Sunday, 5 December 2010

The November Project: Observations from a month away from Facebook and Twitter

Well, it's December now, and that means it must be time for me to jump back onto Facebook and Twitter. But before I do, I wanted to gather my thoughts about the experience and share what I have learnt from it. I thought I'd do this in a form of a Q & A with myself.

What was it like?
Well for one thing, it was not as hard as I imagined it would be. I used a variety of techniques to physically block myself from Twitter and Facebook - but it turned out these were not necessary, willpower was sufficient. The closest I got was when other websites or apps tried to embed Facebook boxes or twitter feeds and I almost got tricked into clicking through. I suppose one telling thing is that now it's the 5th of December and I haven't rushed back on Facebook and Twitter yet, even though I could have five days ago. My main reason was I wanted to get this blog post written first, before I am "polluted" by going back on - but even so, I haven't been in a great hurry. Another thing I noticed was several times when out and about and I had the urge to tweet or post to Facebook, it felt a little odd not to share that moment - but it wasn't a big deal and the feeling soon subsided. Overall, the experience wasn't hard at all.

Was it more relaxing being away from social media?
Definitely. The most amazing thing is I actually feel like time slowed down. That's a pretty profound thing to say, but when I think back to the beginning of November, it seems like months ago. Previous months seemed to whizz by. I think that, as I theorized beforehand, with fewer inputs, my brain actually was able to quiet down a bit and make me feel more relaxed.

What did you miss?
I think probably the biggest thing I missed was that if I wanted to share something with friends, there's no easy way to do so. The fact is that most people's attention now is on Facebook or Twitter. That's where their eyes are. It is no longer sufficient to update your own blog or site and hope that people will arrive there. If you want people to discover it, Facebook and Twitter are by far the most efficient way. It's true that you could email things out to friends, but I've always thought mass emails seem a bit impersonal. It's like saying "hey, over here, look at me, aren't I important?".  I think sending big emails out is not something that comes naturally to me except for Christmas letters. Facebook and Twitter feel more like just putting something out there, without any pressure on people to give you their attention. Funny really since in a way social media is even more impersonal than targeted emails.

Another thing I missed was when I was going through my old photos in iPhoto, I came across various "fringe acquaintances" whose names I couldn't remember. I could have checked that stuff easily on Facebook. I suppose you could argue that if I can't remember someone's name then they can't be that important. 

Something else I missed was being able to quickly ask a question to a large group of people. Facebook and even moreso Twitter are incredibly useful for this. There are services like Aardvark that can help, but they don't have the same kind of audience. There are some questions where Google is not sufficient - typically ones that involve a subjective opinion, like "where's a good place to eat" or "is that film any good".
I also realised that Facebook and Twitter are a sort of social crutch. They make you feel good by making you feel artificially close to your friends. I missed that contact with my friends. I think that given I live abroad from many of my friends, there is clearly a value to having some level of contact, and Facebook and Twitter can help there. But what I learnt is that it's not really a substitute for real life contact. Phonecalls, emails and video chats can help, but nothing beats actually seeing your friends face to face.

What did it teach you about Facebook and Twitter?
I think one thing I learned is that Facebook is a place. Not going there felt like skipping a few meetings of a regular club social group. Things happen there and if you're not there, you miss them. A few friends went to the trouble of emailing me photos or details of things that they'd shared on Facebook. Which was nice of them as it was probably a chore. My wife and I wondered why more people don't think of their friends that are not on Facebook - my wife is not on there and often misses things. It's like because I'd publicly said I was taking a break, it was more obvious.

One thing I realised is that the "Feed" approach of Facebook and particularly of Twitter is a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it lets you keep track of a lot of things - friends' lives, news, interesting online tidbits etc - in one easy-to-check place. But a curse because you can never limit your attention to just one thing. You can't easily focus on just news, or just your friends - it's all mixed together. I am not sure of the solution here, because I don't want lots of places to check, but for the same reason I don't want Google Buzz in my email, I don't want a mix of different types of message in one place. I'd rather my news was separate from my social life, and my blog feeds separate again from that.

Another thing I learnt is that Facebook and Twitter are very good if you just want to share a brief observation. You know the sort of thing, an idle comment about the weather, or a news event, or some experience from your daily life. I did realise that some of those things are not worth sharing, they're rather trite and insignificant. But on the other hand, small talk is what helps us bond with our fellow humans, it's what makes bloggers and online personas seem like more than just the sum of their articles and postings. If you like, Facebook and Twitter allow us to take "small talk" and gossip into the digital world. Without them, you can only do that face to face.

What things did you do differently? How did your behaviour change?
I noticed that I became a lot less "twitchy". I had developed a habit of every few minutes throughout the day, check Facebook, check Twitter, check email... and repeat. This is a surefire way to destroy any focus you have on work or other activities. When it's reduced to just checking email - which arrives a lot less often, especially since I spent the month pruning a lot of unnecessary mailing list subscriptions - then you get distracted a lot less and can stay focussed for a lot longer. When I go back on I will have to try hard to limit the number of times a day I check. For sure, one thing I will do on that front is that I will keep Facebook and Twitter and Email updates OFF on my phone. None of these means of communication are urgent, and they can surely wait til later in the day when I next check them. If people want to contact me urgently, they can call or SMS me.

