Monday, 17 May 2010

The New Busy

On my way to work this morning I saw the new Hotmail ad campaign: "Because the new busy is not the old busy". Indeed. Microsoft is getting busy making a play for cloud email. Look out gMail.

It got me thinking though. I'm old enough to have started work before email, internet and mobiles. I remember getting a fax machine for the first time. I'd ring someone up in the US and say "I'm faxing it right now!" and they'd say "It's coming through!!" It felt like a miracle. Most of what we did was face to face or on the phone and by post. I remember lots of cab and bike bills.

Now electronic communication has, of course, supplanted all that. Our phone at Armadillo rings probably twice a day. One of those is normally a wrong number. I get maybe a letter a day.

What's happened is latency has been removed from the system.

"I phoned but you were out", "The cheque's in the post" and "He's out at a meeting - I'll get him to call you when he's back" are all phrases we don't hear any more.

If I don't get a response from a mail or voicemail in a matter of hours, I'm surprised. Often it's minutes. There are many effects of this I think, but here are two.

The first is that we're being hunted down all the time. "Ping" goes our mail client ("I'm after you"). "Ping" (So am I!"). Ping. Ping. Feeling important is OK (not too important though), but feeling pursued is not OK.

Fred Wilson, a well-known New York VC wrote about his working vacations:
"I block out 90 minutes in the morning when my family is asleep for emails and phone calls"
"I keep my blackberry with me but try to keep it off unless we have some down time like waiting for a tour to begin"
"I also find time to do stuff, like post on the eliptical trainer"

The second is that latency brought time to reflect. A response was considered, measured and then dispensed. There has been a lot written about the dangers of hastily-written emails, but some people I deal with are ploughing through so much communication, that there's just not a lot of thinking going on at all.

So, whilst I wouldn't want to go back to the old busy, we must surely shape our new busy, lest it shape us.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

John Bulmer

I don't know how I've managed to miss him up till now, but just recently, I've come across the work of photographer John Bulmer.

I was asked to look at a project for the National Coal Mining Museum for England, and they had a temporary exhibition of his work. It sits in the same tradition as Martin Parr or Nick Waplington, but the life of the industrial north he captures is unique, at least to me. He was one of the first to shoot documentary style imagery in colour, but, to us, it's a strange, muted world of colour. Very beautiful.

I have to say the social documentary side of his work extrapolates one of my abiding interests; the shift to an urban society and the loss of rural traditions. Bulmer, working mainly in the 1960s and 1970s by the look of it, captures the last years of the industrial north and the communities that had built up in these great smoking cities.

Looking at some of the work now, I feel as remote from that world as I do from that of Froissart or John Stow. How could a world like this disappear so completely in a generation?

Work like this does exist to document the Middle Ages - my favourite is the ever-popular Luttrell Psalter, with its scenes of daily life so joyously depicted in the margins. Talking of the Luttrell Psalter, I just found out there is a "Luttrell Psalter - The Movie".

If you've seen it let me know. If it's on YouTube, even better.

Digitisation So Far

I came across some beautiful 10 x 8 transparencies of an early illuminated Gospels the other day. Truly, they were things of beauty in their own right. Shining, luminous, with a level of detail we'd be hard pressed to capture today, even with the latest digital cameras.

It struck me we've come a long way...

"In the beginning.... we scanned the lovely transparencies on heinously expensive scanners and archived to tape. JPEGs were put online and on CDROM. And, lo, it was dull and slow. And yet it was a start.

A little later we discovered digital cameras, even unto the 4th megapixel, and it was very good. So the JPEGs multiplied and became larger, begetting also JPEG2000s.

On the third day metadata was created. And it formed many tribes, and only the anointed really got to grips with it. Often we looked for it, and it was not to be found.

And it came to pass that man invented machines for scanning, and books could be turned into scans, text and metadata almost before tea-time. And librarians were courted by those from Mountain View. And there was much surprise and consternation amongst the peoples. For surely there is no such thing as a free lunch?

After many years in the wilderness, software was invented by those with few friends. And wherever you were, you might search a catalogue and find treasures therein.

And then the elders met together and decided that it would be a mighty thing to be able to search across many collections and discover treasures wherever they may be found. And federated search came to pass.

Yet in the later days there was still discontent. "Surely this is not enough" the people cried. "We yearn to collaborate, blog and annotate even unto the last digit. We ache to get social and pine for access on the Great iPad of Jobs. When will this come to pass?"

And the elders looked grave and downcast and replied 'This will only come to pass when the day of Provision comes, when dollars shall fall from the sky like spring rain. Until that day, be thankful the days of transparencies are past.'"

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Conditioned Reactions to Spaces

Fancy title eh? But then I'm not sure how else to describe this.

I was at the John Rylands Library in Manchester last week, talking with Carol Burrows and Caroline Checkley-Scott who are part of the new Centre of Digital Excellence there. Nice people both and a good source of lunch recommendations.

I was taking a tour of the amazing Victorian Gothic building and commenting on how people were talking in hushed tones. The building felt just like a church and people were acting that way. I mentioned to Carol that children must be spooked by the place. She laughed and said it was quite the opposite - they loved it and tore around the place. "They just think it's Hogwarts!" she said.

Not having been to church much, this was what the building reminded them of. Unlike their parents.

We're about to launch some software for the Imperial War Museum in a new space called Explore History. Not gallery and not reading room, it's a third space in the museum (I've blogged about this before). Now if this ends up looking like a departure lounge I kind of know how people are going to behave. If it ends up looking like a Starbucks, I'd guess people will behave in a different way.

We'll find out on 21st May. If you're in London, drop by and take a look.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Less is More

There's a dicey-looking restaurant down the road from me. The sort that offers 3 course dinners for £9.99. It bills itself as a Mexican/Irish/Italian place. Really.

For some reason known only to it's owners, it was called Robin Hood. This is Hammersmith, not Sherwood Forest we're talking about here, but, hey ho, maybe the owners had a thing about early Errol Flynn movies.

The other day I walked past, and they'd changed the name to Robin Hood Zorro. Everything else looked the same, but I guess they figured that if naming your restaurant after one mythical medieval freedom fighter was good, naming it after two was even better! I can't wait until they change the name to Robin Hood Zorro Don Quixote.

It's the same in the world of software. We're building out some apps, and there's a clamour for "more". More features, a change of name, funkier design. I've resisted this and drilled down to the need to just do what we are doing better.

So instead of adding Zorro to the restaurant name, maybe they should just focus on Mexican food. Or Irish. Or even Italian. Wait, what about Polish? Or Lithuanian...