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January 2004

Thom Yorke on Hutton

'This is a theatre of the absurd. It has left everybody I know shaking their heads in disbelief and anger. Such a performance should make us all deeply nervous about the future of Britain. While Blair wishes to draw a line under the whole episode, I hope this doesn't happen. Sometimes a story will end up being told, no matter how many times they try to close the book.' Guardian

Social Overload: III

Stephen Downes comments on Judith Meskill's posting, 'How many social nets are too many?' (and linked to below, here):

Several people have linked to this short article and lengthy list of more than fifty social networking services. Having finally received my invitation to Orkut, I can report that it's pretty much like the rest, though authored with Google's usual style and clarity. But it doesn't matter. Systems like Orkut and Friendster (which I have also tried) are not the future, not because (as Cory Doctorow says) "There are only so many hours in the day," but because they are incorrectly designed. If you look at the applications that have been successful online, they are almost without exception distributed — things like email, web browsers, instant messaging clients are all things you manage for yourself on your own computer. There is no centralized location, like an Orkut or a Friendster, that you go to, there is a network of interconnected applications. There is no banning — if you don't like someone, you simply don't link to them. Look at the current social software mess — what are the chances that these systems will even talk to each other? A person on Friendster can't connect with a person on Orkut, leaving us with the unenviable option of creating fifty separate accounts or going friendless. I think that a system like FOAF has a much better long term future, not as currently deployed, but once FOAF links are widely embedded in, say, RSS files.

Languages and the way we see the world

'Imagine how different politics would be if debates were conducted in Tariana, an Amazonian language in which it is a grammatical error to report something without saying how you found it out — as Alexandra Aikhenvald tells us its speakers tell her. Tariana is in danger of dying. With each such disappearance we risk losing insights into different ways of thinking.'

Why is it important to preserve these languages? First, to learn about how people communicate and how the human mind works. What are the categories that are important enough for people to express them in their languages? If these so-called "exotic" languages die, we'll be left with just one world view. This won't be very interesting, and we'll have lost a vast amount of information about human nature and how people perceive the world. Second, without their language and its structure, people are rootless. In recording it you are also getting down the stories and folklore. If those are lost a huge part of a people's history goes. These stories often have a common root that speaks of a real event, not just a myth. For example, every Amazonian society ever studied has a legend about a great flood.
What's your favourite example of a big difference between languages? In English I can tell my son: "Today I talked to Adrian", and he won't ask: "How do you know you talked to Adrian?" But in some languages, including Tariana, you always have to put a little suffix onto your verb saying how you know something — we call it "evidentiality". I would have to say: "I talked to Adrian, non-visual," if we had talked on the phone. And if my son told someone else, he would say: "She talked to Adrian, visual, reported." In that language, if you don't say how you know things, they think you are a liar. This is a very nice and useful tool. Imagine if, in the argument about weapons of mass destruction, people had had to say how they knew about whatever they said. That would have saved us quite a lot of breath.
New Scientist (Link via Boing Boing)

Mick Hume on Hutton

Mick Hume spoke at the Radley/St Helen's Conference in November of last year:

The idea of holding an 'urgent' national inquiry into the suicide of a middle-ranking civil servant was always pretty bizarre. The notion that such an inquiry could put the government on trial and effectively find it guilty of murder was even more far-fetched. Those critics of Blair who looked to Hutton to do their job for them have achieved the opposite effect. By building the inquiry up and overreaching themselves, they have pulled off the remarkable achievement of making the New Labour government look good. Some of those now crying 'whitewash' appear suddenly to have discovered that Lord Hutton is a member of the British establishment (you might have thought that the 'lord' bit would have given them a clue somewhat earlier). His ruthless record of jailing the British state's enemies, while sitting alone as both judge and jury in the Diplock courts of Northern Ireland, might also have suggested that Hutton was unlikely to be keen to bring down the system of government at their behest. It is the height of naivety to look to such a pillar of the state for support, and then be shocked when it falls on you.