Another thing I realised (and this is both good and bad) is that Facebook and Twitter allows conversation about particular content that isn't really possible in other ways. Since we moved away from the world of everyone watching things at the same time (as they were broadcast), it has become much harder to have conversations about (for example) TV shows or cultural phenomena, because you can't guarantee that you're all at the same point. What Facebook and to a lesser extent Twitter allow you to do is have a content-centric conversation, that is to say, you can share the link to the youtube video, article, clip, etc and discuss it around that content, knowing that you've all seen it. What this also means is that your friends and social media contacts become the filters by which you decide what to watch and what to read. We've moved from a world of broadcast channels where the programmer decides what you should watch, to a world where friends and online contacts make recommendations for you, and you make the choices.

The implication of this in terms of behaviour was two things. Firstly, without friends as recommenders, I started revisiting a lot of "destination sites" such as BBC News, Slashdot, The Register, friends blogs, etc. which I had got out of the habit of visiting. This was nice because it exposed me to news and views in the way that the publisher intended it, and in a context where I could view related content more easily. But I guess it probably did mean I missed out on what my friends were talking about.

The other thing was that I could no longer be a recommender for my friends. Throughout the month there were various films, events and articles that I would have shared, but didn't really have a good way to do so. I think this is an important purpose for Twitter and Facebook. I've realised that "sharing" of status and links is an activity in its own right. There is no real substitute. Email comes closest, but it doesn't cut it because you have to spend time choosing who to share with, and if it's something general that would be a pretty long to line - which would make you feel like a spammer. Blogging would work if RSS feeds ever actually took off and you could trust that people would actually see what you wrote. But without that, the likes of Facebook and Twitter are the only real way to share.

How will it change the way you use Facebook and Twitter?
Firstly, I think I am going to use them less. I noticed a real quality of life improvement when I cut out Facebook and Twitter.  I'm going to try and check them just once or twice a day maximum, and try not to get "twitchy" again, checking them throughout the day.

Secondly, I think I want to find a new way of using them both, to keep me more focussed. Ideally I'd like to be able to separate the activities of "seeing what my friends are up to and chatting with them" from "seeing what's happening in the news, online and in the media". I'm going to experiment with friends lists and different clients to see what I can do here.

One thing I am going to do right away is reinstall Flipboard on my iPad. I think this is a natural way to consume Facebook and Twitter from a news/updates to friends' lives point of view, as it lets you read them like a newspaper. I'm going to try to use that as my primary browse method, rather than Facebook feed or twitter feeds, because it's more natural, and more defined in scope somehow.

Having said all that, I have confirmed that I will not be leaving Facebook or Twitter any time soon. Both have a value, and they did leave a (small) gap in my life. I'd like it if there were ways of accessing their capabilities in a more structured way, and more in my own control, so I will keep investigating alternative clients and software to see what I can find.

I might still take the odd hiatus like this again from Facebook and Twitter in the future. It was undoubtedly a really positive thing to do, if only because it gave me more perspective on my use of social media. Now I can act in a more informed way. It will be interesting to see how differently I feel once I go back on. Time to post this and check in!

PS Please add your comments below, and feel free to ask more questions that I haven't addressed!





Friday, 3 December 2010

Is the #turnred (RED) "AIDS-free generation by 2015" campaign lacking something?

As you may know, it was World AIDS Day yesterday, raising awareness of the global fight to eradicate the HIV/AIDS disease. I missed the day itself but was greeted by this popup today inviting me to "join RED" and help make the AIDS-free generation by 2015 a reality.

In case you're not familiar, RED is an initiative whereby you buy a particular variant of your product in red with a special (RED) brand - everything from iPods to shoes, clothing, coffee and books - and the manufacturer donates a portion (typically about 20%) to the global fight against AIDS (and possibly other causes as well, I'm not sure). Which is great, and they are having huge successes, having raised $160 million in 5 years.

I wholeheartedly support the goal of eradicating AIDS, and I love the idea of making such a bold statement that "We can have the first AIDS-free generation by 2015". But a number of things bugged me about this campaign.

1) The call to action is confusing

You click the banner and you are taken to this page. What does it want you to do? What does "join RED" mean? It turns out they want you to change your twitter avatar or facebook picture to the logo for the campaign. I thought I'd missed something, but after much searching this really does seem to be all they are asking people to do (and perhaps also to buy RED products). Is it just me or is this a bit odd?

2) When did social media attention become more important than money?

I can see that having people change their profiles on social media can help raise awareness (though perhaps not as much as the high profile stunts like lighting world buildings such as the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge in red - see video here) but it's hardly the most valuable thing people can do. Surely the thing that will make the most difference is PEOPLE DONATING MONEY. And yet there is no facility to do that on the campaign's website. That is just ridiculous.

3) What's the basis for the statement that in 2015 we could have the first AIDS-free generation?

My first thought when I read the bold claim was, well that sounds great, but how are they going to do it? There's no information easily findable on the campaign site, or in most of the media coverage. It's completely not obvious where this claim comes from. Where's the science? Don't people care about science any more? Eventually I found a brief paragraph on the RED blog which explains that there is now medication available that can prevent HIV-positive mothers from passing the disease to their children, but that it is not always available. The implication is that the campaign can help with that.

Isn't that a pretty important fact for supporters to understand? Why is this barely covered anywhere?

4) How can people help make an AIDS-free generation a reality?

The question remains largely unanswered, by the campaign and even by high profile coverage like that on CNN. Is the best answer we can come up with "Buy more products but pick the ones with a (RED) logo?" It's a pretty sad state of affairs if that's the best society can do. Have we really become so capitalist that the only way we can mobilize people to helping a charity is to get them to buy more products?

