Saturday, December 01, 2012

Leveson - a Semiotic War rages

Video: JK Rowling lays into the PM over Leveson inaction.

The mainstream media's dark night of the soul is here, but not in an isolated way. What can we say about the role of "speech" in an Internet world? One in which words are thrown around the globe in nanoseconds?

Speech is more than just opinion. Speech - or rather, the symbols of language, expressed and compressed through binary modes - is the new medium of power. Words are the new semiotic battleground. The Leveson Affair is an inevitable skirmish along the way.

In one corner, the press wields power due to its ubiquitous headline displays on every street corner. They are an unloved necessity, but their symbols are intermeshed with our bleary subconscious as we go about our daily commute.

In the other corner, authors feel themselves maligned and have their own way with words. They are loved and revered, and their own symbols have the power to shape preferences and passions across generations.

The "public eye" is up against itself. The public administration cannot avoid getting involved now, it's too late for that.

The war of the words is here.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Butterflies & Sand #4 is out

Butterflies and Sand #4 out now on Leanpub in all formats, and for Bitcoin on Bitcoin release is pay-what-you-want.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Fork & Dig It: A community veg-growing scheme

One sunny Tuesday a few weeks ago, I headed up to the Fork and Dig It site at Stanmer Park. Fork and Dig It is a veg-box scheme with a difference. (Or several differences, which I'll get to.) But I joined it when it started because I found the idea fascinating - a volunteer-driven local organic food scheme.

As Phil pointed out recently, new forms of money (and power, politics, technology, etc) only have "real" power if you can survive physically at the end of the day. While most movements organise against something, it seems rare to find a scheme which addresses one of the most important basics of life - food. Finding new models to produce food is, I believe, a key piece of retaining a survivable future.

So while my son was peacefully asleep, Paulette took me on a tour of the site, which I'll try to re-enact badly with some photos:

Protection to help with the "no dig" policy - the ground is covered and left to recover by itself

Looking down one of the polytunnels

Chillies waiting to be harvested

Crop of pumpkins and squashes (now mostly eaten)

New seedlings waiting their turn

Hard at work outside

Protection for the crops

Lettucey Christmas trees

Paulette in front of HQ

Handy pizza oven

More people hard at work 
Ready to get shipped out

The main differences to a normal veg box scheme are actually pretty fundamental. Importantly:

  1. You buy a share of the crops under Fork and Dig It, which means that some weeks you get less and some you get more. Shares are also limited (but can increase each year if needed).
  2. Growing the food is just as important as eating it - everyone is encouraged to go along to the site and help out.
  3. Also, members are welcome to join the administrative board and help out with the running of the scheme.

Over the year-and-a-half I've been getting the veg, I've noticed some intriguing changes in my approaches to food in general:

  1. Heavy rain has become a question of whether there will be food this week, rather than whether I should drive to a shop in 5 minutes.
    The unpredictability of each week's share has made me a lot more aware - aware of what the weather is doing, of what the growers are doing, of what the seasons are doing. Convenience food (the "want something, buy it" approach) is pretty good at removing our link to our environments, both geographical and social.

    This awareness also extends to a more cyclical perspective: there are the berry seasons, for example, and the squash seasons, and the pea shoots season. When something new arrives there is an air of excitement. When you feel it running out, there is a sense of satisfied loss.

  2. Funny Food is no longer spurned.

    It's not until you use all of the available produce that you start to see just how varied fruit and veg is. Supermarkets thrive on the "photogenic" nature of the ideal food "product" - a carrot must fit within the accepted colour and shape of a "generic carrot", for instance. Under mass-produced, normalised food shopping, anything "different" is effectively a social outcast.

    In reality, there are many other shapes, colours and sizes which are equally "food", strangely enough. Food does not have to fit a particular look, or even taste. This year is the first time I've ever even seen actual "egg"plants.

