Category Archives: Culture & Society

This is Important: 2015 Now Feels Like 1995

This is a post about decentralised systems. Bear with me.

I was reading this about an Internet primer in FHM magazine in 1995. The writer is about the same age as I was when the article was published. The tone of the piece is familiar. Back then, the Internet was seen as a minority interest, like drag racing or macramé.  I recall having to tone down my enthusiasm for it in polite company. I had people laugh at me in public for asserting that the Internet would be bigger than TV. Great has been my satisfaction on it becoming what it is today.

But like all grand dreams, the reality hasn’t been quite what I expected.

Continue reading This is Important: 2015 Now Feels Like 1995

Maciej Ceglowski and the First 100 Years

Maciej Ceglowski (founder of Pinboard and overall Polish hero) says “Brevity is for the weak” – and he certainly has no problem producing very long and probably rather unread screeds. But they’re worth reading I think. I read this over the weekend. And because I believe in the power of précis, I’ll save you the trouble of his unedited fire-hose to make a point about design. If I may.

Continue reading Maciej Ceglowski and the First 100 Years

Escaping the Panopticon

Regardless of whether you see uncontrollable mass surveillance by both governments and corporations as being a problem, the fact is that it is happening. This raises questions about lots of things in life that previous generations never had to deal with, if only because the extent and methods of surveillance are also largely unknown to (and even beyond the understanding of) most people.

Continue reading Escaping the Panopticon

Bulgaria, Democracy and All of Us

Last week, my attention was drawn to the fact that people in Bulgaria were protesting on the streets against the appointment of Delyan Peevski as the chief of Bulgaria’s National Security Agency. Peevsky controls the larger part of Bulgaria’s media, has no prior experience with national security, and has also been linked to organised crime.

Continue reading Bulgaria, Democracy and All of Us

The State of Google Glass

Now that Google has released Glass to external developers, it’s approaching the point where if you work anywhere near information technology, you are going to need some kind of opinion about whether Glass will be the mass-market success Google wants it to be.

Glass deserves a fair assessment, if only because Google has the software muscle and relatively mature content to have a heads-up display make compelling sense. In comparison, things like gesture interfaces or speech recognition were essentially solutions needing problems. With Glass, the content and capabilities have come first – and that, if nothing else, is new. Anyone who has used Google Now will know where the basic Glass experience is going to start.

Continue reading The State of Google Glass

Negroponte and Blockbuster – Pt II

A long time ago, I allowed myself a cheeky dig at one of my heroes of old, Nicolas Negroponte. The news this week about Blockbuster UK made me think of him, and how they outlived his prediction by almost a decade. But the prediction business is hard, and if Blockbuster took twice as long to go as he thought it would (albeit enjoying something of a peak in the year he thought it would have died), then so what.

Incidentally, I predict News International will have ceased to exist or been sold off by midnight April 5th, 2025. Let’s see how I do.

Attribution Chains and Copyright Evolution

The other day, I was interested to see the comments on this Google+ post by BoingBoing contributor and general Internet person Sean Bonner.

Somebody called Steven G appeared to be complaining about Sean’s lack of attribution. Naively, I assumed he meant the creators of the work, and posted a reply along those lines. But I quickly realised by his reply to me that this wasn’t what he meant at all. He didn’t appear to care (or even know) about things like the photographer’s copyright – what he meant was that Bonner hadn’t said where the image was re-posted from.

Perhaps that’s not so interesting really – but wait – Steven G  also refers to an incident whereby G claims to have created an image to be posted on Google+, only to have it re-posted shortly afterwards without attribution by Bonner. Yet in complaining about the lack of attribution about somebody else’s work, Steven G also appears not to make a distinction between original works and things simply re-posted. It strikes me that this is entirely logical. If you create something to be shared on a social network, why indeed make such a distinction?

Continue reading Attribution Chains and Copyright Evolution

Corporations Raid the Public Domain

(I posted this to Google+ a couple of weeks ago, but I may as well post it here too)

Each time I engage in any activity that involves the legislature, I come away feeling soiled. Despite numerous independent and well-respected studies that said term extension in sound recordings would not achieve anything most people would call positive, the EU have voted to extend it.

The thing that really depresses me about this is not that I spent hours sending letters to MEPs and others explaining why they needed to oppose this. Nor is it that I received almost no substantial acknowledgement. What really depresses me, and threatens to radicalised me against participating in all party and issue politics, is the fact that when I did get responses, they were glib handouts citing recording-industry funded studies in support of term extension. I might as well have been writing to the BPI than my local EU representatives! The fact that none of them seemed to give an ounce of consideration to something other than money in their work as public servants just makes me want to… nah, what’s the use.

They stole our public domain, but we’ll take it back one day

Find out why

Where the Internet is Going

At the 2011 FOSDEM conference in Brussels on Feb 5, 2011, Eben Moglen gave talk called Why Political Liberty Depends on Software Freedom More Than Ever.

“Well we can go back to mesh networking. We’ve got to go back to mesh networking. We’ve got to understand how we can assist people, using the ordinary devices already available to them, or cheaply available to them, to build networking that resists centralized control.”

So it’s happening. And in my opinion, it should happen.

“I’ll Never Read From a Screen”

With the launch of the Apple iPad just days away in the UK, I’ve been reading reviews of the device in the popular press (a typical article here).

First let me state that I probably will never buy an iPad unless I’m forced to do so. But one good thing it’s done already is apparently kill off – stone dead – the idiotic notion that ebooks will never take off because they lack a mystical property of paper that makes reading from a screen somehow against human nature.

What was previously de rigour when discussing anything that presented itself as something on which you might be expected to read large amounts of text, is now seemingly taboo. Not a single iPad review I have seen in the last couple of weeks refers to this hitherto insurmountable problem.

Of course, there is nothing magical about the iPad that makes reading from its screen any easier than a Kindle or a Sony Reader (or even a boring old laptop). It’s just that the cult of Apple is so strong that what was once a required criticism is now suddenly not an issue. Good. Bring on the final death of dead tree media, and with it the end of the last shackles of the information age. There will be plenty of problems to fix in the future, but wondering what to do about Caxton’s ghost is not now one of them.

Now Flattr-ing

Having received my Flattr invite, I’ve now added buttons to this blog and hope to retire early on the proceeds. (EDIT: They’re now just on the individual post pages, since they load rather slowly)

Flattr is a system whereby people can show their appreciation of content on the web. It works by allowing you to donate a proportion of a fixed amount of money every month to whomever you want. I’m setting aside 2 euros per month (but it could be any amount). If I click a Flattr button twice this month, two people will get a Euro each. If I click ten times, ten people will get 20 cents each, and so on. If I click nothing, my 2 euros will go to charity.

If you like my thing, and have a Flattr account, you can show your appreciation too. I don’t expect the get much, if anything, but the web is a free global publishing system with Google indexing it. If I were an upcoming musician, an author or an artist, Flattr might make my situation completely different.

Blair Peach, The Teacher

“Radicalise” is a term that I’ve heard some people use about defining moments in people’s political lives. It was longer ago than I care to remember, and I was very young when I heard LKJ’s “Reggae Fi Peach.” Today it’s all come back.

[Adobe Flash movie was here]

“Oy people of England,
Great injustices are committed upon this land,
How long will ye permit them to carry on?
Is England becoming a Fascist state?
The answer lies at your own gate;
And in the answer lies your fate.”

Of News, Paywalls and New Ancient History

Everyone as boring as me on the subject of copyright, community and contemporary culture (OMG it alliterates!) has something to say about the Great Paywall of Murdoch. It’s coming to an interface near you in June, we are told.

So naturally, I have been ruminating on this too. My thoughts were crystallised when I read Roy Greenslade’s article in the Evening Standard today (which only recently become a free paper in London – an irony there). Greenslade’s argument is essentially as follows. The paywall might work, it might not, but no matter because we must all remember that “news” is a public service:

“How can we preserve a public service that, not to be too pompous about it, is a key — arguably the key — bulwark of our democracy?”

And in conclusion, he says:

“If people also turn away from online papers that offer serious, quality editorial, the likely outcome is a damaging democratic deficit. We cannot afford to allow that to happen.”

This, I suddenly realised with great and rapid clarity, is tripe.

Continue reading Of News, Paywalls and New Ancient History

Will IPv6 Be A Threat To Privacy?

I’ve just noticed this on my favourite law news site. Law news is so much more interesting and thought-provoking than other kinds of news, and this piece certainly got me thinking.

Widespread adoption of IPv6 is generally regarded as being part of the next stage of Internet development. The ability to assign unique address to literally anything and anyone on earth obviously opens up a large number of possibilities.

But this makes the French ruling rather worrying. If IP addresses are not personal information, this means IPv6 may well become the platform for a surveillance-based network the likes of which we have only just begun to see in our current IPv4-based world.

Copyright and New Righteous Indignation

On January 5th, 2010, The Independent published a photo as a backdrop to a feature inviting readers to submit pictures of the snow and cold weather. But they never asked the photographer if they could use his work.

Newspapers and magazines have of course from time immemorial sometimes used work without either attributing, asking or paying the creators. There are a number of reasons for this, and cock-up is certainly one of them. Were it, say, 1970 and not 2010, the rights holder would have doubtless written to the newspaper telling them that they had used his or her work and demanded payment. If the paper refused, then Small Claims court would have been the next stop. All things being equal, the paper would have then paid up because in those days copyright was boringly simple.

In 2010, however, copyright is no longer boring. It is no longer the preserve of industrial regulation, it has many shades of grey and personal opinion associated with it. So instead, this is a rather subtle tale of Internet-age righteous indignation, confusion about the law, contract, the prevailing culture of media and art, and the nature of marketing and popularity.

Continue reading Copyright and New Righteous Indignation

Deserving of Neither

Angela Epstein is unbelievably pleased to have been able to “bag poll [sic] position” in getting a national identity card. While she is apparently aware that the cards are “hotly disputed”, she says “everyone is entitled to their view”.

Epstein (the Jewish surname not without some grim irony here) may think that ID cards are to be debated at the level of the colour of soft furnishings or who should win The X Factor, but amid all the blinkered admiration, this was for me almost the worst comment I’ve read about ID cards so far. How are liberty and freedom a matter of personal opinion? I’m not denying they can and should be debated, but there is a truth to be revealed in that debate beyond mere opinion. I think that truth is that if you collate a vast amount of personal information in one place (the National ID Card Database), that data will leak out, be abused, and generally come back to haunt those who thought it was such a good idea. And by that time it will be too late for all of us. Control needs control. The only reason for control is more control. When politicians start down the road of identity cards and use that to build up a surveillance database beyond anything that has ever existed before, the lessons of history may well be mere preludes to what could happen.