Or by plastering their Twitter and Facebook profiles red? Is that the best we can do?

I think this is part of a disturbing trend. Ask people to do something trivial like that, and sure, they'll do it, you'll get lots of attention.. but nobody really made a difference by doing that did they? They might feel like they did but it's a meaningless gesture in terms of actually buying treatments and helping the lives of real AIDS sufferers.

I'm probably being controversial but I am appalled by how badly thought out this campaign is, and what it says about society. We have become the one-click generation. Click your mouse and you've done your bit, swipe your credit card and leave with a clear conscience. Perish the thought we might actually go out of our way to make some effort and really make a difference.

If you want to help fight AIDS, go and make a donation right now with an organization like the UK's National AIDS Trust. But don't think that you have made any difference at all if all you did was paint your profile red. 


Saturday, 6 November 2010

Who says America is the most unhealthy? This is how Canadians roll..

Here is the so-called "Epic Sandwich", including bacon, poutine, eggs, hot dogs (including their own rolls) and a whole lot of maple syrup.

Not sure I could stomach that... Too much even for my larger-than-average appetite!

Read more at the Montréal Gazette.


Sunday, 31 October 2010

The November Project: No Facebook and Twitter for a month

I've decided to do something unusual for November. For the whole month I'm going to give up Facebook, Twitter and a few associated "short update" type services. But I'll be back on December 1st. Pointless? I don't think so. Allow me to explain my thinking...

I've been on Facebook for five or six years now I guess. And that whole time I've hated Facebook - their lack of respect for personal privacy, their blatant commercialism, the way they abuse you and use your friends against you (I wrote a whole blog post about that). But I've never left. Because, well, my friends are on there. And now I'm living across the pond from most of my friends, those relationships are more important than ever. So I can't leave Facebook altogether, it would leave me too isolated - in fact that's my only contact with many friends.

I realised that this is unhealthy. Facebook encourages a very shallow level of friendship - little ego strokes with Like buttons and comments on each others profiles, lazy status updates to everyone instead of picking up the phone. It's damaging the quality of the relationships I do have, because it makes me feel connected even when I'm not at all really. I can count on two hands the number of phone calls I've had with friends since moving to Canada. And that's really sad (not in the opposite-of-happy sense but in the that-is-desperately-uncool sense).

And it's not just that, it's Twitter too. Twitter is a great form of communication, that has literally changed the world (I've written about that too). But just as I was getting into blogging, I discovered Twitter. And suddenly it was an easy option. I'd send a short tweet instead of actually writing a thoughtful blog post. It killed a lot of my writing. I'd compulsively feel the need to share everything of note that happened to me, because it was as easy as a text message. When you do speak to friends, conversations become a lot less interesting when there are no surprises anymore - they already read it all on Twitter.

And so I find myself torn. I see huge benefits from both services - improving my awareness of what's going on in the world and in my friends' lives. But I wonder what I have lost. I feel like people are becoming more distant from each other. The number of people I know has gone up - but feel like I have very few close friends any more. And I want that back.

So here's the plan. By forcing myself to give up Twitter and Facebook for a month, I will become more aware of which friends I miss, and I'll be more inclined to reach out and talk to them. If I have ideas I want to share, I'll have to take the time to think them through and present them in a blog post. With luck, you should expect to see more blog posts from me this month (shorter posts on and longer/more significant posts on Although, having said that, I'm not making any commitment to blog at all - because part of this is about reducing the compulsion to share everything!

Another aspect of this is that I feel like Twitter and Facebook and all that are great at keeping you aware of everything, but is that really good for you? The more I am aware of, the more I feel I should do something about - whether it's reply, write about, or act in some other way. Greater awareness does not lead to greater piece. I recently read this excellent article about downtime, recommended by a friend. The article, recommending the idea of cottaging (as in staying in a cottage, not the questionable activity endorsed by George Michael), makes the point that time is perceived more slowly when you are less aware of the outside world:

"The cottage offers “down time” which is disconnected from everything other irrelevant thing going on in the world. It is time that is measured in cups of tea, in sinksful of dishes, in conversations. What time is it two time zones away? What time is it two houses away? Who cares? It is not in front of you and therefore, it is irrelevant."

So I think that by reducing the number of inputs in my life, I may actually "get back" some of that precious time I'm always so short of. Fewer alerts, popups and news feeds means I will only learn of the outside world when I seek it out - which will help me figure out exactly what extent of knowing about the outside world is good for me.

In summary, there are a number of things I hope to get out of this experiment:
  1. A greater understanding of the pros and cons of Facebook and Twitter (by seeing what I miss and what I gain)
  2. Reprogramming my social habits to have more phone calls/Skype chats etc with friends and family instead of just Facebook
  3. Some interesting material for future blog posts.
  4. A chance to "slow down" by not having as much awareness of the minutiae of the digital and social worlds. 
  5. Identifying and establishing alternate media for news and for friendships, that are higher quality and less invasive.
  6. Other as-yet-unforeseen benefits...
I'll write a little more in a subsequent post about exactly what I am giving up and how. But for now, this should give you the gist.

One final thing, what does this mean for you as my friends and family?

Well you don't have to do anything differently. But if you find yourself looking at my Facebook or Twitter page and wondering what I'm up to, close the laptop and pick up the phone - give me a call. Or drop me an email or a Skype/ooVoo video chat. You know where I am! (alexbowyer is my username, at gmail, Skype and ooVoo).

And don't forget, you can check back to my blog in the meantime. You never know, there might be something new on there when you next visit!