  3. Growing space is a technological problem.

    Or, rather, a technological-style problem that requires thinking similar to setting out any technology. There are rules to growing food - soil type, sunlight, etc. - just as winemakers and whisky distillers understand the importance of terroir. The location of polytunnels, for instance, needed to be changed due to their "unsightly" appearance - impacting on their effectiveness. Similarly, shade from nearby trees cause certain areas of the plot to be less useful.

    The knowledge base for growing food on this (relatively small) scale is massive. Knowledge sharing is massively important. Finding people with the skills and experience is just as important as distributing that knowledge to people willing to learn.

That's not to even start on anything around the social potential of the scheme (from the potential for members to share recipes and unneeded food, through to involvement with schools and charities).

This is a bit of a biased blogpost. There are, of course, lots of questions around how to improve the scheme which will be addressed in time. (Feel free to ask any in the comments below.)

But how we think about our food is likely going to be the big challenge over the next 20 years as food prices go up, and expectations of what we "should" be able to get become increasingly rigid. We need a solid platform for more sustainable, more equitable access to decent food, and Fork and Dig It is definitely a scheme to watch.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Flash Fiction Finals

Been ultrar-busy recently, so a pleasant shock to find I was a finalist in the FlashLitFiction 2012 competition at the weekend (from 8 shortlisted). "You have won second place in a Twitter writing contest" makes me think of an updated version of Monopoly, but in reality this is probably the only (fiction) writing I do/have time for these days. When I was six I wrote a massive (it seemed) journal of a big blue bus, but I didn't have bills to pay in those days.

So gargantuan thanks all round to the FLF lot for organising. Here's my runner-up entry - I meant to improve on it but never had the spare few minutes:

"Dear Son. In 9 years and 7 days you'll know this was my way of saying I love you. For now, please get on the bus. Don't look back."
And here's the winner, from @_MyNameIsFaye:
"I urinated on to the stick and we sat staring at it. If two lines appeared you would propose. If one line appeared I would leave you."
Brilliant stuff.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Coffee and the art of being unique

The other day I described friends reunited as a way to show you were different to others, and facebook as a way to show you were the same. The tug-of-war between the normal and the abnormal is coming to a head - a networked singularity that spins off into a bi-polar condition struggling to fit in while standing out.

The struggle to defend Totnes from a Costa outlet raises some useful questions. What is it to be "unique" in a world in which we are used to an economic force towards normalisation? Where should markets step in over local politics? Why is the coffeehouse so important to us, socially?

I must admit that the argument to "let the market decide" has lost favour with me in recent years. Markets aren't equal. Markets don't think long term. Markets don't care about art or aesthetic. Should we let the markets decide what our buildings look like? Or to rephrase, we let the markets decide what our buildings look like, and then we knock them down for being ugly.

There is something about "place" as a concept rather than a medium for getting about. "Place", with a capital P, can inspire people as much as simply allow them to circulate. In often the same way that people spend money to decorate their homes, public and common space is subjected to a smattering of "street art" intended to put some vim in where consumerism took over. Google know the importance of environment to inspire, and Yahoo! seem to be agreeing.

Brand Unvalue

But why should we define "art" as inspiring, and not the inherent fabric of the brands - the context - within a Place? What separates the artistic object from the artistic background, and why is one OK to leave to "the market" but not the other? What is it that makes the "colourful mixture of small and diverse shops" in Brighton's North Laine not just a tourist attraction to drive spending, but also something that makes you feel empowered as you walk through it?

Totnes has always been independent, with the Totnes Pound (part of the Totnes Transition Town project) standing as a symbol for that. The "area of value" inhabited by the Totnes Pound and a culture for independent coffee takes in much more than economic output - it includes a thirst for a sustainable set of skills (e.g. how to run a successful coffee shop), a pride in personal preference, and a form of resilience that comes from being able to marry these two together. In sum, it is about defining the value as you - whoever "you" is - rather than outsourcing value to the lowest bidder.

