a hitherto unknown segment of existence


Tomato Chili Jam

Tomato Chili Jam(This is another old recipe that was posted on this site before I moved everything to Tumblr and didn’t transfer old posts over. Now new and improved with more lessons I’ve learned over the years)

This recipe really is a favourite old standby, the only condiment I always have in my fridge, and the recipe I most frequently pass on to friends (usually after rifling extensively through age-old email archives - another excellent reason for sharing it on the web.) It’s based loosely on a recipe that Simon posted to london.food quite a few years back, but has been through several cycles of, uh, “maturation” (mostly simplification) since then. I often cook a huge batch of this somewhere around Thanksgiving or Christmas - it makes a great gift, and is easy to scale up or down as required.

The Boring Bits

  • Makes 2 medium jam jars’ worth
  • Preparation time: 30-40 minutes
  • Cooking time: approx. 1 1/2 hours


  • 2 1/4lbs (1kg) ripe tomatoes
  • Fresh chili peppers (see below for details)
  • 8 cloves of garlic
  • 1lb 5oz (600g) Demerera or Turbinado (brown) Sugar
  • 4 tbsp (60ml) Nam Pla (Thai fish sauce), Worcester Sauce or Soy Sauce
  • 1 cup (235ml) Red Wine Vinegar

You can make quite different jams with different types of chili. For a pretty hot jam (the type I usually make), stick in 4 habaneros, or 4 Scotch Bonnet peppers. You can make a slightly milder jam by using 6-8 standard red chili peppers, or 6-8 jalapenos.

Throwing it all together

First, blanch the tomatoes (bring a pan of water to the boil, remove from heat and place the tomatoes in the water for a minute or two). Then peel them. Chop them into halves or quarters.

Peel the garlic cloves and place them, together with the tomatoes, the Nam Pla (or alternative) and chilis into a blender. Blend on a medium setting until the whole mixture resembles a strawberry milkshake. Yeah, really, it will. It’s a little off-putting, to be honest, but it won’t last for long…

Pour the vinegar and the “strawberry milkshake” mix into a large-ish heavy-bottomed saucepan, and then pour in the sugar - just dump it in; there’s no need to do it in increments.

Bring the whole thing to a boil over a high-ish heat, stirring constantly to completely dissolve the sugar.

Once it comes to the boil, turn the heat to low and leave the jam to simmer. There’s no need to cover the pan (and doing so will likely increase cooking time.) From now on, stir every 10 minutes or so to keep the mixture from sticking to the sides of the pan.

You need to leave the pan at a simmer until the mixture starts to gain a jam-like consistency. This can be a little difficult to gauge on your first outing, since the jam will be runnier at cooking temperature than at room temperature. The best method I’ve found was passed on to me by my friend Tamsin, and involves placing a small plate in the freezer before starting cooking. You can then drop a small dollop of jam on the plate once in a while, and it will quickly cool, revealing its actual consistency.

Reaching the “jam stage” usually takes somewhere around an hour and a half, but it can vary up to half an hour either side, depending on the water content of the tomatoes. Scaling the recipe up will also increase the time somewhat, but not linearly, so keep an eye on it! The eventual amount of jam, similarly, will vary somewhat.

Once the jam is the correct consistency, can it in jars. The vinegar and tomatoes in this recipe mean that water-bath canning should be an acceptable means of safely preserving the jam. If you don’t know how to do that, there’s a good guide provided by Virginia Tech.

Some Jam Facts/Notes

This recipe should produce about 2 medium jam jars’ worth (I usually buy jars from Sur La Table or Rainbow). It seems to keep pretty well - I’ve had stores in the fridge for 6 months at a time without any noticeable harm (although it usually lasts a month, tops, before it’s all eaten!) When first cooked the jam tends to be fairly sweet and less spicy - the heat will build up slowly for a week or so after cooking. It’s fantastic served with cheeses (especially strong, hard cheese like good cheddar, and blue cheeses like Stilton), but also goes great with cold meats like ham. I’m told it works as a glaze for roasted/grilled meats, but haven’t got round to trying that yet. My favourite use for it is the use which first introduced me to the recipe: Take two slices of toast, melt Stilton over each one, and then spread a thin layer of the jam on top.