Triumph of a paranoid court over the media

Simon Jenkins in today's Times:

The Chairman and Director-General of the BBC have resigned. The corporation has made a grovelling apology to the Prime Minister and his team. The victory of a paranoid court over media criticism is complete. It was not merited by the facts. It was required by the calculus of power. Hutton was not a court of law but a high-risk gamble to conceal Tony Blair’s embarrassment over his Iraq intelligence by implicating the BBC in a suicide. The gamble worked. At this moment the American Senate is being told unpleasant truths about that intelligence by the weapons inspector, David Kay. “It turns out we were all wrong,” he said on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Britons are dancing on the far side of the Moon. Lord Hutton appears to have taken fright when confronted by the truth of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. He gave himself terms of reference so narrow as to exclude consideration of their significance. He was like a man seeking the causes of the Great War in the driving ability of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s chauffeur. ... The Hutton report reads like that of an elderly retainer summoned from his roses to perform a last deed for his lord and master, the Establishment. Everyone knows that Britain was induced to go to war last April on a dud prospectus. Only America has the guts to admit it.

Strong prose, great style

'I'm afraid sheer opinionated and passionate prose, backed up by knowledge of the world, unorthodox views and uplifting prose that is simultaneously workmanlike and deliciously readable is a thing of the past in American journalism. Sameness, political correctness and sensitivity have all had their deleterious, neutering effect. Are there any exceptions?' Thus writes Miguel Cardoso in MetaFilter. Who are the great American prose stylists (judged by Cardoso's criteria)? He lists AJ Liebling, HL Mencken and EB White from the past, and can only suggest one name from today — Gore Vidal. An introduction to the latter can be found here and an article from The Washington Post on Liebling's The Earl of Louisiana here.

Some Gore Vidal-isms:

It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.

A narcissist is someone better looking than you are.

Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.

There is not one human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.

Patterning rules

Nova Spivack and Howard Bloom:

I believe that an empirical study of existing social networks on different levels of scale is one route to finding the general pattern we are looking for: All social networks — at all levels of scale — should obey certain laws that we can discover through observation and then generalize into a general theory. Another approach is purely through mathematics — it should be possible to derive an abstract mathematics of social networks. Finally there is also the computational approach — simply generate and test different social network rules, and perhaps even use a genetic algorithm to evolve an optimal one. Perhaps that is the computation that our universe is running?
... a relationship is in fact the most fundamental thing in the universe.

There's a primal pattern, an evolutionarily stable strategy, what I've been calling an Ur-pattern, rearing its head here on many levels of emergence.

The future of journalism is at stake

Martin Bell: 'For democracy to thrive, broadcasters must not back away from holding the government to account.'

This was a bad day for the BBC. I cannot remember a worse one, certainly in the 34 years I worked for what remains the greatest broadcasting organisation in the world. It would be hard to envisage a kinder verdict on the government or a harsher one on the corporation. Of course the BBC has been to a significant extent the source of its own misfortunes. The fashion for unscripted two-way interviews with correspondents who in some cases may be only half awake led to a mistake being made for which the BBC is paying a heavy price. It has already apologised for that mistake and its director general did so again yesterday evening. But in its present difficulties, I hope that it can learn to put away the sackcloth and ashes in a day or two. There is no case for overpenitence. For, although Andrew Gilligan's report on the Today programme was wrong in one important respect, the broad thrust of it was right. Gilligan was not the only journalist who reported that the government had exaggerated Iraq's weaponry in order to make the case for war, but his report was the one that stirred up the biggest row between the government and the BBC in the history of the many feuds between them. I think that Gilligan did us all some service and that the Hutton report, while blaming him so extensively, has been extraordinarily lenient on the government. ... I profoundly hope that the BBC does not lose its nerve as a result of this reverse. In many ways it sets the standards by which other news broadcasters are judged. This is not the time for the BBC to play safe, although there may be every temptation to do so. ... A great deal will depend on the determination and, if necessary, the bloody-mindedness of the next chairman of the governors. But who will appoint this chairman? Why, this government of course. It is easy to imagine a scenario in which the BBC slips into timidity and allows itself to do the government's will.

Social Overload: II

Judith Meskill, 'by my count, there are more than 100 social networking services that I have been observing — cruising past my virtual radar gun — in the past few months. I have been tracking this burgeoning growth of services aspiring to help discover and connect my friends, potential partners, business cohorts, and various levels of acquaintances — and I have this scary feeling that I am only carving shavings off of the tip of an iceberg with this list. ... While I am inclined to agree with those who argue for weblogs as a more robust medium for active social networks ... I don't think this is just a matter of VCs with money burning a hole in their pockets. Nor is it simply a matter of too many programmers with free time on their hands and a copy of Linked nearby. We're social animals and were long before writing was invented. Connecting has always come before content. Failing to understand that was the downfall of many early online experiences. One way to think about what's going on now is that we're in the midst of making new and more interesting mistakes than we have in the past.'

Clay Shirky: 'Two Pieces on the Demise of YASNSs'.