Friday 10 July, 2020

The flailing state

Long, angry LRB essay by Pankaj Mishra.

Sample:

The pandemic, which has killed 130,000 people in the US, including a disproportionate number of African Americans, has now shown, far more explicitly than Katrina did in 2005 or the financial crisis in 2008, that the Reagan-Thatcher model, which privatised risk and shifted the state’s responsibility onto the individual, condemns an unconscionable number of people to premature death or to a desperate struggle for existence.

An even deeper and more devastating realisation is that democracy, Anglo-America’s main ideological export and the mainstay of its moral prestige, has never been what it was cracked up to be.

Democracy does not guarantee good government, even in its original heartlands. Neither does the individual choice that citizens of democracies periodically exercise – whether in referendums or elections – confer political wisdom on the chosen. It might even delude them, as Johnson and Trump confirm, into deranged notions of omnipotence. The ideal of democracy, according to which all adults are equal and possess equal power to choose and control political and economic outcomes, is realised nowhere. The fact of economic inequality, not to mention the compromised character of political representatives, makes it unrealisable.

More disturbing still, voters have been steadily deprived, not least by a mendacious or click-baiting fourth estate, of the capacity either to identify or to seek the public interest. Modern democracy, in other words, bears little resemblance to the form of government that went under its name in ancient Greece. And in no place does democracy look more like a zombie than in India, Anglo-America’s most diligent apprentice, where a tremendously popular Hindu supremacist movement diverts attention from grotesque levels of inequality and its own criminal maladroitness by stoking murderous hatred against Muslims.


Microsoft plays catch-up with Teams

One of the funnier aspects of the pandemic is how the tech giants were caught napping with their sub-optimal video-conferencing systems, leaving the field open for Zoom to boom. Ever since then they’ve been racing to catch up.

Now it’s Microsoft’s turn to announce a major upgrade to its product — Teams.

Today we’re announcing a set of new features in Microsoft Teams that make virtual interactions more natural, more engaging, and ultimately, more human. These features offer three key benefits for people at work and in education. First, they help you feel more connected with your team and reduce meeting fatigue. Second, they make meetings more inclusive and engaging. And third, they help streamline your work and save time.

They are:

  • ’Together mode’: “uses AI segmentation technology to digitally place participants in a shared background, making it feel like you’re sitting in the same room with everyone else in the meeting or class”.

  • ‘Dynamic view’: “A set of enhancements we call dynamic view gives you more control over how you see shared content and other participants in a meeting. Using AI, meetings dynamically optimize shared content and video participants. New controls—including the ability to show shared content and specific participants side-by-side—let you personalize the view to suit your preferences and needs”. Includes “include large gallery view (rolling out in August), where you can see video of up to 49 people in a meeting simultaneously, and virtual breakout rooms, which allow meeting organizers to split meeting participants into smaller groups for things like brainstorming sessions or workgroup discussions”.

  • ‘Video filters’: “Before joining a meeting, you can use the filters to subtly adjust lighting levels and soften the focus of the camera to customize your appearance.

It remains to be seen if this really makes Teams more usable than the competition.


Here’s a way to think about Facebook

Imagine a factory that allowed anyone to bring toxic waste there, any time of day or night, and promised to store it. Imagine that in addition to storing the waste, the factory would exponentially increase the amount of toxic waste and enlist wide swaths of the population into adding their own pollution to the mix. Imagine that as part of its service, the factory would continually spew those toxins into our air, water, and soil, poisoning millions of people. Imagine then that the factory devoted some small degree of their services to cleaning up some of those toxins, well after much of the toxic waste had been distributed, and then asked to be congratulated for cleaning up 90% of the spills (according to its own unverifiable metrics). Lastly, at every opportunity, the factory would proudly proclaim that it doesn’t profit from distributing toxic waste.

From Chris Gilliard, writing in OneZero.

This is an example of a rhetorical tactic that might help break the “learned helplessness” of populations dazzled or intimidated by tech platforms. It’s a tactic I’ve used often — most recently in a long essay — Slouching towards Dystopia that appeared in the New Statesman in late February. What gives it its power is the fact that many of the things that we accept unquestioningly when online would be instantly regarded as totally unacceptable if anyone tried to impose them in real world. Nobody, for example, would sign a contract as skewed and one-sided as the average End User Licence Agreement (EULA) that people casually click to accept on the Web. If you want to alert people to what is happening, you have to translate it first into a real-world context.


