Brilliant and Tragic

Susan was on the phone to the phone company the other day. She couldn't verify her identity as the account holder, because the phone service in question was actually bought by me, as a gift. Because of this, the CSR declined to give her any information, not even publically available stuff like their customer service phone number. When gently quizzed about the rationale behind that, the CSR responded with a newspeak-laden pitch about the heightened-security society in which we live. It was like that moment in Fight Club, when Norton suddenly realises "Ah! I geddit! You're a moron."

Unfortunately, our society consists of CSRs like this. They are the people we depend on. They cook our meals, they haul our trash, they connect our calls, they drive our ambulances. They guard us while we sleep.

And they are being brainwashed by the current climate of terrorist hysteria, Kafka-esque security checks, idiotic travel restrictions, the TSA's Constitution-free zone, into believing that a security state (and an ineffectual one, at that) is a good and desirable thing. It just makes me want to break down and weep and go and live on an island somewhere.

And then - my ray of hope - every so often you find things like this...


The Hidden Layer

The Hidden Layer

by Chris Nordberg, 2012

Another iPhone read, selected because it's one of the handful of books downloadable through the community resources accessed by my hacked phone's built-in installer. This lack of discernment on my part was a bit of a mistake, because I didn't like this one much. It feels so much like a young author's first writing that I want to be encouraging, but that's patronising, so I shall force myself to be a little mean.

The story introduces a couple of interesting ideas, but they don't really have sufficient depth to really make the read compelling, as I was constantly distracted by foolish characters who are impressed by the most superficial of things, with child-like attitudes to sex, and descriptions of corporate operations and politics as though imagined by someone who has never actually seen them in operation. It all just feels hopelessly naive. By the time it gets into ruthless killers and Machiavellian masterminds, the author is out of his range.

Rating: 2/10 - Feels like I wrote it.

Update: For years afterwards, I have felt guilty about this scathing review, mortified by the idea that the author stumbled across it and was genuinely upset. I'm so sorry! It's me, it's not you. You've written a novel, of that you should be proud. I've written a crappy blog, of which I should be ashamed.

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive


by Jared Diamond

A brilliant tome from the same bloke who penned Guns, Germs and Steel. This time he examines the flip side of the equation - what characteristics cause civilisations to fail? From the statues of Easter Island to the Mayan Ruins, the world is replete with the abandoned relics of cultures that collapsed. Diamond examines seven examples of societies whose members all died or dispersed, sometimes over a period of just a few years, leaving their hauntingly abandoned habitats, looking for the common factors which lead to their demise. The implications for our own culture are serious. Do we have more in common with these failed civilisations, or with the ones that exhibited long-term stability? Will our own skyscrapers one day stand as hauntingly abandoned monuments amongst jungle or desert? It's a serious message, and the immediate conclusion looks a little grim, as our rabid consumerism and resource consumption is anything but steady-state. However, Diamond finds a silver lining, presenting his conclusions as a message of hope. We are the first civilisation to have a global reach, and to have knowledge of ancient societies that have gone before, so while the stakes are higher than ever, so is our ability to forsee the consequences of our actions, and to change our course before it's too late.

Rating: 8/10 - a fascinating and important read.

Ah... the strangeness of chance

Milk and cookies. Browser cookies to be precise. Not nutty or chocolately, but definitely subject to the vagaries of fate. Take this blog entry. The more astute may detect a hint of the hirsute in this entry - and all down to that one strange little cookie...

Othello : Donmar Warehouse

Chiwetel Ejiofor's Othello

Another of my occasional theatre trips inspired by the Libster, and jolly lovely it was too. Being a bit of a cultural dolt, I've neither seen nor read Othello before, so while everyone else was basking in the familiarity of well-crafted dialog, I was alternately on tenterhooks or else all choked up, bless.

Chiwetel Ejiofor (left), known to me only through his part in the geekspasm of Serenity, presented a warm and charismatic Othello, which served to highlight his later descent into jealousy and madness. The treachery of Ewan McGregor's Iago seemed unjustified within the context of the play itself - is it to be assumed that Iago is motivated by simple racism, or something more explicitly framed which passed me by? Nevertheless, McGregor's Shakespearean debut seemed to me to be a compelling performance.

I enjoyed the director's use of light and shadow to represent various locations, as well as the acoustics, which augmented several of Iago's scheming monologues with an imperceptible bass rumble, which gradually rose to a ominous distant roaring, as though the engines of his inner demons were fit to burst through the walls. I also fancy I caught changes in the properties of a very gentle electronically injected reverb on the actor's voices, to model the auditory properties of each scene's environment, which provided subtle but deeply suggestive cues as to the size and type of each setting, from small stone rooms, large wooden halls, through to outdoor environments deadened by foliage.

Rating: 8/10 - Hurrah I loved it!

National Portrait Gallery Photographic Portrait Prize 2007


A special highlight, as is so often the case, is the image featured in the exhibition's promotions, Sophia (left), by Billy & Hells, one in a series of photographs that emulates the type of lighting effects favoured by Dutch golden age painters.

Other than that though, the exhibition left me somewhat flat, consisting pretty much exclusively of the usual crop of east-European peasants; sullen, pubescent girls in various states of undress; and of course Sir Ian Mckellen. I guess it's inevitable, but it's a shame to turn up to an exhibit, especially one as small as this, only to find that you've already seen the best bits on the posters on the tube.

Rating: 4/10 - the prints on the tube were bigger, too!

