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



Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category


go wild

I love watching the AlphaGo/이세돌 games. I barely know anything about Go, so I’m essentially pursuing my favourite hobby of watching smarter people reach out beyond their comprehension.  The little shortcuts of explanations between expert Go players: the flurry of hand movements, the little trial explanations of future moves, and Go’s beautiful vocabulary, the subcultural mix of  deliberate ironic calm and background, barely concealed anxiety and excitement. A friend said it felt like “surrealist theater” sometimes. But what I love about games, about programs, about science is that even when it’s hidden and barely explicable, there’s always something there.

Nobody seems to understand AlphaGo’s wilder moves. In the second game, everyone commenting belatedly realised that it was doing something in the center when everyone thought it was losing the upper right to Lee. Opinions on who was winning swung wildly from side to side. AlphaGo itself has a metric of how it thinks its doing (it resigns if it perceives it has a less than 10% chance of winning). We don’t get to see what that is in the game, but the program’s British inventors said afterwards that AlphaGo thought it had a 50/50 chance in the mid-game, but its confidence slowly and consistently increased towards the end. Were AlphaGo’s early moves madness or genius, someone asked. We’ll know from whether it wins or not, another human replied. It won.

And again, something of a zeitgeist event. The AI people, who’ve been kicking around in my box of interesting predictors for nearly a decade, I think they feel that this is their moment.

I spent a couple of hour last weekend talking to Benjamen Walker about Nathan Barley, and the psychic damage of the early 2000s. At one point, I talked about the terrible distortion for technologists in the dotcom years of having years of everything you want and predict turn out to be true. Then I more sadly talked about how the magic had ebbed away. How so many of us coasted along on glib predictions that the Internet is going to make things nicer and more exciting for a decade, and it worked,  then suddenly every bet turns out wrong.

I  hate actually predicting things, because as soon as  you pre-commit, your perceived accuracy plummets (because now it’s your actual accuracy which is never as much fun). As ever, I can just couch my predictions in woolly language here so: I’m feeling myself be tugged along in the AI folks wake, because they’re going somewhere interesting for a few years, even if maybe the magic will fade from them before they reached home and the Singularity.

(Fun reading if you want it, in this vein: Crystal Society by Max Harms. My favourite book this year so far. And, just like my favourite book this decade, Constellation Games, indie/self-published.)

BTW, Constellation Games is the Book of Honor at the upcoming Potlatch science fiction conference. I’m mortified I’m missing it, but I think I’ll be ending up at the same city as the author (hi Leonard, are you going to be at LibrePlanet in Boston?), so maybe it’s not so bad. Who can predict?


home server

Well, that was an embarrassing amount of time having to engineer around forgetting a password. Nothing important lost, but an important lesson: if you write down a password (and you should write down a password), write it down correctly. Being clever and elliptical in the past is just frustrating in the present. Also true of secret societies. Lighten up!

Anyway, the password was for an empty Debian install onto a chromebox which I’d set up, but not actually populated with files and such, so no great loss. Except I had to learn how to install Debian on a chromebox again (shades of “Flowers for Debian” again).

It remains a very promising base for a home server though. Asus Chromeboxen are still around $150, can be upgraded pretty easily, and installing a free operating system on them only costs you 3 sanity rolls, max. The machine is very quiet, tiny, and I think powerful enough if you stick some more RAM and SSD into it. My last home server has been happily doing its thing for a decade, and this, which I’m eying up as a replacement, has the same feel to it.

To be honest, the most exciting part of it was working out a way that I could encrypt its root hard drive, and but somehow let me ssh into it to type in the magic passphrase even before the thing had finished booting. This is a pretty good guide to doing that. Feels like magic to connect into a thing that hasn’t even booted into full Linux.


