Ambient Skype

For the first time in my life I used a Skype video call with my wife today as an ambient backdrop to life, rather than just as tool for having a conversation. I’d always wanted to try it, ever since hearing my friend and colleague Dave Newbold mention, in a presentation he was giving a couple of years ago about the near future for technology and social interaction, something he’d heard described as ‘ambient Skype’, whereby people leave a voice client running in the background while they are away from home as a way of being almost-there.

Where the marginal cost of bandwidth is at or near zero, you don’t have to constantly talk to make use of realtime online communication tools. You can relax and enjoy being in each other’s company, as you would at home. A bit like Leisa Reichelt’s term, Ambient Intimacy, but less about easily staying loosely in touch with many people, and more about actual intimacy between two people by using a (normally) synchronous tool in an undirected way.

Time zones have often made it difficult in the past. I’m in the US and Rachel is back in the UK, our lives don’t overlap much, and we have to make an effort to find times we’re both online, or revert to text and email. Today though, I had some free time in the late afternoon and badly needed a nap. Since it was early enough to coincide with Rachel’s bed-time, we tried falling asleep together, apart.

Ambient Skype

I found this to be very comforting. It’s rather reassuring to drift off with the familiarity of hearing each other breathing and (for me) the everyday noises of home in the background. A nice way to reduce the distance during a long trip abroad. I don’t know why we didn’t try it sooner.

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SXSW day 5 – Soulja Boy

Jane McGonigal gave a wonderful keynote on games and ARGs. Not dissimilar to her ‘Reality is Open’ presentation at GDC recently, so these are not her SXSW slides, but there’s an overlap.

Other people have made excellent notes already, which are much more complete than my own. Here are some:

During the keynote, Jane mentioned that as part of playing an ARG, she had witnessed (and learned) the Soulja Boy dance, and offered to perform it at the end of the session. She kept her word.

SXSW day 0 – travel day

I was picked up at 8:30am this morning by something not quite fancy enough to be called a limo, but in a different league than a regular taxi. We could perhaps ignore my non executive status and call it an executive chauffeur service. Hursley Cars offer a great, reliable door-to-door service. Enjoyably lazy on the outbound portion, particularly useful on the return leg, when the last thing you want to do after a transatlantic flight is drive home. Especially because there’s a good chance that really would be last thing you do.

I checked in (checkind?) at the business class hut at Heathrow terminal 3. Despite traveling economy class, I can check in at the business class desk by saying the magic words “I work for IBM”. I was given an emergency exit row too. The nice lady doing check-in must have taken pity on my lanky tall 6’4″ frame. Would I be prepared to assist in the event of an emergency? For some extra legroom, I’d be prepared to do pretty much anything.

I bumped into both Jemima Kiss and Jo Twist during boarding. I’ve also seen a girl I don’t recognise wearing an Upcoming t-shirt, so I get the feeling she’s One Of Us. It seems that at least some of the British contingent of the tech invasion of Austin are beginning their journey together.

I love filling in the visa waiver form when I sit down in the plane. It allows me momentary glimpses into parallel universes in which I have to answer ‘yes’ to any of the scary questions on the back. It asks, do I have a “communicable disease, physical or mental disorder”? It asks whether I am a drug abuser or addict. Have I been convicted for an offense or crime involving “moral turpitude”? Am I involved in espionage or sabotage, or terrorist activities? Best of all, whether or not, between 1933 and 1945, I was involved in persecution associated with Nazi Germany or its allies. Fortunately, the answer to all of these questions is ‘no’, otherwise I’d have had to contact the American embassy before traveling.

The food is the predictable choice between chicken with vegetables, beef with the same vegetables, or a vegetarian option. I’m increasingly tempted to ask for the vegetarian option, despite not being one, just to have something different. Ah well. Maybe next time. Portions are meagre. I’ve always assumed that’s so we don’t put undue strain on the (frankly already smelly) toilet system. I weighed myself for the first time in ages this morning, purely out of interest, in order to see whether I gain or lose weight during the next 10 days. The small portion of sensible food isn’t going to make much of a difference either way. I noticed that the can of coke was an imperial 12 fluid ounces (355ml) rather than European 333ml (1/3 litre) size, so a gradual Americanizing of my diet has already begun.

As ever, American Airways in-flight entertainment system is sadly lacking, with a terrible choice of content let down even further by poor picture quality. They degrade this even further in the in-flight movies by printing “American Airlines” at the bottom of the screen after the film starts. Either because they’re proud of their trimmed down no-swearing and very-little-violence-indeed edits of the films, or perhaps to deter would-be copyright theft. As if even the most piratical pirate would stoop to attempting a screen-cap on a 777.

