Shared posts

18 Apr 00:32

What I’m working on lately: Practices of the minimum viable utopia (long)

by AG


Hey there! It’s been awhile since I’ve shouted at ya properly, and I’m going to be MIA for just a little longer yet (having stupidly locked myself into back-to-back-to-back-to-back trips to Dublin, Manchester, Aarhus & NYC, and finding myself rather burnt to the ground as a result). In the meantime, I thought I’d give you a brief idea of what I’ve been thinking about lately, and what kinds of questions I’ll be taking up over the next few months.

I’ll warn you from the outset that everything that follows is both speculative, in that it reflects hints, notions and potential trajectories more than fully coherent and robustly worked-out arguments, and overdense, in that it alludes to more lines of thought than I can properly treat at any length you’d tolerate in a blog post. Bear with me anyway and hopefully we’ll get somewhere interesting together.

This year’s model

More than a few of you have asked just what it is that I’m up to here at LSE. My research project is fairly open, but I think it’s fair to describe it as a consideration of the perennial urbanist themes of land use, mobility and governance, as they fold back against an environment and population whose capacities and affordances are increasingly conditioned by the presence of networked computational systems.

Roughly, I’m asking: given the presence of these systems, how might we use them to (a) help allocate common spatial resources in such a way as to ensure the most socially productive use of the available space; (b) underwrite the greatest ability of all to participate personally and physically in all the circuits of exchange that constitute the city; and (c) assist communities in making wiser, more responsive and more widely agreed-upon decisions regarding these and other matters before them? And how do we do all of these things in a way that respects, supports and makes the most use of our existing competences for the city — that skillful negotiation of the world and its prospects that big-city folks have been known for since time out of mind?

Big questions, obviously, and what’s (I hope) equally obvious is that I make no pretense whatsoever of essaying neutral answers to them. With regard to the first of these topics, for example, it ought to be evident that my notions of “most productive use” bear very little resemblance to the argument from revenue-generation potential that furnishes most contemporary redevelopment schemes with their primary justificatory apparatus, and which as of this writing appears to have hollowed out any hope that the so-called “sharing economy” might give rise to radically different ways of working and living together.

As I’ll explain in greater detail below, it’s what happened to the early promise of a networked sharing economy that haunts me as I prepare to propose new configurations for convivial systems. For all the utopian hope that may have attended their arrival, I think by now it’s clear that all too many existing coworking and “maker” spaces orbit venture-financed technology startup culture too closely, badly underfulfilling their potential and reproducing conditions I have no interest in perpetuating. That I can see, they have broadly failed as alternative spaces in which we could shelter from the invidious operations of consumer-phase capital, rediscover some sense of ourselves as skilled and competent agents and reclaim responsibility for the furniture of our world. Meanwhile, other potentially transformative models, like those on which Zipcar and AirBnB are founded, seem to have been placidly, even hungrily absorbed into the extant framework of neoliberal assumption.

Signs, pointers and portents

Readers of “Against the smart city” (in Kindle or POD pamphlet editions) know that I don’t place any particularly great faith in existing institutions’ capacity (or willingness) to address these circumstances. I go into a fair amount of detail, in fact, to spell out just why I think the “smart city” is such a disastrously misguided conception of the role of networked information technology in our urban places and our lives. At the same time, though, I do think it’s incumbent upon anyone levying such a critique to articulate at least some affirmative vision of what they would like to see happen in the world.

So what do I believe more satisfying, more fructifying alternatives might look and feel like? And what do I think are some ways of using networked technologies capable of encouraging conceptions of the relation between self and society that are a little less atomic — that are, in other words, less Californian-ideological and more oriented toward commonwealth?

In the following months, I’ll be sketching out at least the basic contours of a vision of urban living and working that responds to these questions. In particular, I’m interested in elaborating the outlines of a post-growth, near-steady-state industrial permaculture in city centers, autonomously and locally managed, undergirded by networked systems of deliberation, resource stewardship, mobility and exchange. This is a vision of localism in which flows of matter and energy circulate in a carefully-maintained dynamic equilibrium; communities produce most of the things (and skills, and affects) they need to survive in an unstable world; and sensitive onshoring brings compact, clean sites of precision manufacture and production back into the urban fold, undoing the supply chains of continental and oceanic scale and the ludicrous energetic, environmental and human costs they entail. We learn, once again, to work in atoms as well as bits; we do so together; and in doing so, we focus on the creation of real prosperity in the absence of economic growth.

For a variety of reasons, it’s important to me that I ground everything I’ll be proposing in empirical observations of events and situations that have some track record of functioning successfully. As it happens, some hints of what aspects of this vision might look like in practice do crop up in three very different existing projects/processes I’m aware of: Madrid’s Campo de Cebada; the Godsbanen/Institut for (x) complex, in Aarhus, Denmark; and finally a commercial enterprise called Unto This Last right here in London. Each of these sites has something to teach us, and in some ways I think of each of them as a dress rehearsal for a best-case future.

Campo de Cebada: Community control

At el Campo de Cebada, a fenced-off 60,000 sq ft lot in the heart of Madrid — formerly the site of a market, seemingly doomed to persistent vacancy by the economic crisis of 2008 — was reclaimed and transformed into a community resource by the neighborhood’s residents themselves.

After securing physical access, but before anything was built on the lot, a core group of local activists (including members of the Zuloark architectural collective) convened a series of weekly open assemblies, organized on bedrock principles of transparency, openness and participation. Residents and other interested parties were asked to propose, weigh and decide upon the programs, structures and activities the site should support. And so what had been more or less an abandoned site came under autonomous community control, using horizontal, leaderless processes very similar to those that proved so successful in the Occupy movement (including Occupy Sandy, as I describe here). It was under this informal and only retroactively sanctioned process of management that the space finally began to generate meaningful value for its users and neighbors. (At this point it may be worth noting that Spain has a robust history of anarchist practice, though it would also be something of an sublime understatement to point out that Madrid was not historically the heart of this activity.)

Both public assemblies and other, more casual activities on the site notably rely upon rapidly reconfigurable/demountable pallet-based furniture designed by Zuloark, similar to that Raumlabor Berlin has deployed in their pop-up public spaces in the past. (Such furniture also suggests a slow percolation of open-source hardware design and construction schemas like OpenStructures, a central theme of year-before-last’s tremendous Adhocracy show.) But it would be a mistake to identify the lesson of el Campo de Cebada with its physical tokens. Like the community gardens of New York’s Lower East Side, or more recently 596 Acres, what its success suggests is that ordinary, nonspecialist people are more than capable of taking on responsibility for maintenance, deconfliction and the other less glamorous aspects of administering and operating any such site, in the very core of a world city of the long-developed North — and to do so not in response to an environmental shock like Katrina or Sandy, but as a (dare I say “entrepreneurial”) way of grasping the emergent opportunities that lay curled up fractally inside the slower processes of economic calamity.

What the people behind el Campo de Cebada have forged together is, in essence, an Occupation that is affirmative rather than merely critical, productive and forward-looking as well as polemical. What their experience teaches us is that we can reimagine and reconfigure the sacrifice zones left behind by the reigning calculus of land valuation, grasping and making maximum use of them as a collective resource, in a maximally inclusive way.

Godsbanen/Institut for (x): Gradient of engagement

In Aarhus, my host Martin Brynskov took me for a walk around the publicly-funded Godsbanen production space/event venue, and the curious Institut for (x) that partially overlaps it. These institutions occupy a scatter of buildings lying at the end of a decommissioned rail spur that thrusts up into the heart of town, and the hour we spent walking over, around and through them began to suggest a particularly potent hybridization: autonomous self-management in the style of el Campo de Cebada, fused to the provision of standing community workshops and production facilities.

To my eye, anyway, Godsbanen consists of four distinct structures or conditions: the former railyard administration building, now the offices of various public, private and non-profit groups; a long main hall that was formerly the intermodal freight-transfer center, and now shelters the printshop, photo studio, metalshop and so on; a new infill structure (complete with vertiginously climbable roof) by 3XN, that comprises the event venue and canteen, and sinters the other buildings together; and a tumble of trailers, ad-hoc shacks, shade structures and lean-tos that apparently constitute the Institut for (x).