Epstein is clearly no idiot, and her article has a rather curious ring to it. These two things make me rather suspicious, and judging by some of the comments, I’m not alone.

The Mysteries of Office Printing

A couple of weeks ago, Lorenzo Wood posted a great example of one of the reasons why I find the use of office printers fascinating. I am amazed, amused, informed and utterly baffled by this in pretty much equal measure, all the time. A trip to the printer is almost as good as a trip to the kitchen or (if I were a smoker) a fag in the car park.

Continue reading The Mysteries of Office Printing

Retail Piracy

If I forward an email from my MP to a local news outlet without that MP’s written permission, that’s an infringement of Crown Copyright. I copy and paste some text from an online newspaper article. That’s probably an infraction of their terms and conditions. If I take a video of my son with a couple of seconds of The Simpsons on a TV screen in the background, and publish said video on YouTube, lawyers for Fox might send me a letter. I sing new lyrics to the tune of a 1950’s hit in public, and I’m facing a claim from the rights holders. Legal and contract restrictions are everywhere, whether I realise it or not.

Continue reading Retail Piracy

Navigating The Three Realms of Privacy

I’m not sure if I’ve blogged this idea before or not, but here’s a mini-thread that came up on Slashdot today. It’s about of the ignorance that a lot of people have about data security that I thought illustrated my thoughts quite well:

>> You have no reasonable expectation of privacy in your email communication.

I think you don’t understand the concept of “reasonable expectation of privacy”. It’s not a technical idea meaning “this data is secure”. It’s a social/legal idea, meaning “third parties are supposed to know that this data is private, and so they should keep out of it even if they are technically able to look”.

Continue reading Navigating The Three Realms of Privacy

The New Rights Aristocracy

Today’s news from Tinsel Town is that the heirs of J R R Tolkien and the charity they head, the Tolkien Trust, are seeking more than $220 million in “compensation” from New Line Cinema as a cut from the huge profits from the Lord of the Rings films. The family say have a right to this money because it was promised to them in the contract the author signed in 1969 with United Artists.

The moral, social and (at these sums) economic impact of all this seems rather remarkable. The author of the original work has been dead for almost 40 years. He received $250,000 for the film rights (perhaps about a $500,000 in today’s money). Yet society, and not least Tolkien’s children, sees nothing wrong with providing rewards to his heirs – heirs that had nothing to do with either the books or the films – in perpetuity.

Of course, this particular case is fuelled by contract (and I don’t know anything about the charity involved), but as copyright terms extend ever onward to infinity, will we see a new aristocracy arise from all this?  Those who through nothing but the accident of birth are born instantly into wealth for generations after a single individual of their blood line wrote a book, composed a song, or wrote a play. What is the reason for this? What does it serve other than greed?

The next time I undertake any contract work, I’ll try slipping in a clause that commits my client to paying me and my heirs an income after they’ve paid me a lump sum for the work. Just a few quid a month. Nothing too greedy. But in perpetuity, naturally. I wonder what they’ll say?

Sticking up for books and paper

“To hell with you. To hell with you and to hell with the Internet. It’s distracting. It’s meaningless; it’s not real. It’s in the air somewhere.”

Ray Bradbury (90) doesn’t explain why he doesn’t like the Internet, but I think I can make a good guess based on the “it’s in the air somewhere” remark.

Whenever anyone discusses the merits of books over digital literature, somebody always says something about how nothing can beat the feeling of a nice book: the paper, the ink, the smell of it, the weight of it, the warm, friendly feeling, etc. etc. Indeed, the emotional aspects of printed media usually seem to be the only argument presented in favour of them. Fans of dead tree media say that books and paper are emotionally better because they’re tactile and look nicer than [insert technology under discussion]. Bradbury’s attitude seems to be no exception.

Continue reading Sticking up for books and paper


So, jail terms for the Pirates of Pirate Bay.

“Judge Tomas Norstrom told reporters that the court took into account that the site was “commercially driven” when it made the ruling.”

Commercially driven? What then, your honour, is the difference between Google, and The Pirate Bay?

Yes, you could outlaw all trackers, but that’s not going to happen. The fact is that the verdict – as the defendants have always pointed out – is merely theatre. The music industry had to do something, so they did this. It is significant that the trial was a pretty close run thing, and the prosecution didn’t get nearly all they wanted.  The damages awarded in no way reflect the music industry’s fiction that every illegal download is a lost sale, and the appeals process has yet to begin. The site itself will carry on, and the entire affair will be more fuel for the likes of I2p and others.

Please Help Stop Bad Things Happening

Hello? Can you hear me? This might sound boring – a technicality. It involves industrial regulation, copyright and law. But it’s important, and we should all be at least concerned, if not angry, about what is now happening in the European parliament. What is more, time is running out and we need to act now.

What is this about?

The music industry (people who make money from musicians: for example Sony Music, EMI and industry groups that represent the recording industry like the BPI) want more money. Various reason are given: piracy, advances in technology, the situation in their markets in general, musicians needing pensions (er, no that one doesn’t make sense to me either), and other things. But we all know you don’t really need an excuse to make more money. If you see a way of getting more of it, you go for it regardless – just ask bankers.  Greed is good.  So, the music industry is asking politicians in Europe to make a change to copyright law so that recordings can be under copyright for up to 95 years. Right now, it’s 50 – not a very long time to make money from anything, as I’m sure you’ll disagree.

Continue reading Please Help Stop Bad Things Happening

The Copyright Term Extension Con

Let’s hope the march of paid lobbyists and other industry schills in Europe will be stopped by these clear and concise arguments against extending copyright in sound recordings. It’s rare that politicians don’t take the side of big business, but when the pandering to greed and the destruction of the public domain is this blatant, perhaps common sense will prevail. The European Commission is due to vote soon on the issue.

(Thanks Ben – Link)

Write to your MEP, as I have, and ask them what’s going on. What is copyright for, who does it benefit and why is it always being extended?

The Canary Is Doing Its Job

Phew. I’ve just got out from a large amount of IRC and email about this and this bug on Wikimedia. As of about midnight this evening, it’s boiled down to what seems like (at worst) some over-zealous censorship by the IWF which has now been corrected.

I spent a while hanging out on Be Internet’s new IRC channel watching a couple of people discussing the issues. One of the chatters was kicking up a fuss about it, while just about all the others thought they were over-reacting, mainly because it was about child porn. Kiddie porn is of course a terrible platform on which to make any case for libertarianism, so he/she obviously wasn’t going to get very far. The consensus was that the blocking of a Wikipedia page was of no consequence because most thought that the blocking of such material was acceptable.

What I found more interesting about the debate was the point when the lone voice tried to cast about for non-porn examples. The suggestion that ISPs might block sites with material that infringed copyright seemed rather more contentious. That, agreed all, would be unacceptable.

So, perhaps an interesting test of the net canary in some ways.

Proof That the Internet Needs Stopping

If you land on a web site you know nothing about and it asks you for your authentication details to another system, you should (if you have any sense) immediately hit the back button.

Yet with all the hand-wringing about phishing, identity theft and net crime in general, a site called apparently sees a business model in blithely asking people for their Facebook (and other) login information. They then use that to plonk all your network information into one place. Incredible, but true. I hope for all our sakes their fail abysmally.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing automatically bad about pooling all your social data (we have emerging protocols for that), but the idea of asking for authentication in this way completely undermines best practice for identity protection and general security. How on  earth are people supposed to navigate the datasphere safely if this kind of idiocy catches on?

This is even worse than the practice of sites like Facebook asking for your Gmail credentials so they can mine you for contacts (“We won’t store your login details – honest!”), if only because you have usually established a relationship with them first. There is also some measure of trust involved, however scantily considered that might be.

Yet another example of how, in 50 years time, people will look at the use of networks in the early 21st century and shake their heads in sheer disbelief. And providing the historians some evidence of the lunacy, Mashable thinks it’s all a-OK! Words fail me.

Well, I posted some words about it in a comment – couldn’t resist.

MoD Data Loss – Can It Get Any Worse?

Another day, another… hardly a week goes by without… if I had a fiver for…. I’ve lost count of how…

The latest incident of data loss really, really plumbs the depths. I’ve started to pay less attention to the detail of such cases recently because it’s plain they’re simply endemic, human failings and not something we can somehow cure by tinkering around the edges. But I’ve just been reading this, which says:

“The portable drive contains the names, addresses, passport numbers, dates of birth and driving licence details of around 100,000 serving personnel across the Army, Royal Navy and RAF, plus their next-of-kin details.”

Wow. Just… wow.

The icing on the cake is that it was all on a portable drive as well. Words fail me. All that data in ONE PLACE.

Continue reading MoD Data Loss – Can It Get Any Worse?

We-Think: Documenting the Present

I’ve recently read We-Think by Charles Leadbeater, having attended one of his talks a couple of months ago. I thought I’d record my thoughts on it.

Books about the socio-political or cultural effects of the Internet are rolling fast off the presses right now. I’m now feeling a little less like the pallid geek I once was. The penny has dropped, even in the hallows of Downing Street (Leadbeater was a Labour advisor under Tony Blair for a while), that something rather important is happening out there in cyberspace. Territory is now being claimed by everyone from the plainly trivial likes of Macolm Gladwell and Andrew Keen, to the highly constructive, if sometimes baffling, Clay Shirky and Seth Godin.

Leadbeater sets about documenting the various phenomena he finds on the net to support his formulation of what he calls “we-think.” In a nutshell, we-think is the practice of solving problems or enhancing the quality of life by the free exchange of ideas and resources. Such activity tends to move from the periphery to the centre until – if it survives – it pervades the normal way of doing things. Examples of course are free/libre and open source software, but also offline activity evident in grass-roots initiatives in developing countries that spring up independently of governmental or official sanction. All this, he says, may be a new phenomenon in modern history, but a return to aspects of ancient modes of life which hitherto had been sunk beneath the waves of industrialism and refinements of capitalism that came with it. Well, I’d by that for a dollar, even if I can’t understand Leadbeater’s connection between a third-world micro-loans system and playing World of Warcraft.

Continue reading We-Think: Documenting the Present

Joi Ito: Why Mobile Hasn’t Happend Yet

In my dreams, I like to think that if I ever made a lot of money I would be like Joi Ito. He must rank as one of the most worthwhile people on the planet, and somebody that I’d love to meet. Today, he writes an astute post about the “mobile Internet” and why nothing very interesting is happening in that space, nor will it ever while the current closed systems exist.