If early trade forced open global networks, instant communication has made these networks amorphous, like slow-cooked soup. Under instant travel, everything is everywhere and everything is the same - a muddy purple as you wash up at the end of art class. Identity becomes Identical.

The power to be unique is a vital part of existing within that system. Without an identity - a self-brand, as it were (though "brand" is too much of a prescriptive term) - the self gives itself over to this "miscellaneousness" and becomes part of the background entropy. Universal hiss, with little to do except provide a benchmark against which other entities can stand out.

Caffeine Co-construction

Constructing that identity is not in itself an independent action, and this is where coffee interjects itself. Not just coffee - tea, beer, even cheese can stand in, given the right context. But the important thing is that a physical object is involved, which is subjected to the laws of time and, in the case of coffee, thermodynamics.

If we could drink coffee instantly, why would we meet people over it?

The natural nature of the physical object - its leisurely cooling process, the interval required to taste and digest it - makes it perfect for setting a duration on a meeting. The power of coffee is to last as long as the human brain can make social and semantic sense of a conversation. A pint of beer should equally not be measured in any volumetric unit, but in conversational units.

This conversation is key to identity. Identity itself is merely a social construct. The body doesn't care about identity, just about food in and poop out. Identity happens when we realise we are surrounded by other people.

Embracing Costa or Starbucks or Nero's does little to boost the inspiration behind an Identity. This has nothing to do with the extent to which the staff go to know your name, or engage with the community. This has everything to do with you, as a customer, knowing that the Place you are sitting in is unique - in terms of brand, in terms of ambience, in terms of price, in terms of product.

In other words, coffee has nothing to do with coffee.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

A Brief Update

Where have I been recently? Oh yeah, foolishly starting up new blogs again:

Common Cask for a slightly light-hearted take on whisky.

And Bitcoin Life for a kind of newbie-esque look at using Bitcoins on a day-to-day basis.

Oh, and the second edition of Butterflies and Sand hit a few days ago, for those of you interested in script-generated e-books (plus Bitcoin version here).

Some normal-ish service maybe to resume back here soon.

Monday, May 28, 2012

What makes good storylearning? More thoughts.

After my previous post on using stories to encourage learning David Whiteland, the 'originator' (I tried to find a better word) of Planetarium, got in touch. He delved a little into the use of the story/game in educational settings, which I'd like to break into two important ideas.

1. Does a question need an answer?

David says (emphasis mine):

I thought I would mention an important aspect of the design of Planetarium that relates to its use in a classroom setting. That is: it was always the case that the puzzles themselves are not a barrier to advancement, that is, you get to the end of the story regardless of whether or not you answer any or all of the puzzles. And the contract that Planetarium makes with its reader is that in the 13th week all the answers, and their explanations, will be shown.
Contrast this to something like Perplex City (PXC), which while "officially" over, has never revealed the answers to some of its harder puzzles - so in some ways continues to exist as a mystery to be grappled with, despite nobody actively working on them (as far as I know...)

As a learner looking to engage in a particular narrative, perhaps two questions go through the unconscious before deciding whether it is worth embarking on a narrative then:

First, will "learning" get in the way of "fun"? i.e. where does difficulty outweigh an emotional tie to the story I'm following? What progress do I think I will be able to make before I've even thought about the question?

Second, does somebody, somewhere, know the real answer? And this, I think, separates "games" from "reality". Some people are driven by an urge to find an answer even if it looks like there isn't one. Others are put off by this. But - I suspect - anyone that tackles the former - unknown problems - has some faith in their ability to make progress - and they get this through the exercise of more game-like activity.

People do not learn linearly, unlike the way they (usually) read stories. It is often the case that one challenge will become clearer once a later, slightly different challenge is thrown into the mix. So being able to explore a variety of questions is vital, even if they're "positioned" linearly in terms of being revealed. In fact, perhaps a story is simply a way of revealing mysteries in manageable chunks?

