One for PufflesWatchers

…or rather one for watchers of Puffles’ Bestest Buddy – me.

Help!

Basically I’ve come to a juddering halt in the run-up to Christmas in terms of doing useful stuff using digital and social media. The big problem at the moment is that I don’t have that many people to bounce off face-to-face – especially when it comes to tackling the gaps – or rather chasms in my knowledge, confidence and motivation in those areas that I want fill.

So this is sort of a mixture of a plea for help crossed with an invitation to get together with some other like-minded dragon-fairy-watchers to see what we can come up with, what learning we can share and what problems we can solve. It’s sort of the opposite of what I’ve don’t at the various ‘unConferences’ that I have been to where I have delivered short workshops on the (potential and actual) impact of social media on Whitehall – where people have been asking me the questions rather than vice-versa. I’m still to put the slides up that I promised because of the stupefying effects of hyper-anxiety and fear that I think can only be overcome by working with people the likes of whom this kind of work is second nature to.

So, what do you want to do?

A better way of putting it is “what do I want to be?” I want to be far more competent and confident at using a whole host of digital and social media tools (hardware and software) that I currently have, know what I want to use them for but am not using.

So…what do you want to do? (Again)

The first ‘barrier’ is the lack of decent “creative art” content. Much as I am grateful for Soph Warnes for quickly putting together the header image for this blog, I need to make the use of images far more interesting now that I have got the hang of blogging regularly.

Not being a photographer (amateur or otherwise) as well as not being comfortable with the action of going around taking photographs of everywhere (in part because I’m a perfectionist at heart) the current amount of content that I have is very limited. This I want to change, but am petrified at the thought of doing so alone. This is not because I want to offload tasks onto other people, rather it’s because I’m a people person – both desiring and needing the feedback and the creative input of those who this sort of thing comes more naturally to. Remember that I’ve had seven years inside the civil service where this sort of creativity is inevitably suppressed by the requirement for due-process and the filtering of everything that you do by management above you. Think The Eden Project vs The Millennium Dome of 2000 – the interior of the former was the brain-child of one person. The interior of the latter was the brainchild of numerous committees and ministers.

Creative art – the themes

There are a handful of themes that I would like to work on in the fields of photographic and digital art. They are as follows:

  • Puffles
  • Music
  • Fashion
  • The environment
  • Old buildings

◊ Puffles

Puffles as a theme goes without saying. This dragon fairy has sort of taken over my life and is a major component of my digital footprint. At present the only pictures of Puffles I have are those taken on iPhones. This I want to change. The outputs I am looking for are (not surprisingly) a decent set of photographs of Puffles at various locations.

Secondly, when the next batch of dragon fairies comes through, I want to take a panoramic photograph of all of them before they fly off to their new homes. (Something I missed out on with the first batch). This image is what I hope will replace the current header image on this current blog.

◊ Music – art and photography around

I never got round to joining the Duxford Orchestra this term because it clashed with too many weekend events, which was a shame. Joining an orchestra is still on my list of things to do – partly because I spent a fair amount of money on musical instruments in recent years that have not got any where near getting value for money from. Entirely my fault. The musical instruments that I own are ones that would make for some splendid photographs as objects themselves, in particular:

  • A five string viola
  • A bass ukulele
  • A tenor recorder

Let’s take some photographs, let’s digitise them and let’s see what we can do with them.

◊ Men’s fashion

Anyone who has seen my taste for fashion would have me arrested – certainly anyone who   had the misfortune of working with me over the past ten years. Some of you may have seen the displays of Anthony Menswear of Cambridge – whose displays are in themselves works of art. About once or twice a year I’ll get myself a dress shirt as a special treat. (It’s not cheap). Apart from being a small independent business, much of its clothing that it stocks has something that many high street stores lack: bold colours. Grey, bland, dark or pale have been the standard fayre for men over the past ten years – I know, I’ve looked. But then other than the men on BBC comedy shows, I seem to be one of the few people in these parts who gets hold of things with colour in them – e.g. by Duchamp. Being the cheapskate that I am, I always wait until their sales because their prices have a habit of halving. Their prices mean, as with Anthony Menswear, I’ll buy one shirt per year – replacing another that has since faded/shrunk which then quickly finds its way to a charity shop.

◊ The environment

This falls into two categories. The first being about sustainability, the second being about the freedom of the countryside. In recent years I’ve had far less experience of the latter – other than looking at the countryside from the prison of a commuter train and wishing I was in the countryside rather than in a metal box.

On the sustainability side, I’d like to take some photographs of what I can only describe as “Big sustainability” – renewable energy, futuristic housing, futuristic transport etc. Again, let’s take photos, let’s digitise them and let’s see what we can do with them.

◊ Old buildings

The love of/for old buildings was embedded in me as a result of an old buildings project I did at primary school – made easier by the fact that my old primary school is very old, as well as the major building work that was undertaken on the site at a time of huge change at the school. The first head teacher at my primary school had been in teaching for so long that during the course of the history project we did in the very late 1980s a year after she retired, we found photographs from the Second World War with her in them. That was one of the things that, for me made the Second World War ‘real’ for me – that one of our teachers from my time at primary school was teaching while all of this was going on.

Cambridge is full of old buildings, but I’m not looking for the university-based old buildings. I never went to Cambridge University. Before politicians realised accessibility was an issue, the University seemed to do all within its power to keep out riff-raff like me and my childhood friends from using any of its facilities.

It’s not just Cambridge though. There are some other places that I’d like to get to in order to take photographs of. London examples include St Pancras Station, The Great Russell Hotel, Westminster Cathedral, the British Museum and Alexandra Palace.

Other interesting things

Interesting for me if not for others include:

  • doing some sketches of drawings, objects, patterns and abstract things and digitising them for use as backgrounds or standalone images
  • creating some vintage backgrounds on the back of what we’ve seen out and about
  • playing around with Google analytics
  • getting various social and digital media accounts to bounce off of each other so as to make our overall digital footprints bigger than their sum – I want to go far beyond the traditional “here are some links”
  • Getting a feel for what WordPress can do in terms of its functionality.

Okay…so how are we going to go about doing all of this?

Mill Road Winter Fair

The first thing is to identify some gatherings. The first for me is the Mill Road Winter Fair on Saturday 03 December in Cambridge. I want to create a very simple digital video for Mill Road, basically titled “We are Mill Road”. The plan is to go along Mill Road and get lots of people to say something along the lines of “My name is X and I live/work at Y” before they each say “We are Mill Road”. In the editing process I plan to line up each of the people who introduce themselves one after the other. At the end, I mash up the footage of all of them saying “We are Mill Road” with the digital film footage of each of them in a small square. Essentially this is a very simplified version of what Eric Whitaker did with his virtual choir.

Pub lunch gathering – London Saturday 10 December

Some of you may be familiar with or have attended the pub lunches that became a regular feature during the spring and summer. At the next one I want to bring along Puffles (and possibly some of the smaller dragon fairy toys to get some photographs taken with more competent photographers using better equipment than I have) as well as getting more ideas, input and feedback from those who want to give it. (Other than that, it’s a good chance for a catch up as well as being an opportunity for Twitter followers to meet each other for the first time – as many have done).

Gatherings over Christmas

Whether in a pub or someone’s house (even my place) or elsewhere, I want to get some of us together to do the ground work that I’ve set out above. It’s not just the computers stuff, but also the arty stuff – materials for which I seem to have acquired but have not used nearly as much as I would have liked.

