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



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touch of the galois

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


reality distortion field lensing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you don’t see a video up there, you can visit it directly here.

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

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


the secret history of ntk

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

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


brother against brother

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

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

That’s it.

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


my diseased mind; ephemerisle

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest of this entry »


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


unwanted enthusiasms; returns to scale; organization theory

Meat of this post is here: skip or link to this bit. If you read my blog for my self-indulgent inner voyages of auto-exploration, read on:

Good news: I stumbled upon an exhaustive and self-consistent set of economic and political explanations, together with deeply-documented statistics and examples that instinctively match my own observations and gut-instincts about how the world works!

Bad news: the conclusions reached are shared about a few thousand other obscure eccentrics, most of whom hover around my age, gender and social demographic, profoundly lowering the chances that we are right about anything!

Good news: I’ve been in this position before: at the birth of the popular Internet. Hence I do not feel so bad!1

More good news: Simultaneously in my field of view, I note lots of people are pondering the same broad topic area: the size of the corporation, regulatory transaction costs, and the true level of corporate economies of scale. We near a trend.

Bad news: that means you will be bored of this topic, and snarkily saying so, on MetaFilter in a matter of hours. Soon, your closest friends will link to an insightful Clive Thomas piece they have read on the subject. Doug Rushkoff will claim he invented it. Time passes. A Newsweek cover story appears.

Good news: you still have a few minutes to be ahead of the curve!

Here is my new Question of the Moment, together with the book you should read:

What if the Firm is The Wrong Size?

More leadingly, what if the libertarians and the lefties are both right? What if big faceless corporations are the primary benefactors of the misalignment of power relationships in our modern world; but those warped power relationships have largely been created by, and lopsidedly benefit from, the coercive intrusions of the State? And what if those intrusions — sometimes at the behest of capitalists puffing on big cigars, sometimes well-meaning Fabians — have led to an oligopolistic growth in corporate size that is way beyond the point of maximum efficiency that they would naturally shrink to in a freed market? What if all those suspicions you harboured about how horrendously inefficient any major corporation, or government department, you’ve ever worked for, were actually vindicated and documented by research?

That’s the delicious and dangerously self-confirming pleasure I gained from reading Organization Theory by Kevin Carson, a doorstop of a book that assembles a  wide-ranging selection of literature, from Keynesians to Austrians, Benjamin Tucker to Galbraith, econometric studies to Marx, Wobblies to Murray Rothbard to argue that Big Capitalism has been feeding off Big Government for centuries, and that it is way past time we liquidated them both.

Carson is a left-libertarian, which is sort of like saying you’re a whale-hunting Greenpeace supporter. In polite company, it gets you a lot of pointed questions, followed by a distinct lack of future polite company. I stumbled on this book, because, like many people my age, I’ve been jamming my tongue onto the very same two-pronged fork at dinner parties for years.  I’m old enough to remember the stultifying mouldiness of socialist dogma and managed markets consensus in the seventies and early eighties, as well as the cold heartless vacuum of Thatcherite/Reagan economics that gutted it. I like free markets because they remind me of all the best new ideas in my lifetime: decentralised, individualist-driven and reciprocal. On the other hand, the distance between that fast-moving, can-do solution space and the defensive flailing of the fat-catted, smug, Tessier-Ashpool plutocrat-run oligopolies you see on CNBC implies to me that free markets are about as far from the real world as the communist utopia was from East Germany, 1988.

Carson manages, as no other author I’ve read, to mesh these left and libertarian together. To do so, he has to stitch and mend much of the traditional narrative of both. Organization Theory reads, in parts, like one imagines the rest of Emmanuel Goldstein’s Book in 1984 might read: a rapid and abbreviated account of an centuries-long ahistorical and ongoing atrocity where no-one is quite on the side you imagined.

