So a couple of months back I started reading again – a bit. Train time and all that. A few others on the list. (obviously, this post isn;t for you, dear reader, it’s for me in a few years time to remind me what I should go back and finish reading).

This month it’s been a couple of books that leave you in no doubt that civilisation isn’t all that civilised.


Debt – the first 5,000 years

This is massive. I’ve almost finished it – a really interesting read. Now, I say I’ve almost finished it. I haven’t, because I haven’t read the footnotes – which make up about a fifth of the book. I’m a huge fan of footnotes. I love it when they take up large chunks of page. That Stewart Lee book tearing apart his shows, the Discworld books, and ‘proper’ books about chemistry had the best bits in the footnotes.

This book tucks them all away in the back of the book (100 pages of them) – rather than on the page. Grrr. Makes reading it a real pain, jumping back and fore. So after chapter one I just accepted that for the first run through I was going to skip the footnotes. Is that cheating? Probably.

My favourite thing about this book is that the first 220 pages are basically defining terms of reference before the actual historical run through starts.


Establishment – and how they get away with it

Debt is a really political book, because the subject matter matters. Establishment is a really political book, but the subject matter is led by the politics. The politics are a bit more to the fore, and opinions are presented rather than formed through the text. It’s easier to argue with this one, or agree with it – depending on your world view.

The two made an interesting combo. I kind of feel I need a third book in this mix for balance – a sort of Thatcherite version of the Establishment. “The Establishment – and how they know best” perhaps?

Learning web design vs learning web development

So I came back from the Turning Festival in Edinburgh with a bit of a renewed interest in search patterns. I’ve never been a huge fan of seo first design – prefering a more natural, honest, straightforward approach and trusting Google to do the right thing.

So for the most part, I don’t spend vast amount of time staring into the abyss that is target keyword lists, Google Trends reports, and link opportunity megareports.

It can be quite good fun from time to time though.

Playing around with Google Trends to see what a few search terms looked like I came across this chart while looking at terms I would expect constraints cards to list for.


“Learn web design” has been in steady decline for years, even as the web has grown and the awareness of web design as a career must have grown significantly. Conversely, “learn web development” is growing. These aren’t blips. These are long term trends.

Learn web development is about to overtake learn web design – certainly as far as Google searches are concerned.

Of course – this only looks significant in isolation. Here is the same chart – with “learn app development” overlaid. It’s away to overtake both terms from a standing start a couple of years ago.

comparing learning web design, web development and app development

And for those wondering, learn app design is way behind app development.


I’ve picked up some books again. For easily a year I’ve been reading to a purpose, rather than just … reading.

I think there are two reasons for this. I now tend to work on the train, which is where I used to do a lot of my reading. I also think it’s partly because the boys are more likely to read to themselves than they used to. I used to easily read to them three, four books a day. Tiny books. Oliver Jeffers or Octonauts rather than a Roald Dahl, but it was all reading.

My brain was used to reading. So it was natural to pick something up to read myself.

Without that same amount of reading with the boys, down to maybe just a bedtime story, I just stopped reading for myself – unless I had to.

Then a few weeks ago we started reading longer form stuff at bedtime.

I decided they needed some Pratchett, so started reading Truckers with the boys. Truckers is great. Getting all excited and confused and intrigued by The Thing. Pondering the big questions about The Outside, perceptions of reality, the nonsense of religion. What fun.

The wee lad declared it “a bit Roahl Dahl-ey – but funnier”. Nothing wrong with that!


With summer coming up I did my usual ‘head to amazon and grab some pop-sci / pop-biz’ material on the false assumption that I’ll have some free time with which to read while on holiday. I’ve switched to reading on the train for a week – so I’m actually reading books again.

It’s ages since I wrote which books I was reading. So…

Misfit Economy

This is an odd one. I’m about three quarters through, and while it’s full of interesting bits and pieces, the writing is dull. Really dull. Almost as dull as this blog post. The stuff about pirates is fun, but could have fitted in a fraction of the words. I’ll finish it because the examples are interesting, I just wish it was more coherent. Quite annoying – as I think it’s a properly interesting idea.

How Not to be Wrong: The Hidden Maths of Everyday Life

This one is more like it. Fun to read, reasonably challenging early on. Makes you think, rather than telling you what you should think. It even has doodly graphs. I love a doodly graph. I can tell it’s a good book already, because I keep putting it down to write notes about something else that came to mind.

I was okay at maths at school, but hit a pretty vertical wall at Uni when we started working with matrix stuff. So it’s satisfying to revisit some of that territory and feel better equipped to think problems through.

Thanks in large part, I’m sure, to Numberphile:

Constraints Gumroad

Since the launch kickstarter ended I’ve used Shopify to sell Constraints cards. Last weekend I closed the Shopify and added some simple Gumroad products directly to the constraints site.

A.B.E. – Always Be Experimenting.

There was nothing wrong with the shopify store, I just didn’t need anything that complicated to sell a handful of decks of cards a month. I wanted to experiment with a few things, but it’s not the quickest system to play around with so I always put it off.

I looked at other options, and Gumroad seemed to be well used, especially in the web learning community.

I only had an hour or so, but setup was quick and easy. Testing was easy, and the first sale through the new system landed pretty quickly. We’ll see if there are any unexpected consequences.

I haven’t started experimenting yet, but shortening the journey from the website to completing the purchase should hopefully at least make life easier for people who want a deck.

new shop buttons


Over the past few months I’ve been spending a fair amount of time enthusing about the fun that can be had with cheap electronic components off ebay. Primarily with enthusiastic fire starter Ian Isted .

