Wednesday, October 16, 2013

US: The Hollywood state

So America's finally sorted itself out and come to an agreement and raised the debt ceiling. Etc etc.

Something about the "crisis" feels weird though. But not a weirdness in the political crisis itself - more in how we react to it.

Something about the air of last minute salvation, something about quotes like "Brink of disaster". Something about comparing it all to a nuclear bomb.

This episode of US politics has edged rather too unnervingly toward "Hollywood politics". In which the Earth (read "North America") faces a major crisis, and a few brave fellows (always fellows) manage to overcome the odds at the last moment to save the day. It's stock stuff.

But should it be stock stuff for the major functioning of a global democratic power? Sure, there's contingency plans and nobody really thought it wouldn't get resolved, but is this how politics will be done now? Through blackmail? Through impending disaster? Wait until "Debt Ceiling: The Movie" hits your torrents.

Democracy deserves better. Getting into such a state - and having populations accept it en masse - is great for news-sellers, but really shouldn't become a status quo. Two-party systems are becoming routed around. Fake and foreseeable disasters are a pretty shit way of trying to put some life back into them.

I've been watching what's going on with interest. But the more I watch, the more I'm pretty sure I don't like being one of the uncredited actors that doesn't make it out alive.

Friday, October 11, 2013

More on (moron) house prices

In the FT, Martin Wolf nails it on support for house prices, ending with:

"A deregulated and dynamic housing supply could spell financial and political Armageddon. The victims of this vile system are the young and upwardly mobile, who are either unable to buy at all or are trapped in a lifetime of debt serfdom. The political genius of the scheme is that it appears to help these hapless victims, while in fact helping the usual suspects: banks, homeowners, Nimbys and, if it creates another housing boom, the government. 
Ministers also pretends the guarantees are a purely temporary arrangement. Nothing is less likely: it is the temporary that endures. The government has increased its commitment to frighteningly expensive housing. It is a trap from which the UK may not now escape."

While the government insists on urgently rolling out increased measures to prop up prices, something feels wrong. As in, there's something we're not being told. The urgency itself doesn't match up to the reasons shunted into the limelight. (Really? Politicians care about helping out a generation who just missed out? Yeah right.)

To me it feels like there's a real need to keep house prices propped up for some other purpose. Given the amount of leverage banks are placing on their capital, and the risk of that capital disappearing, it makes sense that there's a certain "repayment momentum" that needs to happen - i.e. cashing in all that future debt that borrowing is based on.

I admit I'm probably biased by being in the middle of reading Planet Ponzi by Mitch Feierstein. But growth through debt (or "investment" if you like) clearly requires money to come from somewhere. So if future costs are going up faster than money coming in, you need to get more money in. That can be done by either getting more sources of value, or by making those sources more valuable in themselves.

In the case of house prices, are both of these being done at the same time?

My guess is that banks have bet on house prices going up, as a source of payback. That translates into loans to builders, and loans to buyers. To keep the prices going up, the builders need to get their money back. To do that, people need to want the houses being built.

Negative equity and unsold property are both a form of devaluation. And if your business model depends on future growth, then devaluation doesn't offer less profit, it undercuts your entire method for making money.

The sceptic paranoid in me says state-owned banks like HBOS are involved in a vicious circle of betting on property, and pumping cash into that property. Good luck with that.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Everyday spies - postmodern surveillance

As the tendrils of the NSA continue their silent attempt at infiltration, it's a whirlwind to understand exactly what the fall-out of Snowden's "revelations" are. I can see myself flitting between and falling into 3 different responses, each of which may be just as dangerously fallacious as each other:

1. Carry on as normal. Normal people don't care about all this. They just want to share photos and comment on each other's kids. Nothing to hide, etc. I'm still blogging via Google's, aren't I?

2. Shrug and say "told you so". As a self-labelled, semi-practicing cypherpunk it's tempting to think you were working on the assumption that everything is surveilled anyway. Paranoia is the best form of defence. Be careful about what you leak.

