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a man slumped on his desk, from 'The Sleep of Reason Produces



Archive for the ‘Indulgent’ Category


Auxiliary Ancillary

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.


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.


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?”





NTK, Fifteen Years On

Give or take a few days, it was fifteen years ago that I hit send on the first official issue of NTK. I was hiding out at a start-up called Virgin Internet, trying to work out how to bring Usenet to the masses, or something. I added people to the mailing list by hand, but stuck “-l” at the end of the subscribe email address to make it sound like it was a proper listserv. I still hear people say “listserv”, occasionally, and it sounds like they’re saying “thee” or “gadzooks” or something.

People usually say at this point that it doesn’t seem like maxint years ago, but, to be honest, it does. It feels exactly fifteen years ago. What’s weird for me is that the three years before NTK came out feels even longer. 1994-1997 involved me going from being on the dole, to appearing in a one man show in the west end, doing TV, working at Wired,  joining a startup. That, and the Internet went from being this funny little squeaky gopher thing to having internet addresses on adverts. On adverts! Which, incidentally, we all smugly knew would go away soon, because advertising was lying and the Internet was going to make lying impossible. Or something.

. What I wanted to tell you was that last year after I explaining someone how we were all too collectively lazy to do something to celebrate NTK’s 15th anniversary, that someone came up with a brilliant Minimal Viable Celebration. So, for the next ten years or so, if you subscribe to this newsletter, you’ll get a weekly copy of the NTK that came out fifteen years ago, totally unchanged. It’s like that thing where you get a copy of the Times’ front page for your birthday, except every week is your birthday! Or our birthday. Or something. The name, Anno NTK, comes from Simon Wistow. If it was your idea to do this, tell me!

As I say, it’s literally the least we could do. I actually suspect (and hope) that this will become a bit of a trend in itself. Just as early retrospective sites like the Pepys Diary are drawing to a close, I think there’s this rich unmined pile of early blog-o-mobilia, waiting to have a nice interface stuck on it. It would be  great, for instance, to watch in real time all the bloggers who supported the Iraq war go through their transformations and justifications day by day, or watch stuff like DrKoop and the Industry Standard rise and fall once again. There are lots of weird echoes in the air right now. I really hope other people won’t be as lazy as us, and put a nice frontend on the past.

And meanwhile, thirty years ago, Usenet itself was beginning to outgrow the ability for a human mind to comprehend. Thank goodness the future was so close…


some rambling conversations I’ve had on moving from MacOS to Debian

When the magic smoke escapes

Drunkenly confessing all with Brady Forrest last week:

“I’ve done an insane thing. I’m abandoning my nice MacOS laptop for Debian.”

“Was it Lion for you too?”

Liz has a Macbook Air, and loves Lion. I bought and installed it on my Macbook Pro when it came out. It has slowly, very slowly, ground away any love I had for Mac. Live by the magic, die by the magic, I guess. You screw up the aesthetics, the usability, for just a second, and the magic goes away.

Lion made the Steve Jobs magic smoke escape for me. I am a touchy, fickle, platform guy, so I really didn’t think anyone else had this problem, but since I mentioned it, everyone goes “Oh, yeah, Lion“, like they’d been warning about it in the Old Testament.

Picking over the embers of the relationship, I think the Lion’s failings are mostly down to a combination of Apple shifting to a world of SSD and not really caring what pre-SSD Macs feel like, and Lion being a short 0.1 step on a Long March to another iOS vision.

My stumbling points on that enforced march:

In my twenty-five years of MultiFinder usage, I’ve never been able to quit apps properly. When you hit Alt-Tab on any Mac I’ve been using, about seventy applications perk up, including ones that I last opened in 1989.

I know that the Appletinis at Cupertino are working on this, and in the iOS-influenced future, applications will just be murdered in a dark corner of the OS when they least expect it. But in the meantime, if I shutdown my computer or if it crashes, every one of those seventy-billion apps restart when I log back on.

On an SSD, I imagine this takes two seconds. On my Macbook Pro, it takes six weeks.

Yes, I know you can turn it off. No, that never seems to work.

I also lost a bunch of mail in an argument between Apple Mail and Microsoft Exchange. I knew this would happen if I didn’t use a known file format for my emails. I knew that backups wouldn’t work. I felt stupid for not being able to save them, like a parent who had dodged vaccinations.