A couple of Arduino boards, some basic jumpers and resistors, and a few simple components can be used to create a huge number of great wee projects. We started chatting about creating a subscription service, so a trickle of cool components would arrive throughout the year without having to individually order them. Like a beerbods for shift registers and IR detectors.

Some of our favourite things on the internet are youtube videos by that aussie bloke or Julian simply opening their mail and looking at the electronics they received.

This might make us nerds, I don’t know.

Either way – postduino was born.

postduino artwork

We’re still working on the details, but we’re hoping to launch on kickstarter sometime in May.

A lot of retailers sell components for $10 that you can find on ebay for $1.50. The exact same component. For the cost of one of those components we can send enough goodies to complete a half dozen projects.

We’re hoping to fill a lot of peoples bits boxes really cheaply, share some great projects, and introduce a lot of new people to the fun of electronic tinkering by demystifying it. We also hope to remove a lot of the risk for people, as letting the magic smoke escape will only cost them a dollar or so, rather than $20 a time.

As an example I tried to tally up the cost of the car below.

postduino project

Yes, that’s a wireless joystick in a business card box. The chassis was the most expensive part, which I think cost £20 including the wheels and motors. The rest cost no more than £10 if you use clone arduino boards.

Wheels and motors could have been £5 – and a home made chassis would have been more fun anyway. I’m pretty sure that’s cheaper than most people would expect. Oh – and no soldering was needed.

CodeTheCity – Environment

We just published the first version of the ideation toolkit that we use at Codethecity. It’s a work in progress, but we’d love some feedback.

The toolkit combines a worksheet with a number of cards featuring open datasets, service providers and service user personas. The deck is used in a quick game to help teams quickly understand what we do at a codethecity.

The free, open downloads and fuller information is available on the codethecity site.

ideation toolkit

Bruce came up with the first draft, I spent some time in Adobe Illustrator, and we printed with the lovely folk at Print ready files are available in the repo if you’d like your own deck.

toolkit in use

Northern Lights 2014

This is the second Northern Lights that I’ve co-organised with Bruce, and the fourth event overall.


One of the things I love about this conference is the way we shape it to encourage people to talk to each other. This isn’t just ‘listen to the expert on stage’ territory. This is ‘find people who share your interests’ territory.

Open Space

Nearly half of the day is reserved for ‘open space’. During open space we have four breakout rooms set up for short talks / discussions / panels proposed by attendees.

This was so popular this year that we had to find two extra rooms. The sessions were:

  • Wearable Technology – Try it on
  • What would you do with all the data?
  • Open data about organisations – create once / Use many model?
  • Block chain tech
  • When to reinvent the wheel
  • Government websites
  • What do students want from internships?
  • 3rd sector communication mechanisms
  • Get rich
  • Hacker spaces in Africa
  • Open mapping / open street map
  • Space radios
  • What should we teach first year computing students?
  • Retelling classic Scottish stories through tech
  • Horizon 2020

The wearable tech session involved the opportunity to try on Occulus Rift and Google Glass thanks to one of our sponsors – IFB – so we inevitably ended up repeating that session throughout the afternoon.

Open space makes it much easier for people to start talking to each other. It’s often the conversations that provide the most valuable takeaways from a conference, but it’s too easy to simply turn up, sit through the talks, and keep yourself to yourself.

By reducing the 100 or so people around you to a dozen or twenty on a side track, it’s much easier to introduce yourself, find common ground, and start sharing ideas.

I wish every conference had some open space. It’s easy, you just need some post-its.


Codethecity 2

I won’t attempt to cover everything that happened at codethecity 2 here. It’s well documented on the tumblr and on the main codethecity website. The github page has all the code, and the repo README files do a great job of giving you a quick overview of each project.

I do have something to add though.

Accessibility matters. We all know that. Not enough of us keep that front and centre during our day jobs. Many of us see it as a chore. An after thought. Something to be ‘dealt with’.

remoting into codethecity

One of the projects this weekend was getting on fine. It was a project to make it easier for people to find appropriate sports and exercise activities called fitlike.

They had a nice concept, some insights into how people need to find activities using useful (rather than easy to implement) categorisation, a plan around data and API usage, they had the beginnings of a UI, and they had put a demo together of how the look and feel could pull things together.

The designer on their team was looking a little less engaged with the challenge towards the end of the Saturday so I had a word. He felt he’d kicked the ball about as far as he could. The rest of the team needed to catch up. The design largely solved the problems they had. That challenge was over – now it was all about implementation.

We had a chat about accessibility.

About the challenge faced by people with limited motor skills. The challenges faced by people with brain damage, or learning difficulties, or visual impairment. We had a chat about the simple things we can do to make the UI more accessible for these groups.

We had a chat about how this can impact their quality of life. How this had potential to directly make their day better. How using a larger button, with an icon, and a distinct colour could potentially make their day better.

I’ve had designers react to this with a shrug, and a complaint that it’ll be impossible to make it also look pretty. They start working on an alternative UI for ‘them’.

This weekend the reaction was all about the excitement of realising that possibility. The challenge of making someones day a bit better through design. The challenge of making the whole experience suited to ‘everyone’ rather than making concessions to ‘them’.

Within a couple of hours on a Saturday night the project had taken a huge leap towards that goal.

fitlike ui example

We had icons that made things more visual than drop downs. We had transport considerations front and centre. We had accessibility options on an equal footing with other options, and presented in the same way – not as an apologetic bolt on.

There is work to be done, but there is a clear vision, a clear desire to achieve it, and the team are embracing the challenge.

Exciting. I can’t wait for the next Codethecity.