2. Solving how to solve the question

Returning to the difference between questions on the known vs the unknown, it's important to remember that the answer is not always as useful to know as the way we got to it.

Learning to learn is possibly one of the things most undervalued in modern education - finding the right answer gets you the same marks, no matter if you remembered it, took a shortcut, or derived it from scratch. There is often a fear that if you fail to get a question "right", you have failed to learn.

David's second remark, he looks at how teachers might use Planetarium as a class activity, even though everyone will be able to solve different individual puzzles with different levels of ease:
There are clearly a lot of maths-related puzzles that a teacher could coax out of Planetarium, but the limitation of that is that not all of a class can be mathematically inspired. But actually Planetarium is about the passage of time, and memory, and determinism; someone even took the trouble to put a page up on which I think shows that a teacher could make a go of teaching something about structure and storytelling from that.
For me, the important thing here is the existence of a wiki - in the same way that the Perplex City wiki exists. These are examples not of people coming up with (just) the answers, but attempts to structure the information around the questions.

In other words, there is a very useful task around deconstructing the information to hand in order to work out what can be worked out. This task can be done by an individual, or even as a group - always with interesting results as to how the group organises itself in the process, I find.

This process of breaking down a complex issue into blocks and reassembling it is fundamental to problem solving in a complex world. It is a solution to a solution, a meta-answer.

As a coder, I know this is key to building systems which don't fall apart with complexity. Finding the right structure to a question is like finding the right telescope lens - once it's in place, not only can a person focus on particular parts at once, but also other people can (hopefully) pick up the pieces as well. Learning becomes a social activity, even if the answer might come from an individual in the end.


So I don't really know how to sum up this post. Sometimes answers aren't important, but the questions are necessary. Sometimes a story is just a syllabus with character development. Sometimes success isn't rewarded but failing in the right way is.

I'm not a very good storyteller, I have to admit. Maybe this is an attempt to become a better one - to stop thinking in lines, and more in a random assortment of maps. I don't know.

What do you want to learn?

(p.s. This week I also enjoyed

Monday, May 07, 2012

Three stories from the streets of Brighton

We were liberated. Leaving our street sports behind, we focused 
all our efforts on making the world a better place to read.

*Whoosh* - and he was a she. 

I opened my eyes, and felt what it was like to be a tourist attraction.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Social Nostalgia

This was originally going to be a comment on Phil's post on the Platform Wars blog, but after writing it I feel the idea has its own post legs... Please read Phil's post first for context, but in summary, he wonders if Facebook bought Instagram for the data relating people to the places they tell stories about.

Coming from a lo-fi/analogue film perspective, the whole idea of "Simulated Retro" is intriguing to me in itself too.

The creation of things which appeal to our sense of memory is currently huge. Pop songs (and mash-ups) remix old tracks, or combine current popular artists with dead ones, etc. Films rely on previously-successful franchises. Even "Prometheus" is effectively a form of simulated retro.

Facebook basically does the same thing as Instagram - they tie together the "now" (publishing content) with the "then" (content that invokes memories of a better time).

Facebook does it through social history, notionally the idea that you can reconnect to long lost friends/enemies and individually through their Timeline. It's no wonder that the Bring-Back-Wispa campaign started on Facebook, when it's basically a network for reminiscence.

Instagram does the job through special effects and graphical layers. In a time when authentically old cameras are cheap, new-old cameras are expensive, and film is either getting more expensive and harder to process, or is actively dying off, re-capturing/re-creating nostalgia on a large scale has to be a digital process.

"Social Nostalgia" - mining the past to create a twisted present - is big money.

Monday, April 30, 2012

'Butterflies and Sand' e-book

I've been playing with Leanpub recently. The nice thing about using Markdown text-files over Dropbox to publish is that it's easy to script books, which means you can do some fun things.

