Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Searching for Birmingham's science-fiction soul rebels

How can Birmingham - a city so pathologically futurological that its motto is Forwards - feature so little in science-fiction?

I expect London to dominate literary geography - much like other genres - but other towns in this divided kingdom have had their SF-nal stories told. Charles Stross and Ken MacLeod have both set near-future novels in and around Edinburgh, Jeff Noon has given us a post-Singularity pyschedelic Manchester. Heck, Cardiff has Torchwood.

But if anyone's claimed Birmingham for speculative fiction at all it's been Tolkien, reflecting on his early years from the safety of his Oxfordian refuge. And his view of the city is decidely anti-futuristic.

Yet Birmingham - created practically ex nihilo for the industrial revolution - has been chasing the future since its inception. Look around you and see futures past - the Rotunda, the ziggurat of the old Central Library - alongside attempts to grasp the coming moment like the new Bullring and the Spirograph. Feverish attempts at civic rebranding - Eastside, Southside, this quarter, that quarter - are not signs of a city that is content to live in the moment.

However neurotic its official culture might be, Birmingham really is a crucible of change. One of our most diverse cities, still divesting itself of traditional industries, shaking off the old certainties of modernity and asking big questions. And it's dramatic. Whole areas of the city like Digbeth in simultaneous decay and rebirth. A cosy catastrophe and an ideas factory side by side. 

So, again: why has no-one written about this from an SF perspective? To paraphrase one of the city's more famous musical sons, I'm searching for Birmingham's science-fiction soul, and I can't find it anywhere. Where have you hidden it?

Update 9 February

Since writing this post, I've been directed to two spec-fic novels which do feature Birmingham substantially. Thanks to James Brogden and Stephen Theaker who both got in touch to suggest:

I'll look to see if I can lay my hands on these forthwith. I was hoping to be proven at least a little bit wrong and it'll be good to see the city as represented in these stories.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Could you get Barchester buzzing? Second test form goes volunteer-registation-tastic!

And here's form number two - the one for registering interest in local volunteering with your community group. As you may recall, I think this works best (only?) when a campaign has a number of structured entry activities, and I've used Friends of the Earth's The Bee Cause as an example on this form as to how it might work.

This took about about half an hour's thought on the train to Newcastle last week and then another half an hour to set-up using JotForms, although clearly those timings reduce the more familiar you get with the approach as well as with the software.

So, I have the same questions for you, more or less as for the e-newsletter form, namely: 
  • Are the questions right? Too many? Too few?
  • Is the language right?
  • Does it work ok for you on a mobile or tablet? 
  • What could we do to improve the presentation? It's probably best to look at this on the actual survey rather than the embedded version in my blog for this one 
  • Does the whole thing feel simple enough that your group would feel confident replicating it?

Getcha local campaign group news here! The first test form

Right, so here's the first test form for comment: sign-up for monthly e-news from Barchester Friends of the Earth here. It took me about 5 minutes to get the hang of JotForms and another 5 to create the form. So, not a time-consuming process.

I've successfully embedded it in this blog, but you could just hyperlink it too, which might be more practical for some set-ups. 

For example, I don't know if you could embed it in a Friends of the Earth local group site as this is still me playing in my private sandbox at the moment. If Facebook is your primary means of organisation, again, an embed code isn't going to help you very much.

You could also take your hyperlink and turn it into a short-code using bit.ly or similar - e.g. bit.ly/barchesterfoe for posters and other print publications.

Feedback please:
  • If you were to use this, would you need more information than just an e-mail address at this point? Bear in mind there's a trade-off between the amount of detail required / time it takes to complete a form and the likelihood of someone signing up.
  • Is the language right?
  • Does it work ok for you on a mobile or tablet? 
  • Could you see yourself taking online sign-ups on a stall or at an event using something like this?
  • What could we do to improve the presentation? It's probably best to look at this on the actual survey rather than the embedded version in my blog for this one.
  • Does the whole thing feel simple enough that your group would feel confident replicating it?
Oh, and please do give the survey a go with some made-up e-mail addresses if you like, so I can check the reporting facility too. :-)

Thanks again!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Grassroots campaign groups - the electronic sign-up form you need

OK – so if you were designing an electronic sign-up form for your local campaign group, what would you do?

I was listening to a talk by Rachel Collinson the other day at our staff away days about forms for fundraising and mass online action when it hit me – why don't many local volunteer groups do this?

Why electronic forms now?

Electronic forms have always been efficient at the administrative end of larger NGO operations, but the opportunity costs of doing so for small groups have now sunk through the floor.

We're now at a point where decreasing complexity coincides with increased opportunity. With Google Forms, for example, someone with no programming knowledge like me can design a simple form in 5 minutes which will send the answers straight to a spreadsheet on Google Drive.

And with computing increasingly mobile through smartphones, tablets and laptops, the potential to bring the quick and easy e-form to the people at events and through advertising is much greater than a decade ago.

I don't imagine a time any time soon when electronic sign-up forms will replace the paper version – we live in an age of incomplete wi-fi and varying degrees of comfort with technology. But we're now in a better position than before to employ 21st century recruitment and engagement tactics for 21st century grassroots activism.

