPhone and all that came next still occured.

At the same time this technological progress enables a different economy to grow besides the capitalist model, one where people give their time freely and create products of great value (open source, Wikipedia etc.)

Festival of ideas with Paul Mason and Andrew Kelly
 
Something that came up a few times was what neoliberalism has done to people, especially workers. There was also discussion about low-paid service jobs. Many of the new celebrated business models (Uber for example) rely on exactly that. People doing service work for really low wages. A different example: "As kids we went through these big car washes and it was all exciting. Now we have five men do this work by hand". I remembered the first time we had been to one of those manual car washes and I had thought this was very unusual. But in fact, now you get almost only those. We talk about automation, but in this case the machine has been replaced by humans!

What shone through for me was that Mason really cares about people. But he also says "I'm angry". What some people celebrate as disruptive technology, to him is disrupting the fabric of our community. What was also interesting in this respect, were the different views that people have of a basic income. The idea has recently been embraced by Silicon valley, but in that version it means that social welfare is withdrawn and then needs to be bought from the money that's handed out. This really defeats the original idea of it.

Then there are the external factors that provide a 'rational case for panic': climate change, migration and an aging population. How can necessary change happen? And what changes are already happening? Besides the panic, this is also an incredibly exciting time. Mason says he wants to "liberate the 1%" which I find a brilliant phrase. About a week before the talk, this thought suddenly popped into my head: "Perhaps this is also true: Women need to liberate men from patriarchy". I wondered if I should ask a question about that - was this the case? was it still the case? - , and I thought about it on the day, but it turned out there were lots of questions already, and I was not sure of how to best phrase it anyway, not sure of my English.

There was one moment, when Mason replied to a question with "Let me explain", then corrected himself and said "No. My opinion is this.." And I could not help but think whether this was a consequence of men being accused of "mansplaining". (It actually once happened to me that a man said "and I am not explaining this" before he went on to explain something to me.) I am sure Mason gets feminism as much as he gets digital and I seem to remember there was a passage in the book about the role of women where this became clear.

One thing I found moving then, was also to do with gender. I think it was in a reply to a question. "There might be kids at your daughter's school who are 12 and transgender. When I grew up this was unheard of. I think it is a good thing that it is happening now - children being able to come out in this way. And don't you think this is a personal hobby." (he did not use exactly these words, but I hope I did not change the meaning to much)

There were very good questions at the end, and a lot of it was in fact about how change can happen. Mason was pointing to Podemos in Spain (something I still need to read up on) and that that could be a model for cities in the UK, too. - Cities are where it's all happening. "Young people love the cities, because it's like an analogue version of Tinder." - One question was about Mason's career, moving from BBC newsnight to Channel 4 and then becoming completely independent. He enjoyed it all, but had some reservations about the BBC. "When Channel 4 wants something covered it's: How many cameras do we need? With the BBC it's: How many cameras do we need and what is our line on it?"

I believe in the end, what Mason wants to achieve is to empower people, to give people agency. This is something I think about a lot, which is probably why all these topics seem personal to me.

After the talk I had my book signed. There was a woman in the queue who spontaneously said to me "There was no talk of Brexit. I think he is in favour of leaving?" I said that I thought that too, but that he'd still vote for staying because of the possible consequences at this moment (too much power to the Tories). "That's a relief", the woman said. I still decided to ask him and at the end of a brief chat I said "You will still vote 'In'?" He looked at me and paused, then replied, "Yes. Remain". And I suddenly wondered if my language had been highjacked by the leavers' take on the vote, who want to pitch it as an 'In' versus 'Out' when the 'In' has actually happened a long time ago.

Just a small note

This post was written 4 years ago.
Mon, 09 May 2016
I feel a real urge to write though there is zero time now. I am about to go to work and it is already quite late.

It is just of all the habits I could introduce, writing seems to me the most valuable one, alongside running which I hope is an established habit by now. The past week I have let it slip a bit though, and that after I went on a 30k run last Sunday.

I spent a lot of the weekend making some CSS work, it was an interesting process, looking at the Semantic UI framework and also an application called Fractal which helps you to create a collection of components. I didn't use that yet, but it looks good. My endeavours to get a certain interface right, a very small thing, while not using a framework, was quite painful but ultimately worth it I think. I took inspiration from semantic UI, dropped in some grid styles and, at 2pm last night realised that I could write some decent CSS on top of that myself, without framework - even to just prototype.