Thanks for reading - and please, add your comments to this blog post - whether you think I'm crazy or inspired I'd love to hear your thoughts.


Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The tragedy of electronic communication

Here's a bittersweet little "could-have-been love story" I came across on YouTube.

It's amusing to watch, but I think there is a serious point to make here... If this were a real conversation, the pair would have picked up on the body language that much was not being said. Electronic chat loses that, and both parties can leave with a completely false impression of the other person's feelings.

I've never seen a better illustration of why electronic communication is inferior to face to face communication.

In my view there's kind of a hierarchy of communication in terms of how complete or effective it is... Face to face at the top, then video chat, then phone, then instant messaging, then text or email.

Food for thought anyway.


Monday, 13 September 2010

Reverse culture shock - Ten observations of a Canadian Brit visiting the UK

I spent last week in the UK (for the HCI 2010 conference) and having spent a year and a half in Canada, for the first time I felt something of a stranger in my own homeland. Here are my top ten observations from the week of the cultural differences I observed:

1. When in a car driving on the left, it felt really wrong - like we should be on the other side of the road - especially when turning!

2. I found myself asking the driver to open the boot (trunk) - because in Canada you can't open the boot from outside, you need to pull the lever down by the driver's seat.

3. When buying products, I expected things to cost more than their displayed prices when I got to the till - because I've got used to tax not being included. 

4. The prices seemed really small due to them being in pounds not dollars. What was really weird was I found myself converting pounds to dollars to understand how much they cost - but yet I still convert dollar prices to pounds in Canada to understand them!

5. I felt guilty when leaving no tip at a bar or when paying for a meal - I've obviously got used to Canadian compulsory tipping. Found it even stranger there's not even a line to add a gratuity on the receipt when paying by Mastercard.

6. I felt like a second-class citizen when trying to pay with my Canadian Mastercard. It has no Chip & PIN, and the idea of a credit card without Chip & PIN is pretty unheard of in UK.. Most places won't accept it, and I actually was told to use an alternative means some times! Funnily enough they are just rolling out Chip & PIN in Canada, so things should improve soon. I wondered if I would have got more acceptance of my foreign card if I had put on a non-British accent!

7. I was able to hear the British accent as a distinct accent, my ears have obviously tuned in to Canadian as a baseline.

8. It seemed really strange to be wandering around town after work, 5.15pm - and all the shops were shut. I've got used to late night shopping being an option most nights.

9. Answering the question "Where are you from?" proved most confusing. Well I'm from the UK, but I'm also from Canada. Depends on the timeframe for the question!

10. I suddenly found myself using SMS again. Hadn't realised how little it is used in Canada vs the UK (email being the preferred instant contact in the US & Canada, given the Blackberry revolution)


Thursday, 19 August 2010

The Complete History of the Soviet Union, with Tetris as Melody and Metaphor

Ever since I heard this, I can't get it out of my head. Incredibly catchy, but more than that, it's incredibly clever, using the never-ending stream of blocks as a metaphor for the Russian worker class and even the Berlin wall. It covers the whole history of the Soviet Union and Russia, from the Russian revolution through Lenin, Stalin, WWII, 80s westernization, the fall of communism and the recent drift back towards communism.

What are you waiting for, watch it?

You can learn more about the artists at

Posted via email from Bowyer's Bite-size Blogettes


Friday, 9 July 2010

Tweeting from the air

Eric is taking Mrs Alex and I for a flight to celebrate our anniversary. Beautiful views over Montreal, Mont Tremblant and the Quebec countryside.

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Friday, 7 May 2010

What would have happened last night if we'd had proportional representation in the #ukelection?

I thought I'd try my hand at a little number crunching. Based on the
figures from the BBC Election Website, I've made a couple of pie charts to show how the
seats in the House of Commons currently stand, and how they would
stand based on the same votes if we had a simple proportional
representation system (assuming percentage of the vote = percentage of
seats in the House).

First, here's the result we actually got (click to view large):

And here's what it would have looked like with proportional representation:

Add your comments!

Note: That this is based on 648 of the 650 constituencies, as the
other two have not declared, and are not expected soon.


Wednesday, 28 April 2010

The Story of Stuff: Why our entire economy is engineered to destroy the planet

Environmental pollution, planned obsolence, manipulative advertisting, toxic incineration, it's all here. If you are in any way concerned about our impact on the environment, watch this video which explains in clear terms how and why we are killing the planet and what needs to change to guarantee a safe future.

Posted via web from Bowyer's Bite-size Blogettes


Friday, 16 April 2010

Another moment of minor celebrity!

(Video temporarily disabled as it kept autoplaying. Watch it via
At Twitter's first developer conference, Chirp, Brady Forrest ran a special version of Ignite - the conference we ran an instance of in Montreal - Ignite Chirp.
As part of that event they had a special round of Powerpoint Karaoke - the geek sport where you present using slides you've never seen before.
Using decks first created by Pete Taylor and I for Bitnorth 09, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone and SXSW Battledecks guru Anil Dash gave entertaining freestyle presentations. And I even got a shout out by name from Brady the organizer - woo-hoo! Shame he didn't mention Pete, who did the bulk of the work. But still - awesome to have Internet celebrities using our decks!

You can download the full 16 decks here.


Thursday, 25 March 2010

Avril Lavigne, Justin Bieber, Nelly Furtado, Nikki Yanofsky and many more in Canada's answer to Band Aid

In the same vein as Band Aid's Do they Know it's Christmas, a huge number of Canadian singers including Avril Lavigne, Justin Bieber, Nelly Furtado and Olympic star Nikki Yanofsky have come to record a charity single to raise funds for Haiti's relief efforts.

