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2016-02-08

Interdependence Day

I don’t what I was doing when Barlow’s Declaration came out. Looking now through some internal landmarks to orientate myself, I think I must have joined the exodus from Wired UK to Virgin Net a couple of months before its February 1996 dateline. The Wired UK essay was sent out a year, less a day, from the Declaration.

I wouldn’t be surprised if I missed it entirely. I don’t think I was hugely enamoured with West Coast techno-utopianism during this period.

What’s surprising, after placing it in the chronology, is how late that date feels. EFF had been around for six years; Wired magazine for three years, the Web for two years or so. The Californian Ideology, probably the most prominent critique of Barlow’s Jeffersonian framing, came out months before it did, in the Autumn of 1995.

It’s also worth digging around to see what the contemporary critiques of the Declaration were. At the time, I remember them as being pretty shoddy: not in terms of the points they made (which were significant, but largely obvious), but in their rhetorical heft. Zeitgeist doesn’t mean everyone thinks the same at the same time; it means that some ideas obtain a velocity that their critics, fighting headwinds, can only dream of achieving.

I wish I could understand more of this German one, awesomely named Die Anti-Barlow. The formatting obscures whether its conclusion is supposed to be a quote from John Perry, or another English-speaker, but it hangs in the air:

“Dominate culture today and you control the laws in 15 years.”

Five years on!

2016-02-07

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. Is television simply 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.

2014-11-29

)))))))))), 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:

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.”

Tick! Check!

2013-01-12

He was funny

It was in the main room of CCC in 2006, and Aaron and Peter and I had just had a wide-ranging discussion on Wikipedia’s WP:AUTO guidance that people shouldn’t edit their own Wikipedia pages. For pernickety rule-followers with bad faith motives, it was trivially circumventable, of course: one could simply enter a pact to edit one another’s Wikipedia pages. We tried to work out ways to improve it, drill down into how it had arisen, eke out what it meant as a rule about Wikipedia and systems like it. How it could be gamed; how its spirit could be better defended.

Somehow, though, in middle of that deep discussion, we ended up editing each other’s wikipedia pages. In an impromptu pact, we edited each other to death. Aaron, Wikipedia suddenly noted, sadly died in an elephant stampede. I’d died years ago, apparently, but no-one had noticed until now.

Both entries were swiftly reverted, of course, with the long-suffering tolerance of Wikipedia’s guardians. Giggling with the transgression, we celebrated our return to life. At the time, I confessed to a momentary fear that as he edited my page, I might suddenly vanish.

Last night, I checked Twitter one last time, and caught people’s early elliptical references to Aaron. Panicking, guessing already, I jumped out of bed and searched for his name. His Wikipedia snippet came up first, with a new date where I had edited the old.

Almost everyone who has spoken about Aaron has spoken about his genius, his extraordinary impact, his youth, his depression and his troubles. I want to just say, very briefly, what Aaron would have wanted me to say, which was he was also very very funny.

He never had the mock seriousness one associatiates with precocious children. He was a child prodigy who understood the ridiculousness of being a child prodigy. It was one of the reasons why he seemed so grown-up.

Like many of us, being funny was how Aaron got to be a kid again. He took on so many responsibilities, and he seemed often so unable to shrug them off. Sometimes he could though, and when he did, he would laugh so contagiously, and be so funny. When Ada came along, he played with her a lot, and delighted in being able to just riff with her on crazy, silly stories. Accustomed to being the youngest person in the room, he loved seeing a new generation emerging, perhaps a generation that gave him more hope than the ones he’d seen through so effectively.

When I heard, I went offline, as Aaron had done once. I knew, like Quinn knew, that the Internet was about to mourn his passing, and that it was more than I could take. Going online briefly now, every page I open has his name on it. Every tweet is someone’s memory of his help, his love, his fears.

Aaron’s art was an amazing ability to focus on the truly important. When he left, just as when Len left, he left an obligation on the rest of us to keep what each of us have of him, and put it to good use. Between us, I believe we still have a massively parallel, distributed version of Aaron, one unique part of his life shared with each of us alone. The part I’ll remember for us is just how funny he was, and how serious change sometimes requires a light touch, and a sense of the absurd.

But not now. Nothing’s funny right now. Now I have to go tell Ada. It feels like asking her to grow up too fast. And that seems such a crazy legacy for Aaron to have left any of us.

(Update: We talked.  Ada cried, then we hugged, then Ada suggested we have a goodbye party, with ice-cream and sprinkles and a movie, and make a board where we could pin all our memories. We laughed at funny he was. Aaron taught her so well.)

