Thinking lazily about notifications and alerts: Part 3

[Note to readers: For those coming into this cold, I wrote Part 1 and Part 2 early in January; this one, Part 3, will be followed by a handful more in weeks to come].

I think of sensors this way: every piece of equipment capable of sensing something and sending me information about that something is in effect extending my own set of senses. A security camera outside the house extends my eyesight. If it is capable of night vision, it extends my ability to see. If it is linked to a network and allows me to “see” from afar, it allows me to sense remotely. If it has the capacity to retain what it sees and allows me to query it at a later date, it allows me to “see” into the past, to travel in time as well and in space.


Kevin Kelly (one of my favourite authors)

Sensors extend our natural senses. As I mentioned in an earlier post, this is very much in keeping with Kevin Kelly’s assertion that technology speeds up evolution. [I love having a reason to re-read essays in his Technium. Something I would commend you do, it is well worth the while].

It’s not just about enhancing an existing sense or extending the sensing capacity over distance or over time. We are also on the threshold of “sensing” new things, things we could not sense before, things that haven’t existed for long. Nobody thinks twice about our current ability to “sense” (via satnav apps) the nearest ATM, the nearest fuel selling unit, the nearest electric car charging facility.

Yup, our smart devices, and their ecosystems of hardware extensions (sometimes as wearables) and software apps, they’re all part of our rapidly expanding sensory network. Some form of Extra Sensory Perception is now reality.

It doesn’t stop there. It’s now been a few years since I first read about how we’re bringing sensors closer to home, not just by wearing them or hanging them off our smart devices, but by implanting them. Cochlear implants that, while improving our sense of hearing, also throw in, for the heck of it, an ability to sniff out wifi signal and compass direction, just to give a few examples. I guess it will only be a matter of time before people gain “x-ray vision” or an ability to see through walls. Time to dust off that William Gibson mantra again. The future’s already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.

Some of our technology-enabled extra-sensory ability to solve time and distance issues have existed for a while. The security guard in a room somewhere looking at a wall of screens, checking for exceptions. The recording capacity attached to surveillance cameras. All ways to “sense” something and receive that sensing in a different place or at a different time.

Prior to that, the technology used to do the remote sensing was cruder. Mountain and Mahomet time. Since the remote place couldn’t come to you, you went to the remote place physically. Before video cameras, security guards used to do the rounds the old-fashioned way. Expensive, inefficient but reasonably effective. Most of you must have seen films set in the Second World War where prisoners of war escape only when the security guard is at the aphelion of his personal orbit vis-a-vis the would-be escapees.

We’ve seen this movie before. Before telephones we couldn’t speak over any real distance. Telephones conquered the distance problem, but not the time one. If the party you wished to speak to wasn’t there, tough. No tickee no washee. Then came a time when people took messages for you if you weren’t there. And left them by the phone, so you had to get to the phone to see them. Then came answerphones that looked like tape recorders, attached to the phone. The message taking facility had become a little more automated. Then you could query those messages remotely. And the capacity to hold messages increased rapidly. And then the message could call you.

That telephone-message movie is now playing out for pretty much every form of notification or alert there is.


Firehoses of notifications and alerts.

So they need filters before they can be rendered useful.

Notification Class 3, Houston We Have a Problem, is a filtering mechanism. Conditional, with thresholds that can be set in advance and changed at will. Some of you will be used to IFTTT, If This Then That. Houston We Have a Problem needs IFTTT for notifications, nothing more. You don’t want the firehose. You want to know only if some exception condition is met or breached. If the doorbell rings and the only person in the house is my aged aunt who doesn’t hear too well, then make the bell ring more loudly, or make a pre-agreed light fitting flash. You get my drift. Establish the threshold for something that can be sensed remotely, then establish the notification process that is triggered when the threshold is passed.

There is a lot more to be done with the notification process in such contexts, in terms of the devices alerted, the timing of the alerts, the route taken (sound, light, movement, etc), whether the alert is persisted for later inspection, whether time series of the alerts are themselves persisted, whether there is a need for acknowledgement of the notification (and that’s a notification in itself).