But this is no secret conspiracy. Carson, as the book’s title implies, is a theorist of the self-defeating nature of conspiracy: of organizational reaching too large to survive on a human scale, but too big to fail. Here, history is a repeated farce of correct economical instincts overridden by the temptation to take a coercive shortcut. Merchants commandeer the state and force land-enclosure as the quickest method to leverage labor and capital into the free market, thus guaranteeing the decrepit market inefficiency of both their labor exploitation and land use. Free trade globalists use military power to pry open up international markets, thereby subsidising trade with one-sided externalities that benefit only crony corporations. Progressive reform shores up the very cartels they seek to unseat, just at the point that those monopoly’s internal contradictions have begun their own demise. Well-meaning bureaucrats devastate working-class self-organization by their professionalization of social welfare. Management fads take obvious truths about incentive and sabotage in the workplace and turn them into saccharine parodies of real reform.

To list this out makes the book sound obvious, so let me point you to Sean Gabb’s  better attempt to summarise at the UK’s other Libertarian Alliance2. Far more than the precis though, note the impact of the book on Gabb’s own opinions, as a relatively “mainstream” libertarian:

…its overall theme was a revelation to me. As said, many libertarians recognise that big business is inherently exploitative. But we have also assumed that it is reasonably productive within its own terms. It is not. As already mentioned, Mr Carson believes that large firms show many of the weaknesses long since indentified in centrally-planned economies. He says:

Individual human beings make optimal decisions only when they internalize the costs and benefits of their own decisions. The larger the organization, the more the authority to make decisions is separated both from the negative consequences and from the direct knowledge of the results. And in a hierarchy, the consequences of the irrational and misinformed decisions of those at the top are borne by the people who are actually doing the work. The direct producers, who know what’s going on and experience directly the consequences of decisions, have no direct control of those decisions.[p.193]

The results of this are an obsession at the top with targets that can be measured and an indifference to local understandings of how work may best be done. Profitability crises are managed by thinly-veiled attempts to make people work harder for less, by “downsizings” that cut measurable costs while destroying intangible patterns of human capital, greater incentives to management to restore profitability, and an interest in fad management theories that talk of “empowerment” and decentralised control, but are just shifts in legitimising ideology to jolly the workers along.

Strikes and other forms of industrial action should not be seen as mindless wrecking, or attacks on property or violations of contract. Rather, they are often attempts by the workers to claw back some of the humanity stolen by them.(Emphasis mine).

You see? This is a book that can turn even die-hard libertarians wobbly.

Like Gabb, I don’t necessarily agree with every pinion that Carson meshes together to form his argument. The problem with being a left-libertarian is that it’s pretty much idiosyncracy squared, so Organization Theory’s conclusions are almost guaranteed to have something you’ll disagree with: worker-owned production, free contracting, steroidically strong unions, no public transport subsidy, land property reform, FidoNet (yes, FidoNet).

But for all its sprawl, Organization Theory is the first book I’ve read in a long while that, while it only occasionally tangentially touches my domain knowledge, nonetheless manages gets the facts and policy implications right every time. I’ve read technical articles that have got both the details and the gist of the United State’s IP provisions in its Free Trade Agreements wrong (hint: they have nothing to do with free trade). And rarely have I seen anyone make the link between DeCSS and the lack of innovation in the DVD market since its introduction, let alone in the same volume as a detailed discussion of soil management (a gardener of my acquaintance says he got that right too). It’s one of those books where, if you disagree, you start scribbling in the margin. And when you agree, you start cutting and pasting into the top of your quotes file, and the bottom of your email sig.

And you’d be perfectly free to do so. Let me also point you to the draft PDFs of the book itself, which is copyrighted under the “Woody Guthrie license” (“anybody caught quoting or copying this book without our permission will be mighty good friends of ours”).

I’m still processing what I’ve read, and I’m sure I’ll end up re-processing and critiquing it here. In the mean time, I hope Carson’s book gets many more good friends, and worthy opponents. We’ve all had these thoughts about the inefficiency and the cruelty of the modern firm and the modern state. Perhaps instead of blindly picking one to support, we should consider the ties that bind them together.

