Tag Archives: Birmingham

Midland Writing

At the both junior schools and the senior school in my village, sports days were organised by competing ‘houses’, named after great Staffordshire people. I think I remember Walton, Wedgwood, Dalton, Spode, Minton, Garrick and at least once I was in Johnson. On Sunday I finally made the long-overdue pilgrimage to visit The Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum & Bookshop in Lichfield, having greatly enjoyed a Summer-time visit to Erasmus Darwin’s house, only a short walk away.

Johnson went to Lichfield Grammar School then Stourbridge before going to Oxford. he left after about a year, enraged at an anonymous gift of new shoes, the last straw in his attempt to cope with his relative poverty. After his marriage and a failed attempt to open a new school in Lichfield, which only attracted 3 pupils, he ran away to London with his pupil, the great actor David Garrick, who remained a life-long friend.

I’d also been to visit Johnson’s rented London home at 17 Gough Square in the City of London where he worked from 1748 to 1759, mostly on ‘A Dictionary of the English Language’. Johnson also spent some of his later years with Mr. Henry & Mrs Hester Thrale of Streatham who owned the Anchor Brewery, where Johnson also had an apartment and he remained in contact with Hester until she remarried after her husband’s death, when he cut off their friendship.

I tried writing with a quill pen which reminded me that my attempt to learn some basic calligraphy had lapsed. Johnson’s father Michael was a bookseller. I didn’t know that this also meant bookbinder. The books arrived as printed blocks to be bound on site. Johnson was first published in Birmingham by John Baskerville, now a resident of Warstone Lane Cemetery.

Since, I looked at therange.co.uk where I knew I had seen calligraphy dip pen sets. The ones I had remembered are by Manuscript, https://www.calligraphy.co.uk/. They come with a nib tin bearing the logo of D. Leonardt & Co. of Birmingham. They have now moved to Shropshire, along with Joseph Gillot, now part of William Mitchell Ltd. https://www.williammitchellcalligraphy.co.uk/ They are the only remaining English pen manufacturers. In 1850, Birmingham manufactured half of the world’s pens.

I also learned that I’ve been using the wrong kind of pen. Italic pens are not the route to good calligraphy.


My First Algorave


On Saturday night I went to ‘Algorave Birmingham’, curated  by Antonio Roberts at Vivid Projects. I said I might write ‘a review’ but I’m not going to, because I wouldn’t know how. This is ‘a reaction’ – a digital feedback loop, an emission from the event horizon (should have worn my ‘Big Bang’ T-Shirt – the noughties Brum band, not the nerd show.)

My background is information technology. My current work is writing. I use the word ‘work’ in the artistic sense: something I spend my time on but may never get paid for. Themes recur. Are science and art actually different things? Is maths real or a model? Is software any different to magic, existing only outside the physical realm and communicating via intermediary objects?

Q: How much can you strip away from music and it still exist as an idea: melody, scales, pitch?

I came to Algorave via my functional programming experiments. I’m trying to learn Clojure, a member of the Lisp family of languages but with added time-travel. It messes with whether time is a wave or a set of discrete steps that can be retraced. Not real time, obviously but the model of time our software deals with. Time travel outside of the magical realm would be crazy-talk.

Dance music is often first. Drum machines. I got really frustrated the first time I saw how hard it was to programme beats. Where was the programmatic interface? Sampling, pitch-shifting, the ‘sound’ being manipulated by code. Digits being manipulated by digits, like the higher order functions of functional programming. I wondered a few weeks ago if processors had got fast enough to generate live noises. They have. A Raspberry Pi has http://sonic-pI noti.net/http://sonic-pi.net/. From there I discovered Clojure has, via ‘Overtone’ on ‘SuperCollider’ http://sam.aaron.name/, which resonates with my theory of a super-massive idea colider to mash-up memes.

Algorave Birmingham presented live coders generating sound and visuals. At times I felt that the graphics were pulsing to the beats but I don’t know if that really happened. I saw two pixelated women on the screen typing on ‘real’ laptops and a live drummer on digital drums. Virtuality virtuosos. I had a chat about how to make a hit record and forgot the name of the Kaiser Chiefs but remembered Black Wire who were the first band with a drum machine that I actually liked, because it didn’t sound mechanical, then The Kills who insisted everything was analogue, but now I’m looping.

A: I enjoyed the pulsing white noise. Software can do things that aren’t possible in Reality.