Also, I spilled Coke on my keyboard.

(I want to mention this, because the coke-spilling is indubitably not Apple’s fault, and yet it played a large role in me moving on. People always retro-rationalize why they switch, be it with complex moral journeys, or damning inditements of the objective incompetence of their abandoned lover. I don’t think Apple should work harder to keep people like me who are moving to Debian over a spilled coke. I mean, what? I don’t think I’m part of some universal trend. I just want to describe where I walked, and when.)

When I bond with a computer, what I’m mostly doing is bonding with the input devices. I do it in an intensive burst at the beginning of our relationship.

Right now, I’m forcing my fingers to learn where everything is on this new keyboard, steering them away from the non-existent trackpad gestures, teaching my pinkie to find the Enter. A sizeable proportion of the reason why I stayed with Macs so long because my hands knew their keyboards.

When the coke got spilled, the keyboard response got sticky. I started just not wanting to press certain keys. And then I realised that I didn’t want to take a sticky keyboard into the Apple Store any more, either.

I wanted a new computer, and no longer wanted it to be a Mac.

In the twenty minutes I used the default install of Windows on my Thinkpad…

I somehow managed to install two IE toolbars. One was shovelware with the system (Symantec, I think), and was installed when I foolishly chose the default option for security. The other was adware installed when I downloaded BitTorrent to get hold of the Debian install CD. I don’t think Mac or Linux users realise quite how much real estate in most Windows installs is taken with branding. It’s like a screenshot from Idiocracy.

Also, it is amazing how driven the Windows user experience is by fear. Watch out for them viruses! Windows has detected that NOTHING ONTOWARD JUST HAPPENED ON DRIVE D. Click here for omg psych out!

I feel the same thing watching CNN in airports, incidentally.

On saying goodbye to Mac hardware

“My new name for you will be clattering monkey”

My but there are a lot of sticky labels with trademarks on this Thinkpad. Strange holes and posted instructions and international symbols, too. Liz tells me the keyboard is very loud, from across the room, but that’s the Thinkpad’s Model-M DNA, I expect.

I think I will come to love its clatteriness. The IPS screen is beautiful. When I realised that I could buy chargers for this thing for under $30, I almost cried (most of my Mac chargers have either burned up or snapped apart, and it’s $75 a shot). Also, I can just plug an external monitor into it without worrying that I forgot that Mac dongle again.

With the incorrect sense of affluence that saving a few bucks on power supplies gained me, I bought two different kinds of batteries for it — a slightly sticky-out one, which gives me 8-9 hours, and a flush one that gives me four. Just having options filled me with a strange glee.

It still feels a bit like I’ve borrowed a laptop from work, though.

On the X220’s aura

At Noisebridge:

“So I abandoned my Macbook, and got a new laptop.

“What kind?”

“A Thinkpad X220

“Hahahaha! Well, that’s a surprise.”

The X220 is the default machine of the hacker types around here. I spoke to a Googler who said he’s basically holding out for his annual laptop upgrade until he can get one. The Mozilla guy I know has one. The guy who used to work at the porn site that runs out of the major San Francisco landmark has one too. He left there, but it’s his laptop, so he gets to keep it. If you have a job where you can afford it, and you’ve fallen off the Mac wagon somehow, you get an X220.

Unlike my contradictory sense that this is my work laptop, my Macbook really was paid for by work. I get to mangle this my own way. My plan, I think, is to work out a way to erase all of these brands. I was always covering up that glowing Apple: now I have to work out a way to laser-cut out the Lenovo logo. I think it’s less that I’m ashamed of who made my computer, and more that I don’t really see myself as being used to advertise it further.

Given its hipsterhacker fashionability, somebody should sell a Das Keyboard-style blank keyboard mod for the X220.

On the moral purity of Debian

Even with fashion on your side, there’s no real redemption to be found in moving from a Macbook to a Lenovo Thinkpad. Apple may throw employees off the roof at FoxConn, but Lenovo was spun out from the Chinese state. God knows what it has buried in its TPM: probably the internal organs of dissidents.

Debian, however! Oh Debian! I hope somebody somewhere a hundred years from now writes an epic poem about Debian. Later I will write* about the technical challenges of installing Debian on this X220 (there honestly weren’t much, but it did require me to dance from MacOS Lion to Debian Unstable).