 

2012-09-11

touch of the galois

As you will no doubt already know, there’s been a lot of talk in the last few days about a potential proof of the abc conjecture. I just gave up my last professional non-fiction writing gig last week, which means that I no longer have any obligation to explain to you what that is, or write even vaguely short sentences about it.  but I still have the vestigial urge to find out, if only because of journalistic lure of an abstract mathematics page on Wikipedia being marked with the

Ambox currentevent.svg This article documents a current event. Information may change rapidly as the event progresses.

macro.

The thing is, the new proof is authored by Shinichi Mochizuki, who has been out doing his own deep explorations of mathspace on his own for so long, that everyone in the profession of math is having to race through his previous research to sufficiently understand his argument. Still, everyone can sense, Higgs Boson-like that this may be a big deal. When the rumor first began to emerge, the majority of professional mathematicians (as opposed to  you know,  the usual Diophantine analysis hangers-on) observed that via a reputational chain-of-trust calibration, whereby they were saying “well this isn’t my area, and it’s not this guy’s area either, but he’s closer to it than me, and I respect what he says in areas clone to mine, and  he says that it doesn’t look incoherent, and he wouldn’t say that without putting some of his reputation on the line, so I guess it might be legit. For now.”
I’m clearly about three links down the interpretative chain — I got the link about the abc conjecture from Hacker News, which was posted by somebody linking to a blog by one of these mathematicians saying that he couldn’t understand the proof, but golly. Dumbly, I immediately do want to understand the proof, even though the people who might be professionally qualified to understand this theory are themselves having to madly catapult themselves from newly-constructed research projects trebuchets to get near over the nearest conceptual ramparts.

I click on this link to mathoverflow, a Q&A site whose very existence I would not have conjectured until today. I mean, I don’t know molecular genetics, but sit me down with a copy of a Nature article and I can at least begin to get some dim silhouette of what’s going on. I can read something as “the noun verbs the other noun near this noun, prompting adverbal verbing over there in the bigger noun”, and at least begin to sketch out the correspondence.

I cannot even get a purchase on these explanations. This is mathematics, which mean that — to my mind at least — it is the study of the innate structure of correspondences themselves, which means I can’t even get a shape in my head. I read sentences like “I believe the Frobenioid associated to a number field is something close to the finite \’etale covers of Spec(OF) (equipped with some log structure) together with metrized line bundles on them, although it’s probably more complicated”, and I’m thinking: I won’t even be able to cut-and-paste that.  This is someone who knows his metrized line bundles, and they’re having to hand-wave.

Anyway, knowing it’s futile, I grab onto a word that seem relatively freight with meaning, but of which I have some dim recollection of. “Galois theory”. Okay, I’ve heard of Galois theory. Let’s call down Wikipedia on that, and see if it stirs any recollections and I can use it to hitch just a few inches higher up the chain.

Evariste Galois. Delineator of Galois theory, radical French republican, died in a duel. Oh, now I remember where I’ve heard of Galois theory.  I’m nineteen years old, and I’m in a maths class in college. This is pretty unusual in a British university unless you’re actually taking mathematics — usually you only take classes in the single topic you’re studying. I’m (partly) learning economics, though, so there’s some a little bit of catch-up in mathematical analysis to be done.

We’re being taught by what I now guess must have been a postgrad, and she’s the best explainer of maths-beyond-my-scope I’ve ever met. She’s also, she admits, incredibly hungover, and keeps getting sidetracked from the basic statistics she’s been sent to hitch us up to wander into her own topic of interest. Which, I guess now must be Galois theory, because  the bit that stuck in my mind was her elaboration on Evariste Galois. She had, she explained, a huge math crush on Evariste, and who wouldn’t? Flunked two colleges, fought to restore the Republic, imprisoned in the Bastille, and managed to scribble down the thoughts that would lead to several major fields of mathematics, before dying in a duel — either romantic or political — at the age of twenty.

Well, I’m nineteen at the time, so as a nineteen year old I’m thinking “I still have a year to pull that off”. But listening to this in cloisters of St Hilda’s,  I observe the  same reputational chain effect. Here is clearly the coolest person I’ve yet met at Oxford, and she is clearly in awe of someone else who is, I guess, her to the power of some unknown value of fascinating. I don’t understand Galois theory, but my tutor has already dedicated her life to it. There’s no way that either of us is ever going to live up to Evariste, but maybe just by lining up him as a goal, and pushing off in that general direction, perhaps we’ll get somewhere interesting.

Do we have to understand completely to be pulled along in its wake? Is it foolish to even queue up behind those who are so far behind the front lines? Isn’t this how we feel our way ahead, tied together by emotions, but walking together toward the truth?

2012-02-15

reality distortion field lensing

I think about Steve Jobs these days on average about once a day. I’d like to pretend I think about Apple, because I could then say that it’s because I’m pondering the future of the post-PC world, and get to stroke my chin in a punditly fashion, but it’s mostly about Steve Jobs.