Open Rights (in Birmingham)

Last night I went to this: https://wordpress.com/read/blog/id/94628536/ , the first meeting of the ‘Open Rights Group Birmingham’, to see what THAT is all about.

There was a table full of us, gathered from the worlds of computing, art and politics. Thinking about what happened, I’ve realised that although I’m interested in all three areas, I’ve never experienced them mashed-up before. We were in the cafe at Birmingham Open Media, after closing time, like radicals, ready to change the world.

Our mission from HQ, should we choose to accept it, was to consider what Brum could do to help ORG’s ‘Snooper’s Charter’ campaign: “We demand an end to indiscriminate retention, collection and analysis of everyone’s Internet communications, regardless of whether they are suspected of a crime. We want the police and intelligence agencies to have powers that are effective and genuinely protect our privacy and freedom of speech.”

What fascinated me most was the different intuitive responses of the three groups. The techies saw it as a problem to be fixed or provided with tools. Those in public services and the world of politics saw a policy decision to be campaigned on and influenced, using their knowledge of the tools of our broken democracy and those from the art world saw it as something to be responded to, to influence public opinion. That is a heady combination: identify a problem, motivate popular demand for change to generate political appetite, provide a technical solution. It also demonstrates that politicians are often the blockers rather than the enablers of societal change.

I’ve also watched a video on the societal imperatives driving the move of businesses from hierarchies to networks. Imagine that applied to democracy. Netwocracy?

Paths Through the Forest of Ideas

I wrote what hangs below on Facebook, before I saw the irony:

My current model of the creative world has everything as a multi-dimensional network of interconnected ideas, some of which may be ‘fictional’. Narrative is a path through the maze. Writers, teachers and consultants are all selling their services as guides to the pathways that can lead you to enclose a chosen ‘volume’ of ‘knowledge’. Or I’ve been sitting in a room on my own for too long.

It grows more difficult to gain funding for work that expands or enriches the network for the good of everyone and increasingly profitable to enclose information for profit. We appear to be approaching The Inclosure Act of the Information Revolution.

On Wednesday, I plan to attend the initial meeting of the Open Rights Group, Birmingham. See Meetup for details(!)

Birmingham and Midland

I have been rehearsing the arguments below for several weeks. I wanted to get my thoughts together in one place about why “Greater Birmingham” is such a bad idea.

The government that claims to represent us,  elected using a fatally wounded democratic system to what our Scottish cousins call “The Westminster Parliament” have made an offer to create a city state around Birmingham, similar to Greater London and Greater Manchester. While I would prefer devolution of power to the whole West Midlands region, I could support the proposal, if it were not for 2 huge flaws:

  1. The bribe being offered is dependent on the acceptance of a London-style mayor. As Birmingham has already rejected this proposal twice, I am becoming far more sympathetic to the SNP’s refusal to honour their promise to accept the desperately close vote of “NO” to independence. If Westminster cannot understand the concept of distributed democracy then why should we respect London?
  2. The proposed name: “Greater Birmingham”. This idea clearly comes from inside Birmingham and shows crass ignorance of the cultures of the surrounding area. Coventry and the Black Country have their own separate identities. A large part of these identities is that they are not Birmingham. This must be a  merger, not a takeover.

I was born in Walsall, in the Black Country but have lived most of my life just North of the proposed border. I consider myself a neutral, yet identify as a Midlander. I spent my teens in 70s Wolverhampton rock gigs and survived. I’ve occasionally strayed into the Black Country proper, though I struggle with the language. My wife and I both went to university in Birmingham when it was the ‘bit of a dump’ many Londoners still believe it to be but I’m enormously proud of the way it has changed since. I love the city. I’ve worked in Coventry twice, once in the motor industry.

Working title version 2 is “West Midlands Combined Authority”. Wow! There is a West Midands Region. There is a West MIdlands county. This is confusing enough. What made anyone think that a third border for the West Midlands might be a good idea? I thought everyone had agreed that the name “Birmingham” has better international recognition than “Midlands”. Is the threat of this aweful name another bribe to force us to comply?

We clearly need a better name. I looked around for inspiration. A certain Mr. Charles Dickens contributed his time towards funding the ‘Birmingham & Midland Institute’, in 1854 for “the Diffusion and Advancement of Science, Literature and Art amongst all Classes of Persons resident in Birmingham and the Midland Counties”.
‘Birmingham & Midland’. Catchy.