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!


song for noisebridge

It is entirely appropriate that I came from hanging out at Noisebridge today with business cards from an Applied Anthropologist and an associate from the Institute of the Future. I also got to hang out with Dan Kaminsky and Eric Butler (of Firesheep fame). I wrote some Python, sat next to others writing Python in separate rooms (and by the side of a crowd learning machine learning, if that is a sentence). I yelled at someone, which I never do, and made up. Noisebridge drama! I worked at persuading someone that throwing out someone’s entire server rack (with server) onto the streets in the middle of the weekend, was an extremely poor – but not unpermitted – choice of things to do. I marveled at the genius of visually portraying the state of the internal network by nailing it to a wall, which had been some impromptu group’s impromptu project over the same weekend.
A Wall O' Tubes

Around me ten people learned to solder, someone rebuilt the lighting system with a clutch of borrowed TED-5000s from the great Google PowerMeter shutdown , and I talked Syrian insider politics with someone wanted to teach Scratch to local kids. I gave tours to three groups, including the Applied Anthropologist, and gave the standard pitch: a hackerspace open to all, 24/7, where there was deliberately no rules and no leadership, just decision consensus and the ever-present sudo do-ocracy.

The Applied Anthropologist seemed fascinated, although really it’s hard to tell how rivetted people are when I can’t hear them over the rattle of my own obsessive proclaiming. I sincerely hope he is interested. I’ve often craved a Noisebridge in-house anthropologist, because Noisebridge is deeply, deeply culturally weird, and needs someone to unpick how it even stays in the air.

It’s a hybrid of cold war Berlin radical politics, maker culture, defcon-with-issues emotionality, FSF/EFF idealism, and just San Franciscan High Weirdness. It’s created press passes and space projects and mushrooms and robots. It’s run like an anarchist collective, if all the anarchists were asocial individualists who try to fix problems by throwing technology at them. We put off actual anarchists, because people come to the consensus meetings with T-shirts saying “I BLOCK” and frequently improvise ad-hoc solutions with powertools. In some sort of karmic test, I once had to eject a Buddhist monk from the space.

It provokes a huge range of emotions, and not just within me. Right now, it seems like an engine for generating social ideas, both stupid and painful and inspiring and positive and strange. Lots of people burn out from it, which I totally understand; I think I have only survived this long because I am so crispy for dozens of previous burn-outs. But I watch lots of people continually burn outward from it, or who re-ignite their passions from it, or save themselves from far worse fates. Its most driven members go through huge cycles of love and hate, which I think power the place with their alternating currents. If you’re in San Francisco, I’ll give you a tour.


Haystack vs How The Internet Works

There’s been a lot of alarming but rather brief statements in the past few days about Haystack, the anti-censorship software connected with the Iranian Green Movement.  Austin Heap, the co-creator of Haystack and co-founder of parent non-profit, the Censorship Research Center, stated that the CRC had “halted ongoing testing of Haystack in Iran”; EFF made a short announcement urging people to stop using the client software;  the Washington Post wrote about unnamed “engineers” who said that “lax security in the Haystack program could hurt users in Iran”.

A few smart people asked the obvious, unanswered question: What exactly happened? Between all those stern statements, there is little public information about why the public view of Haystack switched from it being a “step forward for activists working in repressive environments” that provides “completely uncensored access to the internet from Iran while simultaneously protecting the user’s identity” to being something that no-one should ever consider using.

Obviously, some security flaw in Haystack had become apparent. But why was the flaw not more widely documented? And why now?

As someone who knows a bit of the back story, I’ll  give as much information as I can. Firstly, let me say I am frustrated that I cannot provide all the details. After all, I believe the problem with Haystack all along has been due to explanations denied: either because its creators avoided them, or because those who publicized Haystack failed to demand them. I hope I can convey why we still have one more incomplete explanation to attach to Haystack’s name.

(Those who’d like to read the broader context for what follows should look to the discussions on the Liberation Technology mailing list. It’s an open and public mailing list, but it with moderated subscriptions and with the archives locked for subscribers only. I’m hoping to get permission to publish the core of the Haystack discussion more publicly.)

First, the question that I get asked most often: why make such a fuss, when the word on the street is that a year on from its original announcement, the Haystack service was almost completely nonexistent, a beta product restricted to only a few test users, all of whom were in continuous contact with its creators?