Support Haiti by buying the single, video or T-shirt at Young Artists For Haiti. And be sure to pass it on so others can help too.

Posted via web from Bowyer's Bite-size Blogettes


Saturday, 20 March 2010

Travel Bite #4: Hotel Avante, Mountain View

I'm currently spending a couple of days relaxing in the Bay Area after attending the Cloud Connect conference. Usually I'd write about places I've been and sights I've seen, but I thought for a change I'd blog about the hotel I am staying in - Hotel Avante in Mountain View. I got my stay here through the cheap hotel site hotwire, for a very reasonable $59 (39GBP) a night. One of the things about Hotwire is you get cheap prices but you don't find out the hotel until after you book (by area) - so I would never have known about this place - but boy am I glad I did. It's probably the best hotel I've ever stayed in!

So, what makes this hotel so special? The first thing you notice is the lobby, with comfortable sofas, reading tables stacked with copies of Time and Wired (this is Silicon Valley after all).

There is a sort of postmodern ambience about the place - retro typewriters and old cameras nestle alongside light orbs and funky modern art. The elevator doors are even a work of art in their own right.

I checked in and was very impressed on entering my hotel room. I flipped on the light switch by the door and was pleased to see a centre ceiling light which really illuminated the whole room - none of this running around the room to switch lamps on like most dingier hotel rooms.

And then I saw the desk... It has two glass panels to see into the drawers below. One drawer contains stationery and practical items.

The other is chock full of "executive toys" - a Slinky, an Etch a Sketch, some transparent playing cards, a Rubik's cube.

The hotel notepad says "IDEAS" over the top, with a stylized human brain. As someone who likes to get creative and innovative, I love this!

Everything about the room has been carefully thought out. There are two surge-protected power strips, so none of the usual contest for sockets.

The bedside table has a recessed area right by the pillow holding another ideas pad - perfect for late night inspiration or dream recording! 

I've been here over 24 hours now, and I'm still discovering new things.. A shelf in the cupboard contains some stick magnets and ball bearings to play with.

A hi-fi with a library of CDs you can borrow from the front desk. Toothbrush and toothpaste provided. The bedside table, as well as the requisite Holy Bible, contains a torch/flashlight and emergency flare - how random! The hotel TV is HD, and swivels around so you can watch it while working at the desk.

Speaking of which, the wi-fi is complimentary and fast. In fact there are four different wi-fi networks to choose from! This includes Google's free wide area wi-fi network serving the whole of Mountain View. We are in the home of the Googleplex here!

There is a great little outdoor swimming pool and hot tub/jacuzzi.

And a fitness room, and a relaxation lounge.

The bed is a very comfortable king-size, with more cushions and pillows than you could ever wish for. Every evening there is a complimentary happy hour bar, and the hotel lobby has a wine rack and every room has a corkscrew - no need to go out for supplies! This morning I had breakfast, which was a buffet with everything I could have wished for - eggs, sausages, bacon, pancakes, fresh fruit, bagels, toast, yogurts, cereals, pastries, juices & hot drinks. And what's more - it's free! This is almost unheard of in the US in my experience - most free breakfasts are continental and most cooked breakfasts cost extra.

The hotel is well located too - with plenty of stores, restaurants and bars in walking or driving distance along the road - the hotel is located on El Camino Real. And there's plenty to see in the area.. Silicon Valley, NASA Ames Center, the Computer History Museumthe Star Trek exhibition at The Tech in San Jose, Stanford University, and lots of great open spaces and countryside.

So why is this hotel so good? There is a sign outside the elevators with the hotel motto - they aim for your stay to be "Better than Expected".
And trust me, it really was! This is a great example of applying "Made to Stick" principles - making a clear, concise message for the employees to hold on to.

You can see some more photos at a higher resolution on my Flickr page.

Here's some more links to find out more:

Posted via email from Bowyer's Bite-size Blogettes


Friday, 19 March 2010

Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution is about to hit the USA - great to see social change in action!

You may have seen my earlier post about Jamie Oliver winning the TED prize with his campaign to teach every child about food. I've just watched the UK campaign, the TV show Ministry of Food (in the UK you can watch it online via that link) and it blew me away. It tells the story of the struggles and successes of how one man went to Rotherham, where hardly anyone cooks, and educated and inspired hundreds if not thousands of people to cook, and to teach others around them. Not to mention transforming a few individuals lives along the way. It's really quite inspiring to realize that one person can make a difference, especially if we all just do it instead of imagining failure. And it's great to see a celebrity use their influence as a force for good in the world.

Watching the show you really do get the sense that this is the beginning of a grassroots cultural revolution. People are starting to wake up to how badly we've been treating our bodies with the food we eat.

The campaign has already taken root in cities across the UK, with a new food education centre opened in Bradford, and the campaign is starting in Australia too.

If you're in the USA or Canada be sure to watch Food Revolution, where Jamie goes to the unhealthiest town in America - Huntingdon, West Virginia, and tries to start the revolution there. Trailer above, it starts on ABC next Friday 26th March with a preview this Sunday.

And if you want to get involved, and especially if you can't or don't cook, then just watch some of these simple video recipes, try them and most importantly, pass it on.

You can support the campaign here (for Americans) or here (for Brits).

Get involved, and maybe we really can solve the world's obesity problems, if not for this generation, then at least for our children.

