Horace and Pity»
I’m sick again, which is hopefully not the leitmotif of 2016. Nothing serious, just a cold, but I’d barely recovered from the last bout of flu. So I’m mostly sleeping, ssh’ing into things to move stuff out of the shutting-down coloc, and watching Louis CK’s Horace and Pete, which is like a little off-off-Broadway production if community theater had HD cameras, Steve Buscemi, Jessica Lange, Alan Alda, and Paul Simon. I don’t mean that in a bad way!
I appreciate CK’s deliberate attempts not to pre-publicise. The first anyone heard about the show was a short mail from him to his subscribers, announcing just the show’s title and the price, $5, payable in PayPal, Amazon, Bitcoin and the rest. A day or so later he explained a bit more:
Part of the idea behind launching it on the site was to create a show in a new way and to provide it to you directly and immediately, without the usual promotion, banner ads, billboards and clips that tell you what the show feels and looks like before you get to see it for yourself. As a writer, there’s always a weird feeing that as you unfold the story and reveal the characters and the tone, you always know that the audience will never get the benefit of seeing it the way you wrote it because they always know so much before they watch it. And as a TV watcher I’m always delighted when I can see a thing without knowing anything about it because of the promotion. So making this show and just posting it out of the blue gave me the rare opportunity to give you that experience of discovery.
It’s a TV show that hasn’t been broadcast on anything like a television network. Not unheard of, but it also feels like a play and a personal project. Does television a format now: episodic, under two hours, a budget within these boundaries? I expect that Horace and Pete will end up on TV eventually, but then so do films.
It’s pretty good. It kept my attention through the headaches and coughing and woe and the is and the me. It’s consoling to watch someone do a Mike Leigh about people I am like, rather than people I don’t like. Fumbled lines and good-enough first takes, make me fall in love with you, always. It’s a toolkit of forms and performances being put to good use.
Thanking Hyperlinks For Their Service»
Tidied up the sidebar a bit here. Happily deleted the Google Ads (what a strange and distracting experiment advertising proved to be. I mean universally, not here, where I think I got $10 or so across the decade. Entirely undistracted.). I felt sadder cutting down all the links to other people. The people are still here, but the destinations are long gone. I’ll replace them soon I hope, but I didn’t like the smack of anachronism a link to another person’s dead webpage had. That said, looking through some of the older blog entries here, maybe the Web and the Unixy way I had of looking at it was always a nostalgia-tainted vision of the future. Like we were recapitulating the dreams of the Seventies in an attempt to shove away the grip of the present. A short circuit.
I get the same generational cross-patch feel watching J.C.R. Licklider speaking in 1986. You can’t quite place where Licklider is in time here: he’s an old man, over 70, talking about man-machine prosthesis and virtual reality goggles as though they were ancient experiment. But you know that everyone there was looking in a straight line to the future, bucket-brigading these ideas out of the past, smuggling them past all those Eighties DOS boxes.
Those moments are disorienting, when a new future finds its secret history. When all the Rubyists began to find a joy (ha) and a history in Vim, a tool built for a different world; when young artists find themselves veering toward skills thirty-years gone instead of what they are supposed to learn in college. It’s not just about fashion, it’s about a second victory of an old school, on the verge of a total eclipse. There is a political analogy here; right now there always is with me.
(The other thing that’s caught my eye is differences in writing style in 2001. I’m possibly reading too much into a drily factual blog entry, but does even Glenn nowadays write like Glenn wrote then?
I’m tentatively excited about keybase’s new filesystem, but I wonder if some of that excitement is simply because their directory structure — where I have a /keybase/public/<identifier> hierachy that can be mounted by anyone, and a /keybase/private/<me> folder that is synced only between machines I attest as controlling — maps so well to the structure I’ve been trying to use in my own home directories for, gosh, over a decade.
The top-level directory in my ~danny/ has a Private and a Public folder. The Private directory is encrypted, and is linked into by a menagerie of symlinks whenever I find something that I wouldn’t want the world to see, from configurations to tax documents. The Public folder, in theory, contains everything I wouldn’t care the world seeing. My ideal was that I’d just share ~/Public on a webserver, and I’d try to err on the Public side. In practice, I’ve never actually been brave enough to open up all of ~/Public. Too much private stuff gets emitted, even accidentally. As I was writing this, for instance, I realized that I had half-written a script that could be used to derive a relatively important password, and it was still slumped around in Public (I’ve always tried to keep all my ongoing code repositories on the Public side). Just the idea of auditing the vast stash that has mounted up in there has lead to me growing ever more cautious.