A get-together in Cambridge

I guess this is more of a ‘social’ than a ‘doing stuff’ get together. In a nutshell I think it would be nice to get as many of Puffles’ Cambridge followers together in the same place at the same time. There are more than enough of you using Twitter regularly in Cambridge.

Working on your projects and pieces of work too.

This isn’t all about me. This is also an opportunity for those of you who want to try some things in the world of digital and creative arts to put some things forward too. I’ve put these out on this blog to give some idea of what I want to do, where I want to get to and what seems to be holding me back.

Comments, feedback and ideas greatly received.

UPDATE:

James Long advised having an idea of what the photographs were for before going out and taking them. I guess there’s no purpose other than taking them for their own sake. Part of the challenge for me is to overcome this internal ‘mental’ barrier that seems to be stopping me from just going out there and doing it all myself.

I wasn’t blessed with the greatest art and design teachers in the world at school, none of whom were able to inspire me in the way Catherine who runs the Spring Greens tumblr account has been able to.

There’s also my desire to build up a portfolio of stuff that I’ve done and/or contributed to. The ‘achievement’ for me is not necessarily the outputs themselves, but the processes but which I and others create them.

Political and corporate internships

I wonder how many school and college leavers are aware of the taxpayer-funded site W4MPJobs. I wonder how many school and college leavers could afford to do any of the unpaid “internships” that are advertised on that site.

I’ll declare an interest. This is one of the sites that I’m looking at as I seek something productive to help pay my way – whether part-time or full time. So what’s the bee in my bonnet? Well, there are a few things.

The Westminster Bubble

I’ve blogged about this previously and don’t intend to repeat it all here. There are the huge diversity and accessibility issues that all of these unpaid internships create. In an era where far more people are going to university, employers are (understandably) asking more than just a degree. Going through the various job sites the number of vacancies asking for ‘experienced graduates’ must be depressing enough for those that have just graduated. Gaining that experience – both ‘on paper’ (to put on a CV) and also demonstrating an understanding of how that sector, the people and the institutions function inevitably put those who (or whose families) can afford to fund unpaid internships ahead of those who have to work long hours on low pay in far “less glamorous” (but by no means less important) jobs.

When it comes to that competency-based interview, what hope does the candidate from an economically deprived part of the country, first from their family to go to university and who had to work every other working hour to fund themselves have, against the privately-educated Russell Group graduate who has had all the internships and connections money can buy? The former is far less likely to have had the chance to have demonstrated the competencies required for the extremely competitive fully-paid graduate posts.

There are a few small programmes trying to stem the tide with reasonably remunerated paid internships – such as the Civil Service Diversity Internships and the Windsor Fellowship. In my final year in the civil service we had two interns in my directorate who had joined for the summer on one such accessibility scheme. Mindful of the sorts of experiences the competition they were going to face (in part due to my experience of the Fast Stream Assessment Centre), I took time out to take them through some of the essentials of project, programme and risk management. The nature of structured application forms in part is trying to ensure as many of the ‘key words’ are in there. The other exercise I got them to do was to replicate something I had been asked to do by my own bosses – in this case examining a series of documents against a set of criteria, setting out an argument and making a clear recommendation – making clear that the recommendation they made may well be one that we would go with.

They said that seeing their recommendation taken on board and followed through made a real difference because as well as learning, it demonstrated to them that their input was worthwhile. Their time in my team I hope gave them strong enough examples from which to draw upon in their future careers.

The thing is, laudable as these programmes are, they don’t deal with the fundamental imbalance between the haves and the have-nots. The fully-funded programmes are on such a small scale that their impact is going to be limited. It doesn’t create that level playing field. Having the handful of fully-funded programmes (which require a huge amount of hoops to jump through – having applied for some during my university days) cannot compensate for all of those unpaid/off the record internships that go to people from affluent backgrounds. Part of me wants to compare it to the tax-evading millionaire who says that his charitable donations even things out. (But I know I’ll get flamed for it).

Market failure

One of the things that I flummoxed my former economics professors with after my finals were over was the relationship between firms and regulators. My premise was that it was in the interest of the market – and regulators – to ensure that the costs of production/provision of services were fully reflected in the price. i.e. all of these costs needed to be ‘internalised’. I also said that it was in the interest of the individual firm to ‘externalise’ as many of the costs of production as possible – whether it was labour market costs (suppressing wages to such an extent that employees needed some sort of state-funded income support to help them pay their way in life) to not cleaning up pollution caused by the economic activity. With the conflict between the firm and the regulator – and the politicians that the latter are accountable to, I said that there was a clear conflict of interest as far as business donations to political parties were concerned, simply because firms would be looking for returns on their donations that would allow them to increase their profits through ‘business-friendly’ policies.

Now let’s move over to unpaid internships. My contention is that long-term unpaid internships are a subsidy to the hiring firm. The balance sways from being one where the intern is genuinely learning something new to the firm getting free labour that it does not have to pay for. Thus the firm has externalised its costs. The reason why I state it is a market failure is because without that element of unpaid work, such firms would not be able to deliver the output that they currently deliver. Ditto with paying people at the bottom end of the market pitifully low wages. If parents, family or the state have to step in to ensure that such people can survive and get buy, then that for me is a market failure because someone else is having to subsidise the costs of production that really should be covered by the firm. If the firm cannot afford this then should the firm be in business? If the issue is one of stupidly high living costs (e.g. due to housing, food, fuel etc) then that is an issue for the economy as a whole and one where the government needs to step in. This is because it is an issue that affects everyone, not just one firm.

The issue of unpaid internships is an issue has been around for some time with organisations like GraduateFog raising the profile. Media, fashion and advertising are known to be some of the worst offenders, with HMRC finally looking into this.

It’s not just firms that are benefiting from long term unpaid internships. We have seen the problem in the form of unpaid internships with MPs – 260 of which were advertised since the last general election. Thus our entire system of parliamentary politics is being subsidised by a small number of families (who then get the experience and access not available to anyone else) resulting in a much narrower field of support for MPs. As I made clear in my blogpost The impact and influence of select committees, I think that MPs and the institutions of Parliament need to have far more, not far fewer resources – commensurate to the organisations and institutions that they have to scrutinise. This means having far greater numbers of staff (perhaps employed directly by Parliament in the same manner that civil servants work for ministers) and ensuring that those members of staff are paid a reasonable salary.

This in part feeds into the problem of living costs in London. Unless the costs of housing, transport and living are tackled, the prospect of MPs getting greater levels of resource – in particular given that the Prime Minister wants to ‘reduce the costs of politics‘ – looks remote. But until MPs are properly resourced to carry out their constitutional duties of holding the powerful to account, there will always be the temptation to resource their offices through unpaid internships.

As for corporate internships, this is something where the enforcement of minimum wage legislation needs to be enforced far more strongly than of late, and one where the Government needs to issue clear guidance on what constitutes an ‘internship’ and what does not. This will then make clear to firms what is and what is not acceptable (as well as giving the courts something to work with where there are points of contention in the cases of prosecution). If that does not do the trick, then the Government I think may need to consider bringing in new laws both to stop the abuse of young people in particular, and to correct a clear market failure.

A “national civilian service”

“Oi! Wuffles! Why are you backing conscription to allow neo-cons to send the children of poor people off to fight the oppressive wars of the capitalist imperialists??!?!”

I’m not.

The principle of a fully funded and paid for ‘citizenship service’ is something I’ve been in favour of for over a decade. Opponents of the principle have sound grounds for their positions – connotations with the former national service to the idea that so long as citizens are not breaking the law, the state should have no say in what people do and do not do.