1 Truly, the emotional rewards one can extract from having been proven undeniably correct in a strongly-held position of dweebishly low popularity are not to be underestimated. Simply closing my eyes now and seeing the redoubled horror in the eyes of A.A. Gill, restaurant critic of the Sunday Times, as he wakes to a new day in the 21st century and realises, once again, that his radio co-guest from 1994 wasn’t the idiot he claimed and the Web did go on to be of pivotal importance to literature, is precious beyond compare. Screw you, successful author and racist A.A. Gill! May you continue to be cursed with a million young angry competitors, all with the face of me!

2 There are two Libertarian Alliances in the UK, with the same logo and early history; both LA’s have the slogan “Let A Thousand Libertarian Alliances Bloom!”. Unlike the left, British libertarians appear to factionalise with some eventual good humour.


wanted: spartacus, an opera unite web proxy for iran

[ Updated:. The time for this has passed; if you want to do something, install a Tor Bridge. ]

A lot of people have asked me about Opera Unite, because of my frequent hectoring about the importance of protecting and running services on the edge of the Network. In brief: how can I not love its manifesto:

Our computers are only dumb terminals connected to other computers (meaning servers) owned by other people — such as large corporations — who we depend upon to host our words, thoughts, and images. We depend on them to do it well and with our best interests at heart. We place our trust in these third parties, and we hope for the best, but as long as our own computers are not first class citizens on the Web, we are merely tenants, and hosting companies are the landlords of the Internet.

I do worry, though, about launching an experiment like this without a complete and compelling demonstration of its potential, though. The demo services that Opera offers are great, but they really are just demonstrations. It’s generating a lot of excitement and “wuh?” in equal measure on the discussions I’ve seen, which is something I recognise from my attempts to proselytize the edge to those already excited by the cloud.

It occurred to me (encouraged by Stef) that a great and timely Opera Unite application, just for the next few days, would be a web proxy  for Iranians. Run it on your Opera service, post your machine’s Unite URL onto twitter with a tag #spartacus, and Iran would be drowning in potential proxies to use.

Instead of a real http proxy (like Psiphon), the best implementation would simply let you append a URL to your Unite URL and get a website back, like “”. That would get rid of handing over your cookies to an unknown third-party; it’d probably also discourage people using the service for private communications (no https, in Unite — it’d be great if Opera fixed that!).

Maybe I’d also stick in a geoip check to make sure the incoming requests are coming from a known Iranian IP block, just so users could feel worthy that they’re just catering to Iranians (you could pull them out of this free geolocation database). That way we wouldn’t be creating a permanent global clunky, insecure proxy network — or at least not until Iran recovers and starts its own phishing services.

I know I’m not a good enough JS programmer to pull this off, but the Unite JavaScript API certainly appears to permit cross-domain XMLHttp calls, and you can catch generic HTTP requests using‘_request’,somehandler,false);, so it is theoretically possible (and here I hand wave to the implementation Gods).

A better solution, I know, is to get copies of Tor to those in Iran. But I think that much of what we’re seeing right now is less about perfect solutions, and more about loud, temporary solutions that might help, will do minimal harm, and as a side-effect further publicize the cause of Iranian protesters.


my secret shame

A couple of months back when I decided to go and see some live comedy in the city. I mostly avoid watching stand-up, because I’ve picked up the habit from real comedians of sitting at the back, nodding and saying “Okay, that’s funny”, instead of actually laughing. Also, after a decade or so of orbiting comedy, I was pretty burnt out on watching it. The last time I’d seen any stand up in the US was in 2002 or so, and it wasn’t that appealing. Racist jokes about Mexicans and other people who don’t go to comedy clubs, extended Seinfeldisms, and witty self-deprecation from guys who were hovering dangerously close to public self-loathing didn’t seem that interesting.

The show I went to in April was interesting, though. Even the new acts were clearly very polished, and the established acts were clearly going in interesting directions. Nobody made bad mistakes, and some of them were making deliberately great “mistakes” — trying out new directions that most circuit stand-ups just don’t dare do. The mood of the show was very upbeat and friendly, and the comedians obviously liked each other and hung out socially. I went away thinking “there’s something going on here”, and spent the night clicking around the web to find out what it was.