Disastrous UK Government IT Projects

I recently penned the following for my local No2ID mailing list (the Camden & Islington branches)...

For what it's worth, I worked briefly on one of the failed Government IT projects mentioned in the Guardian article referenced on this list a couple of days back. I just wanted to share a brief perspective of that, in case it's useful or interesting for anyone contemplating the possible woes of the Government's national ID card and database projects...

The consultants on projects like this have tailored their behaviour to maximise profits in the environment they find themselves in. That is to be expected - so long as they operate within the law they can be neither blamed for that nor expected to change of their own accord.

The stratagems they use to maximise profits include a thorough sabotage of project technical deliverables, such that projects appear to make progress towards achievable goals, thus avoiding cancellation, but in actuality will require endless rounds of deep rework and extra funding in order to deliver a system actually does anything useful.

Every extra pound spent in this way is an extra pound billed to the client (the Government), and every pound billed earns markups and ongoing overheads. So for the contractors, the way to make the most money is to drag the project on for as long possible, spending as much money as they can along the way, without ever actually delivering anything that works. The results of incentivising contractors this way speak for themselves.

Of course, if such abuses were too explicit, that would give the client a means to sue and wriggle out of contracts, jeopardising future income. Fortunately for the contractors, the process of producing large (or even medium-sized) IT systems is difficult and murky enough for the desired disruption to be practically self-organising, given the correct environment for incubation. Badly-judged technical architecture, addiction to proprietary standards, wishy-washy technical leadership, and good old-fashioned hiding of incompetence using imaginative misrepresentation, these will pretty much do the job. Black-ops meetings in smoke-filled rooms are undoubtedly only used as a last resort, and did not, during the period of my employment, produce any requirement to directly solicit the services of my own pay grade as a saboteur.

Presumably this state of affairs persists because Government actors are not being held accountable for the success or otherwise of projects under their control. If that were to change, then the Government could possibly improve the situation by lowering the barriers to entry for competing IT consultants and contractors, and showing some negotiating guts to restructure the way contractors are rewarded, thus introducing some real competition amongst technology providers to deliver something that actually works.

That this hasn't already happened says to me that Government actors are ensnared in some sort of corruption - by which I don't necessarily mean an explicitly dishonest kind. The situation could charitably be interpreted to include what I term 'passive corruption' - the kind of poorly aligned incentives or incompetence which leads to similar outcomes as traditional corruption. (For more thoughts on how passive corruption of this kind affects society, see the excellent writings of Lawrence Lessig.)

While it's in all our interests for this situation to get fixed in order to improve our Government's effectiveness, I see no hope that this will happen soon. Fortunately for No2ID this sad state of affairs provides us with the ammunition that the ID card and database projects are unlikely to work well, and are likely to cost significantly more than current projections, which I agree should be exploited as has been outlined adroitly by others, on this list and elsewhere.

Avoiding Ripoff Wii Bundles

Naked Wii

Over Christmas a friend was looking for somewhere with Wii's in stock. I saw a local Game outlet had some, but I discovered they only had them bundled with three or more (rubbish) games, for an extra eighty quid over the RRP. Twice I returned, to find the same.

I object to bundling like this, which reduces consumer choice in the games they buy, and is a flagrant rip-off, taking advantage of customers struggling to find a Wii, which has consistently sold out ever since it was launched.

It turns out that Nintendo object to bundling too, since it artificially increases the Wii's asking price, undermining the console's position as cheapest current-gen offering. Their official policy is to reduce shipments of Wii's (read: boxes full of cash) to infringing retail outlets.

With this in mind I discovered that, even after assuring me they had none available, the store management and staff would then practically fall over themselves to press an unbundled Wii into my hands for RRP, as soon as I started asking for the store number and manager's name.

The bastards.

Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography


I read through this to assess the iPhone (many thanks to the generosity and resourcefulness of a certain Mr Smithson) as an eBook reader, and found it surprisingly good - certainly the best device I've tried to date, surpassing even the silky-screened PSP. The text is clear and relaxing (better looking than the hurried mock-up I Gimped together on the left), page turning or scrolling through chapters are both unobtrusive and highly functional. The whole experience was very pleasing - I could read comfortably off the iPhone for hours on end. I'm reminded of the post I wrote back in '98: "I'm going to try out this new thing called Napster..." The revolutions begins here - let the book-burning commence.

As for the words themselves, they were a very entertaining read. Mr Franklin is evidently a singularly able individual who led an interesting life full of achievement. I'd never before taken stock of just how very industrious he must have been to straddle so many spheres of influence, a fact which he misses no opportunity to remind us of. His every week is seemingly filled with some new scheme for relentless self-improvement, impressing local dignitaries with his perspicacity and diligence, or else compiling lists of virtues, so that he might regularly apprise his behaviour in their light. I noted with wry amusement the suggestion by a friend of his to add 'humility' to his list, of which Franklin reports "I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it." Quite.

However, it is mean spirited of me to begrudge him that trifle in light of his achievements, and in particular, the spirit of honesty and justice with which he undertakes every aspect of his life. I'm a firm believer that the winners write history, and have on more than one occasion pondered the lofty ideals of the founding fathers as a superb marketing spin to popularise an act of treason. However, whether it was spin or not, the lofty ideals stuck, bequeathing us the better part of the disposition of modern America, for which the Western world owes him an unending debt of gratitude.

Rating: 8/10. Hoorah Mr Franklin!