But, god the delight of hunkering down in the Debian commune again. I love how relentless and unsullied they are, even by Ubuntu. Are the number of official Debian developers going up or down? I can’t really tell; it’s like I never left. Could you ever kill Debian?

I’ve often said that I frequently have a mad desire to move to wooden shack and become a Debian developer. Imagine my delight when I discovered that one of my favourite Debian developers really does live in a cabin in the woods.

Is ending up in a shack really that bad, if you never have to feel lonely?

On the post-multi-national status of GNOME

While Debian has remained the same, GNOME seems transformed. I noticed this when I went to GUADEC in 2010. One always got the feeling that somebody was steering GNOME, but it wasn’t clear who. When it started, I thought it was Miguel and Nat, then Novell, then Redhat. Now it has that floaty, determined meandering that the best mass open source projects have. From a distance, everyone seems to be constantly bickering and regretting the next steps; but the steps get made, and slowly everyone adapts to them. GNOME feels like a nation now.

Or maybe even an insipidly post-national alliance of countries. Maybe it was because GUADEC was held that year in Amsterdam, but GNOME these days seems even more international than KDE, and certainly less Anglo than Windows or Apple. I get the sense that bits of it are fiefdoms, and others are more free and democratic. The corporations with an interest in GNOME get to hive off certain parts, more or less, but they still have to respond to public opinion. But there are plenty of people here because they don’t get the chance to express themselves in any other way: either because they are UX people who don’t work for Apple, or users who don’t get to use Catalan on any other platform.

This may all be wrong impressions — I will greatly enjoy discovering how wrong.

I really like GNOME 3, and the shell, even though so much of it is half-baked and unimplemented. I get to be a baker!


RSS died for your sins

This blog has a mild obsession with celebrity, aging, and the past. As its author, I don’t much share these enthusiasms (my hobbies including eating corned beef sandwiches and reading), but I am happy to play along when required to do so, which is always. So:

This year, I have a really good idea, which at some point I must write down properly. It’s such a good idea, I tried to pitch it to SXSW as a keynote. (It’s okay, you can’t vote any more.)

This raised a problem: how do you tell the SXSW people “Look, I’m not a wanker or anything, I just think I could give a good keynote?”. Because, really, if you’re pitching yourself for a SXSW keynote, I think you’ve pretty much established a high Bayesian prior of being a wanker.

And what I ended up writing to the SXSW people, in the same gabbling way as those letters you write to the exam marker when you have nothing to say and two hours more of examination time, was a sort of spirited defence of why they hadn’t heard of me. I can’t remember what I wrote, but I think I may have said that I’d spent the last few years being “economical with celebrity”.

But the thing is, the more I think of it, the more it’s true. I have this internal governor of fame, which I crank up and down depending on how threatened I feel. I’d already taken a strategic risk in even pitching the keynote. I remember thinking to myself “Yeah, I could do this, I think, without being universally reviled.” And at this point, I’m actually quite proud of my ability to surf obscurity, apparently on command.

Nothing brought home the value of doing this as joining Google Plus fairly early on. I’m not proud of this — I think I got an invite from Skud (who ironically is now the Neo of G+, as far as I can see, and was hunted down by Google assassination bots until she fleed to Australia, where the bandwidth caps mean that every house has a protective robots.txt file).

But one of the side-effects of joining early is that you get thousands and thousands of followers, out of a fairly obvious founder effect I’m sure a lot of them are just spam accounts, but because it’s G+, you can’t tell which are the spam accounts because they’re all got names like “Reginald McFarlane” and “Evita Tavistock”. It’s a civilised place in that respect. But unfortunately, while G+ encourages spambots to at least adopt WASPy names, it transformed me — me of all people! — into a horrible, horrible person.

The problem is this: if I had blogged this entry on G+, the comments would have instantly be full of people either asking me what Bayesian probability was, or arguing with me about whether I’d used it properly. That and/or “founder effect’.

Let me say now that this is not one of those debates about civility online, and the rights of pseudonymous people, and whether it’s your fault you have such horrible commenters and such. I have different obsessions.

And let me also add that now I have touched elliptically on all of those topics, if this was G+ we’d end up talking about those topics instead, also.

This is an allied issue, which I still don’t think people pay enough attention to; which is that if you have seven thousand people following you, a good six thousand of those are going to be people you don’t particularly like. Even if you were Jesus, you can’t love those people. (And actually if you read the Gospels, you can see that Jesus is a pretty good example of this. He spends his whole time going WTF in the comment threads of his own parables. WTF, Peter, did you even RTFP?)

