Parasitic Photography

May 12, 2014 at 9:42 pm (internet, odds) (, , , , , )

Do you still use a camera? I don’t really anymore. I still have one – digital naturally – and I have one on my phone. And on my tablet. And on my laptop. But I don’t very often use any of them and this paradoxically is down to social media.

Wait- doesn’t social media encourage the use of cameras on devices? Yes, lots – and this is why I only use my camera if I am doing something that is not a generally public event. I always used to use my camera for a couple of reasons:

  • When I want to explicitly send someone a picture to show them something.
  • When I am doing that I personally want to preserve.
  • Taking pictures of the kids.

I am not a photographer, so never really used a camera for the joy of finding and taking a good picture (although I do enjoy seeing good photographs that talented others often take). So, I am finding that in general, when I would have previously used a camera – when out on a trip, on holiday or when watching the kids do something – most of the time I don’t need to take my own photos. And that is where social media comes in.

I still take a camera on holiday, but these days, the kids tend to do the recording for me, as they want to be sharing their holiday with their friends via social media. They are very prolific in their picture-taking, so these days, mostly I just take a copy of their pictures when we’re done. I hardly ever take pictures on holiday, yet return with far more pictures than when I used to!

When the kids are performing somewhere, it is usually as part of a group and once again there are lots of people who will be recording, and later posting, the event via social media. In some cases the groups they are with will actively be using records of their events in their own social media publicity so official photographs are likely to be close-ups and plentiful. Yes, I sacrifice control – I don’t get to chose what the pictures are of – but there are benefits too (more on that in a moment).

If I go on trips or events myself, do I still take pictures? It depends. If I was going to a gig and it seemed big and public enough, there is a significantly high possibility that someone will be posting pictures on social media during or after the gig and I can look at those after the event. If it was a family trip, well I can rely on the kids again or maybe this is when I would take a few photos myself.

A new area where I might have started taking pictures is technical conferences. I used to wait for slides to come out and was just getting to the point where I might have used my phone camera to take a picture of a slide to record it, when social media steps in again. These days I can follow on social media and if an interesting or number laden slide pops up then someone in the audience will almost certainly tweet it for me. Either that of most slides, or a variant of them, will often appear on sites such as slideshare.

So, in an era of social media it is very often possible to avoid interrupting your own experiences with a screen providing there are enough people around you who are taking photos – who feel like the event hasn’t happened unless it has been snapped, recorded and posted for others to see. So whilst some may lament the interruptions that screens are having in our experiences, there are some positive sides – selfishly, I can preserve events for posterity, but not have to worry about seeing it through a screen myself.

Psychologist Sherry Turkle calls this drive for recording “the documented life” and discusses how many will interrupt their own experience in order to make sure it is captured with a photo. I like the recounting of the following story (from the above article):

“Last spring, I had the occasion to spend a day with the actor and comedian Aziz Ansari discussing our mutual interest in the psychology of texting. As we walked through Los Angeles, people approached him every few minutes not to ask for an autograph, but to demand a photograph. Mr. Ansari is gracious to his fans. He explained that instead of a photograph, he would offer a conversation. He inquired about their taste in music, what they liked about his performances, his stand-up, his sitcom “Parks and Recreation.” His fans were mollified but they were rarely happy. They had to walk away with nothing on their phones.

She has a lot to say on this and the wider subject of lives mediated by technology.

Depending on others like this – is this fair? Is this ethical? I don’t know. I guess people will record and post things for posterity anyway. It is somewhat parasitical to rely on them and there are issues of ownership and copyright – but then that doesn’t stop most people posting to social media and I’m pretty sure almost every license to use social media means you allow the service provider to use them as they see fit. What permissions are granted to others though to use them too? I don’t know, especially for personal use – you wouldn’t be able to re-post them as your own work naturally.

It is also one of those things that if everyone took this attitude, it wouldn’t work for anyone. There is a trade-off and many will continue to feel the need to take their own photos in order to show “there were there” regardless of others.