(And I hope I am not being to preachy, but it's rare that you see something that is so overwhelmingly a good thing. I feel everyone should know about it!)

Update: You can also check out the things we can learn from this from a career perspective in this article.

Posted via web from Bowyer's Bite-size Blogettes


Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Teach every child about food - Jamie Oliver's call to action (#TED)

Please, watch this video, and pass it to everyone you know.

Jamie Oliver has been awarded the TED Prize 2010 to help make his mission to re-educate society about the importance of home cooking, fresh food and eating well.

This is a solvable problem, which every one of us can help with. Sign up to help our children and our children's children - in the USA, the UK and around the world.

Posted via web from Bowyer's Bite-size Blogettes


Sunday, 7 February 2010

Travel Bite #3: Tulum, Mexico

Over the Christmas 2005 / New Year 2006 period, we spent three weeks in Central America. One of the highlights was Tulum,  about 80 miles south of the not-worth-visiting tourist metropolis of Cancun on the Yucatan peninsula.

From the main hostel area in Tulum Pueblo (the village of Tulum) it's only 70 pesos for a short taxi ride to the entrance of Tulum Ruinas, the Mayan walled city (or a long dusty walk which was the option we chose unfortunately!). The site, also known as Zama (City of Dawn) was one of the last outposts of Mayan civilization, being occupied from around 1200AD all the way through to the Spanish colonization in the 16th century which marked the end of this 3,500 year old empire.

As we walked down the dusty track we saw stalls and traders selling colourful ponchos, rugs and sombreros as well as faded postcards and tacky replica Mayan ruins.

I bought a fresh coconut and enjoyed the juice, something I hadn't done since my last trip to Malaysia in 2004. One trader beckoned me over and starting bargaining with me; he literally wanted the shirt off my back - as it was a genuine Premiership Southampton shirt.

He offered me rugs and other colourful weavings. Ultimately I said no, he had nothing I wanted. It was entertaining though - I guess there are some things money can't buy in Mexico!

The ruins themselves were magnificent. Not the towering pyramids we'd seen in Chitchen Itza or Tikal, but low rectangular pillared buildings with a unique style something between Roman and Ancient Egyptian.

They had stepped rooves and looked quite dramatic against the lush green grass of the hilltop. As we wandered among the ruins on paths we saw maybe thirty or forty iguanas, each one a good two or three feet long. They looked like they owned the place, perching on the rocky ruins.

Being a lizard fan, Alex was in her element and managed to snap some amazing photographs, as you can see.

We reached the cliff edge and were treated to picture-postcard views of pure white sands and azure blue waters down at the base of the cliffs. The fort certainly had an imposing location perched a hundred feet up!

We headed down the steps to the beach and indulged in a swim. The sand was soft and the water was warm. It was hard to believe it was early January. We were very glad to have chosen Tulum over Cancun. 

We headed back up through the ruins and then walked down the beach - Tulum Playa - past expensive resorts and restaurants, admiring the beautiful ocean view.

We rounded off the afternoon with a smoothie in a seafront bar and found our way back to the main road and back into the village.

You can see the hi-resolution photos on Flickr here.

You can learn more about Tulum via these links:


Posted via email from Bowyer's Bite-size Blogettes


Friday, 22 January 2010

And now for something completely different... a bit of science fiction

This month I have started attending a creative writing course at Thomas More Institute.

The second week's assignment was a 500 word dramatic monologue based on the character we'd developed the week before - in my case, 44-year-old Jack Duffy, who makes a living as a taxi pilot in 2258.

I did post it here but Blogger is playing silly buggers with the formatting, so you can read it on Scribd here. It's also on my posterous. Feedback is always welcome.


Saturday, 16 January 2010

One year without TV - Part One

In just a couple of weeks time, it will have been a year since my wife and I last received any kind of TV broadcast into our home. We don't even own a TV since we moved to Canada.

That's not to say we don't watch TV shows, news and movies, it's just that we've been using different technologies to do it. In this first post I will explore why we did it,  how we made the transition away from broadcast TV, and what technologies we found to be useful. In part two I'll look back at our experiences and assess the pros and cons of not having a TV, and discuss where this might lead, for us and for society as a whole. If you'd prefer a shorter version of this post, you can head on over to my posterous blog.

Watching TV at a time that you choose

So, why did we make the switch? One of the biggest reasons was time pressure. It's an inescapable truth that we are all much busier than we were 20 years ago, in the days when there were fewer TV channels than fingers on your hand. We have gone through a lifestyle revolution where an almost infinite numbers of online and offline activities are available to fill up our time.

When it comes to TV, it's no longer practical to watch a show at the time when it's on, at least not if you want to catch every episode. And who has time to mess around with videotapes? (or these days, DVD recorders)

The solution that presented itself was PVRs (Personal Video Recorders), which allow you to automatically record all episodes of a series by the push of a button, and watch them back in your own time. You can also pause, rewind and fast forward through ads. Being in the UK, Tivo was not an option, but we were still able to get on the PVR bandwagon. We had Sky+ for a couple of years, and then V+, which worked quite well for us. And once you've had a PVR, you'll never want to go back to normal TV (sounds like a line from a commercial, but it's true).

The burdens of PVRs

But we found that having Sky+/V+ presented new problems. This was the first time we'd had digital TV or cable/satellite TV too, and it meant an increase from 5 channels to around 300 channels. This was not a good thing. More channels meant more shows that looked interesting, and more choices about what to watch. More choice is not a good thing. We found that we were accumulating shows we wanted to watch faster than we could watch them, and were having to spend time deciding which shows to delete, or copying recordings off to DVD. What was supposed to bring us more entertainment was becoming a chore.

