Internet of Things – an IoT network for Reading

This has happened quicker than I expected! Having finished a big and wonderful project a week and a half ago I decided that one of the things I’d like to tinker with, see if I can get involved with… was the Internet of Things, or IoT as the cool kids say.

I found myself front of stage last night, giving a talk on IoT and launching a project to build a free to use wireless network across the Reading area so that people like us can connect our Things to the Internet.

Mark on stage at Reading Geek Night, 10 Nov
Getting excited at Reading Geek Night

The talk went really well – the audience was engaged and generous enough to let my enthusiasm trump my rather loose grasp of the specifics:

Audience member: “What bandwidth does it use?”

Me: “I’ve no idea – but it’s free and you don’t need a licence” …and what I hope is a winning smile to mask that I’m not entirely certain what bandwidth IS, let alone which one it uses!

Another audience member: “It uses 868MHz” …and then more useful detail on the actual rules – thanks Mike!

In a nutshell

The idea is to replicate what has already been done in Amsterdam. A group of people got together an built a LoraWAN wireless data network that spans the whole of Amsterdam. It cost them just €12k, and now anyone, any community group, any school, any entrepreneur can build and connect their IoT devices to the network for FREE.

In Amsterdam it is being used today to manage the Port of Amsterdam; locating your bicycle (and keeping it safe); sending owners an SMS alert if water is detected on their boat; monitoring office environments; and many other smaller initiatives.

Reading is a third of the area of Amsterdam, so we need fewer devices and the costs have come down.

This is an absolute no-brainer – we should build a network in Reading, right now – who’s with me? Sign up here

Things to connect to the Internet

If you have read a few articles on the IoT you may have noticed an escalation in the number of connected devices people are estimating will be connected to the Internet by 2020. I’ve seen figures range from 10 to 50 billion connected devices. I’ve no idea which number is more accurate – my guess is that nobody else really knows either, but we can probably all agree that there will be A LOT.

So what is a Thing? Generally when people are talking about Things, they mean some combination of sensor, actuator, maybe a microprocessor, wired up to a radio transceiver. Sensors measure things like temperature, moisture, pollution, light, motion. Actuators do something like open a garage, turn on a light, open a lock.

Here’s a Thing:

Photoresistor, XBee on a breadboard
My Thing – a light sensor connected to a radio transceiver

It’s a very simple thing – I made it myself, can you tell?! It needs a 3v DC power source, or a couple of AA batteries. It measures light through the sensor (a photoresistor) on the left, and uses the XBee radio transceiver to send the measurement to my laptop. My laptop is running a program which shows how light or dark the sensor is – and if it hits a threshold (too light or dark) then it sends a Tweet to let me know.

Here I am demonstrating it last night – it works!

Mark demonstrating the Thing at reading Geek Night
Shining a light on the sensor makes the circle on the screen glow brighter

If you are interested, a copy of the code is below. I wrote it using a language called Processing which I learned about on Monday, with the help of Codasign and a couple of tutorials on the Processing site.

This Thing uses ZigBee wireless technology which has a maximum range of 100m – fine for around the house or factory, but too limiting for a Smart City. LoraWAN technology is perfect – it has a maximum range of 15km – so realistically we would only need a handful of gateways to cover Reading.

Gateways to the Internet

A full IoT network looks something like this:

End nodes (sensors) connect to Gateways connected to Network Server connected to Apps
A LoraWAN network

A Things Network for Reading is the collection of Gateways located across the area. They look a bit like your WiFi box at home – rectangular, book sized, with an antenna poking up. …or at least they do if you buy a ready-made one for £400 or so. You can make your own for under £200 too – as ever there is an online tutorial.

…so the IoT adventures are just beginning. I’m off to Amsterdam to meet the guys over there in a couple of weeks. Please get in touch if you want to join in – living in Reading is not mandatory!


My presentation slides (PDF)
Video of the presentation (to follow)
The Things Network Reading community site
The Things Network Amsterdam – this is TTN HQ and there is lots of info here – great page all about LoraWAN end devices and gateways
Processing language – easy to learn, originally designed for creatives
My Processing code for the Thing above that tweets and glows (zipped files)

Special brew

A little over 3 years ago I started brewing again. It ended a 25 year break after I poisoned myself with a batch of cider which left me bedridden and wondering whether I would ever make good parent material!

Felix and I had been mulling over what we could do to grow more of a social life in Reading, and brewing seemed like a good option. We booked onto a “how to” workshop in Ireland run by Chris, one of Felix’s old road protest/environmentalist friends. Chris went on to study permaculture and his interest led onto brewing spectacular beers.

The workshop was relaxed, with plenty of time to chat away while we went step by step through the process of making beer from raw ingredients. We left merry and inspired and set about gathering the necessary kit to give it a go at home. The beer has been flowing steadily ever since!