"Butterflies and Sand" is my first experiment. It takes the haiku I've published on Twitter from the lovely poeet service, chooses some at random, and puts them into sections with titles also taken from the haiku. 3 haiku per page, 3 pages per sections, 3 sections.

Leanpub is designed to let you update books easily, so people that buy your book also get all future updates. This means that when I re-generate and re-publish 'Butterflies...', anyone that's already bought it will get the "latest" version, with different titles and different haiku in a different order.

I like the surrealism involved here. The original idea came out of talking with James about emerging narrative about one's life somehow. By ordering my own haiku, written at disparate points in time, into new timelines, what meaning emerges from them? Is that meaning totally random and/or dependent on the reader, or is there something "fundamental" that weaves my own thoughts together throughout time?

The book is currently only $2 until "proper" release tomorrow, when I'll probably put it up to the price of a pint. I'm currently planning to make new versions available every 2 months, but that might change. Hey, it's all an experiment.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Psychogeography and the persona of place

James "orbific" Burt is running a Psychogeography Workshop on May 26th in Brighton, exploring alternative ways of, uh, exploring what we would otherwise call "familiar ground". Having seen James talk on the subject before, there's certainly plenty (perhaps infinite) techniques to draw on and content to call up.

The "narrative of place" idea is interesting not because it adds some meaning to our locality, but because it shifts it. Psychogeography reveals more than the underlying place itself - it also highlights the fact that even in everyday life - especially in everyday life - we exist within a pre-conceived narrative already.

We're so used to it that we don't notice it, but as we wander the streets, we observe them, and go on to become entangled with them. We "know" the areas with character that we like, that we trust, that we find seedy or scary or even embarrassing. We take affectionate shortcuts, or long scenic routes. We navigate the terrain with feeling, as if we're reading the hills like words on an page. Our route betrays our mood, and the story mood desires.

Everyone's locality has a different story, knitted together from their memories, personalities, and circumstances. Psychogeography lets us escape ours, and stumble across others', embedded into the urban landscape. We can reconnect with the anonymous by disconnecting from ourselves. We can take on new persona and the new senses that come with them.

Then, when we return to our own lives, the world around us has already shifted.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Descriptive Camera

Matt Richardson's Descriptive Camera takes a photo, uploads it to Amazon's Mechanical Turk service where a human describes the photo, and then the camera prints out that text description. Genius.

I love the results from more abstract shots. This example produced the text that follows, complete with spelling mistakes:

This is a faded picture of a dilapidated building. 
It seems to be run down and in the need of repirs.

In theory you don't need a specific camera to do this - just a way to get any image into the Turk, and somewhere to put the text. Maybe it could be hooked up to a webcam, or tied to a public location such as a park - I've seen similar "text photos" in galleries before, but there's a beauty in tying together an unknown author with an unseen moment in time.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Using stories to encourage learning

A wee while ago, I grabbed James' copy of Neal Stephenson's Anathem in return for a blog post on it. As it's been 3.5 years now, I figure I should probably write that post...

Of course, as time has ticked on (and my memory of the book fades), the pressure on myself to write an ever-better post has upped and upped. If I delay any more, I'll only be happy once the post outsells the Da Vinci Code, so I've opted to swap quality for a brief, focused insight.

I enjoyed Cryptonomicon by Stephenson a lot. It combined a keen description of what code is with an epic, engrossing fiction scattered through history.

Anathem is intriguing because it swaps a historical context for a mythical one, which feels like a slightly twisted, subversive parody of our own society, while keeping the same idea of introducing the reader to mathematical and physical concepts. These aren't necessary to the plot, but are explained in more detail through Appendices. Being a compulsive completionist, I duly read through these with some interest.

I don't know if it's just me being more into crypto than geometry, but Anathem didn't hold together as much as Cryptonomicon, overall. I liked the premise, I loved the ending, but there were a lot of words in there.