Imagine the drudgery of building maintenance and you can see just how efficient it can become. No need to inspect the bulbs, batteries, toilets, rubbish chutes, whatever. Remote sensors will tell you when a threshold condition is breached. Maintenance by exception.

Enough on Class 3 for now. The next class of notification is I Am Here. The best way to think of this one is as the answer to the question “Dude, Where’s My Stuff?”. There’s a lot of motion in life, lots of stuff moving around. And people want to know about the state of that thing in motion. Are you on the train, on your way home yet? Did you get my letter? Where’s the dress I ordered? Where’s Kevin? Where’s Wally? Did you get my cheque? (No, not the one’s that’s “in the post”, along with Billy Bunter’s Postal Order or the homework that the dog ate).

Fundamentally, I Am Here signals the current position of something in motion. The requester of the notification wants to know that Elvis has Left the Building. That the Package Has Arrived. That the Train has Passed Clapham Junction. Whatever.

So many notifications, so little time. Filters needed. We need to be able to subscribe to the notifications sensibly, so there’s a pub-sub approach needed. We need to have some way of signalling conditional routing, not just about the thresholds to be tested against, but also the routes taken by the notification, the timing of the notifications, and the devices to which the notifications will be sent.

That’s enough on I Am Here for now. I will deal with further classes of notification, and start building on the subscription models and threshold conditions in later posts.







The Digital Economy Bill: Fred Figglehorn, won’t you please come home?

Do you know who Fred Figglehorn is?

He’s is a fictional 6-year old with his own TV channel. Not any old TV channel. It’s modern, it’s 21st century. And yes, it’s on YouTube. I quote from Wikipedia:

Fred Figglehorn is a fictional character created and portrayed by American actor Lucas Cruikshank (born August 29, 1993). Cruikshank, a teenager from Columbus, Nebraska, created the character for his channel on the video-sharing website YouTube.[1] The videos are centered around Fred Figglehorn, a fictional 6-year-old who has a dysfunctional home life and “anger management issues”.[2]

Cruikshank introduced the Fred Figglehorn character in videos on the JKL Productions channel he started on YouTube with his cousins, Jon and Katie Smet. He set up the Fred channel in October 2005. By April 2009, the channel had over 1,000,000 subscribers, making it the first YouTube channel to hit one million subscribers and the most subscribed channel at the time.

Over a million subscribers. And creator Lucas Cruikshank is 16 years old. He calls his channel “programming for kids by kids”. By kids. Let’s remember that.

Now fast forward to IMDb, let’s find out a little more about this Lucas Cruikshank. Here’s an excerpt:

Lucas Cruikshank is a teenage director and actor who got his start by making videos with his cousins John and Katie, and posting them on YouTube. Together, the trio is known as JKL Productions. Recently, Lucas decided to make videos by himself and came up with the character Fred, who is an annoying 6-year-old with an uncaring mother and is most noted for his sped-up voice. Lucas said that he created the first Fred video to poke fun at video bloggers who talk about every single thing that they’re doing in the video. The first video received tons of positive feedback, and Lucas continued to post videos in the Fred series, which he edits, directs, and acts in by himself. When not making videos, Lucas auditions for movie and TV roles, and also pitches ideas to television channels. He is also a dancer and takes jazz, tap, and hip-hop classes. Lucas resides in Columbus, Nebraska, with his two brothers and five sisters. He is the middle child.

  • Uses a Zip It instant messaging and e-mailing device in the Fred videos as part of a deal with its manufacturers.
  • His Fred videos receive between 1 and 9 million views per video.
  • JKL Productions, the video-making trio of his two cousins and him, made a grand total of US$14,000 from their videos and merchandising during one year.
  • Is very appreciative of his fans.

IMDb Mini Biography By: Secretherapy

…receive between 1 and 9 million views per video. Let’s remember that.

Is very appreciative of his fans. Let’s remember that.