I enjoy experimenting with the ingredients – there are so many different ingredients and varieties of beer to play with, and the quality of beer you can produce at home compares well with the beer you can buy in pubs. Even if you make a truly hideous batch, at around 40p/pint it isn’t going to break the bank (but it might break your heart to pour it away).

Today I am brewing a beer themed on the idea of toast and marmalade, surely one of the finest breakfast creations of all time.

Mash tun and kettle
Mash tun and kettle – no not the name of a fresh new hipster collective, this is my brewing kit

This brew uses just shy of 7kg of grain, which will hopefully deliver a strong beer around 6% ABV. I have a lovely book called Designing Great Beers (Daniels) which describes the different attributes of the different grains and hops available. From the book I learn that Vienna malt gives a rather orange colour, and Victory malt gives a toasty flavour. I’m also using Pale malt and a small amount of Pale rye.

To calculate the finished strength of the beer I use the recipe calculator on the Brewers Friend website. You could work it out by hand of course, but this is a time and error saver. WARNING: lots of beer recipes come from USA, and there is a significant difference between the number of litres in a US gallon and a UK gallon. I have screwed this up at least twice now (the beer is roughly 20% weaker than planned – still tasty though!), so that’s why I use the Brewers Friend recipe calculator rather than rely on someone else’s written recipe.

Chinook, Fuggles, Cascade hops in sacks
3 types of hops in this brew, but quite small quantities

Hops are used to flavour the beer at different stages of the brewing process. For this recipe I am using Chinook for bittering the beer – I’m not using much because I don’t want to overpower the orange flavour. I’m also using Fuggles for a bit of spice, and then Cascade for its citrus flavour and aroma.

Dried orange peel in a hop sack
A lot of dried orange peel

The unique ingredient for this beer is dried orange peel. I managed to source a kilo of dried orange peel for a tenner online, and most of it is going into the beer – I’m steeping it in the hot wort for about half an hour so it imparts its flavour into the brew. Research shows that you need to add about 10% of the total weight of the dry ingredients to get a good flavour, so around 700g should hopefully do the job.

To make the beer you put all the grain in the blue tub, and add water at a certain temperature to create a hot bath in which the grain stews for an hour or so, and all the sugars come out into the liquid, or wort as brewers like to call it. Getting the temperatures right is important otherwise you can get nasty flavours or less sugar than you want. For this batch I am doing 1hr at 66 deg C and 30 mins at 77 deg C.

Orange wort going into the kettle
Yes! It looks like a good marmalade colour

Once the time is up you drain the mash tun into the kettle, remembering to recycle the first few litres until it runs clear. Thankfully the colour looks pretty good and orangey to me! Then you turn the kettle on and wait for it to boil.

…and wait.

Good project managers (hello) learn to be prepared for when things go wrong. Today’s challenge is the kettle won’t boil. It keeps turning itself off around 80 degrees. So a swift decant into metal pans and a kitchen takeover ensues.

Boiling pans on the stove
Plan B – kitchen takeover. The floating brown thing is a sack of Chinook hops.

Disaster averted, and the boiling begins in earnest. First into the boil goes the bittering hops (Chinook), followed 40 mins later by the Fuggles, and another 10 mins later for the aroma hops – Cascade.

Close up of a single Cascade hop
This is a dried Cascade hop – lovely citrus aroma should be just right for marmalade

Then after an hour of boiling it is flame-out and in goes the orange peel to steep for half an hour.

Soaked peel swollen in sack
Thirsty orange peel soaked up loads of beer

Lesson of the day – dried orange peel is *really* thirsty. It has sucked up about 3 litres of my tasty beer, which means this batch is going to be smaller than I’d hoped. Grrr!

The next step is to cool the wort down quickly to fermenting temperature, about 20 deg C. To do this I use a coil of copper tubing which sits in the wort and has cold water running through it:

Wort cooling system
Cooling the wort – cold water runs through the copper coil, warm water empties into the mash tun for cleaning

Cooling the wort takes about 40 mins, and then I can add the yeast and pop the lid on. But first I want to measure the original gravity (OG) so I can work out how strong the beer could be. If the maths is right it should be a little over 1060:

Hydrometer in the wort
Measuring the OG to work out the potential strength of the beer

Perfecto! Now it’s just a matter of waiting a few days for the fermentation to complete, and then I can bottle it. Should be ready for Christmas.

What next?