Slate Star Codex, Silicon Valley and an arcane storm in a tea cup

I’ve been an interested reader of a blog called Slate Star Codex for a while, but one day last month when I visited it I found just a headline — “NYT Is Threatening My Safety By Revealing My Real Name, So I Am Deleting The Blog” — followed by this:

So, I kind of deleted the blog. Sorry. Here’s my explanation.

Last week I talked to a New York Times technology reporter who was planning to write a story on Slate Star Codex. He told me it would be a mostly positive piece about how we were an interesting gathering place for people in tech, and how we were ahead of the curve on some aspects of the coronavirus situation. It probably would have been a very nice article.

Unfortunately, he told me he had discovered my real name and would reveal it in the article, ie doxx me. “Scott Alexander” is my real first and middle name, but I’ve tried to keep my last name secret. I haven’t always done great at this, but I’ve done better than “have it get printed in the New York Times“.

I have a lot of reasons for staying pseudonymous…

I was puzzled by this and wondered what lay behind it. But life is short and I was doing a daily Quarantine diary and had other work to do, so I left it as just another of those unsolved mysteries.

But in true New Yorker style, the New Yorker couldn’t let it go and now there’s a long essay by Gideon Lewis-Kraus which takes a deep dive into the background.

Turns out it’s mostly about an arcane field of battle in the culture wars. As Miss Brodie says of chemistry in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, “For those that like that kind of thing, that is the kind of thing they like.” It is interesting, though, and revealing about a particular cast of mind in Silicon Valley.


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Thursday 21 May, 2020

Quote of the Day

“They would like to have the people come off. I’d rather have the people stay [on the ship]. … I would rather because I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that was not our fault.”

  • Donald J. Trump, Acting President of the United States, March 4, while on a visit to the Centers for Disease Control, answering a question about whether passengers on the Grand Princess cruise ship should be allowed to disembark.

5G ‘protection’ in Glastonbury

Glastonbury is possibly the wackiest town in the UK. Maybe it’s something in the water supply. There’s a lovely post on the Quackometer blog about it.

The council published a report that called for an ending of 5G rollout. Several members of the working group that looked into the safety of 5G complained that the group had been taken over “by anti-5G activists and “spiritual healers”.

This is not surprising to anyone who has ever visited the town of Glastonbury. There is not a shop, pub, business or chip shop that has not been taken over by “spiritual healers” of one sort or another. You cannot walk down the High Street without being smothered in a fog of incense and patchouli. It is far easier to buy a dozen black candles and a pewter dragon than it is a pint of milk.

Science has no sanctuary in Glastonbury. Homeopaths, healers, hedge-witches and hippies all descend on the town to be at one with the Goddess.

There may be no science there, but there’s a lot of ‘technology’ — as the BBC Technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones discovered on a visit — after which he tweeted this:

Further down, there’s a delicious analysis of an electronic device to ‘neutralise radiation’. Taking it apart reveals its innards:

This sophisticated device consists of a switch, a 9-volt battery, a length of standard copper pipe with two endpieces, and an LED bulb.

Not clear how much it sells for, but my guess is £50.

I’m in the wrong business.


Farewell to Beyond the Beyond

This is the title of what is, IMHO, the best essay on blogging ever written. If that seems an extravagant claim, stay tuned. But first, some context.

Bruce Sterling is one of the founders of the cyberpunk movement in science fiction, along with William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, John Shirley, Lewis Shiner, and Pat Cadigan. In addition, he is one of the subgenre’s chief ideological promulgators. But for me he’s always been the consummate blogger. His Beyond the Beyond blog has been running on Wired since 2003, but now — after 17 glorious years — he’s just written a final post.

So, the blog is formally ending this month, May MMXX.

My weblog is a collateral victim of Covid19, which has become a great worldwide excuse to stop whatever you were doing.

You see, this is a WIRED blog — in fact, it is the first ever WIRED blog — and WIRED and other Conde’ Nast publications are facing a planetary crisis. Basically, they’ve got no revenue stream, since the business model for glossy mags is advertisements for events and consumer goods.

If there are no big events due to pandemic, and nobody’s shopping much, either, then it’s mighty hard to keep a magazine empire afloat in midair. Instead, you’ve gotta fire staffers, shut down software, hunt new business models, re-organize and remove loose ends. There is probably no looser-end in the entire WIRED domain than this weblog.