Otherwise, it was the elections that were on my mind this weekend, and that should really have come first. I cannot write more now, hopefully more tonight. I am anyway happy for Marvin Rees to be the new Mayor of Bristol and wish him much luck.
Tags: Bristol / coding /

Thoughts on CodeHub and Open Tech School in Bristol

This post was written 7 years ago.
Mon, 13 Jan 2014
This was really meant to be an email, but it got so long I am just posting it here. I set up CodeHub Bristol last year together with Gicela Morales. I mentioned it at Skillswap, and that got us a few - lovely - members, but we did not publicise it further so far. We felt quite comfortable in our little group. (This is a post about our first meeting) But we had really intended it to be a bigger platform. So these are some thoughts on how to expand it.

What

Really what I would like to do already exists elsewhere and isn't called CodeHub, but Open Tech School: http://opentechschool.org I think it would be great to have something like that in Bristol. So, basically, we would organise workshops. But still keep the current exisiting CodeHub as a 'learners group' associated with OTS.

As an initial focus, I would probably not so much want to organise workshops for beginners, but everything that helps people who already develop for the web become more professional, and better able to work in a team.

Workshops would probably be in the evenings (7pm to 10pm?) or Saturdays. CodeHub is during a work day; currently every second Tuesday of a month, from 10am to 2pm.

Where

We have been meeting at the Big Chill in Small Street. They have been brilliant there, we can have a big room upstairs with wifi, coffee and tea. It would in principle be possible to have the room in the evenings as well, don't know what time it gets loud though!

Intentions (dumped into Evernote one night)

  • There's social benefit to it, and learning/knowledge benefit
  • there's also the benefit of teaching something to advance own knowledge as well -> give people platform to try speaking to people
  • "safe" place where people don't need to fear they appear stupid
  • Provide space to exchange knowledge, best practices, opinions; also simply to network
  • Help a beginner become intermediate; a "home-alone-worker" a team worker

Some people said "just put it out there and see what happens" but I rather want to plan it carefully, and want to start with a distinct intention and concept; it might still develop into something different from what I envisioned, that's absolutely fine.

I like this from the OTS website:
"Encouraging people to coach, whatever their skill or experience level, lets them see how rewarding and valuable teaching others is."
 

Possible topics


Next steps

So the next steps would be:
  • Clarify questions about format of workshop
  • Contact people who might be willing to do a workshop
  • Talk to people at Big Chill to clarify possible times (will go there 21 Jan)
  • Put it out there (Blog, Twitter, Underscore!)
  • Set dates for workshops, find coaches/speakers, open for registration

Questions

I have been wondering most about

More on Format
Different options:
  • OTS style: Take one of their workshops or create one along those lines; look for coaches; then allow registration of 4 times as many attendants as coaches
  • Have one speaker; they provide workshop, possibly also to a bigger group; basically they can choose the way they want to present it
  • Could also have workshops where one builds on the other; have a certain sequence; but probably not very practical

So, I have been thinking about this a lot recently. There is a lot I haven't written down, some more 'philosophical' thoughts about learning and teaching in general. Also the way web development is done these days. I think it has got too complicated, and a lot of the complication is due to a) accomodate design decisions and b) provide maximum level of functionality/power to editors or website owners, that might often not be needed in the end. Just one example WYSIWIG editors. But, let's not go into all this :) And, how would I want to change that with a series of workshops?? I will be glad if this will get off the ground at all for the moment!
This post was written 7 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)

SouthvilleJS JavaScript Workshop

This post was written 7 years ago.
Wed, 11 Sep 2013
Last weekend (7 and 8 September 2013) I attended a workshop run by a JavaScript user group in Bristol called SouthvilleJS - in fact, it was mainly organised by Andrew McGregor, who is one of the organisers of SouthvilleJS. It was the first workshop of its kind as well as being really well organised, and incredibly good value for money (£30 early bird, £40 regular). The ticket price basically just went towards the costs for running this event and I don't think anybody made any money out of it. This is especially amazing considering the line-up and the quality of the sessions.

The location by the harbourside was great, and the lack of internet was not really a problem, with phone tethering and MiFi as options these days. There was also a good mix of people, at different levels of JavaScript skills, and from different backgrounds; next to front-end developers, people from software engineering who were keen to learn more about web technologies. Many of the presenters also stayed on after they had spoken and followed the other sessions. I had not been sure at first whether to attend this event because I am not really a candidate for the user group as I neither live in Southville, nor am I that proficient in JavaScript (when are you a Javascript user?) But I am glad Gicela and Nigel convinced me to take part. Also it turned out that there were a lot more people outside that category, in fact, the workshop might not have run otherwise, I guess!

