Journal tags: dconstruct08



The Audio of the System of the World

Four months after the curtain went down on dConstruct 2008, the final episode of the podcast of the conference has just been published. It’s the audio recording of my talk The System Of The World.

I’m very happy indeed with how the talk turned out: dense and pretentious …but in a good way, I hope. It’s certainly my favourite from the presentations I have hitherto delivered.

Feel free to:

The whole thing is licenced under a Creative Commons attribution licence. You are free—nay, encouraged—to share, copy, distribute, remix and mash up any of those files as long as you include a little attribution lovin’.

If you’ve got a Huffduffer account, feel free to huffduff it.

The Invention of Air

I recently finished reading The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson; a thoroughly enjoyable book.

Steven was the keynote speaker at this year’s dConstruct where he ran through a lot of the themes covered in the book—cholera, data visualisation, bottom-up local knowledge—and tied them in with the work he’s doing at

The evening before the conference, the organisers and speakers gathered together for a meal at the excellent Pintxo People. Steven made it just in time, having arrived in Brighton after spending the day in Birmingham researching his next book. I prodded him for more information and he was happy to oblige…

The book is called The Invention of Air and it’s all about . But, Steven told me, this won’t be so much about his claim to fame as the discoverer of oxygen—a claim that could also be made by . Rather, The Invention of Air will highlight the fact that Priestley was the first person to make the connection between oxygen and plants. In a way, he could be seen as the father of the green movement.

The other forgotten factor of Priestley’s life is the profound impact he had on the Founding Fathers of the USA. Those idealists who drafted the constitution firmly believed in maintaining a strong connection between politics and science as well as a strong separation between politics and religion. Compare and contrast with the United States of today.

All in all, it sounds like it’s going to be another great mashup of historical storytelling and long zoom thinking. The Invention of Air is will be published in December, 02008.*


dConstruct is over for another year. I think everyone is in agreement that this was the best one yet. The parties were full of WIN, the venue was great and the speakers were on top form. Admittedly, the weather was crap but that’s somewhat beyond our control.

Some of the attendees have posted their thoughts and summaries of the event:

Although I spent most of the day fretting about closing the conference, I was able to pay enough attention to notice that all of the talks were excellent, from Steven Johnson’s long-zoom view of bottom-up local knowledge to the Dopplr guys completely owning the stage and the audience with their dynamic double act.

Then I delivered my talk.

As predicted, it divided opinion. But I was surprised by the amount of people who really, really liked it. I was expecting a 50/50 division but it seemed more like an 80/20 split between positive and negative reactions.

Some of my favourites include Dan Griffiths saying diabolical final session and James Tenniswood remarking My ass has gone to sleep. So bored by the last speaker at dconstruct. Later, Andy Hume betrayed his lack of faith when he said Jeremy very nearly wrecked the day with a talk that was all too close to slipping up it’s[sic] own arse for the first ten minutes. The universal reaction at the start, according to Twitter, was Where the hell is he going with this? But by the end I think I managed to get my point across, namely always listen to Donald Rumsfeld.

The audio from the talk will be available soon. In the meantime, you can read the hypertext or download the slides.

Personally, I had a blast delivering my presentation. All of my nervousness evaporated once I was on stage and for half an hour I tried to convey the sense of wonder I was trying to encapsulate when I said:

The spirit of the beehive and the ghost in the machine are one and the same.

To those who didn’t like my pretentious wank …ah well, that’s understandable and you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

To those who took the time to tell me that you liked The System of the World, thank you very much indeed.


It’s D-Day in Brighton. In just a few more hours, dConstruct will commence at the Brighton Dome. Twitter is all a-twitter as the geek invasion reaches critical mass.

It’s wonderful having so many friends descend on Brighton in one go. It seems like half of the UK geek scene and a goodly portion of San Francisco are already here. As you can imagine, things have been pretty busy at Clearleft Towers. We just successfully wrapped up two days of workshops and now it’s time for the main event.

I’m feeling a distinct mix of nervousness and excitement. I think the line-up looks pretty awesome (it’s basically our dream conference come to life) but that last name on the bill has got me worried. I’m supposed to close the show. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks fretting and freaking out but, bit by bit, my talk has come together. I have a feeling that some people will really like it but others will definitely hate it.

This won’t be my usual technology-focused kind of talk. There will be no word of Ajax, markup or microformats. Instead, I’m going to try to boil down years of studying into less than 45 minutes. If I can just convey some of the excitement that I feel about this stuff, I’ll be happy.

In the meantime, I hope I can get some sleep before the big day kicks off. It feels like the night before Christmas …but a Christmas that involves a paralysing public appearance in front of 800 of my peers.