Friday marked the end of an enjoyable and productive project that has been the focus of all my attention for the last 18 months. I’ll write more on this another time because there are some lessons worth sharing, but today’s post is about what I turn my attention to next, now I have some time on my hands…

This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me but I take great comfort in routine and order. I *love* efficient use of time. If I’ve got my daily routines locked-down then I can concentrate on managing the chaos around me. So I have a lot of routines and little games, for example:

  • I like my alarm clock to go off just before the very start of Tweet of the Day on R4.
  • I always pass the same man on my walk to the train station. He walks up the hill as I walk down. I feel I’ve won if I pass him lower down the hill than if I pass him higher up. I’ve never asked if he plays the same game.
  • Finding the perfect position on the platform to line up with the train doors and claim a precious seat, or more likely a bit of carriage to lean against.
  • I know which of the checkout staff in the supermarket are the fastest.
  • There is a “best” way to load the dishwasher, hang up laundry…
  • Frankly I’ve been wondering what to do next with my life. Both my kids pretty much left home this summer so a big chunk of my weekly routine evaporated when they stepped into adulthood. Suddenly I have more freedom than I’ve had for the last 20 years or so, and it’s all a bit daunting.

    A few weeks before the end of the project I can see that my anchors are slipping and I’m drifting inexorably towards an abyss. I *hate* being a passenger, and would much rather be steering through uncharted waters looking for potential adventures. Time for a list.

    Seven pages later and I’ve got a few broad themes and a number of things to experiment/play with.

    Low tech – sometimes paper beats everything

    paper and a notebook
    Paper – the ultimate planning tool?

    For someone who used to spend his time extolling the virtues of the paperless office, I am a big fan of paper. I use paper regularly in my work and I thought I’d put some thoughts together on using paper for information gathering, getting agreement and common understanding. I’ll share some tools I’ve designed or picked-up over the years that help me in these areas.

    Internet of Things

    XBee shield for Arduino
    Making some wireless devices

    Reading is surrounded by IT giants like Microsoft, HP, and Oracle, but has lacked cohesion at a community level. Fortunately there are a few people working hard to build a roots-level tech scene, and I will be lending my support. I want to establish a free to use wireless network (Lorawan protocol) across the town which people can use for connecting their homegrown IoT devices. I’ve been inspired by The Things Network who did exactly this in Amsterdam for a cost of €12k, and are running a Kickstarter campaign to make it even cheaper.

    Towards the Good Life?

    Felicity Ford reading The Shepherds of Sussex
    The good

    I wouldn’t be much of a project manager if there wasn’t a Big Plan. Felix and I need to figure out where and how we want to live over the coming years. We have a lot of dreams, and they don’t all fit neatly together. How can you travel the world in a campervan, and keep a flock of rare breed sheep? Will glamping last or is it a fad?

    So we’re trying stuff out. We have some naughty, mucky livestock:

    Duck in our garden
    The bad

    You have to accept with experiments that you win some, you lose some, and you may not both agree. Felix loves the bloody ducks, me not so much …although I am sorely tempted to install a webcam in there with them because their antics can be hilarious.

    I am planning some construction experiments, working towards building our own Tiny Home. We’re starting even smaller, with the garage roof – something I’ve neglected terribly this past 18 months.

    Garage roof with hole
    The ugly

    In an earlier experiment I learned that gaffer taping corrugated roofing down might be quick, but it isn’t terribly effective! Who knew? It’s fair to say I’m dubious about how well this set of experiments will go, but it’s definitely an area where there’s room for improvement!

    I’m quite a bit more excited about this:

    Homebrew packaging
    Fancy a brew?

    I’ve got what I hope is a great idea for a winter ale that I am looking forward to making in the next week or two. Cheers!

    Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: facebook edition

    A rainy Saturday in Whitstable in Kent.

    A couple.
    A couple of beers.
    A LOT of cheese, oysters and clams and…. VOILA!

    Maslow facebook

    Who says romance is dead?

    …actually we had a beautiful weekend by the seaside. After an amazing meal and our napkin revision of Maslow, we went walking out on a sandspit into the middle of the sea at midnight whilst a small flotilla of Chinese lanterns sailed overhead.

    Just the two of us and the certain knowledge that we would get cut-off by the tide and our bloated bodies would wash up on the shore 3 weeks later, surrounded by the corpses of the rare lesser spotted something or others that were cruelly strangled by the wire frame of the bloody lanterns.
    I hate the internet for teaching me these things.

    But in your face, facebook! We survived the riptide, and the lanterns were reclaimed and repurposed by a flock of Whitstable artists. No dramas, just a beautiful clear blue sky and breezy Sunday morning promenade to clear the cobwebs.

    And kite-surfing. Lots of kite-surfing, mostly it seems by men old enough to know better and smart enough to know this is as good as it gets.

    Oh, and a clever dog. Queuing for a sausage sandwich. Just for facebook.

    Tuned City Brussels 2013

    Felix has been in Brussels most of June with Valeria Merlini making preparations for the Tuned City Brussels sound art festival. It took place this weekend and so me and my laptop hopped onto the Eurostar to Brussels to see/hear the kind of thing Felix and her sound art colleagues do for a living.

