We Are All Netizens Now

This post was originally published in June 2012 on another blog of mine.

The Net means personal power in a world of little or no personal power (other than those on the top – who are called powerful because of money, but not because of thoughts or ideas). The essence of the Net is Communication, of personal communication between individual people, and between individuals and those who in society who care (and do not care) to listen.

Micheal Hauben What the Net Means to Me

The quote above is taken from an article written 1994, a few years after the invention of the Web and about 14 years before the mass-participation in social media networking sites.

Michael Hauben was an educationalist and researcher who enthused about the empowering nature of the Net as far back as the early eighties. Back then the Net was the collective name for Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), USENET and Email – all distributed electronic communication systems that were accessed through a dial-up connection to non-commercial computer networks.

These were the social networks of the day; not just bringing people together through the sharing of knowledge, but as ‘Netizens’ – a term coined by Hauben – people were using the network to unite for political change.

Of course, the people using the Net back then were a small minority and largely based in the US. You needed expensive hardware and the technical wherewithal to connect to the network, so if you were a Netizen, you were likely to be either associated with a University or work in the telecommunications industry.

Twenty-five years later and now a Netizen is just as likely to be someone under siege by their own government, communicating to the world via Twitter or Facebook about the injustices being inflicted on them be their unelected leaders.

But at the same time as the barriers to participation are being smashed down, we have the specter of control of the Net by both national governments and multinational content owning companies, as well as deep concerns of privacy violations by the same social networks that have enabled the mass-participation in the first place.

These days, the Web is less like a web of connected information (as Tim Berners-Lee envisioned it), and more like nebulous cloud in which great things are being created but there’s also potential for tumult and annihilation..

These issues come at a time when web technology has matured to the point where the open standards of the web can be used to deliver powerful content and tools for democracy to people connected to the network via their phones or other inexpensive hardware.

To look to the future we sometimes have to look to see how things were in the past. Michael Hauben’s vision of the Net in the 80s concerned personal freedom, empowerment and democracy on distributed networks; making the technology work for us.

Every day, we play in the walled gardens of Twitter, Facebook, iOS, Google and Amazon; access is easy but we have neither freedom or privacy there. We are mostly oblivious to this, or at least happy to sacrifice our rights for the convenience of connecting with our friends or buying an eBook with one click.

The Net can offer so much more to society than this, but it’s up to us as Netizens to make it.

Greasemonkey script to remove promoted tweets from Twitter

Now that Twitter has gone public we can expect many changes that will keep shareholders happy but annoy long-term users of the site. For me, the addition of embedded images in the timeline breaks something fundamental about Twitter, the idea of creativity through limitation; a tweet is now 140 characters and an image (or an advert). This Greasemonkey script gets rid of the adverts, at least.

How short-term thinking about road safety has failed to make liveable towns and cities

We had a teacher at school who used to give lectures on road safety.  They were gruesome first-hand accounts designed to scare us into being attentive around roads. No-one questioned why a P.E. teacher in his Ron Hills always seemed to be the one on the scene with a shovel and a body bag. It also didn’t occur to anyone to ask why the roads were dangerous places to be in the first place, especially ones nearby to the school. A car will hit you if you aren’t paying attention, and that’s that.

At around the same time in the 80s, I remember public information films being regularly broadcast, warning us about the dangers of crossing the road. In fact there was a long run of Government road safety campaigns aimed at children, from Tufty the Squirrel, Jon Pertwee’s incomprehensible ‘SPLINK‘, David Prowse’s ‘Green Cross Man‘ and the Grandmaster Flash inspired ‘Don’t step out…‘ (which I remember most clearly).

The broadcast of these films stopped in the 90s, and it would be nice to think that the reason was that it finally dawned on the people making these films that it was wrong to direct the safety message at the victims of road accidents, therefore removing the burden of safety from the people driving the cars.  However, I suspect that the real reason is this: the balance of equality on our streets has tipped so far in favour of people driving cars, that compared to the 70s, far fewer people, especially children, are on foot — there’s no need for road safety campaigns aimed at children if they’re all being taxied around by car.