The World’s Best Nut Roast

(resurrected from a previous version of this site, by request…)

Okay, Okay, so the title is a little boastful, but whenever I cook it people fall in love with it and beg me for the recipe. So here it is; you can stop begging now.

The Boring Bits

  • Serves 3-4
  • Preparation time: 25-30 minutes
  • Cooking time: 40 minutes


  • 14 oz (400g) tofu, chopped into 1/2 centimetre cubes
  • 6 oz (170g) onion, finely chopped
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 1 tsp of finely-chopped dried hot chillis
  • 1 oz (28g) butter
  • 3 vegetable stock cubes
  • 1/2 cup (110ml) boiling water (for the stock cubes)
  • 4oz (110g) finely-chopped closed-cap mushrooms
  • 3 1/2 oz (100g) pine nuts
  • 9 oz (250g) cashew nuts
  • 3 oz (80g) walnuts, halved =or= 3oz (80g) chestnuts, halved
  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 2 tsp fresh basil (or 3 tsp dried)
  • salt and black pepper

Throwing it all together

It’s worth preparing the nuts and veg before you do anything else, because there’s quite a lot of them.

The garlic needs to be crushed - just place the unpeeled clove on a chopping board, place the blade of the knife flat on top of it, and press down reasonably hard. The skin should flake away as the clove crushes. Then just separate out the crushed chunks.

The cashew nuts need to be finely ground. This is possible in a blender if you stop once in a while to jumble up the remaining whole nuts, but a food processor is probably easier if you’ve got one. Your other option is a reasonable-sized pestle and mortar.

The other ingredients (tofu, onions, mushrooms, walnuts/chestnuts) should be prepared as described in the ingredients list.

Now make up your stock from the cubes (alternatively you can use fresh stock if you have it, of course). Add it to a large saucepan, and then add the onions, chilli and garlic. Bring it to the boil, and simmer for about 10 minutes. There should still be enough liquid to cover most of the onions at the end of simmering. Top the pan up if it runs low.

In a large bowl, combine the tofu, eggs, butter, basil, walnuts/chestnuts, pine and cashew nuts and mushrooms. They come together best if you stir them all in with a fork. Season with as much salt and pepper as you like

Once the stock and onion mixture are ready, fold it into the tofu and egg mixture, mixing thoroughly so that all the ingredients are evenly distributed.

(Note: it’s possible to put the mixture in a container and refrigerate overnight, if you want to prepare it ahead of time.)

Now, grease a loaf tin with some butter, and place the mixture in the tin. Frankly, it’ll look pretty unappetising at this point, but it’ll cook beautifully. Really. I promise.

Cook it for 40 minutes at 350F (180C). If you don’t have a fan oven then make sure it’s on the shelf nearest the heating element (yes, American ovens with the element down at the bottom, I’m looking at you…)

When you stick a knife or a skewer into the loaf it should come out clean, without any liquid mixture stuck to it. Leave it for another ten minutes or so if it doesn’t quite seem cooked at 40 minutes.

You can serve this with just about anything which would go with meat. Roast potatoes can be fantastic, or you can try something different. Last time I did this, I cooked it along with honey-mustard baby carrots and asparagus garnished with parmesan. On the other hand, the first time I ever cooked it was as part of a Christmas dinner (where the assembled meat-eaters proceeded to ignore the turkey I’d spent 5 hours over, and tuck into this instead, ingrates…) To give it a more christmassy feel that time, I used the Chestnuts in place of the Walnuts on the ingredients list.