After exhausting both my eyes and my supply of podcast listening material by reading and listening at the same time, I watched, get this, ‘No Country For Old Men’. Yes, there is an American Airlines family-friendly in-flight-movie version. While I enjoyed the film, this was my first viewing of it, and I’m not making any judgments based on this version. I’ve been stung by the in-flight-movie edit before; for several months I didn’t realise Tim-from-the-Office was even in ‘Love Actually’. All of his scenes were cut. Who knows, perhaps in the cinema release of ‘No Country For Old Men’ there is some, you know, violence or something. Perhaps blood was spilled. The clumsy audio edits were easy to spot, but there are, I have no doubt, whole scenes which I have missed. How very disappointing. Another reason I love Virgin Atlantic, and would always use them if I had any choice in the matter over American Airlines. Virgin’s in-flight entertainment system is actually very good. Lots of choice, better picture quality, Video On Demand rather than Video On A Loop, and best of all, full uncut grown-up versions of the films.

Update: I met up with Dan Taylor, Deirdre Molloy, Jemima Kiss and Jo Twist in O’Hare, where we hung out and waited for the connecting flight to Austin together.

Jemima Fully seesmicd up Brits Delayed! Alcat on Seesmic

Jo’s stuffed cat, Alcat, is making Seesmic videos of the trip. Here was the update from the airport. Look out for the tall geek grinning in the background.

What’s in my bag

I’ve been meaning to do one of these for ages.

See it complete with notes on Flickr.

(Rough) plans for SXSW 2008

I’m packing for SXSW tomorrow (Thursday) morning.

I’ve pulled together a (rough) schedule, thanks to the lovely SCHED ( This is a bit more complete than my previous list of things-not-to-miss. Of course, that list still contains the panel I’m sitting on (‘Stories, Games and Your Brand’) with Rachel Clarke, Jeremy Ettinghausen and Dan Hon. We might have a quiet time of it, since the Mark Zuckerberg keynote is scheduled to happen at the same time. So we’re going to be ultra-careful not to even mention you-know-what, in a first panelist to do so buys the beers type way. Isn’t everyone bored of it by now anyway? :-)

My event wishlist is long, but I’m particularly excited by Andy Baio‘s unpanel (including Merlin Mann and many more) entitled ‘Worst Website Ever: That’s So Crazy, It Just Might Work’ a chance for “smart people to be stupid” and propose their “worst possible startup ideas”, which sounds like it will be very funny.

In addition to the various panels and keynotes, there are a great many informal events running too. There are even more parties and events on Upcoming. Here are few which are catching my eye:

I’ll also be dropping into BlogHaus and hoping to catch Hugh MacLeod there and maybe even get an original cartoon-on-the-back-of-a-business-card.

Update: Note to self (and anyone else who is affected) it’s really really important not to forget that daylight savings time starts on the morning of 9th of March. (I don’t think it starts in the UK until the 30th of March this year.)

Weekend in Wales

Some friends got together this weekend to celebrate Kyb‘s birthday in a cottage just outside Wales, not far from Hay-on-Wye. There was wine, helium balloons, port, fires (the log-burning stove reminded me just how much I like fire), Baileys, cakes and board games.


I slept in a bunkbed for the first time in years. There were no streetlights for miles around, and it’s been a long time since I’ve been somewhere with such low light pollution. The stars are amazing, particularly on Friday night when the sky was clear. On Saturday we drove to Hay-on-Wye. It was my first visit to the town, which is twinned with Timbuktu (honestly), and apparently has more books per square mile than anywhere else. Having walked around the town, I can believe it. If you know what you’re looking for there are bargains to be had. I was choosy, and picked up 8 books (a mix of new and second hand) for a total of about £15.

The cottage Preparations Begin Log burner Food and drink Cakes! Games and food

The evenings were full of cake, board games and laughter. It was a huge amount of fun, and the most relaxed I’ve been for a long time. I always forget how good it is to spend quality time with good friends. Thanks everyone, and Happy Birthday, Kyb!

2007 Travel

Andy’s 2007 travel roundup reminded me I did something similar last year, and I want to make a habit of it.

My international travel this year included the following

Which looks a bit like this. Thanks to the Great Circle Mapper for the map.

This doesn’t include all the domestic travel I did by the way. There’s a fairly comprehensive list of conferences and speaking engagements for 2007 on my bio page if you’re interested, or this list of my slideshows gives a flavour of the work highlights.

Even without train and road journeys, that’s an estimated 22,062 miles of flights alone. I’m glad to see it’s slightly fewer than last year’s total of 24,375 miles, but it’s still too high. My personal target for next year is to get below 20,000, preferably more like 16,000.

Since photography is a recurring theme of my travels, I’ve decided to invest in a better camera. Something I can carry and transport relatively easily, but bigger and better than my existing Canon PowerShot S2 IS. I want to finally make the jump from compact to DSLR. I imagine it’ll be a Canon EOS 400D, or whatever similar thing exists in a couple of months. Someone kindly tipped me off about the big industry event in January, and the rumours of a 450D are encouraging me to hold off purchasing anything just yet.

Updates, many of which make me feel like a travel lightweight:


Dopplr, in case you’ve still not heard of it, is excellent. I’ve been saying that for a while, so rather than go over all that again here’s a link to a really early review and a later update. It’s now in public beta, so there’s really no excuse not to sign up.

Before the Dopplr Redmonk YellowPark party yesterday, Andy and I got a chance to see the Dopplr/RedMonk UK office, and sneak a photo of Matt Biddulph and his laptop for my small but growing collection of photographs of geeks with their laptop stickers.

Matt Biddulph - Dopplr CTO

We got to take part in the Dopplr Posin’ meme too. This all began when Bobbie Johnson wrote a piece for the Guardian back in July (probably the first mainstream attention for Dopplr). His photographer, Sarah Lee, got a now-classic shot of Matt Jones and Matt Biddulph standing in a doorway. Following in the footsteps of people standing in the same doorway, attempting the same Confident Matt and Nervous Matt poses, Andy and I humbly took out place in the Dopplr Posin’ chain yesterday.

Dopplr posin'

This afternoon, I used Sqirlz Morph to quickly turn the sequence into an animated flash movie. (Around 1MB, so it may take a few moments to load…)

The party itself was brilliant. Hosted in an upstairs room of the infamous Macbeth pub in Hoxton, London’s geekerati gathered, drank heavily, ate pizza, and made new Twitter friendships. Having recently blogged about TheyWorkForYou, I was particularly excited to (finally) meet Robert Brook (who helps self-organising groups prototype services for the UK Parliament) and Rob McKinnon who helps him, and also happens to be the genius behind are some photos from various people who were there. Click on each thumbnail to see the original.

Dopplr party montageDopplr party

Great fun. Thanks to Chris Dalby/YellowPark, to Matt and the rest of the Dopplr gang, to James for booking such a characterful venue.

Channel 4

I love walking through London with my camera.

Moving through the Channel 4 logo Moving through the Channel 4 logo Channel 4 Channel 4 Behind the Channel 4 logo

Channel 4‘s offices on Horseferry Road (SW1) are quite striking. The big 4 logo outside is stunning, and walking past it is just like being in one of their adverts.

Arriving in Zurich

As I mentioned, I’m in Zurich at the start of this week for the 6th annual IBM Innovation Forum.

How things can change in a year…. 13 months ago, the free Swiss Air chocolate looked like this.

Thank you for flying SWISS

…whereas now they look (disappointingly) like this.

Thank you for flying Swiss (2007)

Call me a traditionalist, but the previous wrapper was a classic while this one is just not trying. If it had been red on white at least I could have scribbled some notes in the whitespace.

I can highly recommend the Four Points (Sheraton) hotel though.

Four Points Sheraton hotel room [autostitch]

The room is clean, comfortable and spacious, something you get used to in the US, but can often be sadly lacking in Europe. The Four Points does, it must be said, err somewhat on the trendy side.

  • The wardrobe is cunningly disguised as a wall, It took me a few minutes to find it, during which process I found a minibar and safe, which were both disguised as another wall. I’ve taken to pushing random surfaces in case something else is waiting to be discovered.
  • The traditional bath and shower combination has been eschewed in favour of a spacious tiled wet-room. While I do like a bath they’re hardly ever big enough anyway so maybe this is a better approach, especially as the shower is agreeably powerful and boasts a showerhead only marginally smaller than a dinner plate.

It’s quite attractive despite its modernity, and a decent internet connectivity is provided at no extra charge (unlike last year’s hotel). I even found a pair of slippers and a fluffy white dressing gown in the wardrobe. Luxury.

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