What was wonderful about Godsbanen was seeing men and women both — of all ages, very few of whom were obviously hipsterized — using the available wood-, metal-, clay- and textile-working facilities to make things for their own daily use. It’s this deployment of emergent digital craft techniques to produce things primarily with an eye to their use value rather than their exchange value à la present-day Etsy that so excited me.

But there are other ways in which Godsbanen one-ups the usual makerspace proposition. For example, the site sports a legible gradient of formality and structure, accessible at any point and traversable in either direction; you can literally see the stiff Scandinavian rectitude of the administration building decomposing into particles as you walk further down the rails, with everything that implies for uses and users. Martin pointed out that the complex supports two entirely distinct woodworking shops, one at either end of the gradient: the first (low-cost, but still pay-for-use) furnished with state-of-the-art equipment and on-site assistance, and the other, further down the yard, free but provided with somewhat older equipment and not much in the way of help/oversight. A project could germinate with two or three friends tinkering in the anarchic fringes, and move up the grade as they began to need more budget, order and privacy, or, alternately, a formal enterprise used to the comforts and constraints of the main building might hive off an experimental or exploratory activity requiring the freedom of the fringes. Either way, individual or collective undertakings are able to mature and develop inside a common framework, and avail themselves of more or less structure as needed. This is something that many self-styled incubators attempt, and very few seem to get right.

The further away one walks from the main building, the greater the sense of permission granted by the apparently random distribution of objects around the central space, by the texture of these objects and their orientation. This is of course not at all random: everything you see has been selected with an eye toward a precisely calibrated aesthetic that at times comes perilously close to favela chic, but that does send a very powerful message about the appropriability of the environment, the kinds of things people can do here and the kinds of people who can do them. (Note that this is the same message ostensibly conveyed, but actually undermined, by the “wacky,” infantilized furniture of dot-com and tech-startup offices.)

This aspect of legibility, or performativity, strikes me as being nontrivially important to the success of the Godsbanen project. What fifty or more years of spectacular consumerism have left us with is the need to be seen to be doing what we do, as a performance of self, identity and affiliation. What participation in a place like Institut for (x) gives its user-constituents is a way to achieve that end without it necessarily being commodified. Citizens are making a very deliberate statement by participating here, and being seen to participate: a statement of value that remains outside the register of consumer capitalism, without necessarily being overtly, consciously or uncomplicatedly in opposition to it.

My sense is that Aarhus has figured out something sensitively dependent on a whole lot of boundary conditions — something that municipalities around the planet are falling all over themselves trying to reinvent, and generally missing by a country mile. Their success has something to do, certainly, with the fact that Denmark can find funds in the public purse to support this kind of activity, and just as certainly with the fact that a coherent fabric of trust yet persists in Danish culture of the everyday.

But it owes even more to some very canny spatial and social thinking. What the Aarhus experiment teaches us, among quite a few other things, are how to organize space so its legibility serves its users rather than the prerogatives of territorial control, and that many of the material things we need in life we can learn to make for ourselves.

Unto This Last: Local production, training and employment

Which brings us to Unto This Last, a commercial furniture manufacturer that has been operating in London’s Brick Lane for the past thirteen years. Their product line — a reasonably wide selection of chairs, tables, beds, bookshelves and storage units — displays a total coherence from conception all the way through design, fabrication method and setting to delivery. Each piece has been carefully designed so that it can be assembled from flat pieces cut from sheets of sustainably-grown birch plywood, by a CNC cutter right in the back of the shop. (Swing by at the right time, and you can see it in action, cutting components of the piece that you yourself will take home and weave into your life.) The shop’s ethos of “less mass, more data” rather takes the logistics-friendly Ikea flatpack concept to a new level.

There are, inevitably, issues. While I personally rather like it, it’s clear that the stripped-down aesthetic (ably conveyed by the store’s iconic sign) isn’t for everyone. And ideally trees yielding wood suitable to this kind of application could be grown within the local bioregion, rather than being shipped from the (state-owned and -managed) forests of Latvia.

Nevertheless, alongside other, slightly differing initiatives, like the wonderfully-named Assemble & Join, what Unto This Last teaches us is how to wrest the greatest practical, economic and (as we’ll see) social value from the minimum investment in matter and energy.

Come together

In the fusion of each of these three archetypal processes, el Campo de Cebada, Godsbanen and Unto This Last, we can see the outlines of something truly radical and terribly exciting beginning to resolve. What can be made out, gleaming in the darkness, is a — partial, incomplete, necessarily insufficient, but hugely important — way of responding to the disappearance of meaningful jobs from our cities, as well as all the baleful second-order effects that attend that disappearance.

When apologists for the technology industry trumpet the decontextualized factoid that each “tech” job ostensibly creates five new service positions as a secondary effect, what they neglect to mention is that the lion’s share of those jobs will as a matter of course prove to be the kind of insecure, short-term, benefits-lacking, at-or-close-to-minimum-wage positions that typify the contemporary service sector. This sort of employment can’t come anywhere close to the (typically unionized) industrial-sector jobs of the twentieth century in their capacity to bind a community together, either in the income and benefits they produce by way of compensation, in the conception of self and competence they generate in those who hold them, or in the sense of solidarity with others similarly situated that they generally evoke.

At the same time, though, like many others, I too believe it would be foolish to artifically inflate employment by propping up declining smokestack industries with public-sector subsidies. Why, for example, continue to maintain Detroit’s automobile manufacturers on taxpayer-funded life support, when their approach to the world is so deeply retrograde, their product so very corrosive environmentally and socially, their behavior so irresponsible and their management so blitheringly, hamfistedly incompetent? That which is falling should also be pushed, surely. But that can’t ethically be done until something of comparable scale has been found to replace industrial manufacturing jobs as the generator of local economic vitality and the nexus of local community.

So where might meaningful, valued, value-generating employment be found — “employment” in the deepest sense of that word? I have two ways of answering that question:

- In the immediate term, I believe in the material and economic significance of digital fabrication technologies largely using free and open-source plans, deployed in small, clean, city-center workshops, under democratic community control. While these will never remotely be of a scale to replace all the vanished industrial jobs of the past, they offer us at least one favorable prospect those industrial jobs never could: the direct production of items immediately useful and valuable in one’s own life. Should such workshops be organized in such a way as to offer skills training (perhaps for laid-off service-sector workers, elders or at-risk youth), they present a genuinely potent economic and social proposition.

There are provisos. The Surly Urbanist correctly suggests that any positions created in such an endeavor need to be good jobs, i.e. not simply minimum-wage dronework, and my friend Rena Tom also notes that the skills training involved should be something more comprehensive than a simple set of instructions on how to run a CNC milling machine — that any such course of instruction would be most enduringly valuable if it amounted to an apprenticeship first in the manual and only later the numeric working of materials. I also want to be very clear that, per the kind of inclusive decision-making processes used at el Campo de Cebada, such a workshop would have to be something a community itself collectively thinks is worth experimenting with and investing in, not something inflicted upon it by guileless technoutopians from afar.

- In the fullness of time, I believe that the use of relatively high-technology techniques to accomplish not merely the local, autonomous production of everyday objects, furnitures and infrastructures, but their refit and repair, will come to be an economically salient activity in the global North. In this I see a congelation of several existing tendencies, logics or dynamics: the ideologically-driven retreat of the State from responsibility for stewardship of the everyday environment; the accelerating attrition and degradation of the West’s dated and undermaintained infrastructures, and their concomitant need for upgrade or replacement; increasing belief in the desirability of densifying urban infill; the rising awareness in the developed world of jugaad, gambiarra and other cultures of repair, reuse and improvisation; the emergence of fabricator-enabled adaptive upcycling; the circulation of a massive stock of recyclable componentry (in the form of obsolescent structures as well as landfill-bound but effectively nondegradable consumer items), coupled to the emergence of a favorable economics of materials recovery; broader experience with and understanding of networked, horizontal and leaderless organizational structures; the creation of a robust informational commons, including repositories of freely-downloadable specifications; and finally the clear capability of online platforms to facilitate development and sharing of the necessary knowledge, maintain some degree of standardization (or at least harmonization) of practice, suggest sites where citizen repair might constitute a useful intervention, and support processes of democratic decision-making.