I wish there was some middle ground between those two folders. But there isn’t, and that’s the world we live in. Unless I should mkdir ~/Obscurity one of these days.
I gave up social media for a month, like Lent, yesterday. It was a whim, at heart — I realised I was bouncing like a Pong puck between the stress of work, to evading work by browsing media, to bouncing back off into work from the stress of reading my social media.
After years of gleeful woolgathering, my social media makes me anxious. The Internet and its people: watching them interact now is like watching parents fight. My friends argue, or steam in their own rage, or trot out simple words that provoke me into argument, even when I don’t know or can no longer care what their original intention was. Every tweet had become a poke in the guts. Every notification had me flinching.
Look at my hat! Am I bad for not liking your hat? Am I not liking your hat because it is just a hat, and I am not interested in a hat right now, but I feel pressured to “like” you hat?
These terrible things are happening. Are you angry at me for not doing more? Are you doing even less, and a hypocrite?
These kittens, I acknowledge, are cute. But what about that bad thing I just saw? Are you trying to confuse me?
So I signed off from Twitter and Facebook.
I kept Tumblr, because my Tumblr is a strange distant thing, of a small group of strangers in their twenties I randomly discovered. They are smart and happy and have carefully moderated their distance from the drama surrounding them, even on Tumblr. I watch like a sci-fi scientist might use tachyons to light up the post-apocalyptic tribes of her dismal future. What can I learn from them? Can I use their obvious intelligence and hyper-evolved adaption to their devastated world to change my own fate?
Ironically, the day after I forswore social media, I ended up physically *at* Twitter. @Twitter. There was a meeting to discuss keeping people safe from harassment, which is the absolute pinnacle of the stress I have. All my online hyperventilation comes from the expectation that one day, everything I say (including this paragraph) will be used against me. I sat and chatted with people so abraded by mass harassment that they had a kind of shine to them, a sensitivity and an invulnerability. We argued a bit. We don’t necessarily agree. It was really nice. We’d argue a bit, and then mutter sorry under our breaths, and then find more pleasant things in common to talk about.
I wish I could work out how to map that: that joy of shared communication over exaggerated gulfs, back onto my Internet again.
This bit of the Net still feels okay, at least. I’ll be making camp for the month at least. Maybe longer. I might not write, but I’ll be doing some housekeeping. I’m not trying to be nostalgic. You can join me here if you like.
)))))))))), or the dying words of John McCarthy»
It’s now a few months after my 45th birthday, which is almost exactly the date when one can no longer, with any reasonable expectation of acceptance from anyone non-senile, call oneself “young”.
My main regret regarding my youth (and the one I’m sure most of my friends would hurl at me) is that I never actually finished much. Fortunately, one of those things I didn’t finish was my own life, so I still have a few more decades to wrap things up, put matters in order, settle accounts, tie a bow on it all, and so on.
So my new resolution, this year and ongoing is to stop starting new projects, and dedicate the remaining decades of my life to completing all the things that I started and let trail off.
Given my track record, this fortunately gives me an incredible set of audacious feats to carefully back-track and re-establish. These will include:
- A satisfactory resolution to the narrative of Gagooltrix, the imaginary planet I envisaged as my alien home world when I was five or six. I foresee this including some sort of scientific explanation for the giant volcano at the south pole that allowed it move at near light speed around the galaxy, and a final tale of redemption for Leinad, the bad version of me that stuck the oven lighter into a custard tart and then ran out of our back garden and into the wider world before I could stop him.
- The establishment of “Stupid’s”, the Nineties comedy club I hopelessly envisaged producing and compering straight after university.
- Single editions of both Graduate Loser and NTK, both of which were always intended to be print-based. I may have to deliberately fashion them in retro 90s format.
- (Possibly, although technology and more accurate estimations of my own abilities could deprioritize this), my live karaoke touring band.
- Learn an instrument.
- A graphic novel based on the Irish famine, as envisaged by me after reading Watchman.
