Politics & Society

Out of touch

We’ve been away and without connectivity for much of the last week. And what a week to choose. This summer will live in memory for its news and events. Some days, the real world is more like theatre than theatre is.

Through tools such as Reeder, and the many eyes and ears of Twitter, we just about kept abreast, snatching 3G, EDGE or feeble GPRS where location permitted, and quickly learning where towns and villages could give us WiFi. (A shout-out here for the excellent Toucan Café in Minehead, its good food and free wireless.)

Back home, I’ve caught up in detail on the accumulated reading. I wish it had been less dispiriting. It’s come to something when, as Euan said, Russell Brand is more credible than the Prime Minister.

Some of what I’ve been reading about the unrest in England, on Pinboard.


Every year when I teach our first years (Year 9) about ICT it’s often surprising what stands out as having changed. It’s life-as-we-once-knew-it, Jim, but now more or less of a piece with this digital stuff. We’ve made a new thing. Lots of new things.

But quick! Look after them! They’re vanishing even as we look.

Recent lessons have developed a focus around the web-and-culture, the web-as-culture. So, lesson 15 is all about the stuff James talked about at dConstruct last year: history, historiography, memory; archiving the internet; time, growth, loss, decay … hope. James’s talk is the focus.

Last Thursday, in the discussion about all that, I found other things suggested themselves and fell satisfyingly into place. I’ve added some of these to the lesson as a supplementary page: Lee’s deeply affecting talk at Reboot 9 about Kozarac; the Long Now’s Rosetta Project. But also things I haven’t put on that supplementary page: Yahoo! and Geocities (already in the original lesson 15) led on to Yahoo! and Delicious (I showed them Pinboard and we talked about backing up locally as well as in the cloud), and Yahoo! and Flickr (which Yahoo!’s CEO doesn’t use: ‘One of the most highly visible and trafficked Yahoo properties and you don’t even have an account there’).

That led on to a look at cloud-computing and the ways in which the Wikileaks story has made people readjust their view of providers (see my last post). It got me scrambling around to find this photo that I knew I’d squirrelled away on Tumblr a while back:

Jerry Yang at Congress

Gao Qin Sheng, mother of Shi Tao, a Chinese reporter sentenced to 10 years in prison for leaking state secrets, cries as Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang (left) testifies before a congressional committee hearing. (Photo: Reuters) — The Sydney Morning Herald (2007)

Wikileaks, Egypt … let’s not forget these lessons about cloud-computing and the responsibilities of global communications and cloud-computing providers.

And, as I find myself thinking more and more about archiving, memory and the digital, I really enjoyed Euan’s recent pieces: One small step (‘Goodness - a usenet search just stumbled upon my first ever experience, in 1995, of the power of the internet to make things easier’) and My first blog post. I hope Euan is happy if I re-blog the latter here (it’s so pertinent):

I knew I started blogging around this time of year in 2001 but thanks to a server crash in December 2001 I had no record of my first blog post. I tried The Wayback Machine but couldn’t remember the original url. I had tried various searches on Google and using Devon Agent but with no success but then I remembered that Ev Williams, who started Blogger and now Twitter, had made me a “Blog of Note” on the front page of Blogger in 2002. A search for that got me my old url and The Wayback Machine then came up with the goods.

So my first ever blog posts are preserved here and I began on the 3rd of March 2001. On day three I said:

“I started feeling a bit uneasy about this blog today. Who will ever read it and what will those who do think?”

Ten years later I am still wondering …..

URLs, permalinks, archives … preservation. It all matters so very much.

I’ve been pointing out to my Year 9 pupils the Facebook setting that lets you download your material to a local drive (thanks to Michael for pointing it out to me) — Account > Account settings > Download your information:

This tool lets you download a copy of your information, including your photos and videos, posts on your wall, all of your messages, your friend list and other content you have shared on your profile. Within this zip file, you will have access to your data in a simple, browseable manner. Learn More about downloading a copy of your information.

So many memories are held in Facebook — for now. Will these teenagers be grandparents with few photos of their teenage years to look back on, show and share? Back up, back up, back up.

Wikileaks in 10

I like this mind-map by John Naughton very much and used it recently in an English class when we got talking about some tools and techniques that help us think. It comes from his post, WikiLeaks: two challenges for journalism:

… how to make sense of all this. Most people cope with this problem by, effectively, reducing its variety.