But the idea of using fiction to teach is pretty cool, and not done enough, IMHO.

Three other Internet-based puzzle games spring to mind in this vein. One was The Stone, which had no story but did have a series of puzzles which had to be unlocked. Each puzzle related to something - a person, or an event, or a place, etc.

The second game, Planetarium, involves a story mailed out on a weekly basis, based round a character called the "mathemagician". I think you had until the next installment to find and solve as many of the puzzles in each "chapter" as you could, but it seems to still be running so give it a go.

The third, the much larger and more obviously commercial Perplex City, involved a much more complex plot which unfolded in "real-time", plus puzzles spread across the internet and cards which could be bought. Puzzles often needed some calculation, like the Mathemagician, or some research, like The Stone, or just some good old-fashioned brute-force crypto cracking.

All three of these involve puzzles, rather than direct education, but at the same time they all encourage learning through narrative, in the same way that Anathem and Cryptonomicon do. And a good narrative is a good puzzle - it involves the reader into wondering how the information they have now will become an outcome next. The main difference with the three examples above is that it's not the author doing the puzzle-solving, but the reader(s).

Narrative gives us context, which makes it easier for us to remember why something is how it is. Applied learning involves more than just knowledge - it gives that knowledge a place, and a reason. Experience isn't about what we'be done, but what we've learnt while doing it, and maybe stories are just a simulated way of recreating this. By associating with the experience of another (a fictional character), we have all the fun of experience, but far less of the pain if it goes wrong (and if it does, we know that someone else - the author - made it happen).

What if we hooked tutorials up to TV programmes? What if school curriculums needed character development and arc plots? What if newspaper articles set brainteasers about the stats they spouted?

We have stories, all around us. And we try to force ourselves to "learn" stuff all the time. Maybe all we need to tie the two together is just a little more imagination.

(And like James, I'm happy to pass the copy of Anathem on - get in touch if you're interested.)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Riot-Skills Paradox

Various post-mortems on the UK Riots have surfaced this week. This Open Democracy post picks out the imbalance between Police power and People power as a major source of unrest, for instance.

The nice thing about blogging for a while is being able to look back over your thoughts. In 2004, I blogged something vague about the clash of cultures, which boils down to the notion that living in a culture of trade is fine if you understand how it works, or something.

In other words, trade is an interesting notion, as it relies on an assumption that you have a) something you want, and b) something you don't want. Once you lack of either of these, things get trickier.

So have we reached a point in society where we've mastered the art of (a), but not (b)? Where we have powerful advertising that can predict what you want before you know, but we cannot reliably create jobs for a generation, or for a particular demographic?

And is this where the real-yet-abstract role of the "Police" comes in? To keep this trade - which powers GDP and pensions and jobs (ironically) and political structures - ticking along, making sure that the want is fulfilled without spilling over into doing something else. Doing something else means you're not propping up GDP.

What's the difference between all those fights as sales open, and looting? Not human nature, for sure.

But the ultimate aim of consumption is different to trade. Consumption is not about swapping, but about efficiency - the evil twin to industrial efficiency that breeds outside of the factory gates. It's about bang-for-buck, and the best deal is getting something-for-nothing. Second is getting something for less than you perceive it to be. Actual worth rarely comes into it.

Social lubricant. img by johnnydapunk

The Police are a lubricant for trade - blinkers that help society to focus on making money "meaningful". Public defacement of private adverts is a no-no. Common spaces for posting free content is at a minimum. Use of public space is controlled - no lurking or gathering. Lurking in shops is fine though, as it increases the chance you'll buy something. A police line is there to channel you to the desired space. Move along, please. Till number 6 is available.

But modern life is a medium for consumption, not trade. (Or perhaps trade so one-sided, it can no longer be recognised.) Where the common spaces used to be there is merely a void of advertising images, carefully crafted and selected to be most efficient. Clone towns swap mediocre jobs for windows and windows of novelty goods. Staff discounts are a nod to the reality that you cannot really afford what you sell.