However you serve it, the veggies in your life will love you for this. Just don’t lose the recipe; they might never forgive you…

Nov 2

Where's the chilli jam recipe gone?! :(

Oh, ha, wow - didn’t realize anyone still actually found and used that. I got to moving things around here a while ago, but never got to finishing up! I will dig it out and upload it sometime in the next 3-4 days!


These dark roads we endure,
Suddenly illuminated.
We stumbled and stuttered
And struck out for new shores.

XOXO, for me at least, was a strange mix of raw, emotional outpouring and rare, infectious positivity. And it’s not an experience that I’m finding easy to integrate back into everyday life.

It was a fuse — a fizzing, spitting, lively illumination. And I can feel the inevitable detonation approaching with each passing day. It takes effort to tend that spark, to ensure it doesn’t fizzle, stifled by the drizzle of everyday obligations. But its burn can’t be hastened. It’s a process with its own inexorable rules, as inevitable as any law of physics.

Misery loves company, and self-doubt stalks the creative impulse like a goddamn vampire. Whether you’re a filmmaker, textile artist, poet, youtube philosopher, baker, coder, journalist, hardware hacker or singer-songwriter; each small fragment of your soul that you pluck out, polish up and render tangible for the world takes pain and energy, and begs the question “is this enough?”

It never is. Over and over, this past weekend, we heard accomplished and astonishing people pour out their doubts; their astonishment at achieving success; their naked, shivering inferiority complexes.

And in a different context, that might sound depressing; might sound like criticism, but it’s not. We all feel it. Sometimes a group-hug is the best remedy.

If XOXO had one central, important point, it was this: you’re not alone; “Here’s to the crazy ones.”

And yet, there was a more powerful force present in Portland; that of inspiration. The constant affirmation that, in doggedly following the barest threads of creativity, it is possible to find an audience; a path; a world made better by your presence in it.

And in the social spaces around the conference, there was a constant whirl of ideas conversing and combining and colliding, a whirlwind of thought far surpassing the simultaneous creative/destructive force of anything as prosaic as a mere Sharknado; a veritable Shiva of cognitive effort.

XOXO is the only conference I’ve ever attended where parties held at 9pm were half-empty because large numbers of people had, self-confessedly, “gone to have a quick nap”. It’s as though hundreds of grown men and women reverted to early childhood for a moment, involuntarily retreating to their cribs to slumber while their neural pathways underwent fundamental readjustments.

And these early thoughts of mine are nothing but a surface barely scratched. Whine served with cheese as anaemic as the mildest Tillamook; affirmations triter than a Tony Robbins/”Chicken Soup For The Soul” mashup audiobook.

These words are, I feel, not enough, but they’re a start, and as long as I… no, wait; as long as we tend that sputtering fuse of inspiration, they will become more in time.

They will be just enough, I hope, to keep us singing, and coding, and cooking, and tinkering, and talking, and drawing, and philosophizing, and sculpting, and organizing, and writing, and fighting.

Not enough for us to magically, overnight, re-form the world into the better place we know it can be. But enough for us, kicking and screaming, to keep putting little dents in its surface until, at least, it is in better shape.

Not enough. But, perhaps, just sufficient. For now. Until next time.

That hill - A San Francisco Love Story

This is just one attempt at an antidote to all the Peter Shih “10 things I hate about San Francisco” nastiness that’s been floating about. Original idea prompted by Ariel Dovas over on twitter. Unfortunately, “i live here:SF" hasn’t seen a new post since January 2010, but if you live in SF, and you have reason to love it, maybe the best way to fight others’ cynicism is to articulate why. This is one of my many "whys". Share yours too, somewhere, maybe?


That hill. That fucking hill. I loved that hill, and I hated it too.