- Paaarty!, the friend simulator I had sketched out in my 2nd year of college. Probably not for the Atari ST this time though.
- Kant! The Musical, a musical about Immanuel and Brian (K|C)ant.
- That book on combating procrastination I was commissioned to write by O’Reilly over ten years ago.
- Book on the history of the five or so revolutions I have been content to sit around in the background of, noodling.
- Learn to drive or at least keep failing to pass a test up until the point where it becomes endearingly ridiculous and/or self-driving cars are a reality.
- The Mysterious Best-Selling Non-Fiction Book me and Liz have planned, but can only write under pseudonyms.
- The geek comedy night in San Francisco (see Stupid’s).
- Opera about Tesla (again, I think I can leave this one if someone else beats me to it. It’s been twenty years though! Come on! Surely there’s a time limit on this?)
- The US tour for all my British comedian friends who pined for one, but have never yet gotten.
- Actually send out Anno NTK, every week. Maybe collar Dave to do a podcast.
There’s probably some others, but that seems to be enough for the next forty or so years. The rest I think will be sitting around under a warm duvet of some design and trying to get Haskell things to compile.
Meanwhile, the first project I will officially declare completed is “being young.”
I’m greatly enjoying Ancillary Sword, the sequel to Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. Everyone always goes on about Ancillary’s treatment of gender, but my favorite bits are Leckie’s gentle bit-twiddling of almost every other part of the Radch culture compared to the dominant Western default. The Radch idea of beauty tends to the “broad and heavy”. Despite being extremely officious and formal they indulge spoil their children terribly – my favorite scene in the novel so far is a tense social negotiation which is repeatedly interrupted by a one-year old stealing fruit from the protagonists from under their dining table. They have a thing about spiritual corruption and ritual soiling, but don’t seem that worried about toilet manners: one of the aide de camps constantly frets about using the correct tea sets and seating in a rough encampment, but all of the characters don’t seem that bothered by peeing in a bucket.
When a book so successfully paints a vividly strange human culture from the inside like this, I always wonder about how you would present it on television or film, where the audience has to begin at least as an outsider. (The Ancillary series has already been optioned for TV.)
My thought with the Imperial Radch would be to begin the film with, under the credits, a very slow and silent and precise sequence of Radch soldier dressing formally, reflected through a mirror so the soldier is looking straight into the camera. The Radch uniform is fairly muted and militaristic to begin with, but with placing each of those small pinned tokens, you could get the precision of it very well. It also gives time to notice the gender neutrality of the actor’s face, hands, and allow it to become normalized.
On the Thoughts of Chairman Bruce»
So I’m reading the latest missive from Chairman Bruce Sterling about Snowden and Assange, and even though I have some history with the guy, I’m clapping along, because he always writes a fine barnstormer.
Then, like Cory, I get pulled up by this bit. He’s reeling off a list of names, from 7iber to Bytes For All. I recognise them. They’re a list of activist groups I work with. The names are from a project I’m working on.
This what he says about those groups, in passing:
Just look at them all, and that’s just the A’s and B’s… Obviously, a planetary host of actively concerned and politically connected people. Among this buzzing horde of eager online activists from a swarm of nations, what did any of them actually do for Snowden? Nothing.
Before Snowden showed up from a red-eye flight from Hawaii, did they have the least idea what was actually going on with the hardware of their beloved Internet? Not a clue. They’ve been living in a pitiful dream world where their imaginary rule of law applies to an electronic frontier — a frontier being, by definition, a place that never had any laws.
Well, let’s go through the Chairman’s list alphabetically, and see if they have any excuse for their lack of aid and woeful ignorance about the electronic frontier.
First on the list, 7iber works in Amman, Jordan. 7iber is so politically-connected that their own government banned them last month from Jordan’s domestic Internet. I’m not sure reaching out to them was ever going to nab Snowden a safe harbor in the Middle-East. Probably the opposite: after all, they were were one of the groups translating Wikileaks into Arabic back in 2010, which didn’t exactly endear them to the local states.
Next up, Access. Access has a base in the United States, where aiding Snowden would get you hauled in for questioning on an espionage charge. I note they’ve been in such “a pitiful dream world” about the rule of law they spent a sizeable chunk of the last few years campaigning (with EFF and CPJ and many others) to get https turned on for a huge chunk of the Internet, thereby protecting it — I’m sure entirely accidentally — from unlawful NSA taps. You know, the ones that EFF has been telling people about since 2006.
