Celebrating Dave Winer

October 12th, 2014 [link]

This morning’s Observer column:

Twenty years ago this week, a software developer in California ushered in a new era in how we communicate. His name is Dave Winer and on 7 October 1994 he published his first blog post. He called it Davenet then, and he’s been writing it most days since then. In the process, he has become one of the internet’s elders, as eminent in his way as Vint Cerf, Dave Clark, Doc Searls, Lawrence Lessig, Dave Weinberger or even Tim Berners-Lee.

When you read his blog, Scripting News – as I have been doing for 20 years – you’ll understand why, because he’s such a rare combination of talents and virtues. He’s technically a very gifted software developer, for example. Many years ago he wrote one of the smartest programs that ever ran on the Apple II, the IBM PC and the first Apple Mac – an outliner called ThinkTank, which changed the way many of us thought about the process of writing. After that, Winer wrote the first proper blogging software, invented podcasting and was one of the developers of RSS, the automated syndication system that constitutes the hidden wiring of the blogosphere. And he’s still innovating, still pushing the envelope, still writing great software.

Technical virtuosity is not what makes Winer one of the world’s great bloggers, however. Equally important is that he is a clear thinker and writer, someone who is politically engaged, holds strong opinions and believes in engaging in discussion with those who disagree with him. And yet the strange thing is that this opinionated, smart guy is also sensitive: he gets hurt when people write disparagingly about him, but he also expresses that hurt in a philosophical way…

Read on

Mrs Woolf’s Diaries

October 11th, 2014 [link]

Following a lovely conversation with two of my dearest friends, I decided to re-read Virginia’s Woolf’s diaries, which I last read over 20 years ago. But when I went to my bookshelves to find them I discovered that Volume (1915-19) was missing. Someone had, er, borrowed it and forgotten to return it. So then I had to get a new (well, used) copy from Amazon before I could start. (It’s important to read them in sequence, I found the first time round.)

Anyway, here I am, immersed in Volume 1, alternately entranced and appalled by her. Here, she is, for example on Saturday 9th January 1915

“On the towpath we met & had to pass a long line of imbeciles. The first was a very tall young man, just queer enough to look twice at, but no more; the second shuffled, & looked aside; & then one realised that every one in that long line was a miserable ineffective shuffling idiotic creature, with no forehead, or no chin, & an imbecile grin, or a wild suspicious stare. It was perfectly horrible. They should certainly be killed.”

This from a woman who herself suffered from intermittent bouts of madness and eventually killed herself.

One big discovery, though, was the extent to which London seemed to have suffered from air raids in WW1. They figure quite a lot in the entries for 1917 and 1918, for example. On Monday 28th January she writes:

“Home I went & there was a raid, of course. The night made it inevitable. [Which probably means that there was no cloud cover.] From 8 to 1.15 we roamed about, between coal hole kitchen bedroom & drawing room. I dont know how much is fear, how much boredom; but the result is uncomfortable most of all, I believe, because one must talk bold and jocular small talk with the servants to ward off hysteria”.

She’s a maddening writer, because her art forces one to overlook her appalling snobbery. I’m pretty sure she would have looked down on me — an engineer, and Irish to boot. And this, the only surviving recording of her voice, tends to confirm this impression. Talk about cut-glass English!

Quote of the Day

October 11th, 2014 [link]

“Nothing pleases people more than to go on thinking what they have always thought, at at the same time imagining that they are thinking something new and daring: it combines the advantage of security and the delight of adventure”.

TS Eliot


October 10th, 2014 [link]


Finally… a fibre-optic connection at home. Installed this morning. Upload speed is good enough to run my private cloud.

The state we’re in

October 10th, 2014 [link]

In thinking about the state we’re in, I sometimes gloomily conclude that we need a theory of incompetent systems — i.e. systems that can’t fix themselves. Last night I participated in an interesting discussion about whether perspectives from network theory might be useful in improving public making. As the conversation proceeded over dinner I kept my mouth shut and made some notes in an attempt to sort out the jumble in my head. Here they are, for what they’re worth.

Why are democratic states like Britain struggling to cope with the challenges that now face them?

Some relevant factors:

  • A dysfunctional electoral cycle that makes it impossible to do long-term strategy. Exacerbated by rolling news cycle and tabloid media which make deliberative democracy more or less impossible.
  • The accelerating gap between the speed of technological advance and the pace of legislative and regulatory adaptation.
  • The fact that we have a world that is increasingly dominated by networking and related technologies that few people understand. (“The Internet is the first thing that humans have built that humans do not understand.” – Eric Schmidt)
  • This is exacerbated by the fact that the technology has affordances that make it different from earlier general-purpose technologies. These are: zero marginal costs; powerful network effects; the dominance of power-law distributions; and the possibility of technological lock-in.
  • The tensions between democracy’s need for openness, oversight and accountability and the security state’s need for surveillance and secrecy.
  • The apparent inability of legislatures to devise credible methods of democratic oversight of security services. Analog mindsets trying to cope with digital realities.
  • Law-making that is unduly influenced by corporate (or, in the case of surveillance laws, security agency) interests.
  • Enfeebled or corrupted democratic institutions at all levels: policy and political elites captured by neoliberal ideology and corporate interests; hollowed-out legislatures unable to impose effective control over the executive; apathetic, cynical and disaffected electorates.

