Monday, March 31, 2003

Architecture at War

An astonishing event is about to happen. For the first time in modern history a city with the population of London is preparing to resist assault from a land army. The outcome of such a struggle is wholly imponderable. ... In Baghdad the coalition forces confront a city apparently determined on resistance. They should remember Napoleon in Moscow, Hitler in Stalingrad, the Americans in Mogadishu and the Russians at Grozny. Hostile cities have ways of making life ghastly for aggressors. They are not like countryside. They seldom capitulate, least of all when their backs are to the wall. ... In the desert, armies fight armies. In cities, armies fight cities.

The Times

Saturday, March 29, 2003

Thought for the day

There's a big difference between killing someone to stop them trying to kill you, and killing someone to punish them for trying to kill you.

Good analysis of US gameplan and consequences : Joshua Micah Marshall

The business of warblogging

I looked at a link to Venture Blog from Ross Mayfield. And what suddenly struck me was seeing USS Clueless in the blogroll.

One of the things that makes weblogs so fascinating is that each person has multiple interests. There's plenty of serendipity in reading a blogger because he shares your interest in software, and discovering he also has a passion for hand-made pasta or antiquarian books. You end up learning something about these too.

But the warblogging network is very strong; and attracts a lot of attention. When the war is over, warbloggers will a have a lot of network capital sitting around idly. Meanwhile, when the recession is over, VCs will have a lot of cash looking for investment. The combination of the two may be a significant force.

Of course, the right wing is naturally allied with business through shared values and opinions; and the left is defined by it's opposition to capitalism. But in the past we've seen capitalist entrepreneurship by ex-hippies, liberals, social revolutionaries and new age networks.
This has certainly had an effect on the values and attitudes in places like silicon valley. And what we think of as entrepreneurship.

But possibly, if the conservative / right-wing / warblog network holds up, we're likely to see more neo-conservative hawks, who have contacts with VCs, getting funded in the next wave.

How will this affect the culture? What about Richard Florida's notion of a Creative Class who value diversity and some more traditionally liberal issues like the arts? Or am I being prejudiced? Perhaps neo-con hawks can also be libertarians who would encourage such freedom in their companies?

Friday, March 28, 2003

Got a fantastic response to Emergent Democracy question from a UK civil servant :

I've been thinking about issues around the "emergent democracy" topic for a couple of years. I think the energy shown both in the anti-war protests and in the various groups of people thinking about e-democracy is very exciting. It's all rather unfocused at the moment, but I suspect we're reaching a tipping point, where emergent democracy (or whatever you want to call it) becomes a "next big thing".

I think the reason that emergent democracy has such appeal is that modern politics is falling behind people's expectations. I don't
believe that standards of political behaviour or the conduct of government have got worse - in fact, I think they've been getting better in recent years, largely thanks to unforgiving and sometimes unfair media pressure.

However while politics has not declined, it is still trying to conduct business in a manner that looks increasingly out of date. In the consumer world, people are wanting more and more authenticity, "real" experiences, tailored to their personal preferences. In a world of reality TV, Have It Your Way and cars with more options than Microsoft Word, it's no wonder politics-as-usual is looking a bit faded.

So people feel that politics is not connected with their lives or desires, and so they ignore it, or protest against it, or protest against it and then ignore it in frustration, as you rightly say.

But some of the alternatives are suffering from the same sort of disconnection. You are absolutely spot on to describe blogging as a form of Freemasonry, and also right to point out that being a protestor is merely being counted as one of the numbers roughly supporting the views of the organisers.

My first answer to your question about giving the anti-war protesters influence is that the anti-war protests are the wrong place to start. If it had been a domestic issue bringing that number of people onto the streets, the PM would have done a U-turn quicker than you could say "knife". But foreign affairs are a special case. Apart from the close relations between the US and UK at all military levels, which no PM in his right mind would want to jeopardise, the nature of diplomacy is such that once you have allied yourself with a position, it's a lot harder to flip-flop than it is on domestic issues.

But, more generally, what is it that makes Governments sit up and take notice? I've had a few years working in the Civil Service, under both political parties, and I'd say from my experience, the following characteristics (in no particular order) make a message more likely to have influence in the political world.