It’s well documented that when mass motorisation was degrading the quality of public space and killing people in the Netherlands in the 1970s, the Dutch had the foresight and political will to do something about it. Also, they came up with something a bit more effective than a series of televised campaigns telling kids stop, look and listen — instead they completely redesigned their streets to prioritise for families and children.

Meanwhile in the UK,  mass motorisation continued to have its negative impact on our towns and cities. People getting  around on foot or on a bike are marginalised, told to wait their turn, or forced along indirect routes in order to accommodate the flow of motorised traffic. Is it any wonder then that the percentage of people making healthy, environmentally friendly travel choices (especially on short journeys) is so incredibly low?

Most worryingly, it seems that for many  people, what I’ve described above isn’t really seen as a problem. The car is a necessity, and it is considered completely normal to drive short distances as a single occupant in a vehicle designed to carry four or five. The normalisation of car use leads us into a vicious circle: we do not make healthy travel choices – either through ignorance or we feel it’s not safe to so – resulting in unnecessary car journeys that subsequently cause the lack of subjective safety that’s stopping us from making healthy travel choices in the first place.

So how do we fix this? If, on Twitter,  you follow representatives from the cycle industry, cycling organisations and road safety charities, you’ll see presented a somewhat muddled picture. At the same time as calling for improved infrastructure, they argue that cycle training is the key, and we must show “mutual respect” on our roads. For me, this is problematic. From the comfort of our cars, driving along streets adapted for our chosen mode, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to appreciate and understand the needs of the people around us who are not also represented by two tons of metal. Indeed, we too easily fall into the trap of thinking as a driver we have priority over other road users. There are many reasons for this, including driver ignorance, but a big factor is the fault in the way our street design has evolved (and ‘evolved’ is a good word because there certainly isn’t any intelligent design about it). I’m not defending people who drive irresponsibly here, rather, my point is that “mutual respect” doesn’t address the potential for human failing and human error on streets designed for their mode of transport. Also “mutual” implies equivalence, and there’s nothing equivalent between a HGV and a child on a bike; only one of them can be classed as “vehicular”.

What characterised the Dutch cycling revolution in the 70s was that it focused on making streets safe for children to cycle on.  If you get it right for children, you get it right for everyone. Some argue that it will be impossible to fully implement Dutch standards in the UK, because we don’t have the latent demand for cycling that will mean people will want to use it (the new town of Stevenage being flagged as an example of a town with ‘Dutch-style’ cycling infrastructure that failed to spark mass cycling). But for me, this argument shows a lack of vision and long term thinking.

Transportation accounts for 70% of the world’s oil consumption and our energy demands are unsustainable. Levels of obesity and its related diseases are rising due to inactive lifestyles. Our towns and cities are polluted and uncivilised due to so much space being provided to cars. Riding a bike isn’t just a niche activity for leisure or fitness, it’s a transport solution that fixes many of these problems. We need a government that understands this, and one that doesn’t place so much economic importance on the car. We need to invest billions in a complete reallocation of space to prioritise for cycling, walking and public transport, for the sake of our health, and  for the sake of a world without fossil fuels. There’s no doubt that this will take a very long time and a lot of political will. We’re forty years behind the Dutch on this, let’s start catching up now.

Fixing a non-booting Raspberry Pi (constant green LED, no video)

If you’re a new Raspberry Pi owner, here’s a tip for saving you hours of frustration getting the thing to boot up. If your Pi doesn’t boot, it may be an issue with your SD card but it’s more likely to be the way you’ve written the image to the drive.

After inserting the SD card, the last few lines of the output of the ‘dmesg’ command will tell you the identity of the SD card. In my case – running Ubuntu – this was ‘mmcblk0′, so the path to write the image to is ‘/dev/mmcblk0′

dd bs=1M if=/home/matt/Downloads/debian6-19-04-2012/debian6-19-04-2012.img of=/dev/mmcblk0

The only kit you need is a bike

For the first two days of The Times Cities fit for cycling campaign, the reaction amongst cycling campaigners was unanimously positive. For the first time, cycle safety was being addressed in a way that didn’t blame the victims of cycling accidents, and furthermore, it was being addressed in a mainstream arena.