Path dependency

  • The options available to us at any given moment are determined by decisions and choices we made (explicitly or implicitly) at earlier points in time. An example: we now live in a networked world the business model of which is intensive surveillance by both state agencies and corporations. The state does it because (supposedly) it is necessary to protect society from terrorism, crime etc. Corporations do it because it enables advertising-funded business models. But those business models were a response to (i) the fact that Internet users from the beginning were implacably opposed to paying for online services; and (ii) that since the key to online success was to get quickly to the point where network effects kicked in, the quickest way to get to that point was to provide ‘free’ services. So we are now coping with the consequences of choices that Internet users made in the 1990s.

Ideological capture

  • Governing elites in most democracies appear to have been captured by neoliberal philosophies which devalue public services and over-value private enterprise. This leads to a failure to appreciate the importance of the state in fostering and enabling long-term technological innovation and development. (All of the prosperity of our current Internet companies is built on a network that was built by the state. The history of most general purpose technologies shows the importance of state funding in various stages in the evolution of the technology.) Yet the idea of “the entrepreneurial state” (to use Mazzucato’s term) is regarded by governing elites as an oxymoron. (Like “military intelligence”?)

How democracies change

  • Reluctantly, slowly and generally only in response to serious crises, of which the most common historically has been the trauma of war. In general (cf David Runciman’s books) they muddle through. But muddling through takes time. The big questions about our current challenges (climate change, managing the networked society) is whether we will have enough time to muddle through.

Even if you’re not on Facebook, you are still the product

October 5th, 2014 [link]

This morning’s Observer column:

The old adage “if the service is free, then you are its product” needs updating. What it signified was that web services (like Facebook, Google, Yahoo et al) that do not charge users make their money by harvesting personal and behavioural data relating to those users and selling that data to advertisers. That’s still true, of course. But a more accurate version of the adage would now read something like this: if you use the web for anything (including paying for stuff) then you are also the product, because your data is being sold on to third parties without your knowledge.

In a way, you probably already knew this. A while back you searched for, say, a digital camera on the John Lewis site. And then you noticed that wherever you went on the web after that John Lewis ads for cameras kept appearing on the site you were visiting. What you were witnessing was the output of a multibillion-dollar industry that operates below the surface of the web. Think of it as the hidden wiring of our networked world. And what it does is track you wherever you go online…

Read on

The parenthood religion

October 3rd, 2014 [link]

From an interesting contrarian rant by Astro Teller (head of Google X) and Mrs Teller. Both authors are, I believe, the grandchildren of Nobel laureates. Not sure what difference that makes.

The origins of the parenthood religion are obscure, but one of its first manifestations may have been the “baby on board” placards that became popular in the mid-1980s. Nobody would have placed such a sign on a car if it were not already understood by society that the life of a human achieves its peak value at birth and declines thereafter. A toddler is almost as precious as a baby, but a teenager less so, and by the time that baby turns fifty, it seems that nobody cares much anymore if someone crashes into her car. You don’t see a lot of vehicles with placards that read, “Middle-aged accountant on board.”

When music went digital

October 1st, 2014 [link]


On this day in 1982 the first commercial CD players appeared in UK stores.

The phablet controversy

September 30th, 2014 [link]


Wading through the throng in an Apple store the other day, I had a look at the new iPhones. The iPhone 6 didn’t seem much of an advance on my 5s, but the even-bigger one, the 6 plus, seems odd. It’s far too big to be a credible phone, but too small to be a useable tablet. So why, one wonders, will people buy it?

One answer, I suppose, is that people buy preposterously large Samsung phones, even if they do wind up holding something the size of a dinner plate to their ears. (Or making calls surreptitiously, using headphones.)

Ages ago, I bought an iPad Mini with a SIM card for writing on the move, and kept my phone for texts and the occasional voice call. The Mini has turned out to be one of the most useful gadgets I’ve ever owned. Just big enough to be useful; just small enough to slip into a jacket pocket. The new iPhone isn’t a persuasive argument for abandoning that system. It ain’t broken, so I won’t be fixing it.

England’s green and pleasant land

September 30th, 2014 [link]


Just driving along near where I live this morning and I suddenly noticed this vista. Nothing spectacular: just quietly beautiful.
Because it’s a panoramic shot the bigger version has more impact.