I loved the way it kept me elevated, a little above the flat expanse of the Mission to the southwest, and the Castro to the south. Loved the way that the fog would rush in over it at night, shooting in wisps across the sky above my tiny deck, rushing east to frolick in a Hayes Valley that, while maybe just about “coming”, wasn’t really “up” yet. Loved the way it positioned me, with the right wind-assist, to hear the echoes of both foghorns from the Pacific and train horns from Soma (train horns which are, still, to my English-born-and-raised ears, one of the most distinctly “American” sounds of all).

I loved that my morning commute (some years to Caltrain, some years to the FiDi) was always downhill. That I’d be awake within a block from a faceful of morning air and the nagging fear that my brakes might fail when I reached flat ground again.

Sometimes I loved the commute the opposite way - almost 200 feet of elevation in about four city blocks - an invigorating, exhausting, sweat-drenching effort which required an immediate shower on entering the door. But sometimes I hated it. Those long, drained-out, tired evenings when you just wanted to be home already, lumbering uphill, legs screaming, lungs screaming, cursing every inch of that goddamn sadistic hill.

There’s no “Wiggle” that will avoid that hill when you need to be at the top of it.

14th Street and Roosevelt. Presidentially-named, and a slightly odd location. Not quite the Haight yet, not quite the Castro any more; definitely not the Mission, although you can bet at least one grasping Real Estate Agent has labelled it that way in a Craigslist ad for a musty apartment.

It’s an area with a lot of labels that don’t quite stick - ethereal names like “Duboce Triangle” and “Buena Vista Heights”. You know most of the labels and the vague shapes they try to describe after a few years here (it’s a small city) but you don’t quite believe in them. “Nopa”. “Somisspo”.

I really hated that hill when I broke my ankle, smashing my tibia into little pieces; nine hours of surgery, total, to fix; almost five months on crutches. It was winter, and a wet one too. The impossibly-angled sidewalk of the hill was slick with half-rotted leaves from the trees; by February the never-street-cleaned kerbside actually had an inch of real, honest-to-god, spontaneously-formed mud in it. Trying to crutch up and down the hill was impossible, even worse than the tiny staircase up to what my girlfriend called our “Keebler Elf House” (right up in the roofspace; all angles and peaks).

So I moved in with a friend for a while, in a big concrete loft in Soma with room to tool about in a wheelchair, and an elevator to the street. And I felt a bit fish-out-of-water, cursing the hill for keeping me from my quirkly home.

But in its absence, I missed how solid the hill felt - all bedrock, a big mass of it; none of this landfill nonsense. I felt my first and strangest earthquake up on the hill. Heard it coming before it hit — it sounded like a herd of cattle stampeding up the street — and then just a mild but fairly prolonged shake, enough to spill a cup of tea on my desk while I panicked a tiny bit and tried to remember if I was supposed to stand in a doorway or dive under the desk. 

I left the hill three years ago to move elsewhere in the city, but I still miss it. Two or three times a year, whenever there’s a rare occasion to drive over to the West or North, I’ll usually make a little detour up 14th, just to say “hi”. Just to say “I remember you. How’s it going?”

That hill was my first home in San Francisco. From there, I could crane my neck to see the top of Sutro Tower (“Space Claw” to its friends, or at least to mine) poking through the fog; I could go careening down the hill, a half-scream in my throat, streaming out into the Mission or the Castro or downtown. I could stroll across to Magnolia and Amoeba in the Haight; keep going into Golden Gate Park to sip rudely-served tea in the Japanese tea garden or watch the De Young and the Academy of Sciences take shape and then blossom. It was the place from where I learned to love this city, not as bright or enormous or culturally well-equipped as a London or a New York, maybe, but all the more startling for how much vibrant life is packed into its tiny frame, if you’re willing to embrace it. 

That hill. That fucking hill. I loved that hill. Still do.

Apr 9

Obligatory Facetagram Post

Many too many words will be written about Facebook’s $1bn acquisition of Instagram today, but these are mine…


First up, hearty congratulations to the Instagram team. I’ve long held them as one of the most successful examples of a “minimum viable product” — there are many things missing from Instagram (easy-access archives, for one), but the core product they built was simple, compelling, and worked incredibly well for one goal - making mobile photography fun. That they did most of it with a team of six or less people is even more impressive, and they deserve their payday, enormous as it is. On which subject…

One Beelion Dollars!