Early last Monday, I gave a 10 minute talk about Wikileaks to our top two years (12 & 13). I hope I managed to keep some of the variety. The way in, stepping stones and some points made:

To end on, to take us away from focusing just on Wikileaks, something about the big picture right now — Paul Mason’s piece which has resonated with so many (and with so many undergraduates and recent graduates I know), Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere:

… the graduate with no future … with access to social media … [which] kills vertical hierarchies spontaneously … They all seem to know each other: not only is the network more powerful than the hierarchy - but the ad-hoc network has become easier to form. … if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection. … People just know more than they used to. … People have a better understanding of power. … Technology has - in many ways, from the contraceptive pill to the iPod, the blog and the CCTV camera - expanded the space and power of the individual.


I gave the talk again mid-week to our Year 10, boiled down and in something more like 6 minutes.

Here are a couple of other pieces which I’ve found good food for thought, neither of which I had time to work in to these talks:

Bill Keller in the NYT (January, 2011):

I’m a little puzzled by the complaint that most of the embassy traffic we disclosed did not profoundly change our understanding of how the world works. Ninety-nine percent of what we read or hear on the news does not profoundly change our understanding of how the world works. News mostly advances by inches and feet, not in great leaps. The value of these documents — and I believe they have immense value — is not that they expose some deep, unsuspected perfidy in high places or that they upend your whole view of the world. For those who pay close attention to foreign policy, these documents provide texture, nuance and drama. They deepen and correct your understanding of how things unfold; they raise or lower your estimation of world leaders. For those who do not follow these subjects as closely, the stories are an opportunity to learn more. If a project like this makes readers pay attention, think harder, understand more clearly what is being done in their name, then we have performed a public service. And that does not count the impact of these revelations on the people most touched by them. WikiLeaks cables in which American diplomats recount the extravagant corruption of Tunisia’s rulers helped fuel a popular uprising that has overthrown the government.

Also from the same:

The government surely cheapens secrecy by deploying it so promiscuously. According to the Pentagon, about 500,000 people have clearance to use the database from which the secret cables were pilfered. Weighing in on the WikiLeaks controversy in The Guardian, Max Frankel remarked that secrets shared with such a legion of “cleared” officials, including low-level army clerks, “are not secret.” Governments, he wrote, “must decide that the random rubber-stamping of millions of papers and computer files each year does not a security system make.”

And this from John Naughton (to whom we owe a lot for his pondering of these recent events) :

For hardcore geeks, the WikiLeaks saga should serve as a stimulant to a new wave of innovation which will lead to a new generation of distributed, secure technologies (like the TOR networking system used by WikiLeaks) which will enable people to support movements and campaigns that are deemed subversive by authoritarian powers. A really good example of this kind of technological innovation was provided last week by Google engineers, who in a few days built a system that enabled protesters in Egypt to send tweets even though the internet in their country had been shut down. “Like many people”, they blogged, “we’ve been glued to the news unfolding in Egypt and thinking of what we can do to help people on the ground. Over the weekend we came up with the idea of a speak-to-tweet service – the ability for anyone to tweet using just a voice connection.”

They worked with a small team of engineers from Twitter and SayNow (a company Google recently acquired) to build the system. It provides three international phone numbers and anyone can tweet by leaving a voicemail. The tweets appear on twitter.com/speak2tweet.

What’s exciting about this kind of development is that it harnesses the same kind of irrepressible, irreverent, geeky originality that characterised the early years of the internet, before the web arrived and big corporations started to get a grip on it. Events in Egypt make one realise how badly this kind of innovation is needed.

‘My client is civilisation’


There’s an interview with Stewart Brand in Volume, 24 — Counterculture: ‘With the help of countercultural figures, historians and architects, this issue of Volume examines the popularized characteristics of the 60s that have influenced our beliefs about technology, the environment and community’. Fred Turner country. From Jeffrey Inaba’s introduction to the issue:

At first glance, what appears prescient about the 60s when looking at current American culture is the preoccupation then and now with computer technology, the natural environment and alternative forms of community; but today each is disconnected from the radical political action and oppositional ideologies of the earlier era. For instance, concern for the planet, which was cast as flaky and indulgent, is shared by the majority of people despite the ideological differences between the counterculture and popular American opinion now. Sustainability is so much a part of our collective economic consciousness that its importance is cited in business sectors – like real estate development – which once ardently resisted entertaining pro-environmental stances. Similarly, the communal principles of the counterculture – such as participation, sharing information, erring on the side of social inclusion, networking and identifying areas of agreement with others in order to form collaborations – are the basic axioms for building social capital now.


