December 5, 2010

The week before last, I participated in /dev/fort 5. I had previously participated in the second dev/fort but what we made there has yet to be published.

Not so this last one however. Just about 36 hours after we returned from our retreat in Alderny, we launched, a site which presents the mission logs from the Apollo 13, and the Mercury 6 missions.

I am incredibly proud of what the team produced, and feel very lucky to be a part of it. But we’re not done yet. We designed the site with the intention of including more missions, and you can help! There’s instructions on the site on how to help contribute. I hope you’ll take a look and think about giving us a hand.

  • In your online registration, if you’re only going to accept a specific subset of characters for the password be very clear what they are.
  • If the person registering should get that wrong tell them that in the error message, instead of telling them that you can’t process their application repeated times, and then let them find out about said restrictions when they go through the call centre.
  • Also, in your online registration, if you’re going to offer people ‘extra keys’ for your system, please be clear that for each ‘extra key’ a person orders, they will also be charged for an ‘extra period charge’ as well. This will prevent your potential clients from being horribly surprised when they see a charge for nearly £200 going through instead of about £50.
  • Speaking of charging, give people a confirmation screen before you charge them. In other words, the first time they see the actual total of what they are about to be charged should not be on the ‘Verified by VISA screen’
  • Further to the speaking of charging, when you call people back from a call centre that shows up on their phone as a blocked number, just use the security data they provided, do not also ask the people you call back to give you their credit card number, and their expiration date.
  • Further again to the speaking of credit card numbers, do not have someone from the call centre read back a persons credit card number and expiration date to attempt to reassure them. This is not reassuring, it is, in fact, the opposite of reassuring.

But hey, it’s early days, and a few mistakes are to be expected. I’d only really worry if this kind of behaviour was in some way associated with a bank, I mean, that would really make me uncomfortable.

Burning Man Part 3 (The Sun)

September 29, 2009

My introduction to Burning Man came through a long night of slowly creeping through what is called ‘Waiting Man’. Waiting Man is the term for the line(s) that you sit in on your way into Burning Man. The original plan was that we would arrive at the site as close to the opening time of midnight as possible without being so early as to encounter the ire of the fine BM staff. This would give us the greatest chance at getting a decent camp site in ensuing land rush (if it can be called a rush at 5mph.) The best laid plans of mice and burners however… and my sister and I found ourselves arriving at Waiting Man sometime about 3am.

And boy did we wait the hell out of Waiting Man, in fact dawn had already developed well into morning and the sun was starting to peak over the surrounding mountains when I met my Burning Man virgin babtism at the bell.

By way of explanation, if it’s your first time at Burning Man, you can expect a bit of um… friendly hazing at the entry gate. Just for the record, by all accounts from the elder burners, including my sister’s, I got off very very light with only having to make out with the dust a bit and make a playa angel (one friend detailed his first burning man being spent mostly unable to sit down.) After you have been liberally anointed with the playa itself you are handed a stout piece of rebar with which to ring one of the bells which hang nearby, waiting to announce to all within earshot that another burner has been brought into the world.

Sadly, this delay also meant we were rather um… boned for someplace close to the center of the event. However, it was not at all an unfortunate placement as I detailed in an earlier post. Also on a certain level, I was relieved as I was thinking that we were going to have to put up our tent in the dark, going by our car’s headlights and our own lighting gear.

Oh no, lucky us, we got to put up our tent during the day… Actually, it was still early in the morning when we did get it put up and so I’m exaggerating. However, by the time it was up it was just starting to get warm.

And it kept getting warm, only stopping to pass warm entirely and move at a furious pace to hot, and then further to really damned hot and dry, did I mention the dry? Throughout this descent into Dante’s EZ-bake oven and dehydrator this poor Minnesota-raised and London-transplanted fellow began to realize that between the cold of the former and the damp of the latter, he could not have come from a worse background, weather wise, for a week on the Playa.

Thus was I introduced to the Sun, and indeed, reintroduced every morning when I would wake from the lovely cool night to realize that despite the shade above me (my sister and I later moved the tent to be underneath the fantastic shade structure our campmate Straightman had brought) I was about to start to be slow basted if I did not get up and find someplace both shady and open to whatever breezes might come along.