Expect many words about how this confirms a tech bubble, how the valuation is overblown, etc etc. The fact is that, as much as anything, the value Facebook has placed on Instagram today is an indication of how seriously they’re determined to become the pre-eminent photo-sharing experience online.

Of course, having worked there for four and a half years, I’m inclined to see Flickr as their primary competition, but I can’t really identify a worthier contender. Photobucket has a lot of images, sure, but they’re little more than a dumping ground for fourm-posters. And the other Flickr-modeled contenders (Smugmug, 500px) are a drop in the bucket in terms of images and engaged users.

Flickr has also had a persistent weakness in the mobile area, one that still hasn’t been rectified. Owning Instagram gives Facebook an enormous leg-up in this area.

What will become of Instagram?

In his post on the acquisition, Mark Zuckerberg states:

…we’re committed to building and growing Instagram independently. Millions of people around the world love the Instagram app and the brand associated with it, and our goal is to help spread this app and brand to even more people.

Simultaneously, he admits

…it’s the first time we’ve ever acquired a product and company with so many users.

I am extremely sceptical that maintaining a separate brand is in Facebook’s corporate DNA. Everything they do and every cent they make is dependent on things tying back into their users’ timelines (nee walls). I suspect that this driving force will win out over a desire to maintain the separate brand — even at Yahoo, a company with far more experience of running separate web properties, maintaining the separate brand of Flickr was, for many years, a struggle.

I think it’s likely, once the dust settles (we may be talking a two or three year time-horizon), that one of two things will happen:

  1. The “Instagram” brand will persist, but the product will effectively be mothballed or “maintenance-moded” while the Instagram team is tasked with building a Facebook Mobile Photos platform/product.
  2. The current “separate brand” conviction will evaporate entirely, and Instagram will be subsumed into Facebook Photos.

What will become of Flickr?

As I already said, I see Flickr as Facebook’s primary competition in the photos space, and I suspect they do too. Flickr is going to be faced with a renewed aggressive competitive stance from Facebook.

I was deeply puzzled last week by some of the claims in Facebook’s patent counter-suit against Yahoo. A great deal of the claims were focussed on Flickr, and many of them were nonsensical given that the two products launched simultaneously, and many of Facebook’s patent filings are dated later. Claiming that Flickr’s photostream violates Facebook patents is pure bullshit by just about any measure. Here we start to dive into conspiracy theory territory, but Zuckerberg and Facebook are definitely capable of fighting dirty, and in the light of the Instagram acquisition the patent filing makes a little more sense to me.

I won’t be surprised if Facebook pushes hard for temporary injunctions against certain aspects of Flickr’s product, even if they believe internally that the eventual outcome will be invaidation of some of their patents based on prior art from Flickr itself. A success, even a fairly brief one, in this area, would throw Flickr into disarray, providing some useful “air cover” for Facebook’s integration of Instagram.

Nevertheless, Flickr still has a dedicated, capable team, and I hope they come out swinging. Flickr has always tried to do things “the right way”, and this is still their biggest strenth. If I had to trust my privacy with one of the two, I’d pick Flickr over Facebook every single time, and Facebook’s disregard for privacy in the face of profit may yet be their undoing.

Who’s next?

For my money, I’d say Foursquare’s nominal valuation kicked up a notch today. Zuckerberg appeared to be trying to damp down any valuation-froth off the back of this acquisition by stating “We don’t plan on doing many more of these, if any at all”, but that doesn’t entirely convince me.

