TED Talk: Greening the Ghetto – Majora Carter

Whilst travelling down to London I got the chance to do some blogging and to watch some Ted. I’m a recent convert to Ted and its safe to say its an addiction, I’ve got some serious catching up to do. If every one I watch compels me to blog about it this might take some time, but here goes.

Majora has a very compelling argument that sustainable grass roots activities can benefit both the local community, be commercial successful and save people money.

Despite her talk being about a incredibly poor area of New York, I can see parallels to her approach within communities like GeekUp and Barcamp. These are not the same, this would do a great disservice to her endeavour and where she has come from but that does not mean the more affluent cannot learn from it, in fact that is, in part, her intention.

There seems to be more in common here than I first imagined, she makes reference to a perception that these endeavours cannot be beneficial to the commercial bottom line, that social responsibility has a negative effect on profitability and that decisions made from the top need, nay require involvement from the grass roots. These challenges and presumptions seem to be those encountered by many socially innovate groups. Whether they be from affluent or deprived backgrounds, we can all learn from this, and to echo Majora, the influential among us need to learn these lessons sooner rather than later.

Also I can’t help but feel that areas like the South Bronx is where the inspiration for  the pragmatic programmers metaphor of broken windows in a code base, the idea that once even minor environmental neglect happens its a downward spiral, in fact Majora picks up on this point herself.

As I referred to in my general Ted Talks post, these observations are leading me on a path (which started not long out of university but has recently gained momentum) that software development and technical innovation are mostly about people and not so much about technology or engineering. It seems as though many of us may have forgotten which is more important?

TED Talks – A Revelation from a Nieve Developer

At Barcamp Sheffield I was introduced to the TED Talks and I feel obliged to spread the word, I can’t believe what I’ve been missing for so long. Credit and much thanks have to go to Pippa and Guy who were influential in opening my eyes to such a vast and disparate amount of content. So far I’ve watched 6, each one a revelation and deserving of a blog post in their own right (some of which are coming soon). I doubt this track record can continue but I sincerely hope it does.

Upon leaving university I believed I had the necessary education to be a good (possibly great!) software developer, how nieve and wrong I was. This realisation, made on my first project, led me to concentrate on becoming better, mainly by practice and lots of reading. Whilst this single minded obsession has led me to make significant progress, it has come at the cost of losing perspective. Why am I trying to become a good software developer?

Opening my mind again to wider interests is helping (I’m not done yet) me to become more balanced, to remember why I wanted to do this and to decide where I want to go. A completely unexpected side effect is that this wider perspective has also had a dramatically positive effect on my understanding of software development, who would have thought it was all about the people!

Barcamp Sheffield – A Barcamp Virgin's Impressions

Last weekend I attended Barcamp Sheffield 2.1 much fun was had by all. This was my first barcamp and I have to admit it had rather a profound effect on me (as some will have noticed on the day or from my tweets).

The barcamp format is unlike any traditional conference, there are no prearranged sessions or talks, its all arranged by the attendees there and then. This invigorates the event with such a dynamic social energy, everyone seems to be drawn to it. I knew what to expect from a barcamp, but I never expected the commitment, openness and friendlyness of all the attendees.

Barcamp Sheffield was a little different to many barcamps, there was no camping and the event ran from Friday to Sunday rather than Saturday to Sunday. Some barcamps use the Friday night as a pre-party, but this tends to preclude virigin attendees, Sheffield used this as an ideal ice breaker and created a big kick of activity ready for Saturday to start in earnest, which helped a lot seen as there was high proportion of barcamp virgins.

I know some of the oganisers, so I was asked to volunteer (disclaimer: this may make me biased, but everyone I met said it was excellent!), turning up just about on time on the Friday night, it wasn’t long before the event was in full swing with some very amusing adhoc presentation voice overs and much beer (some free) being consumed.

The sessions started in earnest on Saturday morning, after much coffee and necessary breakfast. I think I only attended 4 or 5 over the two days, all of which were very interesting. I’d completely forgotten how much functional programming blew my mind, found out how hard it is to organise a barcamp or train students in agile programming and how complicated friendship and language can be.

Equally as important as the organised sessions were the adhoc conversations I had all weekend, I can’t remember the last time I met so many interesting people, full of insights and amusement all in one weekend. I came away feeling refreshed in the spirit of the geek community and hopefully with a number of new friends (and some shocking tiredness, having fun and chatting takes a lot of energy).

Barcamp Sheffield confirmed two things for me, that self organising social groups can and are very effective and that Sheffield (and the UK) has a thriving geek society which I deeply want to become more a part of.

The only downside to all of this, is that I’m completely exhausted and craving more!

Passion for Software Development. To have or have not?

Some developers have a natural passion for development, some have to work really hard ad strive for it, and some just don’t seem to want it. Readers of this blog will most likely fall within the first two of these categories. It might seem like an oversimplification, but for an initial thought it seems to hold up. Rather than debate who has it, who doesn’t and who doesn’t want it, I rather talk about whether its a positive thing for a developer to have and whether all developers should strive for it.

