Monthly Archives: April 2008

Cheap, reusable and accessible IT for schools

Right. What’s the definition of a really good bit of primary school IT? Is it ambitious and over-arching, integrating dozens of systems, forcing new behaviours all over the place and generally rending the fabric of reality? Or is it something really simple and quick to build that benefits the whole school community, costs nothing and can be re-used indefinitely? Here’s an example: Matt Johnson, switched-on deputy head at Fair Field Junior in Radlett (where I’m a parent governor) has put together a page at the school web site that uses Twitter, some Javascript and MMS photos to track a school trip.

Year four have gone to an activity centre in Staffordshire and Mr Lock, one of the supervising teachers, is twittering and sending photos from his phone. Result: more engaged parents, a fascinating and permanent real-time record of the trip as it unfolds and a system that can be reused every time the school goes away. The page is here and you can follow the trip on Twitter at twitter.com/fairfieldtrip.

I wrote about one of Mr Johnson’s earlier Twitter projects—which is still running because the cost of maintaining it is essentially zero—here.

Why do I have such a bad feeling about Highfield’s move to Kangaroo?

What message does it send when you hire the country’s top new media manager to run a start-up business in an increasingly lean and competitive industry? What are you saying when you tap the Executive Board of the nation’s state broadcaster (and one of the most important media owners in the world) for your joint venture’s new MD? What does paying half a million pounds per year (my guess: his BBC salary is 350K) to the top man at your fledgling IP TV business say about your priorities?

Is it a statement of ambition and substance? An aggressive line in the sand for competitors and partners? A gesture of confidence in the business model and the medium?

Or is it a defeated acknowledgement of the status quo? Are you really saying “don’t worry everyone, we’ve had a good look at this IP TV thing and it’s going to be just like telly”. Does it scream “we haven’t got a name, a business model or an audience yet and already our HR costs are totally out-of-control”?

Frankly I’m worried. I’m worried that rushing out and securing the services of the best new media executive in the land is not the confident prelude to a smooth launch and rapid ascent to profitability and fame but rather the last thing you do before people start adding the prefix “troubled” to the things they say about you—as in “Kanagaroo, troubled web TV joint venture, today announced the appointment of Ashley Highfield…”

I think this role was really the perfect opportunity to ‘skip a generation’ and reach out to the dozens of smart managers one or two layers below Highfield at the Beeb and in the commercial sector. I think that opportunity has been missed because Kangaroo is already a disaster waiting to happen: an almost unmanageable Euro-pudding of a joint venture with no visible path to profitability and a business plan that’s in free-fall. Hiring the industry’s top man (and, thanks to iPlayer’s triumphant launch, its streaming TV talisman) looked like a large enough and decisive enough gesture to silence the doubters. Fat chance.

Or am I just being negative?

Speechification improved (again)!

I’ve been meaning to say for a while that we’ve improved Speechification again. New contributor James Bridle has cleverly embedded a player in every entry so you listen to shows with ease right there on the page. You’ll probably still want to subscribe to the podcast, which is getting pretty popular now. The other thing I’d like you to to do is make sure you let us know what you think of Speechification and suggest good speech radio programmes you think we should be featuring.

Why oh why oh why?

A Remington typewriter

I don’t envy your jobbing weekly columnist much: you have to produce something eye-catching with metronomic regularity and you live or die by the feedback you get from your readers. Of course, in the networked age print journalism doesn’t get the feedback it once did (people don’t get the Remington out to fire off a missive so much these days). Blogs and forums attract the feedback now and mostly because the effort required to express an opinion is so minimal.

By the way, if you’re passing a newsagent inside the M25 this week, do pick up a copy of Time Out, flick to page 163 and read my wife’s funny and clever piece about Doctor Who and his new sidekick (she thinks Catherine Tate is the wrong kind of role model for the millions of young girls who watch Doctor Who). Then, once you’ve got over your anger/wonder/joy drop them an email at tv@timeout.com with some feedback (good or bad). Thank you.

