What You Can Get Away With » Life

2006, for me, will always be all about the walking. After my brother died, I decided it was time to do something different to mark his memory and raise money for charity – the Brain Research Trust – so I decided it was time to follow a long-held ambition and walk from John O’Groats to Land’s End.

Obviously, that consumed a lot of the blog for the year, but other things happened too…

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If you look in this site’s archives for 2005, you’d think that I completely gave up blogging, save for writing review of Doctor Who episodes. This is because of the problems with my old hosting company that I mentioned at the end of the 2004 company, which led to me losing most of my posts from the end of 2004 to early 2006.

Luckily, the Wayback Machine was making regular crawls of my site, so most of the posts from that time have been retained for posterity in some form or other.

There’s always going to be one abiding memory of my life from 2005, as it’s the year my brother died, but I didn’t know that was coming as the year started out.

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2004 was the last year of my blog being on Blogger. I’d talked about moving it to Movable Type – and you can find out how long someone’s been blogging by asking if they remember Movable Type – during 2003, but found that didn’t work on my hosting company, but eventually at the end of the year decided it was time to try this new WordPress service they were offering. As for the blog itself, it just carried on as it had done during 2003.

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I never made any great plans for this blog when I started it. Its origin stems from me spending three months travelling around the US in 2002, and then – in those days before I knew of sites like Flickr and its descendants – deciding to get myself a website to show off some of the photographs I took on that trip. While I was sorting out all the photos, I decided that my website should also have one of those blog things, and discovered that I could achieve all that through Blogger. So, I did.

I’m not setting out with any grand plans to change the world, or become the internet’s most respected authority on any subject. It’s just going to be pure unadulterated me, which means it’ll jump around from subject to subject without any warning, will contain the very occasional deep insight into life hidden among thousands of words of meaningless rambling and the occasional rant about something that happens to be annoying me at the time. Plus, of course, there’ll be links to various things I discover on the web, to justify calling it a blog, but they’ll probably all be things that everyone else found days, months or years ago. Whatever I can get away with posting here, really.

As mission statements go, I think I’ve lived up to that over the past ten years, haven’t I?

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I’ve just realised I’ve made a mistake in working out when my 10th blogging anniversary is. Because I looked at a file name rather than the dates on the post themselves, I had it down as being on the 26th, when it’s actually on the 30th. It kind of fits for the way I’ve run this blog for the last ten years that I get that wrong, but all it means is that the retrospective posts will start tomorrow, but they’ll only appear on Monday to Friday, as leaving the weekends blank will give me the four days gap I need to make things match up.

So if the Eleven Day Empire are looking for somewhere to go on holiday, I’ve got four days free for them.

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Countdown to ten

As you may have noticed, I’ve been unearthing a lot of old links and posts recently. This is because my blog’s approaching its tenth anniversary on January 26th, and I wanted to go mark it and remember a lot of the stuff I’ve done.

So, I’ve been reading through all my old entries and gathering the best, funniest and interesting ones into a series of posts, one for each year I’ve been blogging. This navel-gazing may only be of interest to me, but it’s been an interesting exercise to carry out, as I’ve got to see how much has changed and how much has stayed the same over the last ten years. What was important to me ten years ago may not be now, and it’s interesting to see the first time I mention things that turn out to be important later on.

So, from tomorrow, there’ll be a post every morning looking back at a year. I hope someone out there finds them interesting, but if not, normal blogging service will be resumed soon.

EDIT: And because I’m an idiot, I got the date of the anniversary wrong. It’s actually on the 30th. Please pretend to be surprised.

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I spent yesterday in London at the first ever Councillor Camp. This wasn’t a group of local government people hanging around in tents and/or pretending to be Kenneth Williams, but a version of BarCamp especially for councillors who wanted to look at ways we could use social media to better carry out our roles. It was organised by the LGIU and Futuregov, and we were very lucky to be hosted by Facebook, who gave us the run of their London training and meeting room, complete with Doctor Who-themed room names.

Unlike most local government events that I get invited to, this was a free event, and rather than having a rigid schedule, it was run as an ‘unconference‘ where most of the sessions and what they covered were determined by the participants, not by some schedule determined in advance. Another key feature of the day was that we were all encouraged to keep electronic devices on throughout the day and so as well as what was happening at the event itself, there was lots of discussion on the #cllrcamp hashtag on Twitter.

The day started with a number of different speakers offering a variety of perspectives on the use of social media in local politics. Again, this differed from normal conferences in that they were only allowed five minutes each to speak, and thus none of the presentations turned into death by PowerPoint. (“Conducting a PowerPoint presentation is a lot like smoking a cigar. Only the person doing it likes it. The people around him want to hit him with a chair.”) This meant they had to boil things down to a few key points, which helped to set the tone for the day, rather than telling everyone what to think. Some key points I picked up from those speeches:

  • Brighton and Hove Council created their own Twitter hashtag – #bhbudget – to promote online discussion of their budget, and councillors were active participants in the online debate, which did feed concrete proposals into the budget
  • Denmark’s tax authorities use their online presence to post details and pictures of what people’s taxes are used for
  • “Be yourself – everyone else is taken.” “Your residents are human, so be human.” Politicians need to be on social media as themselves, not constructing a separate online personality.
  • After those brief talks, we were into the main meat of the day, with people filling out a huge number of post-it that were then collated together into a grid of different sessions, where we could talk about what we wanted to. These discussion sessions were, for me, more useful than breakout sessions at other events. Again, there was no sitting round watching one person PowerPoint us to death, and the fact that people had come to a session because they wanted to be there and had chosen the topic meant people were much more willing to participate.