In terms of compulsion, I’m can be persuaded either way. However, when it comes to university, I’m moved towards making the completion of a six-nine months citizenship programme being a condition of enrolling. The Government already has pilots ready for 2012 under the national citizen service brand (also on Facebook) but this one is aimed at 16 year olds/year 11 rather than at the wider population.

What would “national citizenship service?” look like?

In this world, it’s dangerous to be over-prescriptive. That said, there are a number of common elements that such a programme could contain, such as:

  • Residential time away
  • Working with a core group of people over the course of the programme
  • Being paid a living wage while on the programme
  • Having a fund-raising element of the programme
  • Developing and delivering a community-based project as part of the programme
  • Learning new (practical) skills
  • Aimed mainly at school leavers but being open to anyone of any age

Such programmes need not be run by the state. There are a number of organisations that already run similar courses and programmes such as the Prince’s Trust’s Team Programme. As I’ve mentioned before, I completed this programme just over six months before joining the civil service. My three months with the Prince’s Trust were three of the hardest months of my life – university was a walk in the park in comparison.

What problems would such a programme help solve? 

  • The widespread implementation – a truly ‘national’ programme would help break down some of the social barriers that are inevitably placed between children at an early age. Faith-based and/or fee-paying schools are examples of children being segregated because of something associated with their parents – i.e. their faith or income.
  • It would give people – especially those who otherwise do not or cannot leave the area they are from to have time away, without having to worry about the costs.
  • Assuming a programme was open to all ages, it would give those who have otherwise only experienced daily life with people of their own ages the experience of working with people who may have had far greater and more diverse life experiences than they have had.
  • It would allow people to learn skills that they may otherwise not learn in school. For example I never did anything involving say motor engineering – my experiences of ‘craft design and technology’ being laughable.

Given the length of time such a programme would entail, it would also mean young people would have to take a break from full-time education – breaking the link between A-levels and university. One early conversation that I had with the parents of one of the few people from university I’ve stayed in (vague) contact with was on making ‘gap years’ compulsory. The reason for arguing in favour of them was to break the mindset that university was ‘the next thing to go onto after A-levels’ – i.e. an automatic rather than a conscious decision. Since that conversation over a decade ago (where I used the term ‘year out’ rather than ‘gap year’ at the time) we’ve witnessed the rise in the ‘gap yah stereotype’ – nice but dim posh kids travelling around the world on a drink-and-drugs-fuelled party, to the risks of well-meaning young people being ripped off on charitable projects. The hike in tuition fees to eye-watering levels (See my take here on how politicians moved us from grants to huge fees with little consent in less than 15 years) has – I think, broken the link of university being ‘the next thing to do’, simply because of the debts incurred under the new setup.

Should such programmes be compulsory?

I’m persuadable either way – though like the idea of having the completion of one as a condition of entering university. This is because amongst other things it breaks the cycle of those from affluent backgrounds only experiencing life around those of similar means down that well-trodden route of top public school, oxbridge then graduate job in the City or with a major consultancy firm. Working with the people in my group through the duration of my time with the Prince’s Trust influenced how I went about myself during my time in the civil service. I’d like to think that a similar but more widespread programme would lead to some improved decisions in large organisations due to a greater awareness of those who end up making them. That said, it’s not without problems – such as what do you do with international students? Should they have to complete such programmes too? I imagine universities wouldn’t be too happy.

The incentive for those unemployed or those who want a new challenge is that the placements would pay far more than benefits as well as being reasonably interesting and challenging programmes.

Much of what I’ve stated above contain a number of assumptions. This is one of the reasons why further development of policies of this nature need feedback from things like pilots, as well as those who have experience of delivery in this area. One of the biggest weaknesses in policy-making I have found is the relative lack of people with frontline service delivery in the areas that they are making policy in. What may sound like a great idea in policy-wonk-world may not be so smooth in real life. Hence why I’m interested to see what evaluation is going to be done (and by who) on the back of the 2012 pilots for National Citizen Service.

 

When will Twitter start impacting on elections?

This was a question put to me by one of my local councillors, Cllr Ian Manning of Cambridgeshire County Council in the comments section of my Cambridge Twitter List blogpost.

The short answer is: “I don’t know”. (Not being a politician means I am allowed to respond like this. Apparently if you become a politician you have to have an in depth fully referenced and error-free response that would stand up to cross-examination by expert-in-the-field-backed senior counsel in the High Court).

Bubbles

Twitter at the moment is a bubble – or rather a series of bubbles depending on who you follow and interact with. It’s only when you float between bubbles that you realise their existence – or rather, that has been my experience. The Westminster Bubble is one of many – and one that has bubbles within its own – whether the civil service bubble (which has its own bubbles within – whether senior civil service world, Fast Stream world or even trade union campaigning/PCS Union world), the Parliament bubble or the lobbying bubble.

How long will Twitter stay at the top?

Twitter is essentially the most successful brand name of a social medium known as micro-blogging. Apart from its sheer simplicity, one of the things that makes it successful is that lots of people in key fields use it. That does not mean they will continue to do so. For me the two biggest threats to Twitter are:

  1. The desire for the host company to make more money from what is currently a free service
  2. SPAM – whether automated accounts following or sending out messages

The first one involves Twitter placing adverts in users’ timelines. On the issue of advertising, my take is that few people like advertising appearing without their consent in the middle of something that they are using. Think of how often you change the TV channel or radio station when the adverts appear. In the days when I was a regular normal TV watcher and radio listener this was all of the time. If the desire to make more money through advertising leads to too many adverts, users will vote with their feet – or thumbs.

The second is SPAM – which is not free. SPAM has a carbon footprint. Individually we may not pay for it, but the environment does. If Twitter does not get hold of the problem of SPAM tweets and accounts, again people will vote with their thumbs.

Tumbling down the technology mountain

The reason why I’ve raised both these issues is that ascents and descents in new technology world can be very fast on either side. Think of the cartoon mountains that the 2-D characters of the last millennium used to run up and down. Then think of the companies or operations that used to be huge but are now no longer. The big two that I can think of are FriendsReunited and MySpace.

Ten years ago when I was still at university, people from outside the UK were saying what a brilliant idea it was, and how they wished they had something like that. In those days, it was free to use and (if I recall correctly) send messages. But then the desire to make money beyond advertising kicked in. The zapping of email addresses and webpages in user profiles along with the need to subscribe and pay to make full use amongst other things drove the casual users away. Then Facebook came along which did everything FriendsReunited did, for free and with far greater functionality and usability. Remember that ITV paid £175million for FriendsReunited in 2005…and sold it for £25million in 2009. I don’t know which executives got sacked for that loss either. MySpace was bought by Murdoch’s empire in 2005 for $580million and sold in 2011 for $35million. Thus even having big media backers is no guaranteer of success. Basically there is no guarantee that Twitter will still be here in five years time.

Back to social media and elections

In a sense social media is enabling candidates standing for election to interact with electorates individually in the days when door-to-door canvassing by candidates and campaigners was far more of a regular feature than it is today. It means that, unlike over the past few decades the option of hiding your ‘loose cannon’ or complete non-entity of a candidate away from the media and from interviews is now no longer an option. BBC Question Time panels are a reflection of that mindset. Look at the politicians who appear on there more often than is sensible – their regular appearances not reflecting well on other politicians. This for me is also reflection of the desire of political parties to control everything from the centre: Only send out the pre-approved people.