1. Expertise. Academics and think tanks, depending on reputation, have
a lot of access to Government, and are listened to. Politicians and civil servants are usually generalists, and so they are always ready to hear views that have been developed through years of practical and/or intellectual experience.

2. Coherence of view. This is important for groups and organisations. Organisations that have a strong opinion - even if it is opposed to the general tenor of the Government's views - will often get a hearing if their opinion seems to be well-thought out, and coherent across the
piece. If they are (e.g.) proposing an increase in EU funding while also railing against interference from Brussels, they are likely to be ignored. Similarly, protest movements will be held to be less important if it seems that their members' views are all over the place (e.g. Countryside March) or motivated by a "motherhood and apple pie" slogan that covers a wide range of views.

3. Reasonableness. The political classes (and this is particularly true of civil servants) have an extremely low tolerance for single-issue obsessives, of whom they see quite a lot. Organisations that explicitly acknowledge the problems with their preferred outcomes, or show an openness to compromise will receive a better hearing than last-ditchers. Conversely, people or organisations with extreme views (withdrawal from the EU, fluoridation a conspiracy, extreme anti-capitalist) will be bracketed together as "loonies" and given a (more or less) polite brush-off.

4. From an MP or well-known pressure group. These get a hearing because they are respected for their political knowledge rather than (necessarily) their knowledge of the subject area.

5. Public support. Petitions with a lot of signatures, or well-run local campaigns do make a difference if they are coherent and the people involved seem to have thought about the issues involved.

From an emergent democracy point of view, I'd add the so-obvious-people-forget-it point that the political class have to be *aware* of the view. Most politicos don't have time to read more than one newspaper a day, let alone blogs or specialist magazines. civil servants have a little more coverage, but even their media exposure is
less than you might think.

So, if emergent democratic methods are going to affect what politicians do (and I think that must be the aim), they need to give the right people reasonable, thought-out opinions in a format that is easy to digest, through a medium that those people know and trust.

I think that for this to happen, there needs to be some sort of institutional structure imposed within which debates can take place. That institution can then build a reputation with the political classes in a way that the more ephemeral blogs and protest groups cannot. It can make it its business to promote debate in an impartial way, and then present those views to government.

Needless to say, from a democratic point of view the institution needs to be:

  • a. democratically arranged;
  • b. impartial when conducting debates and discussions;
  • c. open to all;
  • d. independent of any company, government or political party;

    But, given what it needs to do, it also needs to:

  • e. have a culture and procedures that encourage intelligent debate;
  • f. give members an opportunity to discover and share information on a topic under discussion before expressing a final view on it;
  • g. debate issues in a way that draws people towards consensus rather than entrenches divisions.

Thinking about this over the past few months, I've come to believe that the most scalable sort of institution would have a central organisation and a number of branches or colleges. The colleges (let's call them)
would be a bit like business franchises - anyone could set them up, in any way they liked, as long as they stayed in line with the democratic principles of the institution. They could be set up, for example, in a village or a company, or over the Internet. That collegiate system
would allow low-level debates to take place in small groups where people would know each other and feel able to contribute without being squished by one of the big beasts of the jungle. It would also allow debates on local issues to take place without occupying the time of the rest of the institution's members.

Then those colleges would elect or select by lot, or however they chose, some of their members to the centre of the institution. From those members would be selected a Senate to act as a central discussion forum, "citizen jury/deliberative democracy" groups that could discuss a particular question or (like Commons Select Committees) 'cover' all aspects of a particular area, and a small group to run the
institution's day-to-day affairs.

There would, I think, also need to be a class of members who give up their rights to speak and vote, and in return are given "host-like" responsibilities as guardians of the institution's principles - adjudicating disputes, chairing discussions, etc., like a combination of the Commons' Speaker and a judiciary.

I was jolted by the concluding suggestions. I guess I've fallen into the Californian / libertarian influenced ideology of assuming networks must be as decentralized and uncontrolled as possible. What my correspondant could be describing is a chaordic organization, co-ordinated only by minimal protocols. Or he / she could be suggesting that there are good reasons for a centre which demands more . I think the devil is in the details of this one. Possibly subtle details of how a campaigning organization is constructed, including it's
constitution, are likely to affect whether it

  • can be constructed at all
  • can reach a unified opinion
  • can delver that opinion authoritatively to government representatives

So my naive first draft at translating how this might be constructed is Wikiarchy. A one level deep hierarchy of wikis.

