Brief notes on why I am cautious on AI/LLMs

I was asked the other day for my quick view on the current buzz around AI and large language models, machine learning etc.

Pasting here for posterity!

I think my slightly cautious view on LLMs etc is based on two things:

First, it’s being latched onto by people as a way of leap-frogging over doing hard work. Like it will solve a load of problems without anyone having to put any effort into it. It won’t. And it also won’t stop you having to do all the other hard work that needs to be done. People’s expectations need managing around it.

Also, related to this, is that organisations with Word documents on their websites or staff rekeying data from one system to another should stop farting about on thinking they can do AI and instead get the basics right first.

Second, it’s a very new technology with huge ethical implications, and nobody knows what they are doing. It’s a bit of a wild west out there, a lot of the companies behind this tech, like OpenAI who run ChatGPT are under no obligation to do the right thing, and are run and owned by some pretty shady individuals and corporations. Where are the controls? How do we know how the information we put into these things is then recycled into the machine, and being churned out to other users?

None of this means don’t use it, and none of it says that LLMs etc aren’t very exciting and potentially game changing. But the idea that we could, say, unleash LLM powered chatbots on our website, without first writing the decent content for them to learn from; and without assurances on what happens to what our customers type into them, is both nonsensical and dangerous.

5 simple rules for organisational leaders to keep in mind about technology

Commenting on James Herbert’s sensible post about approaching AI in local government, I came up with 5 statements of the bleedin’ obvious that all senior people ought to have in their minds whenever technology is being discussed.

  • If something sounds like a silver bullet, it probably isn’t one
  • You can’t build new things on shaky, or non-existent, foundations
  • There are no short cuts through taking the time to properly learn, understand and plan
  • There’s no such thing as a free lunch – investment is always necessary at some point and it’s always best to spend sooner, thoughtfully, rather than later, in a panic
  • Don’t go big early in terms of your expectations: start small, learn what works and scale up from that

Increasingly, I tend to speak about digital being different from previous approaches to technology because it includes a healthy dose of cynicism about the ability of technology to improve anything, ever. Perhaps these points reflect that!

Bringing a knackered laptop back to life with CloudReady

As part of the fun and games that is homeschooling, my daughter started off begging and borrowing computer time from me and her mum. It wasn’t ideal so I casted around for a better solution, so she could have her own bit of kit.

I had a fairly ancient, tiny Windows 10 laptop – the sort of thing that might have been called a netbook 10 years ago – which I hadn’t used in ages because it needed to install an update to the operating system. I couldn’t perform the upgrade though because there wasn’t the space to download it on the tiny amount of storage on the laptop! I tried fiddling with SD cards and things, but no joy.

But I came across a thing called CloudReady, which is a product of a company called Neverware. Put simply, it turns pretty much any laptop into a Chromebook – a very simple computer than runs a web browser, and pretty much nothing else.

Getting it set up involved downloading an installer and putting it on a blank USB memory stick, which slightly – but only slightly – fiddly. Installing it on the laptop went like a dream, took about 20 minutes max and there weren’t any problems.

The end result isn’t exactly the same as an official Chromebook, but it’s pretty close. It runs the open source project Chromium rather than ‘Google Chrome’ – but that doesn’t seem to matter too much. She has been able to do the usual things to personalise it, with her own choice of desktop wallpaper and so on, and loves always having a machine available for her work, that belongs to her.

So, if you’re struggling with old tech at home, and if everything you need is accessible on the web, then take a look at CloudReady. Likewise, if you are organising the reuse of old laptops for people that really need them, then CloudReady provides a great, free way, to turn them into usable, easy to maintain computers.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Markup rules

texteditterminalI like to use plain text when I can. Plain text is just text without any formatting, which you edit with an app called a text editor, like Notepad on Windows or TextWrangler on a Mac. It’s pretty much a universal format – it can be opened and edited on pretty much any system or hardware you can think of.

One of the things that makes a simple plain text file useful is the ability to ‘mark up’ text within the document.