What's more, at that time it was more or less impossible to have PVR technology without paying an expensively monthly contract (usually higher than a standard non-PVR subscription). Now, you can get PVR boxes that work with Freeview or Freesat - meaning no monthly fee. This would be a slightly better option - but I would anticipate an excess of content still being a problem.

Airdates and TV downloading

The other thing that was happening around the same time was that we were getting into more and more American shows - such as Lost, Heroes, Jericho, 24 and Enterprise. Typically these shows air weeks to months earlier in the USA than in the UK. And in the case of Lost, we found ourselves unable to watch it legally without switching provider when Sky One and Virgin Media fell out over licensing (see right). And there was no legal way to obtain any of these shows when they first came out. So we began to download shows as .avi files from the Internet - typically using torrent sites such as isohunt and the Pirate Bay. This meant we could get the shows we wanted as soon as they came out, while everyone else is still talking about them, and best of all, with no adverts.

Now of course these files are natively viewed on a computer, not a television, which was ok on my widescreen monitor, but not ideal. Computers typically aren't set up with a nearby couch or armchair for viewing. So we started to look at media players - put simply, a box that sits under your TV and lets you watch computer media files from its own hard drive or from your home network.

Media Players

Our first media player was a modded XBox games console (modding is a legal process which involves adding a chip to the console so it can run any software, and installing a new software interface). We used the very impressive XBMC (XBox Media Centre) software, which lets you run XBox games from hard disk, run emulators, stream internet radio, watch movie trailers, and play any music or video files from an internal hard drive or your network. XBMC remains one of the best interfaces out there, with beautifully designed screens, easy to use and highly functional. It pulls in movie & TV thumbnails and info from the internet automatically.

We found it was a very powerful way to watch downloaded episodes on our TV - by simply sharing the torrent download directory over the network, browsing the directory on the XBox, and clicking the file. We now had all the PVR like features (pause, rewind/fast-forward, watch when you like) for our media files.

NAS (Network Attached Storage) and Digital Downsizing

We continued using this system in parallel with our PVR, and accumulated more and more media files of TV shows and movies. We realised we needed to have a single machine to store all our files, accessible over the network, so we began to construct an Ubuntu Linux computer into which we could put lots of hard drives to store our media. This had some limited success, but I don't get on with Linux configuration, and it just became too much work.

Fortunately, I discovered FreeNAS, a Linux-like operating system pre-configured for exactly this purpose, sharing files over a network (known as network attached storage). There are more expensive options available, but FreeNAS can run from a USB key stuck into any old PC you have lying around - and can be easily configured with no command-line stuff from a powerful web interface. It was just the job, and worked beautifully. Soon we were buying 750Gb and 1Tb hard drives (surprisingly cheaply) to store our media files.

By now it was early 2009, and we were making plans to emigrate to Canada. We realised that taking our huge collection of both bought and recorded DVDs and CDs was not an option, and that we could digitize all our music and movies onto the NAS hard drives - and take those hard drives with us to Canada. Mrs Alex did all the hard work, and we soon had eight hard drives full of media to take to Canada.

Soon after getting to Canada, we acquired an old PC cheaply, and installed FreeNAS again, to make a new NAS server, which I affectionately call Tardis, giving us access to all our old files.

A 21st century living room

As we set up home in Canada, we thought hard about how to lay out our living room. We realised that we spend a lot of our time on our laptops, and that having a TV in lounge makes the room very TV centric. My monitor was able to function as a "TV screen" for media playback from the NAS, swivelled round to face the sofa when needed as a TV, and swivelled back to the desk when needed by my Mac. And so we were able to layout our living room without a TV. Looking back, I guess this was the moment we decided not to have broadcast TV any more.

I can't describe how much nicer it is to not have a TV in your lounge. By default, you sit down and do other things - whereas in most lounges when you have a big TV screen in front of you, the room almost invites you to turn it on.

The Popcorn Hour, HD, and Video Projectors

And so we enjoyed this set up for the first six months of our "year without TV"... downloading new shows and watching films from our collection via the NAS and my computer monitor. But by now, some of the shows we watched were also available in high definition, which couldn't really be played back on my 1680x1050 monitor. And I was aware that audio-wise, our system was not ideal (we were just using my computer speakers). We started to wonder about the possibility of setting up a home cinema.

I'd been thinking for some time about getting a better media player. We'd left the XBox in the UK, being too heavy to transport, and using my computer to play shows was a little annoying. The media player market is still in its infancy, but there are many many choices available. There's MythTV (too much Linux configuration for my liking), Windows Media Center (not so great at playing back some video formats, plus, it's by Microsoft), Apple TV (but you can only play shows and movies bought from Apple), and many more. Ultimately the device we settled on is a Popcorn Hour (also known as a Networked Media Tank).

The Popcorn Hour is a tiny box (not much bigger than a hard drive) that plugs into a TV or projector to stream media from your network. It has some of the best support for different video formats - including our digitized VOB files (DVDs) and FLAC files (Audio CDs). What's more it is capable of HD output and optical audio out. I also like it because you're not running a noisy PC, it's quiet and very low power consumption. From a technical point of view it's hard to beat. My lovely wife bought me one for my birthday.

It does have some disadvantages, it's interface is much more primitive than the likes of XBMC, and not very usable for music files. You can install better interfaces, but this involves a lot of work labelling your files in special ways and generating custom menus. Unfortunately the device is not as powerful as a PC, and it shows. But I can live with that, for what it does. Functionality is more important than ease-of-use (much though it pains me as a user-centric designer to say that!)