So conflict is inevitable. Hell, a certain amount of disorder is even desirable - so long as it can be tied back to a particular brand. If people are willing to actually fight over something, it has to be good, right?

To put a fairly shallow perspective on it, one way to restore "civility" is to give people the skills and opportunities to create wealth to spend. This leaves out anything moral or spiritual, but does address the immediate tension in "trade-vs-consumption". Part of that restoration requires nurturing people and places, which also requires trust.

Tightrope Walker
Erk. img by Tahbepet

But here's the paradox: How do you get people to become skilled at basic stuff while also getting them to want basic stuff? In other words, isn't there a "danger" of nurturing people so they can look after themselves, and if you do that, who will buy all the crap?

This is where we find ourselves - unable to bring ourselves to trust people, because we need them to buy stuff. Our survival -no, our definition - has come to depend on people buying stuff.

We made it cheap enough to afford at the expense of others. Then we created huge engines that could manufacture debt from nothing. Then we discovered DRM and region-encoding, all to keep people locked into a way of life.

Such an imbalance is probably a bad way to go into the future. Watch carefully as our policies are defined by getting just the right line between creating wealth, and spending it. Watch as the suspicion of creation has to be balanced by more sticks to keep that creation in check.

Technological skills will be met with greater pro-copyright laws. Networking skills will be met with greater monitoring powers. Even basic skills, as they resurge, will be met with greater requirements for qualifications and health&safety checks.

While this mistrust continues, progress will be slow and frustrating. Those caught in the system will be quickly outpaced by those outside of it, and inequality will rise. The Police will be needed more, because inequality amplifies the tension already outlined.

So I guess we're stuck.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The death of the Event

This post on "Towards a Post-Media Era" has me fascinated - partly because I don't really understand it so I'm making up my own questions in my head.

Take "The News", for example. What is "The News"? Traditional news streams are about an Event combined with a Channel, such as a newspaper or a TV station. This produces a "headline".

The "headline" is an Event. It is a thing that occurs and indeed breaks. There is an idea that this thing is real - and that competing news channels then fall over themselves to somehow discover and reveal the authentic thing to a waiting, discerning audience. The tale of The News is about objectivity.

Once you start ignoring The News, this model doesn't make any sense any more. Why not? Because it's no longer relevant - to me, as an actor. Events are only things so long as I want to consume them. If I'm not consuming them, how can they exist as a thing, any more than a Marketing Press Release "exists" for me?

Not Just News

The same can be said for all manner of other things which aren't really things, events which aren't events. The struggle for Music Charts is not one of format, but one of nowness - how do you celebrate "new" artists in an era when anything that people remember is available for instant access? What value does the current top 10 have once its boundaries blur with the all time top 10?

Similarly, democracy is rapidly moving to a post-event world. Elections are becoming merely televised milestones to mark subtle shifts in the rein-holders. But politics is increasingly detaching itself from the idea of a 4-year representational clock.

Both power and attention are becoming ubiquitous and constant. Up until now, power has even based on attention, and Publicity has been Power as a result.

History On Demand, In Context

But start to  ignore things, and Attention loses its grip. Novelty value fades into the background - but what are we left with? We still receive information, we still "know" what is going on in The News - but can The News be said to be The News if we are no longer actively consuming it? What is the difference between "News" and "Continual Information"? Can a 24-hour news channel ever consist of something "new"?

This blur of information is fascinating. This ubiquitous, paradoxical state of being between knowing and not-knowing - but also between caring and not-caring. News becomes contextual - we find something out when it becomes relevant, rather than being told something is relevant when it happens. Can we catch up with 5-year-old news in the same way we suddenly "discover" 20-year-old music? History on demand?

And in politics, will I only care who won my local election once I need to integrate with national power on a particular theme? In other words, why should I care now when it's more efficient to care when I need to care?