Markup languages have been around a long time. Perhaps the most famous one is HTML, one of the foundations of the web. An HTML file in reality is just plain text, with the use of HTML tags to mark up how bits of the document should behave – such as formatting and linking to other pages, for example.

Another example and one I use a lot is Markdown, a simple markup language for use in creating documents of all kinds. By simply using characters such as the hash sign (#), asterisks (*) and so on, a document can be made to include italic and bold text, headings at various sizes and bulleted lists, for example.

The key thing is that the document format can be used on pretty much any device and in any application. It’s just plain text, after all. The use of the markup language however enables that document to do more interesting things.

What’s more, you don’t have to be a developer or anything to start your own markup based project. You just need to define a few rules, and get going.

todotxt-apps_lrgI’ve just started playing with another great example of this. It’s called todo.txt and is a way of managing a todo list in a plain text file.

The rules are straightforward. Each task exists on a single line of text. Markup in that line can add information about the task, so for instance a word following a + sign is the name of the project that task belongs to (allowing you to group tasks by project, for example). You can also add a context to a task by following the @ sign with a word. Priorities can be added to tasks by using (A), (B) and so on to the beginning of the line.

Here’s an example of what a todo list looks like:

(A) Call Mom @Phone +Family
(A) Schedule annual checkup +Health
(B) Outline chapter 5 +Novel @Computer
(C) Add cover sheets @Office +TPSReports
Plan backyard herb garden @Home
Pick up milk @GroceryStore
Research self-publishing services +Novel @Computer
x Download Todo.txt mobile app @Phone

You could just manage your list in the plain text file using an editor – and many people do. However, because of the open nature of the format, other options are possible.

First, saving your todo list text file in a service like Dropbox makes it available across the web, so you can pick it up and edit it across many devices, which is helpful.

Even better, there are apps for mobile devices to help you manage your todo list. These present your todo list as a more traditional task management app would – but all the time they are just updating the text file using the markup rules.

This means all your tasks aren’t locked up in some database you’ll never get access to. You can take your text file todo list away any time you like and manage it in a different way.

As well as being a neat hack, todo.txt makes me wonder what other applications could be based on the simplicity of a plain text file and a few markup rules.

Any suggestions?

Writing apps – the software I use to get words on a page

writingI probably think about this sort of thing far more than I should – after all, doesn’t everyone just use Word? – but I like playing with different tools for writing.

After all, for me, typing words into a computer makes up probably 75% of my job. That’s a lot of typing and so it’s worth making it as little of a painful experience as I can.

So here is a list of the different tools I use to write text with.


Byword is a ‘distraction free’ writing application which works on my Mac and iPad, syncing through Apple’s iCloud service. It’s a very simple editor, that pretty much just lets you type in text in plain text format. You can do some formatting with Markdown, which you can then export, but I tend to use it when I just want to bash some words down, without thinking too much about how it looks.

Find out more about Byword


MarsEdit is the app I use to write my blog posts. It’s a bit of desktop software that lets me bash in the content for my posts offline, using a very simple plain text editor. I’m able to add tags and categories to my posts, which I then send up to my blog in draft, ready for a final check, adding images and hitting publish.

I don’t know why, but I just find writing posts in MarsEdit more comfortable than using the WordPress editor – hence why I class WordPress as a publishing tool rather than a writing one. A big part of it is probably down to the keyboard shortcuts I use to quickly enter and mark up content in MarsEdit, rather than having to constantly switch to the mouse to select icons.

Find out more about MarsEdit

Apple Mail

An awful lot of the words I write are emails, and so my email client has to feature in this list. I use Apple Mail mostly by default nowadays – previously I have used Gmail’s web based interface, but I do find using a desktop client helps me pace myself a bit and be a little more thoughtful. It’s basically ok – I have no complaints but then I’m not exactly a huge fan either. It works.

Find out more about Apple Mail


This is a seriously good outlining tool, which I mostly use for drafting pieces of writing or presentations. Outliners let you build up bullet style lists of content, indented at various levels of a hierarchy, which you can then drag around and reorder. It allow you to structure a document really well in the planning stage – to figure out your ideas and how they slot together.

