Makers

by Cory Doctorow (not yet published.)

Cory very kindly brought an early manuscript of this as a gift to Michael, Giles and I when we met him a while ago, and I've been wracked with guilt ever since because I apparently lost it soon after. Thankfully, it recently turned up (on Christian's desk - my fault!) last week, so I happily finished it pronto.

It's his best fiction yet! He must be honing his abilities with practice. \o/ Michael do you want it next?.

Christian doesn't like my subjectivity-proof rating system, so this one is specially for him.

Rating:

10/10 if you want a lightly styled but deeply speculative and engrossing story that winds a like a sightseeing tour around the social and personal ramifications of the ways in which modern technology is changing the way people interact, organise and get things done.

0/10: If you aren't interested in the ways society is changing under our feet.

Envisioning Information

Envisioning Information cover

by Edward R. Tufte (1990)

In much the same vein as Tufte's The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, and displaying the same calibre of deeply incisive common-sense that cuts to the heart of all that's right and wrong about the art and science of 'information design' - graphic design's more pragmatic nephew.

If you love beauty in highly functional graphics, from maps and diagrams, charts and graphs, tables and typography, then this is for you.

Rating:

10/10 If bad diagrams make you cringe, and good ones make you laugh out loud.

0/10 If you only care about beauty, but not about usefulness. Or if you don't have eyes.

Remix

remix

by Lawrence Lessig, 2008.

Is creating a mix CD for a friend an act of creativity, or a criminal offence? When you shoot a home video of your child which has a TV on in the background, is there really any need for lawsuits? What business do federal laws have in trying to regulate this sort of activity anyway?

For those, like me, who view modern copyright law as a morass of intractable problems, irreconcilable interests, overreaching government intervention and profoundly unfair restrictions on personal freedoms, Professor Lessig's words are a welcome infusion of clarity, pragmatism and respect for all interested parties.

With an engaging and accessible style, he describes exactly what is wrong with modern copyright, with clarity and impartiality, and why this is a deep and pervasive problem that cuts to the heart of all that we value in human culture. He describes how fixing this would benefit each of us, from individual consumers and amateur producers, through professional writers, musicians and copyright holders. Then, in a surprisingly constructive final section, he outlines five simple changes to copyright law that would, at a stroke, fix all the major problems, vastly simplify the situation, eliminate the ambiguity over the legality of our everyday actions, and all without apparently causing any harm or loss to any interested party.

Rating:

10/10 If you have any interest in the forces that are reshaping our society and turning industries upside-down within the space of years.

0/10 If you dislike freedom or free markets, or are a big fan of overbearing government regulation and monopolies.

Infinite Jest

Inifinite Jest

by David Foster Wallace

I've had such a diverse set of reactions to this, and how could I not? The writing is bold and idiosyncratic throughout. The novel's story is not presented in chronological order, and the timeline is obfuscated by the gleeful adoption of 'subsidised time', in which traditional numeric monikers denoting each calender year are replaced by the sponsored labels designated by major corporations - 'Year of the Whopper', and so on - a marvellous concept which nevertheless makes it completely and artificially impossible to tell what the hell's going on until about 500 pages in.

The whole novel unashamedly celebrates the author's literary and formal grammatical credentials - from the extraordinarily-crafted opening scene, where a tragically misunderstood literary genius disastrously fails a university entrance interview, with just a hint of a semi-autobiographical air about him. Scenes of superlative execution are interspersed with a narrative that is, on the whole, told in the third person but in the argot of the currently eminent protagonist, leading to large swathes of the book which are, like, more than conversational in their familiarity. The combination gives rise to a relentlessly inventive stream of neology and malapropism.

While the book resoundingly makes many insightful points by the conclusion, the story which serves as a vehicle for their delivery is, at best, a ramshackle collision of ideas, introducing entirely new and unexplored premises at the 11th hour, and then petering out, ignored and unresolved, by the final page.