So, in this extensive and self-indulgent conclusion, I’d like to summarize what I think I’ve learned by messing with this weblog for seventeen years.

I’ve been a passionate blogger since the late-1990s. It seemed to me that blogs were the first sign that the Internet was a technology that could finally enable the realisation of Jurgen Habermas’s concept of the ‘public sphere’. It met the three criteria for such a sphere:

  • universal access — anybody could have access to the space;
  • rational discussion on any subject; and
  • disregard of rank or social status.

Initially, my blog was private. It was basically a simple website that I had created, with a very primitive layout. I regarded it as a kind of lab notebook — a place for jotting down ideas where I wouldn’t lose them. As it grew, I discovered that it became even more useful if I put a search engine on it. And then when Dave Winer came up with a blogging platform — Frontier — I switched to that and Memex 1.1 went public. It was named after Vannevar Bush’s concept of the ‘Memex’– a system for associative linking — which he first articulated in a paper in 1939 and eventually published in 1945, and which eventually led, via an indirect route, to Tim Berners-Lee’s concept of the World Wide Web. If you’re interested, the full story is told in my history of the Net.

And since then Memex 1.1 has been up and running.

I suppose one of the reasons why I like Bruce’s swansong is that his views on blogging resonate with mine — except that he articulates them much more clearly that I ever have. Over the years I’ve encountered puzzlement, suspicion, scepticism and occasionally ridicule for the dogged way I’ve persisted in an activity that many of my friends and colleagues consistently regarded as weird. My journalistic colleagues, in particular, were always bemused by Memex: but that was possibly because (at least until recently) journalists regarded anybody who wrote for no pay as clinically insane. In that, they were at one with Dr Johnson, who famously observed that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money”.

Still, there we are.

Bruce’s post is worth reading in its entirety, but here are a few gems:

…on its origins…

When I first started the “Beyond the Beyond” blog, I was a monthly WIRED columnist and a contributing editor. Wired magazine wanted to explore the newfangled medium of weblogs, and asked me to give that a try. I was doing plenty of Internet research to support my monthly Wired column, so I was nothing loath. I figured I would simply stick my research notes online. How hard could that be?

That wouldn’t cost me much more effort than the duty of writing my column — or so I imagined. Maybe readers would derive some benefit from seeing some odd, tangential stuff that couldn’t fit within a magazine’s paper limits. The stuff that was — you know — less mainstream acceptable, more sci-fi-ish, more far-out and beyond-ish — more Sterlingian.

… on its general remit …

Unlike most WIRED blogs, my blog never had any “beat” — it didn’t cover any subject matter in particular. It wasn’t even “journalism,” but more of a novelist’s “commonplace book,” sometimes almost a designer mood board.

… on its lack of a business model…

It was extremely Sterlingesque in sensibility, but it wasn’t a “Bruce Sterling” celebrity blog, because there was scarcely any Bruce Sterling material in it. I didn’t sell my books on the blog, cultivate the fan-base, plug my literary cronies; no, none of that standard authorly stuff

… on why he blogged…

I keep a lot of paper notebooks in my writerly practice. I’m not a diarist, but I’ve been known to write long screeds for an audience of one, meaning myself. That unpaid, unseen writing work has been some critically important writing for me — although I commonly destroy it. You don’t have creative power over words unless you can delete them.

It’s the writerly act of organizing and assembling inchoate thought that seems to helps me. That’s what I did with this blog; if I blogged something for “Beyond the Beyond,” then I had tightened it, I had brightened it. I had summarized it in some medium outside my own head. Posting on the blog was a form of psychic relief, a stream of consciousness that had moved from my eyes to my fingertips; by blogging, I removed things from the fog of vague interest and I oriented them toward possible creative use.

… on not having an ideal reader…

Also, the ideal “Beyond the Beyond” reader was never any fan of mine, or even a steady reader of the blog itself. I envisioned him or her as some nameless, unlikely character who darted in orthogonally, saw a link to some odd phenomenon unheard-of to him or her, and then careened off at a new angle, having made that novelty part of his life. They didn’t have to read the byline, or admire the writer’s literary skill, or pony up any money for enlightenment or entertainment. Maybe they would discover some small yet glimmering birthday-candle to set their life alight.