Consensual spoofing in Club Penguin

Here’s another crazy observation from my kids’ use of Club Penguin. My kids (the older two – nine and eight – have Club Penguin accounts) swap logins with their friends so that they can go online and score in-world currency on their behalf! Oliver told me “Joseph logged in as me last night and earned me enough coins to buy a plasma for my igloo”.

First, isn’t that just kind of mind-blowing in its own right? Under-10s behaving altruistically? Playing for hours to score points for friends when they could be accumulating the coins for themselves? Shurely Shome Mishtake. Second, if this behaviour is widespread (and I’m pretty sure it is since my kids are not famously generous), how on earth do we accommodate this kind of consensual spoofing in our privacy and child protection regimes?

And the web moved on

Ted Nelson at the Oxford Internet Institute, 17 March 2008

Ted Nelson is a heretic and a maverick. Everybody knows that. A generalist and a reluctant computer-scientist. He invented hypertext but hates the web. He thinks the web is broken because it doesn’t handle links properly, doesn’t have an embedded citation system and doesn’t care about ownership or remuneration for creators. His Xanadu does all that stuff properly, of course. In fact it does everything because it’s essentially a superset of the web.

He spoke at the Oxford Internet Institute a couple of weeks ago and the whole thing was gripping. I mean not just the singing and the poetry and the B&W movies: all that was the Ted Nelson I’d been led to expect: eccentric, funny, clever, a bit big-headed. The lecture was interesting too, of course. What I found most interesting, though, was the audience. I guess it was an OII kind of audience. It was just very different from the kind of crowd you get at geek events. There were some geeks here, of course but they were different. They weren’t the busy, clean-cut, trendy geeks you get at web 2.0 events, this-camps and that-camps.

And there were none of the questions you’d expect of a geek crowd. No one mentioned the semantic web or Wikipedia or social media or information architecture or any of the stuff you’d have expected a man like Nelson to have an opinion about. So I found myself grilling him gently about the web. I asked him if Wikipedia was essentially Xanadu except it had shipped. I asked about blogs and wikis and collaborative media. Nelson had essentially one answer: “that’s in my system”. His frustration and annoyance were palpable. You could see it in his eyes: all these bastards with their shitty, half-baked, compromised systems out there in the unsupervised wild when what they should have done, the bastards, was just adopt Xanadu when I offered it to them. Bastards.

For Nelson, the whole messy ecosystem of the actual existing net and the web and those thousands of apps and millions of blogs and billions of users is just a big, ignorant snub to the totalising glory of Xanadu (which still isn’t finished). So, really, the whole thing was too sad. Xanadu and Nelson are perfect and unworldly. The web is imperfect and worldly. Xanadu can never ship because that would compromise its perfection and Nelson can never actually participate because that would endanger his precious apostasy. And the web doesn’t care so the world moves on and it’s heartbreaking really.

Doctors. Don’t talk to me about doctors

I’ve not been well. Two weeks laid low by a mystery virus. My doctor disagrees: I’m in perfect health, he says, refusing me medication. He’s pursuing some kind of Californian mind control strategy. I take him nasty symptoms and he denies they exist. The other day I told him I was feeling breathless. “Listen”, I said, wheezing. He countered with an oxygen saturation test – “100%” the little read-out blinked. “You’re in perfect health. You could join the fire brigade. In fact here’s their number. You’ll be up a ladder by tea time”. “No thanks” I said. “Coast Guard?”

The other day Russell was complaining about space film music and proposed Palestrina as an alternative to the usual orchestral stuff. I can see his point but I think I can hear something different, something muckier and a bit less heavenly out there in the void. So I made a Muxtape: my first go is a kind of fantasy space-noir movie soundtrack. Muxtape is really addictive fun and, incidentally, exactly the kind of thing the music biz should be embracing. Imagine millions of these things legally doing the rounds. Of course, what they’ll actually do is ignore it then complain about it and then probably shut it down.