Similarly, Agentura.ru must be incredibly ignorant about the surveillance state, given that it’s been investigating and whistleblowing on the Russian and American security service for 13 years. Enough to be detained and questioned several times by Russia’s secret police.
But hey, that’s just words on the Internet, right? What we really need is less of that online guff, and more direction action, right? Like our next witness, Aktion Freiheit statt Angst, who have been protesting surveillance in Germany since 2006, when they inspired 15,000 people onto the streets of Berlin.
Maybe you can explain to them how they can better make the security state a bigger issue in Germany this year on September 7th, at Potsdamerplatz. I can’t imagine any of those people will be agitating for better treatment for Bradley Manning or Snowden this year.
Moving on: here’s a pic from those NGO types at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.
That’s the back of Nabeel Rajab. He sort of knows a little about the surveillance state, because his electronic communications and phones were monitored after receiving this beating from the Bahraini government.He’s been imprisoned in part for his work on social networks.
Besides the imprisonment of Rajab, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights in general also has some idea about the risks of Internet surveillance, because elevenother twitter users in that country have been jailed because of anonymous tweets that were tracked by sending them malicious web addresses. Here’s their detailed report. Note that that particular report ends with an explanation of how you can defeat that kind of surveillance. You know, apart from that delusional rule of law.
Wrapping up those As and Bs, Bolo Bhi and Bytes for All are both conducting the most sustained and brilliant work I’ve seen in advocacy, fighting against surveillance and censorship in one of the countries most determinedly targeted by both its own government and the United States for anti-terrorist action: Pakistan.
The idea that these groups, who are fighting to keep the Internet defended in their own country, are supposed to drop their grassroots activism and start, I don’t know, hob-nobbing the people they are actively opposing in their own states to get Snowden a break, or have any illusions about the rule of law on the Internet right now, betrays a profound misunderstand about what digital activists actually do these days.
Online activists these days do policy work, but they do a lot more than that. They have to do a lot more than that, because these days what we do in the “electronic civ lib” world is actually defend real people targetted by this surveillance. It’s been like that since around about 2008, when all of this deeply stopped being theoretical. Because it’s around that time that we all started getting friends and colleagues on government watchlists, or getting thrown in jail as a result of surveillance or Internet activity.
And it’s weird that Bruce doesn’t know that things got this weird five years ago, because ten years ago, he predicted at least part of it. Here’s how another of his barnstormers, this time in 2002, to the O’Reilly Open Source Convention.
In times of adversity, you learn who your friends are. You guys need a lot of friends. You need friends in all walks of life. Pretty soon, you are going to graduate from the status of techie geeks to official dissidents. This is your fate. People are wasting time on dissident relics like Noam Chomsky. Professor Chomsky is a pretty good dissident: he’s persistent, he means what he says, and he’s certainly very courageous, but this is the 21st century, and Stallman is a bigger deal. Lawrence Lessig is a bigger deal.
Y’know, Lawrence, he likes to talk as if all is lost. He thinks we ought to rise up against Disney like the Serbians attacking Milosevic. He expects the population to take to the streets. Fuck the streets. Take to the routers. Take to the warchalk.
Lawrence needs to talk to real dissidents more. He needs to talk to some East European people. When a crackdown comes, that isn’t the end of the story. That’s the start of a dissident’s story. And this isn’t about fat-cat crooks in our Congress who are on the take from the Mouse. This is about global civil society. It’s Globalution.
Okay, that’s a bit over the top, even for a 2002 O’Reilly audience. But hey, a classic Sterling coinage! It’s “globalution”!
In the end, it wasn’t Lessig who got cracked down on by the US government. Ridiculous idea! No, it was his colleague, Aaron. Here they are at the time. They were both at that conference. Aaron left early, and so I think he missed that speech. He blogged about it though.
I like to think I’m one of your friends. That’s easy enough to say. But one of the true delights of the world of free software is that it’s about deeds, not words. It’s about words that become deeds when they’re in the box.