For too long, the emphasis has been placed on the cyclist to protect themselves in a dangerous environment, instead of looking at why our cities are dangerous places to cycle in the first place. Here was an eight-point manifesto that was largely about addressing these issues: placing mandatory sensor equipment on large vehicles, identifying the 500 most dangerous junctions and completely redesigning them to make them safer, and channeling more public money into safer cycle routes.

The potential impact of more people cycling as a result of this safer environment is enormous. Our cities become less polluted and more pleasant spaces to be, and people become fitter, healthier and better off.

If you think that pushing for this is some kind of social engineering against people’s freedom to own and drive their cars unencumbered in our cities’ streets… then you’re probably right. But it’s only to counter the social engineering that has been carried out by car manufacturers, car insurance companies, oil companies and supermarkets over the last 60 years that has led us to the point where we’re driving half a mile down the road to find the car parking space nearest the supermarket entrance.

Bringing about a mass uptake of cycling as a form of personal transport – as it was before the invention of the car – isn’t just about making our cities safer to cycle in; cycling needs to be seen as a normal way of getting around, a kind of ‘augmented walking’ as it were. There shouldn’t be anything smug or aggressive about cycling, it need not require special equipment other than a bike, and it should only be referred to as a ‘sport’ if there is a competitive element to it.

Unfortunately, as the The Times’ campaign has progressed, we’ve seen Mark Cavendish refer to it as a campaign for our ‘sport’, James Cracknell making people feel guilty for not wearing a helmet, and this monstrous page on The Times’ Cycle Safe website:


So apparently in order to stay safe on a bike, we need £626 pounds worth of extra gear, and look as if we’re about to cycle from John O’Groats to Lands End the hard the way.

When I first read about the The Times’ campaign late on Wednesday night, I really thought it was a watershed moment for cycling campaigning in the UK; that finally we were beginning to see a Dutch-style cycling revolution, and that we were starting to tackle the real barriers to mass cycling uptake. However, after today’s additions to their website, I fear The Times’ campaign may be shooting wide of the goal.

Gateshead, Tesco

In Gateshead town centre, huge steel structures are being bolted together like giant Meccano. Their sterile frames loom over and encroach the streets below in a way that demonstrates their designer’s lack of regard for the people who will be using the spaces around them.

This is the new Trinity Square, built on the site of Trinity Shopping Centre and its infamous car park designed by the late Rodney Gordon of Owen Luder Partnership.

The purpose of these buildings is largely the same as the former occupants of the site; it’s a shopping centre, a hub for commercial activity based around the private car. This time however, people will park their cars in a subterranean pit rather than a conspicuous multi story car park. There will also be two large blocks of student accommodation to capitalise on Newcastle’s large student population.

It’s a continued mining of public urban space for commercial interest, and cheap construction methods as well as scant regard for the importance of good urban architecture are creating places that serve commercial interests and not the residents of Gateshead.

Rodney Gordon’s Trinity Centre and multi-story car park divided opinions; as a project to revive Gateshead town centre it was a failure, but as a piece of architecture, of art and design, it was unique. Much like the sculptures found in Gateshead’s public places – the Angel of the North being the most famous example – it was an audacious piece of public art, but with a function that, for a number of economic reasons, was never fully utilised. Whatever you thought of it, it was designed by someone who genuinely thought their work would improve people’s lives through modern design.

There is no such original thinking in this new development; its design is informed by cost and by market research. The associated public relations material is pure tokenism; yes, there will be what they call a public square, but I see it more as a kind of commercial clearing, or maybe a legally required fire assembly point. Try and exercise the rights you’d normally have in a public square, for example: to do street photography, campaign for a particular cause, protest, proselytise etc., and you’d no doubt be moved on by someone with a walkie-talkie line to the CCTV operator.

In thirty years time, will this development gain the notoriety that its predecessor enjoyed before it was demolished? I suspect not. The car park was a radical and brave building the like of which hadn’t been seen before. These buildings will be homogenous with most city-centre retail buildings constructed in the UK during the last twenty years, so their sheer banality will no doubt be met by indifference. With that in mind, maybe we get the buildings we deserve.

Using your energy, not battery power, to light your bicycle.