3. Get outraged. I was right - but it's even worse than I thought! Cypherpunk efforts need to be redoubled. Everything needs to be self-hosted, resilient, and strongly-protected. Just in case. Be angry, be very angry, that there are a bunch of people who think they own you.

In fact, simply falling into one - or any - of these is a mistake. Why? Because they all follow the same model - the idea that state security is at one extreme, and everyday users (using commercial services) are at the other. That there is a difference, a very thick line, between the worlds of global security and funny cats.

This is an outdated model based on antique technology. It is a steampunk model - romantic, but useless in reality. The world has changed too much.

The reality is this: we are in an era of economic power struggles. Right now, a lot of people are desperate to keep control of the world. And this entails maintaining a population happy to exist in an economic-power mindset to support this - people that fit into a specific notion of how economics should work, and how "value" should be transferred.

The very notion that you are at the "bottom" or the "middle" or the "top" of society. That you fit into a class that has ever finer degrees of hierarchical granularity. That as you grow, you move upwards. All of this is essential to producing that economic-power model.

As we have moved into a more linked society, this hierarchy starts to break down - the segmented society (public/private/state/individual/commons) we like to categorise everything into has little meaning. Companies know everything about us. States know everything about companies. We know too much and yet too little about each other.

There is no "hierarchy" that you can make progress against, only a mesh of platforms and power within which you live your life. All those forces acting on you are there deliberately. Every time you wish you could afford something. Every time you get angry something goes wrong.


Economic power.

We can't think about global security in a James Bond way any more because 'spying' is now so integrally woven into the fabric of what we do, from CCTV cameras to rubbish bins, from search engines to loyalty cards. "Prosperity" is in the early, yet all-encompassing, stages of depending on this inherent level of surveillance to survive. The economic power model would be "inefficient" without it.

This is the fundamental paradigm shift we - as individuals, but also as communities, as companies, as organisations, as families - will struggle to understand, partly because we're not used to it, partly because it changes all the time, and partly just because we don't want to think about it. It's confusing and scary and unromantic.

But it's a model which will increasingly affect every single hour of every single day, from the weather when you wake up, to how you get to work (if you go to work), to what your political opinions are (if you have any), to what phone you buy and how much cooking you do. It will affect where you live, whether you have children, whether you get married, whether you have a pension.

It will affect whether you smile.

I wish democracy could find a way of circumventing this level of invasiveness, but I doubt "democracy" is a thing in itself any more. In our romantic view of the world, democracy is set apart from Politics, a lone bastion of philosophical standing. In reality, all we have is a handful of lack-lustre parties, an antiquated voting system, and insufficient openness or effort for anything to be truly influenced. Democracy is dead.

I'm not sure what's left in its place. Reality, perhaps. The idea that we don't really need any of these networks after all - we got sucked into them because we thought they were safe, convenient, somehow better. But maybe we just didn't think that one through.

Maybe it's time to do less. Care less about the stuff we thought we cared about. Stick two fingers up at things like "entertainment" and "pineapples". Ignore Instagram. Find stuff just by asking about. Do some weeding on a massive scale.

The whole point about weeding is not that you're left with empty ground. It means you're left with potential for something else - something you really want, something you actually care about and can actually use.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Can the UK domain censor scheme be hijacked?

Oh God - TorrentFreak has been accidentally blocked by Sky - probably due to their IP being listed in a blacklisted domain. As comments in the article point out, this is a massive opportunity loophole in how the system works. If this is how it works, all it would take is for a blocked domain to point themselves at whatever IP they want and any websites hosted there would fall off the net.

If it works like that, I'd thoroughly expect this to hit in the next week - over the weekend even, when everyone's catching up with news and email. I'm guessing the ISPs have some kind of whitelist in place though, which trawls "big" sites and auto-adds them. Guessing.

Let's find out.

Personal Infrastructure

Ongoing. The question - if I map out everything I use, what it depends on, and what it hooks up to, does it make it easier to modularise, and to see what the priorities are? Maybe up/down are links, left/right are forms of resilience. By exploding them into parts, can we create links between them that didn't exist previously?