On forgetting to slay the dragon

Especially when they’re of industrial grade, the 3D printers, laser cutters, CNC milling machines and other devices involved in digital precision manufacture are highly visible and — if you’ve ever seen one in operation, you know it’s true — coldly glamorous, possessed of the same eerie machinic grace and certainty that makes the flight of quadcopter drones such an uncanny thing to witness. Nor are fabricated things themselves without a certain evocative power. In a dynamic we should all be familiar with by now, and deeply suspicious of, the discrete printed object is often taken as not merely a sign standing for a complex underlying process, but accepted as a unremarkable replacement and stand-in for it. Thus we see an efflorescence of on-demand mall and High Street “fab labs” apparently dedicated to churning out novelty items of puissant symbolism, but little actual utility: personalized busts, complex gear trains that will never be connected to any other mechanism, and similar dead ends and blind alleys.

I certainly do not mean to fetishize the new production. What I do mean to suggest is that we’ve barely taken the measure of these networked, decentralized, distributed technologies of material production as economic and social enablers. The same techniques that generated kipple of the sort I describe above have clearly already transcended the hobbyist stage, having recently been used to rapidly produce and assemble objects of architectural scale and intent. (If anything, this impressive performance was underhyped; as Fred Scharmen points out, the designers/fabricators responsible for the Shanghai development “don’t have press agents, they didn’t make a rendering, they didn’t even post any photos or concepts until after they did it.”)

But neither are the technologies themselves really the point here. In everything I suggest above, the act of production is — comparatively, and for all its many rigors — the trivially easy bit. The challenge isn’t, at all, to propose the deployment of new fabrication technologies, but to deploy them in modes, configurations and assemblages that might effectively resist capture by existing logics of accumulation and exploitation, and bind them into processes generative of lasting and signficant shared value. This is the infinitely harder project of weaving all of these technologies into not merely “sustainable” but actually sustained practices and communities of practice.

My mistake in the past — and, in retrospect, it’s an astonishingly naïve and determinist one — was to think that emergent networked forms of shared resource utilization might in themselves give rise to any particularly liberatory politics of everyday life. Experience has taught me that such notionally transformative frameworks as do arise very readily get appropriated by existing ways of valuing, doing and being; whatever “emancipatory potential” may reside in them swiftly falls before path dependency and the weight of habit, and the gesture as a whole comes to nought.

This is what appears, for the time being anyway, to have fatally undermined the more interesting prospects for conceiving of space as a shared network resource, the cluster of practices I think of as treating “space as a service.” Consider what’s become of my original argument that the companionable coexistence of AirBnB and implied enough space for a (non-corporate but robustly) commercial business model and a fiercely noncommercial service model to subsist side-by-side, even as they brokered access to the same resource: fast-forward three years, and AirBnB looks more and more like a formal branch of the hospitality industry with each passing day, while Couchsurfing has — fumblingly, and much to the chagrin of its original animating community — reinvented itself as a for-profit competitor.

The dynamic here puts me in mind of a thought expressed succinctly by David Harvey in his new, and excellent, book Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism:

The long history of attempts to create some such alternative (by way of worker cooperatives, autogestion, worker control and more latterly solidarity economies) suggests that this strategy can meet with only limited success…If the aim of these non-capitalistic forms of labor organization is still the production of exchange values, for example, and if the capacity for private persons to appropriate the social power of money remains unchecked, then the associated workers, the solidarity economies and the centrally planned production regimes ultimately either fail or become complicit in their own self-exploitation.

Also sobering is how very often over the past few years “disruptive innovation” in services has been attended by the worst sort of triumphalist douchery on the part of the already-privileged beneficiaries of the ostensible disruption. I think of the tellingly-named Uber, explicitly positioned as an outright celebration of the “self-made” Randian superman’s differential ability to route around urban infrastructural, bureaucratic and regulatory failure, in a world where his social and economic lessers are reduced to relying on defunded, dysfunctional, all-but-dystopian public transit. Uber’s self-serving rhetoric casts any regulation of their service as unwonted friction imposed by meddlesome rent-seekers, when that fabric of regulation was for the most part woven into place for good and sufficient reason.

As if these disappointments weren’t enough to chasten me from making assertions about propensities and likelihoods, not too long ago Anil Bawa-Cavia (rightly, I think) poked back at something I’d said regarding the “latent and unrealized emancipatory potential” of certain technologies:

I don’t see any reason to believe that any technology has a pre-inscribed ‘potential’ that remains latent within it. I agree with Harman’s interpretation of Latour on this point, extreme as it may be. Either entities have active affinities and relations or they don’t. I see no convincing reason to believe they possess an essence in which potential may reside. So can networked technology be emancipatory? I’d like to believe so, but only acting in relation with other actors in a co-ordinated manner…I don’t [therefore] think it’s constructive to simply assert that this potential is latent, as it amounts to an ideological projection or political posturing. The task, then, would be to go ahead and activate these technologies by bringing them in relation to other actants in ways which might be regarded as emancipatory.

Here the terms of what might at first blush appear to be an abstruse debate in the metaphysics of the flat ontology turn out to have important implications for the ways in which we see, describe and act in the world. Though for myself I tend to believe that all things have recourse to a broader performative repertoire than that set of relations currently enacted, I take Anil’s (and Harman’s, and more distantly Latour’s) point: we have to actually do the work of forging some linkage between things before we can know whether that particular linkage was in fact possible. And that work is an investment, is never accomplished without some cost.

So for all of these reasons, I’ve become wary of using that word “potential” to express my hope for the trajectories that appear to me to be latent in some emergent technosocial circumstance, but have yet to be actualized. But history nevertheless suggests that there is a marked degree of affinity between practices of material production in distributed, networked workshops, on the one hand, and polities choosing to organize themselves as a federation of autonomous local collectives managed by popular assembly on the other. If the latter seems in any wise to be a productive way of addressing some of the more vexatious challenges that afflict us, then maybe it might not be such a bad idea to experiment with the former. (Murray Bookchin gives some consideration to the organic politics of the materially self-reliant, in contexts that include medieval northern Italy and post-Colonial New England, in The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship, which I recommend without reservation.)

Given the direct and ancillary benefits that seem likely to cascade off of locating material production capabilities of this sort in the community, it might not be such a bad idea to experiment with them in any event, regardless of your politics. My aim, in all cases, is to see if the binding power of the network can’t be used to perform a kind of urban kintsugi: Expose the seams and sutures between things, articulate those seams in such a way as to improve the whole, leave the newly-rejoined fabric stronger than it had been before. What lies ahead is the costful task of attempting to verify whether this can in fact be accomplished — whether the value I suppose to subsist in this particular imagined alignment of technologies, spatial arrangements and organizational structures can actually be realized, by helping to produce real-world circumstances and situations that demonstrate it. And while there are certainly enough daunting aspects to this endeavor, and more than enough, I’ve rarely in my adult life been more optimistic than I find myself at this moment. It is clear to me that what we now have at hand, and ready to hand, are practices of the minimum viable utopia.

18 Apr 02:48

Open Badges Community Call, April 16, 2014

Open Badges Community Call, April 16, 2014:



This week members of the Badge Alliance leadership shared details of some of the projects and meetings that kicked off in recent weeks, and members of the Open Badges team spoke about events they led.

Badge Alliance Working Groups kick-off

The Badge Alliance, announced at the Summit to Reconnect Learning, will collaboratively tackle important issues, questions and opportunities to continue to push the work forward, led by Erin Knight, formerly the Badges + Skills Lead at Mozilla. The first task of the Alliance has been to develop working groups, sets of organizations dedicated to tackling important issues or driving specific campaigns to move the open badging ecosystem forward.

This week, two of the Badge Alliance working groups held their first meetings to introduce the leads of the group and start identifying goals for the first “cycle” of the Alliance calendar (March-September 2014). The working group on badges for educators kicked off today, and the group on the open badges standard launched their first call on Tuesday.

Chris McAvoy, Lead Engineer of the Open Badges project at Mozilla, is the Chair of this working group, and joined the community call to share his thoughts on the first working group meeting.

The group are drafting a document that outlines what the working group is going to do and where it’s going to go - a manifesto of sorts - and then get to work on shaping the future of the open badge infrastructure (OBI). To date, the OBI has been a series of specifications, which can be confusing. The goal of this group is to move the specifications more towards a standard that is clearer and easier to align with, maintain, and build from.

Two key areas the working group will focus on:

  1. Write a charter document / constitution for the group that defines how the group works, how decisions will be made, and other operational and community guidelines;
  2. Formalize and clarify documentation of the OBI specifications
Chris hopes that these initial goals will help the group move toward making the OBI being more of a standard, not just a specification, which should make it “even easier to extend and do cool stuff with.”