One of the many new facts about Haystack that the large team of external investigators, led by Jacob Appelbaum and Evgeny Morozov, have learned in the past few days is that there were more users of Haystack software than Haystack’s creators knew. Despite the lack of a “public” executable for examination, versions of the Haystack binary were being passed around, just like “unofficial” copies of Windows (or videos of Iranian political violence) get passed around. Copying: it’s how the Internet works.

But the understood structure of Haystack included a centralized, server-based model for providing the final leg of censorship circumvention. We were assured that Haystack had a high granularity of control over usage. Surely those servers blocked rogue copies, and ensured that bootleg Haystacks were excluded from the service?

Apparently not. Last Friday, Jacob Appelbaum approached me with some preliminary concerns about the security of the Haystack system. I brokered a conversation between him, Austin Heap, Haystack developer Dan Colascione and the CEO of CRC CRC’s Director of Development, Babak Siavoshy. Concerned by what Jacob had deduced about the system, Austin announced that he was shutting down Haystack’s central servers, and would keep Haystack down until the problems were resolved.

Shortly after, Jacob obtained a Haystack client binary. On Sunday evening, Jacob was able to conclusively demonstrate to me that he could still use Haystack using this client via Austin’s servers.

When I confronted Austin with proof of this act, on the phone, he denied it was possible. He repeated his statement that Haystack was shut down. He also said that Jacob’s client had been “permanently disabled”. This was all said as I watched Jacob  using Haystack, with his supposedly “disabled” client, using the same Haystack servers Austin claimed were no longer operational.

It appeared that Haystack’s administrator did not or could not effectively track his users and that the methods he believed would lock them out were ineffective. More brutally, it also demonstrated that the CRC did not seem able to adequately monitor nor administrate their half of the live Haystack service.

Rogue clients; no apparent control. This is why I and others decided to make a big noise on Monday: it was not a matter of letting just CRC’s official Haystack testers quietly know of problems; we feared there was a potentially wider and vulnerable pool of users who were background users of Haystack that none of us, including CRC, knew how to directly reach.

Which brings us to the next question: why reach out and tell people to stop using Haystack?

As you might imagine from the above description of  Haystack’s system management, on close and independent examination the Haystack system as a whole, including these untracked binaries, turn out to have very little protection from a high number of potential attacks — including attacks that do not need Haystack server availability. I can’t tell you the details; you’ll have to take it on my word that everyone who learns about them is shocked by their extent.  When I spelled them out to Haystack’s core developer, Dan Colascione late on Sunday, he was shocked too (he resigned from Haystack’s parent non-profit the Censorship Research Center last night, which I believe effectively kills Haystack as a going concern. CRC’s advisory board have also resigned.)

Deciding whether publishing further details of these flaws put Haystack users in danger is not just a technical question. Does the Iranian government have sufficient motivation to hurt Haystack users, even if they’re just curious kids who passed a strange and exotic binary around? There’s no evidence the Iranian government has gone after the users of other censorship circumvention systems. The original branding of Haystack as  “Green Movement” software may increase the apparent value of constructing an attack against Haystack, but Haystack client owners do not have any connection with the sort of high-value targets a government might take an interest in. The average Haystack client owner is probably some bright mischievous kid who snagged it to access Facebook.

Lessons? Well, as many have noted, reporters do need to ask more questions about too-good-to-be-true technology stories.  Coders and architects need to realize (as most do) that you simply can’t build a safe, secure, reliable system without consulting with other people in the field, especially when your real adversary is a powerful and resourceful state-sized actor, and this is your first major project. The Haystack designers lived in deliberate isolation from a large community that repeatedly reached out to try and help them. That too is a very bad idea. Open and closed systems alike need independent security audits.

These are old lessons, repeatedly taught.

New lessons? Well, I’ve  learned that even apparent vaporware can have damaging consequences (I originally got re-involved in investigating Haystack because I was worried the lack of a real Haystack behind the hype might encourage Iranian-government fake Haystack malware — as though such things were even needed!).