Could the same be done with larger infrastructures (without descending into self-destructive Politics - why would you tie a single pot of funding and a single organisational structure across all modules? Can Local Authorities and "generic" branded movements really survive?)

10 years old

I didn't realise that this blog was 10 years old last month. I'm not really sure what to make of my early posts. It was a different time. I blogged a lot more. And most of the links are broken now.

Still thinking about house prices though.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Rrrrrrrrroll animated gifs

Something mysteriously, spookily entrancing about the rrrrrrrroll animated gif tumblr. Something about the way you know they will carry on going round and round forever even after you close your laptop and the internet has hit binary death.

The Fragile City

Over on the bitcointalk forums, people are (semi-seriously) talking about buying up run-down houses in Detroit. It's a no-goer, natch, but among $30 houses and tax discussion, some of the ideas and links provided in the thread really hit home. Right now, Detroit seems to be as close to a 'raw', skeletal leftover of a city as you can get.

For instance, this link runs through some crazy facts about Detroit. Around 50% illiteracy rates. 60% of children in poverty. And $11m a month comes to the city from casinos. It's gone all Bladerunner - anyone who can afford to get out has done.

What's amazing is how the decline and death of an urban centre differs in Modern World - it's not like cities haven't always come and gone as external factors force major shifts. But has the nature in which that death is dragged out fundamentally altered? There might be a certain "evolutionary" side to towns and cities flailing as there natural strengths no longer have any grip. But as financial manoeuvring has become the global business "model", the link between strengths and survival is becoming less and less clear.

Too many looking glasses, all being seen through dimly, so that one is never quite sure what's glass and what's the subject.

Looking through a list of other cities which could fall, and some which already have, should we be seriously reconsidering the role of cities? As more of the world's population flocks to the intense networking available in squeezed urban life, is there a need to seriously pick apart the physical, social, and economic building blocks that are currently muddied together under single administrations? What form of resilience do we have if living standards are so tightly coupled to financial vehicles? What will our cities look like in 30 years' time if infrastructure has to compete with shifting demographics?

Monday, August 05, 2013

The art of weeding

It hasn't had much traffic, but 'The yin and yang of weeding' is possibly one of the most important blog posts I've ever written.

There is an art-which-is-not-art and an effort-which-is-not-effort to produce emptiness which is not empty.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

New haiku and the ups/downs of modular flows

My seasonally-regenerated book of haiku chaos, Butterflies & Sand, has just had its summer edition released here.

If you've not seen it before, B&S is a randomised collection of all my haiku ever on Twitter - a PHP script (github here) was scraping the tweets from, a haiku site which is currently sadly defunct. The script then picks a random largeish word for chapter titles, and adds in random images from a selection made since the previous edition. It's been running quietly along for a few months now (ie. somehow I manage to find the time to run the script and publish the results.)

The whole thing was intended to be an exercise in 2 things:

1. A slightly-surrealist approach to re-mixing and re-playing content which is developing in a fragmented way over time. I got fascinated by the idea that haiku came from somewhere - moments of strange clarity, interspersed among busy daily life. Tying the moments back together again seemed like a natural thing to do.

2. A technical experiment in modular delivery - the production of B&S depends on several interwoven services all built by others, and all available for free. Twitter, Dropbox, and Leanpub are all tied together through some fairly simply (and admittedly badly-written) PHP code. I still think it's cool that badly written code can make an actual e-book. disappeared about 3 months ago, just after the last edition was published. I've actually been meaning to take it over and run it on my own server, and may still do so. But it highlighted the second point above - that modules are both annoying, but also great.

On the one hand, relying on several different services makes it more likely that a single one will break/disappear. How the rest of the flow reacts to that depends on its position in the system - for B&S, for example, the flow of information is pretty unidirectional (Twitter > > PHP > Dropbox > Leanpub) so there's not much resilience when one of these drops out.