The insidious footnotes for which Wallace's writings are well-known do not serve to streamline the prose by separating out incidental annotations, but instead seem specifically employed to elevate the reader's awareness of the footnotes themselves. Including them in the main body of the text would allow for the possibility of a busy reader failing to give each pithy addendum it's full, weighty consideration. Wallace cunningly obviates this possibility, by discreetly giving pause to any reader assiduously trying to do their best with a challenging book, requiring them to invoke the titillating ritual of thumbing forward a literal thousand pages or so, giving an involuntary moment of rest in the narrative in which the reader may properly anticipate the mysterious text to be revealed while they dereference the footnote's numeric identifier, and then a second pause afterwards to properly digest and appreciate, while they thumb a literal thousand pages back again to find where they left off. Three hundred and eighty eight times, no less. Plus sub-footnotes, obviously. Some of these are pages-long tomes of critically insightful dialog between major characters. Many others are completely irrelevant technical specifications. I have to ask, what the fuck is going on here? Does this really make the novel somehow better? While I laughed and cried about the content of many of the footnotes, I remain unconvinced by the mechanism of their delivery.

I rant about these aspects of style because these are definitely the first impressions any reader will have. Getting into the book does require a little work. But fortunately Wallace more than provides the incentive to do so. The book ranges over many areas, but is mostly about addiction, in its many forms, and its relationship to freedom of will and to happiness. These are deep and interesting topics, and are unflinchingly explored with a very keen eye. For every one of the annoyances mentioned above, the book provides powerful rewards for those who stick it out. The heart-wrenching depictions of people going through the utter destruction of their humanity are as touching and insightful as anything I have read.

There are some problems or tasks in life which are small enough that an individual can overcome them by force of will, grinding down the problem until it is flattened and overcome. This approach fails, however, when the problem is too large or too hard. Some problems cannot be crushed by any individual. To navigate past them requires that, instead of trying to demolish the problem, the individual must instead mould themselves to fit around the problem's existing contours. People emerge on the other side of these experiences triumphant but sober - having been changed to their core by the experience. I consider Infinite Jest to belong to this latter class of experience. From the base-camp of its 981 pages (plus 98 of footnotes), it is intimidating and uncompromising. You love it and hate it in equal measure, and it makes no attempt to pander to the former. But as I ploughed on, through it, week after week after week, I grew to enjoy it more and more and more. I began to see reminders of it everywhere I looked. I spotted echoes of its style in the speech of friends who are fans of Wallace. It began, very subtly, to infect my own speech and writing. The topics it covered touched me to the core, changing my outlook on deep issues such as religion. By the time I reached the very last page I emerged, bruised and weary, but also tremendously excited - I actually flipped it right back and re-read the first few chapters all over again.

Now for perhaps the greatest test to date of my supposedly subjectivity-proof rating system. Here goes:

Rating:

10/10: If you are ready for a challenge, that entertains and wrenches in equal measure, stretching you, changing your definitions, taking you on a tour of regions you never knew existed. It will make you laugh and it will make you cry. It will leave you a different person than when you began.

0/10: If you can't be bothered.

Letter to my Member of European Parliament : Proposed Copyright Extension

Thursday 19 March 2009

Dear Baroness Ludford, (Update: This was sent to all eleven of my MEPs)

I am writing with reference to the European Parliament's vote on copyright extension for sound recordings, due to take place on March 23rd.

As you know, this is a complex issue, but I shall try my best to keep this short, I know you must be busy.

Amongst the justification for this particular extension to the term of copyrights, is the idea that artists need more protection, particularly towards the end of their lives when their income from royalties might dry up as their copyrights expire.

This is misleading in the extreme. Under the current 50 year term, an artist recording at age 25 will be protected until age 75, and any artist who records throughout their lifetime will be protected until many decades beyond their death.

There is no need whatsoever to extend the term in order to benefit or incentivise artists.

In fact, as everyone knows, artists in practice almost never end up owning the copyrights to their own works - the labels do. While artists and labels are aligned in the desire to sell as many records as possible, they are in direct opposition when it comes to dividing up the proceeds. The majority of the income from sales goes to the labels, because they have such an overwhelmingly dominant position of power in the relationship. No label is reliant upon any individual artist, while every artist is very much dependant on their label, to whom they are tied by contract for many years. Strengthening copyright only strengthens the position of the copyright owner, ie. the labels, at the expense of what little leverage the artist may have. Extending the term of copyright only enhances the labels' income, not the artists.