    Working remotely went like a dream once I’d switched hotel rooms (my original room was built inside a Faraday cage) to one that had wifi, and so I spent the daytime working on some ideas (shh! secret…) and then around 4pm I’d track down the artists and get involved for the evening. I took a few photos with my phone and here’s a selection along with a bit of a review.

    Firstly the disclaimer – I am not a sound artist, I’m not especially well-informed, so what follows is really the perspective of an interested layman. My partner IS a sound artist and undoubtedly influences my point of view to some extent, but these are my words and my opinion, not hers. So if I cause delight and offence – yaay and sorry, it’s my fault.

    Ford & Merlini opening performance
    Ford & Merlini opening performance

    Right then, Tuned City Brussels – here we go. As I understand it Tuned City is the brainchild of Carsten Stabenow and it takes place every couple of years, the last one being in Tallin, Estonia where Felix and Valeria (Ford & Merlini) first worked together. This year Carsten teamed up with Julia Eckhart of Q-02 in Brussels to put on the show.

    What an ambitious festival – 3 days, 47 artists, across 22 venues – enough to make any project manager shudder! Add on top the audience, the number of installations and instruments that need transporting, building, (fixing?), dismantling, all a tight schedule, all in public spaces with folk meandering around and you have a pretty intense logistical challenge on your hands.

    Felix and Valeria opened the festival with live mixing of recordings they had made of various places in Brussels, plus recordings made by some students they worked with earlier in the year. The projector showed live use of radio aporee, a brilliant idea created by Udo Noll that is (more than) a web map for recording, playing and sharing site-specific field recordings. Udo was at Tuned City with something called bx – a briefcase full of tricks that becomes a solar-powered radio broadcasting station plus live internet streaming. Very cool and I think Udo was having a lot of fun.

    Udo Noll talking about his new bx
    Udo Noll talking about his new bx

    There were various sound walks over the weekend which offer interesting ways to engage with the city. Because I was busy during the day I didn’t get to join in most of these, but I took part in two. One was by Christina Kubisch which was a guided walk around Botanique – a botanical garden surrounded by trams and skyscrapers. Christina has created headphones that pick up electrical noise – so for example when you walk past a photo booth or fire alarm box you can hear the electronics. Never has standing at a pedestrian crossing been so much fun! As a walk it was full of surprises, even for Christina who seemed as delighted as anyone to find a metal statue that when you put your headphones near the bull’s mouth, you heard a local radio station!

    "Vous ecoutez la radio Bull" - fun with Christina Kubisch's headphones
    “Vous ecoutez la radio Bull” – fun with Christina Kubisch’s headphones

    The second walk was by Akio Suzuki who had marked specific spots on the streets around the south of Brussels for you to stop, listen and contemplate. This idea of walking and deliberately listening is an appealing one because so often in the city I find I try to consciously block out the sound, so this was a nice change. The group of people I joined were bristling with microphones, and attracted the attention of Suresh – a new resident of Brussels who had just been to yoga. Suresh joined us for 30 mins or so on the walk and I think he had fun learning a little about Tuned City.

    Each evening finished with performances that tended to involve us the audience sitting in chairs watching them the performer. Now normally when I am in this situation I am being entertained – it is a music concert, or a standup comic, or I am at a talk about something I find interesting, like information management! So I struggle to sit still and watch someone saw a string with a bow or move bits of electrical kit near each other and “play” the interference, unless it is interesting or entertaining. Besides, I am NOT target audience for this kind of work – some of it seems to be done by the in-crowd for the in-crowd purely as a way of comparing dick size. That said, two performances stood out for me:

    Okkyung Lee and Marina Rosenfeld, opening night Tuned City 2013
    Okkyung Lee and Marina Rosenfeld, opening night Tuned City 2013

    Firstly Marina Rosenfeld and Okkyung Lee on the opening night. NOTHING had gone their way that day and so they found themselves really compromised with an incomplete and damaged set of tools at their disposal, yet pulled-off an incredible performance involving a list of office departments (as you do), a cello and a magic box of electronic sounds in Curo Hall – a huge empty space with a balcony all the way round. I liked that it was possible to walk around a little, and the sounds they produced made the building come to life. There was one section where Lee was revving her cello like a motorbike which was thrilling.

    Secondly was the last performance by Zenial (Lukasz Szalankiewicz) – this was a sit and watch performance of a guy with a load of electrical devices (digital camera, transistor radio, many other bits and bobs) make all kinds of horrendous buzzes and squeaks. Yet somehow out of this mess of noise he found rhythms and was able to build the sounds and the atmosphere in the room up like a club DJ. There were definite messiah moments as he laid his hands upon the kit, but somehow he had enough conviction and presence to get away with it.