One of the Jobsian moments I’ve thought about a lot is from this Walt Mossberg interview (back when Steve was only talking publicly to people called Walter). In this clip (starting at 0:36:41; it should jump straight there), Jobs talks about the origin of the iPad, and mentions how he gave the prototype tablet hardware to  “one of our really brilliant UI folks”, and they created inertial scrolling and rubber-banding.

Honestly, I’ve thought about that one really brilliant UI person a lot since that interview. I wondered what it must be like to have created part of the iPad’s interface, but never to be really be known as the creator of this thing, or even co-creator. I think about movie credits, and how I sit around until they get to the system administrators, because it’s still a novelty to me that films have system administrators, and that they too get a credit. (I also love that in Silicon Valley, sometimes, when you got to this bit in the film on premiere night, there would be this little cluster of cheers from a corner of the theater).

I’d think of the previous obscurity of people like that, and the little growing embers of fame that started glowing when people like jwz and Andy Hertfeld could actually speak to you, rather than just be sealed names in an About box somewhere. And, like much of Apple, I couldn’t quite work out whether the return of the impresario auteur in the form of Jobs was a throwback to some earlier age of Peter Norton and Dan Bricklin headliners hiding a relatively anonymous team, or the future. Was it that engineers had got too much power, and were going to get eclipsed? Or was it that individual geeks had had a brief moment of uncharacteristic rockstarriness, and there would be a return to the mean of shy, backgrounded engineers working on projects far vaster than them?

As anyone who has heard me speak recently knows, I’d be happy with geeks getting a little less power in the world, or at least realising the ramifications of the power and status they currently do wield. But I think I’d feel a little saddened if their ideals or goals were subsumed into the will of someone else, or a corporate direction.

Anyway, I don’t think Bret Victor was the engineer that Steve Jobs no-name-checks in that interview. Apple employees aren’t entirely without credit, and looking at the inertial scrolling patent, I’d guess that maybe it was Bas Ording who built that first demo. The time line doesn’t work either — Victor wasn’t around at Apple when those first experiments were going on.

But in this video, Victor, who used to work for Apple, not only made me feel like he embodies in his work all the best bits of the iPad’s innovation, but also the example of principled, individual, direction that I miss from never meeting or hearing from Apple’s engineers.

It’s an hour long, but if you’re like me, you’ll be drawn in by the first fifteen minutes, and then be surprised and heartened by the last fifteen.

In the last day or so, I’ve thought a lot more about Victor and the role models he cites than about Steve Jobs, and I think that’s a healthy thing for me. It sounds like it was a healthy thing for Victor too.

2010-07-08

the secret history of ntk

shift run stopI know that this blog (and probably me as a person) are firmly categorised with the “where_are_they_now” nostalgia tag in most people’s RSS feeds: it behooves me, therefore, to point you to this fantastic interview with me and Dave on the only podcast I ever regularly download and listen to while doing the washing-up, Shift Run Stop. Roo and Leila got to ask all the questions that I (and I’m sure you) rhetorically ask late at night, including “Will NTK be returning for a second series?” and “How can marketing ruin a perfectly nice mascarpone and pineapple confectionery snack?”

Even without me in it, Shift Run Stop is one of the best-edited and hilarious geek podcasts out there. If you really are jonesing for an NTK-like fix in your modern 21st century life, you should subscribe, donate, floss, whatever to it. There will be no regrets.

2010-04-06

brother against brother

Oh, but I hate it when the Internets fight! The argument rending my family — and you are all family, to me — it seems so unnecessary. Right now, it is broadly missummarised as: a) you hate my iPad because you’re old geeks who can’t get hep and want all my family to struggle with the command line, and b) you love your iPad because you HATE FREEDOM and are TOO DUMB to OPERATE a PROPER MANUAL LOOM and are Steve Job’s LITTLE CONSUMERIST POODLE THE SIZE OF WILLIAM GIBSON’S BABY HIPPO.

Here’s how to end this pain. Imagine an iPad. It’s the same iPad, built by Jobs and Ives and the rest of Apple in absolute secrecy, beholden to no-one, built on proprietary MacOS and unicorns and last Xerox Silmaril’s gleaming. It has the same Apple App store, same SDK, same no filing system, same no multitasking, same whatever. Only buried deep in the Settings, buried under “Battery Percentage”, “Factory Reset”, there’s an option that says “Allow Third-Party Applications”. Its default is not to allow that. But you can flip it to say “yes”.

That’s it.

Apple doesn’t have to put that option in. But if they did, I think most of us who are discomfited by the iPad would feel a lot less weirded out. And I guess the question is: are those who are angered by the negative iPad response think that one concession would instantly sink it, in terms of usability and being “the future of technology”, and so on? After all, both Cory Doctorow and John Gruber want Hypercard. Right now, Hypercard would violate Apple’s ban on interpreted content on the iPhone OS. What would happen if Apple changed its policy just a little, to allow us to have one fewer gatekeepers again? Would that be okay? Could we all learn to love one another again?