Join the Badge Alliance

The Alliance will launch fully in June 2014, but the initial working groups are hitting the ground running in these key areas (just click the group names to apply for membership):

Cities of Learning 2014

Last summer, Mozilla and partners worked with the City of Chicago to create a badge system to recognize summer learning achievements by youth in the Chicago Summer of Learning, to much success - over 100,000 badges were earned during the summer program.

This year, as well as an expanded Summer of Learning and Earning initiative, Mayor Emanuel has announced that Chicago will become a year-round City of Learning dedicated to recognizing informal learning experiences of Chicago’s youth beyond the summer.

As if this wasn’t exciting enough, the Badge Alliance is working other cities across the US to build summer learning badge pilots for this summer. There are currently about 5-7 cities who will be launching a Cities of Learning initiative in the coming months. Two have already launched: as well as Chicago (led by the Digital Youth Network at DePaul), Pittsburgh announced last week that their City of Learning badge pilot (led by the Sprout Fund) is launching this summer, and released an open call for organizations interested in awarding badges for summer activities.

Other cities slated to launch City of Learning initiatives in 2014 are L.A. (with Beyond the Bell) and Dallas (with Big Thought), and potentially Columbus, OH and Boise, ID.

Stay tuned for more information to be shared on this blog as the summer draws nearer!

Education Innovation in Finland

Last week, Mozilla’s Research + Design Lead Emily led a session and workshop on Webmaker Badges with Doug Belshaw and Melissa Romaine at Oppi Festival, as well as the Interactive Technology in Education 2014 conference in Finland.

Inspired by her conversations with educators, technologists and professional development enthusiasts in Finland, Emily wrote a blog post highlighting some resources worth sharing (copied below):

  • Pasi Sahlberg’s book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? Sahlberg keynoted the OPPI conference which a few Mozilla Foundation colleagues and I presented at (photos at right), and I’m an admitted late but passionate fan of the primer he’s written. Here’s a teaser: “This book is about how Finland how the Finns transformed their educational system from mediocre in the 1980s to one of the models of excellence today. International indicators show that Finland has one of the most educated citizenries in the world, provides educational opportunities in an egalitarian manner, and makes efficient use of resources.” Our regular research and badge system design call now has a Goodreads group for sharing relevant recommendations (join us!), and this book was the first addition.
  • Open Badge Factory for easy badge issuer reporting. Amongst the wide range of platforms for creating badges that align with the Open Badges Infrastructure, this tool has some of the neatest tracking tools for people who design and issue badges. Check out the cloud-based tool’s report generation to see how your badges are being claimed and put to use by learners. It’s generated some positive press in Finland, top right.
  • The forthcoming Teacher’s Toolkit will be part of a public-private research partnership focused on sharing pedagogy and imagining future learners’ needs. I’m looking forward to seeing this open and prototype-based project, particularly as Mozilla thinks about offering its own portable toolkits for distributed contributors. This kit’s organizers explain that “Teacher’s Collaborative Toolkit is a virtual teachers’ resource net to which different mobile services, learning material and authentic resource repositories, such as digital archives, tutoring and mentoring support, professional peer learning practices, can be connected.”

Eric Rousselle joined the Community Call in December 2013 to talk about the thinking behind Open Badge Factory, due for first release on January 15, 2014. Open Badge Factory is a global cloud-based service from Discendum, which enables organizations to create and manage their Open Badges in a centralized repository. Check out a summary of his presentation here.

  1. It’s so exciting to see these projects progressing, and to see the expansion of the badges work manifesting in the Badge Alliance. Don’t forget to sign up for the Badge Alliance working groups that interest you, and join us for next weeks Community Call where Doug Belshaw will be talking about the amazing work being done to develop the Web Literacy Map!
18 Apr 06:50

Does Jeff Bezos Read Asymco?

by Ben Thompson

Horace Dediu has an absolutely essential post on the taxonomy of innovation:

The definition of innovation is easy to find but it’s one thing to read the definition and another to understand its meaning. Rather than defining it again, I propose using a simple taxonomy of related activities that put it in context.

Novelty: Something new Creation: Something new and valuable Invention: Something new, having potential value through utility Innovation: Something new and uniquely useful

There’s not too much more to say – I presume most of you already read the piece, and it’s one with which I completely agree.

What is interesting, though, is a little factoid I heard recently about Amazon: Amazon has well-established leadership principles that, by all accounts, permeate the culture. One of those principles is “Invent and Simplify.”

However, rumor has it that lots of senior managers have lately been using the term “Innovate and Simplify,” and, given the fact that one of Amazon’s many strengths is the unusual longevity of their senior leadership – no SVP has been there for less than seven years – it’s doubtful that’s an accident (The term is also showing up in recent job listings, although, to be fair, so is invent and simplify).

Anyhow, I’m sure the alleged Amazon change and Dediu’s article are unrelated in cause, but almost certainly aligned in thinking.

The post Does Jeff Bezos Read Asymco? appeared first on stratechery by Ben Thompson.

18 Apr 11:19

Samsung reveals the top 10 hidden features on the Galaxy S5

by Rajesh Pandey
The Galaxy S5 is filled with a plethora of features — some that are very much in your face while others are buried deep inside the Settings menu. To avoid consumers missing out on some not-so-obvious features, the company has posted a list of 10 hidden features present in the Galaxy S5. Most of these are extremely useful and have not been marketed much, which may lead to users not being aware of them. Continue reading →
18 Apr 15:35

VRM, The Intention Economy, and The Thank You Economy

by Darren

It’s not uncommon for me to get the questions, what looks interesting to you these days? … or where are you focused?  Since joining Mozilla, I’ve filtered pretty much all of my knowledge and history with “user empowerment” and the area I keep coming back to is the quiet but growing VRM space.  For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s Vendor Relationship Management, the opposite and complimentary tool of CRM:  Customer Relationship Management.


The VRM conversation is being championed by Doc Searls of Harvard Berkman Center but at this point, the ecosystem is growing larger than the one individual.  You might recognize Doc’s name as he was one of the authors of the book, Cluetrain Manifesto and followed it up with The Intention Economy.

In the beginning of The Intention Economy, Doc posits that soon, customers will be able to:

  • Control the flow and use of personal data
  • Build their own loyalty programs
  • Dictate their own terms of service
  • Tell whole markets what they want, how they want it, where and when they should be able to get it, and how much it should cost

When you think about these four points, they empower the customer/user and play nicely into the idea of VRM.   Joe Mandese, a VRM list subscriber and all around amazing MediaPost Editor-in-Chief wrote a piece recently titled:  Acronymity:  The Three Most Important Letters You’ve Never Heard Of.  In this piece, Mandese writes about the shift from brands at center to users at center of the value equation.

Per the above points and Mandese’s piece, you’ll start to see some consistency around empowering the user.

On Madison Avenue, there is a lot of talk about empowering the user but the funny thing is, it’s done completely opaque, without user permission (or with permission under a ton of legalese), and the user has been given no access to their data…. among many other things.

Social media has pushed us a little closer to a world of VRM….incrementally- but at least in the right direction.  In social channels, users have a voice – one that can be exponentially radiated.   If I have a bad experience on Delta, a simple 140 character tweet can help solve the problem where not-so-long-ago, it took a penned letter and weeks of waiting to hear back from them.

In The Thank You Economy, Gary Vaynerchuck writes, now customers’ demands for authenticity, originality, creativity, honesty, and good intent have made it necessary for companies and brands to revert to a level of customer service rarely seen since our great-grandparents’ day, when business owners often knew their customers personally, and gave them individual attention.


The power of social media (individual voices) and VRM (individuals being empowered, commercially or otherwise) will put us ahead in the next decade.  It’s a bigger opportunity than search (SEM*).  So, this is where I’m focused for now and hiring people and meeting people who want to experiment here.   If you do, please contact me.

* SEM:  probably one of the purest forms of intentcasting which plays into the VRM space but is not entirely the VRM space.


18 Apr 15:01

Adventures in Street Food

by agavin

Restaurant: Morning Glory Street Food Restaurant

Location: Hoi An

Date: March 25, 2014

Cuisine: Vietnamese

Rating: Super Yum


Everyone always talks about how great the street food is in Vietnam.