Sherry Turkle again:

“Technology doesn’t just do things for us. It does things to us, changing not just what we do but who we are. The selfie makes us accustomed to putting ourselves and those around us “on pause” in order to document our lives. It is an extension of how we have learned to put our conversations “on pause” when we send or receive a text, an image, an email, a call. “

Personally, I’d rather experience the things without a screen in the way, without pausing the experience, whenever I can. If I get lucky and can grab a photograph off the Internet, all good. If I can’t, well I don’t always need to subscribe to the view that I need to interrupt an experience to document it. Sometimes it’s nice simply to remember it.



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Why do we still manually change the clocks?

March 30, 2013 at 11:46 pm (odds) (, , )

As I took part in the usual twice yearly ritual this morning of “find the clock I’ve forgotten to change”, I noticed that the video was still on BST from October … And it got me thinking about how long it will be before changing clocks is a thing of the past. Not because someone finally convinces enough of a majority that we should abandon the concept, but more because all of our clocks will automatically update themselves.

Already, many smartphones, computers and tablets update themselves, either from time synchronisation over the Internet or by built-in knowledge of time zones and daylight savings formulae from around the world.

Many TVs and set top boxes will get a time signal over the air, as will digital radios. GPS is used for time setting a lot these days too and you’ve been able to get clocks that can receive the time signal (is it still from Rugby?) for ages.

So all we need now are radio/network connected ovens and microwaves, smartphones have already replaced wristwatches for many, that just leaves those cheap wall clocks that take a single AA battery.

So when you can buy cheap kids clocks in the 99p stores that auto update, I’ll know we reached the point where people will just wake up one day in March wondering why they are still feeling tired, not noticing that the clocks changed without their knowledge. And similarly there will be that odd day in October where people apparently wake up a hour early for no specific reason.

All that will be really needed then is for children’s body clocks to auto synchronise too and the transformation will be complete.


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Wii fixed it (even though they didn’t want us to)

December 28, 2012 at 12:13 pm (kids, moan, odds) (, , , , , , )

Do you get fed up with today’s “the bonnet is welded shut” mentality to consumer electronics?  I do.

Part of the issue, is that the drive for compactness is making the designs optimised for size rather than maintenance – so you get circuit boards shaped and interleaved around larger components, small ribbon connectors and carefully routed cables and so on.  You also find that you need to know the exact order in which to unscrew things and pop them apart, and then work out if something is fixed by a clip, glue, screw or something else.

But it doesn’t need to be as hard as it is.  There is also an annoying trend for hidden screws (often behind rubber feet or blanking panels that pop or stick on/off), speciality screws and one-way plastic fixings which makes the whole thing a lot more complicated than it needs to be.

But there is some hope.  The excellent site has a massive range of guides for many popular consumer electronic devices.  It is practically the haynes manual for electronics.  Haynes themselves do have some computer related manuals, and a wide range of novelty manuals (sold ‘for kids’ – but they don’t say how big or small the kids have to be) – including Bob the Builder, Thomas the Tank Engine, the Millenium Falcon, Thunderbirds and a few others.

But the nice thing about the website is the community around it – you can see comments from fellow fixers and see how many people have rated and attempted the fix.  It also lists the tools you need, and if you don’t have any you can help support the site by buying tools through them.  You can also buy spare parts.

So, with a slight twist of irony, whilst my car is wide open to home mechanics, I’ve long since got fed up with getting my hands dirty, and seeing what look like simple steps in a haynes manual, which are performed on prestine, clean, non-rusted-up parts, turn into hours of frustration and finding out I’ve not got the right replacement washer or something.  So today, I rely on a local, small garage round the corner and pay for their expertise and collection of tools and parts.

However with consumer electronics, I have most of the tools, already have the ‘well if its broken anyway I have nothing to lose’ mentality and enough of a background in basic electronics and computers to challenge the consumer electronics industry attempts at stopping me having a go.  And the parts are rarely rusted shut or covered in oil (the odd exception being something whose last moments might have been spent left in a rainy sandpit!  That tends to be fairly terminal).  With a little dust to clear here and there and some basic static precautions I’m quite ready to have a go.  In fact the most risky part is keeping the kids away from the carefully laid out screws and fittings as the thing comes apart – especially if something has to be taken apart and then left until a new part is sourced and delivered from some speciality online store or ebay.