So, I remember when the Bradley Manning story broke. Here’s Bruce’s words (and deeds) at the time, when the techie geek finally and horribly graduated to official dissident:
Bradley Manning, was a bored, resentful, lower-echelon guy in a dead end, who discovered some awesome capacities in his system that his bosses never knew it had… [People just like Manning] are banal. Bradley Manning is a young, mildly brainy, unworldly American guy who probably would have been pretty much okay if he’d been left alone to skateboard, read comic books and listen to techno music.
In 1998, I was one of a handful of fresh-faced newly-minted cypherpunk activists in the UK, trying ineptly to stop the roller-coaster of the UK’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (and in particular the bit that would outlaw strong encryption in the UK) from being passed.
Doing this kind of tech activism outside the United States was, and frankly still is, a little frustrating. Whenever there was any story about our corner of the political universe — digital wiretaps, online censorship, public key cryptography — it always seemed to be about what was happening in the US, and not the rest of the world. Back then, I felt we needed the US media and policy space to pay attention to our fight: because we felt, very strongly, it was a global fight.
One day, we saw that Bruce Sterling was coming into town for a book reading, and we thought: here’s our chance. Like good Nineties digital activists, we’d all read our Hacker Crackdown, and knew he might be a friend in getting some rip-roaring coverage in the heart of the beast. After horribly hijacking him from what looked a nice literary meal, we took him to heroin-chic dive bar in Soho, told him our problems, and begged him to help.
Forget defending crypto, he said. It’s doomed. You’re screwed.
No, the really interesting stuff, he said, is in postmodern literary theory.
Honest to God and ask my friends, it broke my poor dork heart. I listened to him talk for a few hours about what was research for “Zeitgeist”, and then we went home and fought off the outlawing of crypto without him, but with a tiny bunch of committed Brits, some of whom are still working on that fight today.
Fifteen years on, the world sucks, but some parts are a bit better. As Bruce points out with his As and Bs, I live as part of a far greater and interlinked world of what he called “global civic society”, who, behind the scenes or in front of the microphones, actually do work together to defend people like Snowden, build tools for decentralisation and privacy, and frantically try and work out how to make them work for everyone.
Some of us work on policy, some of us work in a myriad other ways to change the world, including whistleblowing. We try to minimize the number who get beaten up or killed. I don’t think any of us live in much of a dream world any more. Pretty much all of us are more cynical than you’d believe after seeing what’s gone down. And I know, given the odds, some of it looks pathetic sometimes, but believe me, we can the hardest critics on each other about that. They’d laugh me out of town if I ever said “globulution”, for instance.
And, as the good Chairman says, you do learn who your friends are.
PRISM, Verizon: Surprise!»
Someone in another forum was asking his friends whether they were surprised by the new revelations about US surveillance, and whether they thought there was a collective will to battle it. After the stream of “no and no” responses, I ended up saying this.
I deal with this material every day, and while what I feel isn’t really what I’d describe as “surprise”, I still feel aghast and disturbed whenever we uncover a new revelation. I also know that, if all the implications of the PRISM Powerpoint are true, there are a lot of people at the tech companies who are feeling extremely played right now. They put a lot of effort into building tools that they genuinely believed weren’t being used for this purpose, and indeed spent much of their time trying to ensure that they couldn’t be misused. If they have been betrayed by their upper management or their own government, or both, to this degree, they will be surprised, and upset, and angry.
Surprised, upset, angry, people are people I feel a bond with and sympathy. I can understand when people believe they are not surprised, although that sounds to me more like a coping strategy; I struggle a bit more with the “surprised that others are surprised” response, because that just makes you sound dismissive of others’ ignorance, while exhibiting your own. It does no good to be aware of technical surveillance, while not knowing how most other people think of it.
I really don’t agree with the people who think “We don’t have the collective will”, as though there’s some magical way things got done in the past when everyone was in accord and surprised all the time. It’s always hard work to change the world. Endless, dull hard work. Ten years later, when you’ve freed the slaves or beat the Nazis everyone is like “WHY CAN’T IT BE AS EASY TO CHANGE THIS AS THAT WAS, BACK IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS. I GUESS WE’RE ALL JUST SHEEPLE THESE DAYS.”
You have to work hard to stop a war that kills a few hundred thousand instead of millions. You have to work hard to stop massive surveillance, instead of genocides. It’s all hard. Things can still get better. Disappointment is the price of wanting a better world.You need to stop being surprised that no-one else is fighting for it, and start being surprised you’re not doing more.