    Zoe Irvine gave an interesting performance before Zenial – she borrowed recordings from an oral history archive, chopped them up and put them through lie detector software. She did it in a way that (mostly) took language out of the equation and left it to the software to judge truth or lie based on the supposed level of stress in the sound snippet. For me it wasn’t as “entertaining” a performance as the other two I mentioned, but it was probably the most thought-provoking and political piece in the festival. It certainly raises questions about the extent to which society is putting “the machine” in charge and has left me uneasy.

    It was called "Penumbra" meaning partial shadow.  I was totally in the dark!
    It was called “Penumbra” meaning partial shadow. I was totally in the dark!

    The performance I saw on the Saturday night was the low point for me – visually it was interesting with a sail and an upturned boat (to my mind anyway), but I could not understand the connection to Brussels (or any city), or why the man was making such a monotonous racket with his bow while the woman twanged his string. I’m sure he had a good time though…

    Friday night’s performance also lacked any obvious link with Brussels, but it had amazing looking instruments, two excited lads playing them, and it was set in a huge church that has become a squat. Like with Zenial – the sounds had enough variety and rhythm to be entertaining, but also the setting was much less formal – you could walk all the way round, and at the end we were even allowed a go on the wind up horns. What’s not to love?!

    Sound art gives Wessel Westerfeld and Yuri Landman the horn.  Felix and Valeria admire...
    Sound art gives Wessel Westerfeld and Yuri Landman the horn. Felix and Valeria admire…

    Brussels is rather blessed with bars and beer, which seemed to go down well with the artists (and me). The unwinding at the end of the day was a lovely sociable affair. As an outsider I was made welcome (thank you) and the conversation was a fine old mix of ranting, laughter and debate. I had not appreciated the depth of knowledge these people have on the history and philosophy of sound art. The catalogue of names and projects that get tossed around is bewildering and impressive to an outsider like me and spending time in their company made me realise there IS substance behind the work.

    Much less impressive is the academic vocabulary that gets slapped around – pedagogic didactic liminal interstitial sick bucket. I object to it in the same way as I object to IT technobabble – it is a divisive form of anti-communication to anyone not in the gang, and I think it is a major reason why art is considered inaccessible by the masses.

    I think the vocabulary is a difficult problem, because the academic world is fierce and words are weapons, so you need a formidable arsenal to survive. This is not the case outside of academia where ease of understanding wins. I am sure the work of artists will be valued more if you can remove the verbal barriers. But there is hope! – we were discussing the merits of one of the performances and people (yes you Felix!) were wielding out the big words, when a lovely bloke called Michael said in one of the simplest sentences ever uttered by an academic: “It really helps if it sounds good.”

    My favourite parts of Tuned City Brussels though were the site-specific installations in the city. And my favourite favourite was Pierre Berthet’s piece in Abbaye de la Cambre. As you can see in the underwhelming photo, it is barely visible – a collection of taut wires and tin buckets suspended between two trees in the grounds of the abbey.

    My favourite installation of Tuned City, thanks to Pierre Berthet
    My favourite installation of Tuned City, thanks to Pierre Berthet

    So it wasn’t visually arresting. The sound had no rhythm, just a series of long (several minutes) drones with fairly subtle changes. But it was beautiful, reverent, and seemed to be as old as the trees it came from and the walls that surrounded it. I cannot describe what a “good” sound is, but I totally know what Michael means, and for me this sounded amazing.

    Of everything I saw and heard, the one that was most public must be the group performance in Gare du Nord by Lukas Kuhne and Robyn Schulkowsky. It involved half a dozen artists (including a fun Aussie/Cornishman called Rob) thumping wooden boxes to make a tremendous rhythmic boom throughout the station hall at the entrance/exit to all the platforms. The full spectrum of people from beaten-up drunks to business women stopped to watch the performance, and if outreach was one of the Tuned City Brussels aims then I think this gets a big tick.

    Tub-thumping performance at Gare du Nord, Tuned City Brussels
    Tub-thumping performance at Gare du Nord, Tuned City Brussels

    Slide + Stage Review

    Yesterday I drove down to Brighton for this:


    Image lifted from

    I found out about the day at the first Breaking Borders event in Reading two months ago. Laura Kalbag is a young freelance web designer who was talking about responsive web design which is something I’ve been interested in for quite a while. Her talk was good, and the way she presented was REALLY good. Laura paid homage to this guy called Aral who taught her how to talk and was running something soon called Slide + Share. Hmm I thought. Maybe… so I signed up (yes Breaking Borders was offering a discount!)

    Laura writes a lovely blog too and has evolving ideas on being a woman in IT which are well worth a read. One of the things I picked up on from the blog was that her and Aral are a couple. I really wish she had mentioned that during her Breaking Borders talk because finding out later made me doubt my decision to sign up for Slide + Stage. It’s like me banging on about this amazing sound artist who showed me how to hear more beauty in the everyday world, but not mention that she was my other half – it just undermines credibility when people find this stuff out later.