Facebook is certainly interested in the location-checkin space — they have a product for it, but it’s languished somewhat, and I don’t know many people who use it much, if at all. The Instagram acquisition signals an interest in both photos and mobile, and Foursquare really are owning the mobile checkin space. As a user of Path, I’ve been impressed by the ease with which their photo-posting flow allows you to simultaneously tag a location, and it seems like a similar approach could be a natural fit for Facebook/Instagram.

"May you live in interesting times" goes the hackneyed old probably-not-actually-a-Chinese-curse. Whatever the origins of the phrase, the tech industry right now is definitely interesting.

Tools Not Toys

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with Valentine’s Day. Don’t get me wrong - I love planning something special for someone special - no problems there. But the over-saturated pink commercial goop that attaches itself to the first half of February is cloying to say the least and, to my mind, spoils the occasion a bit. I always have a small nagging doubt that my heartfelt gesture seem a little less heartfelt when performed against the backdrop of a thousand store windows screaming “buy shit for your ‘special someone’ or it’ll seem like you’re some kind of heartless emotional vampire! (only $59.99 to assuage the guilt!)”

Aanyway, all that is rather beside the point, except as a lead-in to the billboard that British department store Marks & Spencer put up in London’s Waterloo Station this year. Their self-congratulatory blog post provides all the relevant background that you need, and this brilliant piece by “Another Angry Woman” provides a requisite amount of disapproval.

Since someone else has done it better than I can, I’ll skip over questioning the basic premise - ogling semi-naked ladies on your phone in a very public place - and focus instead on this as a use of technology. It is, to say the least, disappointing.

"Augmented Reality" has been in the queue marked "things to be misunderstood and badly appropriated in the name of profit" for a while now - we really only needed to wait for QR codes to work their way through the rotten colon of the advertising industry, and it seems like 2012 might be "AR"s year. It’s a banner term - one of those unfortunate beasts (like "social media" in the 2000s) which can be used to cover so many different individual applications that, in and of itself, it comes to mean basically nothing.

The thing is, there are already some great examples of AR out there right now. The “Word Lens" app, for example, is utterly captivating and genuinely potentially useful - point it at a foreign-langauge sign you don’t understand and it will re-render it in your native tongue. Translated into my previously-mentioned fondness for seeing Star Trek technology made real, it’s a Universal Translator! Elsewhere, various mapping apps will overlay the output of your camera with “virtual signposts” to nearby points of interest. And on a different plane entirely, Dentsu/BERG’s “Suwappu" experiments from last year are charming and entertaining, building whole new AR worlds around you with the use of intelligent toys.

All of the above examples are technology in a meaningful sense - they provide a new experience which could not be achieved with any other tool you might have to hand. New methods, bringing new functionality to the world.

What M&S have done with their billboard, on the other hand, really isn’t AR in any useful way. Effectively they’re pulling up a video catalog on your phone if you point a particular app at a single billboard in London. The same could have been achieved with a piece of technology that’s been around for more than 20 years, a URL, and it would have been more inclusive, working on any web browser, rather than requiring a specific app be downloaded and directed at a specific, non-recreatable input.

What this is, then, is “technology for the sake of being something novel” - a toy, not a tool. Toys are not all bad; sometimes we can create new and meaningful tools by first playing. But in this instance I feel like the M&S billboard devalues the whole concept of AR, turning it into a barrier to content rather than an enabler. I’m sad to think that this (rather than some of the better examples above) might be a lot of people’s first introduction to the concept of AR, because it’s so limited that it lowers expectations for a new way of doing things that is potentially really exciting.

The challenge for those of us who work on providing new interactive experiences to people, then, is to make sure that the umbrella of “AR” comes to include a whole variety of possibilities in peoples’ minds — translators and toys, discoveries and connections. Not just ladies waving flowers about in their knickers.

Feb 7

Path, Facebook and the creepy side of the Privacy line

So, Path fucked up then. If you haven’t heard, it turns out they were hoovering all the email addresses out of your phone’s address book, and using them to notify you when new friends signed up for the service.