2009-10-22

my diseased mind; ephemerisle

I’ve been laid low by illness. It’s not amenable to naming: I have a fever, but no coughs or sneezes. Headaches, otheraches. I’ve mostly been sleeping, and when I’m not asleep, I’ve been restless and yet exhausted, stuck in my apartment. A lot of my friends caught something similar, and it’s mostly taken them a week to shake it off. I didn’t even have the energy to make it to tonight’s EFF Pioneer Awards ceremony (boo! I wanted to see Limor “Adafruit” Fried and Carl Malamud win!).

What have I been doing, when not being ill? Well, possibly the maximally interesting thing for you, dear vicarious reader, was attending Ephemerisle, a sort-of-Burning-Man-like event for people who, instead of frying in deserts, prefer to drown in rivers.

There’s plenty of pictures and coverage of Ephemerisle now, I think perhaps because the event pulled 10% of the “novel strange east coast geek culture” press pool (me, Declan McCullough, Brian Doherty), and 60% of the “sympathetic portrayals of weird libertarianism” press pool (Declan McCullough, Brian Doherty, me).

My favourite review was from “postmodern conservative” Will Wilson, who said “most of the participants could best be described as left-libertarian… Curiously, most of the people I interviewed were under the impression that everybody else was a right-libertarian.” He also complained that it was “creepily non-political”, which must indeed look very suspicious indeed to DC conservatives visiting California. First they don’t talk about politics, and the next thing you know they are offering to re-orient your chakra.

Far more interesting to me, who has attended several Burning Men, but never actually got around to visiting a 1970s L5 Society meetup was the conference before the island. I’m afraid I’m weakening from the ague far too much to tell you about that now, though, so I’ll leave you with this footage of my daughter riding around in a bubble. To the future!

Read the rest of this entry »

2009-07-14

“living on the edge” returns; the ridiculousness of credit card security

I’m giving my “Living on the Edge” talk next week at OSCON. I keep telling myself it will be the same as last year’s OpenTech presentation (I pitched it to O’Reilly as “the same talk, with some of the jokes in a different order”), but of course a year has passed, and someone will launch something on Monday, and I will have to re-write it all three times, and change “Ruby” to “Haskell” in the topical jokes.

The highlight from last year’s talk was being constructively heckled by e-money expert David Birch (I believe I idly posited the switch to the Euro as the sort of centralised, high-co-ordination venture that I, out of a foolish consistency, believe can never succeed, and yet regularly do. He yelled that actually it hadn’t. My other example is Unicode, which only today I discovered has some issues of its own.)

I read David now because I can never accurately predict his opinion, which means either it’s all signal, or he is in fact a natural source of randomness, both of which are highly valuable. Here is his latest piece on the history of credit card fraud, which posits that given that everyone knows that credit cards are nigh un-protectable, it’s time we came up with something better.

That’s not a new viewpoint, but he makes a novel (to me) point. Fraud is a few points of cost for retailers and banks, which they are generally okay to swallow, but because fraud is now more scalable, those few points — which round up to billions when taken nationally or globally — have become a public order, organized crime, issue. (Not sure if I entirely believe this yet, but that doesn’t stop it being interesting). Some other nuggets are Paypal’s counterintuitively low fraud rate compared to traditional payment systems, and a link to a fantastic piece by Stephen Wilson summarizing the reasons why credit card security is lousy, and why organizations use all the wrong private data on you to confirm who you are. Quoting from Wilson’s list of personal data:

Biographical information, like name, address and DOB, needed by a bank or service provider to establish and maintain a relationship with distinct customers

Identifiers, like bank account numbers, that serve as a proxy for biographical data to manage different customers.

[BTW I contend that the major Internet security and privacy problems would be remedied if pure identifiers could be relied upon, so we didn’t need to ask customers for piles of corroborating details.]

Authentication data, like passwords, PINs and biometric templates, whether static or one-time, used to establish the legitimacy of someone claiming to be associated with biographical data or an identifier [Note that the CVCs started out as authenticators but now they’re so widely divulged and leaked that they’re really just identifiers. Asking for CVCs over the web is frankly inane, symptomatic of sloppy ad hoc security; we might as well move to 19 digit credit card numbers].

Service history, like account balance and transaction details, which are private between the customer and the service provider, and in the case of banking actually represents the entirety of the product.

And all the other personal information (family details, telephone numbers, work details, preferences, affiliations …) that accumulates, and which can be used for good (like tailoring customer service, or cross-selling with consent) or evil (cross-selling without consent, spamming, surreptitious linking across different domains, identity theft etc).

I love that throwaway comment that service history is “the entirety” of the banking product. That’s so profoundly true.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

petit disclaimer:
My employer has enough opinions of its own, without having to have mine too.