Now let’s move on to another Lucas. George Lucas. Here’s an abstract from his wikipedia entry:

Lucas was born in Modesto, California, the son of Dorothy Lucas (née Bomberger) and George Lucas Sr. (1913–1991), who owned a stationery store.[2]

Lucas’ experiences growing up in the sleepy Central Valley town of Modesto and his early passion for cars and motor racing would eventually serve as inspiration for his Oscar-nominated low-budget phenomenon, American Graffiti. Long before Lucas became obsessed with film making, he wanted to be a race-car driver, and he spent most of his high school years racing on the underground circuit at fairgrounds and hanging out at garages. However, a near-fatal accident in his souped-up Autobianchi Bianchina on June 12, 1962, just days before his high school graduation, quickly changed his mind. Instead of racing, he attended community college and later got accepted into a junior college to study anthropology. While taking liberal arts courses, he developed a passion for cinematography and camera tricks.

During this time, an experimental filmmaker named Bruce Baillie tacked up a bedsheet in his backyard in 1960 to screen the work of underground, avant-garde 16 mm filmmakers like Jordan Belson, Stan Brakhage and Bruce Conner. For the next few years, Baillie’s series, dubbed Canyon Cinema, toured local coffeehouses. These events became a magnet for the teenage Lucas and his boyhood friend John Plummer. The 19-year-olds began slipping away to San Francisco to hang out in jazz clubs and find news of Canyon Cinema screenings in flyers at the City Lights bookstore. Already a promising photographer, Lucas became infatuated with these abstract films.

[Incidentally, I just want to say thank you, publicly, to Jimmy Wales and all the people at Wikipedia. It is such a privilege to be able to annotate my posts using Wikipedia. Thank you.]

Souped-up cars. Bedsheets in backyards. You see a trend here? Fast forward to 2006. On August 2, 2006, the following post was made on Star Wars Blogs:

We would like the fan film community to know that this was not done at our request. Let’s remember that.

Fast forward to a week ago. Take a look at this story from techdirt:

Official channel blocked due to a copyright infringement issue. Let’s remember that.

Many of you will be aware of the Lenz v Universal case, where Universal Music Publishing Group asked Youtube to remove a 29-second clip of a child bopping up and down to a Prince song:

Mere allegations. Let’s remember that. These are the sort of abuses that happen when the law is so badly crafted that “mere allegations” have this kind of effect. Note that the music company involved in the 29-second fiasco is none other than Universal, whose Group CEO Lucian Grainge is a “known associate” of the Dark Lord.

Where is all this leading?


  1. The kids of today are adept at making stuff out of digital raw material. People like me are of an older generation, less adept at these things. We know this. We were adept at making stuff with physical tools working on physical things.
  2. When it comes to digital culture, the barriers to entry have been sharply reduced, so much so that 16 year olds can make home videos regularly enough to run a channel that has a million subscribers and gets nine million views. The world of “content creation” is learning to adapt to this, with people like George Lucas leading the way.
  3. What George Lucas and these kids have in common is also simple: they know how to treat their fans.
  4. Many of the organisations that are being made irrelevant by the digital youth of today, in contrast, don’t know how to treat their fans. Instead, they go to court to attack 29 second videos of very active children.
  5. Attempts to mutate the laws of yesteryear to cope with the challenges of tomorrow are riddled with failure.

Human beings like to make things. They also like to unmake things, to take things apart. They like to get under the hood of things, dismantle stuff, unscrew stuff, put them back together in ways that no one had dreamed of before. Recently I had the opportunity to ask Alex Deschamps-Sonsino and team at to come and work with the leadership group at BT Innovate and Design. A splendid time was guaranteed for all. And a splendid time was had by all. Smiles everywhere, as people built stuff and unbuilt stuff. Serious play.

This maker instinct is in all of us, and has been captured brilliantly by Cory Doctorow in Makers and by Larry Lessig in Remix, something I’ve written about before.

As the maker instinct begins to manifest itself in the digital generation, strange things are beginning to happen. Things I cannot conceive of, but things I hear and see. Things that fill me with glee and with sadness, things that teach me, things that I can learn from.

Things like Line Rider. Things like stop-motion video of Monkeys and Engineers, which I wrote about here. Things like this Hips Don’t Lie Parody. Things like the Team Hoyt “My Redeemer Lives” video.

Stray off the beaten track a bit. Watch RIP: A Remix Manifesto.