What would a Wikiarchy be? A place where any interested group who wanted to form a college could sign up and get a wiki
(which members of the college could post to). This college would be able to use the wiki any way that suited them. To structure their discussion however they liked. However, only one page of the collegial wiki would be visible outside the group. This page would be where the college would have to distil their discussion into a unified point of view for presentation outside.

Centrally, there'd be another wiki, comprised of each of these collegial public pages, and with some housekeeping managed by the central gatekeepers. These people would have no editing rights over the collegial public pages, but would have the power to make supplimentary clarifying and indexing pages. They would have a high level control over the structure of the overall wiki, but coupled with a powerlessness due to the recognition that they represented only themselves. (Perhaps colleges could be obliged to publish the number of members, so readers of the central wiki would know how much weight was behind each of the colleges.)

Q : but isn't this top level just a collection of static(ish) pages. How is it wiki? Could colleges edit other colleges pages?

A : Yes. But through a very specific mechanism which, inspired by Ted Nelson, I'll call a transclusion request. College X can add to it's public page, a macro which says something like add this paragraph to college Y's public page. The central wiki then transcludes the
paragraph onto college Y's page. If college Y doesn't like it, then they can remove the insert.

Q : Sounds convoluted, what's the point?

A : If we let anyone personally add anything to college Y's page, then we lose the hierarchical structure and the idea of colleges altogether. It just becomes a standard wiki free-for-all. If we don't let people change college Y's page at all, we've lost the wiki benefits. Given that what appears on college X's public page is meant to represent the common opinion of the college. (howver arrived at), a transclusion request macro on college X's public page represents an agreed desire to add a comment to college Y's page.

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Still thinking about the cost of the war (see below).

Suppose the US had simply offered Saddam and his government $500 million to quit (to create a democratic infrastructure before retiring into luxury). While placing a $500 million price on his head. (encouraging freelancers from around the world to take him out.)

Couldn't this have solved their problems for around a 40th of the current cost? And without either civilian or military casualties

OK, so Saddam is mad and proud. But $500 million is a lot of money. Wouldn't you be tempted? If it was cash, in your hand, and you could spend it on anything you wanted (except buying weapons, of course.).

I guess the argument against this is that it will encourage dictators. But would it really? Dictators can't do it on their own. They need a context, an infrastructure. Most of them come to power in adversity and during civil war. Buying off potential troublemakers early is maybe the cheapest way to maintain a world where such conditions don't arise to begin with.

Of course, no one likes to see evil rewarded. But there are plenty of evil bastards in capitalist democracies, running the corporate world. Arguably they do less harm there than in the strifezones where they become local warlords. Their agression is channeled into competition rather than killing.

Why don't we like to see evil rewarded? Probably because we have an instinctive urge to, as the game theorists put it, punish cheaters. But perhaps this instinct, like a sweet tooth, doesn't serve us well out of the context where it evolved. In a world of WMD, international treaties and big stakes, maybe our instincts are leading us astray.

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

New ideas are cool. But some are so stupid they hurt :

‘Ala’, a brand detergent created specifically to meet the needs of low-income consumers who wanted an affordable yet effective product for laundry that is often washed by hand in river water.

That's a good idea, Unilever. Sell branded fucking detergent to the natives who wash their clothes in the river.


Cute smart mobbing application

Where's George harnesses the swarm to track the movement of dollar bills. Pointless, but cute and probably heralds more serious applications to come.

Bush's accounts

  • Military operations: $44bn
  • Call up of reserves: $10bn
  • Munitions: $6.5bn
  • Reconstruction: $1.7bn
  • Humanitarian aid: $500m
  • FBI: $500m
  • Coast Guard: $1.5bn
  • Afghanistan aid: $400m
  • Aid to Israel: $10bn
  • Aid to Jordan, Egypt: $1bn each

source: OMB, Congress

By my calculation that makes the cost of the military part of the war roughly 30 times the amount of money committed to reconstruction of Iraq.

And the poor Israelis (suffering from a recession and a few terrorist attacks) get 20 times the amount of money that Afghanistan (suffering 20 years of US inspired civil war, and an invasion) get.


