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A chat with Paul Fenwick

Simon Eskow, TechBlog Editor. 27 August 2014, 1:00 pm
A chat with Paul Fenwick

Melbourne-based lecturer and technologist Paul Fenwick was traveling through the US when we caught up with him. Fenwick is the managing director of Perl Training Australia, a known "life hacker", and a keynote speaker at ITx in Auckland in October.

Fenwick spends a good 178 days of the year on the road, at last count. In this Q&A, Fenwick takes time out before attending the Burning Man festival to talk about human creativity, the threats to our digital privacy, and a taste of what he might call a life-hack, involving dental floss.

Q: I notice that you call yourself a "man who loves freedom". What would you say is the most pressing technological issue in regard to the general concept of freedom?

I'm deeply concerned about the erosion of our privacy, and the potential for abuse that had. Google and Facebook know more about me than even my closest friends, and the revelations by Snowden that the NSA has been spying on *everyone* shows just how easy it is for the technology we rely upon can also be used to erode our freedoms.

This is especially concerning when it comes to mobile devices; we've seen a proliferation of apps which ask for a *lot* of data they clearly don't need to run, and in many cases the typical end user has very little they can do to mitigate this.

Q: What must IT professionals, or anyone really, do to distinguish themselves from machines and technology that can do what they do already?

When one of the first sewing machines was invented by Barthélemy Thimonnier in 1830, angry tailors - fearful that they'd be replaced by machines - stormed his factory and destroyed his work. Yet not only do we still have tailors today, but an entire clothing industry that simply could not exist without the invention of machine sewing.

Every generation seems to fear they'll be replaced by machines, whereas what often happens is the machines help humans become more creative and productive by taking on the dullest and most tiresome jobs.

The most human part of us is creativity, and I feel that machines are helping us become *more* human than we've ever been before by making it easier for us to be creative. I have friends who can't play a guitar or a piano, but they compose amazing music for these instruments, and it's software which allows them to listen to what they've written and release it to the world. I have friends who create amazing artwork, and it's illustration software which allows them to do so. The whole process of writing and editing has been made easier by machine, and most importantly machines are making creative pursuits in general more accessible to everyone.

In many cases, machines are creating industries which have never existed before. Kenya is showing some amazing innovation when it comes to software development, and it's very exciting to see humanitarian projects such as Ushahidi for crisis and disaster management, and OpenMRS for medical records.

Machines are making a real difference to people's lives, and I don't think we've even begun to reach their full potential for good.

Q. Can you give me one example of a life-hacks that you do speak about?

The one that everyone seems to love is my dental floss.

I have Near Field Communication (NFC) sticker in my medicine cabinet where I keep my floss. When I floss my teeth, I take out my floss and put my phone in its place. By the time I'm done, my phone has detected the tag, triggered an event in Tasker (an Android automation framework), which has submitted a data-point to Beeminder (a system for tracking and sticking to goals), which then calls back to Exobrain (my own automation framework that manages much of my life), which then assigns me experience points (XP) in HabitRPG (a system for turning your habits into a 8-bit style adventure game), and in turn sends that XP update to my bluetooth Pebble watch.

If I don't floss my teeth regularly, then Beeminder reminds me, and if I ignore the reminders, I actually get fined money for not achieving a goal I've set for myself.

The whole thing sounds very complex, but it feels very natural as I just pick up my floss and put my phone down in its place. When I get back home I'm hoping to scatter a few more NFC stickers around the house, so my agents can know when I'm sleeping, studying, or eating properly.

I know that sounds like a lot of work, but I long ago realised that I can be dreadfully disorganised without some sort of external guidance, and it's very easy to use systems like Beeminder and Exobrain to help remind me to stay on track.


Paul Fenwick will be speaking at the ITx Conference in Auckland on 8 to 10 October in Auckland. ITx is established by IITP in conjunction with CITRENZ and CSANZ. For more information or to register please see


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