Slowly, through my time there I worked out some peace with my constant daytime companion and realized that it sure as hell wasn’t going to bend, and so I would have to. Every morning there would be a grace period of a few hours when it was both light and not yet so hot as to be unbearable. During this time I would try to find someplace to hang out and spend the 4-6 afternoon hours when things were at their worst. Sometimes this was in the shade of my fellow campers the DoomBus people (who had a lovely shade structure of their own. Sadly, the very best strategy came to me by way of my sister, but only late in the week; volunteering at Ice Camp.

Burning man is a gifting economy, commerce is verboten, there is nothing to buy, and selling anything is considered Quite Bad Form. There are two exceptions to the rule, one major, one minor. The minor one is the cafe at centre camp where you can buy yourself coffee or tea or whatever. The major one is ice. At three camps placed at 3, 6, and 9 O’clock (did I mention that the camp was circular and that locations are based on time positions?) burners can buy ice, in both blocks and cubes throughout the event. And unless you’ve basically brought your own ice truck, you’re going to need to buy ice.

On the plus side, there is no better place on the Playa to escape from the middle-of-the-day-bake-off than in the arctic confines of a large refrigerated truck, moving ice from the back to the front. Also, some of the best company of fellows is to be had there, and that’s a strong statement for someplace like Burning Man. After three hours of moving frozen water around I felt like an entirely new man. I had my appetite back (it had fled on the first day) and for all that I was completely exhausted on one level, I was completely energized on many others.

So it was, only at the end of my time that I think I had found some kind of balance, and speaking of balance, I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression of the sun out there being nothing but pure heat and horribleness. Every morning and every evening I saw came with some of the most incredible sunrises and sunsets I’d ever seen in my life. Like many other things out there you have to find peace with it as a thing of intense power.

There was, after returning home, still strong reminders of that power. No, I didn’t get sunburned, but I got wholly re-aligned to day and night. It was weeks before I was truly back on London time, the UK sun just didn’t have the oomph to push me back into it’s own rhythm with any kind of speed. Also, the timing is difficult. Burning Man being held so close to the equinox means that I came back not only to a weaker sun in intensity, but one declining in presence at it’s fastest rate as well. It seems like only yesterday I was being flung out of my tent by the brutish playa sun and now I’m waking in darkness. When they set the clocks back this weekend (I believe it’s this weekend) it’ll be end of evening daylight in London. I can feel the SAD creeping up already.

I think I’m going to need to get a serious sunlamp.

Bike Like A Car Day

September 28, 2009

This last month I attended both the London Skyride event and the monthly London Critical Mass Ride. Both of these events were fantastic, and I immensely enjoyed the sense of camaraderie with my fellow bikers of all stripes, a sense that both events provided in great measure. That being said, there were some very noticeable differences between how non-participants behaved towards us at the two events.

I would like to try to do something about this. Now, by far the most frequent reason I have heard from people in justifying their less-than-kind behavior towards cyclists is the whole ‘running red lights’ thing. I know that there is no need to tote out any real figures here because of course everyone has seen at least one example of this horrible and unjustifiable behavior in their own long and, I’m certain, completely legally clean tenure as a pedestrian/motorist. Under the weight of such irrefutable evidence it is clear that it is up to us cyclists (the obviously guilty party) to raise the bar on our own behavior. They say that the first step to solving a problem is admitting that you have one, and indeed, we have a problem. We have been biking like cyclists for too long, it is time for us to take responsibility for our own unacceptable behavior.

To that end, I propose that one day each month, (perhaps the second Monday?) shall be, going forward, Bike Like A Car Day. Now, by that I do not propose that we, as cyclists, pollute, honk, or behave in any kind of aggressive fashion towards other cars, pedestrians or cyclists (indeed we must also work to shed ourselves of the wholly undeserved negative stereotypes of both drivers and pedestrians.) Instead, I propose that we, as cyclists, take it upon ourselves to obey the traffic laws, all of them, to the letter, just as if we were cars. No running red lights, no going through pedestrian crosswalks if there’s anyone anywhere within it, all turns shall be signaled. We shall, for this day strive to become the very most model citizens of the road.