Geek out and about

Cast your gaze upon this video footage of a talk entitled Science Fiction as a Literary Genre by Neal Stephenson. Alas, there is no transcript of the talk but there are chapter markers. If you’re pushed for time, skip ahead to the part marked vegging out and geeking out. There, Stephenson makes an important distinction between the two; a distinction that was missed in Clay Shirky’s otherwise excellent speech Gin, Television, and Social Surplus.

Shirky distils his observations of passive and interactive activities into a general principle:

It’s better to do something than to do nothing.

But Stephenson makes the case that both activities have their place. Sometimes switching off your brain and wallowing in low-brow entertainment can be refreshing, even cathartic.

That said, while I agree that vegging out is not something to be dismissed, geeking out is clearly the more important of the two ends of the activity spectrum. In a commencement speech to Caltech students, Radiolab’s stresses the importance of scientists geeking out to non-scientists to battle the forces of ignorance. Tell me a story, he implores.

For us workers on the Web we have plenty of opportunities to geek out in virtual environments like mailing lists, Twitter, IRC and instant messaging but there’s still nothing to beat the enjoyment of geeking out face to face. I feel very fortunate to live in Brighton where there is ample opportunity for in-the-flesh geek gatherings. The town has a strong whiff of what Kevin Kelly calls scenius.

But for pure geekout overload, nothing beats a gathering of the tribes. That means BarCamps and conferences.

There are some geek gatherings in the offing that I’m particularly looking forward to. In just under a fortnight, I’ll be heading out to San Francisco for An Event Apart. This will be my second AEA—my first was in Chicago—so I guess I must have done something right. If this one is even half as good as my first experience, it will be wonderful.

By the way, if you’re thinking about heading along to the conference, tickets are still available. If you decide to register, use the code AEAKEITH to get fifty bucks off.

Then, just a couple of weeks after An Event Apart San Francisco, Brighton will be hosting the annual geekgasm that is dConstruct (followed immediately by BarCamp Brighton on the Saturday and Sunday). There are still a few tickets available for dConstruct but they’re going pretty fast.

I’m all set for An Event Apart but I still haven’t prepared my talk for dConstruct. I’m starting to feel the pressure. I’ve made a start of trying to get my thoughts out of my head and onto post-it notes as a first step but that has thrown the magnitude of my task into sharp relief. There’s so much material I want to cover and I want to do it justice. If I succeed, I think I can deliver an entertaining 45 minutes of geeking out. If.

I really should get on with preparing that talk. Maybe I’ll veg out with some mindless entertainment first.


The day before the mass exodus to Copenhagen was an exciting one at the Clearleft HQ. Tickets went on sale for dConstruct 2008.

Sales were going at their usual quick pace until five eighths of Clearleft were safely ensconced in Denmark. At that point, Murphy’s Law struck with a vengeance. The server at Joyent, where both Clearleft and dConstruct are hosted, decided to experience—to use the modern parlance—epic fail.

This was no minor outage. Our sites were down for days while we frantically moved our cyberworldly goods to a different host and waited for DNS changes to propagate. Joyent did finally managed to get our sites back up but we were faced with the unwanted time travel experience of losing five weeks of changes: that’s how infrequent their backups had been. Fortunately we had a somewhat more vigorous backup routine in our office so we were able to get things back to their pre-fail state.

So if you were trying to get hold of a dConstruct ticket but found your quest frustrated, I apologise. If you weren’t trying to get hold of a dConstruct ticket …are you crazy!? Don’t you realise that for a measly £125 (including VAT) you can attend the kickassingest conference there is?

Just look at that line-up: local games geek Aleks Krotoski; newly-published author Joshua Porter, designer-extraordinaire Daniel Burka, the microformats man himself, Tantek Çelik. Last year we had one brilliant Matt, this year we have two: the Dopplr duo of Jones and Biddulph. But most exciting of all, the event will be keynoted by Steven Johnson, author of Emergence, Everything Bad Is Good For You and most recently, The Ghost Map.

So what are you waiting for? Register now!

Oh. Wait. I think I’ve just figured out why you might not have yet grabbed a ticket. Perhaps you’ve noticed the little glitch in the line-up.

‘Tis true, I’m afraid. If you fork over one hundred and twenty five of your hard-earned squid, you’ll have to suffer through one of my rambling pretentious flights of fancy (unless you duck out early).

I have no idea what my name is doing on such an illustrious roll call but I’m going to do my utmost to live up to the honour. That means that, as September 5th approaches, I will be shitting bricks with ever-greater frequency. Why not come along to dConstuct 2008 at the Brighton Dome and watch me make me a complete idiot of myself?