It is not the role of copyright to be a protectionist measure to support labels who are having to adjust their business models in these times of great change. The last thing we need to do is to construct laws which chain Europe's creative industries to last-century modes of operation, at precisely a time when the current tumult will reveal as yet undreamed of exciting new ways of doing business.

As you know, copyright is intended to stimulate the creation of new creative works, by enabling the artist to earn an income from their own creations.

There exists significant evidence to suggest that stronger copyright may actually inhibit the production of creative work, by allowing monopoly-level profits to be reaped from ever smaller amounts of creative output. The composer Verdi is notable for suddenly decreasing his creative output when copyright laws over music were introduced in 18th century Italy - his personal correspondence indicates that he simply had to work less because he was earning more from his earlier compositions. (note that he retained copyright over his own work.)

Similarly, there is the very vital and oft-overlooked influence of the creative environment which our society fosters. It could well be that freedom to borrow and build upon inspiration from other artists is a vital input to the engines of creativity, and to encourage fledgling artists. By way of anecdotal evidence I say it would not be very controversial to suggest that the last great English composer of the Baroque period was Handel, who coincidentally died around the same year copyright over music was introduced in England. After that, there is a dearth of truly top-class composers from England, right up until the 20th century. Meanwhile Germany, too preocupied with invasions and reforging of the nation to introduce copyright laws over music, went on to produced greats like Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, in a succession of creative gear-shifts which formed the romance and classical eras, all done with no copyright over music. *1

I apologise if I have been unable to express my points very succinctly, but I hope I have made given you some reasons to consider rejecting this extension of the copyright term, or at least to consider assessing it in the light of evidence over its theorised effects, rather than the deliberately misleading suppositions put forward by those representing the special interests who stand to directly benefit from the proposal at the expense of artists and of the rest of society.

With all my gratitude and respect for the work you and your fellow MEPs have done and will continue to do to resolve these issues,

Yours sincerely,

Jonathan Hartley

*1 See this February 2009 Harvard paper which notes:

"An attempt to determine the impact of legal changes on entry into composing is inconclusive. The paper shows, however, that a golden age of musical composition nevertheless occurred in nations that lackedcopyright protection for musical works."

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1336802 The paper is summarised persuasively in an online news article here:

http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20090308/1022324034.shtml

The Future of Twitter

An unpolished quickie : I'm typing over a dinner plate.

Twitter is brilliant, amazing, game-changing, revolutionary. It's winning features have been discussed to death, I don't need to analyse that here. But it has a couple of really glaring failures.

For one, it's impossibly inconvenient to reconstruct a conversation between two people if you don't follow both of them. So your friend is having a conversation with someone you don't know, and it's on your favourite topic, and you can't really meaningfully participate, nor even easily historically reconstruct the conversation. It sucks.

For two, it's single-channel only. You can't send a tweet to a subset of your followers. If you want to tweet about personal stuff to your daytime friends, and tweet about programming stuff to your geek friends, and about party stuff to your pervert friends, you have to set up separate twitter accounts for each group, and have everyone follow the appropriate sub-selection. So hard to manage that nobody does it with a granularity of greater than two. Most people don't even do it at all. So everyone's signal-to-noise is ramped way up, because the topic you follow anyone for is diluted by all the other shit going on in their life, most of which you usually couldn't give two fucks about.

Fixing both of these would be REALLY frakking awesome. Would really expose all the nebulous potential that Twitter users can see right there just beyond reach. Twitter itself won't do it - they are too afraid of souring the magic sauce that has given them such amazing penetration. So expect a Twitter-killer, sometime this year. Incorporating some sort of equivalent of chat rooms or private channels.

Funny thing is, once you do that, what you're left with starts to look an awful lot like IRC. Like the man on BSG says "All of this has happened before, and will happen again, and again, and again."

25 Things About Me

Facebook meme (login reqd). Overdue, and in the third person. Deal.