If they comment all over your posts, you will end up hating them, and shortly, mankind.

The problem, as ever, is — how do you pick out the other thousand? Especially when they keep changing?

I firmly believe that one of the pressing unsolved technological problems of the modern age is getting safely away from people you don’t like, without actually throttling them to death beforehand, nor somehow coming to the conclusion that they don’t exist, nor ending up turning yourself into a hateful monster. And that this problem invisibly creeps on people as their level of fame increases. And that the Internets continues to be amazingly good at randomly bestowing non-linear amounts of fame on people, in a remarkably well-distributed way.

Which comes to why I’m writing here. There’s a good chance – a good Bayesian chance, my friend – that you’ve been whittled down in some way. I’m hoping you’ve found this because I’ve been stuck in your RSS reader since whenever it was that RSS was hip (2004?). I’m pretty confident that you’re reading this because we have something better in common than just sharing the same web browsing protocols. Unless somehow I’ve accidentally crafted link-bait. Shit, well, fortunately my server crashes whenever I do that. (Yet another great reason to self-host!)

It’s a stupid way to filter people, but I really don’t know how else to do it, short of just posting this to my friends. Which of course is exactly what you’re supposed to do on Google+, via some sort of endless pal-pruning interface.

But really, posting public or private  isn’t a question of narrow strategy, it’s a question of personality. I’m not going to post privately, am I, because, really, what’s the point? I clearly crave having this linked to by millions of people, even if some of them might not say the right things.

Similarly, scores of my friends in their private Twitter accounts agonize over every added follower, and every one who leaves. And people of those two personality types will just spend the rest of time lecturing the other on how they should be more private, or how they should spurn obscurity. We both want our audiences hand-picked, we just don’t want to be our hands doing it.

Well, anyway, what I meant to post was that I have a ton of writing to do in the next few weeks, and the only way I know of writing more, is to write a lot more, so hopefully you’ll see me here more often.

And that you’re all my special friends, but you knew that.

Be sure to post something really dumb in the comments.


en vacance, and a seafailing race

I’m halfway through my time between jobs. (“Oh,” said King, “so when you say you’re between jobs, you really mean you’re between jobs”). It turns out that my idea of a holiday is pretty much the same as my normal life, only with more naps, greater daughter indulgence, less guilt and more Doctor Who. The Doctor Who is driven by my indulgence in the publicly-funded brand-frenzy that is the build up to the new series (he’s going to be all right!), augmented by a recent dive through Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook’s brilliant Writers’ Tale, which makes you feel if only you stayed up and agonized all night, you too could write a cyberman episode or three. I never actually wrote any screenplays in the long nights reading this book, but it did make me rewatch some of the wobblier RTD episodes and feel a little more sympathetic to the man. He, too, had a lot of email to answer.

The rest of the time has been messed about with upon boats. Let me say this: I am very badly engineered for seafaring. My average interval between boat trips is about a decade. I am bad at knots. Even my proportions are unshipshapelike. My head is Irishman-large compared to my Puckoon-thin legs, giving me an unusually high center of gravity. I can capsize craft by nodding enthusiastically within them.

That said, my life has taken a watery bent recently and I greatly appreciate it. I spend a lot of my time living in a houseboat on the shores of Silicon Valley, where I stare out of a bedroom window filled with a water-level view of neighbourly riggings, sterns and curious ducks. I bought a cheap sixties dinghy hand-designed by a retiring Alameda sailmaker, Donald Goring, a man who, he said, kept his Nazi surname until the day he discovered his family was actually jewish, and then named his company after both halves.

In which the author does everything wrong.

Donald Goring-Bogart (or Bogart-Goring) designed Daisy to be a hard-chined 8 ft lifeboat that could survive a sinking in the Alaskan Pacific. She has handmade sails, custom-fitted oars and a 1983 2.5hp motor. The motor doesn’t run, I can’t sail her yet, and I row those oars like my arms are caught in a threshing machine, but she’s mine.