So here an overview of the presentations:

Node and the Express framework

Jack Franklin kicked off the workshop with a session on Node and the Express web app framework, which is available as a node package. He started with using node's REPL, showing that you can run normal JavaScript and execute files in it. This included a script to set up a server and make content available through it; you wouldn't normally write that yourself, though, as it would be part of a library. One of the nice things about writing JavaScript server side is that you can use all the latest JavaScript functions and don't need to worry about different browser implementations. We also installed a sample Express app, looked at the structure including the package.JSON file to install dependencies, and wrote some code to set up some pages in it. You can find lots of information about JavaScript on Jack's blog JavaScript playground. He has also recently published a book on jQuery.

Modular JS

Next up was Nico Burns. He explained the benefits of writing modular code and the different methods available (AMD, CommonJS, EC Harmony). The presentation made perfect sense to me, and I could see the benefits of this approach especially in large projects. But when it came to restructuring some code that we were given, and make it modular, I struggled a bit. Luckily in the sample code we got, there was a folder with a solution included, and by transforming the original script into multiple files that depended on each other as in the solution, I could understand the structure and how you got there.

Socket.io

Mark Withers introduced socket.io. Web Sockets are one of the new HTML5 APIs, and not fully implemented in all browsers (for IE only from version 10). They enable a persistent connection between client and server as opposed to the HTTP request/response model. This is important for real-time interaction, for example in multiplayer gaming. Using a library like socket.io, you can achieve such a connection across browsers, as it falls back on technologies other than Web Sockets in browsers where those are not available. The practical example involved writing a script that sets up a server (using the Express framework from before), and binds two sockets to two different ports of that server. Next was a client-side script that enables the client to connect to one of the sockets and communicate through it, while receiving the web page through the other socket. In the example, the server sent a message to the client which was then appended as a list element on the page, among other things. The sample code is available on Mark Withers's github.

XMPP-FTW

Socket.io was actually used in the next project, too. Lloyd Watkin presented his library XMPP-FTW, which he wrote to make it easier for developers to enable interaction with XMPP (Extensible Message and Presence Protocol) through a browser. XMPP is an open standard for real-time communication and mostly used in Instant Messaging services, but also in applications like Google Talk (recently replaced by Hangouts) and Facebook chat. An interesting aspect of XMPP is that you can have different 'resources' - which would normally represent different devices - and can set one as priority. Somebody sending a message to your account can either specifiy the resource they want you to receive a message on, or - if they don't specify it - it will go to the one you have set as priority. We got to try out XMPP by connecting to an XMPP system set up by Lloyd on his laptop. We each got an account on that system. Then we wrote some code to connect, and sent little messages to each other, logging them to the recipient's console. We also sent messages to a public messaging wall. Not everybody (including me) did get the code for that right so easily, but we got there in the end! You can find Lloyd's slides online, and here is XMPP-FTW and the pub-sub demo.

Refactoring (and testing)

I won't write much about the last session of the first day, which basically consisted of watching Jack Franklin expertly refactor some jQuery code and explain it as he went along, including the use of unit tests with QUnit, running through PhantomJS. Great stuff. There are posts on his blog on both refactoring and using QUnit.

And after that it was off to "Pub.js" as the agenda stated, but not for me. I think it was better that way, my brain was at that point already quite frazzled without any drinks!

Coffeescript

On Sunday morning, we all turned up again at the boathouse and enjoyed the view onto the Floating Harbour. And then we did Coffeescript. It is a programming language that compiles into Javascript and is much more concise to write. It can be installed as a node package. I quite enjoyed this session, although it will probably be a while before I use Coffeescript, just because I want to get to know Javascript better first. Coffeescript has a lot going for it though, as you can read on this document by Adam Butler who led the session. Adam talked us through the syntax, and the benefits of Coffeescript over JS. We then got some time to try writing something ourselves. Coffeescript works seamlessly with any Javascript libraries, and I tried a little example ivolving jQuery. One of the best ways to learn Coffescript is "backwards" it seems, by using the js2coffee tool. All in all, it was quite rewarding getting some things written in Coffeescript to work, though I did not finish the whole thing. Indepent of Coffeescript, the Dash docsets mentioned by Adam (which you can use with zeal on Linux) were a great discovery.

Angular

There was also one session about a Javascript MVC framework, Angular, presented by Maff Rigby. There is a vast number of frameworks around to build single-page apps, and one conclusion at the end of the session was that the choice you make depends on what specific needs you have for a certain app, but also personal preference. There is not one that is best - they all have different things that they are particularly good at.