Things like crab fritters that have been sitting out for hours in the heat and humidity.

Or miscellaneous stuff waiting to assemble.

Our tasty maggot air dried meats.

Well, those of us who aren’t quite THAT adventurous (or don’t fancy a reasonable chance at several days glued to the toilet) might consider stepping up to $10-15 a person and the glory that is Morning Glory Street Food, a more “upscale” rendering of the classics.

The local beer. They don’t really like to sell you anything else. You can ask, but you’ll earn a snarl.

White Rose Dumplings. Famous soft steamed rice flour dumplings filled with ground shrimp. As promised, these are lighter than the traditional Chinese (Har Gow) variety.

Barbecued Pork with Rice Paper. Marinated BBQ pork with peanut sauce, fresh herbs, star fruit, and green banana.

As usual with these dishes, you roll up a spring roll.

Cao Lau noodles with marinated pork. The “classic” Hoi An dish with Japanese, Chinese, and French influences. Thick, homemade rice noodles with tender marinated pork, fresh herbs, and croutons in a light brother.

Not quite as good as the version we had the night before, but still delicious.

Banh Mi with Hoi An Sausage and marinated pork. A local version of the classic Vietnamese sandwich.

Fresh Mackerel in Banana Leaf. Cubes of marinated fresh mackerel with chopped wood-ear mushrooms, mung bean vermicelli, fresh turmeric and spices wrapped in banana leaves and chargrilled.

Very interesting AND tasty.

Chicken with ginger sauce. Stir fried chicken with ginger, onions and celery. Sort of like a Chinese American dish.

Papaya Salad with Sesame Beef. Shredded green papaya and fresh herbs topped with crispy dried roasted sesame beef. These “salads” the Vietnamese make are amazing.

Roast Duck Leg served with five space and shallot dressing and sticky rice. Yum!

Smoky eggplant with minced pork. I’m not usually a big fan of this kind of “mushy” eggplant, but this was great.

Prawn Curry. Five elements: sweet, sour, hot, bitter, and salty. Prawns, eggplant, poatoes, onions, lime leaves, lemongrass, and coconut milk.

Overall, this might have been the best meal we had in Vietnam, certainly in the top 2-3. While the cuisine isn’t “fancy” the combination of ingredients and fresh flavors came together in a spectacular way.

For more Vietnam dining reviews, click here.

18 Apr 15:28

LaCie security breach exposed customer personal info

by Erica Ogg

If you’ve ever bought anything directly from LaCie, you should know that their website had a serious security breach from March 2013 through March 2014. Customer names, addresses, and credit card info were exposed, and usernames and passwords may have been too. LaCie’s site has details on what action you should take if your personal info was stolen.

18 Apr 15:05

bcndn63: Vancouver Trolley Bus 1954 by OAChris on Flickr.

by illustratedvancouver
17 Apr 15:07

Twitter Favorites: [izs] The "10x" idea is lazy ableist talent-fixated mythology that leads to lazy entitled douchebag programmers. Work hard, be nice, listen.

the isaacs @izs
The "10x" idea is lazy ableist talent-fixated mythology that leads to lazy entitled douchebag programmers. Work hard, be nice, listen.
17 Apr 15:55

Twitter Favorites: [atsmath] I didn't love Acquia to begin with, but after what they just did to @hadsie I'm pretty disgusted #drupal #wtf

Samantha Marx @atsmath
I didn't love Acquia to begin with, but after what they just did to @hadsie I'm pretty disgusted… #drupal #wtf
17 Apr 17:46

Twitter Favorites: [DenimAndSteel] Our research into the Vancouver startup community for @weareyvr is now online for all to see:

Denim & Steel @DenimAndSteel
Our research into the Vancouver startup community for @weareyvr is now online for all to see:
18 Apr 16:28

1999 Broadway Corridor transit study found LRT most expensive, predicted bus service would be at capacity . . . now

by Geoff

As the Translink Mayors Council works to create a regional transportation investment plan to put before voters, the findings of a 1999 study on Broadway Corridor transit options seem eerily prescient.

As those long-ago planners predicted, bus rapid transit on the corridor is bursting at the seams, well ahead of their 2021 estimate,  and light rail options won’t do the job. That left a Skytrain tunnel option at least to Arbutus (combined with rapid bus to UBC) as the best option, because it’s faster, less disruptive and cheaper overall than LRT.

The $200,000 joint study by Translink, Vancouver and the province predicted that rapid bus service from Commercial to UBC would have “its capacity tested in 15 to 20 years.”

Fifteen years later and the 99 B-Line carries more riders than the Millennium Line, despite help from a range of new crosstown routes introduced in the meantime.

(A more recent Translink study has confirmed that it’s time for rail on the corridor.)

The favoured solution in 1999? The report did not make recommendations, but it is striking to see light rail transit was beaten by Skytrain for overall cost and operating cost, not to mention impacts on the nighbourhoods west of Commercial.

As the 1999 report concluded,

“LRT from Commercial to UBC (Alternative 2) has the highest capital cost and annual operating cost. It is also by far the most expensive way of attracting new riders to transit. Rapid Bus (Alternative 1) has the lowest capital cost and is the cheapest way to attract new transit riders.

“SkyTrain to Arbutus (plus Rapid Bus to UBC (Alternative 6) has an intermediate capital cost and an operating cost comparable to Rapid Bus. It has the highest number of new riders and is between Rapid Bus and LRT in terms of cost per new rider. SkyTrain alone is the most expensive technology on a per km basis; however, when combined with Rapid Bus to UBC, the combination costs less than LRT.

“Overall, the study finds that while LRT is high in ridership, if it is designed for competitive operating speed it introduces the greatest impacts by displacing traffic, parking,access and pedestrians. LRT also has the greatest construction impact.

“Rapid Bus may be viewed as an effective interim solution; however, over time it could evolve to a more ‘separated’ operation and resemble LRT in terms of its impact on traffic, parking and other uses of the corridor. Further, its capacity will be tested in 15-20 years.”

18 Apr 17:34

Node + MongoDB + iOS

A two-part tutorial from Michael Katz is a good place to get started writing services. Node makes a great API server. And it’s fun.

How To Write A Simple Node.js/MongoDB Web Service for an iOS App

How to Write An iOS App that Uses a Node.js/MongoDB Web Service

The tutorials use MongoDB. I haven’t had a good reason for a NoSQL database myself lately — but my early career, back in the ’90s, was all about schema-less databases, and I have a major soft spot for them.

(I’m digressing now.)

Frontier’s database was a hierarchy of tables. Each table could contain anything, including other tables — including even your scripts.

To run a script named myScript inside the bar table which was inside the foo table, you’d write

If that script took a string as a parameter, say, you could use a local variable or reference any string anywhere in the database:, for example. This was all presented with a user interface, navigable and editable.

I haven’t seen a database like that anywhere else since then. So easy and intuitive. Great for productivity. (It was within this laboratory that such things as templated and scripted websites, blogs, RSS, OPML, and XML-RPC were invented and/or fleshed-out.)

18 Apr 18:09

I’m going to do this in the MozYVR office in June. Shh. If...

I’m going to do this in the MozYVR office in June. Shh. If you work at Mozilla in Vancouver you’re not going to remember this by then. Mwa ha ha.

18 Apr 18:11

khymeira: narcodigitalhedonist: Akiba by fushiana on...



Akiba by fushiana on Flickr.

An aggressive breed of electro-transmission

18 Apr 18:15

"You once referred to computing as pop culture. It is. Complete pop culture. I’m not against pop..."

You once referred to computing as pop culture.

It is. Complete pop culture. I’m not against pop culture. Developed music, for instance, needs a pop culture. There’s a tendency to over-develop. Brahms and Dvorak needed gypsy music badly by the end of the 19th century. The big problem with our culture is that it’s being dominated, because the electronic media we have is so much better suited for transmitting pop-culture content than it is for high-culture content. I consider jazz to be a developed part of high culture. Anything that’s been worked on and developed and you [can] go to the next couple levels.

One thing about jazz aficionados is that they take deep pleasure in knowing the history of jazz.