SB: My client is civilisation and my approach is that of a hacker: to figure out the shortcuts that make things happen. …

JI: … What’s your definition of a hacker?

SB: Lazy engineer. The aspect of hacking that appeals to me is looking for the fiendishly clever shortcut. A ‘real’ engineer will do the homework – do the calculations, run the prototypes – all the necessary stuff to make something work. A hacker is usually looking for an easy solution. The code still has to run – it has to do whatever it is you’re attempting. But a hacker tries to find a way to do it with minimal effort, which is considered good; or with great cleverness, which is considered extra good. Fun is finessing an outcome. Stuff like that is just being lazy, and lazy is not necessarily bad. I was trained in the army to be a lazy officer. The worst officer is stupid and industrious. The best officer is brilliant and lazy. I don’t think I would be accused of industry. …

JI: … Would you consider yourself a hacker of policy? From what you say in your book, stewardship of the planet involves vigilance in monitoring all technologies and then deciding to employ some with great speed. Do you look for shortcuts to put into service technologies because the process of governments, institutions, and concerned individuals carefully weighing a technology’s consequences takes time?

SB: Some technologies take off on their own. Cell phones took off in very short order to the great benefit of all. Wikipedia and Google took off that way. The things that people see as beneficial and that don’t do recognizable harm can move quickly. But like you say, by far the best approach with complex systems is diplomatic negotiation with a lot of vigilance to ensure that things don’t go astray.

JI: The last chapter of Whole Earth Discipline is on statecraft. You start it with the Marshall McLuhan quote: ‘After Sputnik there is no nature, only art’. What significance does that statement have in relation to the responsibilities of governance and policymaking?

SB: It’s probably the most radical comment he ever made. Sputnik was shorthand for acting at a planetary scale. We consequently bear a completely different relation to everything on Earth and can no longer treat it, meaning nature, as existing independent of our own artifice – our own purposeful intentions.

Our work (so far) this year

It’s again been an exhilarating experience to teach our first year’s (13 year-olds) their ICT course. The pace of adoption by them of technological developments still surprises: once again, I notice how this year’s cohort is just that much further on than the equivalent year group last year. It’s not just us, the adults, who notice this: where we might think that teenagers swim in all this digital stuff like fish in water, it’s eye-opening to watch only slightly older students being amazed at what 13 year-olds now know. So last month, a year on from when I last posted here about this course, I was feeding back to colleagues whose specialism is not ICT:

Last year, for example, we taught about tabbed browsing, but this year we didn’t need to: our 13 year-olds are experimenting freely with different browsers, wasting no time in downloading and adopting the recently released Google Chrome. They joined the school knowing more than last year’s 4ths about operating systems and several have experience of Linux. They are keen to learn about how they can maintain their personalised experience of computing (by exploiting web apps) when using the school’s networked machines and many were already using iGoogle before joining St Paul’s. One 4th former routinely uses PortableApps and showed others how to do the same. Others know about running Firefox from a memory stick, retaining all their individual settings no matter what PC they are on. There is a wide range of hardware in use and the barrier between desktop machines (hitherto commonly taken to be synonymous with computers) and mobile devices has gone — notebooks, mini-books, smartphones, the iPodTouch, iPhones ... all proving their computing worth in day-to-day life. Location-based services are being widely used on mobile phones; such services are coming soon to browsers (Firefox, Chrome) and operating systems (eg, Windows 7).

Some further context here: a year ago, iGoogle was alien to nearly all our first years; memory sticks were used more or less only as … memory sticks — running apps off of them was a fringe experience; browsers and the exploitable differences between them simply hadn’t the popular prominence they have now. Most interesting in many ways to me is the demand for Open Source software: because of 13 year-old, pupil-led demand we are networking Open Office, running it alongside MS Office. It’s up to the user which product he/she wants to use. I’m also interested in reports from colleagues about 13 and 14 year-old pupils, when asked to create a document or to collaborate, opening web-based apps as a matter of course.