Incidentally, he recently re-vamped his blog, so even if you have no interest in the subject matter, it’s well worth a look: there’s some excellent design going on there.

The Time Is Now for Local Networks

My ongoing experience with Tiscali’s appalling broadband offering has made me research the overall broadband industry in the UK. The picture is now becoming alarmingly ugly. Something has to happen to avert a disaster, and that something may be local networks. But before I elaborate on the solution (although not a new idea), let me outline the problem.

There seem to be several horsemen of the information apocalypse riding over the horizon towards us. First, there is market economics and the primary fact that the ISPs have clearly oversold their capacity. This has resulted in hoards of disgruntled consumers wanting access to content that is increasingly out of their reach, while the ISPs compete on price after having exhausted what (if anything) they spent on infrastructure. This is also compounded by many other related factors including the BT Wholesale monopoly, the feeding frenzy whipped up by the 3G auctions, and the subsequent reluctance of network providers to invest in better delivery platforms after the spectacular failure of 3G technologies to deliver.

Continue reading The Time Is Now for Local Networks

When Films are Free

I don’t watch nearly enough films, but my attention has been drawn to two animations recently. Both are free.

Firstly, the Blender project has brought out a new film (I wanted to embed it here but it breaks the page). It has a CC licence, and looks like an impressive bit of 3D animation (all the models and source files are also provided on the CD).

Secondly, there is the incredible new production from Paul Robertson: Kings of Power 4 Billion %. I assume this is public domain, but he is clearly is too cool to say anything about anything as boring as licensing, so I’m not sure. I’ve now watched it about … eighty times.

Kings of Power 4 Billion

See also the wonderful anime geek flame war between the kuns and chans in the first thread on Robertson’s Livejournal page announcing the film. It’s Internet gold, I tell you.

Identity Cards are Useful

A friend of mine recently said they thought ID cards could be useful. They said they thought one day they might forget to take their passport to the airport or on the Eurostar. It struck me that I’d not blogged about my thoughts on this (and hey, what’s a blog for if it’s not for idle pontification?).

ID cards will no doubt be very useful – in the same way as DRM is useful, or restrictive EULA contracts are useful. What matters is the consequences of that usefulness.

Take one small example that I’m interested in: the fact that the Identity and Passport Service today has 3,800 employees. That’s 3,800 potential points of data leaks, mistakes, abuse, impersonation, blackmail and other chaos.

Continue reading Identity Cards are Useful

Monoculture Reloaded

I used to think I had a handle on the state of spam and malware. I chuckled at the obfuscated spam content, marvelled at the botnets, and secretly admired the general ingenuity of those skript kidz and their r00tkits.

But I didn’t know the half of it until I read this (670K PDF – thanks to Francois for sending it to me)

“Professional Paranoid” Peter Gutmann, of the Department of Computer Science in Auckland, lists a deluge of flat-out evil business models and techniques in use by spammers and online criminals. This assessment of the current (but fast-moving) state of the industry fairly leaves me quaking.

Continue reading Monoculture Reloaded

Wikipedia and Conflicts of Interest

Will Wikipedia survive the constant sniping its been getting about quality, style and everything else? In the last few weeks, I’ve observed (nay, been involved with) two issues relating to their conflict of interest policy. To save the blushes, I won’t divulge who was involved, but the first incident started when a PR operative at a medium-sized company decided that because a rival company had an entry in Wikipedia, they should have one too.

Continue reading Wikipedia and Conflicts of Interest

Won’t Anyone Think of the Children?

When I’m murdered in my bed by a gang of bored teenagers, I’ll try to remember to blame the RIAA as I expire.

Some issues are too big to arrive at any useful perspective until you have thought and experienced a great many ideas relating to them. For a long while now, I have tried to fathom what it is about my concern, not to say alarm, about the increasingly draconian imposition of copyright law and the erosion of fair use that has come with it.

Continue reading Won’t Anyone Think of the Children?

Too Loud To Ignore

I am usually completely unsuccessful in hiding my glee at the demise of music publishers, and this post is no exception. I have been hoping for the last few years that what started as a trickle would become a flood. And now with Radiohead and even (gasp!) Madonna, it surely has.

I think the penny is dropping. If you are an artist, you now have a choice to become an artist and a business, or an artist and a slave.

Facebook, Google and Nothing to Hide

I’ve been looking at my Facebook profile in the light of their recent decision to make members’ profile data indexable by Google and other search engines. Trying to make sense of what I thought about this, and about privacy in general, I found the works of Daniel J. Solove, associate professor of law at the George Washington University Law School. He specialises in privacy and its relation to information technology.

Looking at his list of publications, I thought I’d get a primer on his work by reading a short essay called “I’ve Got Nothing to Hide” and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy (240Kb PDF)

Anyone who’s interested in privacy issues needs to read this. I’ve always been frustrated by the “nothing to hide” argument, trotted out whenever somebody complains about privacy violations (I note it turned up in defence of CCTV cameras in a letter to Metro last week).
Continue reading Facebook, Google and Nothing to Hide

“We have a diagram of this.”

I’ve been thinking about “info graphics” again, and what a tricky area this is. It’s doubly so because a large part of what I do for a living is information design.

There is essentially an “emperor’s new clothes” problem prevalent in the production of information graphics. To me, the vast majority of subjects that I see addressed by such graphics (in particular, complex ones) would be better expressed in words – either spoken or written.

I recently found a quote by William S. Cleveland, a scholar in the field of graphical representation of data. He sums up the background to the problem I’m wrestling with:

“When a graph is made, quantitative and categorical information is encoded by a display method. Then the information is visually decoded. This visual perception is a vital link. No matter how clever the choice of the information, and no matter how technologically impressive the encoding, a visualization fails if the decoding fails. Some display methods lead to efficient, accurate decoding, and others lead to inefficient, inaccurate decoding.”

William S. Cleveland, The Elements of Graphing Data, Hobart Press, 1994, p. 1

Continue reading “We have a diagram of this.”

Women on the Web

The female twist to Ofcom’s annual report today on the use of new media is interesting. One view of Internet use that’s always intensely annoyed me is that it’s a solitary medium best suited to male, sociopathic geeks. That may have been true of the web for a brief period between the decline of the dial-up BBS and the arrival of HTML 3.2, but with Usenet and the embers of the London dial-up scene in the mean time, my own online experience has always has been highly social. I assume this aspect of the web in it’s 2.0 incarnation is also one reason why the female audience now seems to be taking the ascendency in some areas.
I hope this will put paid to those who see being “on the Internet” as some kind of mindless activity akin to watching TV. May it make such an attitude seem as ridiculous as berating somebody for “reading books” or “having fun.”

Max Hole: It’s Businesses as Usual

Max Hole is President, Asia Pacific Region and Executive Vice-President, Marketing and A&R for Universal Music Group International. He has some soothing words for anyone who thinks the internets might be a bit worrying for music publishers.

When he’s using words like “… record companies … sign and encourage great music by great artists. This will never change”, you know they’re in trouble. At least, in trouble in the long term. One thing that’s true in business as in life is that nothing is forever. Mr Hole’s analysis of the situation for record companies seems to be based on the idea that nothing will, or really needs to, change for the music publishing industry. Musicians have no interest in business or marketing… consumers demand much more than just the music… pirates are sapping the ability to find talent… We’ve heard it all before. If you repeat it often enough, it might just make it true.

Hole completely fails to address what happens if, as seems at least likely, the making, discovery and consumption of music moves from the physical world of gigs and CDs to a virtual one, and along with that, whether the gatekeepers will see the fences come down.

Continue reading Max Hole: It’s Businesses as Usual

Why Has My Son Been Fingerprinted?

My six year-old son went on a trip to the park today with his holiday playgroup. There were various activities there, and among them it seems the Met were hosting some kind of “meet the Police” event. Part of this appears to have involved his fingerprint being taken.

What the hell is this about? He describes it as being something the policemen did “for fun” – but I’m not laughing.

I don’t know (and I need to ask the teachers who were at the event) whether the police kept a record of this print, what was said about it, or whether anyone other than my son was asked about it. The fact that the “certificate” he received (which I found in his bag when he came back) is glaringly unsigned adds insult to injury. There’s no contact details, no reason, nothing on the back of the paper… nothing.

Talk about sleepwalking into a surveillance society. The police randomly fingerprinting six year-olds? You couldn’t make this up!

Maximising Profits, Minimising Innovation

When our grandchildren look back on the late and early 20th century – the dawn age of computing and the information revolution, they will see a company called Microsoft writ large across it. Just how large is difficult to grasp until you compare the profits that Microsoft makes from their nearly unchallenged monopoly.

Now compare these profits to the amount of innovation displayed by Microsoft in the marketplace. Who is this a problem for? I think it’s a problem for all of us because when I use technologies not produced by Microsoft I think of what might have been. What might computing and the information revolution be like today if we had had a competitive market in operating systems and software?

We will never know – but it’s interesting to wonder. Not least because Microsoft are now moving into areas like publishing.

Lull Before the Storm?

Cultural issues and technology are subtle things so I may be barking up the wrong tree, but on my recent trip to Japan, I met some teenagers who told me that they didn’t know much about computers (I’d told them that I design web sites. They were not impressed).

Instead, they use their phones for almost everything. Why didn’t they use computers? The answer seemed to be that they didn’t need to, so had no interest in them. Computers are big, phones are small. You need training for computers – but everyone can use a phone, they said. This latter statement appears to be true. I was struck by the consistency of the physical interfaces of most people’s phones in Japan, even across vendors the key layouts are pretty much the same, and I assume the virtual interfaces are therefore similar too. Why shouldn’t they be when content is king and the network operators business models are stable? Adults (sometimes even quite old ones) talked about their phones in the same way as quite young people in the West do, but not in terms of the features – they cared about the content.

I sometimes wonder if my skill set is too web-based, too classically client-server and desktop orientated. For all I know, a wave of mobile usage scenarios that I can barely guess at is going to break over my little world and obliterate it. How long can I chuckle over what I see as the risible user experience of contemporary mobile comms in the West and its utter failure – so far – to engage people?

Is the future PPV for the Beeb?

So the BBC is now the latest broadcaster to sign a deal with the force that is YouTube.