Yes! Classical music is like that, too. But pop culture holds a disdain for history. Pop culture is all about identity and feeling like you’re participating. It has nothing to do with cooperation, the past or the future — it’s living in the present. I think the same is true of most people who write code for money. They have no idea where [their culture came from] — and the Internet was done so well that most people think of it as a natural resource like the Pacific Ocean, rather than something that was man-made. When was the last time a technology with a scale like that was so error-free? The Web, in comparison, is a joke. The Web was done by amateurs.

- From Interview with Alan Kay, the second grumpiest programmer in the world. (The first is Ted Nelson). (via programmingisterrible)
18 Apr 18:19

"In all honesty, having Amazon (or any e-commerce site) send me marketing emails which draw my..."

“In all honesty, having Amazon (or any e-commerce site) send me marketing emails which draw my attention back to items I’ve already viewed to coax me to buy feels invasive and voyeuristic, and will make me less likely to purchase as a result. It’s a good technique, don’t get me wrong, and I can’t deny its effectiveness. But I’m the kind of customer who will steadfastly spend money when I decide to, and will respond to marketing techniques like the ones here by clamping down and withholding when I would otherwise make a purchase.”

- Actual comment I just included in the unsubscribe form for Amazon marketing emails (via anoemi)
18 Apr 18:28

southern-feminism: Inclusive children go far.


Inclusive children go far.

18 Apr 21:07

Why So Blue?

by Kelly
I don't know if you've noticed, but I love blue.

In the olden days, before the internet and according to my son, when I lived in a cave and cooked over a pit with the newly discovered fire, we did all our charts in shades of grey.  Because only the execs had color printers.   As a result, people were so excited to create some colorful reports for the big giant heads that things got a little out of control. Some of the reports were so horrific in color, that I think they may have caused color blindness.

As a result, when I was asked to use color, I used blue.  Blue is a reasonable choice - almost everyone likes blue - both men and women, and it's associated with calm and clarity. It doesn't conflict with other colors or make a statement. Also, if someone chooses to print your blueful report on a black and white printer, you can pretty much trust the shades of grey that will come out.

Then there's color combining.  I'm not very good at that and find it especially difficult when I'm to use brand colors. Things can quickly get out of control when you are trying to use color to imply significance or range and then have to add 2 or 3 other colors that have are not responsible for anything other than making the brand recognizable. Somehow, you have to let the reader know that one color means good or bad, but the orange chart over here is orange because we like orange, even though both charts represent the measure sales. Same goes for the pink trend chart - we like pink too.

I'd suggest that if you do use a lot of colors - then use one dark color (blue or black) as your indicator/highlight/alert throughout the whole dashboard and stay away from diverging colors on the rest of the dash. That is, unless you are good at color and enjoy the challenge.

Click to read Smithsonian post (image on right is color blind simulated)
I'm fascinated by color blind people - I can't image the world that they see. I recently read this post regarding the possibility that Van Gogh was color blind. The image on the right is what they think he might have been seeing.

Isn't that amazing? I find the original deeper and richer and wondered if his other pieces would look so different.

Can you imagine this sunlit harvest without red? It twists my brain trying to figure out what someone would be seeing that would translate into this.

Someone needs to invent color blindness glasses.

You can load images into this color blindness checker by Kazunori Asada that was used to produce the image above. This is incredibly handy for dashboarding. You can take an image of your dashboard and test if it still makes logical sense to a color blind person.

I decided to look at some map options for diverging colors, to see how they might look to color blind people.  Here's some standard diverging pallets and what they would look like to a person with color blindness. Note: the most common types are protanopia and deuteropia (approx. 5-8% men).

For the most common types of color blindness, red and green result in golden greeny browns and yellows. For me, the most disappointing is the temperature (blue/green/yellow/red) color palette. It really loses it's effectiveness under all lenses. I like what happens under the tritanopia lens, but the red is a bit startling. I don't dislike any of thse color combo's but they aren't what I would have expected if I was using the these combos.

Here's what happens with blues (sequential and diverging):

Notice I left out the red? It seems that there's not much point if it just turns into the same color as green and red has such a strong association with 'bad' or 'look out' that I rarely use it. And I'll probably never use it to make something stand out again after seeing this. I do like what happens with the gold/blue and green/blue diverging and will consider using those in the future.

What makes me blue?  When my work gets dismissed as 'pretty'.

I once had a badboss who regularly commented in meetings that once the dashboard was finished (in 6-8 months because this was a stack BI department), "...we'll give it to Kelly to make it pretty." My passive-aggressive response?  "Just make it blue."

18 Apr 18:54

I am the New Flickr. I am an Ass.

Alan Levine, CogDogBlog, April 21, 2014

Alan Levine is not too pleased with the new Flickr interface. Neither, for that matter, am I. It's getting increasingly difficult to do the things with photos that give them meaning, like adding notes and comments. The 'sets' have been renamed 'albums' and are basically invisible now. I'm not sure how people can view my photos, if at all, other than through the photostream.

[Link] [Comment]
18 Apr 06:00

You Don't Read Code, You Explore It

by James Hague
(I wrote this in 2012 and rediscovered it in January of this year. I didn't feel comfortable posting it so close to Peter Seibel's excellent Code is Not Literature, so I held off for a few months.)

I used to study the program listings in magazines like Dr. Dobb's, back when they printed the source code to substantial programs. While I learned a few isolated tricks and techniques, I never felt like I was able to comprehend the entirety of how the code worked, even after putting in significant effort.

It wasn't anything like sitting down and reading a book for enjoyment; it took work. I marked up the listings and kept notes as I went. I re-read sections multiple times, uncovering missed details. But it was easy to build-up incorrect assumptions in my head, and without any way of proving them right or wrong I'd keep seeing what I wanted to instead of the true purpose of one particular section. Even if the code was readable in the software engineering sense, boundary cases and implicit knowledge lived between the lines. I'd understand 90% of this function and 90% of that function and all those extra ten percents would keep accumulating until I was fooling myself if I thought I had the true meaning in my grasp.

That experience made me realize that read isn't a good verb to apply to a program.

It's fine for hunting down particular details ("let's see how many buffers are allocated when a file is loaded"), but not for understanding the architecture and flow of a non-trivial code base.

I've worked through tutorials in the J language--called "labs" in the J world--where the material would have been opaque and frustrating had it not been interactive. The presentation style was unnervingly minimal: here's a concept with some sentences of high-level explanation, and here are some lines of code that demonstrate it. Through experimentation and trial and error, and simply because I typed new statements myself, I learned about the topic at hand.

Of particular note are Ken Iverson's interactive texts on what sound like dry, mathematical subjects, but they take on new life when presented in exploratory snippets. That's even though they are reliant on J, the most mind-melting and nothing-at-all-like-C language in existence.

I think that's the only way to truly understand arbitrary source code. To load it up, to experiment, to interactively see how weird cases are handled, then keep expanding that knowledge until it encompasses the entire program. I know, that's harder to do with C++ than with Erlang and Haskell (and more specifically, it's harder to do with languages where functions can have wide-ranging side effects that can change the state of the system in hidden ways), and that's part of why interactive, mostly-functional languages can be more pleasant than C++ or Java.

(If you liked this, you might enjoy, Don't Be Distracted by Superior Technology.)
18 Apr 22:07

“Blogs are the Vinyl Records of the Internet”


Clarence Fisher, Remote Access, April 21, 2014

I don't think this metaphor works. I accept that "personal blogging is retreating in favour of corporate social media sites such as Facebook, twitter, and tumblr." But it isn't clear to me that "Just as vinyl records are still listened to, and considered better than the digital format, they exist without having a real impact on the music industry." I think that the internet would be very different without blogs. There has to be more to life than Upworthy and Huffington Post.

[Link] [Comment]
18 Apr 20:23

Bike the Blossoms in Vancouver, 26 April

by Joe Goodwill

The annual Bike the Blossoms Ride in Vancouver is just around the corner!

It is presented this year by Velopalooza and the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival.

The Bike the Blossoms Ride offers the opportunity to cycle along a well-marked route, enjoying the new cherry blossoms, in the company of many other relaxed and happy cyclists. It starts from 11 a.m., with the departure point at China Creek South Park, which is at the corner of East Broadway and Clarke Drive.

Note that Bike the Blossoms is not a bike race. You can start when you want and stop when you want. Participation is free. When we do it we love to stop along the way for lunch and coffee.
Bike the Blossoms Ride in Vancouver - Average Joe Cyclist

Bear in mind that the date is subject to change by Nature – so keep an eye on Velapalooza’s web site.