Social media – irrespective of the platforms used, allow candidates and politicians to engage and debate with their constituents at the leisure of both. This is important given how busy people’s lives have become on both sides. It also means that candidates and politicians have to listen that little bit more. (Mother nature gave human beings two ears and one mouth in those proportions for a reason.) I’m not talking about ‘lines to take listening’ which is something like:

“I agree with you [insert name of person who asked question] in that you have raised a very important point…and now I am going to repeat your question and expand on it and say that they are important points [of which I am going to list 1, 2 and 3 counting them off using my fingers] that we/they along with [insert name of other people and organisations] need to deal with before I proceed to not answer your question.”

Yes, I have done media training too. Answering the question you wanted to be asked rather than the one you were asked in the first place no longer cuts the mustard.

You still haven’t properly answered the question

The reasons why I stated “I don’t know” at the top is because there are too many variables and factors that could affect if and when social media in general will impact on elections – such as:

  • If people feel that voting is either a wasted effort (e.g. “safe seats”) or won’t have any impact on their lives, the impact of any social media campaign is going to be limited.
  • Just because people use social media does not automatically equate using social media to engage in mainstream politics. Politicians need to give people reasons and incentives to engage with them.
  • Some people have made the conscious choice not to use social media.
  • Data and information – I don’t have enough of it to make a judgement call. For example the raw numbers of social media accounts does not account for multiple accounts or spam accounts. I also don’t know how people are using their accounts – both nature of and intensity of use.
  • Abuse – running a party political social media account inevitably means taking a share of metaphorical hits. And that’s just from the tribal types from opposition parties. Social media unfortunately can involve opening yourself to vitriol and personal attacks. Understandably some politicians and candidates choose to avoid social media because of this.

Possible outcomes – a broken swingometer

One of the things that we did see at the 2010 general election was how the traditional ‘swingometer’ model did not work. I recalled a number of comments from analysts on the night saying that a number of seats did not return results as predicted – hence the Coalition. The Liberal Democrats in particular lost three of their strongest performers in Parliament – Julia Goldsworthy (who has since disappeared out of public life now that she is Danny Alexander’s Special Adviser in The Treasury), Susan Kramer (Now in the Lords) and Dr Evan Harris – all of whom would have been contenders for ministerial posts had they won their seats.

Social media use may mean that we see more ‘unexpected’ (unexpected to the national press) results if as a result of local social media use enough people choose to go against what’s seen to be ‘the tide’. A talented and locally popular candidate from an unpopular party (or a party with an unpopular leader) who can also use social media well to engage with people may have a stronger chance of election. The same is could be true if a party polling well with a popular leader chooses to select a weak candidate who might make good compliant lobby-fodder.

Possible outcomes – fewer ‘parachuted’ candidates

The use of social media may mean that there is a longer-term incentive for candidates to come from and stand in their local areas rather than being parachuted in. It takes a huge amount of effort to build up a sizeable social media following – even more so in the keeping of it. By using social media, would-be candidates can spend time developing and nurturing their relationships with people in their local area so that by the time it comes to election time, they have some idea of what that individual is like as well as their record beyond what is written in party political pamphlets or the letters pages in the local papers.

As publications go, local pamphlets don’t do the greatest job of making politicians or candidates look human. (Central government publications can be even worse – just think “civil service-speak”). I have no idea why councillors have a habit of being photographed pointed at potholes and other bad stuff. I don’t go around town pointing at potholes & getting people to take photos of me doing so. Why do they? I’m yet to meet a person who has said “I’m going to vote for that person because I saw a photograph of them pointing at a pothole!” It must be a local government thing as enough of them have been doing so nationally that the glum councillors website has lots to make hay with. I’ve already told some councillors and candidates that if I see any of their literature containing photos of them looking particularly glum, Puffles may refer said offending item to the aforementioned website! What happened to the standard no-nonsense portrait photographs of old that said “Here’s a fine upstanding chap! Vote for him!” (I should add that this paragraph was written in jest, and not to detract from those who do pound the pavements canvassing – wingtip to Andy Bower’s comment below).

Social media blurs the ‘professional’ and the ‘personal’ (with all the potential pitfalls this brings). The best examples of this I have seen are where politicians have crowd-sourced solutions to day-to-day problems that have nothing to do with politics – normally involving computers, phones or complaints about bad service somewhere, or involving trying to get hold of a certain piece of music that they & those around them cannot recall the name of.

…which brings us to Cambridge (for me at least)

In my ideal world, every councillor and candidate would be using social media so that we could find out more about them. Cambridge City Council maintains a Twitterlist (which it a) needs to refresh and b) take it down in the run up to local elections lest it be accused of favouring incumbent candidates) and a quick glance seems to indicate that Puffles the baby dragon fairy may have more followers than all of the councillors on the city council put together. That’s not to kick sand in the faces councillors. It may be an indication that there is huge scope for reaching out to Cambridge residents who use Twitter but have not thought about using it to engage with their elected representatives. It may also be an indication that Twitter use in Cambridge is lower compared to other areas. Again, I’ve not seen the data, and what data there may be may have flaws in due to multiple, SPAM and dormant accounts.

One of the things I did at the 2010 general election was to email all of the candidates a short list of questions particular to my circumstances and my concerns. I don’t know how many others did. All but one of them got back to me, the responses of which had a major impact on how I decided to vote. The lesson of this exercise is that if people cannot contact you, they cannot ask you questions. If they cannot ask questions, you cannot give them answers. If you choose not to make yourselves available to the electorate while your political opponents are – in particular if the latter are being proactive, some of that electorate may choose to interpret that lack of access or that silence accordingly. .

Puffles’ Twitter Lists – Cambridge

This post brings together a number of people listed in a few previous blogposts to try and get a list of Cambridge tweeple (people who use Twitter) that I interact with via Puffles into one place. This isn’t a ‘definitive’ list – nor do I intend it to be. The reason being is that people use Twitter for a variety of reasons, making an “all these people in this area us Twitter” list a little pointless. Just because someone lives in the same area as you does not necessarily mean that you will find them interesting. (I have bored more than enough people to death before social media even existed so I blog from experience!)

Cambridge politics

It was the 2010 general election that led to the growth of Twitter as a medium. The first I knew about this was when Cambridge Labour Party Secretary (and former workmate) @TheBigShow1976 said that he was killing off his Facebook account – which meant missing out on a daily dose of tribal status updates. The most high profile elected Labour figure for Cambridge is Richard Howitt MEP. On board the local Labour battleship are three young guns – two of whom seem to have the same name – Richard Johnson (of Cambridge University Labour Party) and Cllr Richard Johnson. Of no relation to the actor is Daniel Ratcliffe, also found campaigning in these parts too.

Cambridge is lucky to have more than its fair share of younger councillors than other placesCarina O’Reilly of Labour can be found tweeting about complicated stuff when not trying to get their heads around even more complex planning matters for which a simple “Yes/No” answer never seems to suffice. (E.g. I find the Belvedere development an insult to local people and Cambridge Leisure Park a spectacularly unimaginative development given the amount of time and money spent on deciding on what to put on the old cattle market. Yes, I am just old enough to remember when they did sell livestock on that site!) Cllr Gail Marchant-Daisley can also be found tackling the same things. I would like to list Cllrs Tariq Sadiq and Lewis Herbert but they need to tweet more! (Should I send Puffles after them?)

On the other side of the political divide are the Tories, of whom I seem to get the most responses from Andy Bower and @Radegund. Chris Howell (a former local councillor) and Nick Hillman (who stood at for the Tories at the 2010 general election) can also be found tweeting in these parts, though with less frequency due to their work commitments amongst other things. As a city, Cambridge currently has no Tories on the council, but the party does control Cambridgeshire County Council, for which Cllr Nick Clarke (whose constituency is just south-east of the city in Fulbourn) is currently the leader.