So, the course as it is evolving this year is currently online here. I have no doubt, though, that we are now at a watershed and, as I also summed things up for colleagues, ‘The current course, revised from that of last year, will need fundamental revision for next year in order to keep pace with the changes afoot and the rate of adoption by young teenagers’. In particular, I think we’re now ready to make a fundamental shift towards the creative — and this pleases me a great deal.

They don’t have blogs, or I’d link to them, but my gratitude to the team with whom I co-teach this course (Richard, Andrew, Olly, David) is great: my thanks to them for all their hard work and enthusiasm.

This year has been very busy on a number of other fronts. We took the decision late last academic year to re-design our website and asked Clearleft to undertake the work. As I knew it would prove, it’s been a pleasure to work with Clearleft: we’re somewhere around halfway through the project and I’ve learned a great deal from them — about web-design, for sure (we had fun with affinity diagrams and played with post-its), but also about how good design work probes and challenges a company’s perception of how it’s promoting itself. I recommend the experience.

We’ve also been working a lot with Firefly, the company who write the software that powers both our website and our intranet. Simon and Joe, the founders and developers of Firefly, were pupils at St Paul’s and wrote the first iteration of Firefly whilst studying here. With the great help of Jess and Serena from Headshift, we have worked together, discussing how the interface and capabilities of Firefly might be developed, and this month saw the release of the new product. Thank you, Joe and Simon, for all your work on this. In summary: comments can now be enabled on all pages; we have blogs; the editing interface has been re-worked and made in-line, write-access is on by default and key editing options are immediately visible in hover-over mode; RSS has been made both much more obvious and widely available; the permissions dialogue has been improved and made more transparent; search has been improved both in UI and performance; template documentation is on its way, as is tagging; shared workspaces are available; calendaring now supports iCal; pages are owned by their creators but stewardship of a page is assignable (useful with classes, projects, etc). These are major software improvements for our intranet (which has amassed some 25,000 pages), providing us with something to build on collaboratively (staff and pupils) and develop further.

When we were deliberating the next iteration of our ICT Development Plan, I wanted green computing to be high on the agenda and I’m delighted that we worked with Gavin at AMEE and are now poised to start aggregating our energy data for the school (ie, the whole site) with AMEE. Our building program recognised the importance of sustainability from the outset.

We’ve been in discussion with Google about starting a branded YouTube channel. We filmed most of this year’s talks (see below) and have these and other stuff to go up. All this takes time, of course, but it’s coming.

This year we also began what I sense is necessarily a thoughtful, slow and sensitive engagement with games and gaming. These have a poor standing in schools, yet their cultural influence and their ubiquity in the lives of many younger people (by no means “just” students) is evident and widely reported. Grand Theft Auto originates from Paulines, of course, and it was high time to address the whole “matter”. We founded a society this term, met a couple of times (the first time without anyone, perhaps, realising it was meeting) and grew it out of two influential, important talks (see below). Next term we move the throttle forward and give it some more oomph. Those involved (it’s pretty popular) bought the idea of everyone reading more about games, and we’ll start with Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You.

We’ve had a great run of speakers so far this year, with more to come. Last academic year I blogged these talks as we went, but this year things have been too busy for that (along with all the work detailed here, I’ve also switched to commuting daily, which involved decamping mid-term from my school flat and giving some much overdue attention to our own home — and then there was learning to live with First Great Western …). So here’s the run-down …

Continue reading "Our work (so far) this year" »

Tilt into the future

So many reasons to be gloomy as we slide into 2009, but I’m with Eno in refusing to go down that route. I’m buoyed up by what so many friends are doing, by the inspiration students give me and by my 92 year-old mother getting up in the night to watch the US election results (“after the 60s and the civil unrest, I just had to see this through”).