Indeed for this one day, to strengthen our resolve we will not take the bike paths, and we will not stay to the left in the gutter. We will take to the roads, and we will claim the lane, the full lane, like the noble cars we only now, belatedly realize we should take as our examples. If a car wishes to go faster than us, we will not move aside like our old shameful selves, no! For that day we shall cast off our cycling-shame, hold our heads high, and attempt to fully emulate our betters, the cars. Just as if we were a fellow car we will wait for them to go around us (assuming that there is a second lane in which to do so, it is of course, illegal to pass someone in the same lane isn’t it? I certainly have never seen a car do that to another car.) If a car wishes to then re-join the lane I’m certain it shall do so only after it signals its intention and only after reaching a safe distance ahead of us to merge, exactly the same as it would do with a fellow car. Of course we recognize that respect is a two-way street and, if a car wishes to go slower than us, we will pay that car the same respect we are asking for ourselves. In fact, we will be polite to a fault. Not only will we not run the reds but we will not charge the ambers either, we will slow before them in order to assure greater safety not only for our fellows on the road but indeed for the pedestrians waiting patiently to cross when it is their turn. In fact, as all drivers are I believe legally obliged to do, we will remain stopped before a green if there so much as a single foot anywhere in the crosswalk. I know this might seem over the top, but we have a lot to live down.

It my hope that this regular and shining example of lawful behavior will do much to improve us in the eyes of pedestrians and motorists alike, and, even if in only some very small way, perhaps help us start to somehow rid ourselves of the horrible shame that being a cyclist rightfully earns us.

No, I haven’t died, and I do indeed fully intend to write more about this quite remarkable experience. I’m just horribly crap about posting in my blog, something I should be doing a lot more of.

Now, most importantly, I’m far overdue for a massive blogging-shout-out to Steven Boyett. I had met him only a few weeks before Burning Man at Worldcon in Montreal, but not, as one would expect, in his role as an author. Instead my first encounter with this fine fellow was with his decks and laptop out DJing as DJSteveBoy at the post-hugo awards dance. It was a really fantastic set (which btw, you can download from his site), and honestly just the thing I needed to get me into a good mood. I got to talk with him a bit after and discovered that he too, would be coming to Burning Man. So I found out when he would be playing on the playa and set myself the task of going to hear him spin again.

Now, there are many things that I still haven’t covered about The Burning Man Experience(tm) and one of them is this sense of serendipity (I overheard one burner on the plane home from Reno call it ‘playadipity’ but that’s just too fucking twee even for me.) The phrase I heard quite often was ‘The Playa Will Provide’. Well as it turns out, Steven was my strong proof of this concept.

Tuesday night, I set off from my camp to cross the center over to Opulent Temple (about a two-mile walk), not in any particular hurry as the sun had finally gone down and I was relishing the cool air after a baking-hot day. Distractions and I crossed paths many times (yes, some of the distractions were mobile, art cars roam the night-playa like neon fish in a dark ocean.) A bit past mid-way, just as I was thinking that a sit-down would be nice (I’d been walking all day as well) I found an art-installation which also happened to be a rather comfortable yurt, out in the cool desert. So I sat down, finding another burner already within, and spoke with her for a while. After a bit, two of her friends came into the yurt, one of whom was none other than our own Mr. Boyett, whose own narrative of the experience I think I will not attempt to further improve upon (he is a professional.) Save to say that I was also very delighted by the coincidence.

Now, another part of this serendipity is that it was a good lesson for me. As they were on their own way to the Temple (which is very different from Opulent Temple) and I had not yet visited it myself, I decided that I’d hang out with them a while longer. This was a Good Decision and as it turned out, many of my good experiences on the Playa came not from planning but from simply diving in and letting the currents float me where they would.

And so came one of my important Playa Lessons: Burning Man is an Ocean, and it’s Currents are strong, you can fight and exhaust yourself, or you can flow and be taken to wonderful places.

Burning Man (Part One)

September 12, 2009

This year, I attended Burning Man for the first time. It’s difficult to even know how to begin writing about this event. Over the course of it, I discovered that one of the most common shared experiences of ‘Burners’ (people who attend Burning Man) is a frustration at trying to adequately describe it to people who have not attended. While I am certain that I will fail to capture it adequately as well, I do wish to make the attempt if for no other reason than to secure some parts of the memory for myself. Also, I expect my writing about it to be ambling and a bit disjoined, but since my event was also those things, at least it will be in keeping with the spirit.