And so, courtesy of a new drive from ebay. a tri-wing screwdriver, a range of small phillips screwdrivers, the guide for replacing the drive on a Wii, and some peace and quiet from the kids, we have a functioning Wii again and can now try out some of the new games the kids got for Christmas.

It’s not as hard as you might think but naturally you will void warrenties and everything is done at your own risk – but as I said, if its broken, you can either pay for repair (cash for someone else’s time), just buy a new one (what a waste) or at least see how complicated it will be to have a go yourself.

Viva the maker culture of repair not replace!


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Some Quirky Videos

December 24, 2012 at 12:16 am (art, interesting, internet, music, odds) (, , , , , , , , , )

I’ve recently got into Twitter, after having an account sitting unused for around 5 years and in that time some rather interesting, but slightly quirky videos have wandered past my twitter feed.

The Christmas Almost Number 1

First of all, a great candidate for a Christmas #1, but unfortunately they didn’t make it. They should have done.  Funny, slightly tongue in cheek, a little humble, and musically very accomplished, is “Christmas Gets Worse Every Year” by ‘The Other Guys’ – 12 students from St Andrew’s University, in Scotland.  See it for yourself here:

Thanks to the QI Elves (@qikipedia) for that one.

A Pale Blue Animation

This is a nice animation to accompany Carl Sagan’s monologue ‘A Pale Blue Dot’, itself inspired by the most distant photograph taken of Earth – a photograph from Voyager 1 from a distance of almost 4 billion miles away .  A thought provoking, perspective giving monologue with a slick animation to nicely drive home the meaning. See it here:

Thanks to Robin Ince (@robinince) posting in Brian Cox’s Twitter feed (@ProfBrianCox).

A Father-Daughter Yearly Pilgrimage

This is a nice story – every year Steve Addis takes his daughter to the same street corner in New York and takes a photo of him holding her.  Something that started when she was a year old.  This is a TED talk he shares his 15 most treasured photos from doing this, and the experience of getting a random stranger to take their picture – and how no-one has ever declined.  See it here:

I can’t remember where I first saw that one retweeted, but now I subscribe to TED Talks (@tedtalks) to make sure I don’t miss any more.

Don’t Assume Anything

This is another one that I saw courtesy of a retween from someone and then followed up.  It took me to the site of Richard Wiseman, that contains a number of very well done videos that challenge your views of the world – this is a particularly nice optical illusion.  See it here:

Now I follow Richard Wiseman (@RichardWiseman) too.

The Boy and His Robot

This is a lovely tale about a boy and is robot companion.  It combines the imaginary with the real, an idea of a fantasy future with the here-and-now and love, hate and dependency.  You might be tempted to click back after a couple of minutes to whatever you were doing before, but don’t – I thoroughly recommend watching the full 12 minutes.  Its sensitively surprising.  See it here:

Thanks to IO9 (@io9) for that one.

So a very interesting first few weeks on twitter – long may it continue.



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December 10, 2012 at 8:55 pm (interesting, odds, science) (, , , , , )

There is a lot of talk of “big data” – but I quite like the idea that big data means “more data than you have the computing power to process”.  And that isn’t new.  I particularly like this talk by John Graham-Cumming about big data – describing a big data problem they encountered … in the 1950’s.  The blurb for the conference describes it thus:

It’s 1951 and you’ve got the world’s first business computer and you’ve just been handed a Big Data problem. Go! With 2K of memory it was  powerful enough to run the then massive Lyons business.  But it wasn’t long, in 1955, before Big Data came calling in the form of a request from British Rail to calculate the shortest distance between every one of their 5,000 railway stations.