Right now, the Beeb (and CBS, NBC and Fox) are all saying that YouTube is a “promotional vehicle” for them. Nothing to do with their core programming or anything like that. OK, and what about all those naughty uploads that were on YouTube before the agreement? “We don’t want to be overzealous, a lot of the material on YouTube is good promotional content for us.” So, if you can’t beat ’em…

Mind you, I’ve not watched a full-length programme on line yet but I’m sure in a couple of years I will have done. Hell, in a couple of years I might not even have a telly, preferring instead to stream YouTube (or Democracy Player, or Joost or whatever) to a screen attached to my PC. I know the deathknell has been sounded many times for the Beeb before, but under those circumstances – how does a licence fee fit in?

Teaching the Machine

I like this video for a number of reasons. It’s text speaking about text speaking about content, and has no aural commentary. It uses real imagery yet is figurative; it connects the edge of an arcane concept (hypertext markup) to the edge of some very big issues (love, communication and copyright) yet makes this connection clear in just a couple of minutes. It’s produced by an academic and appears on YouTube – it’s about Web 2.0…

But most of all I think it sums up why I’m interested in the Internet, and why I’ve always been. Whenever I encounter stuff like this I repeat the words that I saw on a sig on a random email on a random BBS on the end of a random 9600-baud dial-up somewhere in London in 1993:

“Death to the communications monopolies! May ten thousand autonomous systems bloom!”

Kevin Kelly and Book Scanning

It being near the end of the year, I find myself in retrospective mode, so I’ve got an excuse not be very topical in reviewing Scan This Book! by Kevin Kelly of the New York Times, written back in May this year. I’ve just finished reading it (it’s that long – doesn’t the NYT have editors?) and I can’t resist a pop.

Kelly says some interesting things about the future of digitised books. For example:

“Turning inked letters into electronic dots that can be read on a screen is simply the first essential step in creating this new library. The real magic will come in the second act, as each word in each book is cross-linked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, remixed, reassembled and woven deeper into the culture than ever before.”

Continue reading Kevin Kelly and Book Scanning – Return of the Schedule

Now this is interesting. Kaoru has been working on a site that allows you to upload videos – and schedule them.

I like to think of myself as a contrarian (well, until it becomes uncomfortable), and there’s something about this site that tickles my contrarian fancies. Timeshifting, PVR-fuelled, 24-hour living is all the rage, and this is of course tearing society apart as we know it, obviously. But nobody, until now, has had the courage to explore that grandest of old media devices – the schedule.

Schedules bring back memories of coal-blackened miners racing home from t’pit at the same time as stockbrokers and museum curators around Britain, all bursting through their front doors just in time to kiss the wife, gab a cuppa and jump onto the sofa as the theme tune to Top of the Pops bursts from the oak-laminated box by the fireplace. Ahh, Bisto.

Continue reading – Return of the Schedule

Distributed Boing Boing on Webtorque

One of the sites I read rather a lot is Boing Boing. Some over-enthusiastic web filtering software (and possibly some oppressive regimes) classifies Boing Boing as an undesirable site and blocks it. So, I’ve installed the Distributed Boing Boing proxy on this website.

The URL for the proxy is

Now might also be a good time to mention the fact that I installed a Tor server here as well a few months ago. Call me a card-carrying cyber information liberator! The node is called Doormouse.

Worthy Petitions

10 Downing Street, in conjunction with mySociety, have recently launched an on-line petition system where citizens can collect signatures for issues with which to petition the government.

If you haven’t already, I strongly encourage you to lend your support to petition set up by Suw Charman of the Open Rights Group:

“Thousands of people own MP3 players which they have filled with copies of CDs that they have legally purchased, yet making this copy is itself illegal. Copyright law is out of step with this common behaviour which is seen by the majority as morally and ethically acceptable. The law should be changed to reflect new, fair uses of copyrighted materials.”

You may also wish to support this cause as well.

It’s The Spammers – They’re In It With The Aliens!

The recent Sunday Times report(s) on keylogging got me thinking about why journos never examine the other dimension of the problem of keyloggers and security compromise: spam.

The Times basically took the start of the problem to be a mysterious process of “inadvertently downloading a Trojan” which then installs a keylogger, which then reports all your passwords and other interesting data to black hats in some faraway exotic place (like Swindon). After that, all hell breaks loose, and the journos in question (notably one Jonathan Ungoed-Thomas, more about whom later) had obviously had great fun finding numerous stories of innocent victims (including – shock – “IT professionals” who had taken “all precautions” to prevent it) having their savings stolen, computers crashed, etc. etc, ohmylordthisisterrible! You got the idea after about paragraph three of five thousand. The message was clear: we are all sitting ducks – you heard it here first!

Continue reading It’s The Spammers – They’re In It With The Aliens!

Bush of Ghosts CC Reprise

As previously observed here, David Byrne and Brian Eno have not only recently re-released their My Life In the Bush of Ghosts album, but have also made all of the multitracks of two of the songs on the album free for re-mixing under a Creative Commons licence.

Things are getting really interesting in this area. Eno and Byrne are the first artists of significant stature to do this as far as I know. This is what I think it might lead to at some point.

When the Internet is Gone

Recent events toward something collectively dubbed the “two-tier Internet” by journos have got me thinking about the future of the Internet again. Bear in mind Clay Shirky’s adage that whenever he thinks about what should happen, it prevents him from thinking about what will. The following is therefore not particularly considered against anything and is doubtless rooted in too many pre-conceptions, but what the hell. See what you think.

Continue reading When the Internet is Gone

Now That’s What I Call Art

I have a rather sixth-form attitude to art. Something is art if a) I could not have thought of it myself (a standard that gets lower as I get older) b) it works on numerous levels and c) it says something to me or asks me questions I can’t answer, but I try to anyway, and fail. Crucifix NG gets a perfect ten on those things. If I had to pick out one aspect of this that fascinates me most: it’s made by a faith-based based organisation, yet has clearly aethiest implications. Like John Peel used to say – I’m glad I lived long enough to have seen it.

UK Government Copyright Must End

The absurdity of UK government agencies having to sell data back the very tax payers that paid for it has been going on ever since I was a lad. I’ve always regarded it as another one of the breathtakingly stupid things the Thatcher government did that, once done, could not be un-done. Like football hooliganism, chaotic public transport and the poll (now council) tax.

But the Grauniad’s now come up with an interesting angle – and a campaign no less – that holds out the possibility of change.

(By the way, I love that Guardian Technology masthead with the picture of Admiral Tojo wearing 3D glasses on it. It’s a classic.)

Social Software, Politics and Getting it Right

About once every six months or so, somebody on the otherwise excellent SIGIA mailing list posts to say they think there are too many “off topic” posts. This is invariably couched in some painfully lame justification – in this case appealing to us to “respect others” – but more usually assuming the mantle of “the silent majority” or some other hogwash. Naturally, I reminded them in my customarily restrained manner that they were idiots. Nobody took any notice.

Continue reading Social Software, Politics and Getting it Right

Seth Godin to Google

I don’t write much about marketing, because I usually regard myself as somebody who designs systems for people, not profit. But lately I’ve been re-examining this because it’s hard to ignore Seth Godin.

I watched Godin’s talk to Google this evening. In the past I’ve always regarded him as a bit of a marketing smoothie: how can the writer of Permission Marketing be anything else? But his talk has me thinking about that in a different way.

You probably won’t have the time to watch it. He’s an average speaker; par for the course in an age of lacklustre oratory, but he puts his points well.

Bearing in mind he’s talking about Google, the main thing that struck me was his propostion that Google’s morass of “beta” ideas can be knitted together by obtaining permission from users already familiar with the brand to seek out and market those ideas to others as long as they solve somebody’s problem. It’s not a new idea per se (and I note he makes no use of the word “viral”), but put it into the context of a large and creatively explosive corporation like Google and it takes on a different hue. Port that to Apple (yes, that works too…), then why not IBM, or even (gasp) Microsoft?

Certainly harder to work out off line, which makes me glad I’ve never been interested in DM…

Slightly Ironic Burroughs Quotation Farce

At the beginning of the month, I posted a comment on one of Framfab’s public blog postings. It was, as usual, rather spur of the moment, in between coffee and the next round of application testing we’re doing. In it, I clipped some text I found around a quote from Naked Lunch that I was looking for. I originally just wanted the quote, but the text I found around it served my point rather well. I should have attributed it, but what happened next was interesting.

Continue reading Slightly Ironic Burroughs Quotation Farce

The Biggest Threat is Obscurity

I went to see Cory Doctorow and others on a panel organised by Free Culture UK last night. The subject was “Open Content” – a moniker given to the concept of digitisable works of either art or craft distributed under an alternative copyright licence (such as Creative Commons). Inevitably, a lot of ground was covered by the speakers, and one of the hottest topics of the evening was the recently-launched BBC’s Open Archive project. I wasn’t actually aware that they’d launched, but it sounds evil.

Continue reading The Biggest Threat is Obscurity

6 Seconds in 1969

I’d been only dimly aware of the “Amen Break” drum sample until now, although the sound, if not the rhythm itself is instantly recognisable. However, this video (34Mb MOV) puts the use of the sample into its fascinating social context. Anyone interested in music, popular culture and particularly the effects of recent copyright legislation, should see this. I get spammed by Zero-G every now and again as well. Bastards. Makes me want to download some Squarepusher to up the ante.

Business Methods Patents

Incredible, amazing and funny as hell! US business-methods patents (and the people who pay money to bring them to the USTPO) just took another leap further into surreality – with Cereality!

Cereality has patents pending to give them an exclusive right to six business methods,
including "displaying and mixing competitively branded food products" and adding
"a third portion of liquid." If these patents are approved by the U.S. Patent Office,
Cereality would have a complete monopoly on cereal bar business.

Meanwhile, and playing for somewhat higher stakes, NTP and RIM are still slugging it out. I don’t know who’s the slimier, but I do know that if suits can’t use their Blackberries, things are gonna get ugly.

Licence Agreement Analyser!

When I was doing some user testing for A Very Large Company That Shall Remain Nameless, one of the questions we were asked to ask of the users was what, if anything, they thought about the fact that there was not one, but three terms of use links on the sign-up page to their service. Not surprisingly, just about all users said they wouldn’t even click on the links, let alone read the contents of them. One user was honest enough to say that even if they did try to read them, they would have neither the stamina nor the capacity to understand them.

End user licence agreements are one of the great blots on web and software user experience. They erode trust, engender suspicion and generally fart in the face of a good time. What’s even worse is that contrary to what most people hope is the case, most of these EULAs in fact completely unfair, and usually a lot worse than you might think. It’s only because nobody reads them that this isn’t commonly understood.

Hooray, then for the EULAlyzer, free software that auto-magically highlights the fine print that will get you in trouble. Here it is giving me the low-down on Sony Picture’s privacy policy.