A few months ago I took a front wheel to a local bike shop to get a replacement spoke fitted. I handed it over to the sales assistant and the first thing he did was look at the hub and turn the spindle. “That hub’s absolutely buggered mate” he quickly concluded, referring to the apparent stiffness as it turned. He didn’t recognise that the hub was a dynamo, and the friction is there to generate electrical power as the wheel turns.

If I took this wheel to be fixed at a bike shop on the continent, the shop attendant would recognise it right away; in fact it would be unusual for a city bike not to have lights powered by a dynamo.

Dynamos were fitted to many bicycles sold in the UK between the 1930s and 1970s. This was thanks mostly to innovations by Sturmey Archer, but really it was the only way to power lights at the time – battery technology wasn’t good enough to do the job. But by the late 70s, racing bikes were heavily marketed to non-racing, everyday cyclists, and the myth of ‘lighter is better’ was born. Subsequently, a heavy dynamo and lights became an increasingly rare sight on new bikes.  During the 80s, the cycling boom was based around the mountain bike, and again practicalities like dynamo powered lights were done away with.

Much has been written about the legacy of the 70s and 80s on today’s cycling culture in the UK (see Robert Penn’s book It’s All About the Bike), and my experience in the bike shop further demonstrates how the UK bike industry is still very much based around sports and leisure cycling, rather than everyday utility cycling. New cyclists who go into one of these shops with a bit of money to spend are likely to come out equipped for a day ofcycling in a hilly forest, with a full suspension mountain bike and a bag full of Gore cycling gear.

But back to the issue of bicycle lights, it’s true that dynamo powered lights had a reputation for being unreliable, especially those powered by a bottle dynamo. In the 90s, as LED technology improved, the ‘blinky’ revolutionised bike lighting and is now a ubiquitous sight in UK cities at night. These lights tend to be light-weight, battery powered, and quickly removable; this might seem like a list of convenient features, but in my experience the opposite is true.

The fact that they’re easily removeable means they’re easily stolen. Every time you park up your bike, you go through the routine of unclipping your lights and putting them in a bag or pocket, and go through the reverse process when you return. Except in my case, I spend five minutes routing through my bag or pockets trying to figure out where I put them, occassionally finding that they’ve switched themselves on and are wasting battery power (I once walked into a coffee shop with a rear LED still flashing in my breast pocket… I looked like E.T.).

The fact that nearly all LED lights available on the high street are quick-release is a legacy of the sports cycling boom of the 80s and 90s. They’re a bit like the quick release mudguards that road cyclists use,  where a practical item is only added to the bike when absolutely necessary to keep the bike as light as possible.  When you think about it, there’s absolutely no reason for a bicycle light to be quick-release for most city cyclists, except maybe to make it convenient to change the batteries. Which leads me to my next point.

The fact that they’re inexpensive and battery powered means that they’re enormously wasteful things. Batteries are harmful to the environment, both in the processes used in their manufacture and their disposal. Also, these lights don’t seem to be particularly weather resistant, meaning the batteries can easily corrode, causing the light to fail; and because they’re cheap to buy, it’s more convenient to simply buy a new light than fix and re-use the old one. I’ve built up quite a collection of half-working LED lights over the last few years, to the point where I thought there had to be a better way!

That better way is the way it was done 70 years ago, by using a small amount of your energy to generate electricity to power lights. Couple this idea with the latest LED technology and we have the perfect lighting solution!

The best type of dynamo to use is the hub type that’s built into the wheel. While bottle dynamos have improved over the years, hub dynamos are far more reliable. Their price starts at around £35 for something like a Shimano N30, however the more you pay, the less drag the dynamo creates as the wheel turns, and the more weather resistant the hub will be.   The Shimano N72 or N80 might be a better choice if you’re willing to spend a bit more, and of course you would have to add the cost of a good bike shop building it into your wheel. The best (and most expensive) dynamos are those produced by German companies Schmidt and Supernova; these models are the most efficient, and Supernova’s latest model has a switch to disengage the dynamo magnets during the day for a drag-free hub.

