Great design?

I gave a presentation at The Design Council in London a few days ago.

The organisation is dedicated to the concept of great design and communicating its virtues to British business.

In order to stay true to its mission, everything in its headquarters has clearly been thoroughly designed with a great deal of thought and cutting edge design input going into every aspect of its content and layout.

Included in this radical thinking was the gents’ toilet which had no urinals – just a row of stalls. I’m sure the architect had a long justification about how this was superior to conventional male facilities but the effect on this user was dramatic: three seconds after setting foot in this facility I was rushing out again in a panic, in the firm belief I’d accidentally walked into the Ladies’

what I’ve been doing

The company I founded, True Knowledge, has just come out from under the radar.

The old website which said just two sentences about what we are doing is now replaced with a brand new website describing what we are doing in detail and a video demo of our technology in action is now prominently published:

We are also now starting our private beta where people from outside the company can apply for access to an early version of one of our products, try it out and enable us to refine it in the light of their feedback.

I started work on the company’s technology almost ten years ago, determined to make an attempt at applying my AI and software development skills to a really important problem which would really make a difference if I could succeed.

Substantial amounts of work were done back then but all the technological and commercial pieces didn’t fully come together until 2005 after which I managed to obtain some early finance to take on staff and produce a fully working system. Having proven all the key technical issues we set about raising venture capital and succeeded when Octopus Ventures funded us a little earlier this year. We are now in full growth mode, taking on staff and gearing up to the next stage.

I’m very excited and optimistic about what we are doing but we need a lot of help. If you can join us, partner with us or assist us in any way, we very much want to hear from you.

Punting from Cambridge to Ely

Every now and then it’s fun to do something utterly ridiculous just for the sake of it.

In was in this spirit that myself and three friends (Rufus Evison, David Sinclair and Katherine Webster) set out to punt from Cambridge to Ely.

As anyone who has ever visited Cambridge will know, a punt is a boat which is propelled by pushing against the bottom of the river with a long pole. It’s a prodigiously slow means of transport but ideal for gracefully navigating the few hundred yards of beautiful scenery along the central Cambridge colleges (the backs). The very ambitious can punt to Grantchester (a place within Cambridge) which can be done there and back fairly easily in an afternoon.

Ely, however, is a completely different city, in a different part of Cambridgeshire and travelling there is a moderately serious trip by motorcar. The idea of travelling there by punt was so insane that it had to be done.

The idea was Rufus Evison’s. It was one of his entries on – a social website where you list things you want to do before you die. He’d heard it was last done in 1907, thought it ought to be done 100 years later and as he was about to leave Cambridge for London after many years living here, the window of opportunity was short.

David Sinclair owned a punt (and importantly a trailer to avoid having to make the return trip by river) so one Saturday morning we loaded his punt up high with expensive picnic food, champagne and beer and set off, determined to make it to Ely by the end of the weekend.

We set off from the Green Dragon pub in Chesterton – well within Cambridge but saving us having to navigate one fewer locks.

In essence the trip was in three sections: the "boatie" bit of the river familiar to every undergraduate who has rowed for their college, arriving eventually at Baits Bite Lock (the point where the boaties turn around). After that there’s another long stretch of the river to Bottisham lock and after that there is miles upon miles upon miles (hours upon hours upon hours) of flat Fenland at which point Ely Cathedral is just in view followed by hours upon hours upon hours more where it grows ever so slightly bigger.

However, we made it; very late on Saturday night having travelled non stop, but we got there.

The trip was notable for the weather. We managed to pick the most spectacular summer day of the year for it. It was also great for the banter between us and the surprised occupants of every leisure boat that motored past us. Some way out of Cambridge we tried the line "can you tell us which one is King’s College Chapel?" which reliably got a laugh as it was just conceivable that we were a group of tourists who had got spectacularly lost. However, once many hours had gone by and Cambridge became a dot on the horizon this possibility became so extreme that the joke no longer worked. Towards the end of the trip we were meeting leisure boats that had never been to Cambridge.

So how practical is the trip? I was surprised that we were able to make it. I had imagined that the river would be too deep in places but this turned out not to be the case. We took a six foot punt extension with us but didn’t use it once. Having said that some parts of the river bottom (particularly nearer Ely) were particularly unsuitable (soft) and we were forced to punt very close to the reeds at one side in order to get decent traction. We were also lucky to have two really excellent punters (Rufus and David) in the boat who did more than their fair share of the work.

Could it also be the case that we were the first to do it in a hundred years? Quite possibly. The trip was sufficiently insane that few in their right mind would choose to do it. However, it wasn’t so insane (like climbing Everest) that people would want to do it for the challenge and prestige. The trip also required a trailer as having got there I can’t imagine anyone turning round and punting back again upstream.

Another highlight for me was that it opened my eyes to the whole English waterway scene. The UK has hundreds of miles of interlinked rivers which are navigatable by boat, and there’s an entire leisure sub-culture of which I was previously unaware, involving navigating down them, going through locks and stopping off at riverside pubs. On days when the weather was this good I can truly understand the appeal.

Photos from the trip are here

Drama at home

Yesterday evening started so normally yet had a little more drama than usual…

I got home after work around 7pm (pitch dark at this time of year), and found that my cleaner (who had been working in the house during the day) had somehow managed to jam the front door so it wouldn’t open. No matter how hard I tried the key, the lock just wouldn’t turn the last bit necessary to pull back the bolt.

After trying for about ten minutes I decided that the next step was to try to get in at the rear. I got into my back garden and after creeping through it I tried the back door to discover that I’d forgotten to lock it and all that was holding it shut was a single sliding bolt at the top.

Armed with this bit of information it seemed clear that the easiest and cheapest way to sort out the problem was to break the bolt. This would get me into my home fast (I was getting cold) and would save me the time and expense of calling out an emergency locksmith. I pulled the door back and after grabbing it with both hands attempted to pull it away from the bolt…

Unfortunately it turned out that the bolt was substantially stronger than the door and instead of the bolt breaking away from the door, the door itself decided to give way instead in spectacular fashion as the panels crumbled and the glass fell to the ground. The end result was a huge amount of noise and a large hole where the door used to be (with the bolt still clinging to the frame). At least I could now get in!

Five or ten minutes later, while I was trying to figure out how to organise a joiner to get a new, more secure door fitted at short notice there was a steady knocking at the front.

I opened up to find that the entire area outside my house was crammed full of uniformed police! Neighbours had reported a burglary in progress.

After letting them in, I was told that there was a similar number of police in the graveyard at the rear of my house waiting to grab me should I have decided to run out that way and that they included a dog unit!

Worse still, while I was trying to explain myself I heard the familiar put-put-put sound from the sky and was informed that this was a POLICE HELICOPTER that had been summoned to the scene and was now hovering above us!

Of course, it’s completely legal to break into one’s own property so after I proved that I lived there and wasn’t intent on stealing my own possessions, they all filed out pretty quickly, incident over.

It was a weird experience: slightly embarrassing, deeply disturbing but also very reassuring all at once. Thank you Cambridgeshire Police.