19 Professors and the Music Business

Canadian law professors have produced a 600-page book that is being made freely available under a creative commons license in which they make the point that “The public’s interest in copyright, something inconceivable even a few years ago, is the result of the remarkable confluence of computing power, the Internet, and a plethora of new software programs, all of which has not only enabled millions to create their own songs, movies, photos, art, and software but has also allowed them to efficiently distribute their creations electronically without the need for traditional distribution systems”

Apart from the use of the word “plethora” (can we stop using that word now, please?), that sums up the present situation nicely. A couple of weeks ago I posted on Slashdot about this. The “music business” today puts the publisher first before the producer. I’d like to see the musicians having the upper hand, and the listeners literally calling the tunes.

With the Internet performing the role of publisher via search, collaborative filtering and other mechanisms, close to 100% of the money from the purchase of music can go to the artist. Right now, the mechanisms for this (PayPal and, er, PayPal) are in their infancy, but when they mature, musicians will be able to pay accountants, employees, PR, caterers, drug dealers, etc. in the same way as other businesses pay their service providers (accountants, employees, PR, caterers, drug dealers, etc.). They might even like to try some DRM if they want, and see what that’s like ;-)

The record companies aren’t going to go without a fight, but the vast majority of artists earn tiny amounts from their contacts with publishers. How long now until the big flip? I think it’s pretty clear which way the wind’s blowing. Britney Spears: your days are numbered.

But just in case you thought this was a typically misty-eyed Webtorque post, I’m worried about the future after that. With the invisible hand in charge, what will happen? We’ve almost no historical precedent to go on, but what we have looks ominous

The one incoherent view is the belief that a free and diverse media will naturally 
tend towards equality. The development of weblogs in their first five years demonstrates 
that is not always true, and gives us reason to suspect it may never be true. Equality 
can only be guaranteed by limiting either diversity or freedom.

Guardian ’94 Tabloid Irony Mashup!

“At The Guardian,” writes today’s Sunday Times, “…they claim that they came up with the idea of a compact newspaper long before The Independent.” Well, I can confirm that it’s not just a claim, it’s a fact. What’s more, they even put out a prototype in 1994.

Went to tea yesterday with Ben House, a friend of mine from way back; the power behind The Wire magazine and an astute observer of popular culture. He’d been going through some old papers which included a prototype “personal newspaper” printed by TheGuardian MediaLaboratories {sic} in 1994. The Guardian of 11:31: Thursday December 1, 2004 (large scans) was a tongue-in-cheek bit of futurology as to how some dead-tree media might look a decade in the future. Perhaps it was the Y2K bug messing with their Apple Newtons, but that date was in fact a Wednesday.

With reasonably accurate prescience, it was a fold-out half-A4 sized sheet. Proof that even back then, mavericks within the empire were worrying about what the Indie eventually did something about in 2003. The rest is a fascinating mix of some good guesses, near misses and the utterly wrong, even allowing for the fact that it was supposed to be a bit of fun. Other than the ironic timing of Ben’s discovery with the launch of tomorrow’s full-colour “Berliner” edition, some rather eye-popping highlights include:

– A front page story about a devastating Los Angeles earthquake, after which appeals for calm are issued by “Governor Schwarzenegger” (counterbalanced by an outside bet on Newt Gingrich as president). “Although more than 1,500 square kilometres are little more than a ruined concrete jungle of looting, murder and terrorism, some communications are now getting through.”

– 2002 referenced as the year of “the third Gulf conflict” in which “Iraqi forces surrendered on live TV after being precision bombed from orbiting weapons platforms.”

– A rather quaint obsession with TV listings, which despite heavy references to “the net” and “email” pretty much proves that print journos have always been several steps behind the fact that British TV is awful, even as the online media revolution that allows me to type this was exploding in their custard. And now we know where Charlie Booker got his idea for TVGohome!

I’ve not had time to digest it all, it’s just too fascinating. I just want to blog it before Monday – but hope to dig out some more gems later.

Britt Allcroft: I Am Angry

Laurence Lessig’s written a great short piece (I didn’t know Americans could do that!) for Foreign Policy on the death of the public domain. He’s great at hitting the nail on the head.

“There is no doubt that piracy is an important problem — it’s just not the only problem. Our leaders have lost this sense of balance. They have been seduced by a vision of culture that measures beauty in ticket sales. They are apparently untroubled by a world where cultivating the past requires the permission of the past. They can’t imagine that freedom could produce anything worthwhile at all.”

Proof, if it be needed of this, was given to me last weekend when we visited the Northampton & Lamport Railway on one of their Thomas The Tank Engine events. It was pretty much heaving with kiddies and other Thomas fans and was a good (half) day out. But it could have been better were it not for the state of copyright law.

As part of his banter while we rode the short distance of the restored track, Sir Toppham Hat (pictured in the above) went into some rather interesting detail about how much of the proceeds from our ticket prices, tea and Thomas merchandise went to the current copyright holders of Thomas The Thank Engine (and Friends): Britt Allcroft. It seemed to be a pretty large chunk.

I looked around me and saw the place in a new light. The railway is maintained by volunteers: rail enthusiasts who dedicate their spare time to keeping the rather rusty engines and dilapidated carriages working. We watched some of them working on rolling stock in the sidings, seemingly oblivious to the Thomas event around them. There’s been an immense amount of effort to restore the track and re-build a bride across the River Nene (which is barely more than a stream) with help from Leicester and Northampton councils. But in terms of return on this investment of labour and love, The Thomas The Thank Engine event instead gives a hugely disproportionate benefit to Britt Allcroft.

The writer of the Thomas The Thank Engine stories is dead. His work should be in the public domain. Instead, copyright holders are allowed to skim off profits from events like this at the Lamport Railway and give me and my kids a bum deal. In Thomas’s case, this may be the situation perhaps for another fifty years (if current EC legislation allows it). Our ticket money could have gone towards shiny brasswork, perhaps a restored ticket office and waiting room and many other things that needed care. Instead we had to ignore the fact that the waiting room is a portable home; the cafe is a carriage literally falling apart, and the Fat Controller’s spats are falling off his feet.

All this left me angry. The two councils and the volunteers at the railway have done a wonderful job and the place is truly magical because of it, but Britt Allcroft and HIT Entertainment are a blight. How many people at the event realised this I don’t know. Maybe it was just me and Sir Toppham.

Again, Lessig:

“And the cultivation of culture and creativity will then be dictated by those who claim to own it.”

A possibly ironic footnote, but I think it rather noble that the content of the Northampton and Lamport Railway’s website is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.

Who Creates Music?

We had an email from HR on the company “fun” list today seemingly inviting all employees to listen to a popular music number called “Running Away’ by Roy Ayers.” Why, I don’t know. Out of lunchtime interest though, I was curious to find out whether we’d need a license to distribute music to employees. So I Googled about and got to PPL. Looks like we’d need to get one. Hmm. The phrase “screw you” came to mind.

But even more surprising was the home page blurb – rather revealing of their attitude I thought:

The license fees that PPL collects are then distributed to the rightful owner ... 
usually the record company responsible for creating the track - and also the performers
who played that track.

If I were a musician, I’d like to associate the word “creating” somewhat closer to the phrase “rightful owner” there! I was actually rather shocked.

Reminds me of the Simpsons line:

I worked damn hard for this, and I'm not going to let you, or them, or the rightful owner take it away from me!

SWPAT Victory

I feel relieved that the European Parliament voted by 648 votes to 18 to reject the proposed directive on computer-implemented inventions this week. There was a heck of a lot of activity on both sides, and I did a bit with some letter and postcard writing, and trying (unsuccessfully) to ring MEPs in Strasbourg last week. It was also good to meet the goons from the DTI on the issue, even if there wasn’t enough time to table my question about interface development.

This is my favourite picture from the days leading up to the vote, and a BoingBoing post that talks about it.

The fact remains, however, that software patent legislation is still in the hands of individual EU countries. It just won’t be Europe wide. The UKPTO has the hots for patents. I’m not expecting this all to end very soon…

Science Does Not Remove the Terror of the Gods

StumbleUpon is a nice idea and I’ve been using it a bit recently. Its categorisations are a bit too broad to be really useful, but if they hooked it up with some sort of folksonomy system that you could use to refine your profile, then it might get really interesting. Like only less… flat.

I was impressed when the “random stumble” button took me to one of my favourite pages on the web, hence the title of this post.

The Grokster Ruling: Life, Death and the Bay City Rollers

The US Supreme Court’s ruling against Grokster came in today:

"We hold that one who distributes a device with the object of promoting 
its use to infringe copyright, as shown by clear expression or other 
affirmative steps taken to foster infringement, is liable for the resulting
acts of infringement by third parties"

So, to quote a Slashdot poster on the subject this afternoon:

In the United States, it's legal to sell armour-piercing ammunition: 
bullets whose sole purpose is to go through bulletproof vests; 
obviously a device designed to kill or maim human beings. The 
manufacturers to do not even make the pretense of proposing other 
uses for said ammunition. This activity is all fine and legal.

By comparison, a device that may or may not be designed for, but 
is certainly capable of, infringing copyright is deemed illegal. 
The manufacturers at least attempt the pretense of proposing legal
uses for the technology and make a somewhat-better-than-marginal 
case for its legit use. This is not fine or legal.

Question for the supreme court: do you really believe the copyright
of the Bay City Rollers first album is more deserving of legal 
protection than a human life?

MIT Weblog Survey

Take the MIT Weblog Survey

This is apparently helping to finish somebody’s PhD, but it was mainly out of curiosity that I filled it in. He doesn’t give you the option of listing Trillian as your IM client, so he’s obviously a bit stuck up in his ivory tower. The results page is down at the time of writing, but it promises to be quite interesting.

More Greasemonkey Mayhem

Just as I’ve found a Greasemonkey script that fixes up Odeon’s site and provides a link to IMDB for all their films, I’ve now found a script that puts a link to a torrent for films listed in IMDB! So now I can see what’s on at the Odeon, and if I don’t think it’s worth the money to go and see after reading IMBD, I have the option to burn it to DVD and watch it the next evening.

Sure, this is piracy, but at least it’s discriminating.

Pirate Spotting

Avast! Brian Appleyaaard! The hammy Bible-bashing tech/culture journo we all love to hate came out on Sunday as a shameless raider of intellectual property in his article on the death of TV last weekend:

"...the internet has begun to work as it should. Thanks to broadband, students now routinely download 
the best television shows — at the moment, that means the US hospital comedy Scrubs — over the net and, 
happily, pass them on to me. Video is now at the same stage as audio was when Napster first started. 
Just as MP3 chipped away at the foundations of the record industry, so video downloading is subverting 
television and film.