Democratic Presidential Nominee, Barack Obama and his family on election night in Chicago, IL on Wednesday, November 5, 2008. (David Katz/Obama for America)
Flickr, Creative Commons licensed, Barack Obama

Barack Obama with his family on election night in Chicago, IL on Wednesday, November 5, 2008L
David Katz/Obama for America (Flickr)

I first came across Obama in 2005 and quoted him that summer in a farewell speech I gave for a close friend (alter ipse amicus) as he stood down from his pastoral post in a boarding school. I think the Economist had reported on a speech to graduating students that Obama had made that June, where he had invited them to ask of themselves, "What will be my place in history?":

In other eras, across distant lands, this is a question that could be answered with relative ease and certainty. As a servant of Rome, you knew you would spend your life forced to build somebody else's Empire. As a peasant in 11th Century China, you knew that no matter how hard you worked, the local warlord might take everything you had - and that famine might come knocking on your door any day. As a subject of King George, you knew that your freedom to worship and speak and build your own life would be ultimately limited by the throne. And then, America happened. A place where destiny was not a destination, but a journey to be shared and shaped and remade by people who had the gall, the temerity to believe that, against all odds, they could form "a more perfect union" on this new frontier.

I quoted another bit (shorn it of its specifically American references), made right for the occasion because it expresses perfectly my friend’s own wise, kind and optimistic humanity (expended tirelessly in his work with the young):

Have we failed at times? Absolutely. Will you occasionally fail when you embark on your own … journey? Surely. But the test is not perfection. The true test … is whether we are able to recognize our failings and then rise together to meet the challenges of our time.

Go and read this 2005 speech: it’s often fine (Obama and rhetoric!) and prescient, attuned to the challenges of technology and globalisation, to what an inter-connected world means — and to the significance of education. It is youthful and attentive to youth, inspired by hope and looking to the future:

So let's dream. Instead of doing nothing or simply defending 20th century solutions, let's imagine what we can do to give every American a fighting chance in the 21st century.

Back in March of last year, Marc Andreessen wrote about Obama (“We asked him directly, how concerned should we be that you haven't had meaningful experience as an executive -- as a manager and leader of people? He said, watch how I run my campaign -- you'll see my leadership skills in action.”):

It's very clear when interacting with Senator Obama that he's totally focused on the world as it has existed since after the 1960's -- as am I, and as is practically everyone I know who's younger than 50.

Well, Palin and the plumber are just a memory and we’ll soon be seeing how it goes. My 01.20.09 t-shirts now have a whole new life ahead of them.

(My non-Obama take-away from last year’s campaign: “People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power” — Bill Clinton.)

As Warren Ellis wrote in another context:

Tilt into the future. Or get the eternal past you deserve.

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The internet means you don’t have to convince anyone else that something is a good idea before trying it.
Scott Bradner, former trustee of the Internet Society (quoted in Here Comes Everybody)

The communications tools broadly adopted in the last decade are the first to fit human social networks well,
and because they are easily modifiable they can be made to fit better over time.
— Clay Shirky (Here Comes Everybody, p 158) 

Clay Shirky at the ICABack before Easter, I was at the ICA for the Eno/Shirky evening. One of the books I then read over the break was Here Comes Everybody. I’ve been meaning for some time to put down a few notes about it here. This has grown to be a long post as I’ve added to it, wanting to get a few things out on the page and, so, clearer in my own mind.

It’s a great book to suggest to friends who are not familiar with the technologies Shirky discusses as it hides its knowledge well — but there are still leads to follow up. The modest ten or so pages of the Bibliography threw up a number of articles I'd either not heard of before or hadn’t visited in a long while. In the former camp, I recommend: Anderson: More Is Different (Science — 1972); R H Coase: The Nature of the Firm (pdf) — a 1937 economics paper; Richard P. Gabriel — Lisp: Good News, Bad News, How to Win Big: worse is better (1991); Alan Page Fiske: Human Sociality. (There’s an online “webliography” here.) And chapters 8–11, covering so many big topics — social capital; three kinds of loss (some solve-a-hard-problem jobs; some social bargains; negative aspects to new freedoms); small world networks; more on social capital; failure (‘open source … is outfailing’ commercial efforts, 245); more on groups (‘every working system is a mix of social and technological factors’, 260) — hit my Amazon Prime account hard. (Incidentally, there’s a Kevin Kelly piece on “more is different”, Zillionics, that appeared earlier this year. See also Kevin Kelly’s The Google Way of Science and Wired’s The Petabyte Age: Because More Isn't Just More — More Is Different.)