In terms of lights, again Schmidt and Supernova manufacture the best and brightest dynamo powered LED lights. More affordable are those made by Busch & Muller. Something to look out for when choosing dynamo lights is to make sure both front and rear lights have a stand-light, meaning that they have a power reserve for when you are stopped at junctions. Also, some models have ambient light sensors which turn the lights on automatically when it goes dark; this simple feature makes bike lights completely hassle free – you never have to worry about batteries or switches and you know your lights are always going to be on when they need to be.

If you already have a rack mounted on your bike, it probably has the appropriate holes to bolt-on a permanently mounted rear light, and the front light tends to be bolted onto the fork crown. Admittedly, fitting and wiring dynamo powered lights can be a bit of a pain, but once it’s done, you can just forget about your lights, which is something you can never do with battery powered LEDs.

To conclude, dynamo powered lights tend to be extremely bright and rear dynamo lights always have a large reflector built into them (a legal requirement in Germany); this really is enough for you to be seen by other road users at night. A good lighting system makes cycling a hassle-free activity you can do without special protective clothing and additional gear.

Photo credit: Amsterdam By Night by Amsterdamize

Boston Dynamics Petman

Human Beings’ greatest technological leaps seem to always stem from military applications, and Boston Dynamics humanoid robot ‘Petman’ is no different in that respect. I look forward to the day then technology like this is developed to make our lives better, not to make war. It makes Honda’s Asimo – a corporate marketing tool – look like Robbie the Robot.

Secular Americans praise Bloomberg – 9/11 ceremony religion free

A reflection of the cultural diversity of the victims of 9/11 and a reminder that America is a secular country. Meanwhile, most of the remembrance services in the UK were entirely Christian affairs. It’s predicted that by 2050, regular church attendance will be made by less than 100,000 people in the UK. Yet the stranglehold Christianity has on events concerning national mourning and remembrance remains strong. I often wonder why that is.

We need another Cosmos

Today The Times ran a piece by Sarah Vine (wife of education secretary Michael Gove) criticising the BBC’s ‘Wonders of the Universe’ and its apparently egocentric presenter Brian Cox.

To be fair to Cox it’s probably not his fault that the show is put together in such an over-the-top way. Not even Narcissus himself would have had the brass neck to stipulate this kind of treatment in his contract: long, lingering shots of the handsome professor silhouetted against a night sky, or languid close-ups of him gazing manfully into the middle distance, flashing his white teeth in a carefree yet attractively wistful smile. No, Cox is not the problem; he’s the symptom of a dreary and predictable strand of programme-making: the “sexing up” of fusty subjects.

Of course, physics and astronomy is a subject only for people with beards, elbow patches and monocles!

Has Sarah Vine never heard of Carl Sagan’s series Cosmos, which is essentially the programme that ‘Wonders…’ is modelled on? That program was hugely successful in educating American youngsters in the early 1980s about the wonders of the universe, and may even be one reason why science and technology is in better shape in the US than it is here.

It does seem that Brian Cox is getting unfair stick for being young, dashing and clever. I’m reminded of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where the inventor of the Infinite Improbability Drive gets “lynched by a rampaging mob of respectable physicists who had finally realized that the one thing they really couldn’t stand was a smart ass”.

Just as Sagan’s Cosmos was a beautiful and – literally – wonderful series that opened peoples’ eyes to the Universe we live in, Brian Cox’s series aims to do the same 30 years later. So let’s turn the soundtrack back up, listen to what he has to say and be thankful that our TV license money is being spent on fantastic, eye-opening programming such as ‘Wonders…’.

Kurt Vonnegut on being addicted to oil

From an interview in 2006 (video below):

I have a message for future generations. That is please accept our apologies.. we were roaring drunk on petroleum.

Everything that distinguishes our era from the dark ages is what we’ve been able to do with petroleum … and that is going to end very soon.

I think in the next few years we’re going to see the price of fossil fuels go through the roof, and there will be no substitutes for gasoline.

I think that, from my reading of history, the only fun most human beings have ever had – any feeling of power and respect – has been driving automobiles, you get in a car and everyone respects you; and people aren’t going to give that up easily.

An open letter to Newcastle City Council about the 'Ghost Street' road safety campaign

I’m writing with regard to your Ghost Street road safety campaign website, specifically the pages about pedestrians and cycling.