And how does this change the tools we use - the media we currently use to find out about things? Will the "Archive" become more important than the home page? Will "Provenance" matter more than urgency and immediacy? And how can we define that Archive before we know the context we'll be accessing it from?

Slowly, "The News" should be replaced by "Developments". Everything will happen in context, and everything will be Historical before (or as a result of) being reported. News will give way to a steady, bi-polar landscape of Relevance and Apathy, to be ignored until the time and the person is right.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Putting the dead and the virtual on trial

Moscow plans to put dead lawyer on trial according to the FT.

This sounds like one of those bizarre stories you might see in the Fortean Times, involving an old Russian mystic and a seance. In reality, it's more surreal than spooky.

From what I can tell, the lawyer in question, and the company he worked for, accused the Russian Police of tax fraud. He was then charged and locked up in pre-trial detention, where he died from "lack of medical attention" (to put it mildly). A human rights group found the charges against him had been fabricated. His family and the company are now raising charges against Russian authorities, who in turn are threatening to still take him to trial.

Is anything about this actually "real" any more? Or is this some crazy future vision, where the truth can be easily obscured in a battle of finger pointing, redactions, threats and virtual references?

Can you sue a company? A dead person? A philosophy?

The Wikipedia page on Magnitsky explains the whole thing in far more intricate and depressing detail. Is it actually preferable to live in a concocted world than to face up to details like these?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Why coding is freakin' awesome.

Coding is for geeks. It means staring at a screen, by yourself, to make something that spits out boring drivel. Coding is hard and antisocial. Leave it to the geeks, right?


Well, kind of right, kind of wrong. Wrong enough to be interesting, anyway.

Coding is just using words to make computers do stuff for you. 

That's all. Coding isn't hard, or clever. It's just a little esoteric - you just have to know the right words, and where to say them, and open sesame - power at your fingertips. It's a bit like learning a language. But one for a country filled with friendly robots.

"Coding" can be a single word, or a simple sentence - the power comes from context. That simple instruction can kick machinery into action that do incredible, world-wide things. Think of every button you press on our phone - one click can send an e-mail or a message to anyone on earth. Code is weird like that.
Awesome #1: Coding means Cheating.

On one level, coding is cheating. it's a way of getting something else to do the hard work, all those repetitive tasks involving sitting, clicking and checking stuff on a screen for hours and hours and hours. CODERS HATE THIS AS MUCH AS EVERYONE ELSE. The only difference is that coders have other ways of doing it.

You know those times you do basically the same thing to 100 slightly different things? Coders have a nice little looping tool for that. In fact, they have dozens. They have ways of checking what those things are, and what to do depending on what type of thing it is. All stuff you might otherwise have to do in your head while you could be doing something more interesting, or more fun.

(Actually, this is probably why you don't get taught to code. Doing things the hard way is "educational", or something.)

This is also why geeks love to party - because they're usually "doing" something else at the same time. Or their code is, anyway.
Awesome #2: Coding means New Stuff.

On another level, coding is inventing new stuff that you can then play with. Code lets you hook things together that have never been hooked together before: hardware, software, information, organisations - and most importantly, IDEAS. 

Ideas are cheap, they can spring up at random, inopportune moments. But they can solve problems, ask questions and create new worlds. But without a way to turn ideas into something practical, they remain fantasies.

Did you ever write a story? That's fun, but in a one-way way - sure, you can read your own story back, but it's better to give it to someone else. 

Once you've coded something, you can interact with it, just like anyone else can. What you've created is separate to you. It's ALIVE. If it breaks, you can fix it (or not). But check it out - once code is running, it's spookily our of your hands.

This is so immensely awesome that many people make lots and lots of money from it.

So there.

If you don't like it, that's fine. Many people don't code, and still enjoy life. But I just wanted you to know. Coding isn't scary, and it's not dull. And robots will take over the world.