This is an extract from a blog called Copyright in the Digital Age, in a post headlined Brazilian Dance Party: In it, a journalist called Barry Hertz is quoted as saying:

“After marvelling at the artistry occurring within the shantytowns, the director stupefyingly proposes that the future of art and commerce lies not with the over-branded environs of New York or L.A., but within the copyright-free slums of Rio, oblivious to the fact that he is standing hip-deep in abject poverty.”

The copyright-free slums. Incidentally, thanks to a comment by Martin Budden, I’ve had the opportunity to read James Boyle’s The Public Domain, and then order the hardback. Excellent book. Well worth a read.

Copyright is in a mess. Takedown notices that shouldn’t have been sent. takedown notices that were claimed not to be takedown notices, takedown notices that hadn’t been asked for. Official channels shut down, official material no longer available.

  • Folks, there is a new generation out there. They do things we couldn’t. They make magic in ways we don’t begin to understand.
  • We cannot allow them to be criminalised via the Digital Economy Bill.
  • We cannot constrain their maker culture just because we don’t understand them.
  • We cannot allow others to constrain their maker cultures just because they feel threatened.

There’s enough bad law out there already, particularly in this space. Even as I write, I think it’s still illegal to copy songs from a CD purchased by me on to an iPod purchased by me via iTunes on a computer purchased by me.

Every time the maker culture meets the digital generation, wondrous things happen.

We have to make sure they continue to happen. So contact your MP, push back against this Bill, make sure your voice is heard.

The moving finger writes ….

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

Omar Khayyam


Remember those lines? Did you ever wonder what it would feel like to have a moving finger that writes?

And today I know how it feels. Because today I bought Dan Bricklin’s Note Taker.

A delightful and slightly obsessive-compulsive little application, letting you take simple notes quickly and efficiently on to your iPhone. No mess, no fuss.

And, unlike Omar Khayyam’s Moving Finger, this one can be lured back To cancel half A Line. There’s an erase function.

Easy to use, easy to share what you write. Dan, well done. [Disclaimer: I know Dan and count him amongst my friends.]


Rambling about creativity and capital and content and frames

In this context of creativity and web, Jonathan Zittrain, or JZ as he gets called, made a number of critical points in his excellent book The Future of the Internet And How to Stop It cover.jpg One of those key points is to do with the “generative” web, the phrase he uses to describe the open and innovative and creative aspects of the web; JZ spends time articulating the rise of locked-down devices, services and whole environments as a direct response to the ostensibly anarchic nature of the generative web, with its inherent vulnerabilities and weaknesses. … ] The implied tension between “generative” and “secure” that is to be found in JZ’s book, resonated, in a strange kind of way, with some of the ideas in Carlota Perez’s Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: 184376331101lzzzzzzz.jpg The book remains one of my all-time favourites, I’ve probably read it a dozen times since it was published.

The tragic death of Michael Jackson has dominated much of the news this past week, even overshadowing the Iran situation in some quarters. Strange but true. Jackson’s death has had some unusual consequences, as people try and deal with their own reactions in different and creative ways. While the original story broke, I believe, on TMZ, Twitter was the river that carried the news to the world.

And Twitter was overwhelmed. Which meant the arrival of the much-loved Fail Whale:


Which led someone to come up with this:


This concerned a small number of people, who were worried that the image may cause offence. Which in turn led someone else to this:


And so it went on, as people sought more and more creative ways of expressing their emotions and paying tribute to Michael Jackson. Wallpaper downloads. Posters. Photographs. Videos. Collages and montages. All in double-quick time. For me the most creative was this mashup:


BillieTweets. Where someone has taken a Billie Jean video and made the lyrics visual using tweets where the relevant word has been highlighted. Follow the link to see how it works. [Thanks to the Scobleizer for the heads-up. And safe travels.].

All this is part of the magic of the web, the value that is generated when people have the right access and tools and ideas. Human beings are so incredibly creative.