It goes without saying that Julian Huppert MP is the highest profile Liberal Democrat tweeter in the city. He’s set the standard for many backbench MPs on how to use Twitter and through that and other work has a far higher profile than his predecessor. In terms of local councillors, Cllrs Neil McGovern, Belinda Brookes-Gordon, Andy Pellew, Ian Manning and Sarah Brown appear most frequently in Puffles’ feed. Cllr Amanda Taylor – whose name I became familiar with on my paper rounds in the early 1990s (because her name was on the posters at election time) also tweets, but less frequently than the others. Mike Pitt and Clare Blair 

Unfortunately Cambridge Green Party has lost much of its Twitter presence since Cllr Adam Pogonowski closed his Twitter account before switching to Labour. This means that Stephen Lintott is one of the few Cambridge Greens who tweets.

Beyond politics

Richard Taylor has set the standard in terms of scrutinising local government and pushing for transparency and open data. Now that @SmithSam has moved to these parts, I look forward to seeing the results of putting two such bright minds together – especially with Michele Ide-Smith, Dan StaggerLisa Evans and Liz Stevenson around. From what I have found with open data, the benefits of making (certainly taxpayer-funded) data sets freely available far outweigh any financial gain that may be made from selling it – or worse, keeping it under lock and key. The challenge is getting enough momentum politically to get the public sector and publicly-funded bodies, organisations and projects (here’s looking at you Cambridge University) to open up their data sets.

I don’t have nearly as many links and contacts in science park world as perhaps I’d like to have. Part of me still wants to get back into science but the costs of retraining in a scientific environment (i.e. where you can get your hands dirty) are prohibitive. So I rely on the likes of Lou Woodley, Sarah Castor-PerryMichelle Brook and the Naked Scientists to keep me posted on the important stuff.

The two local journalists I keep tabs on are Chris Havergal & Lucy Ross-Millar of the Cambridge Evening News. See who they are following for journalists that cover other subject areas. For Cambridge University types and watchers, you’re probably aware that The Cambridge Student, Varsity and The Tab are all on Twitter.

Being a born-and-brought-up local, I was one of many generations of people who did cycling proficiency at primary school. Hence why it’s nice to have the Cambridge Cycle Campaign keeping an eye on dodgy developments looking to make things awkward for those of us relying on pedal power. I joined them on their group cycle ride on the cycleway next to the guided bus route but decided to turn back 2 miles from St Ives because it got too windy and it felt like it was going to rain. (Actually it’s because I’m not nearly as fit as I’d like to be). It’s also nice to see them pushing for routes that may help take some traffic off of the roads – such as the Cambridge North-South Cycleway.

You could say that Ellie Stoneley (who does IT training), Eleanor Turney (who has more connections than a circuit board as far as the arts world seems to go), Louisa Loveluck (whose expertise was recently snapped up by the Chatham House), Caroline Bywater (one of the few tweeting planning lawyers I can find), Jules BradleyLeila Khalifa and Emma Jackson Stuart are the “local to me” followers of/followed by Puffles tweeple who I’m still to meet in real life.

Talking of the world of creatives, Clare Denham and friends at CreativeFront set in motion some work under the Culture Hack East banner – the gathering recently I was critical of (but in a ‘here’s how you can improve it’ manner). One of the problems outside of Clare’s control was the lack of people using social media during the event – especially with Twitter. The question is how to persuade people to use it – especially in a field where using it to make connections is becoming more and more important? The same is true for the medical field where Fi Douglas is one of the few Cambridge medic types making waves.

This was something Ceri Jones blogged about in a post “What is Twitter to me?”. The piece of advice I had not thought about was around numbers of people to follow – especially those who follow very few people. In order for Twitter to work for you, you need to follow enough people (she says 60) in order to get the feed ‘rolling’ – otherwise you are staring at the same message from the same person for hours on end. It’s also not just about following anyone. My take is that there is no point in following big institutions unless they are “news makers” in your field. This is because such institutions tend to use Twitter as a means to cascade press releases. Even then, it may make more sense to follow someone else who filters those items that come out. It’s why Puffles does not follow the myriad of Whitehall departmental Twitter accounts. I prefer following individuals who use their Twitter accounts to interact with and have conversations with people.

There are lots of other people in Cambridge who use Twitter. This is not a ‘local celebrity’ list, nor is it a complete and exhaustive one. If you have any recommendations that you’d like to add, please do so (with links) in the comments field.

Open data for transport infrastructure planning?

The most popular link that readers of this blog have clicked through to is of the map of England’s old railway network prior to the Beeching Axe. It differentiates between the now disused routes and the current routes, though it is a little dated – for example the Cambridge-Huntingdon guided bus does not feature.

There is something incredibly frustrating when you see a potential solutions to problems that for whatever reason never seem to get off the ground, or seem to take ages before coming to fruition – especially when it comes to transport infrastructure. Think of how long it took to get the UK high speed section of Eurostar services completed. In my view it was certainly worth doing – travelling on the Eurostar was a strangely exhilarating journey when I did it for the first time…until we got to the UK sections. (This was when it ran from Waterloo). The idea that you can now get from London to Paris quicker than you can get to Manchester speaks volumes. I used to live close to St Pancras and I found the concept of living closer to Paris than Manchester as far as travel time was concerned to be quite ridiculous. As I’ve mentioned in my blogpost In praise of public transport, who cannot be inspired by arriving at a station at the end of a train journey with this spectacular view?

The High Speed 2 rail link is one that has caused a great deal of controversy, from those living close to the proposed route, those complaining about the sheer expense (that could be invested in different transport projects) to those who have scrutinised the sustainability claims. A summary can be found of both the good and the bad in the Transport Select Committee’s report into HS2 from early November 2011. Some of the information and data that are included in the HS2 website provide a template that might work for proposals to reopen other disused transport corridors. So what is it that I am asking for or looking to kick off?

Making the old railway map useable

Digitising the map of old railway lines and turning it into a ‘useable’ format that is compatible with Geographical Information Systems (GIS) such as GoogleMaps. Now, this may have already been done by someone – if it has, it would be splendid to have a link to it. At the moment, what we have is the electronic equivalent of an incomplete paper map (the north of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland have not been included) that allows lots of gazing but little else. What I would like to see is a map produced that superimposes the old rail network onto an existing modern digital map of the UK – in the manner that the HS2 website has done.

Doing this would make clear to everyone the barriers currently in place of reopening the disused rail lines. (For example buildings having been built across old rail lines, or as in the case of the old Cambridge-Oxford line, some expensive telescopes). This then allows campaign groups such as the Campaign for Better Transport (I still prefer “Transport 2000” as a name) sink their teeth into the problems that are in the way of reopening those corridors.

There is then the data from postcodes and public bodies as to which councillors, MPs and MEPs have constituencies containing disused rail lines and old stations. Chances are a number of them will be aware of what went there before. This is essential if campaigners are to harness the influence of elected representatives. The people at MySociety have already done much of the groundwork on their website Write to them.

This gives us the opportunity for linking up local transport authorities and local/regional chambers of commerce who may be able to bring in match-funding and/or the formation of consortia similar to that of the East-West-Rail one.

The opportunity digital and social media gives us is that it allows groups such as the Railway Ramblers (who wander up and down these disused rail routes) to become the eyes and ears of what’s out there. (For example uploading photographs to a map showing what the state of the area actually is).