I’ll set my stall out up front, I’m passionate about software development (because I enjoy it, I enjoy solving people’s problems and I get a kick out of it) and sometimes this over spills into anger and frustration if I believe something I am doing is not right or if something is more difficult than it should be. This is not to say I’m offensive, just that I need to take a few minutes out occasionally to collect my thoughts, though I am still diplomatic when confronted with an issue. This may mean I’m biased in some of the topics below but I will try and remain objective, I can see how sometimes the results of my passion are not ideal.

Good thing or bad thing?

I’d been writing this blog post for a while when I stumbled upon Ron Jeffries’ post about Passion and I think he says it better than I ever could. Its about wanting to make a difference and if that means provoking strong reactions then so be it, love and hate is better than nothing at all.

That said, I’ll make an attempt to add to it. The stronger I feel about something the more I want to communicate these ideas, the more I want other people to see what I see, alas this cannot always be, at least not without effort and this path can lead to frustration. I have found this can lead to take a dictatorial tone rather than a leading tone, something I will come back to in another post, but for now I can say its no good telling them that something is right, at best they’ll respect you and half heartily accept it but not understand it and at worst they will fight it with all their will.

Passion is largely a positive attribute which leads to creative, inventive and highly motivated developers, however sometimes this passion can spill over into frustration and anger. Debate is healthy but when it turns into personal, angry arguments it is no longer healthy it is counter productive and unhealthy.

Should all developers have it?

I’m not sure about this, personally I need it, it drives me and if I didn’t have it I don’t think I would be a developer and certain not as effective a developer as I am and I enjoy being surrounded by other passionate people. However I feel there is still a need for people who are more reserved, reliable and consistent who can provide that backbone to a team or department, finding (and keeping) this balance is crucial to any team achieving big things for any length of time.

Shun or Share?

Developers who do have passion tend to be more vocal, creative and inventive in there solutions and ideas, sometimes the frustration of these half formed thoughts can be demotivating and crippling to performance, often the only way these ideas can improve is to share them, to express them to others and be open to criticism. This isn’t easy and certainly isn’t fun all the time, but it is healthy and, to quote from Ron Jeffries again, ” will come back to me manyfold”.

Roll on the free and expressive sharing of ideas between mutual respectful peers.

Pennies and Oysters

Anyone who has visited (or lives in) London recently will probably be aware of the Oyster card. This simple electronic card, similar to a debit\credit card is primarily used for access to public transport, but I’m more interested in the possibility to use them for micro payments (small value transactions).

Using an Oyster card makes access to the tube simpler, faster and cheaper and means you don’t need to worry about having cash or having to purchase a ticket. More interestingly these cards is that they can be purchased with initial credit, can be topped up at machines all over London and can be linked to a bank account to automatically top up when they run out, providing secure but flexible access to transport without needing to directly use a credit\debit card.

If, as some places in London have started to do, these cards could also be used for transactions of small value e.g. a newspaper then the need for small denomination coins is drastically reduced. Anyone remember Mondex? Using an Oyster card is very quick, as it doesn’t require a pin or signature and removes any need for the customer to search for change, cashier to count money or assess change, this could drastically speed up service in shops such as newsagents or coffee shops and would also help with the current copper shortage. This is currently not possible with credit\debit cards due to the costs imposed for these transactions being uneconomical for small payments.

For this to be successful it would require national support from both retailers and for the Oyster card but this would help massively with the cards uptake and the use of public transport would surely improve if it were this easy and flexible on buses, tubes, trams and possibly even trains.

The provision of Oyster cards and the required infrastructure could be centralised and public controlled, being paid for by tax income or minor charges on the cards, surely this is a small price to pay for the potential improvements and environmental impact.

I’m sure there are issues with this idea, I would love to hear other peoples thoughts?

As You Like It – Sheffield Crucible, 2007-02-13

This is definitely the best play I have seen in the last 12 months! Now that I’ve built it up, I should start the review.

The set design was striking, the stark white set, with subtle use of mirrors and large mechanical door at the far end, created a space much larger than the stage could handle. Ingenious use of props, provided a highly interactive play, memorable examples were the tree winched out from under the stage, the hat flowers – used to mark the opening of the second half, and a large, internally lit, movable ball used to depict the passage of time.

The cast clearly had a lot of fun performing this play, the epilogue featuring a monologue about wine and bushes being related to great plays and epilogues and the actress playing Rosalind giving an old gentleman in the front row a kiss, to prove her point on love and relationships (and bad breath). I’m sure this was her fun revenge for his rebuttal of her attempt to involve him in the play earlier on.

 Some very inventive improvisiation when things didn’t go quite as planned when Rosalind through some flowers to Orlando, which he should have caught but instead dropped, improvising with some lightning quick kung fu and a sharp line.

 The play begins in the court of the new duke, the scene is set appropriately using dark and brooding lighting and curtains hiding the white set, upon the characters escape to the woods of Arden the set opens up creating the stark contrast, highlighting the issues of freedom and happiness.

The various comedic interludes, especially in the second half, ensure that interest is maintained, with Touchstones charming of Audrey the country wench, the highlight.

 Despite my difficulties with the language, the plays storyline is fast paced and easy to understand, with a pleasingly bright and happy outlook. Usually, I prefer dark, moody and broody pieces, but this play opened me up to the cheerier side of theatre and I think I rather like it!