In this context of creativity and web, Jonathan Zittrain, or JZ as he gets called, made a number of critical points in his excellent book The Future of the Internet And How to Stop It


One of those key points is to do with the “generative” web, the phrase he uses to describe the open and innovative and creative aspects of the web; JZ spends time articulating the rise of locked-down devices, services and whole environments as a direct response to the ostensibly anarchic nature of the generative web, with its inherent vulnerabilities and weaknesses. [If you haven’t read the book, do so, it’s worth it. ]

The implied tension between “generative” and “secure” that is to be found in JZ’s book, resonated, in a strange kind of way, with some of the ideas in Carlota Perez’s Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital:


The book remains one of my all-time favourites, I’ve probably read it a dozen times since it was published. And given away many many copies, something I have done with a very small number of books, including: The Social Life of Information, The Cluetrain Manifesto and Community Building on The Web.

The resonant piece was this: One of Perez’s seminal findings was the difference between financial capital and production capital.

In Perez’s view, financial capital “represents the critera and behaviour of those agents who possess wealth in the form of money or other paper assets….. their purpose remains tied to having wealth in the form of money (liquid or quasi-liquid and making it grow. To achieve this purpose, they use …. intermediairies …. The behaviour of these intermediaries while fulfilling the function of making money from money that can be observed and analysed as the behaviour of financial capital. In essence, financial capital serves as the agent for reallocating and redistributing wealth.

Perez goes on to say that “the term production capital embodies the motives and behaviours of those agents who generate new wealth by producing goods or performing services.

Through these distinctions, she clearly delineates the differences between the “process of creating wealth and the enabling mechanisms”; these distinctions are then played out through a number of “surges” or paradigm shifts. An incredible book.

For some time now, I’ve been wrestling with the connections between Zittrain’s generative web and Perez’s production capital, and formed my own views of the progressive-versus-conservative tensions that can be drawn from such a juxtaposition.

All this came to the fore again in the context of copyright and content, as I read Diane Gurman’s excellent First Monday piece on Why Lakoff Still Matters: Framing The Debate On Copyright Law And Digital Publishing

I give the abstract of the article here:

In 2004, linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff popularized the idea of using metaphors and “frames” to promote progressive political issues. Although his theories have since been criticized, this article asserts that his framing is still relevant to the debate over copyright law as applied to digital publishing, particularly in the field of scholarly journals. Focusing on issues of copyright term extension and the public domain, open access, educational fair use, and the stewardship and preservation of digital resources, this article explores how to advocate for change more effectively — not by putting a better “spin” on proposed policies — but by using coherent narratives to frame the issues in language linked to progressive values.

Reading the article took me back to Perez and to Zittrain. Our Lakoffian frames of “strict father” and “nurturant parent” are in many ways congruent with the generative-versus-secure and production-versus-financial continua described by JZ and Carlota. As Gurman says:

Lakoff’s nurturant parent embodies values of equality, opportunity, openness and concern for the general welfare of all individuals. Under the progressive economic model, markets should serve the common good and democracy…. The strict father frame, on the other hand, centres on issues of authority and control. The moral credo expresses the belief that if people are disciplined and pursue their self-interest they will become prosperous and self-reliant. The favoured economic model is that of a free market operating without government interference.

A free market operating without government interference. Hmmm I remember those.

Despite the credit crunch, the economic meltdowns, the rise in fraud, despite the socialisation of losses and the privatisation of gains that ensued, many things have not changed. And they must. We need to move to a generative internet production capital world. And for that maybe we need to think about what Diane Gurman is saying.

We need to frame our arguments around our values rather than just on the facts and figures; we need to weave a coherent narrative based on public benefit via empowerment and access.

We can see the implications of this divide in many of the arguments that are being had in the digital domain. For example, the recent announcement by Ofcom of its intention to enforce regulated access to premium (and hitherto exclusive) content is a case in point, where the same arguments prevail.

The response of the incumbent, while understandable, is benighted. You only have to look at the public benefit implications, particularly those to do with human progress and innovation.

The returns expected from production capital differ from those expected out of financial capital for a variety of reasons; the most important reason is that when you’re in the business of creating value and wealth, rather than redistributing it, the returns tend to be somewhat less than astronomical.

Thinking about innovation and business models

I’ve always maintained that people who “think opensource” work on useful things, solve problems, create value; they don’t focus on the business model at the outset but instead concentrate on the value they create.

In Peter Drucker’s words, “people make shoes, not money”. Make something that is worth while and people will pay you for it. Figure out what shoes you’re good at making and then make them well. You will make money as a result.