Should one be a good cop or a bad cop? I remember sitting in a dark bar in San Francisco back in July of 2009, trying to persuade a blasé Heap to submit Haystack for an independent security audit. I spoke honestly to anyone who contacted me at EFF or CPJ about my concerns, and would prod other human rights activists to share what we knew about Haystack whenever I met them (most of us were skeptical of his operation, but without sufficient evidence to make a public case). I encouraged journalists to investigate the back story to Haystack. I kept a channel open to Austin throughout all of this, which I used to occasionally nudge him toward obtaining an audit of his system, and, finally, get a demonstration that answered some of our questions (and raised many more). Perhaps I should have acted more directly and publicly and sooner?

And I think about Austin Heaps’ own end quote from his Newsweek article in August, surely the height of his fame.”A mischievous kid will show you how the Internet works”, he warns. The Internet is mischievous kids; you try and work around them at your peril. And theirs.


Guy Kewney

I don’t know why but from the age of eight to I think fifteen, I just assumed every drawing of a bearded man in or on Personal Computer World was meant to be Guy Kewney. He was the model journalist to me– why wouldn’t he also be the model for all those techies PCW’s graphic editors had to draw?

Not Guy.

As a pre-teen, I was a Personal Computer World kid. I loved the binding, the glossy cover, the thick tall pages, the sprawling reviews, the narrow columns of crazy computer classifieds that would stand like columns over pages and pages and pages of dot-matrix printed listings at the back, the love-hate relationship with the dull business business that would dog it into the grey IBM years, the arty covers, the bearded pundits. But most of all I loved reading Guy Kewney, the beardyist pundit of all.

Cromemco and Nascom, Siriuses and Osbornes. They seemed like far-off planets, and Kewney seemed like some pipe-smoking Dan Dare, giving a jocular downbeat debriefing in the mess, of his latest voyages with the Osborne or the COSMAC ELF, even when the most exciting software they did was inventory management. Kewney made even dull corporate machinations the stuff of high drama.

Aged 10 or 11, I would run around the house playing these elaborate fantasy games, muttering under my breath stage directions, and leaping from chair to chair in our living room. My adventures were set — and I am not joking here — in a 21st century where Apple-IBM and Sinclair-Acorn would heroically battle as giant zaibatsu corporations flying amazing robot battalions around in space. The dramatic climax would always involve me, as the captain of the flagship of the corporate fleet, controller of the inventory, master of the Science of Cambridge, shouting some secret password that would override all the command centers of the opposing army. My favourite Words Of Power in these fantasies was Angelo Zgorelec!, the mystical founder of PCW, whose name appeared on every issue’s masthead, and who I imagined to be a Tharg-like being of supreme wisdom (and great aural resonance).

But the person from whose writing I drew the strategies and the battles and the drama of those corporate tussles was Kewney.

Also not Guy.

I still remember one of his columns. In it, Kewney, boggling at the effort to which software publisher Acornsoft had gone to copy-protect software , published the one-line command for rendering its primitive DRM completely useless. I don’t remember the details, but I do recall just stopping and staring and then laughing and rocking in glee at the audacity of it, and wondering why no-one ever said all those other hidden incantations that I was sure existed out loud in other newspapers and magazines. Then I watched him defend his decision after a barrage of outraged readers (swamped by those who cheered him on) chastised him the next month. It really stuck in my mind as this example of the power of words to unwind elaborate but unsustainable practices.

John Lettice says in his obituary that PCW had to pay Acorn for that Kewney column. They shouldn’t have. And if they had to because of the law, well then, the law was wrong: spelling out these magical words of power, causing corporate battalions to flash out of existence at a single, carefully-researched command, really was Kewney’s job, and he did it masterfully.

I met him once. I’d just started writing for PCW myself, in about 1990, only to discover that my rapid promotion to the flagship of the British tech mag fleet was because they’d sacked all the old guard in a labour dispute and were desperate to fill those gaping pages with cheap young new writers. I tagged along to some press conference and actually overhearing David Tebbutt or Christopher Bidmead or some other Elder God complaining loudly about the wide-eyed children who had stolen everyone’s jobs, yet wouldn’t stop babbling about how honoured they were to meet them.