More practically than my Daisy-flails, Ada and I have been kayaking. My first kayak trip was sort of sales-pitch, I think, but unless they were selling me on the idea of paying protection money to keep me from future kayaks, it wasn’t successful. Somehow I agreed to be crammed into a sporting model about the width of my ankle and, while struggling to escape, kick-launched into a river. They did this to me at sundown, and within minutes it was pitch black. I swung around like a metronome in a moccasin until I could find a quay to clutch onto. Whoever the race of Kayaks are, they failed to either sell me on their device or drown me in their bloody rituals, but I had learned a lesson.

I finally unlearned it this weekend, when Ada and I merrily day-kayaked around the harbour. We bumped around together and gradually learned the subtleties together, such as which way the paddles don’t go, and how to get out of the thing without firing both feet from underneath you like a torpedo. Ada reassured me that in all her seven years, she had never seen a father sink beneath the waves yet. She also quietly sung “Ponyo, ponyo, fishy in the sea” as she paddled around the neighbours. A very good vacation.


what i did next

For a moment, climbing out of the too-fresh sunshine and with the taste of a farewell Guinness still on my tongue, slumping into the creaky old couch in the slightly grimy, Noisebridge to write something from scratch, San Francisco felt like Edinburgh in August, a day before the Festival.

Edinburgh for me was always the randomizer, the place I hitched to every year, camped out in, and came out in some other country, six weeks later, with hungover and overdrawn, with a new skill or passion or someone sadder or more famous or just more fuddled and dumber than ever.

Today was my last day at EFF. Just before our (their? Our.) 20th birthday party in February, where I had the profoundly fannish pleasure to write and barely rehearse a 30 minute sketch starring Adam Savage, Steve Jackson, John Gilmore, me in my underpants, and Barney the Dinosaur, I callously told them I was leaving them all for another non-profit. We commiserated on Thursday, in our dorky way, by playing Settlers of Catan and Set and Hungry Hippos together. They bought me money to buy a new hat. I logged off the intranet, had a drink, and wandered off into a vacation.

In April, after a couple of weeks of … well, catching up on my TV-watching, realistically … I’ll be kickstarting a new position at the Committee to Protect Journalists as Internet Advocacy Coordinator.

I’ve known the CPJ people for a few years now, talking airily to them about the networked world as they grimly recorded the rising numbers of arrested, imprisoned, tortured, threatened and murdered Internet journalists in the world. Bloggers, online editors, uploading videographers. Jail, dead, chased into exile. As newsgathering has gone digital, it’s led to a boom in unmediated expression. But those changes have also disintermediated away the few institutional protections free speech’s front line ever had.

CPJ has incredible resources for dealing with attacks on the free press on every continent: their team assists individuals, lobbies governments at the highest levels, documents and publicizes, names and shames. They were quick to recognize and reconfigure for a digital environment (you have to admire an NGO that knew enough to snag a three letter domain in ’95). Creating a position for tackling the tech, policy and immediate needs of online journalism was the next obvious step.

The question I had for them in my interview was the same that almost everybody I’ve spoken to about this job has asked me so far. On the Internet, how do you (they? We.) define who a journalist is?

The answer made immediate sense. While “journalism” or “newsgathering” or “reportage” as an abstract idea might seem problematic when cut from its familiar institutions, and pasted into the Internet… nonetheless, you know it when you see it. When someone is arrested or threatened or tortured for what they’ve written, if you can pull up what they said in a mailreader or a browser, it really doesn’t take long to identify whether it’s journalism or not.

What’s harder is untangling the slippery facts of the case — whether the journalist was targeted because of their work, or other reasons; whether it was the government or a criminal enterprise that did the deed; where the leverage points are to seek justice or freedom.

In those fuzzier areas, in the same way as EFF uses its legal staff to map the unclear world of the frontier into clear legal lines, CPJ uses its staff’s investigative journalist expertise to uncover what really happened, and then uses the clout of that reinforced and unassailable truth to lobby and expose.

Honestly, I’m still only beginning to map out how I might help in all this. I spent a week last month in New York where CPJ is based, listening to their regional experts talk about every continent, all the dictators, torturers, censors and thugs, all the bloggers and web publishers and whistleblowers.

I know I am starting on that ignorance rollercoaster you get when striking out into new territory. I can tell these people about proxies, AES encryption and SMS security, but I still can’t pronounce Novaya Gazeta, or remember what countries border Kenya. You surprise yourself with how much old knowledge becomes freshly useful, at the same time as you feel stupid for every dumbly obvious fact you fail to grasp.