So why mention it at all?  Well there is an interesting discussion going on at the moment that we might soon be running out of metric units to describe big data.  Andrew McAfee’s blog describes the problem:

Yotta- , signifying 10^24, is the only metrix prefix left on the list. Only 20+ years ago, we didn’t anticipate needing anything beyond yotta. It seems safe to say that before the current decade is out we’ll need to convene a 20th conference to come up with some more prefixes for extraordinarily large quantities not to describe intergalactic distances or the amount of energy released by nuclear reactions, but to capture the amount of digital data in the world.

Yotta?  See wikipedia for the full list:

  • kilo = 1,000
  • mega = 1,000,000
  • giga = 1,000,000,000
  • tera = 1,000,000,000,000
  • peta = 1,000,000,000,000,000
  • exa = 1,000,000,000,000,000,000
  • zetta = 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000
  • yotta = 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

Yes, that is 1 followed by 24 zeros.  But even that might not be enough.

So what is being considered?  Well some have suggested hella for 1 followed by 27 zeros, but I think that is missing a great opportunity.  I think it should be helluva.  Then we can have distances that are a helluvameter, really heavy things that are a helluvagram and if you are into really big data then obviously you need storage that has a helluvabyte in it.

But, seeing as Google already recognises hella, we might have missed that chance.  But then Google also already knows about googols too.



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Just in time Society

December 5, 2012 at 8:41 pm (kids, moan, odds) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

Sometimes it seems like everything has to be ‘just in time’ or ‘on demand’.

Businesses don’t want to keep stock longer than they have to, so want to go for ‘just in time’ delivery to still deliver products ‘on demand’.  Food is getting faster, but we want more choice ‘on demand’.  Television is going ‘on demand’.  We use our Internet bandwidth to send us a personalised schedule of programmes to watch when with a little planning and upfront preparation we could just catch it as it streams through the air.  It is (currently at least) broadcast through the airwaves regardless of if we watch it or not – doesn’t it seem a little wasteful to then get it downloaded digitally using power, bandwidth, energy on a person-by-person basis?

But then that is kind of the point – people don’t do ‘up front’ anything anymore really.  We like our cars, partly because we don’t have to attempt to plan a journey up front.  In fact have you tried to negotiate you way around the complex mess that is the British rail system?  Fine if you want to go somewhere on the same line as your town – but just try to even work out what lines you might need to get somewhere else – its very hard work.  And forget attempting to browse to see if a short car or bus journey will take you cross country to a line that gets you somewhere more direct.  No, for the most part the ‘system’ will suggest a 60 mile trip into a major city to change trains to bring you back those 60 miles, but passing within 10 of your original starting point.

There is the promise of a future integrated transport system.  Or intelligent transport.  Or smart cities and towns and smart cars (and I don’t mean those quirky cars branded ‘smart’ – I mean cars that talk to each other and the road network).  There is the promise of an intelligent alarm clock that will know that your train is delayed by 10 minutes and so let you have an extra 10 minutes in bed, telling the coffee machine and water heater for the shower to adjust their timings accordingly.

There is the idea of fully intelligent and integrated transport systems, where buses, trains and road congestion is managed such that people pass through the system as efficiently as packets traversing computer networks.  Of course, when timetables are planned by computers down to the minute, what happens when a key dependent node is delayed by a minute and a half?

We talk of intelligent software agents that will know what you like to read and collect and order the day’s news for you, so your time is spent only on the things it has worked out you think are important.

So in order to have a ‘just in time’ and ‘on demand’ society, something is scheduling, planning and organising everything to a high precision at an ever increasing macro level.  It just won’t be people.  People are forgetting how to plan.

Or at least how to plan for themselves.  We hire ‘services’ to plan parties, weddings, meals, events.  We use ‘on demand’ media to stop worrying about reading TV schedules in advance.  We use ‘on demand’ films to not consider if we will watch a DVD enough to warrant purchasing a disk outright.  We use online shopping when we decide we need to (or want to) to not bother planning a trip to the shops.

