An over-long account of my day at NotCon

Right, NotCon on Sunday was great, well, most of it – the numerous technical problems were annoying, I mean come on, why didn’t they just hook up a single laptop to each projector and have everyone burn their presentations to CD, rather than keep swapping the laptop connector around? Anyway, collected below are my highlights and a few quick thoughts on some of the most interesting topics.

First up was an interesting talk by Danny O’Brien on lifehacks for geeks – best practices as recommended by various prolific and influential geeks. In summary, his talk mostly said that geeks stuck to simple, trusted applications (such as a text editor and email client) for managing their lives, which kinda makes sense – geeks hate wasting time on very elementary things. For example, when using Windows, I can’t even be bothered to use the Start Menu, I’ve started typing in commands like ‘winword’ or ‘excel’ in the “Run” dialog rather than tiresomely navigate through.

Using single apps for a variety of purposes is cool – it means that apps should do what they can very well, rather than trying to be all things at once. By having a very good text editor that makes it easy to navigate & search with nothing else that is fancy, we can master it very quickly and then use it for all sorts of things (scratchpad, organiser, calendar etc.) rather than having to spend years learning all the nuances of a complicated interface like Outlook, which we then never use as we can’t be bothered. Also, small, refined programs (in the UNIX sort of mould) are more reliable and less crashy.

I was suprised by how much Danny’s contacts used email for version control and project management – I’ve started to hate using email for serious work. Partly because my mail accounts get bombarded with millions of things and separating work stuff, play stuff, spam etc. is an annoying waste of time. Also it’s partly because reply-to-alls between groups tend to fall apart and become incoherent, partly because you have little control over what will get forwarded or passed on (or whether people launch their own private conversations), and partly because it’s hard to search and navigate (you have to click on each item in your inbox, etc.). Gmail may help solve that last problem. But web-powered apps seem better suited for organising work – being remote they’re accessible from anywhere with a connection and browser (no need to keep downloading putty to log into your mail server). Simple blog and wiki interfaces are easy to learn and offer more flexibility, leaving email free for its intended purpose, i.e. as a way of forwarding dirty jokes around.

Danny’s idea for an adaptive/Bayesian screenscraper for converting sites into feeds which wouldn’t break every time the template changed was a great idea, I wish I had the expertise to write something like that.

Other highlights included Politics Of The Net – a spirited discussion between Bill Thompson (read his notes and Cory Doctorow and others. They discussed the problem from different, but not entirely opposing angles, so I ended up agreeing in part with all of them. Though I think they got technical restriction (DRM etc.) and legal regulation (censorship etc.) slightly confused – the two subjects overlap but are not the one and same. Anyway, Cory was right to warn on the perils of regulation and restriction (which Bill said was inevitable and we should manage rather than campaign against it), but he advocated getting corporations onside and effecting change through demanding DRM-free products, while Bill came out strongly in favour of managing regulation through existing governmental & public institutions. Though naturally inclined to agree with Bill, I have doubts on how any national government (apart from that of the United States) can have significant influence over a supranational entity like the Internet alone without getting multinationals onside. In short, good questions were raised, and I haven’t any good answers to them (yet).

The other two speakers both had interesting points to make – one (whose name I can’t remember nor find – anyone know?) advocated the Poll Tax as an example to how to beat DRM and other things – though 90% paid their Poll Tax, the 10% who steadfastly refused to brought down the system. The other, Will Davies, talked some great stuff (notes here in a horrible Word doc) about the group mentality of Internet politics and its lack of macroscopic vision, though too fast for me to fully keep up all the way along, but he was very interesting and I’ll probably read up more on him later.

What else? Oh yeah, Tim Ireland on blogging your MP was informative, though the Island Blogging project was much more inspired, I thought. Inner Hebrideans were given computers and internet connextions and told to blog their way of life (I especially liked the one from the perspective of a lobster) initially started out mundane day-to-day story of events (much guffawing in the audience at this), but after time (and the arrival of a dead whale) they managed to form better community bonds and act against the condescending mainland press by becoming a media outlet themselves. A proper demonstration of the power of blogging.

The MP3 Mashup talk was of mixed quality – Wendy Seltzer from the EFF was a sharp and knowledgeable lawyer, but the mashup artists there weren’t that interesting. They did well in expounding the art of making mashups and why they deserve for some artistic recognition, but (as one questioner pointed out very well) they, as artists, didn’t seem to be proposing much in the way of what they were for – they knew copyright law is broken but offered no solutions. Even when someone tantalisingly waved the promise of Creative Commons under their noses, they didn’t take it up – why don’t these mashup artists start producing stuff purely from CC artists and releasing it themselves under CC, thus they will be promoting the new licensing system of “some rights reserved” and get other musicians (and their record companies) interested in it.

The shining centrepiece of the day was They Work For You, a new venture which is the next step up from the excellent Public Whip site. Basically, they’re taking the immensely unusable Hansard (the minutes of Commons speeches), and converting it into an attractive, blog-like format. You can search the archives, create RSS feeds to keep track of your local MP (here’s mine), add comments to particular speeches (particularly useful for highlighting conflicts of interest) and annotate the jargon used. But stop reading this and go there – it’s in beta at the moment – test it, play with and use it. It’s fab.

I missed some things (the geolocation & P2P stuff looked interesting, as did bit about the prawn sandwich but they clashed with other things). Tom – what was the interactive TV thing like?

There were some other small things worth mentioning – the Maypole framework which allows easy creation of Perl/database sites (like social networks – Tom and I speculated that we will all one day have our own social networking applications, and that we’ll then need to have an application to network all these different applications together); the Shit, I’m A Manager talk was interesting, and there was a frightening sound generator app that runs in real-time as you type the source code – thus allowing for “live progamming” gigs. Waargh.

This entry’s gonna stop now as it’s too long and getting boring. I might link to some more interesting blog posts by other people on the day soon though.

2 thoughts on “An over-long account of my day at NotCon

  1. Best anecdote, of course, was Danny’s one about the scary-important types you get at American tech conferences – “I loathe drop-down menus. I wish I’d never invented them.” Tee hee.

    Tom Coates has some stuff on the Hardware session, including the Interactive TV bit, which kinda covers what I was going to describe about it. I wish I’d taken notes. There’s a little bit I might blog on later, as I didn’t cover it in my first post – it was quite an eye-opener for people (like me) who’d blithely assumed that iTV was, well, kinda like the web.

    Soon, Diane Abbott will have a fully functioning blog. Whether she likes it or not.

  2. Glad you liked the talk and agreed with some of it – so why didn’t you buttonhole me afterwards and share a train ride back to Cambridge? And say hello to Alan Blackwell and David Good [ok I know this is not what blog comments fields are for, but I feel like subverting the medium]

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