Also, VanCycle Mobile Bike Shop will be there to help with any bike problems. All kinds of people and bikes show up for the ride – below are two of them.

Bike the Blossoms Ride in Vancouver - Average Joe Cyclist

Bike the Blossoms Ride in Vancouver - Average Joe CyclistAnd all kinds of interesting people stop for coffee along the way – here are three women who did the ride in fancy dress. We met them at a Terra Breads coffee shop.

Hope to see you there on Saturday!

The post Bike the Blossoms in Vancouver, 26 April appeared first on Average Joe's Cycling Blog.

18 Apr 19:05

The episode in which I cause the sky to fall on journalism as we know it

by yelvington

I was part of a panel discussion of metrics and analytics in the newsroom a couple of weeks ago at the Journalism Interactive conference at the University of Maryland. I approached the subject with some trepidation. Some journalists are resistant to the very idea of measurement, often downright innumerate, and sometimes hostile to any idea that doesn't lead us all back into the honey and clover of the 1980s, before the Internet came along and turned it all into snakes and bees.

But I was heartened to find that the room was full of people who were clearly very interested in the subject and asking very good questions.

The panel was covered by the American Journalism Review, which produced a main story about the panel discussion and a short sidebar noting that we are awarding small spiffs to reporters whose bylined stories contribute to traffic growth goals.

Without getting bogged down in detail: Each reporter has a stretch goal equivalent to a 5% monthly traffic increase. The goals are individual -- each beat is different. The program, which also is in place at the Amarillo Globe-News and probably some other Morris Publishing Group sites, is intended to reward staffers for paying attention to the metrics and learning how to increase reader engagement. Storytelling techniques, SEO, social media engagement and choice of subject all play into generating results, but it should be noted that each reporter still has an assigned beat. This isn't a case where people are being encouraged to write about Honey Boo-Boo and Paula Deen -- except, of course when they are here and do something newsworthy. And "here" being Savannah, there are ample opportunities.

As I told the group, the program has been helpful in leading our staff to execute better on our goals of continuous news coverage and social engagement.

But it didn't take long until the knees jerked:

Don't know Steve @Yelvington but as former SMNer who cares about this paper, I feel he's crossing an ethical line:

— Sean Harder (@SeanHarder) April 12, 2014

and ...

Not sure dangling $100 in front of ravaged newsroom, emphasizing viral appeal over real news is way to go @yelvington

— Sean Harder (@SeanHarder) April 12, 2014

and ...

And I'm sorry, but when small town journalism goes the way of Gawker and click-bait, our society is doomed

— Sean Harder (@SeanHarder) April 12, 2014

... and so on, for a total of nine tweets over two days.

Let me be clear: This is bullshit.

None of it comes as a surprise; in my 20+ years of trying to get print-oriented people to play the digital game, I've been accused of being unethical for giving away content for free, charging for content, holding stories to coordinate with print, running stories online before print subscribers could read them first, allowing people to comment under pseudonyms, not allowing people to comment under pseudonyms, "censoring" racists and trolls, running news photos that the "family newspaper" found objectionable, running photos without full captions and IDs of everyone pictured ... it goes on and on. We do face legitimate ethical challenges in this business, but all too often I see journalists using a claim of "ethics" as a lazy defense against change that they see as somehow threatening.

But here is what I actually told the audience in College Park:

  • Metrics matter because this is a business, and you can't manage what you can't measure.
  • The very act of counting creates a scoreboard. All scoreboards are incentive systems. It is in our nature to be competitive.
  • We have to be very careful about how we talk about our numbers. Context matters. Numbers without context can be dangerous. A scoreboard that leads people to behave in ways counter to your strategic objectives will damage you.

Journalism requires an audience. So does the business that supports journalism. We can not put journalism on a sustainable path by ignoring the signals that tell us how well we are doing with our audiences. Pageviews are an imperfect measure, but they are an easily understandable metric and one that from a business perspective maps directly to the generation of advertising inventory.

We have to grow our online audience engagement. It is not optional. It is not unethical to measure our success, and it is not unethical to reward people who learn to better contribute to that success. I really don't think there is much danger of turning into Gawker or Jan Skutch turning into Nick Denton. Not that there's anything wrong with any of that -- we're just playing different roles. We all know who we are and what we're trying to do, and a night on the town as a reward for hitting a growth goal isn't going to change that.

19 Apr 00:27

Mossbrook Fire: 10 Days After Update

by bbum
Car Windshield After Fire

Lots of people are asking about various events related to the fire. This is a summary of the first 10 days of our adventure broken down as a series of short comments. A bit of a ramble in no particular order, I suspect, but here it is.

I chose the photo at left as a reminder of all the things we didn’t lose — no humans were hurt and all of the pets except one parakeet made it through unscathed — and that even such a destructive force as a fire can yield surprising beauty.

In the days that followed the event, the San Jose Fire Department sent crews around fairly often. Not just to ensure no hot spots remained, but also to use the event as a means of learning to fight such firees more effectively in the future. It was very interesting to be a part of the conversations as to how they’ll modify strategy in the future and what worked for this event. I’ll continue to collect photo streams and other information on the Photo Dump post (in fact, there will be a new stream on that post shortly after this is posted).

It was kind of funny how apologetic the fire fighters were about the destruction they caused in the house (which was quite minor compared to the destruction caused by the actual fire). I finally stopped the two that were walking me through after the fire, pointed out my kitchen window at the utter devastation of the house next door, and told them that saving my house was repayment 100 times over vs. any damage they may have caused.

Now that the laundry room — the inside portion of the house most severely impacted — has been cleared, it has become very clear just how close we were to losing most or all of the house. The roof is beyond charred. Take a log from your fireplace after a roaring fire? Yeah, that’s our laundry room ceiling.

While the wall burned through on the outside, it didn’t burn through the drywall. If we had the original thin wooden wall paneling in that room, it would be a very different picture. Drywall makes a good fire break.

Everything in the laundry room is a total loss save for any metal or ceramic pieces. The washer, dryer, and utility sink all partially melted.

The sliding door is gone, and the frame melted through. There is a pool of aluminum on the floor.

Water got into some of the slate floor tiles and caused them to explode as the water boiled. Not enough to need to replace the tiles, though.

We had California Closets based shelving/storage in the laundry room. It was OK, but sub-optimal. We are going to pay the difference between replacing that and fixing it properly and use this as an opportunity to fix it the way we want it. This also means we can fix the dryer vent and all the plumbing, both of which are… stupid.

Our foam roof likely also contributed to the preservation of the house. The straight tar/gravel original roof melts in a fire and drips, basically, raw fuel onto the fire below. While the covering on the foam is pretty toasty, and entirely gone in some spots, the closed cell foam underneath is fine. In fact, our roof should still be watertight. Apparently, that’ll be tested next week as there is rain in the forecast.

While the foam is intact, it won’t be for long. Because the cantilevered eaves are completely toasted, they have to be replaced. That means replacing at least 3x the length of the overhang on the other side to support the cantilever.

But they can’t simply be cut back to the first beam because that creates a hinge effect that weakens the structural integrity of the roof.

Thus, they roof decking will have to be cut back to the first, second, and possibly the peak on that slope of the house. Likely, it’ll be a mix of cut backs to try and preserve some of the wood.

Bottom line: The foam roof on that slope of our roof is coming entirely off.

Electrical Panel & Laundry Wall

The electrical infrastructure on the house is completely toasted. More likely than not, there will have to be channels cut through the foam on the roof all over the house to run new wiring pretty much everywhere needed.

Same goes for the water and gas, but that is much much simpler infrastructure than the spider web that is the electrical wiring throughout the house.

At least we’ll be able to fix our thermostat! And add an outlet here and there!

A temporary power pole has been installed in the back yard. But the City won’t grant a permit for hooking it up until some other bit of paperwork is completed. This is, apparently, a new requirement and our contractors are trying to figure out why.

We should have power on site in the next week. At the moment, we have extension cords running to two neighbor’s houses to power the various filters needed for the fish and to power the gigantic air filtration unit brought in by the cleaning company.

Yes, the neighbors will be able to bill us for power used and insurance will cover it. More importantly, by doing this we don’t have a generator in the neighborhood running 24/7.