Here’s what I patched together. In 2000, San Francisco got a comedy college, started up by old hand Kurtis Matthews. Matthews had been doing comedy from 1984 onwards, starting in L.A. and rising up with Bill Hicks, Jon Lovitz and others. In the late Nineties, he burned out on the dream and instead pursued his (by then) elaborate fantasy of actually getting a proper office job and not having to live out of Travelodges, Denny’s and unfriendly bars. But still the back-monkey wouldn’t exit: he still wanted to be involved in comedy, just not as one of its many frazzled front-line infantry in the sweatshop comedy club chains of America. So he started teaching comedy in his home town: taking all those people who wanted to do stand-up the way some people want to sky-dive — not necessarily as a career, but as a primal fear to overcome — as well as semi-professionals who wanted some honest feedback and advice from people who weren’t, at that moment, drunk and waiting for buffalo wings.

My stand-up career began and ended on a Summer night in Edinburgh in 1990. I’d finished college. My parents had just separated, so I didn’t really have a home to come back to. I’d rolled up to the Fringe without any shows to be in, because one of my friends had called me and told me that my best friend had broken up with his practically-wife, and was now sleeping with his best friend’s girlfriend. Oh, and they were all trying to run shows and sleep in the same room, as you do when you go to Edinburgh for the Fringe. I think I was there on a combination-mission of suicide-watch and youthful rubber-necking.

I also desperately needed to know what to do with my life. My college friends, Ben Moor and Al Murray, were both setting off to London to be famous. Others, like Stewart Lee and Rich Herring, were already there, grinding through the circuit. Armando Ianucci was I think doing some weird thing on Scottish radio, but there were rumours he was heading down south too. We all knew Armando was brilliant. We all wanted to be there when he hit. Meanwhile, my father, alone and worried that I was become attracted to a duther education course in Advanced Bohemian and Defaulted Student Loans, had put in an application in my name for a job at a computer magazine called .EXE. They were asking for 1000 words and an example of my coding style.

I hung around Edinburgh, without a show. I stood in as compere for a lunch show we did called the £1.99 cabaret, masterminded I think by Kevin Cecil and Andy Riley. Eventually I plucked up enough courage to do a real open mic, outside the protection of an audience half-made up of my friends. I’d seen Stew and Rich do it; it couldn’t be that bad, could it?

I don’t remember much. I remember we all had 30 seconds or so before we were gonged off. I remember a Scottish lady actually standing on a table and screaming at me “You’re shite!” for most of my half-minute. I remember running into Simon Munnery, but I couldn’t tell him what had happened. I wandered around Edinburgh’s yeasty night for hours.

At the end of the night, I decided, grandiosely, that I had two options as a life goal. Either I could do stand-up, or I could try and devote my life to writing a computer program that would make people cry (with happiness or sadness, I didn’t care). I plumped for the latter. No-one I explained it to understood what I meant at the time, because this was before Myst or Doom or the Internet. A few weeks later, I went for the interview at .EXE. They asked me who my favourite comedians were. They hadn’t heard of them, because all my comedy heroes were 23 years old or younger. I was 21.

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whine flu, railsmalefail 2009

You go away from the Internet for a couple of days, and all hell breaks loose. Everyone dies of swine flu, and then the Rails community goes into one of those fantastic explodey nosedives where all the geek social fallacies come out to play (probably including the one that claims that all geek social fallacies are on that list).

Maggie Koerth-Baker, BoingBoing’s current guest blogger, gives the best answers to the whine flu epidemic.

And, completely belying the normal trainwrecks that occur in comment threads about sexism in the tech world, here’s the best encapsulation on the Presentation of Doom and the whole You’re Just Offended Because We’re Flipping Sexy Rockstars response, taken from the Slideshare comments:

It’s not about whether it’s porn or not porn. Those commenting on people’s supposed hypersensitivity to nudity or bodies are completely missing the point.

It’s about presenting women as ‘the other,’ not ‘us.’ It would have been just as offensive if all the women shown were domineering mothers in aprons, shaking their fingers and threatening with rolling pins.

Can I just say that slowly, oh so nanometer-by-painful-nanometer slowly, we are perhaps getting better at dealing with both pandemics and parochialism?


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