I think part of my usefulness will come from writing more, and engaging more with the communities here I know well to explain and explore the opportunities and threats their incredible creations are creating today. At the same tie, I’m already resigned to taking a hit in my reputational IQ as I publicly demonstrate my ignorance (my friends in Africa and Russia are already facepalming, I can tell). Hope you’ll forgive me.

In the mean time, I’ll be setting up my monthly donation to EFF. I’ve said it before and I’ll bore you again, EFF are an incredible organization, made up of some of the smartest and most dedicated people I’ve ever met. I smugly joined in 2005 thinking I understood tech policy, and spent the next few years amazed at what it was like to live as the only person who didn’t have an EFF to help me understand what I was looking at and what to do about it. I guess I finally got the hang of juggling five hundred daily emails, a dozen issues refracted through dozens of cultures across the world. And I guess that’s aways the cue to switch tracks and reset to being dumb and ready to learn again.

Incidentally, EFF is looking for an IP attorney right now. I don’t know how many lawyers read this blog, but if you know a smart IP legal person who wants to randomize their life for the opportunity to become even smarter for a good cause, get them to apply. They won’t regret it, not for a minute.


jet plane emotions; ipad cycles

Does anyone else get weepy on long haul flights? I’m currently on a Virgin America flight (hello gogo wi-fi, hello deucing my carbon credits for another decade), watching a House marathon (which is protecting me somewhat from emotional liability), but I still get a little tearful after the fifth hour. Maybe it’s oxygen dep, maybe it’s sheer boredom, maybe it’s NOT JUST ME. One time I burst into tears at an inflight showing of Mission to Mars. I hope it’s not just me.

Anyway, it means I have time for you. I have a little less time for Virgin’s chairback entertainment system. Watching the Linux boot-up errors scroll back used to give me a wriggle of delight, but now the wonder of that has worn off, it’s just constantly irritating. There’s latency issues, especially with fast-forwarding in movies, which is like trying to tap-dance on black ice. There’s pages full of “this service isn’t ready yet”, terrible anti-aliasing on the branding. Oh, and my main credit card doesn’t work on purchases, coming up with a “Credit values of $9999 not allowed” error. The same card gives the same error on my neighbour’s machine. Another card that has a variant of my name works fine. My main credit card has an apostrophe in the surname. I do hope Little Bobby Tables doesn’t take a flight on VIrgin any time soon.

Here’s the question that is gripping plenty of my friends in fear tonight. Do open systems inevitably suck at UI, compared to closed systems run by control freaks? Will the iPad (sorry, that is “iPad”) mean our children will not code, and Stallman will die alone, the last free programmer strangled with the DRMed guts of the last Macmillan author?

I think the guilt is exacerbated by all of our concerned essays being interleaved by admissions that we, too, will be getting one. It’s like a “Just Say No” ad recorded by people conspicuously tapping their upper arms.

But, you know, I’m optimistic. I’ve had these chills before. The first time, actually, was Windows 3.1, back when I was six or something. Okay, twenty-one. Windows was amazing, and unprogrammable to anyone who didn’t have a proper programming job, and thus couldn’t justify the expense of the dev environment, the Petzold, and the fancy 486 to run it all on. To people accustomed to working with a $50 copy of Turbo Pascal and a 80×25 Hercules card, this was a horror show. In the space between DOS’s QBASIC and Visual Basic, the Windows platform was closed to amateurs.

As was the Mac, compared to the Apple II ecosystem. I remember in 1992, in a run-down London flat, having somehow managed to beg a Mac from a local dealer, sitting and dolefully staring at it because outside of playing MacWrite and admiring the screen resolution, there was damn all you could do with it.

As for the risks to interactivity and creativity: I remember when the WebTV was announced, and we huddled in corners and worried for the future of the Internet. Unlike Windows and the Mac, the WebTV may well have died because it sucked: but I notice that it has no descendants on the technology family tree. No-one makes a web browser at arm’s length, for watching. Even the supposedly sealed iPad sits close enough to our laps for us want to make something, even if it’s just finger paintings.

Of course, the iPad (sorry, just “iPad”) is different because of the lockdown. Even if we had the resources to write something for it, we can’t without Apple’s whim. But I remain confident that the same forces that wash away proprietariness in general purpose computers in the past will eat away at the iPad. Maybe it will be like Windows, where the system itself becomes more open just by virtue of a disinterest in its owners in keeping it closed. My own, perhaps overgenerous feeling is the App Store is not an artifact of Jobs’ control-freak mentality, but a paranoid reaction to iPhone OS’s lack of decent sandboxing; that paranoia may be whittled away slowly.