As Aaron so eloquently pointed out, the chief problem with this is

the part where the dual principles of “don’t surprise people” and “don’t be creepy” were violated in tandem

"Don’t be creepy" is one of the most important tenets you can adhere to when running an online community. One act of creepiness can often be forgiven as an honest human mistake, but a pattern of them can quickly destroy any faith that people might otherwise put in you.

This, actually, is my biggest worry for Path… a sense that they maybe have no idea what might or might not be creepy, and are therefore doomed to make similar mistakes in future.

The other obvious slightly-creepy “feature” in the app right now is the notifications, helpfully posted without your intervention, when you significantly change location. They consist of an airplane icon, the news that you “arrived in City”, together with the date and time. But people have legitimate reasons for not wanting everyone to know where they went — what if you’ve flown somewhere over a long weekend for a job interview, for example? It’s the kind of thing that seems “great, fun, adding depth to the product” on a whiteboard, but can be Seriously Creepy in real life.

A few folks I’ve spoken to today are worried that Path’s address book shenanigans herald a new “low water mark” in which such tactics will become accepted as the only way for an upstart social network to get ahead. Given Path’s quick about-face on the issue, the general backlash, and the anecdotal fact that of 50+ Path friends I added maybe 2 of them via notifications that probably arose from “creepygate”, I’m disinclined to ring the panic alarm right this second.

I do have a deeper worry for our industry though, rooted in Path’s history. Its CEO, Dave Morin, originally hailed from Facebook. Yes, the Facebook which has demonstrated more than its fair share of tone-deafness when it comes to privacy and creepiness… see Project Beacon (aka “Facebook runied Christmas" ) amongst other problems which have, according to the S-1, triggered past privacy investigations and some expectation of future ones.

Given public statements about “the age of privacy being over" and, more importantly, the company’s actions, it’s clear that Facebook, led by its CEO, has fostered a culture which really doesn’t care much about the sanctity of our data.

While I don’t believe that the Facebook IPO will quite create the oft-quoted “1000 millionaires” amongst its employee base when it IPOs, it’s possible there will be a few hundred of them, and some of them are likely to be eager to spread their wings and use a bit of their new-found financial freedom to start their own ventures. If Path is an indication of what happens when employees move on from a culture that doesn’t value privacy, there’s a definite possibility that we’ll see a raft of similarly privacy-deaf ventures blooming in the Valley in the next two to three years.

This will probably all come to naught. And ultimately as users, however tied to our friend-feeds we might be, we have the choice to say “no” to companies that leave us feeling violated. I also like to be an optimist where possible, so I hope Path clean up their act and, if they really don’t “get” this privacy thing, see fit to hire someone who does. I also hope that any future “Facebook baby” ventures follow suit. 

Time, as they say, will tell.

Feb 6

Twitter: a love story in two acts

I fell in love with twitter twice. In the intervening period things were rocky — I wasn’t sure if she was the social network for me. But recently that’s changed again.

The first time I fell in love with twitter was at South By Southwest in March 2007, and is important because it’s (partly) how I got to know Tammy, who is now my wife. The service was a very different beast back then — still very much tied to its SMS roots (the source of the 140 character limit), and most of the few thousand people who were on it (my account ID is in the high 4 digits) were still working out how to use it. I’d dabbled a bit in the months leading up to SXSW but it didn’t seem to have a lot of utility. The enduring dismissal that twitter is “people blathering about what they had for lunch” dates from this period.

But in Austin that March, twitter suddenly found a purpose amongst a core group of web nerds — it became the way we found each other. Sure, Dodgeball existed, but it was already being slowly dismembered by Google, and Foursquare wouldn’t rise from its ashes for another few years. But with twitter, SXSW attendees who knew each other started tweeting which bars and parties they’d gone to, and a spontaneous flocking network effect sprung up. This was all good for me, because I had just met Tammy through a mutual friend (let’s call him “Randy”, since that’s his name) at a party, and wanted to see more of her. Walking the knife-edge between polite interest and outright creepy stalking, I managed to “just happen” to be in the same place as her most nights of the conference, just by knowing where Randy was.