But on the other hand, wasn't the only way to get hold of my haiku. After an evening's hacking, I had a separate PHP function to parse the download of my Twitter archive. (Fortunately I'd got hold of the code behind so could replicate a lot of the text processing.) There was a natural split in the code between getting haiku, and randomising them. Extending the code to use other sources would now be a lot easier.

I'll be coming back to this sense of modularity in future posts, totally unrelated to haiku. It's a perspective that's working its way into my daily life more and more - the idea of small components that can interact, may break, but that can be easily updated or replaced, like replacing the switch on a vacuum cleaner instead of the whole thing.

Thinking about life as a system - as components and flow - should lead to more resilience, and possibly even more automation alongside. But more, as they say, to come.

Monday, June 10, 2013

State of play(ing)

All quiet? Yes and no. All busy - too busy to write blogs. But busy enough to have stuff to write about. The blogger's dilemma? Maybe.

Recently I've been...

Getting a Raspberry Pi set up - initially to take over from Google Reader using tt-rss, with encouraging results - drop me a line if you want an account. Next I'm looking at getting to run the code which has recently been taken down. And seeing if I can run Octopress to self-host some blogs. And run a DLNA server.

Hacking a Piratebox again for a local wifi/community portal project, also with encouraging progress to the point where I can start hacking HTML instead of Linux network config scripts. Still so much to do, but it's a fun project.

Musing about personal infrastructures and sustainable energy. More to come on this, but suffice to say I have a million tiny devices, and figure there must be a better way to use them all than just to buy stuff with. Hoping this will be the next blog post.

Getting back into Flickr a bit - and with it, a bit of street photography after watching this documentary on Saul Leiter. Here's a result on some old slide film in an old Yashica rangefinder camera which is currently my favourite:

Reading a lot about Agile stuff.
Drinking a lot of tea.


Sunday, June 09, 2013

The uncanny entertainment valley - is the news a game world?

Nice sentiment via Interconnected:

"Nintendo are cowards for not making a smartphone with Animal Crossing as the interface."

Intriguing because it puts information into a realm that's not quite ambient info, not quite characterful info, not quite a game, not quite a world.

To enter into a game world is to escape the real world - even playing an ARG is mostly an exercise in trying to work out what the boundary between the two is. We like reality to be real and stories to be unreal.

So would a game world that intends to deliver real world invitation be a game, or an interface? Or more importantly, would you be there to play (the unreal), or to know (the real)?

I'm keeping this deliberately dichotomous not because I think such a setup is inherently so, but because I think that's what we've trained our modern brains to do: that is, decide if we are being "real" or not. Confusing the two scares us.

This isn't just limited to gaming though. I'm often addled by the idea that people watch the news for its own sake, for example. Once the news becomes something to consume without practical value - ie. once you consumer it more for emotional value rather than to inform actions - then it is, I think, closer to "entertainment". In the same way we watch horror films in order to be scared, not to (in general) work out what we would do in the same situation. (Although perhaps there's a lot of overlap.)

So are we watching the news with "entertainment/game/unreal" intent, or with "find out useful information" intent? What makes us choose?

And when do we choose to play games with an intent to effecting the real world?

Sunday, June 02, 2013

This car...

This car is one of my first Matchbox cars. It is stamped 1979, it is as old as I am. It is a Porsche 928 - Superfast no. 59, patent no. 983558, reg plate no. MHH 30V.

It was amazingly Made in England, and has an all-metal body and chassis, with plastic windows, interior, and wheels. It has two doors that open, and that even now close with reassuringly snappy action. The doors have "R" and "L" stamped on them.

It had paintwork flaking off and a crack in the rear windscreen. It whooshes along smoothly and rocks slightly from side to side if you push it.

It has been in an attic for years, and is now being looked after by my son.