    I had not met Aral before yesterday, but I’ve seen him a bit on YouTube so had a fair idea what to expect. Aral is a little overweight with a big old head, and is a bit quiet for your standard stage monkey …oh wait, that’s me! Actually Aral is annoyingly good looking, neat and simply dressed, fizzing with energy and wit and loves being centre stage. So lesson #1 – I CAN NEVER BE LIKE ARAL. This is a theme that repeats many times during the day…

    Aral opened the day on time (thank you) and gave a fantastic introductory talk. Slides flashed up as he spoke, beautifully timed so that his words had maximum impact. He was totally engaging, passionate and funny. He is very good. I think it’s going to be a good day.

    Dammit, now it’s our turn. Hey ho, we knew this was coming, right? – it’s what we came for, so 40 or 50 people of mixed nerves and ability each took their turn to walk on stage (applause), say a bit, take the applause, and get off stage. All under the watchful eye of Aral who gave a fantastic live critique of how people walked, stood, spoke, and fidgeted and made to redo it (hi Natalie!) until Aral was satisfied. We all learned from each other and by the half-way mark we were all beginning to do alright.

    This was a great session and spirits were high. A couple of the punters were speakers themselves – in particular there was a really sweet guy called Seb Lee-Delisle who has an altogether different presence on stage, which was a beautiful contrast to Aral and showed that lesson #2 – I DON’T NEED TO BE LIKE ARAL – phew, I can be me and it will be ok. Maybe.

    Seb popped up again later in the day to show how to do a live demo, in this case a coding demo, and so he got his moment to shine. I really enjoyed his quieter, bone dry humour, and can totally see why he has just won an award too! Aral took us through the technology aspects of giving a talk, covering clickers, microphones, stage layout, and the importance of building great rapport with your tech guy. In this case it was a very obliging chap called Chris who worked his magic from the back of the theatre so Aral could show the pros and cons of different microphones. I’m deliberately not giving you the answers in this post – book yourself onto the next course if you are interested 😉

    Lunch was team noodles at Wagamamma and then Natalie (sparky teacher/artist) whisked us off to get cracking coffee from a place called Small Batch. Awesome sauce, back to the theatre we trot.

    The after lunch session was the low point for me. It focused on building your slide deck, which could have been good if Aral had shown us how he uses slides to get maximum impact, and talked through his mindset and approach to building the deck …but he didn’t. Instead we got a dodgy tutorial on Keynote and what felt like an eternity looking at slide effects and transitions not to use – really we just needed:

    See all these transitions and effects? Powerpoint has them too right?
    – they are fugly, and your audience will beat you with shoes.
    Only use cut and fade.
    If you use anything else, you’d better have a REALLY good reason.
    You won’t have, so don’t.
    Ditto comic sans.

    Harsh eh? Well I paid money for this masterclass, and maybe you should too – because I am confident Aral will learn a lot from this first session and make improvements – he just has that kind of professional approach. So I’m not worried for you or him – next time will be even better.

    Next up was a run through of Aral’s checklists which he will be sending us all. Thank you, they are going to be very useful. He showed us his Terms too which was kind. There are a couple of things from this session that gave some insight into Aral’s approach:

    1. If you are running a conference, look after the talent
    2. Aral is the talent, look afer him
    3. If you are making money from your conference, so must the talent

    I don’t think I’ve given away any secrets here – Aral had a lot more advice for the people on the day, but you can see that he respects and values himself, and is only interested in working with organisations that also respect and value him. As a long-time freelancer myself, we are united in this!

    Finally we had a Q&A session which I thought was really good and could have gone on longer. The other punters asked some great questions and got solid, honest advice from Aral, Seb, Laura, and one of the audience who worked in broadcasting. I got told off for saying “sorry” which felt a bit unnecessary (I am English dammit, of course I am sorry), and then instructed to take on the corporate culture where the slides ARE the document – a challenge I am looking forward to very much!

    …was it worth the time and money? I think he priced it about right, but for me there was too much time being an audience, not enough time participating. If I was Aral I would have more Q&A, revise the Keynote transition bit (feel free to use my words above!) and add in a more interactive after lunch section about pace, tempo, pitch. This would make for a better experience all round. Obviously I am not the expert here, and I don’t know what changes Aral will make for next time, but assuming he will fine tune the session I am happy to recommend it.

    Oh and we all had to promise to give a talk somewhere local. Which I guess is the point. So I will be shuffling onto a stage in Reading at some point soon, drop the mike, bend down to pick it up, smack my head on the laptop, lose the start of the slides, look up, smile and tell you an inappropriate joke before muttering a few words about business change projects. I’ll be ok though – Aral says nothing ever goes wrong on stage.

    PS: the next Breaking Borders is on 25th June and promises to be good (otherwise we get to poke Ben with a stick). Also a long standing and excellent evening of talks is at Reading Geek Night on the 2nd Tuesday of each month.

    Lets work together!