These days we tend to say “The Midlands” but right now “there can be only one” and you can see “Midland” carved in stone work from Birmingham & Midland’s Victorian age. See the B&MI in Margaret Street. As you leave New Street Station by the new exit look up to the sign of the old ‘Midland Hotel’. Remember that the soon to return HSBC bought Birmingham’s Midland Bank.

Imagine a map: Midland, in the middle of England with Birmingham in the middle of that; East Midlands to the right and more West Midlands (region) to the left. It makes sense.
Scotland, England (capital city London), Midland (capital city Birmingham.)

No-one in the areas outside Birmingham would want not to be Midlanders, whereas many don’t want to be thought of as Brummies. “I ay a bloody Brummie”, you’ll hear them shout, if you suggest they have a Birmingham accent. They don’t of course. If you can’t tell that then how could you possibly understand? Brummies, Cov kids and Yam Yams are like brothers: they fight but they’ll stick up for each other against a bully. You have to respect that.

A Gravitational Map of Cities

I recently made a light-hearted comment that Birmingham exerts a gravitational pull on its surrounding area. The same would be true to an even greater extent for London and that extends nationwide and beyond. This caused me to  remember reading a few months ago an economic observation that the average income of people in a city tends to increase with size because the number of paths for individuals to network and cooperate grows exponentially. This leads economists to extrapolate to a future in which most of the human population of Earth lives in densely populated mega-cities.

In contrast to this, for several years, I’ve been observing the gradual breakdown of hierarchy in companies, creative ‘industries’ and local politics (and yes, the star architecture of a city is a tree, drawn from above/below; a hierarchy. Hello, London outer-zone low-life.) Yet, the high-flying city worker’s dream is often to retire to a country cottage, away from the madness.

So why live in cities? The Internet has made it possible for us to belong to several distributed tribes, to “network” in a geography-free way, and yet… I’ve recently felt drawn by the culture of a place. I’ve joined Birmingham.io, a network of “hipsters, hackers & hustlers”, in and around Brum’s thriving ‘digital startup scene’. This netizen is feeling confused.

When I don’t know what I think, I draw pictures. When I don’t yet have an image in my head, I talk to people or get software to draw the picture for me. This time, I didn’t even know what software to use. I asked my local(ish) community if anyone knew of software that drew gravitational maps. I wasn’t sure what the question meant at the time, either: https://talk.birmingham.io/t/a-gravitational-map-of-uk-cities/1201

I think my mental image is becoming a bit clearer now: I imagine a map of the UK showing a circle for each of the n largest cities, proportional to it’s size (population / area, since the definition of city limits are fairly arbitrary. Cities will need to be broken down further, perhaps into post-codes, electoral wards or boroughs. I think employment opportunities, incomes and living costs will become relevant at a later stage, to fully explain population movement but let’s keep the model as simple as possible, for now. Represent these circles by a number, analogous to the mass of a planet or star then ‘do physics’. Clearly these celestial bodies are unusual because they have fixed relative positions but their populations feel the pull of other cities, just as the oceans of Earth experience the forces which lead to tidal movements.

How hard can it be to turn this into a software model? Maybe I’ve found an itch I can  scratch with code <cleans cobwebs off skillz>.

20 Years Since Historic Brum Linux Event – ‘A storm was coming’

I did some Twitts this morning:

“The history of Welsh computing: Inmos Transputer, Raspberry Pi. Impressive. Whatever happened to parallel processing? Or druids.”

[At this point I did a search to check ‘David’ Cox’s name]

“…I should probably have included Alan Cox’s networking contributions to the Linux kernel in between those two.”

“… At least I now know what happened to one of the druids.”

[When I saw the photos, I thought 2 of them were a young RMS ]

“…I just learned that Alan Cox comes from Solihull, which may explain why I think I may have met him at the first Linux event I ever attended”

[Then I went back to the search Window and found this link]

“…Isn’t The Internet good? This meeting!

[18th September but which year: 1994? The first release of the kernel was in 1991.
but http://www.ukuug.org/about/timeline/
shows MH was UKUUG newsletter editor 1995-6.
Are we approaching 20 years of Linux (or “Free Unix”) in Birmingham?]

Yes kids, my first Linux distro was Lasermoon. Martin Houston also wrote the magazine article that caused me to be there and started SBLUG.”

Martin Houston was a quiet, unassuming programmer who first brought Linux to the attention of me and probably most people in Britain who’d heard of it at that point. He was “the organiser” of the UK  Unix User Group Linux SIG. I think his article in one of the DEC magazines was the first time I ever saw Linux mentioned and this meeting was at DEC’s office on the Birmingham Business Park, organised by the DEC User Society, DECUS. They must have been trying hard to recover from Ken Olsen’s accusation that Unix was snake-oil.