There is also the use of data from the Highways Agency and local transport authorities regarding congestion, transport flow and types of vehicles on the roads. This is not to say that reopening a rail line is a magic wand to local transport problems. For example with Cambridge’s guided bus, the first couple of months were promising but it’s too early to say what effect/impact the guided bus (and the cycleway alongside it) have had on congestion. But at least getting the data and information in the same place and in a useable format may get people thinking.

What does this mean for transport policy wonks, civil servants and ministers? We could ask Julian Huppert to get his office to commission an A0/A1 print out of the old railway map (Put together by Richard Fairhurst) for him to hand over personally to Theresa Villiers (Minister of State for Railways) for her to hang on the wall of her private office (concentrates the minds of her officials). But it’s more than just a picture of a map on a wall. Civil servants need the hard evidence in order to make the case to ministers. Campaigners need the hard evidence to make the case to ministers too – especially if it means leveraging funding or financial support from the Treasury. Having a consistent set of data and information will at least allow officials at the Department for Transport to prioritise schemes given that funds are limited. In some cases, there may be cases for applying for European funding too.

Now, this blog post is full of holes. I know that. It probably has a whole host of terms that I have used that are not the correct technical terms. I am aware. There may be stuff that is out there I am not aware of. If so, please add it to the comments fields! Let’s get the data and information out there. Let’s get the enthusiasts, campaigners and the specialists to engage with each other & our elected representatives and bring more people into the debate about how to solve some of our transport problems. Maybe that way it will kickstart some decisive action in both town hall and Whitehall – and maybe even inspire people in both who actually have both the vision and the drive to deliver something that is both beneficial to meeting our transport needs as well as inspiring to those in and around the hubs that need them. After all, wouldn’t it be great if this sort of work lead to the creation of a few more places as awe-inspiring as St Pancras?

The curse of debt

…because for many of us, it is a curse.

It’s a blight for those on low incomes who are targeted by loan sharks – something Stella Creasy has campaigned on for quite some time.

One of the reasons I chose to leave the civil service was that the redundancy settlement cleared off all of my immediate debts, which had grown like a seemingly unstoppable boil over the past ten years. Every time my pay went up, so did my debts and outgoings. Interest payments and loan repayments were like this horrible parasite leaching most of my salary before it had even arrived. Combined with rent, bills and public transport costs, there was not much left over. So what did I do? Borrowed more in the anticipation that at some stage in the future I would start paying it all back.

Debt is a dark shadow over our futures – especially “consumer debt” – which is essentially what mine was over the past ten years. It was debt accumulated as a result of living – not out of an investment in something tangible that would be a valuable physical asset in the future.

Debt is nothing new. History and literature are littered with the story of violent loan sharks preying on the poor, wayward aristocrats gambling away their wealth and the wealth of others, and the struggle of ordinary people just trying to make a living. “They say love won’t pay the rent/Before it’s earned our money’s always spent” (I chose the UB40/Chrissie Hynde version because as some of you may be aware, in civil service land there was a form known as UB40 related to unemployment benefits – which the band named themselves after, having experienced life unemployed).

Debt hung over me like a black cloud during my time in the civil service. Being an unnatural worrier by disposition (hence the anti-anxiety medication for longer than is sensible) my perennial worry was what I would do if I suddenly found myself out of a job. Having survived one cull of civil servants about eighteen months after I joined, I kept tabs on what sort of redundancy payment I’d be entitled to if I was made redundant. This wasn’t really an option on the bottom rung in my old office simply because I felt at the time I had no experience of really interesting stuff that would give me a vague chance of future employment in an area that I felt matched my skills, potential, and achievements prior to the world of work. A question I consistently asked myself was: “Could I see myself doing this for the rest of my life?” To which the answer was “No” – in those early days because the day job was so unbelievably mind-numbing at times. In any large organisation you will find ‘non-jobs’ – called ‘diseconomies of scale‘ by economists.

But coming back to the debt, nothing could get away from the impact that this cloud had on me. In hindsight I didn’t help myself with some spending decisions and a desire to live a lifestyle that in part I could not really afford. When I transferred down to London, I benefited from a huge payrise but at the same time took one hell of a hit because all of the rise plus more went on train and tube fares. A year later I moved down to London looking for somewhere that allowed me to rent without having a long commute. Basically anything that was more than 45 minutes point-to-point meant it was better for me to commute from Cambridge.

Wanting to live in an area that has lower than average crime rates and is close to a tube line while at the same time not looking like a hell hole and is owned/managed by a person/firm that doesn’t look too dodgy results in paying a premium for all of that. Again, being the worrier meant that I chose to pay up rather than live in an area where I might be afraid to step outside of my front door. The price of not worrying about the area I lived in was the knowledge of building up even more debt.

It’s strange looking back on all of this now. During my time living and working in London I never found people who I really ‘clicked’ with in a social sense, despite making more than a conscious effort to go out and about doing stuff – as (I think) is normal for anyone who has just moved to a new area. But this going out and about cost money – lots of it. This is Central London remember. The cost of living is wallet-destroying.

By the time I stumbled into 2011, I had made the conscious decision to take a voluntary exit and take my chances with the wider world. Given the choice to make the same decision I’d take the same one. It was the right one for me at the time.

When I finally cleared off everything in the early autumn, I felt a huge change in how I saw myself – in two regards in particular. The first was that I was no longer tied to the civil service and an overly-restrictive hierarchical line-management structure that for me kills far too much creativity and generates a culture of micro-management. i.e. The second was that I was no longer tied to worrying about how I was going to pay the next loan instalment or credit card bill. Free from the claws of the big banks.

It’s not the magic wand though. I’m now completely dependent on my family. A different sort of dependency to that of having to hand over most of your salary to your landlord, utility bill companies or the banks? Perhaps. It’s not the best situation to be in but certainly far preferable for my health at least compared to the hamster wheel that I was on a few years back.

At the moment I’m of the mindset where I don’t want to take out a mortgage in the future. Having spent a decade trying to free myself from debt that began during my student days, I don’t want to throw myself back into it anytime soon. At the same time I do want my own place, yet worry that even rent prices are becoming unaffordable. We thus find ourselves in this crazy housing situation where a minority of people are on reasonable rents in the social housing sector while others find themselves paying those rents for housing stock that leaves some people in slum housing and/or paying vastly inflated rates just to find somewhere to live – perpetuating the debt crisis for them, but in the interests of who?

There is then the issue of adverts and advertising. The Work Foundation estimates that the total contribution of the advertising industry to UK national income in 2008 was £15.6billion – just over 1% of our national income (£1,446billion – though this will vary depending on the measure you use) for that year. That’s not an insignificant figure for an industry whose ultimate purpose is to persuade people to buy stuff -the buying of which contributes to consumer debt.

Now, I am already thinking that some people will be saying that people don’t have to buy stuff. (Yes @AndyBower, I’m looking at you😉 ) A reasonable point? Perhaps. But then if we’re looking at balanced arguments whether to buy product A, product B or nothing at all, we never see on our screens or on billboards anyone making the argument for buying nothing at all. Adbusters made a splash in the very late 1990s but don’t seem to have the profile that they used to have. Where are the adverts that say “do you really need that new scarf?” or “do you really need that new gizmo or is the current one working fine (or could it be repaired?)”

Advertising isn’t about presenting a series of facts and inviting people to make a rational decision about the purchase that they may or may not make. The job of the advertiser amongst other things is to persuade people to buy the product or service (irrespective of how good or bad it is). Unfortunately not all advertisers are decent & honest people. (Unfortunately not all people are decent & honest people). This is why we have the Advertising Standards Authority to help keep them in check – but how good a job do they do? I’ll leave that one for you. But be aware that debate is already happening around the banning of adverts from certain places (as Sao Paulo did) to the ethics of advertising itself.