Also, there are "opinionated" frameworks that are quite prescriptive in the way you have to structure an app, and those that leave you more freedom. As I understood it, Angular is not very prescriptive. Maff has created a website monitoring app called getTestr with Angular and was showing us how to get started with building an app. At least some of the approach seemed familiar from PHP-based MVC frameworks. I had some stupid difficulties getting things to work though. I say stupid, because they were so obvious in hindsight, and I feel a bit sorry that I bothered both my neighbour and Maff with it. - There was a lot of typing things off the screen in this workshop, and I fell behind with this quite a few times. But I do think it is good practice typing the code yourself. Still I was glad that the speakers also provided the finished examples. (Here you can download Matt's code and presentation).


Leap Motion


 
Playing with Leap Motion More Playing with Leap Motion

In the last session (read a great explanation of what we did on Dave's own website) we got to play with a Leap Motion device. Similar to the Xbox Kinect, it detects shapes and motion through optical sensors. Dave Taylor, who presented this session, had brought a number of these devices and people could work with them in groups of two or three. You can see a schematic and artful representation of your hand on the screen, and the software can also recognize a hand and fingers as well as certain gestures like swipe, circle or a keytap. (It can not always track individual fingers, and they seem to appear and disappear a lot of the time.) One interesting thing is that it also calculates the centre of a sphere that would fit in the palm of your hand.

We could see all the data that the Leap generated in real-time by accessing a file in the browser that displayed the data as JSON. It was quite interesting to see when a gesture was recognized, or seeing the number of hands and fingers change, also finding out the range where the Leap was able to "see". We then got to play a game of Space Invaders where you could move the ship by moving your arm and use your finger to trigger shots. (I love Space Invaders - I really do think it was the first ever computer game I played, on my cousin's Atari.. yes, I'm that old..). We also got to play a multiplayer version (Web Sockets, again!). We then looked at a JavaScript wrapper with the functionality for controlling the ship through movements. We started manipulating the code by making it stop on a certain condition (like a certain gesture). In the process, I learned a useful trick: You can introduce a breakpoint by putting the word "debugger" into a function call. The plan had been to write a better controller class, but it seemed everybody was more keen to play around, and I think we were at that point also lacking a bit in concentration! It was anyway a great session.

Space Invaders

So, that was it. It was an intense and enjoyable two days, and going through the sessions again (I actually looked at the code of all of them where I had it!), I find it has been really useful to me. I wonder what will actually come out of it. I have in any case at least one project where I want to try things out, but I am sure it will benefit my work in general.

Thanks to everyone who made this event possible, especially Andrew McGregor and the speakers!

This post was written 7 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)

CodeHub Bristol

This post was written 7 years ago.
Wed, 03 Jul 2013

I cannot exactly remember when the idea to set up CodeHub was born, although it probably happened in several steps. It definitely came out of some conversations I had with my friend Gicela. We thought it would be great for people in a similar situation to us, working from home and just for themselves, to get together and learn from and with each other. When Gicela came across the Hackerschool website, that served as an inspiration, although it is very different from our project in terms of scale and scope. - And so, two days ago (on Tuesday 2 July 2013), a group of five independent web developers met up at The Big Chill in Bristol for a morning of coffee, tea and code. I think we all agreed that it worked very well. It was good to be in this small group to start with, and it was a good group. We almost felt we don't even want it to grow!

But that would of course go against the orginal idea of a place giving developers who work on their own the chance to learn and collaborate with others. In any case, I doubt that we will get a sudden influx of hundreds of people. If we slowly grow that will be good. I could also imagine having a core team and then occasionally setting up bigger events.

So, if you wonder what this is all about, here is a brief outline of ideas we've had:

The format:

  • 30 mins of somebody giving a talk, or discussion about a certain topic
  • The rest of the time (3 to 3.5 hours) spent working on a project involving that day's topic OR other project of own choice
  • We will look for a project or projects that we can collaborate on
  • We would like to invite mentors to give a talk and possibly stay on to give practical help

That's it really. And it is generally quite flexible. For our first meetup (as good web programmers, we also had a 0th meeting that took place at the Mildbunch office, who kindly let us invade their space for a few hours), we thought we'd all get set up with Git and GitHub. If we want to work together, we need to share our code after all. So Rob who had the most experience with Git in our group, talked everybody through the process. Some of us had a bit of experience and already had GitHub accounts, but we still learned new things. And there was clearly a sense of achievement when ssh keys had been generated and copied, and test repositories were pushed to GitHub.