This car still runs.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013


I enjoyed reading Christy Wampole's The Essayification of Everything. It felt affirmative in a "idle musing is positive" way - too often I end up writing blog posts that ramble on, and abandon them when I feel I've not made the point I set out to make originally. But Wampole puts forward a history and case for writing as meditation, and self-interrogation, and ultimately perhaps, a non-rational exercise. A defragmentation of the mind. A surrealist pursuit, even when the output makes perfect sense.
When I say “essay,” I mean short nonfiction prose with a meditative subject at its center and a tendency away from certitude. Much of the writing encountered today that is labeled as “essay” or “essay-like” is anything but.
These texts are not attempts; they are obstinacies. They are fortresses. Leaving the reader uninvited to this textual engagement, the writer makes it clear he or she would rather drink alone.
The essayist is interested in thinking about himself thinking about things. We believe our opinions on everything from politics to pizza parlors to be of great import.
Without the meditative aspect, essayism tends toward empty egotism and an unwillingness or incapacity to commit, a timid deferral of the moment of choice. Our often unreflective quickness means that little time is spent interrogating things we’ve touched upon. The experiences are simply had and then abandoned.

 Once again, I've been thinking about (re)surrecting the Empty Tech meme. I'd like a kind of on-going series of reflections, fitting in between overly-masculine argument and idle blogging. Maybe the Leanpub model of re-iterative publishing would fit well into a "cumulative" essayist approach?

Friday, May 10, 2013

Cake as Currency

Why are we so passionate about our tea and cakes in Britain? Some recent tweets have verged on the edge of zealotry, and led me to jokingly suggest cake as the next grass-roots currency.

But what if I wasn’t joking? Or rather, why has cake succeeded in capturing the hearts and bellies of communities where alternative and supportive economies have failed? I set out to turn cake into a gooey financial bake-off. Possibly with semi-soggy results - but then I'm neither a banker nor a baker.

To explain...

l. Anyone can make cake

...or at least try to make it. The lady downstairs from me, who half-inspired this post, can apparently make eight cakes in a day. Eight?! It generally takes me a couple of weeks just to work out what I need to buy for a Victoria Sponge. But we can both make cakes. We cannot both create money. Baking makes us equal, but some bakers are more equal than others.

2. Everyone likes cake

Unlike traditional fiat money, cake definitely has an inherent value of its own, ie, it's yummy.

Too many "local" currencies are concerned with building a more restrictive version of mainstream money without providing a real incentive to switch to them.

Cake gets around this problem by being yummy, and therefore desirable. But at the same time, not all cake is yummy to all people. Coconut cake, for example, can be a deal-breaker. Within cake, there is variety, and this variety leads to a form of network-dependent semi-fungibility - that is, the value of your cake becomes relative to who you know.

This is vital to remember when trying to encourage a diverse (and therefore resilient) group: "a good selection of cakes is a must."

(One can imagine tastes within a group converging and emerging over time-an evolutionary model of local cake currency, maybe. Let the coconut wars commence.)

3. Cakes are too big to eat by yourself

There are stories of cakes being eaten entirely by a single person - but even then, such a feat is often seen as a punishment rather than a reward (see, for instance, Bruce Bogtrotter in Dahl's Matilda).

Cakes are inherently a currency for the networked community, one which values and thrives on sharing instead of hoarding. Each cake represents a collective memory, a group taste preceding groupthink. And the extent of that network depends only on the effectively-infinitely divisible nature of the cake. Even one "crumb" (once thought of as the smallest unit of cake possible) has been seen to be chopped and chopped, in a vain tempt to avoid the social stigma of being "the finisher".

Indeed, the cake and the network are one and the same.

4. Cake goes off

The world is riddled with looming economic questions. As production fails to kickstart, lower and lower interest rates have been offered, to the inevitable point of major institutions mulling negative rates. Bitcoin, an emerging digital money, is built on a deflationary model over many years.

But cake beats them all, with rapidly-deflationary value - a couple of days at best, maybe a week of you're lucky/careful. Cake demands to be either eaten or given away now. Like a mayfly, it must go all out to attract someone, its soul mate, in order to fulfil its very-raison d'etre. "Time and cake wait for no man."