My point is that for consumer debt at least, advertising is part of the problem. If we are going to deal with consumer debt, it also means dealing with and reining in parts of the advertising industry. You can imagine what big business would make of that given the amounts of money they invest in brands.

As for the other drivers, I look particularly at the costs of living such as (but not limited to):

  • Housing (whether mortgages or rents as a proportion of people’s income)
  • Food (goes without saying – but in particular healthy food)
  • Fuel (whether for heating the home (which is a housing issue too) or for cars)
  • Public transport (both fares and availability of)
  • Childcare
  • Health and education
  • Leisure

Tackle those costs of living and we may get some way to tackling the curse of debt.

Finally, I want to nail this mindset coming from politicians of having to take out loans for everything – in particular education and training. The argument is that the individual benefits from the education and training so therefore the individual should pay. Yet the firm also benefits from having a workforce that is trained – especially as we are asked to become more specialised in a work area (while at the same time no longer having jobs for life and thus having to take on the burden of the costs of retraining).

By having loans for everything, people are locked into a cycle of debt that perhaps they may never get out of given the way university tuition fees are going along with house prices and rates of consumer debt. I put it to you that this set up is unsustainable.

Puffles’ Twitter Lists – On Life’s Path (A big **Thank You**)

I’ve called this one “On Life’s Path” because these tweeple are those who I’ve met/got to know primarily as a result of Twitter and social media. It’s been one that I’ve been meaning to write for quite some time because I wanted to pay tribute to those who started following Puffles in those early days. Nice therefore to upload this post after meeting in real life two lovely people (Karen Melchior from the Embassy of the Kingdom of Denmark) and the only New Yorker Puffles has met, @Amerimatryoshka – who just happened to be stopping off in London over night en route to far away places.

In part, this post is also a riposte to those that say social media diminishes human relationships and isolates people from other human contact. (It can if it means you choose not to get out of the house!) This was a point made by Baroness Deech at a Hansard Society event I attended – which was subsequently shredded by Jon Worth (who I first met at the Parliament Government and Civil Service course with the National School of Government, who also blogs here and who also was around this evening).

At that same event I also met the Vanessa Furey (@_BrownEyedGirl) who recently put up a fiery (and much-needed) defence of working in the “not-for-profit” sector after a loud yummy-mummy type voiced to all and sundry that working in the sector must be easy. (I disagreed with yummy-mummy type too).

Just as with that event, I also put person to Twitter account when Alice Bell came to speak about all things science in Cambridge. It was at this same event that I bumped into the lovely Sarah Castor-Perry (@ScienceSponge) who I’d not seen in over a year. Sarah introduced me to the Naked Scientists – people who combine science and humour to poke fun at politicians and myths. Ever heard anyone describe something as being as useful as a chocolate teapot? (i.e. useless because chocolate teapots supposedly melt). These are the sort of people who go through the process of MAKING a chocolate teapot and testing at what point it ceases to be useless – i.e. one that you can make a cuppa from. Thus they disproved the saying that chocolate teapots are useless because they made one that you can make a cup of tea from. Ergo, not useless.

It was also through science-related tweeting that I stumbled across Michelle Brook. This means that whenever I hit something that is so complicated that I can’t understand it, I have enough of a following in the science world to call in the experts.

Having received a tip-off from @Penners_ about Tweetcamp, I met Chris Green who gave some excellent insights into how newspapers work, and Sue Llewellyn who as you know is amazing. It was at a gathering hosted by @KerryatDell where I met both @Penners_ and Shirley Ayres (who was speechless to find that I was the one looking after Puffles on Twitter). I always find it interesting to see how people react when they meet me for the first time having followed Puffles for quite some time. At a social media gathering organised by Sam Smith and friends, I also met Joanna Geary then of The Times, bumped into Jon Worth for the first time since the National School training course, probably gave Mike Bracken a mild heart attack by introducing him to an audience without asking him in advance during a session being run by Tim Ireland. It was also at the same gathering that I stumbled across the awesomeness that is Chris Osborne‘s data mapping. Again, same presentational tactic as the Naked Scientists, just with transport data. i.e. “Oooh! A politician has said something controversial that doesn’t appear to be backed up by abstract theoretical concepts such as facts! Shall we see what the data says?

Earlier this year I stumbled across Sarah Giles who was busking in Cambridge. She kept on cropping up with some brilliant acoustic arrangements of some well-known tracks as well as her own numbers. Having recently completed lower-sixth, she’s taking time out to concentrate on music and performing – having recently spent some time in professional studios. The results are impressive. Have a look at what she’s done here.

In the spring of 2011 I made the conscious decision of organising things that would bring Puffles’ followers together. The main reason was to try and strengthen the bonds that were growing between the small but growing band of followers at the time. Essentially I wanted (and want) people to develop friendships with each other that have more in common that simply following a baby dragon fairy on Twitter. This is where the London pub lunches and PufflesCamp came about.

The two people who were key to PufflesCamp in Brighton were @QofE – who has kindly hosted me in her flat on two separate occasions (for which I am extremely grateful for) and @Sandyd68 – whose efforts ensured that we had a venue for the day. The ‘organising visit’ I made prior to the weekender was also where I met Marina Pepper – a veteran of campaigns.

I was genuinely astonished by the number of people who both came down (and overcame significant obstacles) to PufflesCamp, as well as those who followed online. These included @LatentExistence (whose message boards allowed us to organise the event) @Anonymoosh@ThatSoph, @Glittrgirl, (one for knitters out there) @TheNatFantastic, @Ntlk, (who with Sam helped with the challenge of trying to make the venue’s wifi work)  @HelenMew@ItsMothersWork, @Kaygee, @Frances_Coppola, @LisaAnsell, @Taboacid@SeanCourt, @PatLockley all came along to some or all, and I also met @NyNyFlower at  the climate camp that was taking place in Lewes. (There are a few names I’ve missed so please could they make themselves known so I can add them!)

In terms of the pub gatherings, these have grown in terms of their attendance to the extent that our normal Sunday place sometimes struggles to keep us all in one place. Numbers have ranged from six to 18, with an eclectic mix of people and backgrounds. What I like about these is that there’s all the diversity combined with a similar desire to make the world a much better place than it currently is. A kind of ‘putting the world to rights over a Sunday roast’.

@Ellwynnnnn @Stavvers @Jedweightman @MediocreDave @SeanJOHalloran and @Daninayyar are all active campaigners in the mould of Marina Pepper – i.e. they get out and about doing stuff, in particular fighting for the causes of those who regularly get a kicking from the tabloid press. That takes a level of courage that many of us don’t have. @JacLong @RichmondBridge @DottySparkles @Frances_Coppola @ThatSoph @NickMHalliday @A_Y_Alex @BitFuzzy have all come along too, throwing their ideas into the mixing pot. @AndyJamesHicks @Penners_ @SaxBenD @SaadaabJanab @Marxroadrunner have ensured table talk isn’t all about politics – all supporting a variety of football clubs.

Closer to home, @TheBigShow1976 is an old workmate who is one of the biggest and hardest people I know – who also doesn’t take any prisoners. In the same workplace, my former boss @PositiveSarah (who picked me up at a real low point several years back and who has always kept an eye from afar ever since – for which I’ll always be grateful) came through her own set of challenges to unleash a wave of creativity that means she currently gets to go to nice places and write articles about them. But believe me, getting there was no walk in the park. There are a handful of former workmates/metaphorical rocks on Twitter who tweet anonymously (or not at all) and keep low profiles. You know who you are and I am grateful for your support during those incredibly intense years in Whitehall.