    (And in itself, letting people define the terms of their engagement and interaction, not having it rigidly imposed from on high is something local government could and should learn to do)

    I could go on for ages, but some of the thoughts I’ve had from Councillor Camp are likely going to generate posts in themselves over the weeks to come, but here are some of the key points for me:

  • Engaging in social media means giving up some control – councils and councillors can create and start discussions, but can’t determine where it goes after that.
  • There has to be more work done to get more people involved and online, so the discussion isn’t just amongst the most savvy.
  • Any social media strategy has to be capable of evolving to recognise the growth of new networks and platforms.
  • A new generation is coming through who see being online and involved in social media as entirely natural and integral to their lives, not an added extra (see this quote fromDouglas Adams). That councillors are generally much older than the population they represent could create issues here.
  • The effectiveness of your social media presence is linked to authenticity – people expect you to be yourself and respond as such, not a programmed drone.
  • Interactivity is expected, not an added-extra. People will expect to interact with the social media presence of councils and councillors and get a meaningful response.
  • There’s more to come – and some of it might link with the thoughts I’ve had after reading The Political Brain this week – but overall Councillor Camp was a great experience, and I’d recommend any follow up and repeat events to other councillors, especially those who aren’t as engaged online and want to discover how to go further. One idea suggested was the potential for regional events, to get more people involved in a more convenient location – anyone fancy a Councillor Camp East?

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    Discussing the Cabinet’s Jubilee gift to the Queen:

    Asked whether she might have enough table mats already before today’s gift, Mr Pickles said: “One can never have too many table mats.”

    Further comment is superfluous.

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    I’ve recently finished reading Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking which I found interesting, though it suffered a little from trying to cover a lot of territory. There were many times when it felt like she’d just begun to explore an area and then turned away to head on to the next topic and the book felt somewhat uneasily balanced between being pop science, sociology, psychology and self-help, attempting to cover lots of bases without going into depth on any one of them.

    However, reading the book did chime with me a number of levels, not least because it connected with some of the writing and thinking I’ve done about politics recently. One of Cain’s key points is that Western culture is in thrall to what she terms the ‘Extrovert Ideal’, where it’s seen as important to have a big and outgoing personality and it’s important to be at the heart of the group and drawing attention to yourself. There’s some fascinating sequences in the book where she visits places like Harvard Business School and sees how this ‘Culture of Personality’ is stressed as the only way to be a success and a leader – despite there being plenty of evidence that companies and organisations led by people with an introverted style have a tendency to be more successful.

    It struck me that this same culture is part of our politics. A couple of years ago, I went on one of the LGID’s Leadership Academy programmes for councillors, part of which involved doing a Myers-Briggs test. I’m sure it won’t surprise many of you to know that the majority of people there were ranked as Extroverts by Myers-Briggs, with Introverts like me a small number. That, I believe, is the usual balance for those courses – from my experience of meeting councillors, I would expect extroverts to dominate, and I suspect the same is true at any level of elected politician.

    This shouldn’t surprise us as the current image of a successful politician is someone who’s a fluent public speaker, full of hail-fellow-well-met good heartedness and the ability to ‘connect’ with the ‘ordinary voter’. Charisma and projecting yourself is important, and policy? Well, that’s something the wonks can sort out in the backroom, what’s important is that you get out there and campaign.

    I wrote a few months back about how we spend too much time treating politics as a game (see this post as well) and I was reminded of it by a passage in Quiet. Talking about the results of a study in which extroverts and introverts played either a competitive or co-operative game, Cain points out that (on p231 of the hardback edition):

    Introverts like people they meet in friendly contexts, extroverts prefer those they compete with.

    That, to me, explains a lot. I’ve written many times here and on Twitter about how disheartening I find watching Parliament, Question Time or other political coverage most of the time. Watching politics turn into a contest of who can shout the loudest or get the most people to bray along in agreement with me doesn’t appeal to me at all, and I often find it bewildering that people can be hurling abuse at each other one moment, then being all friendly soon after. But then, if most politicians are extroverts, then this is entirely natural as it’s all just part of the game to them. Is it the case that if politics – or at least, the public face of it – is dominated by extroverts, then it’s going to naturally be this way?

    Another political thought that reading Quiet sparked in me was whether the extrovert/introvert dichotomy is also reflected in whether people are interested in campaigning or policy. Stereotype extroverts love the idea of getting out there, knocking on doors, glad-handing strangers in shopping centres or arguing at hustings, while the stereotypical introvert would much rather be with a smaller group of people discussing ideas in depth to come to a solution. Is it the Extrovert Ideal that’s pushing us into a narrative whereby everything is seen through the prism of campaigning – who’s up and who’s down in the polls, how many doors have you knocked on today and how many leaflets have you delivered? – rather than what we might actually do with power? And when we do discuss policy, are we best served by having those discussions in big adversarial conference debates – often characterised by the leadership winning or losing votes – rather than something quieter and more discursive?

    Finally, is there potential to change this? Or more fundamentally, is there a desire to change or are people happy with the system the way it is?

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    The Radio Times have discovered some shocking news about the Royal Family. In the Christmas issue during the interview with Miranda Hart, they casually drop this bombshell:
    Text from Radio Times, including line 'where Clare Balding was head girl (and later, Kate Middleton)'
    Yes, unbeknownst to all of us, Clare Balding’s career was even more remarkable than we imagined. On top of all her other work, she also manages to be Kate Middleton. Who knew?

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