And much of our social communication is becoming ‘on demand’ too.  In an era of mobile phones, there is much more ‘last minute’ decision making.  Don’t know where to meet up?  Txt when you arrive.  Not sure where to eat?  Use location based services to find a restaurant near your current location.  Want an impromptu coffee?  Just pop it up on Facebook and see if anyone turns up.

And messaging is going this way too.  In times of (practically for many) limitless text messages, why bother thinking too hard about what you might need to say.  One-word, non-thinking, ‘it’ll do’ answers are the norm.  Take communicating with your teenager these days.

The ‘thinking ahead’ conversation:

  • “Are you out tonight?”
  • “Yes.  Can I have a lift back?  I’ll be at xyz and finished around 10pm”.

The actual conversation (each taking up a txt message):

  • “Are you out tonight?”
  • “Yes”
  • “How are you getting home?”
  • “Can I have a lift?”
  • “Where are you?”
  • “xyz”
  • “What time will you be finished?”
  • “10pm”

Ok – actually, I lie – this is just teenagers and has been since time eternal.  I remember responding in exactly the same way myself to my parents.  The difference is each prompt and sentence costs another text.

Thinking ahead?  Who needs it.  Messaging and communications bandwidth are plentiful.



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An Elite Circle of Friends

November 1, 2012 at 9:46 pm (internet, odds) (, , , , , , , , )

Now this is an intriguing idea – from a post on failblog – run your Facebook account with a strict friends limit, say of 10.  Then when a new friend request comes in, only accept it if you are willing to delete one of your existing friends …

Well, according to Dunbar’s number, we can only cope with social groupings of 150 or less anyway – and massive Facebook friends lists don’t change that no matter how many people shout to have more than 5000 listed on the site.  In fact, what is a friend anyway on such sites?

In fact, there are social networks that limit your number of contacts – Path does in fact limit you to 150.  But if that is still too many, at the other extreme is Pair – the social networking tool to share and communicate with just one other person.

I wonder if you could combine the ideas of chatroulette (“Broadcasting nudity or suggestive content is not allowed” – yeah right) and facebook and create a friendroulette service – a social network where you always have, say, 20 friends total but every day a new friend is added and one is taken away.

Maybe it could be limited to certain common interests, or maybe just completely random (although probably assuming you speak the same language otherwise it might be a bit pointless).

Or how about a musical chairs social network?  Start with 100 friends, but everyday one drops off the list?  Maybe you get the option to keep the winner as a permanent contact?

Or maybe a network where you are only allowed to add a new friend if someone else has added you and if someone unfriends you, it randomly drops someone from your own list too.

Or possibly a network where you had to earn friendship – it would automatically add you once your paths have crossed a few times and you really have a connection and something to share with each other.  And if you stop talking to each other, the connection fades until its gone completely (a bit like an ant trail).

Geo-fenced social network?  Your list of friends only consists of those who have been in the same physical location that you are now in during a set time period – maybe the last week.  As you move around, the list of people changes creating a link across time to the same space.

Would be one way to beat the Filter Bubble at any rate and introduce a little serendipity back into meeting people.


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Quick, we need to insert an Olympics news story here

July 14, 2012 at 10:55 am (odds, security) (, , , )

Well, we are now in the odd period where the media is bored hyping the build up to the Olympics – the torch relay, whilst being special to everyone it passes, has now become business as usual for the national news – but they don’t yet have any real sport stories to publish, so they are going through the “who can find the first major problem story” phase.

Hence, we are seeing “security shambles” stories, untrained border guards, and even armed responses closing motorways.  Sometimes we manage to see a little common sense creeping in, but mostly fear, uncertainty and doubt reign supreme.  Eventually, we will be able to adjust our society to cope with increasing security pressures and security thinking may become common place (link posted with tongue firmly in cheek), but for now, we all just muddle on.

So, with this background, this post is to report on the daftest Olympic disruption story I’ve seen so far.

London Metro: Toxic Caterpillars on the march“Toxic caterpillars that could kill people with asthma are on the march, experts warn”.  But wait, as if that wasn’t bad enough … “The caterpillars, whose toxic hairs are carried in the wind, have been found in west and south-east London. They could disrupt the Olympics by infesting trees near the Games, it is claimed.”