Further reading to one side, a number of things discussed in the book particularly interested me straightaway. Firstly, sociality, privacy and exposure online. Leisa recently posted Ambient Exposure, an update (of sorts) to her post of last March, Ambient Intimacy. The titles tell their own story. Early on, Clay writes about ‘how dramatically connected we've become to one another … [how much] information we give off about our selves’. This took me back to Adam Greenfield’s recent talk at the Royal Society (I’ve also been re-reading Everyware). Our love of flocking is being fed handsomely by means of the new tools Clay Shirky discusses so well.

Privacy is always coming up in conversations at school about online life, and what I’m hearing suggests our students are beginning to look at privacy and exposure with growing circumspection. Facebook’s People You May Know functionality has made some sit up and wonder where social software might be taking us. We’re slowly acquiring a stronger sense of how seduction through imagined privacy works (alone in a room, save for screen and keyboard) and a more developed understanding of what it means to write for unseen audiences. Meanwhile, there are things to be unlearned: ‘those of us who grew up with a strong separation between communication and broadcast media … assume that if something is out where we can find it, it must have been written for us. … Now that the cost of posting things in a global medium has collapsed, much of what gets posted on any given day is in public but not for the public’ (90).  In the Bibliography, Clay refers to a post of Danny O’Brien’s — all about register — which is a longtime favourite of mine, too.

Then there was what the book had to say about media and journalism. Simon Waldman, well-placed to pass comment, on chapters 3 and 4:

The chapters most relevant to media/journalism - ‘Everyone is a media outlet’ and ‘Publish first, filter later’ should be required reading for pretty much everyone currently sitting in a newspaper/broadcaster. It’s certainly the best thought through thing I’ve read on this, and the comparison to the decline of the scribes when the printing press came in is really well drawn. 

The summary to Chapter 4 (‘Publish, Then Filter’) runs, ‘The media landscape is transformed, because personal communication and publishing, previously separate functions, now shade into one another. One result is to break the older pattern of professional filtering of the good from the mediocre before publication; now such filtering is increasingly social, and happens after the fact’. ‘Filter-then-publish … rested on a scarcity of media that is a thing of the past. The expansion of social media means the only working system is publish-then-filter’ (98). (Language like this can sound an utopian note that rings on in the head long after the book’s been closed, as if we’d entered a world beyond old constraints. And look!: the Praetorian Guard of elite gatekeepers is no more.)

I was interested, too, to read Shirky’s thoughts about the impact of new technologies on institutions. His application of Ronald Coase’s 1937 paper and, in particular, the idea of the Coasean floor (‘activities … [that] are valuable to someone but too expensive to be taken on in any institutional way’), was very striking: the new tools allow ‘serious, complex work [to be] taken on without institutional direction’ and things can now be achieved by ‘loosely coordinated groups’ which previously ‘lay under the Coasean floor’.

We didn't notice how many things were under that floor because, prior to the current era, the alternative to institutional action was usually no action. (47)

Later in the book (107), he comes back to institutions, taking what is happening to media businesses as not unique but prophetic — for ‘All businesses are media businesses … [as] all businesses rely on the managing of information for two audiences — employees and the world’:

The increase in the power of both individuals and groups, outside traditional organisational structures, is unprecedented. Many institutions we rely on today will not survive this change without significant alteration, and the more an institution or industry relies on information as its core product, the greater and more complete the change will be. The linking of symmetrical participation and amateur production makes this period of change remarkable. Symmetrical participation means that once people have the capacity to receive information, they have the capability to send it as well. Owning a television does not give you the ability to make TV shows, but owning a computer means that you can create as well as receive many kinds of content, from the written word through sound and images. Amateur production, the result of all this new capability, means that the category of "consumer" is now a temporary behaviour rather than a permanent identity.

‘Every new user is a potential creator and consumer’ (106) is reminiscent of Bradley Horowitz in Creators, Synthesizers, and Consumers (2006).


Continue reading "Kayaking" »

You Can't Picture This

Thousands of UK residents have signed a petition against a law preventing photography and filming in certain public places. Yet this all turned out to be a misunderstanding, and no such law was proposed. Rajesh investigates the way we view the lens and the way it views us.

via Tom.