In fact there are two things in the above quote that are notable as indicative of the state of the copyfight to date: the first is the fact that a mainstream hack writing for none other than the Sunday Times can happily admit to consuming bootleg TV shows (although oddly, not actually downloading them – a bit like not inhaling, eh Brian?). The second is the bald assumption that such activity undermines the visual media industry. This is pure Chomsky: repeat something often enough (“home taping is killing music, MP3 is killing music, BitTorrent is killing video…”) and it becomes an accepted fact.

My opinion of Appleyard has always been a pretty low one, but I’m glad he’s written this article as some of the wider issues are pretty well observed. I wonder how BT and the rest will fare? Personally, I think Appleyard is probably right about the fate of TV as we know it, but wrong in his assumption that it will be relegated to a media backwater. He’s really just attacking the schedules. The programme quality factor is irrelevant. Who cares what he thinks about Scrubs?

Experience Design Chapter 2: Paradise Lost

Our weekly Monday-9am-with-buns department meetings usually consists of discussions about projects people are working on, techniques we have applied or are thinking of applying, department housekeeping issues etc. All good inward-looking stuff. But last week was a little different.

We had a presentation by the head of the new Client Services division. For me this was a reminder that for an agency such as ours, no matter how far we get into information foraging theory, contextual inquiry, Fitts’s Law or UCD, it will always be marketing in some form or other that keeps the paychecks rolling in. Until now, working at Oyster has been luxuriously free of planners and account managers, but that is to change. As if to emphasise the point, we were also introduced to a new member of our department, described as a “marketing experience designer.” Perhaps the term “account exec” would have been a little too alien for us. Hmm.

We started with a summary of recent trends in the online universe. Advertising spend is now on a level with that of radio in the UK, and it’s growing at a much faster rate than other media; online revenues are getting serious and SEO specialists are worth their weight in gold (so Mike Rogers will now be putting down payments on a yacht pretty soon I should think), etc. It’s all deja vue of course, but this time I feel it’s got its reality goggles tied on. I admit that sometimes dead-tree media can be good, and this article in The Sunday Murdoch is a decent summary of what’s going on right now.

The reason why I love the Internet (and spend roughly 10-12 hours a day consuming it) is that it’s nothing if not a boiling cauldron of possibilities. Now some of those seem to be turning into what might be certainties, and in some ways I feel vindication coming on. Time to digress into a self-serving anecdote…

In 1997, shortly after I joined IPC Magazines to work on their yachting and boating web properties, I attended one of the then IT director’s quarterly company presentations. This was traditionally populated by loyal geeks and IS&T beanpole climbers while being utterly ignored by the rest of the organisation who were mainly journalists or graphic designers by trade. IPC was (and still is?) the largest Quark site in Europe and the largest single AppleTalk network. It was also a famously early adopter of desktop publishing at the expense of typesetting jobs in the 1980’s. So it was for exactly this reason that I was quite giddy with excitement about the company’s future and the Internet. IPC had content – mountains of it, and content was king. IPC was therefore the sleeping giant of the UK new media revolution and I was perched on its shoulders ready to fly to the moooon!

So it was with utter disappointment that Il Duce made no significant mention of the Internet or the company’s plans in that area. If you’ve ever attended a talk by the head of the Global Leadership Village you’ll know that he leaves little room for questions from the floor. Nevertheless I broke with tradition and put my hand up to tell him that I’d just joined to ride the rocket to the stars and what did he think about that. I don’t recall his exact response but it started with the words “Well I’m sorry to disappoint you…” and went downhill from there. IPC wasn’t a software house; Argos’s website had sold nothing; the net was a probably just a fad and while IPC did have websites it was a purely defensive measure against teenagers, the house bound and their modems.

Two years later, the boom was in full swing, IPC had bought out from Reed Elsevier and the company was up for sale. Websites were all the IT department could talk about. But by that time I had them down as the muppets they turned out to be. And particularly after they axed Melody Maker.

Whu? Sorry… where was I? Oh yes, marketing.

So now I feel it’s going full circle. The end of the era seems to have given us time to get back to first principles of web user experience as the broadband connections stepped up and our parents got their email accounts. We were designing websites for users not consumers, and didn’t have to worry any more about the damn banner ads, targets, measurements and KPIs. But that was on time borrowed from disappointed VCs. Today I read about Marc Andreessen’s latest wheeze. Two weeks ago I would have treated this with the unvarnished enthusiasm it deserves were it not that Marc was Netscape, Netscape was IPO, and the web was born to us from the fires of public offerings. That history is repeating itself but in slow motion, at a deeper level, and now experience design is going to change.

Language, Chiasmus and Communication

It’s been a while since I had a foray in the genre that I call “half-formed ideas,” but here’s a good one that I’ve been brewing for a while.

For no good reason I can recall, I was reading this essay about spontaneous use of chiasmus in contemporary English and it got me thinking. Not so much about chiasmus, which is of course fascinating in its own right, but about language and communication in general.

Life has always been a crisis of communication. But I get the impression it’s becoming more of a problem. Language seems to be increasingly incapable of communicating ideas we have, and this seems to show quite dramatic evidence at times. Whether this is because concepts are becoming harder to describe, or language itself becoming more diversified and so less able to cope with particular concepts for many people, I’m not sure. It does seem that in the far future we may need to use some other form of communication. The trouble is that I can’t imagine what that might be. It would need to be a system of communication that had less ambiguity, more accuracy and more standardisation than that currently employed. Hmmm.

Amateur Support – The Only Kind There Is

I was reading this article on the BBC about people providing IT support on the side and it struck me that there’s a bigger thing going on here than simply offering a bit of help to a clueless neighbour.

I have a love/hate relationship with helping people with their computers. I imagine that in the same way as specialists in fields of medicine (neuroscience, or plastic surgery, say) probably get pestered by friends asking them what to do about their piles and whatnot, so I get regular requests to mend desktop PCs. I’m neither qualified, nor even very able to do this, but most times I lend a hand. True, my time as a sysadmin was fairly close to IT support, but setting up slapd or editing zone files is rather different from working out how to get Word to stop crashing.

What I found interesting about the BBC article was that the writer made a point of putting his actions in the context of a lack of manufacturer support for home, and even business, computing. When I look back on how I found out (and still find out) about things, I’m struck by how infrequently I’ve relied on commercial support for products. In fact, I’m also struck by the fact that when I have relied on commercial support, it’s been really awfully bad, or simply non-existent.

The vast majority of my education about computing in the general has been from loose online support communities: bulletin boards, websites and Usenet. When I was doing sysadmin stuff, and much to my surprise a the time, the efficacy of big, expensive helpdesks for systems like iPlanet Server, Oracle and WebLogic (for which we had big, expensive “support contracts” to access) were usually slower and less helpful for most things than a simple couple of posts on Usenet.

So when I read the article about “unofficial” support, it struck a chord. If effective support for commercial software cannot be sold to consumers then that’s yet another good reason to use FLOSS. What a pity the writer missed that angle. And what a pity we can’t point that out.

Sunday Observer Goes Collaborative

Having worked for a print publisher for two years and developed a negative impression of that industry (and journalists) when it comes to all things on line, imagine my surprise when I saw the Sunday Observer Blog this morning! I can honestly say that if I were in charge of a serious redesign of any newspaper’s online presence this would be it, and more.

I saw a link to it on BoingBoing: “The weekend paper is now supplemented by a daily blog, with podcasts and moblogs. The RSS is fulltext. Trackbacks and comments are on and unmoderated. Keywords are tracked and displayed in a “folksonomic zeitgeist.” Headlines from competing papers and Technorati link cosmoses are pulled in and displayed on the front page. No paywall. No adwall. No wall.”

This is definitely one for my bookmarks. Just as I’d given up any real hope of a significant dead tree publication doing it “right” – this happens! Well done The Observer! Now BBC – get your finger out and justify my license fee!

Now I’m Really Wearing My Tin Foil Hat

Just when it looked like things had got back to reality….

I’m getting sick of this, and worried too. Here’s a letter I’ve just penned to Robert Evans

Dear Robert Evans,

I read today that the European Patent Directive is not likely to return to the first reading 
as previously demanded by Parliament, and that the Commission may ignore the Parliament's vote 
on restarting the legislative process for this bill.

While in the past I have contacted my parliamentary and other representatives about software 
patents, and concentrated on the fact that software patents cannot be anything other than 
deeply corrosive to innovation, consumer choice and the health of the UK software industry, 
I want now to turn to something that has made me even more worried: the overwhelming evidence
I am starting to see of democracy being simply ignored in Europe.

How can it be that obviously bad legislation is being railroaded through by the Commission 
when nobody other than corporate lobbyists support it? 

- The elected European Parliament are 100% AGAINST (this version of directive)
- The majority of the The European Council of Ministers are AGAINST (with new 
countries joining the against all the time)
- European citizens/software users (who know about it) are all AGAINST
- European software-industry alliances/coalitions are all AGAINST
- European software companies are nearly all AGAINST
- European programmers are (probably) all AGAINST

Who does this leave in favour?

- The UK & European Patent Offices
- A small number of very rich companies
- UNELECTED civil servants

What is going on? Where is the democratic process here?

I am very, very concerned at the events that have taken place in the last 
12 months on this issue.

Yours sincerely,

Jonathan Baker-Bates

“Fascism should more appropriately be called corporatism because it is a merger of state
and corporate power.”

– Benito Mussolini, Encyclopedia Italiana.

Swpat: Define them Out of Existence

Now that software patents in Europe have gone back to the drawing board, both sides will now doubtless regroup. I feel that we have a head start though, if for no better reason than the FFII looked like it was fighting an uphill struggle most of the time until the eleventh hour, when at last MEPs saw their point and showed their displeasure at the Commission’s railroading of the issues.

Meanwhile, one of Lord Sainsbury’s invites for another session with the Patent Office landed on my doormat last week, this time to discuss what people want the words “technical contribution” to mean. This is something that’s incredibly difficult to define, according to the UKPTO, but it seems pretty easy to me:

First, no patentablity for ideas. Patents are about material inventions, plain and simple. You design it, build it and make it work first – then let’s talk about patents.

Second, no patentabilty of systems or techniques defined as a protocol, standard, or mechanism of interoperability. You want to pass data into, through, or talk to another system? Let’s be grown up about this: we’re all open now. It’s just a means to an end, after all.

Third, effort should be respected. Demonstrate you have taken an abnormal amount of effort to create something, and that gets you on first base. You have to get off your arse to contribute.