Burning Man’s own website and the Wikipedia article on Burning Man are good places to start for some generic background. As I’ve only been the one time it’s hard to generalize about the event as a whole (although anyone who knows me will know that won’t stop me from doing so.)

Coming in from England to do the event, as I did, presented some even greater challenges. It is an outdoor event, literally a city in the middle of a desert (actually an alkaline flat or playa to be exact) you have to set up your own camp, which means tents at a minimum (although a great many people come in some kind of recreational vehicle.) I was lucky in that I had a native guide in the form of my little sister, who has been going for a number of years. Since, unlike myself, she is already on the continent (Minnesota to be exact), she was able to do most of the wrangling of the necessary equipment. Like me, she also flew into Reno (the closest city to the event site), but she was able to arrange the transportation of our tent, sundry equipment, and two bicycles (more on bikes later) with some of her friends who were driving down to the event (and many many thanks to them for doing so.) Other european Burners have solved this problem in similar ways, although other very dedicated burners have simply opted for the solution of renting out a year-round storage space in Reno itself.

Most of the people I encountered did not attend the event by themselves but as a part of a larger ‘camp’ of people. In some cases the camps can apply for ‘theme camp’ status. These camps are not just a place to stay during the event for the camp members, but extend some kind of extra something to the event itself, a good example of this would be Quixote’s, who set up the Man and Monkey pub on their site this year, basically running a UK-style pub and cabaret space (they’re also a lovely group of people who put up with a lot of questions from me before the event.) Being a registered theme camp gives you two great advantages for the event:

One, it lets you have a set space for where you’re going to be. This means that you can create all kinds of sinage and announcements before the event itself. These set spaces are also closer towards the center of the city which means less walking for everyone.

Two, it lets you get in early to the event, so you can be set up before it offically starts.

Both of these factors are very important. The group that I was with was not a registered theme camp, and therefore had neither a pre-established space, nor the luck of getting in early. The net effect of this was that we were placed more than a bit out in the stix of the event. But I’ll write more about that later.

Also, I would say the the majority of the non-theme camps still made (in some cases amazing) efforts to contribute to the greater event as well. The group that I was with (dubbed the ‘shady stragglers’, as it was comprised of a lot of people who were part of a previous year’s theme camp called ‘shady rest’) had the tremendious fortune of camping close to two other camps: ‘The Oasis’ was literally a bar, and was open pretty much all the time. So we always had the option of walking across the street and hanging out with loads of people and boozing it up mightliy in the company of other Burners. Kitty-corner from our location was another camp that served tea and coffee every morning from 8-11am and provided a social space where we could meet many other people in our area. Despite neither of these camps being official ‘Theme Camps’ they were, by far, the camps that did the most to create the sense of community and the opportunity to meet my fellow burners, that is a core part of my Burning Man experience, and both of them deserve immense gratitude for their generosity.

More to come…

I’m in the last panel of londonbarcamp6. Ian Forrester is hosting a session of ask the BBC anything. Before this I organized the lightening talks where we had otter proximity, Eccles cakes, graph jokes, SQL hating, amongst other things.

Before that was a panel on how to install OSX on non-apple hardware, which is quite relevant to my interests.

Before that was an excellent panel on arduino hacking, including how to controll led stage lighting and create a basic synth.

It has been a awesome barcamp, the team has done a great job, and the space is amazing.

I’m alive, kind of. Sitting in a panel on programming RFID tags. All kinds of interesting content on how to make real world objects into net-aware objects.

Tom Scott has worked out a way to discover what tweets have been deleted. Also, how to determine wether or not you should do something. Oh, and a quick phone call to a particularly spammy twitterer.

Slides and contact info at

Bread is very well suited as a hobby for hackers. It takes a long period of time but only a small amount of that time to actually do. Lots of excuses to take small short breaks.

Also lots of opportunities to hack your own bread! Trap your own local bacteria instead of using package yeast.

Bread creation scales very well too.