Blogging is akin to stand-up comedy — it’s not coherent drama, it’s a stream of wisecracks. It’s also like street art — just sort of there, stuck in the by-way, begging attention, then crumbling rapidly.

Lovely stuff. Worth celebrating.


Moral Crumple Zones

Pathbreaking academic paper by Madeleine Clare Elish which addresses the problem of how to assign culpability and responsibility when AI systems cause harm. Example: when a ‘self-driving’ car hits and hills a pedestrian, is the ‘safety driver’ (the human supervisor sitting in the car but not at the controls at the time of the accident) the agent who gets prosecuted for manslaughter? (This is a real case, btw.).

Although published ages ago (2016) this is still a pathbreaking paper. In it Elish comes up with a striking new concept.

I articulate the concept of a moral crumple zone to describe how responsibility for an action may be misattributed to a human actor who had limited control over the behavior of an automated or autonomous system.1Just as the crumple zone in a car is designed to absorb the force of impact in a crash, the human in a highly complex and automated system may become simply a component—accidentally or intentionally—that bears the brunt of the moral and legal responsibilities when the overall system malfunctions.

While the crumple zone in a car is meant to protect the human driver, the moral crumple zone protects the integrity of the technological system, at the expense of the nearest human operator. What is unique about the concept of a moral crumple zone is that it highlights how structural features of a system and the media’s portrayal of accidents may inadvertently take advantage of human operators (and their tendency to become “liability sponges”) to fill the gaps in accountability that may arise in the context of new and complex systems.

It’s interesting how the invention of a pithy phrase can help to focus attention, attention and understanding.

Writing the other day in Wired, Tom Simonite picked up on Elish’s insight:

People may find it even harder to clearly see the functions and failings of more sophisticated AI systems that continually adapt to their surroundings and experiences. “What does it mean to understand what a system does if it is dynamic and learning and we can’t count on our previous knowledge?” Elish asks. As we interact with more AI systems, perhaps our own remarkable capacity for learning will help us develop a theory of machine mind, to intuit their motivations and behavior. Or perhaps the solution lies in the machines, not us. Engineers of future AI systems might need to spend as much time testing how well they play with humans as on adding to their electronic IQs.


Robotic Process Automation

Sounds boring, right? Actually for the average web user or business, it’s way more important than machine learning. RPA refers basically to software tools for automating the “long tail” of mundane tasks that are boring, repetitive, and prone to human error. Every office — indeed everyone who uses a computer for work — has tasks like this.

Mac users have lots of these tools available. I use Textexpander, for example, to create a small three-character code which, when activated, can type a signature at the foot of an email, or the top of a letterhead or, for that matter, an entire page of stored boilerplate text. For other tasks there are tools like IFTTT, Apple’s Shortcuts and other automation tools that are built into the OS X operating system.

Windows users, however, were not so lucky, which I guess is why the WinAutomation tools provided by a British company Softmotive were so popular. And guess what? Softmotive has just been bought by Microsoft. Smart move by Redmond.


Quarantine diary — Day 61

Link


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Wednesday 6 May, 2020

Quote of the Day

“In the future it will be as rude to talk with someone publicly with your mask off as it would be with your pants down. Future porn will be people talking without masks in public places.”


XKCD on the virus’s view of us humans

Link

Well, you have to laugh, sometimes. But it’s still a reflection on the fact that a tiny microbe about a micron in diameter could turn our entire world upside down.


Governments won’t determine how the return to work happens: people will

That’s because people are really scared about the risk of infection and worried about whether workplaces will be safe.

Here’s why they’re right to be worried. Humanity has never faced a pathogen like this. And we don’t yet understand the half of it.


Tim Bray on blogging

He has a set of sensible rules, some of which I really like. This one for example:

Write For Yourself: Don’t try to guess what people want to read; you’re the only person whose interests you really understand. In particular, don’t thrash around trying to appeal to a larger audience; the only surefire way is pictures of celebrity breasts, and the world already has enough.

He’s been blogging since 2003. More than a million words, he says, and I believe him.

Tim has just resigned as VP and Distinguished Engineer at Amazon Web Services — on principle. Read his blog post explaining why he took this step.


How to screw up

Setting up the email version of this blog last night, I meticulously checked all the links and then hit ‘Publish’ without noticing that the title said “Tuwsday” instead of Tuesday!

Growl. And apologies.