1. As a child, Jonathan used to sit and read from novels and fat encyclopaedias every day for hours on end, while licking his finger and dipping it in the family sugar bowl.

2. Jonathan is compelled to either court or ditch people he meets, purely to keep the number of active friends currently in his life a prime number.

3. In his late twenties, Jonathan took to applying neat turpentine to his scalp so that his bald head would make him look more intelligent and academic.

4. As Jonathan writes this, he is wearing his wife's jeans. They are at once too tight and too loose in various unfamiliar places.

5. Jonathan named his pet rabbit Benny, after his brother. When we found out about the skin cancer we had Benny put down straight away. It wasn't until a full eight weeks later that Jonathan finally got an appointment to have his tumour removed.

6. Jonathan distinctly remembers an innocuous seeming moment when he was twelve years old. Doing math homework. Somehow or other he knew that the answers he kept getting were wrong. He was hacking away at it, determined to figure out his mistake, when suddenly, out of the blue, he had a small realisation. He could just submit the exercise with the wrong answers intact. It wouldn't matter one iota. He would get a few questions marked wrong, but would still be in the top handful of people in the class, and that would be that. Nobody would ever know that he hadn't tried his absolute hardest. Regardless of whether one interprets it as the onset of slackerdom or as joyously claiming his own freedom of will, academically it was all downhill from that moment.

7. As a child Jonathan loved ice skating, although you'd never know it to see him now. He was put off it by an accident on the rink when aged about 12, which left him house-bound for three months, waiting for his prosthetic ear to take.

8. Jonathan's first job after graduation was R&D on systems to analyse radar echoes. As well as perennially hot-button topics like identification of 'non-co-operative' aircraft, other applications included the early detection of hairline cracks in the internal blades of jet engines, without having to actually take the engine apart. In simulating the typical damage a jet engine suffers, for a few hot sticky days in the summer of '94, Jonathan got to be the guy who tossed thawed supermarket chickens into the shrieking intake maw of various Rolls Royce low-bypass turbofans.

9. Jonathan's favourite food is Christmas pudding (in England, a dense moist alcoholic fruit cake, you wouldn't like it), although this probably has some unfair weighting in the grand scheme of comparative gastronomics, due to the traditionally prescribed infrequency of its ingestion. Next up would be good (not medium) sushi. While I'm being picky, can I also echo Douglas Adam's exhortation that tea should only be made using water which is boiling, not boiled.

10. Jonathan hypothesizes that the normal operation of the human mind's stream of conciousness must include a supervisory mechanism, to detect and inhibit recursive or cyclic patterns of thought, viz. thoughts that trigger a chain of associations causing the original thought to re-occur. It is clearly useful for us to be briefly reminded of all related concepts whenever a new stimulus hoves into view. Equally clearly, it would be disastrous if we were to mentally bounce back and forth between two or more closely related concepts, each reminding us of the other in rapid succession, ad infinitum. The chain of associations must be damped down once each related concept has been highlighted in our awareness. Jonathan further postulates that one of the effects of certain mind-altering substances, and of some mental illnesses, is to inhibit this inhibitory mechanism. In such a state, the host mind is unable to maintain a train of thought or singularity of purpose, since every step along the conceptual route is strewn with tar-pits of associations, trapping the conciousness in a vegetative trance of cyclic ideas, or else in a disturbingly repetitive cycle of behaviour. Incoherent dysfunction such as this is an outward symptom of the unblinkered mind's new-found ability to gaze, for the first time, directly upon the face of an actual, literal infinity. The depth of recursion only limited by the bandwidth of conceptual reverberation. This results in sensations of considerable awe. Both the positive and negative aspects of such a state are compounded by the common additional effect of lowering the mind's threshold required for one concept to be considered as 'related' to another. This leads to streams of conciousness in which entirely unrelated or even contradictory ideas can be subjectively perceived as not only being deeply related, but as actually being identical. Hence black is white, false becomes true, life is death, one is all and all is none. The feedback causes these thoughts to occur with great intensity, lending them a feeling of spiritually deep profundity. The subject's stereotypical inability to coherently reformulate these ideas when sober is directly due to the fact that such thoughts are, under normal circumstances, quite literally unthinkable, except for the kind of indirect and abstract representation that comes from merely describing them, as opposed to truly, deeply believing them. (Update: These ideas had clearly been stirred up of late by my being halfway through Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, a novel about addiction, related mental dysfunction and their relationship to freedom of will. Imagine my lack of surprise, then, when I reach page 1,048 (footnote 269, sub-footnote a, no joke) to discover Wallace had already written a rant of his own, very similar to this one, on 'labyrinths of reflexive abstraction', which he had clearly been leading up to for a long time. Like, say, for most of his writing career.)