Find out more about OmniOutliner

Google Docs

When I need to collaborate in the early stages of preparing a document, I usually turn to Google Docs. Due to the fact that it is online, it does tend to stress me out a bit – I prefer desktop apps with local copies of files when possible – but Docs is the best solution to working on something with others, particularly at the same time.

Find out more about Google Docs


I occasionally work on longer pieces of writing, although they almost never get published anywhere. Scrivener lets you write chunks of content for a larger work, which you can then reorder, drag around and so on. It also lets you save research notes in the same place as your draft document, which can be helpful. At the end, Scrivener spits out a rich text file that sticks all your chunks together, for a final edit, or formatting exercise in a word processor.

Find out more about Scrivener


The writing I do in Evernote differs wildly, from meeting notes to pasting in web addressees to check out later, to

Find out more about Evernote


Pages is Apple’s own word processor, which I use occasionally for more graphical documents. It just has a more creative, desktop publishing type feel to me, which makes it ideal for that kind of work. It’s really easy to use, and I find it the best tool to work with when a document has a lot of graphical elements.

Find out more about Pages


A super iPhone text editor. It does one thing very well, and that is writing short notes on my phone. It has a beautiful design and is incredibly easy to use and for when I just need to quickly write something without worrying about it syncing up anywhere else, Vesper is perfect.

Find out more about Vesper


Yet another cloud-syncing text editor. I use this to quickly get text onto my phone from another device. It’s fairly niche, but stuff like when I look up an address for a meeting on my laptop and want to get it to my phone – I’ll usually use Simplenote rather than creating something in Evernote.

Find out more about Simplenote


OK, so I do use Word. Quite a lot, actually, in its various incarnations – Mac, Windows, online (via Office 365) and now, of course, on the iPad. When it comes to needing to share a document with others in a format they are likely to be able to edit, its still the best option.

Find out more about Word (really?)

What are your favourite writing tools? Do you use as many, or even more, than I do?

Dropbox launches a swathe of new features

Some interesting developments from Dropbox – everyone’s (well, most people’s) favourite cloud storage/backup/sharing tool.

Firstly, a new app called Carousel, which is a photo gallery app. According to the blurb, it

…combines the photos in your Dropbox with the photos on your phone, and automatically backs up new ones as you take them. Carousel sorts all these memories by event so you can easily travel back in time to any photo from any date. And unlike other mobile galleries, the size of your Carousel isn’t constrained by the space on your phone, which means you can finally have your entire life’s memories in one place.

Sounds good. Note that this is a separate app rather than a new feature in the existing Dropbox app. Further evidence that the native app space is all around doing one thing well rather than cramming as much functionality into one app as possible (for another example see Facebook moving messaging out of the main FB app and forcing users into the dedicated messaging app).

Here’s a video with the details.

[vimeo 91475918 w=500 h=281]

Carousel: Your entire life at your fingertips from Dropbox on Vimeo.

Next is an update to Mailbox, which was an iOS only email client. It’s now on Android too, and had introduced a new feature that learns from your use of it which emails you are likely to immediately archive, for example, so that in future it can automate that task for you.

An email client that deletes emails on your behalf? That’s one way to inbox zero!

The other updates relate to Dropbox for Business, rather than the consumer version that most people use (for free). One is that now users will have two Dropbox folders – one for personal stuff and one for work. The work one will be in the control of the employer, who will be able to remotely wipe files from ex-employees, or for other security reasons.

A second new feature is account transfer, which allows employers to move an account to another employee, due to promotions or other movements. Thirdly, a sharing audit function will enable an organisation to track who has seen what files.

These are important updates for Dropbox to be seen as a serious contender in the cloud storage and sharing space, particularly in bigger organisations. However the real game changer has only been hinted at, and that is Project Harmony, which will bring collaboration to Dropbox documents.