My question is how are we supposed to encourage more people to cycle or walk if campaigns like this scare them away from it? A safer environment for cyclists and pedestrians is one in which fewer people commute by car, and more people choose to cycle or walk instead. The problem is that people choose not to cycle or walk BECAUSE of the dangers presented by the number of cars on the road and lack of adequate infrastructure (especially for cyclists who often have to share the road with motorists). This is a vicious circle that won’t be broken by this sort of ill-conceived campaign that only perpetuates the idea that cycling (or being a pedestrian) is a dangerous activity.

Furthermore, this is a classic case of a campaign addressing the symptom and not the cause. A recent study in Australia has shown that in the majority of accidents involving cyclists and motorists, it is the driver who is at fault. In the scenarios depicted in your campaign, the onus is on the young people to protect themselves from cars, rather than on the motorist to drive with due care and attention for other road users (whether that is cyclists, or pedestrians crossing the road).

Also, I recognise that the use of shock tactics works in getting people to change their behaviour, for example, drink-driving campaigns have been successful in making drinking and driving a socially unacceptable activity, but with this campaign it seems out of place and only serves to discourage people from cycling or walking.

I’m concerned about the negative effect this campaign may have on other campaigns that are trying encourage people to cycle or walk. Surely public money would be better spent on improving Newcastle’s cycling infrastructure and on campaigns that emphasise the positive benefits of cycling and walking.

Matt Jones

Update: Thanks to Tom for providing me with a link the council’s press release about the campaign.

Electronic Paper and the Betamax Tape

As technology companies compete with each other, drive manufacturing costs down and put their marketing machines on full power, it’s amazing how they can steer us away from technologies that are clearly better for specific tasks than others.

When Apple launched the iPad, it made a big deal about the new iBook store and the iPad’s use as an electronic reading device. Here’s the marketing blurb on Apple’s site…

Reading on iPad is just like reading a book. You hold your iPad like a book. You flip the pages like a book. And you do it all with your hands — just like a book. The high-resolution, LED-backlit screen displays each page beautifully.

The iPad is an astounding piece of technology in many ways, but a good device for spending hours reading electronic books does not count among them, because of the backlit LCD display is uses.

A few weeks ago, Samsung announced that it’s backing out of the electronic ink panel production, instead to concentrate on LCD displays for their dedicated reading devices. Also, there are rumours of a smaller, cheaper iPad which no doubt will be designed to take a take some of Amazon Kindle’s share of the eReader market. So, given the marketing power of Apple, and the likes of Samsung turning their back on the technology, the odds seem stacked against a bright future for electronic paper.

Electronic paper displays mimic the high resolution and reflective quality of ink on paper. Compared to LCD technology:

  • it is more energy efficient; battery life is on a scale of weeks rather hours, which surely preferable on a device meant to be read for hours on end
  • it is much less bulky allowing comparably thinner and lighter devices
  • it is more comfortable to read, not only because of its higher resolution, but because it reflects light like paper; the more light hitting the device, the more legible it becomes. The opposite is true for LCD displays like the iPad’s (not helped by its glossy screen). After all, it’s much easier to control light on a device when it needs illuminating in a darkened room. When the situation is reversed, the light from that big fiery thing in the sky is not as easily controlled, and the brighter it is in relation to the LCD backlight, the harder it is to read.

Of course, electronic ink displays aren’t with out their issues. They are restricted to monochrome for a start. Then there’s the glacially slow display refresh when interacting the device. For some people I’ve spoken to this is a barrier to buying a device; for that brief second, the device looks broken, and in our Jobsian world of user experience perfection, that will never do.

There’s the thorny issue of Digital Rights Management which seems to hang over the e-reader market like a grey cloud. I have issues with this but as this piece is about the merits of the display technology only, I’ll leave that for a future post.

There’s no argument that the iPad is a revolutionary device for consuming digital media, and its LCD display is ideal the multi-purpose nature of the device.

No doubt the next iteration of the iPad (and its rumoured smaller sibling) will have the much hyped ‘Retina Display’ but no matter much Jobs talks about pixel density, the reading experience will be inferior to that of  electronic paper simply because of the necessity for a backlight.

Photography, Web, Design, Technology, Space, Bicycles, Environment, Politics, Music. Sporadic since 2000.