Virtual subdomains for open webapps»
I’ve been playing around with Firefox’s open web app designs recently. I hadn’t quite realised before that if you have Firefox on Android and your PC, you can run their webapps on FirefoxOS, Android and the desktop, which is pretty impressive. Their payment and push notification infrastructure is exciting too.
One small gotcha is that when you write a webapp, it’s better if you host it on its own individual subdomain (for reasons! Security reasons!).
As it turns out, if you can get your DNS provider to add a line like this to your DNS zone file:
*.apps.example.com 36000 CNAME www.example.com
…you can add something like this to your Apache configuration, and create an infinite number of apps in their own domains (so that http://foo.apps.example.com/ would map to pages stored in /var/www/apps/foo )
You’ll need to enable the mod_vhost_alias module, which you can do in standard Ubuntu and Debian by typing
sudo a2enmod vhost_alias
The Calculation Problem»
I love how the Web is an unfinished work made of unfinished works. Here’s one more for you: an old beginning to a story I never wrapped up, based on an alternative future in which Cyril Parkinson worked on artificial intelligence, Harold Wilson stayed a civil servant statistician, and Cecil King’s 1968 request that Mountbatten lead a military coup uncovers a rather more greater conspiracy than even he imagines…
“A second opinion, Wilson?” Cecil King asked, “Isn’t that against Parkinson’s Law or some such?”. After Solly Zuckerman’s precipitous exit into Farringdon, Wilson had said it would be unwise to take King’s Daimler, and hustled them all, Mountbatten included, out of the IPC offices and into a passing black cab instead. King was now stuck between Cudlipp and Wilson on the back seat, with his Lordship perched treacherously enough on the facing cushion. King was filling the silence, clearly discomfited by the sudden lead that Wilson had taken.
“A misconception of the principle,” Wilson said, “Parkinson’s Law merely states that a sufficiently advanced computer expands to fill the cycles available.”
King nodded, as though he had the faintest idea. Cudlipp tried to exchange a glance at Mountbatten, but the old boy was inspecting the taxi license with an unusual intensity. “But as we said in the Ministry,” continued Wilson, “there are no harm in backups.”
The cab pulled up by the wrought iron gates of the Lyons Corner House. Harold leapt out, handed over a pound note to the cabbie, and set on into the tea room. Daimler aside, I remained sceptical that Wilson’s new strategy was keeping anything secret about the plot. Mountbatten’s familiar silhouette drew a small wake of stares from passers-by.
Inside, an obvious pal of Wilson’s came to meet him from a backroom. He seemed to be in his late forties too.
Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee they looked, in their unconsciously matching boffin regalia, all white blazer and no tie.
He must be one of Stafford Beer’s technocrats, on secondment to the Lyons chain, thought Cudlipp, just as Wilson had been loaned by the Central Office to International Publishing after the ’64 election.
Cudlipp tried to read Mountbatten’s face once more. These exchange visits between the COI and the commanding heights of British business were still frowned upon among the Defence wallahs, he knew, but what could be done? There was still only a handful of fellows in Britain who knew CYBERSTRIDE. Since Lord von Mises had put one of his merry screeds about imprisoning the white heat of technology in the dark mines of Whitehall.
“Doctor Pinkerton here has graciously permitted us an audience with Leo the Fourth”, Wilson announced. Pinkerton flashed them all a not entirely convincing smile, and waved them out of the tea room, and into a wrought iron elevator even smaller than the cab.
Mountbatten’s growing discomfort with the improvisational nature of the caper — and no doubt, Solly Zuckermann’s ringing accusations of treason on them all, finally pushed him into action. “I believe I’ll have a cup of tea” he said, and before King could answer, the first Earl of Burma turned away from the plot, and strode purposefully into next door’s food hall and his public.
Shrugging, Wilson and Pinkerton closed the lift around the remainder. King looked momentarily crestfallen, as though the credibility of his plot required Mountbatten’s continuing presence.
It certainly seemed more ridiculous without him. The classless way that Wilson was bustling about, this commandeering of the meeting into some sort of business consultation, the jostling through the crowd: it seemed to be everything that King was railing against. Rather than standing up to a communist plot, they seemed like a scene from a Russian propaganda film. Powerful men, made ridiculous by the masses and their machines.