The form you need and the form you want

Now, here's the part where I'd really welcome your thoughts. What do you make of this?

I think that the form that would be most helpful at the grassroots – the one you need - is a very simple one signing people up for local e-news like a regular e-mail newsletter. They could give you a name and an e-mail address and that would be it.

You've got the opportunity to turn these people into members, activists, financial supporters later through the news, but the key thing is that it's so simple you can complete it in 10 seconds. On a computer. On a phone. At a desk. On the go. Wherever, however.

The form you want (which you might be tempted to reach for before the first) is one where people can register their interest in volunteering with you. The classic version of this is the first Obama campaign election portal where people could go to the site and clearly express their interests – could they fundraise, could they deliver election material, would they canvass, would they phone bank? Bingo!

But …. to do that well your group needs to be running a campaign which has structured volunteering opportunities.

It's easier for election campaigns than others, but a good example from our own scene is The Bee Cause, where potential volunteers can do anything from simple actions like scattering wildflower seeds in their back garden to complex ones such as lobbying their MP.

This has the potential to be incredibly helpful to groups, I feel, but only under those conditions. Hence, my sense is that this is something to build to – don't implement it when you want it – implement it when you need it for a campaign that demands it.

In the meantime, get your sign-ups up and send them your news. You have something important to tell them, after all.


Saturday, January 18, 2014

Staffordshire Sunny Schools - flyer and social media

Publicity tools for the local community energy project I wrote about earlier this week - help them spread the word as they're looking for investment.

Flyer - see below
Next roadshow - 23rd Jan 7.30pm Gatehouse Theatre, Mountbatten Suite, Eastgate Street, Stafford ST16 2LT 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Playing your digital joker

If you're above a certain age and outside a certain demographic, chances are that your first recourse in a campaign or a project won't be to digital tools. Old instincts die hard, so why not hack your meeting with the digital joker.

Not this kind of joker...

Picture by Steve Collis 

But this joker

Getting outside your computer comfort zone

Maybe you see the Wonderland world of the web, of social media, and now apps (wot NGO hipsters is now calling digital) as a bolt on, an afterthought to the main campaign. Perhaps you suspect they could be really helpful – transformative even – but talking about them is waaaaaay out of your comfort zone.

Personally, I think the lower age limit is about 35-40. That's my generation – the people were finishing their education when the internet broke out of the science labs and came into the home. Like those older than us, our formative experiences are fundamentally pre-digital.

And consider this: in my experience the majority of people creating and coordinating campaigns at the grassroots are 35+. Heck, the majority of people in those groups are probably 35+

So, ask yourself where Twitter, Facebook, online petitions, Youtube and much more sit in your toolbox? Do you remember that they are there? Do you feel comfortable using them? Do you grasp their potential? Do you think that your fellows will bring it up as more than an afterthought?

Thoughts are like mountain streams – they follow the path of least resistance. If something's worked for you in the past, chances you'll be favourably disposed to again. And again. Even with the intention to do otherwise.

To disrupt your brainstorming of a campaign or a communications plan – to let the stream run in a new channel – you need to consciously disrupt the process in a positive way.

So why not Jokerise it?

Simply agree* with your fellow planners/activists/psych-hackers/whatevs that you'll place an ordinary playing card joker face down in the centre of the table, or pinned to a board or a flip-chart. And whenever you feel the conversation needs more or more creative thinking about online tools, turn it face up in the centre of the table.

Bringing up the digital elephant in the room might also lead to some difficult conversation about lack of knowledge, about the need to find out more or for training. It might involve turning to the younger people in your group (or the ones you're only one degree of separation from) for ideas and help – and that's no bad thing either.

If nothing else, it'll ensure you don't overlook something you might ordinarily be minded to miss.

*Agreement is important - using the joker ought to be like prepared piano, not loading the dice.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Available for training and talks

I thought it was good to put my availability for running training and offering talks in my spare time on an official footing.

The proposition: experienced NGO organiser, facilitator and trainer wants to help your community or campaign group find and share the skills and knowledge it needs to be marvellous. Sometimes with a side-order of geeky references.

What's in it for him? The rosy glow of helping you out? A kind of Hippocratic conviction? Frankly he's keen to keep in practice. Preferably travel expenses. :-)

What he trains in? All aspects of organising, community campaigning and team-building including but not limited to facilitation, public speaking, running a group, talking to the public, campaign planning, media skills, events, stunts and more...

How he trains? 
  • Short, sharp thought-provoking workshops and skill-shares.
  • Doesn't pretend to have all the answers. 
  • Wants to empower in a teach-someone-to-fish approach. 
  • Likelihood of geeky SF and music references: high.
Can he train online / remotely? Depends on what you want, but he's willing to give it a go. He knows what a Google Hangout is and can Skype, which is a start.

Does he do talks? Yep! Up-tempo and excitable ones. :-)

Where I can see some examples of your approach? Have a look at the open source activism page on this blog

Enquiries for training and talks? Post a comment below or contact me by e-mail.