What lay behind the ‘Yes, Minister’ TV series

Lovely set of reflections by Anthony Jay on how he and his co-author, Jonathan Lynn, came to write my second-favourite TV comedy series, Yes, Minister. (My all-time favourite is John Cleese’s and Connie Booth’s Fawlty Towers.)

Clearly this conflict of policies [between a Minister and his or her civil servants] comes into sharpest focus in the persons of the Cabinet Minister and his Permanent Secretary, and it suddenly came to me that this relationship, if taken to its extreme, had all the ingredients of a classic situation comedy: two people whose background, ambitions and motivations pull them in diametrically opposite directions, but who are held together because of their deep dependence on each other. It is the heart of every husband-and-wife sitcom, and of one of my favourite of all comedies, Steptoe and Son, which I always saw as a husband-and-wife comedy in disguise.

The relationship has two further features to commend it. In the first place, it lets the viewer into a private world, and one which he is highly unlikely to experience directly. There is a considerable bonus for a comedy if it has a documentary dimension, and the reason I enjoyed Porridge more than Going Straight was precisely and only because of the additional information and insights into the (literally) closed world of prisons that the first series provided. In the same way, Dad’s Army gave extra joy by the little documentary touches that recreated the minutiae of life during World War Two. And second, comedy also has an extra appeal – at least for Jonathan Lynn and me – when it is actually about something, in the sense that Butterflies and The Good Life are about something.

Worth reading in full.


A message from — of all people — George W. Bush

Link

By comparison with Trump he sounds like a combination of Pope Francis and Abe Lincoln. I never thought I’d feel nostalgia for Dubya. But then I cure myself by thinking of Dick Cheney.


The cancer in the camera lens

Utterly fabulous essay on Trump by David Roth. Here’s how it begins:

In close up, on television, at a glance, with the volume down, Donald Trump can from time to time look like a president. That effect becomes less convincing the more you pay attention, though. Even under professional lighting, Trump reliably looks like a photographic negative of himself; on his worse and wetter days, he has the tone and texture of those lacquered roast ducks that hang from hooks in Chinatown restaurant windows. The passing presidentiality of the man dissipates utterly in longer shots, where Trump can be seen standing tipped oddly forward like a jowly ski jumper in midair, or mincing forward to bum-rush an expert’s inconvenient answer with an incoherent one of his own, or just making faces intended to signal that he is listening very strongly to what someone else is saying. (These slapdash performances of executive seriousness tend to have the effect, as the comedian Stewart Lee once said of James Corden, of making Trump look like “a dog listening to classical music.”) Seen from this long-shot vantage, the man at the podium is unmistakably Donald Trump—uncanny, unknowing, upset about various things that he can’t quite understand or express.

It gets even better. Unmissable.


Human Capitalism

The film-maker Sheila Hayman has a lovely essay on Medium about the ways the Coronavirus lockdown reveals both human potential and the kinds of meaningful work that actually needs doing.

Before

So, right before Covid-19, what did we have? A world in which over a third of us were doing crappy jobs, which made us sick, and whose defining characteristics were overwhelmingly, lack of agency and lack of reward — in all its forms.

Jobs which, according to yet another YouGov poll, 37% of us said were ‘not making a meaningful contribution to the world’.

After

But what has the lockdown actually produced? A massive, spontaneous, bottom-up geyser of human ingenuity, creativity, enterprise, initiative, dedication and love, all lying unsuspected and untapped as its owners trekked day after day to those bullshit jobs — jobs which overwhelmingly involve a nasty commute to eight hours in front of a screen, or managing the dehumanisation of colleagues — or more often, both.

On the other hand, our isolated elderly need befriending, our streets need greening, our air needs cleaning, our diet needs improving and our children need company and attention. These are needs as great as the jobs we’re not doing, if not more so.

This is human capital: the capacity, imagination, love and organisational ability we all carry within us, just by being alive. Moreover, at least in my experience, it effortlessly obliterates the other great stranglehold of British society: I have literally no idea whether my colleagues in the local Covid-19 WhatsApp group are working class, upper middle class, or aliens with green antennae. Capability and common sense prevail, hierarchies are meaningless, and we all happily go along with whatever seems to work best.

Yep. Worth reading in full.


Quarantine diary — Day 46

Link


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Monday 30 March, 2020

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Can’t go to that concert? Try this instead.