Fourth, nothing gets a patent until it’s been decided by peer review. But who would vote to give a competitor a patent for their software? If you meet the above two criteria, then anyone who understands that tomorrow, they might be the ones applying for that protection, that’s who.

There, that should keep the patent lawyers in a job, while making sure that nothing much gets a patent.

Onion Routing

From time to time I get a reminder that the future isn’t somewhere you travel to, it’s something you create. As a teenager, my grandfather made a crystal radio set and let people listen to broadcasts from Paris at church fetes (this was before the BBC existed). He must have felt good about that. I feel the same sort of thing about onion routing.

After reading a post the other day on BoingBoing about how the EFF is doing development for Tor, I decided to set up a server of my own on my little DSL line (I have a fixed IP with Plusnet). It’s sitting their right now, anonimising connections from CIA whistle blowers and Tibetan exiles, or so I like to think. If you want to know more about Tor, it’s all explained there, but it just goes to show that the Internet isn’t all about sending email and using the latest P2P things. “What did you do in the great information revolution, Daddy?”

Mince Pies and Annihilation!

Just thought I’d check Slashdot after one last brandy and a mince pie (made by me: Ainsly Harriot BBC Top 100 recipe, the one with the grated orange peel in the pastry). I love Slashdot. Not that I understand half of what gets talked about there, but the responses to this Christmas day story are wonderfully heart-warming.

From my RSS feed:

phreakuencies writes "Worried since the recent post about the MN4 2004 
asteroid, I added a bookmark to it's "impact risk" section at NASA. The 
asteroid started as having a 1/233 probability of hitting earth. Later it 
raised to 1/63. Daily computations made on 25 Dec raised it's chances up to 
1/45. Optimists can now say it has a 97.8% probability of missing earth." 
And Veteran writes " NeoDys offers the 'Orbfit' software package (source 
code released under the GPL) which can be used to get a pre-release view of
 the situation with Asteroid 2004MN4."

The feeling I had on reading, on this of all days, a less than comforting update on the MN4 asteriod trajectory melts on seeing this:

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Software Patents – Some Progress

It’s not over yet, but it looks like our protests to MPs, the government, my postcard to Theresa Villiers, and then that confab with Lord Sainsbury may have done something. It seems that the Poles have put a spanner in the works for us, and the final decision on patents has been delayed for more thinking.

It’s good that we’ve got some more time, but we have to keep the pressure up. I’m increasingly thinking that this really is an us-and-them situation. The Poles obviously agree, and even Lord Sainsbury seemed to think that maybe the government has it wrong, or has at least been ill-advised by the UKTPO. Some very large interests will be served if the Council of Ministers has their way. Things smell distinctly fishy.

Will Darkness Cover the Face of the Earth?

After managing to wangle an extra day’s holiday from work after I mixed my dates up, I attended the meeting today on the European Computer Implemented Inventions Directive today at the DTI. Lord Sainsbury of Turville had generously invited all those who had written to their MPs (well, some of them at least) to explain the government’s position on software patents and to allay fears of impending doom.

It’s certainly a bit of a complex area, and it was clear that much was unclear on both sides of the argument. But some of my worst fears were confirmed. But the gist of the debate went as follows:

The primary issue of “technical contribution” as a hurdle that must be cleared for software to be considered patentable seems to be too low. The UKPTO also isn’t properly equipped to judge what is and what is not sufficiently “technical” in most applications and this is really ringing the alarm bells (while arguing a point, one of the UKPTO officials clearly confused a file system with a file format and didn’t seem to understand some of the points being put from the floor). Not only that, but the wording of the proposed legislation on this point is just too broad. The patent office has framed too many of the principles around hardware and not software, and there is a lack of provision for the underlying nature of software development as a whole. In short, things are pretty grim.

Less pointedly debated was whether the actions of the Council of Ministers in not implementing the amendments reccommended by the EU parliament (which, while not wonderful, were at least OK) is a symptom of gross corporate lobbying. In their defence, the UKTPO said that this is down to them wishing to frame the legislation so as not to disadvantage technological industries other than that of software. Therefore, they want to keep the definitions such that they should be interpreted by the courts, and not so detailed as to be restrictive or have undesirable, knock-on effects.

That’s all very well, but we came back to the fact that the clauses as they stand seem to define just about anything as “technical” – the majority of EU software patents granted to date are simply re-writes of US and Japanese patents with token “technical contribution” clauses added.

From my own point of view, if the Council of Ministers gets it way, working in the software industry (and that includes UI design) is going to become either more complex or more dangerous, or both. While there were many at the meeting that expressed more concern about this than I did, I am starting to wonder if we are not in fact on the edge of a precipice. The UK government seems to think it’s doing the right thing in attempting to clarify and stabilise the current situation by pushing this legislation forward, yet the current situation itself is unacceptable. Preserving it will mean monopolists will have the legal platform from which to launch the proper destruction of fair competition and innovation in software. Anti-competition law is going to prevent the worst abuses, but the speed and rate of change involved in the software business will run rings around any attempt to keep a lid on things using that part of the law.

So what now? I’m going to read up on what my mates at the FFII have said once their account of the meeting comes out.

An invite from the DTI

My banging on about software patents to sundry MPs and ministers has borne fruit in the shape of an invite from the DTI to attend an event organised by them and the Patent Office to present the arguments in favour of proposed EU software patent legislation. The Register has some more details on it.

I’ll see if I can digest the brochure they sent with it, but on first sight, I’m confused about how the “technical effect” will be determined. Better start RSVP-ing as places seem limited.

Charlie Brooker and the Media

I tell myself I look down on blog posts that simply link to other things, but it’s Friday and I’m feeling lazy. The Charlie Brooker incident is (I’m gonna say it) significant, but not because he’s called for the assassination the US head of state, or that he’s annoyed so many Americans, but for what it says about the state of the “media.”

And this time, NTK have put it best:

Brooker may write in a paper, but he still posts
like he was on a newsgroup. You do know what they're saying 
on IRC, right? Do you read what the little green forums of 
the world spit out on a daily basis? Have you seen the
Indymediots, the Freepers, the lists, the feeds, the
unmoderated masses? Do you remember what you yourself wrote
*last night*? You've heard the Bush jokes, the Kerry jokes,
the Blair jokes: are we supposed to take all of those
seriously, too?
- we wish to complain about the portrayal of Micro Machines V3

We can only wait until the penny drops. (Big intake of breath). DEATH TO THE COMMUNICAT…!

John Peel

My dad went to school with him and remembers him as a bit of a loner. I didn’t like all of the music he played, and I can’t really say he changed my life as others have claimed he changed theirs, but he sure did have a hell of an influence on my musical taste. Listening to his shows was like panning for gold – you found wonderful nuggets, but you had to work hard. It was fun, but it was hard fun.

About ten years ago, I faxed him asking if he wanted help sorting out his record collection at Peel Acres, and he rang me back to discuss it after a show. In fact he wanted to talk about Japan more than my proposal (I’d mentioned I was translating the language). It came to nothing but we had a nice chat – I remember his voice the most and that odd mix of clear diction and half-mumbled remarks. “Every man has a price, and mine is a trip to Japan”, he said. I think he made it out there a couple of times after that. To die in Peru was a nice touch.

There’s been a lot about how we’ll not see his like again, and how influential he was, and this got me thinking about the Internet again. The clutural gap he has left will, I hope, be filled by the net for the coming generations of teens. They’ll get their kicks from discovering the wilder shores of music on line. John Peel’s passing coincides with the start of a new era, so again I repeat the motto of this blog in the spirit of respect for the man who did it best:

Death to the communications monopolies! May ten thousand autonomous systems bloom!

iPod Mini Out-of-Box Experience

We took a test at school once to find our what kind of career we might be suited for. When my results came through I went to the careers advisor’s office to be told that he thought “printing and packaging” would be my best bet. At the age of seventeen, I thought that sounded suicidally boring and swore I would never show any interest in such things ever. And so it has been until yesterday, when a colleague had a new iPod mini delivered to work.

The iPod (and indeed all Apple products) are supposed to be meticulously well designed, even down to the packaging, so we reverently performed the unpacking. A sleek, white box emerged from its cardboard housing and unfolded to reveal a silver iPod gleaming like a stone in a freshly cleaved peach. The power supply, leads and accessories then fairly melted out onto the table before us.

Such a pity then that written on the plastic screen guard on the device were the words “Don’t steal music” in large, unfriendly type. Hard to think how they could have wreaked the preceding experience any better than that.

How To Be An Artist

Well that was interesting. Last night I became one of North Finchley’s “Seventeen” at the soon-to-open Arts Depot. This is part of Bill Drummond’s latest project entitled “How To Be An Artist” and involved seventeen men (well, it was actually fourteen I think) recording an improvised vocal performance accompanied by the sound of Bill’s Land Rover engine and a C minor chord.

Bill Drummond doesn’t come across as the scary maverick I was expecting – more like a aging painter/decorator on holiday. The people who turned up were a mixed bunch, and most had never met each other before. I wondered how many knew who he was.

Bill explains the deal.

After an initial talk about the proposed work, and an introduction to the ‘score‘ (PDF download) we had a brief rehearsal and level check then went for it. The lights went down and we embarked on fourteen minutes of anything-goes “singing.”

About half way through I was reminded of the essay in The Doors of Perception in which Huxley says that chanting and singing are among the various techniques for humans to glimpse the “mind at large” and thereby attain religious or shamanic states of mind. I was certainly beginning to feel light-headed, and the free beer, together the odd mix of lads largin’ it with serious-minded types like me made me think things might start to get a bit psychedelic.

But I managed to stay on track and despite the potential for anarchy, there was some surprising continuity in what we were doing. When I was in bands I remember experiencing the same things: co-ordinated tempo-changes with no apparent leader; loud and soft passages arising without any prompting. Was this the “mind at large”? I don’t know if Bill had thought of that or not.

After declaring the recording a success, we were invited to perform the work live one night at the forthcoming exhibition of How To Be An Artist on the 11th November.

So perhaps I should become an artist and ditch this information architecture crap?

Bill Drummond’s Seventeen

I’ve just got a mail from Bill Drummond. He’s doing an installation of some kind (details rather sketchy) in the soon-to-be-opened Arts Depot, which is just round the corner from my house.

The installation/project/work will be called “How To Be An Artist” and he needs male voice “singers” (in my case that term is applied loosely) to record something as part of that.

I’ve always thought of him as rather scary ever since he left a dead sheep in the foyer of the Brit Awards, and the fact that he and Jimi Cauty burnt a million pounds adds to that.