After that, I always averted my eyes and ceased to bother the titans. When I finally met Kewney, I think I just stood awkwardly by his side, surely making him even more uncomfortable than he must have been.

Or looked. To me, some idiot kid, he did not look well. When I said this to equally squeaky kid co-worker, they told me he had always looked ill, a boney, pale man who was constantly being stabbed with allergies and posture problems, aches and pains and deadlines and all-nighters, triumphing over the all to file his copy mere hours before printers might knock down his door and wring his neck.

I found this hard to believe, because he always looked so erect and noble in his byline pictures. Also in all those cover paintings of him. And in those games where he flew across the corporate landscape, making the world change with a word or two. It just made him seem all the braver.

Now Guy Kewney is gone, and I have this beard, but the words of power are all gone too. And frankly, I do not feel too well myself. Timor mortis conturbat me.


cd-roms and ipads

Watching that $14 Elements demo for the iPad reminded me again of the throwaway line that geeks of a certain age make of the iPad — that it all seems a bit CD-ROM.

For those of you blessed with senile amnesia or youth, CD-ROMs were the first wave of “interactive media” in the mid-eighties, and the great hope for publishing houses struggling to understand what they might be doing in the 21st century. Companies from Dorling-Kindersley to News Corp threw millions into CD-ROM publishing, with very little ultimate return. They’d do some fancy-schmancy David Bowie joint project, or an incredibly complex animated re-working of their existing bestsellers. Each one won more awards than it sold copies, and eventually those “interactive divisions” were rolled into the “online media” departments, where their designers would get drunk and bitter, until one night they were sacked after uploading 640MB Adobe Director files onto the website front page.

look before you jump

Back then, geeks were unused to other industry sectors barging into our little rustic byte farmyards with their fancy suits and corporate expense accounts, braying triumphantly about digital convergence, and then, seconds later, striding into the business-model threshing machine that thrummed in the corner. We did not know then that there was a queue of people like this, waiting to dance past us into the bloody knives. We watched their cockiness with alarm, not with the disdain that would come later (and definitely not with own brand of hubristic Internet rockstar smugness, the smugness that tempts us all to look a bit less closely at ourselves, and a bit more closely at that thresher).

No, back then it was all a bit shocking. We assumed these people knew what they were doing. God knows we knew we didn’t have a clue. The only way we knew how to fill a CD-ROM was burning a complete archive of Fred Fish Amiga Freeware on it. Seven hundred megabytes just seemed an insanely large amount to want to fill with professional product.

Subsequent to the threshing, people muttered about how it was the Internet that killed the CD-ROM, but I think that, as ever, the real murderer was economics. A “professional” CD-ROM was just too expensive to produce, relative to the format it was generally parasitical upon.

The classic example for me was the brief phase of magazines including a free CD-ROM on the front of their mag. Dave and I would marvel at the incredible lopsided nature of this venture. The CD-ROM could hold close to a gigabyte of data, including programs, movies and graphics; all of which had to be commissioned, collated, edited, integrated together, checked for viruses, cleared for copyright, tested, mastered, and burned. If done welll, a front-mounted CD-ROM was clearly a far more complex and expensive venture than actually putting out a magazine — and yet they usually paid a single person to do it all, didn’t charge for the CD, and probably got little advertising revenue from it.

The ultimate portrayal of this problem was when, in a desperate attempt to include some unique content, they’d include on the CD-ROM a PDF file of the magazine it was sellotaped to. The PDF would usually take 50MB, if they were lucky. All that unique content that it had taken the rest of the editorial team a month to create — and there was still 650MB to go.

Most started attempting to bridge that gap with incredibly fancy interactive environments that would quickly consumer their annual budget. The ones that survived would ultimately collapse into padding the CD-ROM out with… well, the Fred Fish Amiga Archive, generally. Professional product got thrown out of the window in an attempt to feed the ever-hungry maw of interactive content.