Knowing in advance how you’re going to make money from snake oil may sound like you have a business model; what you have is snake oil. And that’s the problem you need to concentrate on first, the fact that you’re not creating anything of value.

And sometimes the process of calculating and measuring benefits can come in the way. Many years ago, when I worked for Burroughs Corporation, I learnt this the hard way. This was the early 1980s, and software/services was just emerging as a business. Until then, all the margin was in hardware, so we ‘shifted tin”. We gave away the software and the services in order to sell the hardware. Then, as the cost of human capital rose, and investable capital became scarce, this equation began to shift. It became more and more important to understand the true cost of software projects before starting them.

So we instituted something called the Phase Review Process, borrowed from the US Navy if I remember correctly, and implemented it within the firm. Every project had to undergo a phase review at inception and then at each phase.

Which was all fine and dandy. Unless you were just about to start a project that would cost a total of £25,000 inclusive of everything. Which was less than the lowest possible total cost of the phase review process. But I was lucky, my management understood this issue, and it was mandated that projects had to exceed £100,000 in total planned cost before they needed to be put through the Phase Review Process.

Why am I writing all this? Well, some years ago I remember reading about something called the polypill; the newspaper articles referred to this paper which had been published in the BMJ in 2003.

The principle was simple. Six tried and tested medications to be combined into one pill that could cut potentially reduce cardiovascular disease by 80%.

When I first read the articles, I was intrigued. But I didn’t know much about the drugs involved. I knew nothing about statins, other than some vague notion that they were wonder drugs that combated high cholesterol with some wonder side effects. I knew even less about ACE inhibitors and beta-blockers, though I may have come across the beta-blockers as something to do with performance enhancement. Folic acid was something pregnant women took; and diuretics meant you had plumbing problems.

Aspirin I knew about, although I had no idea it could be obtained in cardio doses.

But that was in 2003. Since then, as many of you will know, I have had reason to get to know this particular cocktail of pharmacology quite intimately. Nevertheless, I’d forgotten all about the polypill.

Until a few weeks ago, when I read this on the BBC web site. The polypill could become reality in five years’ time, it said. And then I remembered what i’d read all those years ago, when they said … that the polypill could become reality in five years’ time.

And that made me think. Slowly. Very slowly. And my thoughts went a little like this:

One, cardiovascular disease is the single biggest cause of death facing humans.

Two, people had come up with a cheap and effective way of reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease by 80%.

Three, this had happened six or seven years ago.

Four, with a little bit of luck and a following wind, we may see something happen in five years.

Of course I’m oversimplifying, but I don’t believe I’m exaggerating. A strange world we live in.

I’m not by nature a conspiracy theorist. I believe man landed on the moon nearly forty years ago. I don’t believe in little green men or UFOs. Neither do I believe that Big Oil makes sure that substitutes for gasoline never surface.

But here is what I believe. I believe there is some evidence that the polypill does not exist today because it’s hard to make money from it.

Why? Because the ingredients in the polypill are all out of patent, all “generic”. Because the way drugs are trialled, it’s prohibitively expensive to bring a new drug to market unless you have some monopoly rents to come, patents to exploit and exhaust.

So it is possible that the cost of trialling a cocktail of generic drugs exceeds the potential income from selling the cocktail. And so no polypill.

No mention of the number of lives potentially saved and minor stuff like that.

Now I take statins, beta blockers, ACE inhibitors, diuretics, blood thinners and anti coagulants daily. You could say I have an amateur interest in all this. A passion, even, given that the medication has worked wonders on my heart and on my life expectancy.

This is not meant to be a diatribe against doctors or the medical profession or even the pharmaceutical industry: they have all treated me really well, and I owe them a debt of gratitude.

What I am trying to do is to point out that sometimes we hold up innovation by concentrating on the wrong thing at the start. And sometimes it’s because of the anchors and frames of the way we do things.

So I was thinking. Opensource people solve generic problems. Is there a way to opensource the trials of generic drugs, to change the mechanics and dynamics of drug trials for generics? Is there a way to adopt the opensource principle of “privatising losses and socialising gains”, the exact opposite of what happened during the credit crunch?

I wonder.