It’s a wonderful example of what a family of imaginative musicians can do under lockdown conditions. Wish I could sing like that. (Even in the bath.)

Link


Unintended consequence of an earlier pandemic

Cambridge University (where I work) is currently closed because of the virus. Lots of wags have already pointed out that the last time it was closed was in 1665 and Isaac Newton, who was then a scholar at Trinity College, left the University on two occasions to escape the plague and went back to his family home in Woolsthorpe in Lincolnshire. “In those days”, he later wrote, “I was in the prime of my age for invention & minded Mathematics & Philosophy more than at any time since.” So the discovery of gravity was an unexpected byproduct of the plague, a bit like non-stick frying pans were an unintended benefit of the Moon program.

Woolsthorpe is now run by the National Trust and is well worth a visit once things return to some semblance of normality. In the garden is an ancient apple tree that is supposedly a descendant of the tree from which the apple famously dropped onto the boy’s head.

My favourite cartoon (I think it was in the New Yorker but can’t confirm that at the moment), showed Newton looking down at the apple on the ground and rubbing the bump on his head. “Now comes the hard part”, he’s saying. “Getting a research grant to write it up”. (This will appeal to many early-career researchers.)


The National Theatre is streaming some of its plays

The NT is currently closed to live audiences. But Time Out reports that it has come up with an imaginative idea for discharging its cultural obligations as the country’s national theatre — streaming a play every Thursday evening. The current schedule is:

  • April 2 ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ by Richard Bean, starring James Corden.
  • April 9 ‘Jane Eyre’, adapted by Sally Cookson.
  • April 16 ‘Treasure Island’, adapted by Bryony Lavery.
  • April 23 ‘Twelfth Night’ by William Shakespeare, starring Tamsin Greig.

In addition, the NT will be rolling out National Theatre Collection study-resources to pupils who are now learning at home.

Live performances won’t restart until at least July.


Learning by doing

Almost everything I know about blogging I’ve learned from Dave Winer who — as I’ve often pointed out is not only a pioneer of the medium but also a great practitioner. A while back, he decided to make his blog, Scripting News, available as a daily email, and I was immediately struck by how useful that was — even to a reader like me who tried to visit the URL every day. So I decided to do the same with Memex 1.1 as it became clear that I would have to self-isolate and would therefore be working from home all the time.

The experiment has had a similar effect. Readership is significantly up, which is gratifying. But also so is engagement. I’m getting emails from readers — some of them very moving — about the impact something I’ve written or pointed to has had on them, as they endure the privations imposed by the pandemic. And — a really nice surprise — many people seem to like the audio Quarantine Diary. It’s all very well talking about the ‘authorial voice’ as embodied in print/type, but it seems that audio reaches parts that print doesn’t. Again, this may be an artefact of the strange times we’re currently living in. But it’s still striking…

I had a lovely email today from a reader in Germany who had been listening to Friday’s diary entry on David Brook’s NYT column and was struck by the idea of fighting fear with conversation. It reminded my correspondent of a passage in Hannah Arendt’s Men in Dark Times:

“However much we are affected by the things of the world, however deeply they may stir and stimulate us, they become human for us only when we can discuss them with our fellows. Whatever cannot become the object of discourse – the truly sublime, the truly horrible or the uncanny – may find human voice through which to sound into the world, but it is not exactly human. We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human.”

And while I’m on the topic, I should say that the audio diary idea was also sparked by the natural way in which Dave Winer often incorporates speech into his daily blog posts.


Quarantine Diary – Day 9

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In praise of bloggers

From a “Blogging in an expert society” by Ken Smith:

At least there are certain mistakes that bloggers don’t often make:

  • They usually don’t pull rank.

  • They usually don’t insist that a problem can be solved only by a certain kind of expert or talked about only in one kind of language.

  • They tend to think that people’s experience has something to offer.

  • They assume that tradition or dogma should be challenged by people reflecting on their experiences.

  • They get riled up, but down deep they like to hear more voices, not fewer. They want their turn to speak, not the only turn. They get really impatient, but down deep they want democracy.