11. Jonathan writes down his selections for the national lottery, but never buys any tickets. To date, he has chosen the winning numbers five times.

12. People who are into nice clothes are just pathetic beacons of insecurity. I mean, all well and good to pick a nice color of (T-)shirt off the rack if you're confronted with a rack from which to choose. Or to dress up with your friends for a particular event, which is a giggle. But if you're going to more effort than that, or if you propagate the fallacy that your industry demands it, then you're a moron and I despise everything you stand for. Ditto for expensive jewellery or nice watches or fancy cars or all the other claptrap accoutrements with which people distract themselves from a witheringly inadequate life. As I write this, I'm planning to go out this afternoon to [accessorise ]{#query .query}for a black tie event later tonight. Stabbed in the back by the dark tides and treacherous undercurrents of my own very human psyche. (Update: From my office, the windows overlook the preposterously over-dressed Nathan-Barley-esque cavorting which takes place outside a London fashion house.)

13. Jonathan enjoys stalking round the house naked when his housemates aren't watching.

14. Jonathan very much enjoys dreams of flying, and notes that for him, it requires a symbolic flapping of arms to supply a motive force, and an appropriate arching of the body to pull off manoeuvres, not entirely unlike the motions of snorkelling. Which he also loves.

15. Jonathan wishes his friends lived closer. On the same street would be nice.

16. Jonathan should have set off for work ten minutes ago.

17. Jonathan is deeply envious of people who can juggle.

18. As has been remarked upon elsewhere, there's nothing quite like a freshly-shaven scrotum. Truly breathtaking.

19. Jonathan has spent a few weeks learning about 500 digits of pi. The world record is 67,890. (Update: The challenge for you is to determine which 500 they are.)

20. Jonathan has only in recent years begun to realise that he isn't actually a very good computer programmer after all. For the time being, he consoles himself with the philosophy that understanding this is probably a necessary step on the long road to enlightenment.

21. Jonathan would like to learn how to disagree with [idio]{style="text-decoration: line-through;"}people more constructively, without putting both them and himself on the defensive. Was very impressed last week listening to Iain Simons talk about setting up the National Videogame Archive, who's response to some fairly cutting criticism appeared to be a deep and abiding curiosity. (Although when I tweeted him about the discussion afterwards he half-joked that 'of course I was boiling with rage inside') Nevertheless, this seems like a very promising approach. How to nurture it?

22. Jonathan believes that if there was ever a God or Gods, it or they have fucked right off, and don't seem to be coming back. We're on our own in this. Get over it. However, he is very willing to entertain the idea that the act of prayer or meditation may well be a helpful psychological device, you can keep doing that if you wish. Just don't dress it up with all your stupid bullshit. (Ah! Oh! I mean, I'm deeply curious about how you reached these conclusions, please share your enlightenment with me.)

23. Jonathan loves each and every one of you. Yes, even you.

24. Jonathan is beginning to realise that it is actually way more taxing to write 25 false things about himself than it is to simply write 25 things about himself. He may have to mix and match. But can you tell which ones are which, and identify the pattern in which they are arranged?