The rest, as they say, is history. It’s also (fittingly) thanks to twitter that I still have one of their first t-shirts which just bears the tagline “wearing my twitter shirt” — some of the Flickr crew were sitting in an underwhelming Dan Rather keynote when the twitter guys got delivery of them and tweeted about it, and we rushed to grab one for ourselves.

So I valued twitter for providing a small network of friends I could effortlessly share useful information with, but over the next few years that love waned as twitter got bigger and unwieldier. The slow accumulation of “follows” rendered my timeline a mess of too-fast-moving information and with no easy way to drop into personal conversations it began to feel a little overwhelming and crowded. For most of 2011 I hardly looked at twitter or tweeted at all.

But at the beginning of this year I decided to give it another whirl. I put some effort into limiting my follow-list to things and people I actually care about and took to the tweets again. One of the first things I noticed was that twitter’s small-but-important refinements to the product have made a world of difference. With the “connect” functionality and proper handling of replies they’ve achieved two things - first, the noise of others’ conversations has been much reduced, and secondly it’s far more possible to strike up limited conversations with a few people, inside the wider general-chatter. They’ve pulled off an impressive feat with this, bringing back the “small, intimate room” feel I loved about early twitter without sacrificing the mass-broadcast “whole world is tweeting” mode they grew into.

And this brings me to the second time I fell in love with twitter, last week. When Flickr’s entire six-person customer care team was laid off a week ago, twitter came to the fore again. It was a place where many of us who are part of Flickr’s alumni could offer commiserations and help to those affected. It was a place where those of us who’ve put years of blood, sweat, tears and love could share our anger, grief and disappointment. It was also a place where we could share the news with the wider world. Only a few days after it happened I already knew that there were interesting job opportunities being offered to all of my fantastic former co-workers from a diverse range of interesting companies.

Twitter helped us all connect, heal, and hopefully offer new beginnings to the victims of corporate idiocy.

The service has been through more than its fair share of growing pains on its way to huge success, for sure. But now they really seem to have found their stride and built something that simultaneously provides intimate conversation and wider broadcast (without the drudgery of affectations like G+ “Circles”). This is how you build something that lasts. I hope it really does.

Feb 3


“Let’s see how the competition goes…”

Just to beat a dead horse, after seeing the post noting Apple’s iPhone business now brings in more revenue than all of Microsoft’s businesses combined, Jason Hiner reminded me of Steve Ballmer’s classic 2007 video laughing off the iPhone announcement (above).

To be fair to Ballmer, he does say that selling a $500 fully-subsidized phone is insane, and Apple did end up dropping the price, which has fueled sales. Still, the business argument sounds like something RIM would (and did) make. How’s that working out for them now?

As for “I like our strategy, I like it a lot” — there’s simply no excuse. Windows Mobile was quickly exposed for the turd it was, and Windows Phone, while good, was far too late. But 2007 wasn’t all bad for Ballmer…

The thing that leaps out at me most rewatching this 5 years on is how odd it sounds every time Ballmer refers to a mobile device as a “machine”. It’s like an awkward hold-over from the desktop days when computers really were machines - big, heavy and full of bits that whirred and clanked about inside.

It’s damned hard to find full transcripts, but I’m pretty sure that Steve Jobs and Apple have never referred to the iPhone as a “machine” - it is a “product” or a “phone”. Maybe they were the first to fully let go of old metaphors and re-think things in terms of non-mechanical-seeming, beautiful “devices”.

Ballmer’s use of “machines” is such a throw-away verbal tic you’d miss it if you had ears that blinked. But there’s a lesson here, that sometimes the thought patterns that become so entrenched we don’t even notice them are the ones that can hold us back the most.