(HT to Dave Winer)

Why the blogosphere matters

This morning’s Observer column:

Last Monday was a significant anniversary in the evolution of the web. It was 25 years to the day since the first serious blog appeared. It was called Scripting News and the url was (and remains) at scripting.com. Its author is a software wizard named Dave Winer, who’s updated it every day since 1994. And despite its wide readership, it has never run ads. This may be partly because Dave doesn’t need the money (he sold his company to Symantec in 1987 for a substantial sum) but it’s mainly because he didn’t want to compete for the attention of his readers. “I see running ads on my blog,” he once wrote, “as picking up loose change that’s fallen out of peoples’ pockets. I want to hit a home run. I’m swinging for the fences. Not picking up litter.”

When some innovators cash out big, as Winer did, they more or less retire – play golf, buy a yacht and generally hang out in luxury. Not so Dave. He has a long string of innovations to his name, including outliner and blogging software, RSS syndication, the outline processor markup language OPML and podcasting, of which he was a pioneer.

And his daily blog at scripting.com continues to be a must-read for anyone interested in the intersection between technology and politics. Winer has a quirky, perceptive, liberal and sometimes contrarian take on just about anything that appears on his radar. He is the nearest thing the web has to an international treasure.

He’s also a reminder of the importance of blogging, a phenomenon that has been overshadowed as social media exploded and sucked much of the oxygen out of our information environment…

Read on

Silicon Valley ideology in a nutshell

The proprietor of N-gate is an engineer who grew up in Palo Alto and now lives in the Pacific Northwest, where he works in high-performance computing. He agreed to exchange e-mails on condition of anonymity. “Almost every post deals with the same topics: these are people who spend their lives trying to identify all the ways they can extract money from others without quite going to jail,” he wrote. “They’re people who are convinced that they are too special for rules, and too smart for education. They don’t regard themselves as inhabiting the world the way other people do; they’re secret royalty, detached from society’s expectations and unfailingly outraged when faced with normal consequences for bad decisions. Society, and especially economics, is a logic puzzle where you just have to find the right set of loopholes to win the game. Rules are made to be slipped past, never stopping to consider why someone might have made those rules to start with. Silicon Valley has an ethics problem, and ‘Hacker’ ‘News’ is where it’s easiest to see.”

From a terrific New Yorker essay on the task of moderating Hacker News.

Remember, remember the ninth of September

scripting_dot_com_9_11

For personal reasons I have vivid memories of 9/11, so today is always a sombre day in my calendar. But I was suddenly reminded this morning of how some of my Internet buddies rose magnificently to the challenge of the day. This is Dave Winer’s Scripting.com blog, for example. And here are Jeff Jarvis’s audio reports, as unforgettable now as they were then.

And then this memoir by the WSJ‘s John Bussey.

Virginia Woolf on blogging

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Well, not quite. But I’m re-reading her diaries and am coming towards the end of Volume 1 (1915-19) and in the entry for April 27, 1919 came on this meditation on diary-writing which in some ways might also be written about blogging.

Woolf had just finished writing a long article for some publication or other (one forgets what an assiduous literary hack she was), and then continues thus:

“In the idleness which succeeds any long article… I got out this diary, & read as one always does one’s own writing, with a kind of guilty intensity. I confess that the rough & random style of it, often so ungrammatical, & crying for a word altered, afflicted me somewhat. I am trying to tell whatever self it is that reads this hereafter that I can write very much better; & take no time over this; & forbid her to let the eye of man behold it. And now I may add my little compliment to the effect that it has a slapdash & vigour, & sometimes hits an unexpected bulls eye. But what is more to the point is my belief that the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practise [sic]. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses & the stumbles. Going at such a pace as I do I must make the most direct and instant shots at my object, & thus have to lay hands on words, choose them, & shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink. I believe that during he past year I can trace some increase of ease in my professional writing which I attribute to my casual half hours after tea. Moreover there looms ahead of me the shadow of some kind of form which a diary might attain to. I might in the course of time learn what it is that one can make of this loose, drifting material of life; finding another use for it than the use I put it to, so much more consciously & scrupulously, in fiction. What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit, & yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace any thing, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds & ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, & find that the collection had sorted itself & refined itself & coalesced, as such deposits mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of ourr life, & yet steady, tranquil composed with the aloofness of a work of art.”

As a thought-experiment, I’ve tried to imagine Woolf as a blogger. My conclusion is that she would have made a terrific one. But of course she couldn’t have done it because her diaries are so suffused with critical (and often harsh) assessments of the people she knew, and so filled with gossip, that she would have had to retain a full-time libel lawyer.

Celebrating Dave Winer

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