25. Jonathan is trying to come to terms with the fact that people are almost never able to consciously think in a rational way. I'm including you in this derogatory generalisation, but that's OK, because I'm including me too. This would all be fine if, as the startlingly prescient and insightful Paul Graham pointed out, ideas were still just badges used to demonstrate affiliation. But nowadays civilisation has given our ideas real leverage, such that the ideas we choose to hold now actually have some effect on the world around us, more than simply acting as banners under which social groups gather in the voting alliances of human power struggles. Which, again, would all be fine, if only we recognized all of this, and took account of it when judging the worth of our own decisions and opinions. For the most part though, we just wing it through modern life using the subconscious instinctive emotional responses that have served humankind and its animal forbears relatively well through all of prehistory. The relevance of these instincts, though, and the value systems they have bequeathed us, are now dwindling in the face of rapid changes to the world, wrought by our overwhelming dominance over our environment, and our resultantly multitudinous populations. The problems we face, both day-to-day as individuals, and those which must be surmounted for the long term survival of our species, are drastically different from any that we have previously encountered. Our normal modes of operation will not suffice. We rush forwards on behavioural inertia, destructively applying the hard-won lessons of distant millennia, which taught us that survival absolutely depends upon ruthless conquest over other species, and dominance over our environment. However, these behaviours are no longer in our best interests. In fact, they lead to a unhappiness, social instability, and needless cruelty and destruction. To break the cycle of escalating competition and subjugation as resources are depleted in an increasingly crowded world, there is only one desirable solution. A future in which everybody wins. Kindness and enlightenment spread across the globe, allowing people to happily make best use of our limited resources. This one solution is this: People are going to have to learn to be rational. This is not going to be easy. The first step on the road to wisdom is to acknowledge and embrace the fact that we are not, unaided, capable of rational thought. We need to integrate checks and balances into our decision making processes, both personally and institutionally, in order to preserve and build upon any glimmers of sanity in our outlook. There is already a name for living like this. It is called science. Science is not wearing lab coats or slavish adulation of technology. It does not mean an automatic refutation of religion or creationism or any of its other traditional foes. Science is inherently neither for nor against any particular politics, ideology or lifestyle. It simply means to humbly question ourselves and our innermost assumptions, to diligently maintain objectivity, and to let our beliefs follow tentatively wherever the evidence leads us. Those who distract from the truth by forcing their assumptions upon others, by espousing their own party or special interest group, or encouraging the adoption of deeply-held beliefs - they shall not be tolerated, and we shall remove them utterly from the decision-making process. Only with such discipline and dedication will we uncover the path to happiness, save ourselves and fulfil humankind's manifest destiny. Come, wherever you are, and kneel with me, kneel before the mighty altar of science, saviour of us all. The geek shall truly inherit the Earth.


25 Things About Me : Recipe

Once you've been tagged, write a note with 25 random things, facts, habits, or goals about you. At the end, choose 25 people to be tagged. You have to tag the person who tagged you. If I tagged you, it's because I want to know more about you (and/or I think you might go to the trouble).

(To do this, go to 'notes' under tabs on your profile page, paste these instructions in the body of the note, type your 25 random things, tag 25 people (in the right hand corner of the app) then click publish.)

You Invite Them To Yourself

Cover Art

Me and the other Pillai's are very happy to announce that the album is finally done. This is the culmination of what turned out to be over two years of hard work for all of us, and despite or perhaps because of all the barrys and the tears, in the end we're pleased as punch with the way it has turned out. It's already all over the Internets, but if you want to indulge us, you can buy a copy here.

Show last command exit value in Bash shell prompt

Stick something like this in your .bashrc file:

# display red exit value if it isn't zero
PROMPT_COMMAND='EXITVAL=$?; '$PROMPT_COMMAND
GET_EXITVAL='$(if [[ $EXITVAL != 0 ]]; then echo -n "\[\e[37;41;01m\] $EXITVAL \[\e[0m\] "; fi)'
export PS1="$GET_EXITVAL$PS1"

Command exit values other than zero are displayed in the subsequent prompt:

Check out the little red '1'

(see the little red '1').

It's the

${?#0}

bit which includes the last command exit value in the prompt, unless the value is zero, in which case nothing is displayed.

Fargo

Directed: The Coen Brothers, 1996.

Some brilliant performances, some lovely moments. Emminently watchable. Interesting point, I don't know about Fargo itself, or The Dakotas, but the fine residents of Minnesota will insist that they neither sound or act like the depicted characters, which is of course absolutely charming. (love you guys! :-)