Also in Cambridge I met Fi DouglasDan Stagger, Liz Stevenson, Catherine Howe, Richard Taylor, Lisa Evans, Michelle Ide-Smith (one of the most clued-up people in local government as far as digital media is concerned) Ceri Jones and Sam Smith both recently and sometimes regularly. It was Liz who pointed me in the direction of the CultureHackEast event where I met Clare Denham of CreativeFront. Although I felt that event could have been more of a success, I wrote a blog piece on the back with some feedback for the follow-up event in 2012.

There are some people who I’ve met in previous lives. TV’s Liz Fraser is one of them. She won’t remember it because I was an anonymous shop worker at the time trying to make my postgraduate studies pay while she was trying to do the shopping with young children in tow. Not easy. Barry Gardiner MP is a former Cambridge person – former in that he used to live close by and, before he moved to Brent to contest one of the seats in the 1997 general election (which he won that seat) he would run a bottle stall at the fetes and fairs held by my local primary school. Everything came to a standstill when he bellowed “And another winner on the bottle stall!” He’s mildly spoken in Parliament but when he shouts you sure as hell hear about it!

I’m not planning on going through a list of Whitehall celebrities/big beasts who I’ve bumped into – mainly because they’ve met lots of people and there was little that was unique about how I met them.

Since PufflesCamp I have also made some journeys to visit people and/or have met up with people who have been in Cambridge (or London – as today) for various reasons. Jennifer Jones is one such person. She came down to Cambridge for a social media conference and I found her to be at the cutting edge of her field in social media – at the tip of the sharp end that some of her compatriots in her field are yet to find the cutting edge.

There are some people who have left me completely mesmerised by their loveliness and awesomeness. Dr Natalie Silvey is one of them – someone whose head and heart are in the right places and has the drive and energy to do the sort of good stuff that I could only dream of. There are few people whose presence can leave me speechless – which as those people who’ve known me for some time know is quite an achievement. Natalie is one of those people. Staying on the medics theme, I also met up with Dr AnneMarie Cunningham in that same week, again a pleasure and privilege.

Before then I was up in Manchester for a Media Trust training course which allowed me to meet up with @Equinova2010 (a friend from my civil service days. Being close to Liverpool meant that I was able to meet up with @Magiczebras and @Millie_Epona for the first time too. (Last minute hickups meant that a couple of others due to join us were unable to make it.) Prior to that, I wandered down to Bristol on a major detour from a visit to Whitehall teacamp people (see Public Service Titans). I needed a break from Cambridge. Thus was lucky to meet up with @Ruthie_Dee, @TheNatFantastic and one of the wise sages of Bristol @clogmuso – who is one for any public sector computing tweeple to follow.

Finally I was in Oxford recently for the Shared Planet event where I met with Adam Ramsay, Jess Stanton and Louise Hazan of People and Planet.

I’ve stumbled across a number of politicians and political activists, of whom you can find in the first two of Puffles’ Twitter Lists (scroll to the end). I still see myself as being party-politically neutral and have been watching politics from various distances to know that you can still have political differences while getting on splendidly just as having identical politics and hating each other. As Bob Crow said at the first “Coalition of Resistance” conference in autumn 2010, if the left cannot unite to fight against the current set of cuts, it cannot unite full stop.

There are still a whole host of people who at some stage I’d like to gather in one big place to meet. There are some Cambridge-related people who I feel I should have met by now but haven’t – including Ellie StoneleyEleanor Turney, Louisa Loveluck, Richard Johnson (the Mr Onions version) @Radegund, Chris Howell, Steve Lintott, Caroline Byewater, Jules Bradley and Leila Khalifa. Also Hugh Morris for being the first journalist to put Puffles into print. Alice Kershaw squeezes in being in the same county, as does Emma Jackson Stuart.

Other people and accounts I’ve followed & would love to bring into a big cosy gathering include:

There are a number of people who I have inadvertently omitted. It’s 1:45 in the morning and I’ve had a rubbish week but felt the need to get as much of the above into text as possible. I will come back to these at some stage and put additions in.

This blog post (along with the other twitter lists) are my way of saying a big ***Thank you!!!*** to everyone who has made my social media experience – and now my life experience far more interesting and exciting than it otherwise would have been.

The sale of Northern Rock

The Northern Rock crisis was something that is seen as the first event that kicked off the financial crisis that seems to have gone on for far longer than previous ones. I’m not going to pretend to be a banking expert, so am not going to go into the detail of what happened when and why. I’ll leave that to the Treasury Select Committee’s investigation and report.

Strangely enough it led to one of the highlights of my civil service career – having to deliver a ministerial speech with three hours notice because the minister that I was working for at the time was called into the Commons (as with all the other Labour MPs) on a three-line-whip in order to pass the Banking (Special Provisions) Act 2008 that evening. I knew this was serious stuff because the entire bill needed to be passed in that single evening – with all of the parliamentary votes such a move entails. It is extremely rare for such a move to happen, which is why the minister could not get out of it.

I had already been aware of what was kicking off on the Rock – not just because of the queues outside the bank but also because of the compelling footage from the Treasury Select Committee where parliamentary heavyweights (messrs McFall, Fallon and Thurso amongst them) tore into the non-executive chairman of Northern Rock, zoologist Matt Ridley. (Why a major UK bank would employ a zoologist as a non-executive chairman is beyond me – George Monbiot goes further).

John McFall – the then Chair of the Treasury Select Committee tore into Northern Rock’s former board over what happened – in this case the chair of the risk committee.

I blogged previously on the issue of non-executive directors not doing their job. The Northern Rock crisis was a classic case. Is the cosy club of non-executive directors an opportunity for well-connected rich people to get paid lots of money for doing not much? What penalties are there on non-executive directors that fail spectacularly in their jobs? The sack? Well…they’ve already pocketed a nice amount of money so it’s not as if that’s going to be a huge deterrent.

As far as the status of the bank is concerned, we are where we are in terms of it having been nationalised…until today’s announcement.

“BBC business editor Robert Peston said taxpayers had injected £1.4bn into Northern Rock plc.

He added that, in addition to the immediate £747m the government would get back following the completion of the sale, there was the potential for the Treasury to receive a further £280m over the next few years.

“So on paper, taxpayers end up with a loss of somewhere between £400m and £650m,” said our business editor.

The size of the potential losses contained in the bad bank part of Northern Rock is still uncertain and it still owes the Treasury £21bn.”

As Robert Peston asks: Why now? Why choose to confirm those losses at a point when the market is at rock bottom, rather than wait for the value to rise? Or does this indicate that markets have further to fall? I don’t know. What I do know is that Parliament now has a duty to scrutinise this move in detail – both the Treasury Select Committee and the Public Accounts Committee. The sad thing today is that the chairs of neither select committees were interviewed by journalists or the mainstream news – or if they were’ I’ve not spotted it (despite being in all day and having BBCNews24 running for much of the afternoon). But then, given that Parliament is in a mini-recess, there are few backbenchers around within easy reach of Parliament – perhaps why the only backbencher I’ve seen interviewed is the Conservative MP for the Cities of London and Westminster.

Because I and many other taxpayers don’t know the intricate details, it’s all the more important that those within Parliament who do can properly hold the government to account for such decisions. Because the headline losses don’t sound too clever to the person on the street.