    Having spent the last couple of years putting all my spare time into organising The Games Way I promised myself that this year I would focus more on business.

    I had a brilliant, energising and inspiring meeting last Friday – I’ve worked with one of the guys before but not the firm, and so I had to introduce myself to the CEO and give a bit of personal background. About 5 seconds in I stumbled as I realised I have been freelancing for TWENTY years this year!

    Twenty years – how did that happen?! The original plan was to go contracting (tick), earn good money (tick), start a family (tick), find a bunch of like-minded folk, start a business and change the world (…not so much)

    Over all the years I have been freelancing I, like so many other freelancers, have had lots of conversations about how we should work together and countless pipe dreams of some kind of utopian consultancy / software firm that does excellent work for really brilliant organisations that are doing good things to improve the world we live in.

    And done very little about it.

    Ok, so life got in the way – priorities change, blah blah. Don’t get me wrong, freelancing has been very good to me and it has meant I’ve been able to survive the rocks fate hurls your way from time to time without many lasting scars …but seriously, TWENTY years?

    I love freelancing, I love working with directors and execs, I love improving the way organisations deliver a service to their customers. It is exciting to be always learning how things work and finding ways to do it better/quicker/cheaper. In twenty years there have only been a few weeks where I haven’t been excited about my work, where I didn’t know why I was there.

    I love the influence I have in an client’s organisation, and I am totally committed to the organisations I work with. But I need more. I need to BELONG to an organisation that I can commit to for life, not just for a year or two.

    Why? Because I want to deliver a better service to my clients too. I am convinced that speed of delivery of improvements is key, and despite what I might claim from time to time – I don’t have all the best ideas. A group of bright, imaginative, motivated people will spark off each other and spur each other on to do amazing things, and if we can focus this talent and enthusiasm for our clients then we can give them a service that makes the boardroom buzz with delight.


    Do you want to help form a consultancy with a software development capability, focused on improving the service that highly regulated public and private sector organisations deliver to their customers? Does this sound like fun to you – is it the kind of ride you want to go on again and again?

    If we have achieved good things together in the past and you think we should do it again, this is your opportunity. Email me and I’ll take you through what I have in mind. Lets pool our thoughts and see if we can get something exciting to work on.

    Lets get something established by the end of March.

    …are you in?

    Happymon and Google Adwords

    A quick update on the Happymon experiment.

    You may recall that Happymon is the first web app I have released. It allows users to monitor their mood swings and it gave me the opportunity to test out a bit of responsive web design, linking with facebook, google adwords, etc.

    In the 6 weeks it has been live Happymon has gathered 37 users (excluding me). The vast majority of these used the app once or twice, with only a handful giving it more than a week or so. Over 300 mood swings have been recorded to date, but on 5 days since 6th Dec no mood swings were recorded at all.

    Google Adwords

    I have found the results with Google Adwords most interesting. Overall here are the key figures for December:

    Number of impressions: 13,007
    Click through rate: 0.98%
    Conversion rate (of those who clicked the ad, how many registered): 7.81%
    Cost per registered user: £11.40

    This is not my idea of a sparkling performance! So at the start of 2013 I re-jigged the keywords in the search terms and the figures improved markedly. Here are the figures for January:

    Number of impressions: 10,064
    Click through rate: 1.2%
    Conversion rate (of those who clicked the ad, how many registered): 15.7%
    Cost per registered user: £3.95

    Which I think you would agree is a big improvement! So am I a secret marketing genius? …unlikely.

    Adwords allows you to cap your daily spend, which is very useful. You spend money every time someone clicks your ad, and once your daily budget is used up, there are no more ads until the next day.

    What I found was that “bipolar mood swings” was a relatively popular search, and the people searching often clicked on the advert, which cost me money. However I think the bipolar community are looking for something a little more substantial than Happymon offers, and very few people using this search term ever registered.

    So the lesson here is not to use keywords to get a high number of clicks, but to work out which keywords result in a higher number of conversions. By excluding “bipolar”-themed keywords I saved a lot of clicks that never convert, which meant my daily budget didn’t get used up so quickly and so the ad was shown to other people more likely to convert.

    Announcing Happymon – monitor your mood swings!

    As mentioned previously I started programming again this summer. Today I am excited to introduce Happymon – a tool that helps you monitor mood swings.

    It is free to use and I’m hoping enough people will find it useful or fun and want me to develop the idea further.

    Welcome to Happymon
    The welcome page for Happymon

    I have written it primarily as a learning exercise. Here’s what I have used:


    It is written in PHP using the Codeigniter framework, with a MySQL database.

    I found Codeigniter a bit hard going at first – I needed to rethink just about everything! But after a couple of Fridays (Fridays are my coding days) it started to click and yesterday I added 2 new features with ease and am really beginning to enjoy what Codeigniter can do for me.