The vultures and ambulance chasers have finally gone away. Within hours of the event and for days after, we had a stream of contractors and public insurance policy adjusters show up trying to convince us to hire them and sell us on the notion that our insurance company is The Enemy.

It was bad enough that I told two of them that stepping foot on my property would be considered trespassing as they were no longer welcome and they could take it up with the local police.

This isn’t to say that I wouldn’t be willing to use a policy adjuster, if it were really necessary. But, no, that isn’t happening unless there is some issue with the insurance company (so far, no signs at all that there will be). And I’m sure as hell not going to use one that showed up on my property after chasing down the news copters.

The insurance company (State Farm) has been, thus far, great to work with. Their general approach is to offer full solutions, never push any given provider, and allow us to hire whomever we want to do any particular bit of work.

So far, the recovery efforts involve the following providers:

    Jon R Crase Construction
    We were introduced to Crase on the evening of the fire. They are on the short list of companies that the fire department uses to secure a site once the flames are out. As well, Crase is used by State Farm to double-check whatever contractors one might hire. And, most importantly, they have Eichler experience. Representatives from Crase have been on site and have consistently gone well above and beyond any contractually expected services. And they have that Eichler experience.
    ServPro is doing a pack out cleaning & storage. That is, they are packing out everything in the house that was affected by smoke/fire, inventorying everything, cleaning anything that needs to be cleaned, and then storing it until the house is ready to be moved back into.

    For all intents and purposes, it is as if we are moving out and in to our own house.

    This includes everything in the garage. All those nuts, bolts, screws, nails, and hardware that Roger and I have been collecting over the years? Yeah. Packed. Inventoried. Cleaned. And eventually returned.

    Custom Craft Urethane
    Keith Nokes of Custom Craft, who did our roof after the last remodel, was on site with ladder up before we had even started to consider how to pursue reconstruction. He wanted to see what’s what and offer any information he could. He immediately volunteered that he would want to be present for any roof work regardless of who we hired (some insurance companies would insist on particular people to do certain tasks). Yeah… no… Keith / Custom Craft will be doing our roof. Period. End of story. There is no one else we would remotely consider.
    Horizon Energy Systems
    While the solar wasn’t damaged, it is going to have to come off the roof for the reconstruction as the roof under it will be mostly replaced. Horizon installed it in the first place and did great work (the linked post has some insight into the madness of an Eichler roof). Yes, there were some significant challenges to the original installation, but Horizon has since modified their installation procedures because of the mis-adventures on our roof. Out of pocket, we’ll be adding additional rails for mounting more panels (but will hold on adding panels until we have electricity again).

What’s next?

Unlike a remodel, half of the demolition was unplanned and performed by a the monster that is an uncontrolled fire.

Thus, none of the planning that would normally have taken place prior to applying the first SawzAll has occurred.

The immediate next steps — now that the clean up is largely done to the point that doesn’t require demolition — is to secure the various permits with the City of San Jose. To that end, the City sent out an inspector to assess damage, write a report and put it on file. With that in place, pulling the needed permits should be relatively straightforward. Should be.

We also need full design documents drawn up for the floor plan of the house. On these will go the schematics for any work to be done. Because the spiderweb that is the electrical is destroyed at the panel, it is likely that the work will reach all corners of the house.

Given that the roof will be torn up, the walls redone, the laundry room rebuilt, etc… we’ll likely also use this as an opportunity to fix a few things here and there.

18 Apr 01:42

Twitter Favorites: [lifewinning] So Sneakers is about the NSA contracting to a lean startup to perform domestic surveillance baaaaasically?

Ingrid Burrington @lifewinning
So Sneakers is about the NSA contracting to a lean startup to perform domestic surveillance baaaaasically?
18 Apr 04:33

Twitter Favorites: [mig14] PJ Stock hates stats because he can't do math or think critically.

Megan Fowler @mig14
PJ Stock hates stats because he can't do math or think critically.
19 Apr 04:29

Why ‘just’? That’s a way more awesome...

Why ‘just’? That’s a way more awesome superpower than most. I want that superpower.

19 Apr 04:46

The Quality of Space

by (Melissa Bruntlett)
This weekend, after over a year and a half of waiting, the Velo Family has returned to one of our favourite Cascadian cities, Portland, Oregon. Making the trip down via rental car, thanks to some driving credit left over from our car trouble on our West Coast trip at Christmas, we got into Portland in the wee hours Friday morning. Excitement of course meant our children were up bright and early, despite Chris and I getting a mere six hours of sleep, so a slow paced day was in the cards for our first day in Portlandia.

We started and ended our day in the lovely square
A slow paced, easy day for us still meant lots of walking, doing the loop from our apartment near Pioneer Square, through to the Pearl District, down to the Waterfront and then back home. As night came, we sat down in Director Park, a lovely open square at SW 9th and Yamhill, to enjoy some hot chocolate and let our kids run around and burn off the last of their energy. Watching them laugh and play in such an inviting space made me recall that this is how we spent most of our day - sitting in public squares enjoying the scenery while our children ran around, chasing water in the fountains and just enjoying a well built public space.

Quality public spaces are something that I've come to really appreciate during our travels. It seems we always manage to find them, and they end up becoming a central part of our visits. It's actually something we miss in our own hometown of Vancouver, where green parks off the beaten path are common but a good public gathering place in the city centre is hard to find. 

Our kids messing around in Jamison Square just 
before lunch
The importance of a great gathering space cannot be undervalued. A central place, near cafes and restaurants and with tables and chairs provide people of all ages a place to sit outdoors and enjoy a a midday snack, meet up with friends, or, in our case, relax while doing a little sightseeing. They are also very welcoming for families, many times creating an environment where kids from all over the city and beyond join together in the freedom of play, and possibly even make a new friend. Of course, water features are always a welcome addition, meaning endless hours of fun for children, and a refreshing place to cool tired feet for the older "kids". Most importantly, though, is that these quality public spaces are free to anyone regardless of age, race, or economic means, which is what truly brings a city and it's people together.

Tomorrow we set off on more crazy adventures, likely of the two-wheeled variety, and I am certain that we will find even more spaces to relax as a family, if the weather cooperates. Our travels in the nearly eight years of being a family have taken us to some fantastic cities, all of whom seem to understand the value of building gathering places for their citizens and visitors. I am thankful to be afforded the opportunity to enjoy these open, welcoming spaces with my family, and for the fond memories created each and every time
A midday run at the Tom McCall Park along the riverfront
14 Apr 06:23

Google – Turn of the screw

by windsorr

RFM AvatarSmall






  • Google is the only winner in the Android ecosystem.
  • June is becoming one of the most important months of the year for the mobile ecosystem with both Apple and Google holding developer events.
  • Hardware is pretty much commoditised meaning that the features which are increasingly going to make the difference for users are being revealed at these sorts of events.
  • Microsoft’s BUILD conference (see here) last month was exactly the same.
  • Apple is likely to launch iOS 8 with a range of new features (see here) while it looks like Google will be taking more and more control of Android.
  • Hence I suspect that Google I/O will showcase substantial improvements being made to Google applications and services.
  • Tw in particular that I am looking for are a substantial improvement in the Google Calendar application and functionality enhancements to the Google Camera App.
  • While these improvements are good for users, it is turning the screw even tighter on the long suffering handset makers.
  • Google is slowly but surely taking control of Android by moving functionality out of the open source Android Open Source Platform (AOSP) and into Google Mobile Services (GMS).
  • AOSP is open source but GMS is not, meaning that handset makers must comply with Google’s standards or be cut-off from all of its applications.
  • In emerging markets this is less important but in the West, Google Play is critical to the user experience meaning that neither operators nor handset makers can afford to be cut off.
  • This effectively means that Google is taking over the user experience in Android and any hope that the operators vendors may have had in differentiating their offerings has now evaporated.
  • This will ensure that brutal competition continues in Android devices meaning cheaper devices with better hardware specification in the hands of users.
  • Better devices with Google services will mean higher usage and more traffic for Google to monetise.
  • It also means commodity margins (if any) for the Android vendors and a bit pipe future for the operators.
  • Samsung is the only Android vendor making any money at the moment but its recent decision to back off from developing its own services looks set to push its margins towards those of its peers.
  • There is only one company in the Android ecosystem worth taking a serious look at the moment and that is Google.
  • Yahoo! and Microsoft are the other two ecosystem players which I think have potential that everyone is currently ignoring.