Or it could be like the Mac, which became more open out of competition with more other open systems. Closed costs money to maintain, and open has more features. It may be that the iPad gives up its closed nature when faced with competitors that take its lead, and run faster and more alluringly than even Apple can keep up with. That seems less likely, to me: Apple knows its strengths, and the open world is so far struggling to emulate its aesthetic integrity and hardware integration. Closed costs money, but also lets Apple create new revenue streams for it and its partners. Open has more features, so Apple concentrates and creating a few features very well. Well, shrug: we have competition. That’s good. It’s not like the other proprietary behemoths are doing a good job mimicking Apple either.

Or it could be that we have to become outlaws. The problem with a closed system in our post-DMCA world is not that it exists, but that it’s a criminal act to open it. Some prosecutors claim it’s a criminal act to even talk about how how to open it. It’s certain criminal to sell other people ways to open it.

Despite that, open is still so important than thousands of people do it to their iPhones. Millions of people buy Android systems in preference to iPhone partly because of that power. And if the iPad is successful, surely millions will either jailbreak them, or buy open alternatives out of a wish to reach for something that Apple isn’t offering them.

It’s easy to see the iPad as the final tragedy in a long history of openness and tinkerability in general purpose computing. But the truth is, the cyclical fight against locked-in systems has been the recurring theme of computing since the mainframes. Our open systems are as wonderful as they are because they had to set themselves up against the shiny proprietary wonders of a previous age. The iPad isn’t a threat; it’s an inspiration. They’re always trying to steal the revolution; we always have to steal it back.


you know who i blame? the lurkers

All of these conversations I’ve been having online (as opposed to the dramatic monologues here) have had me thinking about the nature of online discussion, and confronting my own behaviour in them.

What are you like when you’re deep into an argument online? I have two sides: the one which you can see with my postings, which are long, mostly fiercely polite, quasi-grammatical, and, if I may say so, devastatingly reasoned.

You have to imagine me writing these, though, pacing around madly in my bedroom, muttering little speeches to myself and visualizing the horrible death of my correspondent in a hail of unavoidable saucepans. Also I drool, but only a little bit, and only from the mouth.

Is everyone like this? I don’t know, because people don’t like to talk about it. Recently, I’ve been looking at how people manage their own emotions when discussing online. It’s complicated, because the unwritten rules of much online discussion is that “if you emote, you lose”, and others that “if you emote, you win”. Either way, bringing emotions into it changes the game. But what the hell does winning and losing mean?

People talk about the disrespect and ferocity of online flame wars. I think it’s about audience. I think the novel nature of online discussions is that you have a passive, silent audience out there. I think that’s far significant than all that talk of anonymity, or the death of civilized discourse.

The closest equivalent to Internet discussion forums for me when I was young was Paddy, who I lived with. Paddy was a man who could argue for hours without coming up for breath. You’d say your triumphant logicbuster, and magically by the time you’d finished, he’d already have (verbally) posted a five page reply up in your face. I remember one night when I got so mad with him for his relentless logical verbal one-upping that the only snappy come-back I could devise with was to quietly leave the room, go upstairs to the bathroom, spray my entire face with shaving foam so I looked like a giant Michelin head, and then creep up behind him and go “ARRGH!”. I hold that I won that argument squarely and fairly. (You occasionally see this rhetorical device at Prime Minister’s Question Time.)

Anyway, what was annoying with Paddy, as I finally got him to admit one day, was that he wasn’t trying to convince you he was right: he was trying to convince a mysterious third-party.

There was no third-party in our arguments. When we got started both of us could empty a room faster than karoake-ing opera singer.

But on the public Internets, you’ve always got an eye to the third-party. Every talk you see online has an imaginary crowd around it, imaginarily clapping or stomping. Either way, you can’t just communicate these side-line emotions with the person you’re talking to, except by stumbling off into private email. Which is usually about as calming as going outside the bar for the fight. Actually, private email isn’t even private, because there is always this sense it will be magically reforwarded into the public view, exposing your vulnerability to the same audience.

Every discussion is a group monkey dance.


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