    This app is simple, there are just 2 models, 2 controllers and a handful of views. I don’t think I would have wanted to try anything harder as an introduction. Codeigniter claims to have the best documentation, and once you get over the initial shock it IS good. However I despised their tutorial – it told you what to do, but didn’t once explain why, which made learning hard for me (i’m not so good at unquestioning obedience).

    The database has a few tables – one holds user details, one is the main log, one contains the aggregated data and I added a table containing a load of quotes about mood from (semi-) famous people.


    The front end is all html and javascript with a bit of jQuery.

    I started out using the excellent Twitter Bootstrap, but then recently got excited about responsive web design after listening to Ketan talk at Reading Geek Night last month. Ketan is an impressive character and has started a really interesting project called C.A.P.O.W – it is a framework for writing comics online.

    For those who don’t know, Responsive Web Design is a way of tackling the problem where people will use your app on any number of devices with all sorts of different screen sizes. The dev world seems to be split (some things NEVER change) about the best way to tackle this. There is a strong argument that says basically suck it up – rewrite the app for each device. The idea of RWD is that you can design your app to work on multiple devices with some well considered design and CSS.

    Anyway, I bought a book (of course) Responsive Web Design with HTML5 and CSS3 on Kindle and then read it in a weekend, and thought I’d have a go.

    The result is that apart from the registration form, everything else is hand-made CSS. It is not perfect! …but it does seem to work ok on a laptop, iPad and android phone.

    Screenshot of the mood monitor
    jQuery Sparklines plugin used for displaying the mood charts

    For the mood charts I’m using jQuery Sparklines which I think are pretty awesome, and very easy to work with.

    Oh, and the logo font is Sansita One from the brilliant

    Please have a play with Happymon – I welcome all feedback, good or bad…

    Cheers, Mark

    Is your IT department an island or an oasis?

    * No.7 and final article in a series I wrote in Dec 2010

    My last post got some great comments on LinkedIn, and more agreement than I’m used to! Antony Clay, Chief Strategy Officer at 21apps introduced me to his wonderful concept of “the celery effect” in his comment:

    As I presented at a recent SharePoint user group, we need to “Stop the Celery Effect” of our projects where the investment and expenditure is greater than the value delivered and start to deliver true, tangible organisational value.

    Isn’t this a fantastic metaphor for all those strategic IT projects that start with a big fanfare but in the stampede to show progress, hit milestones, etc. quietly forget what set of benefits/outcomes they set out to achieve. Eventually they blunder into a go-live state (mistakenly seen as the finish line) wild-eyed and frazzled. The project manager stand there like a crazed artist locked away toiling on his masterpeice, finally able to look up for this big moment when the curtain drops for the big reveal….

    “Oh. Is that what we asked for? It isn’t quite what I expected. Still if it means we can get a new product out in 6 weeks it’ll be fanta… what do you mean 6 months? – that’s slower than the old way, you promised us 6 weeks…”

    I really like “the celery effect” – you can read more on Antony’s blog.

    To wrap up this series of posts about what we can all do to close the gap between an organisation and its IT dept, I want to paint a picture of two different IT departments.

    Scenario 1

    The first IT department isn’t on another planet to its business as I described here, but it does operate as an independent island state, distinct and separate from its parent organisation.

    It has its own culture, power structure, and worships its own gods. For a community that values architecture and design so highly it can be surprisingly ramshackle behind the thick, high stone ramparts that have been built all around the shoreline.

    Few people ever leave the island. Islanders are an insular bunch and don’t feel the need to socially interact with people from the mainland. They make do with communicating through terse emails and weighty documents. There are times when face to face contact is required but the islanders discourage this by feigning disinterest and treating everyone with suspicion.

    People from the mainland used to value the quality of the craftwork produced by the islanders, and so tolerated their quirky nature and tendency to over-promise. In more recent times the mainlanders have found other tools that do a consistently “ok” job in less time. Resentment has grown on both sides and the isolation of the islanders is increasing.

    Scenario 2

    The second IT department also has its own culture, power structure, and worships its own gods. But rather than be an independent island it has adopted the form of a lake. Instead of high walls it has an open shoreline and mainlanders walk around the edge, dip their toes in, or fully immerse themselves, as they feel comfortable.

    As a lake, the IT dept. is very clearly different and distinct from the mainland, but it sits within the mainland and borders with it on all sides. If the landscape changes shape then the lake is affected too.

    Most mainlanders stay on or near the shore, and very few get to really understand the full ecosystem and explore the murky depths of the lake, but the shoreline and the shallows thrive with life. The waters can sometimes get choppy and accidents do happen, but generally it is safe to swim. The mainlanders value the lake and know they need to take care of it for their own benefit.

    As you look forward to 2011, what sort of IT dept do you want to have in your organisation? What is your ideal picture? What are you doing to move closer to it?

    Cheers, Mark