PS - if someone in a Friends of the Earth local group is reading this, just a quick reminder to take requests through the official channels, e.g by e-mailing localgroups@foe.co.uk. This is me being extra-curricular!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Beating the cistern: Ron Burgundy in Virgin Trains toilets shocker

There's plenty to get angry about with trains - fare increases, overcrowding, London Midland's inability to find the right number of drivers to run their trains - but the straw that has broken this camel's back is Ron flipping Burgundy in Virgin Trains' toilets.

Yep. Go into a loo on some Euston services and you'll be welcomed by a recording of your favourite newsreader, jazz flautist and Renaissance man advising you not to flush velociraptors down the pan.

Random, much?

This smacks of desperation in plugging Anchorman 2. Never have I seen a film veer so wildly between very funny and complete tumbleweed, and this stunt falls very clearly on the tumbleweed side of the line.

Fundamentally though, it could be the funniest joke in the world and I'd still object to people trying to sell me things when I'm seeing a man about a dog. Posters I can ignore - but noise pollution of private space in the name of advertising is something else entirely. It's No Logo repeating itself as farce.

So, take me to the barricades of Armitage Shanks and Royal Doulton and defend our right to spend a penny without being sold something! 

Or at least write a letter of complaint to Virgin Trains.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Feels Like I'm Fixin' To Die, Captain: John Scalzi's Redshirts reviewed

Literary awards confer expectations, not just of quality but of content. If you think an award is for the best apple in the barrel, you're going to be surprised when the judges pick an orange. Even if it's a good orange.

I think this goes someway to explaining the mixed reception Redshirts has had as last year's Hugo winner. It's a slim, gently comic work with a big heart in a genre which has traditionally tended to prize density of thought, volume of book and overt seriousness of purpose. 

Outwardly, Redshirts is a Star Trek parody, which may also have triggered a certain snob response among fandom. It asks a question many (not  least Galaxy Quest) have asked before - just how it is that one ship manages to rack up such a high body count of its own crew and innocent bystanders without ever killing the superior officers responsible in the first place? While Scalzi wryly pokes fun at the plot holes and hand-waving science of cheap SF TV, that's not why his book exists in any necessary sense.

Redshirts is really both novel and meta genre commentary in the tradition of, say Northanger Abbey. The more profound question it poses, in its amiable, undidactic way, is why much bad science-fiction (and its kissing cousin, bad fantasy) considers the mass death of unnamed characters to be an essential part of the drama. 

Redshirts' target is the use of death as a cheap authorial trick to heighten the spectacle or raise the stakes, and the implicit devaluation of life that results. It's hard to say more about what happens next without invoking spoilers, so let's just say that things get more than a little meta - not to mention increasingly moving - and leave it there.

Almost gone before you know it,  Redshirts is a humane piece of work which grows in the reflection. It might not be a typical award winner, but science-fiction could do a lot worse.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The better mousetrap and the moral high-ground - ethical and evidential arguments in campaigning

Here's a poser for you - is  it better (read: more effective) to oppose a policy as being unethical or as being incompetent?

Oh hai, moral high ground

Ethical arguments depend on your audience accepting the terms of your position.

Underpinning opposition to the bedroom tax, the privatization of the Royal Mail or badger culling, say, are shared assumptions about human dignity, public services and animal rights which are commonplace among progressives. It's not that the evidence isn't there to back up these positions - quite the contrary in fact - but that the arguments expressed are generally value-driven, in the manner of self-evident truths. 

It can be tremendously powerful to tell your truths and find them affirmed.

But if your audience rejects those assumptions - advancing others - what does that do the force of your arguments? Will you be heard outside your social media echo chamber?

Is outrage enough?

A better mousetrap?

Or will you instead, more calculating, keep your values in the background hone in on the fact that a policy just plain isn't working? It doesn't matter if your target disagrees with you on the big questions -- the role of the market in the public sector and the futures of farming and housing provision - as long as you can agree on an 'objective', factual analysis of a specific situation. 

Unlikely bedfellows can line up behind a shared evidence-based position - just look at the breadth of the coalition which supported a 2030 decarbonisation target in the 2013 Energy Bill.

But arguing from competence alone does not make the heart-beat faster. It risks being privilege (technical knowledge) speaking to privilege in its own idiolect. It also assumes your audience are members of the reality-based community

And it does not disrupt the political narrative, illuminate and seek to resolve deeper problems, in the same way that values-based arguments do. Alone, the rhetoric of competence and incompetence risks bringing us to Deng Xiaoping's 'It doesn't matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice.' See the continued existence of the House of Lords as a case in point.

Dude, it's situational

Of course it is. And I'm presenting ideal types here: in practice our arguments combine evidence and ethics to varying degrees. I also haven't talked about how the language we choose might depend on the opportunities open to us and the power we wield.

But I think it's valuable in itself to recognise how we express ourselves as campaigners, the extent to which we tend towards one pole or the other, and the perks and pitfalls of both.

And speaking personally, I'd love to read more from the activist community that is a high quality synthesis of both. Recommendations in the comments section please. :-)