In August, we moved to a bigger place with 2 living rooms, and setting up a Popcorn Hour-powered became a real possibility. Our friend Eric very kindly lent us an HD-capable projector, and we put up a shelf and drilled a hole through the wall so that we could have our NAS server in the spare room but the Popcorn Hour and projector in our lounge. We painted the walls white to give us a better surface to project onto, and before long it was all systems go. We were even able to hook up our Wii to the projector as well.

This is a great set up, we're now able to watch our movies projected onto the wall, and when you watch HD films you can see every detail. We've been enjoying this set up for the last 6 months - downloading new shows like Dollhouse, Doctor Who and ReGenesis as well as our old favourites like Lost and Heroes.

Watching TV online, proxies and protected content

Beyond downloading, there's another way to watch TV online, that we've dabbled in but not fully explored, and that's watching TV streamed over the Internet. Probably the best example in the world is the BBC's iPlayer, which allows you to watch BBC shows soon after broadcast, streamed over the Internet. Unfortunately, because the BBC is funded by UK licence payers, the service checks what country you are accessing the site from and blocks you if you are not in the UK (as do the UK's other online TV services - 4od, demandfive, ITV Player, MSN Video Player, and Zattoo.)

Similar geo-IP technology is used in the USA to restrict access to Hulu and ABC, and is also used for audio services such as Pandora (US) and Spotify (UK).

As a UK citizen living abroad this is very frustrating. I would be happy to continue to pay my license fee while abroad in exchange for officially supported access to BBC content. Unfortunately the legal and technical systems in place do not allow this.

But fortunately there is a workaround - to use a proxy server. A proxy server is a computer in the country you want to pretend to be in, that relays your connections, fooling sites like iPlayer into believing you are in that country. We've started to use a service called Flote, which for 9.99GBP a month, gives access to US, UK, Canadian and Dutch proxies, enabling access to almost all of the services listed above. Proxies are legal, but something of a loophole at the moment. If you'd like to learn more about proxies, there's a good description in this episode of the excellent CBC Spark podcast.

The proxy service means I can watch UK shows like Doctor Who even while out of the country, but in practice I mostly download the torrent files unless I am away from home. This may be partly because I haven't found a good solution to get Internet streams onto the projector (One option might be a Slingbox, but they're not cheap).

Life without a TV

So this brings me up to the present - you can see how we got here, and hopefully you learnt a thing or two along the way about what options might be available to you. If you're thinking of breaking free of broadcast TV you may also want to take a look at Jeff MacArthur's

In the next post I will tell you about what the experience has been like for us, the pros and cons, and where this might all lead.

Thanks for reading!


Travel Bite #2: Lake Champlain and a taste of New England

Back in May last year we picked up a Communauto car and did a day trip down into New England. We went down the western side of the massive Lake Champlain through New York State and back up the eastern side through Vermont.

We headed south over the border on Interstate 97 and stopped at a tourist information centre soon after where were able to pick up some useful maps and leaflets. We drove further south and were treated to impressive views of the Adirondack mountains towering overhead, which we plan to visit someday as well as the nearby Lake Placid. We had planned to stop first in Plattsburgh (which incidentally is supposed to be a good location for cheap flights across the USA, as many of the budget airlines don't fly to Canada).

Unfortunately not long after we got over the border the heavens opened, so rather than stop we continued south along the 9 and more minor roads by the edge of the lake (which is technically a very large river).

We saw some beautiful houses on the waterfront. As we have seen in most places in North America, waterfront access is often difficult as it tends to be private land - unlike the UK where rights of way and footpaths exist by most lakes and rivers. One house had a beautiful little summer house on stilts on the water with a hammock looking out onto the lake - it made you wish you lived there!

By now the rain had stopped and we spent some time walking down the streets and to the water's edge in a beautiful little village called Essex, where there seemed to be a very sleepy pace of life and fog engulfed the end of the pier.

Outside of the village we stopped at our first US "historic site", a tiny limestone school house from 1816 (photo on Flickr - see below).

We continued south down long and winding (but nonetheless attractive) roads until soon after Port Henry, were we began to head Northeast, and took the Champlain Bridge across into Vermont.

By now the rain had stopped and the sun came out, treating us to some beautiful views over green fields and of attractive wooden farmhouses with pill shaped grain silos.

We stopped at an interesting art gallery/antiquities store and then continued further north until we reached the city of Burlington, which was surprisingly attractive and felt quite British with ice-cream kiosks, clothes stores and pedestrianised streets. We wandered through a shopping centre and stopped for tea and cake at the excellent Dobra Tea where you can sample teas from every country in the world accompanied by delicious salads, snacks and pastries.

We then began to head home, taking the scenic route across the islands through the agricultural settlements of South Hero, North Hero and Alburgh.

The light was amazing as the afternoon drew to a close, making some wonderful reflections on the water and making the trees and grass seem a lush yellowy green.

We crossed back into Canada on a minor road near Rouses Point, which was pretty much one guy in a booth - a much more pleasant experience than our crossing south on the Interstate (and no queue).

The whole trip was about 4.5 hours driving. It was great to get a taster of the areas around Lake Champlain and we left feeling that there's plenty more for us to explore next time. All in all, a great day out, despite the rain. You can see our route here:

You can see higher resolution photos in the full set on Flickr here.

You can find more information about the area via the following links: