At the end of this month, Fiona and I will be leaving our jobs and our home in Sheffield to go travelling around Europe for three or four months.
I’ve been working at Folksy and Rattle for five years, doing some great projects and working with fun and talented people. There’s lots to be proud of, and lots of lessons to take with me.
Over the five years, I’ve been lucky to work on a very a varied roster of work. Looking back, two of the things I’m most proud of are quite different from each other. My Life As An Object was a creative project, stemming from my conceit of imagining how museum objects would behave online (perhaps inspired by Night at the Museum?).
On the other side of the spectrum, Channelography was a technology project, originating from a hack when I figured out how to extract subtitles from BBC iPlayer. That turned into a long-lasting data analysis project, spawning a printed booklet and a real time visual dashboard, and after two years was adopted into the BBC’s Research & Development team.
Aside from the client work, I’ve also had the chance to work with Folksy, seeing it mature from start-up to a proper SME. One of the nicest things about Folksy is that is has a real community of users, and so it’s hugely satisfying to be able to ship features that are used and appreciated immediately by thousands of people.
As well as coding, I played a bit of a UX role, identifying pain points and designing improved experiences. The scariest bit of work was introducing a whole new payment tier, an annually paid account vs the existing pay-as-you-go model, which meant integrating with a new Direct Debit payment provider, as well as selling the benefits to the customer base. Thankfully, it worked perfectly, both technically and business wise, now accounting for a significant proportion of revenue.
Both Folksy and Rattle have a great future ahead of them, and I know the teams will continue to innovate and take bold new strides. If you get the chance to work with either, you definitely should.
As for myself, I’m looking forward to spending some time in warmer weather, taking a break from technology. Our adventure starts with a ferry to Santander in Northern Spain, from where we’ll be driving around Spain, Portugal, France and Italy, camping in remote locations. We’ll spend much of the time hiking, in national parks I’ve not been to before including the Picos de Europa, Peneda-Gerês, the Pyrenees, Sierra Nevada and Cévennes. Along the way we’ll be cooking with local ingredients, and hopefully meeting some interesting people.
I’ve nothing lined up for when we return (in mid July), which is exciting rather than daunting, as it leaves me open to new opportunities. We’ll likely move to London, and I’ll be exploring different options, from freelancing to a full time job – possibly even a start-up of my own.
Sheffield has been fun – we’ll miss the Peak District, the local cafes and shops we’ve come to know and love, and the great new friends we have made here (don’t worry, we’ll keep in touch).
I was in Amsterdam last week, visiting ex-colleague Andrew Pendrick, who’s recently moved there for a new job.
It’s a wonderful city, full of interesting buildings, cozy cafes, bikes and canals.
One thing I noticed whilst wandering around is that most of the buildings have a protruding beam on the top floor, at the end of which is a hook.
What’s it for? Well, hoisting things up (and down), of course. I was lucky enough to see one in use, being used by some builders along with a rope and a pulley to lower buckets of plasterboard down from a third floor window.
These hooks are called hijsbalk in Dutch, and seem to be fairly unique to Amsterdam, as a solution to the problems of steep, narrow staircases. Some buildings even lean forward slightly, to make it less likely that items dangling from the hook crash into a window.
I wonder who first thought of this, and how it came to become a standard architectural feature. It’s a great example of designing for adaptation and practical usage.
I may have mocked the HS2 Phase 2 report, but in all honestly, I can’t help but be impressed by what it represents.
Yes, HS2 would cost a lot of money, and yes, it won’t be complete for decades, but at least it’s a plan. And remarkably, it largely has cross-party support – essential as the project will span many parliaments.
Sadly, the way that HS2 is being justified, and the grounds on which it is being debated, all fails to recognise the true ambition. The ‘business case’ is all based upon completely made-up economic calculations whose only purpose is to make the project politically possible.
It would be much more honest (and would no doubt save much time and expense) to just admit the ultimate goal: we want a national high speed railway to enable us to get around faster, further, and without the stress of driving. Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester is just the beginning. We’re building the line between those cities not just because that’s where the most demand is, but because you have to start somewhere.
There’s an even bigger vision at play here though. High speed railways are being built all over Europe – and we can be part of that. An underplayed benefit of the UK high speed network is the link to the Channel Tunnel, and from there to the rest of the continent. Forget the quicker Manchester-London schedule, the real eye-opener would travelling Manchester direct to Barcelona.
The grand vision is for a World that’s more connected, with everyone having the ability to explore other cultures and landscapes. Railways built to a common high-speed standard is a route towards this.
I believe there should be more vision in politics. Politicians should commit to long-term goals even if the path towards them is uncertain. We shouldn't let the necessity of being pragmatic in the present stop us from projecting where we want to be in the future.
A few leaders already do this. Obama’s support for the goal of a World without nuclear weapons. The LCC’s Go Dutch vision of a London designed for cyclists and pedestrians. Even Mozilla’s longstanding defence and pursual of an Open Web.
There are many areas of public policy which could do with a grand vision, but here are a few ambitions I’d like to propose:
That as well as a new high speed rail network, we should also commit to electrifying all the existing railway lines.
That we should decrease border controls and increase the right to move freely until visas and passports are no longer necessary.
That all healthcare, including dentistry ‘social care’ should become an universal & international benefit delivered free and without prejudice.
That everyone should be given the opportunity to spend several years studying in depth a subject of their choice, without any expectation that this be directly useful.
That we should actively reduce and then ban the use of private cars in city centres.
That tobacco smoking should be eradicated.
The we should support a network of the best artists, writers and musicians, whose work can then be treated as a public good and distributed freely.
Sheffield is a city of hills. Seven hills to be precise (though it depends how you count them). This sounds like a trivial fact, but as soon as you live or work here you realise very quickly that the terrain is a big factor in how you move around.
The city centre, as defined by the train station, is in a big bowl. From here, everywhere is uphill, often very steeply so.
Outside of the city’s ring road, the big streets follow the valleys, with smaller roads going up and over each of the hills to connect up the valleys. Walking or cycling these is fun going down, but tough going up.
If you’re going from one hill to the next, you can often see your destination from the start, but actually getting there means going down into the valley and up the other side – a 20 minute hike.
Very few buses run on radial routes – they mostly go into and out of the city centre – so that’s not much help.
This observation leads me to propose a solution for Sheffield radial travel needs: a cableway.
Used mainly in ski resorts, cableways (chair lifts, cabins, gondolas, etc) are actually a pretty efficient form of transport. Because they form a loop, with roughly the same amount of weight going in both directions, energy is only needed to overcome the friction on the rollers holding the cable up.
Chairlifts often follow the contours of the ground, as being high up with your legs dangling would be a little nerve-wracking. Cable cars use stronger cables and more spaced-out, enclosed vehicles, and so it’s possible for them to traverse entire valleys.
The cableway system I propose for Sheffield would do just that – travel from hilltop to hilltop around Sheffield in a radial fashion. A station at the top of each hill would allow passengers to embark or disembark, with a clutch system moving the vehicle onto a slower-moving cable loop for easier access and to avoid disrupting the traffic. In-vehicle buttons would allow passengers to indicate which station they wanted to get off at.
The ultimate plan would be to have a complete loop, but the system could start smaller and expand as it proved itself.
Fares would be comparable to buses, set at about £2 per single trip of any length.
A stop at Park Hill, by the infamous Grade II* listed flats, would provide a connection to the station and Supertram. The stop at Parkwood Springs would connect with whatever the burned-down ski village gets turned into. The rest serve mainly residential areas.
The system would provide locals with a new transport system, and will attract tourists too.
The cableway is a novel idea for a city with a unique geography.
Part 3. in a series of Hypothetical Infrastructure posts
Inspired by a few other bloggers, I thought I'd take the time to write up a quick personal review of 2012.
It's been a pretty eventful year for me. Getting married took up most of the first part of the year, followed shortly after by moving house. I also managed to fit in two holidays in New York, as well as a short stag trip to Malaga and a visit to Edinburgh.
I work as a UX developer at online craft marketplace Folksy. After the big design relaunch of 2011, this year was more about consolidation and incremental improvements - some of which were long overdue. I'm pretty pleased with my contribution to the progress, which has included some key usability improvements to the listing and buying processes.
With some colleagues, I also successfully launched a complementary side-project called GoGoMargo, which aims to highlight real-life craft markets, as well as other types of local markets and fairs. Building that from the ground up was a great lesson in design and architecting, and ruthlessly stripping desired features until you have something simple enough to ship. We didn't get everything right first time, but I've learned a lot along the way.
I've not exactly been the most prolific blogger this year, but after moving the site to a simpler self-built platform in 2011, I have at least managed to publish a few articles that I'm proud of. I also overcame my internal quandary over where and how to post different forms of content with a personal philosophy I called Platforms vs Publishing.
Of all my posts this year, the one that I've most returned to is the short essay I wrote about The problem with numbers - which expresses the idea that interfaces should rely less on displaying numbers. I can't pretend to have solved the question of what to replace them with - but I have at least continue to think about this issue.
The post that got the most attention though was an experimental but also slightly ironic article on Responsive Text.
I haven't watched many films at all this year, particularly not in cinema. Recently I've been to see The Hobbit and Skyfall, both of which are entertaining rides.
Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom was the most affecting - a beautifully told whimsical tale.
There's been so many quality television dramas out this year, it's easy to see how these have taken more of my attention than films.
I've continued to enjoy the new series of Mad Men, Sherlock, The Hour, and Inspector George Gently, all of which continue to be excellent. This year's Doctor Who episodes were generally enjoyable too, albeit on a less dramatic level.
New for me this year was Breaking Bad, which I'm still catching up on (I have to watch this alone as it's not really Fiona's thing), and Luther, which I blitzed through both series of.
I fell out of love with Downton Abbey, which seemed to lose what little edge it had and descend into soapyness, but in its place have started watching Call the Midwife, the period drama depicting the other end of the class spectrum.
Still unexplored are the Danish dramas The Killing and Borgen, both of which are meant to be excellent, and Treme, about Hurricane Katrina, from the same producer as The Wire, which I've not managed to find released in the UK at all. Homeland is also on my must-watch list for 2013 too.
I've definitely cooked a few more interesting meals this year, and have eaten some great meals out too.
Locally, the discovery of excellent sushi restaurant Yama Sushi was most welcome. Further afield we had some excellent meals in New York, which Fiona summarised earlier in the year.
My book-reading this year has been mainly non-fiction, focused around the fairly narrow themes of transportation and infrastructure. Christian Wolmar's tome on the history of the American Railroad was pretty fascinating, and a good complement to his other books on British railway history.
I also really enjoyed Traffic, by Tom Vanderbilt, which contains a thought-provoking examination of street traffic management (both for cars and pedestrians). Social history book Queuing For Beginners, which I'd hope would be similarly enlightening, was disappointing and seemed a lot less thorough.
I'm about halfway through The Box, about the history of the shipping container, and also Kate Ascher's The Works, which looks at the various different infrastructure systems of New York City. Both are excellent.
Having made a conscious effort to seek out new music this year, I've bought a couple of dozen new tracks from bands I've not previously listened to - mostly inspired by 6Music. These include The Lumineers, Alabama Shakes, The Macabees, Lana Del Ray, The Vaccines, Grimes, Mystery Jets, Django Django and Tame Impala. Nothing particularly left-field, but a welcome expansion in my listening habits.
Track of the year for me was Gotye's hit Somebody That I Used To Know, which I've played repeatedly.
The National Grid, which is in reality an international network, is truly an amazing feat of engineering and management. It is in the most part reliable, dependable, and affordable – and much of modern Western living would be impossible without it.
However I think there is scope for a secondary, alternative grid.
For a start, many of the things we plug into the mains on a daily basis now come with chunky adapters that convert the 230V AC current into the lower-power DC current that they require. Managing all these cables and plugs is a pain, and each one must add a fair chunk of cost to the price of new appliances.
We’re also increasingly using batteries to even out the supply of electricity for the times that we’re not plugged in. It’s not just phones, computers and drills, you can now buy cordless irons and vacuum cleaners. These batteries need to be charged, but it often doesn’t matter precisely when, or how long it takes.
There’s also the environment to consider. Whilst the proportion of renewable energy is growing, most of our electricity is still generated by burning fossil fuels. This happens many miles from our homes, sometimes in other countries. Whilst long-distance transmission at high voltages is fairly efficient, we still lose about 7% of the power produced just from moving it around.
As well as wanting to reduce greenhouse gases emitted in the future, we also need to deal with the climate changed caused by the emissions of the past. In recent times this has meant more storms, hurricanes and floods, all of which can often result in electricity blackouts.
These factors lead me to propose the Alternative 12V Grid.
This grid would not be a National grid. Instead, it’d start local. Possibly even just in your own home.
The nominal power rating of this grid would be 12 Volts DC, with a fairly big tolerance of ±3V. Not coincidentally, this is also the voltage used in cars and caravans. You can thus re-use the devices and adapters designed for those environments (In time, I’m sure that new appliances would be designed specifically targeting the 12V grid).
Homes would be free to use whatever plug sockets they like, but the common standard would be the cigarette lighter receptacle, as used in cars (originally for lighting cigars, but now used for charging phones and powering GPS devices). This isn’t the ideal solution, as those plugs are prone to falling out, but its ubiquity gives it a huge head start.
As well as being able to use the wide 9V-15V range of voltage, 12V Grid devices should also cope with an intermittent supply. This means using small batteries to avoid having to reset the clock after a cutout, or simply being non-critical. So, radios and toys are ok, but heating and refrigeration should stick to the mains. Christmas tree LED fairy lights is a perfect use-case.
The reason for the likely intermittency is that the power would be generated solely through alternative, renewable sources, be that a rooftop solar cell, a garden wind turbine, or the mini hydro plant by the nearby stream. Wood chip or waste-burning steam turbines might be an option too.
The electricity from this alternative grid would be unmetered. Usage would be subject to community norms rather than a payment tariff. The only costs would be the upfront costs for the generating equipment and wiring. Each home connected to the grid might contribute through their own microgeneration, or a few homes might club together to buy a communal system.
This isn’t about living off-the-grid in some remote outback.
It’s also not about isolationism.
The Alternative Grid is just that, an alternative. Designed for cities and urban areas, in day to day use it simply provides a cheaper way to power small devices, but during mains supply blackouts it’s a way to stay connected and keep a few lights on.
Who knows, it might also kickstart an increased sense of community organisation and belonging.
Part 2. in a series of Hypothetical Infrastructure posts
I would like to propose building a scenic railway along the stunning Ladybower series of reservoirs on the A57.
This railway would be narrow gauge, following roughly the line of the existing road. Three lightweight bridges would be required.
The main station would be on the side of the A57, near the Ladybower Inn. A small disabled-only car park would be sited here, along with a bus stop.
A 'halt' beside the Derwent Dam would offer foot access to the Derwent Valley Museum and the National Trust run Fairholmes Visitor Centre.
The final stop at the north end of Howden reservoir offers options for walkers and would contain a small snack shop.
Trains would be run on weekends, bank holidays, and daily throughout the Summer holidays.
The railway would use electric traction only, powered by onboard batteries. These batteries would be charged at the Ladybower Station direct from the National Grid, but the railway would attempt to become carbon-neutral through the use of solar cells or wind turbines.
A full end-to-end trip would take around 30-40 mins, travelling at a sedate 20-25 mpg.
Who's with me?
Part 1. in a series of Hypothetical Infrastructure posts
I visited New York again recently, and couldn't help noticing the increase in steam leaks, caused by Hurricane Sandy damage.
Steam arising from vents and manhole covers in the road is a common sight in Manhattan. But I only recently learned what this was all about.
Rather than piping gas into every building, and having a boiler on every floor, New York pumps steam around the city instead, in a network dating back to 1882.
The steam is produced in several huge power plants dotted around the city, with around 50% being a by-product of electricity generation. This means that it’s actually more efficient than conventional domestic heating systems.
I'm surprised that New York doesn't make more of this amazing ancient network. It would be great to do a tour of one of the power stations, or to have a little museum of the history of the system. It is run by Consolidated Edison (Con Ed), and its roots trace back to the early electric company run by Thomas Edison himself.
In lieu of any further information, I've put together a little map of the network. Next time I visit New York, I might use it to try and spot some of the buildings.