Dropbox say that Harmony will

let you see who’s editing a file, have a conversation with other editors, and keep copies in sync — all right inside the apps you already use

So it won’t matter if one person is editing a file in Word on a Mac and another using a different version of Word on Windows – real time collaboration will still be a possibility.

These are really interesting developments from Dropbox, and the cloud storage space is hotting up at the moment, with price drops from Google, and new feature announcements from the likes of Box too.

Which storage service is your current favourite and what are the features that matter most to you?

Asana – smart group task management

I’ve just got into using Asana to manage my projects, thanks to a tip from Simon Booth-Lucking at Claremont Communications.

It’s a great web-based task manager. What I really like about it is that it work on two levels – you can build a very simple task list very quickly, or you can do some much more sophisticated project management if that’s what you require.

It’s also great value. You can have as many projects as you like, shared with up to 15 people, all for free. Only if you go above the 15 person limit do you need to start paying.

Here’s a video introducing Asana. If you want to see some more demos of what it is capable of, then the YouTube channel is the place to go.


A GDS approach to internal systems? Please?

it-fed-upThe Government Digital Service is the UK government’s solution to the issue of ensuring that government services are accessible and usable for citizens online. Quite rightly they have received plaudits for their approach to service design and delivery.

This is set out in the service standard, a list of 26 criteria that digital services should meet. It’s a great list.

Having worked at pretty much every level of government there is, I certainly appreciate the need for citizen facing services to be of high quality. But that experience also makes me wonder just how much could be achieved if a similarly robust standard were taken to the design of systems used internally by government departments, councils, and so on.

Actually, make that all large organisations, regardless of sector.

After all, how much in cashable savings could be achieved if it took a minute rather than half an hour to log a leave request, or book some travel?

Or how about the design of some of the big applications that people use to do their work – big lumbering databases with godawful user interfaces which give everybody their dim view of technology and what it can do in the workplace?

I was chatting to Meg Pickard about this yesterday and she confirmed the vital importance of the end user need. Part of the issue here, Meg felt, was that internal systems such as the ones we were talking about were invisible to the public, and so demonstrating value to citizens is difficult – it could be perceived by some negatively, as civil servants spending time and money designing pretty tools for themselves.

There is also a potential danger that this discussion – venturing into areas marked by signed saying “Danger! ERP!” – could be seen as ocean boiling territory.

However, how hard would it be for a simple, usable travel or leave booking system to be built as an agile prototype and shared amongst organisations, just to prove it could be done?

After all, the app-ification of IT demonstrates that having single use applications tends to work pretty well for most people, rather than vast monolithic systems that try and use the same process to achieve different tasks.

What’s on your tablet, Matt China?

mattcMatt China previously worked in local government, where he championed new ways of working in his authority. Due to recent senior management restructure he is now looking for a new job, preferably with a more ‘agile’ organisation.

All offers can be sent to Matt via Twitter.

Which tablet do you use most?

Nexus 7

What do you use your tablet for most?

  • Email
  • Web browsing
  • Social networking
  • Note taking
  • E-reading

What are your favourite apps?

What add ons do you use with your tablet?

Poetic SLIMLINE Portfolio Case

What does your tablet not do that you really wish it could?

I wish I’d bought a 3g version so I am not reliant on WiFi connectivity (can tether to phone but this is very expensive).

What’s on your tablet? is a regular series of posts about how WorkSmart readers use their tablets. You can take part too – just fill in the survey.

Hipchat – neat group instant messaging app

Hipchat looks a neat tool for those teams with remote workers in particular.

Group chat is a fantastic tool for a distributed team because of its persistence. You keep your chat window open all the time, dropping in and out when required. It reminds you that you’re part of a team and that there are people out there you can chat to when you need to.

Hipchat seems a really nice implementation of this idea. It’s web based but also has desktop and mobile apps for all the major platforms.

Key features include a searchable archive of conversations, secure access, file sharing and the ability to spin up quick video chats when required.

What’s really nice is that is it free for teams of up to five – meaningful that for a small group, it’s perfect.

Here’s a video that explains more.