Soon afterwards I went to either the first or second meeting of the South Birmingham Linux User Group. Martin understood the importance of marketing and coined the phrase “A storm is coming and its name is Linux” which,  for 1994, showed remarkable foresight and possibly misplaced confidence. A few years later, Martin turned up at Powergen in Coventry as a contract programmer but I haven’t heard of him since.

I remember that the demonstration of a Linux installation on a “portable PC” (they didn’t fit on your lap then) by Colin Bruce of Coventry University involved floppy disks and a parallel port network adapter (‘portables’ didn’t have a network connection. What do you think this was, The Future?)

And yes, Linux kernel hacker Alan Cox, famously Welsh, is a Brummie.

It’s all about The Community

Was it Margaret Thatcher who said “There’s no such thing as community”? No, of course it wasn’t. Neither was it the members of Birmingham’s (the Midlands, really) Lunar SOCIETY, who were fans of collaborating on big ideas, by the light of the silvery moon.

Birmingham was never a notable centre of organised labour or industrial unrest either, because of it’s lack of large industrial concerns being mean to people. It was more a cluster of craft workshops and small businesses, working co-operatively as though they were bigger; resulting in probably the only city centre made up of an ever-increasing number of Quarters, in addition to all its sides.

In about 2000, I started to burrow into Brum’s underground music and creative scenes,  both largely hidden, like some conceptual artisic ice-berg of a thing, and I was always impressed by the support given to others who appeared to be direct competitors. What these people intuitively knew, was that they were not fighting each other, but the apathy of their collective audience. Promoting together they had a broader product offering and were stronger.

A couple of years ago, as I became increasingly dissatisfied with my old corporate job,  I realised that the same might be true of The Tech Scene and I should start digging again. I’ve taken a few punts at The Silicon Canal meetings and last week I heard about and joined talk.planet.io, Brum DIGITAL tech start-up’s virtual talking-shop and this blog was subsequently invited aboard their Planet.

So, see all Brum tech scene blogs at: http://planet.birmingham.io/

We have Data, Information and Knowledge Quarters to build (I wonder if anyone invited ‘The Gadget Show’?)

The Birmingham Coracle, or Pentacle

I think everyone knows by now that Birmingham has more than it’s fair share of canals. It extends out into much of the Midlands, including my home, around the Cannock Chase coalfields. I believe the canals are an under-utilised leisure and commuting resource.

For a while I’ve been thinking about a water-born version of the ‘fixie’ bike. Simple, fast, pure, water-transport for the young professional to get from an apartment on the outskirts to a job at a ‘digital’ agency with shower facilities. I’m still working on that.

For now, what is the cheap, portable, car-bootable version of my Daewoo folding bike, for the Brum waterside generation? A chat on the twitters with a couple of like-minded nutters concluded that it was the coracle. Now I’ve got nothing against the Welsh (or even people from Ironbridge) but has anyone really tried to improve the coracle in the last thousand years?
[Yes and they live just down the road from me but they made a wooden coracle out of glass-fibre and it costs about £300.]

Last night I decided to have a go. Using Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome ideas and my magnetic dome toys, I made a pentagonal coracle; a pentacle if you will. It doesn’t float but I think we can get past that. Maybe fewer ball-bearings?

This morning I scribbled on the photo to make it round. I imagine it being made by wrapping magic wands around a pentagonal jig of the floor shape. I hope that the seat could be made of a lightweight mesh hung from the top pentagon of the frame but traditional coracle seats are supported on posts on the floor, and maybe there’s a reason for that. I’m not sure about the gunwales (the top bit.) A draw string; a solid, slotted circle; caps sewn to the edges of a stretchy waterproof fabric?

In case I don’t do anything with this idea for the next 5 years, I thought I’d share it. You would need a canal licence, available through the British Canoe Union to float your boat on most canal navigations in the UK but would get considerable discount for not using the locks. Hepatitis and Weil’s disease aren’t particularly pleasant but the rats wouldn’t go in the canals if it wasn’t fun, amIright? There are lots of instructions on the interwebs of how to make a conventional coracle, should you hate my vision for the future of modern transport. Anything else I write about this ‘think’ will be in my book, ‘Finds and Thinks’ which would be a small yet unwise investment in the future of green technology and other insanity.


If it sinks, blame witchcraft, not me. <Invokes Maker spell>