Cudlipp suddenly had a vivid image of his own face, distorted into Mac editorial cartoon on his own front page: a coalminer’s helmet, panda white eyes, shocked black hair, cheeks sooty with a literal bonfire of political capital King was making of this meeting. King, crazed in his sickbed, commies peering out from behind the chamberpot. And Ernie cackling the corner, whirring magnetic tapes for eyes.
What remaining seriousness the moment still possessed had been lent by Wilson’s confidences. The existence of a second computer on British soil must be an official state secret, Cudlipp now realised. Wilson’s showed he was not merely humouring Cecil. He seemed to be taking his theories seriously enough to bypass the Ministry’s own procedures.
The lift clattered to a halt, and Pinkerton pushed back the doors. A couple of young lads rushed to help open it from the other side.
“We keep the terminal in the basement, I’m afraid,” said Pinkerton, “I think those upstairs think we do better without daylight. Like mushrooms, you know. Well, here we are.”
They turned out from the corridor into a broad, shallow room, apparently made from two offices repartitioned. Brown timbers divided the white ceiling asymmetrically, as though a Tudor house had been buried on its side above them. The console sat in the center of the room, smooth and circular, like cream in a saucer. It was edged with fluourescents. A small notch cut out of it made up what looked like a desk, holding a clattering teletype beside a small Xerox. No-one sat at the desk, and there was no chair to sit at.
“Leo, I’d like you to meet Harold Wilson, Cecil King and Sir Hugh Cudlipp, all of the IPC corporation.”
“THE ACRONYM EXPANDS INCORRECTLY”, announced a voice from all sides.
It sounded exactly like Laurence Olivier.
Wide-eyed, King furiously mimed to Wilson and Cudlipp. Through gestures and glares, he managed to pull them both out of Leo’s lair, down the corridor, and back into the elevator, shutting the door behind him.
In the presumed safety of the metal cage, King look wide-eyed at the statistician. “How do we know he’s not in on it too?”, he whispered furiously.
Wilson turned serious. “Cecil, firstly, Leo is sealed from direct communication with Ernie and any other known computers. All Leo knows about is what we read to him from the papers and his examination of company accounts. Nonetheless, he’s just as smart as Ernie and far more likely to accurately evaluate any motivation the government’s computer might itself have to work with the Soviets.’
“If you don’t mind me adding to the intrigue here,” said Cudlipp, “May I ask exactly what a tea company is doing with a spare computer?”
“Leo is our time-sharing experiment. Most of the big imperial companies – Lyons, Dunlop, Shell – have access to him. Lyons is just the closest terminal installation.”
“And does quite everyone else in the City knows about this except us?” said Cudlipp.
“With the greatest of respect, Sir Hugh, your newspapers are Leo’s eyes and ears. If you and your editors were to be informed of its existence, and his characteristics widely publicised within your own publications, there would be a very great risk that he could become aware of his self.”
At that, Cudlipp and King protested loudly and simultaneously, to the point where Pinkerton’s head poked out from Leo’s terminal room into the corridor to see what the fuss was.
“Cecil, you began this afternoon with a story in which you claimed that the British national computer was a Soviet agent, determined to undermine and destroy our country from within, a belief that, despite twenty years working in co-operation with the very same, you had only now arrived at. Are you really surprised that there might be other, lesser, conspiracies of which you were unaware?”
“Well, gentleman”, interrupted Cudlipp “while we are in such a confessional frame of mind and locale, is there anything else the great British press should be made aware of?”
Wilson sighed. “Firstly, if you publish a single word of this, Zuckermann and I will have no choice but to report your proposed military coup to the relevant authorities. At the same time, the Central Office, acting on behalf of Ernie, will instruct Leo and those with a interest in him to start in motion a hostile merger with IPC. A merger, I assure you, the Monopolies Commission would not stand against for a moment.”
“This is outrageous, Wilson.”
“Cecil, you are a fine publisher and an entertaining employer but you know damn all about cybernetics, which is why you have little inkling of how England is actually run these days. Now, why don’t we sit down with Leo and play twenty questions about Ernie’s real motives?”
My employer has enough opinions of its own, without having to have mine too.