This is absolutely vital. Weak connections (which cake runs through, cementing as it goes) are unstable and uncertain, but there's a good chance you may re-encounter a fellow caker not immediately, but in a week, a fortnight, or a month.

This limited but definite gap in time - not instant, not eternal - is where cake comes in. You have enough time to eat the cake, and you still remember it next time you meet someone again. As cake expires, it becomes a short-term memory, and short-term memories are what bind weak connections together.

5. We learn to make more

So at the end of the (long) day, the cake is gone. We had our cake and we ate it - or we gave it away. Or it went off.

Either way, no more cake.

But we want more. We have fallen in love not with cake, but with the very essence, the "Network Cake". We have been drawn into #bigcakesociety.

And so we become inspired. We flick through cooking books, buy utensils, we ask so-and-so for their recipes, and so on. We become bakers where we would never want bankers to tread.

And the cycle of cakonomics begins again. A fresh round of flavours and memories is introduced to the network. More tea is made. Words come out of our mouths and into others' ears. People listen and
understand. Choices are made. Action happens.

The cake is a life.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Zeitgeist terms

"Meat-related offences" is my phrase of the decade.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Temporary Episodes EP out now

So I just finished editing photos and entering lots of information on Bandcamp. Go and find the new Men of Focus EP here.

(And/or see previous video here.)

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Piggybacking aid off Coke distribution

Intriguing - British aid worker comes up with the idea of nestling aid packages among Coke bottles, to benefit from Coke's massive distribution network. I remember visiting fairly remote villages in Egypt and being amazed that it seemed easier to get Coke (or at least its image) than to get water. Whether you like it or not, there's something kind of awe-inspiring about that.

China debt crists looming?

Uh-oh. The China growth vehicle could be based on some dodgy local government funding practices.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

"Temporary Episodes" EP - preview video

It's taken a long time in among kids and Bitcoin, but me new 5-track mini-album "Temporary Episodes" is on its way soon. Here's a video previewing the opening track, "Open Theatre":

The whole EP has been put together using only Caustic 2 on an HTC phone, and has been a crazy intro to the world of electronic music making.

Friday, April 05, 2013

How the rich hide their money

Oh God, I love this interactive guide to tax havens. (Via massive leak of more than 100,000 offshorer details.)

The real story, though, is about financial power - and the divide between people who understand how money works, and those who don't.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Alternate Pi Universe

Great to wake up and see my old MUD from Duncan Jauncey is running again, but on a Raspberry Pi: MudPi

My Dad's just bought a Pi too. Maybe time to jump into the scene, come payday...

Friday, February 15, 2013

New track: Tales from the Tumble Dryer

Oh yeah, I put up the first track of a new free coming-sometime-soonish EP this week. I've been playing with Caustic from Single Cell Software on my Android phone for a bit, and wanted to use the EP format as a way to force myself to put something "finished" together.

The tracks are more "see what can be done" and "see how it works" rather than, y'know, full-on creative effort, but I like the way they're turning out, and totally enjoying playing with music again.

Here's the track, called "Tales from the Tumble Dryer". You'll want speakers or headphones as it's pretty bassy:

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

More Music Mayham

Yay, first update in a while...

In among all the (ongoing) Bitcoin music label stuff, I'm trying to do some more music of my own. Up until now, this has mostly been fairly hit-and-miss (and will probably continue to be so), but using "mini" devices such as a new Korg Monotron and Caustic on my phone has meant it's slightly easier to find time and space to mess about.

I'm slowly piecing together a basic EP for finding-my-way-around-music-again purposes, but in the meantime here's something pretty unrelated. This was created by hooking up the Monotron to Electroplankton and an FM3 Buddha Machine which I've had a while.

Not sure I'd class it as "music" just yet. But it is fun. Waiting for the next Corner:

(Click here for direct link)

(Bonus music link - check out Postcards from a Used Future by Rupert and Espen for more experimental goodness.)