The Telegraph: “Poisonous caterpillars could bring misery to millions of Olympic spectators“.

At least the BBC resisted mentioning the O word in their reporting – “Warning over rise in London’s toxic caterpillar population“.

So, maybe all Olympic guards being warned to look out for anyone carrying apples that have suspicious holes in them … Or maybe someone will just train homing pidgeons to drop them over Stratford.

That is infeasible I hear you cry?  Well, insert your own favourite Olympic themed movie plot threat here instead 🙂

At least it might give the media something to report on until the sports events actually start.



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Sorting Lego

February 25, 2012 at 3:50 pm (interesting, kids, odds) (, , , )

Lego.  Can you have too much?  Possibly.  It appears at least to be a question that my family is slowly attepting to answer …

Of course past a certain critical mass, you get to the point where it is almost impossible to build anything, as you have just too much to sort through to find a piece.  Couple this with the trend for increasingly specialised parts in a much wider range of colours and you get to the point where you know you have the part in question, but you also know its just one or two of … well … quite a lot, so you tend to give up before you even start.

Hence sorting Lego is kind of mandatory.  But it takes a long time and when all is said and done you are basically attempting to reduce disorder and chaos (and everyone knows how fruitful that is!)

So what do to … can Google help?  Hmm, maybe.  Here are some examples.

This shows some promise – it sorts based on size and shape.  It seems quite accurate too.  But it is very slow! At this rate bricks would never be sorted faster than they were used, so this really isn’t likely to solve the issue.

This ones a little faster, but doesn’t look like it has a huge range of bricks it recognises.  Still sorts on shape and colour – thats quite impressive.

Now the concept behind this one shows some promise.  Its not sorting lego, just beads presumably based on colour, but it looks like the kind of design that might scale up.

This is probably the most comprehensive one I’ve seen yet – but with 7 NXTs, 28 motors and 37500 bricks … well, it still only really sorts a subset of bricks.  Still its quite amazing to watch.

But you know what?  This one is just a work of art.  One motor.  No programmable brick.  Just cogs, gears, differentials and bands … its the kind of creation that one just stares at in wonderment.  By far the simplest, most elegant lego creation I’ve seen in a long time.  So what if it only sorts 2 by something bricks.  So what that it only sorts on length.  So what that you have to align bricks to load it.  This is pure lego mastery.

So.  Can anyone do better? Or are we doomed to resorting to trained chimps (sorting monkeys?) and bribed children?


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NGrams are beautiful?

December 14, 2011 at 7:07 pm (computers, internet, odds) (, , , , )

Was looking at the website “Information is Beautiful” ( and found an entry about the Google labs NGrams product that shows occurances of pairs of words in the digitised libaries of Google books, some of which go back hundreds of years.  There are some interesting ones – I liked the ‘age old debates’ such as chicken vs egg, region vs science, etc.

So I had a bit of a play myself.  War and peace was interesting – some very clear peaks in the early 20th Century as you’d expect.  Eventually I started on some more odd ball ones, including Google vs Microsoft.  Well that yielded a surprise …

Don’t know if you can see that … but just what is that peak around 1900 for Microsoft?

Well, looks like it must just be a mishap in the Google scanning of books … top of the list of books returned from searching for Microsoft from 1880 to 1950 is the following:

The corporate software guide 1938 – Snippet view

Microsoft FORTRAN also has a high degree of Xenix source-level compatibility, a comprehensive set of utilities, and direct interlanguage calling with Microsoft C, Pascal, and Macro Assembler routines.

So there.  Writing about Xenix, Microsoft C and Pascal in 1938 … so that’s where Alan Turin got all those ideas from!

But on further investigation, it appears there are even earlier examples (obviously very hushed up, but presumably can be released now)

Principles of Food, Beverage, and Labor Cost Controls Using Microsoft Excel for Windows

No cover image Paul R. Dittmer – 1920 – 256 pages – No preview

So now we all know.



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