Another topic we all agreed we want to learn more about is JavaScript. This ranges from being able to write own Javascript code to using an MVC framework. I had a look last night at various resources, and have come to the conclusion that I want to learn Javascript properly (finally!) and then using a framework. I am curious how well I will succeed. But one thing is clear, the prospect of being able to share what I am learning with others, has lifted my motivation quite substantially.

There seem to be quite a few initiatives around the world that aim to teach people coding or other technical skills, which is great. I particularly liked this about the Core Values of Open Tech School. They are pretty much what I hope CodeHub to be about.

So, I am glad CodeHub got off to a good start and it will be interesting to see how it develops. We meet up once a month, but plan to be in touch online between meet-ups. Let's see what we can build!

If you are interested in joining us, please get in touch. Our next meeting will be on Tuesday, 6th of August at 10 am, again at the Big Chill. As mentioned before, we will also be looking for mentors. If you would like to try giving a talk about a certain topic, this is the chance to do it in front of a small group, rather than for example, at the Bristol Skillswap. That, I can testify, can be very frightening!



This post was written 7 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)
Tags: codehub / bristol / learning /

What I know about Brits

This post was written 8 years ago.
Sun, 10 Jun 2012

A few days ago, I was made aware of a post entitled What I know about Germans and after a brief Twitter conversation felt compelled to write my own 'expat view' list. So, here is a quick-fire list after almost 10 years in this country (and Bristol! My anniversary will be on bonfire night this year)

  1. Brits combine being self-deprecating with being self-assured in a unique way.
  2. They have a pretty good sense of humour.
  3. They have incredibly sweet, but also incredibly yummy puddings.
  4. chocolate pudding
    From FreeDigitalPhotos.net
  5. Britain is the most openly class-orientated country I know. I am sure the percentage of people in high-profile politics or corporate jobs that have attended a public school is over 80% (90%, 95% ?) It depends of course how you define "high profile". In any case the percentage is very high.
  6. Talking of public schools, after a while you forget that this is a complete misnomer. Few things are less accessible to the general public than public schools.
  7. There are a lot of Scots in politics.
  8. People are uncharacteristically unfunny on April Fool's day.
  9. There is only one correct answer to the question "How are you?".
  10. People are endlessly engaged in either buying, selling or doing up a house. The latter is often lovingly referred to as their "project".
  11. Almost nobody lives in the place where they grew up. In Germany people often study (or used to when I was young!) in the place they grew up in, in Italy people live with their parents till they are 40, but in Britain once you're 18 you move furthest away from home as possible. I think this is a good thing, healthy for both parents and off-spring, and I wish I had done it.
  12. British people are not as uniformly fascinated by their Royals as the rest of Europe seems to be.
  13. Sometimes they tell you things in a slightly indirect way.
    card what british say and mean
  14. This made the rounds on Twitter a while ago, and I found it again on this blog
  15. You can find better public transport than in Britain.
  16. Twitter is made for Britain. I am sure those people in SF created Twitter with British people in mind. No other language, and no other national character lends itself so well to this compact exchange of original thoughts, puns and furious assault. London was the city with most Twitter users a year ago, and probably still is. Twitter comments are quoted in the News, which I can't quite yet see happening in Germany (correct me if I'm wrong).
  17. People move to places because of the schools their children will be able to attend. I wonder if there is any other country where that is the case. I think it is completely nuts, but as stated above, British people are used to moving a lot!
  18. They are a true multicultural society, and a lot is done to integrate foreigners. I adore the way that teachers and assistants work with foreign children at the school my children attend.
  19. British (in particular, Bristolian) web developers tend to be male, white, cycle to work and eat avocadoes.
  20. There are a lot of Scottish football managers.
  21. There are really nice crisps flavours.
  22. Brits seem extraordinally resilient to the cold. Pupils come to school with either minimal socks on their feet or no socks at all in all weather. At night you see girls going clubbing wearing no jacket at all, no sleeves, low cleavage and miniskirts, no tights in all weather.
  23. Which brings me to the bizzare tradition that is the hen night, a piss-up involving bunny ears, condoms and plastic penises (plus optionally male strippers). Often also involving a ride in a 10 meter long limousine. I have heard rumours that the German counterpart is going a bit more in this direction now, too, though I can't imagine it will be quite the same!
  24. British weddings are more formal than German ones and finish earlier. Hence the need for hen and stag nights I suppose.
  25. Nobody can do better documentaries and comedy series.
  26. Nobody seems confused about what British means in spite of this:
    British geopolitically seen from wikipedia

This post was written 8 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)
Tags: bristol / britain /