So, I’m a bit apprehensive of what I might have to do next week (the timestamp is in the future – these artists, I dunno…):

From: bill drummond 
Date: Sun, 03 Oct 2004 00:08:29 -0700

Dear member of The Seventeen,

Your Services are required at 7pm on 6 October 2004 at the new (but
unfinished) Artsdepot building at the Tally-Ho, North Finchley. Look for the
door with The Seventeen on it.
Your services will be required for up to two hours, in which time you will
be required to use your voice creatively in a lateral way. You will not be
paid for your services but refreshments will be provided and each member
will be given a pair of tickets for How To Be An Artist.


Bill Drummond.

Soapbox on Software Patents

"If Haydn had patented 'a symphony, characterised by that sound is 
produced { in extended sonata form },' Mozart would have been in trouble."

Since I am involved in software design, I feel I should oppose any move by the European Union to allow the patenting of software. Software patents threaten to stifle innovation in software design and given even more monopolistic power to existing software corporations to the detriment of smaller companies and fair competition. In my own case, they could lead to a nightmare situation in which ideas in the experience design of websites would have to be checked by slow and expensive patent lawyers before they could be deployed by the clients I work for.

The European Union is considering introducing legislation that would allow patenting of software. If you make a living from software development in any way, then I think you should be similarly opposed.

For more information see this website

Contributory and vicarious copyright infringement

It’s a landmark ruling! The decision of the US 9th Court to find Grokster not guilty to the charge of “contributory and vicarious copyright infringement” is the first sign that corporate manipulation of IP rights legislation is at last being reined in. It’s all on the Register today.

It is incredibly important that we understand the current war going on in the IP arena, with P2P, open source, copyleft, creative commons, et. al. on the one side, and the frankly evil forces of utter greed and cultural distortion of the Disney Corporation, the RIAA, MPAA and others. Particularly worrying are the moves to extend patents to software in the EU, and in the UK the movement to use “crown copyright” to bury bad news and prevent access to information.

I’m thinking about how best I can do something, however insignificant, about this, because even thought the 9th may have struck back, there’s a hell of a lot to do yet if our children are not to inherit a cultural wasteland controlled by corporate greed. Perhaps a cup of sugary tea would be a start.

uk-design List On a Roll

There have been some cracking threads on the Chinwag uk-design list over the last couple of weeks. I say that because not only am I participating in my usual “you’re all stupid” kinda way, but there are some really excellent people coming out of the woodwork. For example, the celebrated Nico Macdonald, who (I like to think) I have been putting on the spot in a gentlemanly fashion about his spatial interface musings, etc. Here’s peek:

> -----Original Message-----
> From: Nico Macdonald []
> Sent: 18 August 2004 13:24
> To: Jonathan
> Subject: Re: [uk-design] GUI innovation (was Trademarking)

> As I note in a forthcoming Guardian Online article:
> "There is little serious or practical discussion in the IT 
> industry about the future of the GUI, and how we might move on. 
> We have few grand visions, and even fewer leaders capable of 
> implementing them. Instead we are fiddling with and tweaking a 
> late-70s legacy.

How about this for an alternative interpretation: What is so wrong with a late-70's legacy, 
and could the basic ideas you seem to be fighting against simply be "good enough" to remain 
fundamentally unchanged? The Stephenson rail gauge, the QUERTY keyboard, 240 volts, VHS tapes... 
None of them were the best at the time, and none are the best now, but their continued use 
shows that they meet - and now feed in to - the requirements placed on them. The arguments 
around them at their inception have moved on to higher things, and there's nothing to say the 
same thing can't happen with the way we interact with computers. We can't really afford to keep 
ploughing up and re-seeding something as important as the interface to the personal computer, can we? 
Well, as long as that computer has a screen to look at, anyway.

As for things that are not documents, and the need to deal with large numbers of objects perhaps
 visually or semantically - there is still a chance you may be missing the point if the *need*
to do so never truly materialises. User testing of radial menus, for instance, has shown them to 
be inferior in terms of learnabilty compared to more traditional methods (I'll drag up the 
reference for that if you want). That doesn't make them bad, it means that they may be good for 
specialist use by trained operators. That's par for the course in other fields: court stenographers 
use those weird little piano keyboards to type at massive speeds using syllabic chords, but it 
takes them years to learn how. Similarly with claims by HCI academics that businesses would benefit 
from being able to visualise their MIS data. The idea's been around for about 30 years, but spatial 
interfaces aren't exactly the first thing Sir John Harvey-Jones recommends to struggling firms. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to belittle your ability to identify or theorise about different 
ways of doing things in HCI (which would appear to be far superior to my own), just that you seem 
to be missing some wider aspects of things like the social or historical context for these things. 
Like Clay Shirky says, whenever you think about what *should* happen, it distracts you from 
thinking about what will.

> I guess you are referring to the lack of a desktop trash in MacOS 

Ah, no. I was referring to Job's supposed quote about getting rid of the spatial Finder in favour
 the more "Explorer" like file manger in OSX. "Spatial" here simply means file organisation 
"in space," as in a desktop with folders scattered across it, or sub-folders with files arbitrarily
 grouped together by the user, given colours, etc. He is said to have retorted that the old finder 
"forced users to be janitors," which he thought was a bad thing. 

Last I looked, there was a trash can on the desktop of OSX. Was there not one at some point? 


Lord, I hope Dr. Mischa Weiss-Lijn isn’t reading this! Let’s see how he replies.

Networks, Economics and Culture

Being in an expansive mood this Saturday morning, and having received the latest from Clay Shirky on his “Networks, Economics and Culture” (NEC) mailing list, I’m trying to gather my thoughts around what’s going on (from as high a level as my little mind can get).

I’m a big fan of Mr Shirky. I once had the good fortune to talk to him while we were in (of all places) Rupert Murdoch’s “Fortress Wapping” several years ago. He was consulting for and the other News International websites, and I wasa lowly producer working for a Times Literary Supplement educational site that soon after went West. He has this amazing gift of being able to cut through the crap and see things straight. Something that I find incredibly hard to do.

Anyway, I think he said he was convinced that we are in a golden age of experiementation with the network, communication and ways of allowing humans to exchange information. It certainly seems that way to me.

The future of the music distribution

This is hardly an original subject to blog on, but it interests me nonetheless. I was at a new year’s party this year and discovered that I’d been to school with one of the guests. After chatting a while about jolly japes (slightly embarrassing as you’re aware it’s boring the crap out of the people around you…) we got round to asking what each other did. He told me he was as surprised as anyone to have become the MD of Sony Music Publishing UK. I felt like I’d just discovered Rudolf Hess hand landed in my allotment.

Oh my god. What, I asked, did he think about P2P, the recent legal shifts brought on by MPAA and RIAA lobbying in the US, and, and oh, that whole copyright thing and music and all? But either he wasn’t giving anything away, or he genuinely knew nothing. He certainly expressed no significant opinion about it. I was left spouting gibberish about tectonic shifts in copyright law, and he probably thinks I’m a nutter now. Oh well.

But I wonder if his lack of reaction is typical of people at that level of the music biz, because if it is then I think they’re going to get a wakeup call rather more jolting than I thought. There’s much pontificating about this stuff, and nobody really knows how it will pan out, but here’s an interestingly apocalyptic, if rather scattershot, set of predictions about music publishing (scroll down to the bottom) that I think might have a good chance of being true one day – although not as soon as he predicts.

Why Doesn’t BBC News Online Understand?

One thing that gets me irrational about BBC News Online is the glaring lack of any proper back channel. People want to talk, and I for one resent only having half a chance to do so. The “Have your say” links at the bottom of some (but not all) stories, accompanied by the pretty contemptuous small print: “The BBC may edit your comments and cannot guarantee that all e-mails will be published,” works me up even more.

How long is it going to be before this kind of thing becomes unacceptable on the net? If you’re going to invite comments, then get your editorial team the hell out of the way and your systems capable of doing the invitation justice. It’s not as if this is a revolutionary idea, or that doing so will automatically mean that lunatics will swarm in and hijack the sacred “airwaves.” The quality and depth of debate about current affairs on a site like kuro5hin shows what happens when you do collaborative filtering properly.

But here am I wanting the Beeb to understand the medium its in. Perhaps I’ve got the wrong end of the stick – the Beeb isn’t going to become a two-way channel any more than magic lanterns became television. And most of all I’m forgetting the slogan of all netizens interested in this stuff:

Death to the communications monopolies! May ten thousand autonomous systems bloom!


(Hmm. I’m coming accross like Victor Meldrew meets Citizen Smith here. Note to self: tone down the ranting in future.)

I bumped into nanotech the other day

I’ve been hearing about nanotechnology for a while, but for some reason was never motivated enough to find out much about it. Far future stuff… solution looking for problem… blah blah.

But a random post on Slashdot the other day caught my eye. The poster was saying that once molecular nanotechnology and “nanoengineering” take off, then the nature of matter as we know it will fundamentally change – with massive socio-economic consequences. The details were sketchy, So I did a bit of Googling.

And I was shocked. Nanotech isn’t some dry theoretical domain of research scientists playing about. It’s a real gosh-darn industry! Have a look at for instance.* After a while reading up on some of the basics, the Slashdot post made sense. There is no reason that’s yet been discovered to prevent us from building “nano factories” that can create anything physical by building it from the molecular level up. Just like factories and assembly-lines today make bricks, cars and cans of cola, so might nano factories do the same – but for literally anything out of re-cycled atoms.

So imagine a world where physical matter can be produced, sold and otherwise dealt with in the same way as software. Want some orange juice? Go to the nano factory that sits in the kitchen and enter the details to produce it. Need a new set of razor blades? Same deal. The retailers of the future may not need to produce anything other than the “plans” for nano factories. Buy a plan for Coke, a plan for Gillette razor blades, for a music CD, and produce them all at home.

I’m really struggling to understand the sheer tectonic effect of this on economics and society. For example, nano engineering could REALLY screw primary producers. Why would any country buy physical goods from another?

But the thing that perhaps intrigues me most is whether in the we are currently seeing in techniques of copyleft, open source and other developments in “intellectual property,” the foundations for something truly amazing: a split between closed and open “plans” for matter. Do you want to buy the Gillette razor plan or a freely-available plan for razors (“GNU Razor 0.7”)? And how would the auto industry feel about a Napster for Ferraris?

Now *that* made me think…

* See also “Do you have an opto-electronic material problem? Need semiconductors with tunable properties to remove nature-imposed limits?” This is like Blade Runner!