This, to me, is the flipside of the “digital technology makes everything cheaper” argument. It makes a lot of work cheaper, but it can also professional media fantastically more expensive than its analogue equivalents.

In some ways, the equivalent to a newspaper is just a README HTML file, full of plaintext with a few images — but no-one is going to pay a quid for a README file. So what will you pay a quid for? Maybe some other super-awesome interactive newspaper with 3D pictures and audio interviews and in-depth statistical analysis and a 30 minute vodcast with the most famous writers, and, and, and… how much editorial budget do you want to throw on this again?

Elements is going to do fantastically, because it benefits from that “fresh platform” smell that exudes from the iPad. But can you re-gear a newspaper or a publishing house to produce the level of interactive complexity that a $5 app is going to demand, when it is competing with games and films in the same app niche?

Honestly, it might be possible. We’re not in the age of CD-ROMs now. Our price-points are all over the shop, and a sealed environment like the iPad permits all kinds of unnatural pricing inversions. We’ll pay more for a ringtone than a full MP3. We pay $10 for a README file on our Amazon Kindle, and a dollar for a pocket application that plays farts.

But if you want to play that game, you’re running against the clock. Other applications are going to make yours look ridiculously clumsy in a matter of months (honestly, in a year people will be amazed anyone paid $14 for a bunch of text, a rotating picture of a rock, and a quick Wolfram Alpha search). Plus the seals on that environment get corroded by open competition every day.

Often the solution to this problem really is to run away and hide. Don’t listen to those “interactive media” gurus: stick with what you know. No-one demands now to know why their magazines don’t have DVDs on the cover. When books have CD-ROMs or allied websites these days, they’re usually buried at the back, hardly updated, and just contained the original text and some errata. We don’t really care. It’s okay. We just wanted a book. We love you as you are.

I know that publishing companies will be tempted to go for the all-singing, all-dancing iPad application. But what they’re doing that, my suspicion is that what they’re aiming for is a product which exudes credibility, status — an aura of a professional media product. And when you’re spending the kind of money that a professional application requires, solely to improves your status in the world, you’re not selling a product, you’re buying the love of your audience. That may be an investment in credibility, but it’s not an incoming revenue stream.

The goldrush economics of the iPad will hide this for a little while, because everything will be briefly profitable. But to be sustainable, you need to either be producing something that consistently costs you less than it earns, or will produce regular super-hits among a string of drabber products, or just makes you so much money in its first few months that you never need work again. You can’t just make some single wonderful shiny demo product. You need to keep producing them; you need some way of economizing that process. And you need to stop others from making their shiny thing cheaper than, yet interchangeable with, yours. Otherwise you’re just throwing nice fancy gee-gaws into the thresher’s hungry mouth.


ada etc

My real Ada Lovelace day piece goes out this Friday, in my Irish Times column. Honestly, it’s more an introduction to the idea (and why identifying diverse role models in tech is important) than a real story about a technologist I know, though it does mention a few.

I sort of sabotaged myself last year by listing forty women in tech who have inspired me, not realising I could have padded that out for an entire lifetime of ALDs. This year, I was going to salute the women of the EFF (without looking like I was just sucking up to my bosses), but Cory beat me to it with his profile of Cindy Cohn, EFF’s legal director.

(Then again, he didn’t mention EFF’s executive director, Shari Steele, who led the EFF to its current amazing successes; Jennifer Granick, its senior criminal lawyer (you want to watch this video to get an idea of Granick’s work); Marcia Hofmann who has leads many of EFF’s FOIA-related scoops, Gwen Hinze who steers EFF’s work at WIPO, against ACTA and beyond; Corynne McSherry who mends free speech when it runs into the DMCA; Eva Galperin who is your first responder when your digital rights catch on fire, Rebecca Jeschke who keeps obscure tech issues in the headlines where they belong; Alyssa Ralston who brings the money in, Katina Bishop who masterminds EFF’s awesome events and more awesome major donors; Leticia Perez and Andrea Chiang who make sure the briefs get filed and the bills get paid — and I sabotaged myself again, didn’t I?)


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.


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