The geeks will take over the earth

Maybe it was the interview on Radio Oxford that did the trick, maybe it was some kind of Gladwellian tipping point. Either way, last night’s Oxford Geek Night was the busiest I’ve seen. The upstairs room at the Jericho Tavern was crammed with people; according to the organisers, we reached the limit allowed by the Jericho’s fire regulations.

We kicked off with Elliot Jay Stocks, who took us on a journey through his design career so far. He started with the dreaded Dreamweaver, moving through embedded images and Flash to Embedded Open Type.

Then it was time for Sylwia Presley to talk about Twitter Ethics – in other words, to what extent can you use blogging and microblogging platforms for viral marketing? Her emphasis was on making your own ethical judgements, but she repeatedly made the point that obvious spamming will rapidly lose you credibility.

Both talks reminded me that the web is still a very fluid area when it comes to defining acceptable behaviour and standards. We tend to talk about recommendations and good practice rather than rules or laws. That means that factors like instinct and consensus are a lot more important in guiding behaviour than they would be in a more explicitly regulated area.

Bruce Lawson, doing a microslot on accessibility, had plenty to say on different kinds of rules. He’s been working on BS8878, the new British Standard governing web accessibility. He made it clear that the new British Standard isn’t a law but a code of practice giving recommendations for upholding existing guidelines. That means giving information that will help webmasters to make their own choices rather than laying down a set of rules. He asked the assembled geeks to read and give feedback on the draft Standard before the February 1st deadline.

I also enjoyed Tim Davies’s talk on the web and adolescents. He believes that trying to protect teenagers from inappropriate web content can be counterproductive, since a lot of nannyware blocks useful, safe content too. He argued that young people need to learn to make safe choices and negotiate the web themselves. The goal for youth workers should be to channel teenagers’ web use in a positive way rather than trying to restrict it.

He demonstrated a new application which takes the information that teenagers give online (on social networking sites like MySpace) about their interests and location, then uses it to suggest activities in their area that they might enjoy, such as football or drama clubs. He pointed out that information about a teenager’s interests and location is gold dust to predators, yet most young people don’t think twice about putting those kinds of facts online.

The main purpose of the application is to help young people get access to constructive activities; the National Standard for Positive Activities says that young people are entitled to two hours a week of educational and recreational activity outside school. But the application also helps to make teenagers think twice about sharing information indiscriminately online, by using prompts to remind young people what they’re doing.

David Sheldon neatly pointed out the folly of trying to stop young people using the web when he showed a graph of online music service We7. It was very clear from the dates on the graph that most users are accessing We7 during the school term, almost certainly on school premises. “The schools haven’t blocked us yet,” he said gleefully, pointing at the sharp post-Christmas rise in uptake.

Another highlight for me was Tom Dyson’s talk on dynamic demand. He explained how the National Grid operates: by supplying electricity at slightly above predicted demand to avoid the risk of blackouts. The “buffer” of spare electricity is essentially wasted, causing unnecessary expense and carbon emissions. However, it is possible for a consumer to tell how much demand there is from the frequency of the electricity supply. When demand is high, grid frequency drops, but an increase in grid frequency indicates that demand is currently below the predicted levels. tells you just how guilty you should feel when putting the kettle on at any given moment. (Of course, to check it you need to put the computer on in the first place...)

A more serious use for Dyson’s frequency-monitoring code (“about twenty lines of Django”) is in applicances like fridges and freezers, which don’t use electricity all the time anyway. A fridge enabled to monitor dynamic demand could “choose” a high-frequency, low-demand period for its chilling cycle, thereby using electricity that would otherwise be wasted. This kind of technology could go a long way to helping the UK meet its target on reducing carbon emissions.

I was going to write about Peet Morris’s tales of Microsoft and Drew McLellan’s talk on colour (featuring Bagpuss), but I’ve rambled on long enough about last night. See you at the next one.