Monday, March 24, 2003

I pitched the following business idea as a suggestion to Tim Draper on the AlwaysOn Network. I await his comments. Interesting if they turn out to be something like "Google already doing it!".

Step 1 : Build a decent news agregation site, suck in RSS feeds from weblogs etc.

Step 2 : Watch what people read, allow them to build their own custom agregators. Use Amazon style database to make recommendations of "people who read X also read Y", "readers like you also read Z" and let readers create "my blogroll", "my article reviews" etc.

Step 3 : Sign up people who want to SELL content. Use the reader data to introduce people to paid content that would interest them : "readers who have a similar blogroll to you also subscribe to Bob's Exclusive Chanel for only $5 a month", "readers who share your interest also bought the Research Corp. report for $1000" etc.)

Why this works :

It solves the two big problems of selling content online :

a) how do you know you want a piece of info before you buy it and read it?

b) free content is plentiful and of perceived high quality. Actually networks of interconnected information stimulate consumption of both free and paid info (Everyday I'm in the blogosphere I find more webogs I think I should monitor; every time I visit Amazon I discover more books I NEED to read.)

Also this has positive feedback. Once some info channel providers realize they can plausibly sell their content, they'll be tempted to do so. That in turn will increase the amount of quality stuff in the paid sector.
Paid and unpaid content will be symbiotic, often with the same people and organizations building both.

Step 4 : Increase the value of the network, support the infrastructure of social knowledge sharing (provide weblogs, wikis, style group forming) Allow people to build whatever form of social communication support infrastructure they like. If they want to make it free, give it to them and harvest their behaviour data to make better recommendations. If they want to make it paid, provide billing and subscriber management for a small cut etc. etc.

Friday, March 21, 2003

Update on previous

Could a reforming UN (desperate to rebuild it's reputation as a serious institution) promote democracy in it's members?

Suppose the UN created councils, and countries votes on those councils were assigned proportional to some democratic index. Eg. "Saddam, as a military dictator you have only one vote on the security council. But if you allow free opposition parties, universal sufferage and a separation of executive, legislative and judiciary, you get 3 votes"

Would dictators trade absolute power at home for a larger influence in the world?

Here's my Emergent Democracy question. I've just been talking to a friend who's very depressed by the war. We've had the largest anti-war protest movement in history. Tens of millions of people across the world are against the war. Millions have actively protested on the streets.

And yet ...

As my friend points out. It hasn't delayed the war by a day, it hasn't lessened the ferocity of the attack, it hasn't helped achieve the slightest extra agreement or international co-operation.

I pointed out that maybe there's a longer term affect. People politicised by the protests may become involved in other things. It may eventually lead to more engaged voting. But my friend thinks people are already disillusioned with the representative process. He worries they'll get disillusioned with protest / activism too.

That's a worry for everyone. Many of the disillusioned will forsake politics entirely. A few, perhaps those who care the most, may become terrorists themselves, blindly attacking the innocent in their frustration at being unable to reach the guilty.

It's easy to see why this popular mood has no effect. The way representative democracy works is that it asks us to put our trust in unknown representatives, who then decide on particular issues for us. Would I have voted for Blair if I'd known he'd follow the pro-war path?

And it's easy to see why the crowds have no real effect. If I join a protest I am reduced to nothing more than an extra body to count. The most I can communicate of my subtle and complex views is what I can distill into 5 words on a placard. I'm combining with fellow protestors in the least smart, least information sharing, least discursive, least productive way imaginable.

So what can Emergent Democracy do to help? Can it offer us an alternative to both representative democracy and mob-rule?

Can it find a way to allow us to collaborate better, and achieve something proportional to our strength?

Several thoughts :

  • At the one extreme we have the legend of Smart-mobs in the Phillipines as told by Howard Rheingold. A large group of protestors, self-organized using mobile phones and text messages, and brought down the government. The same organiztion occured in Seatle. And I'm sure with the current anti-war movement.

    But using smart tech to form an ultimately dumb mob isn't the way to go. Governments and corporations are learning to ignore things. In stable democracies they know that these manifestations don't translate into votes. And a thick cordon of police will prevent any real trouble.

  • Alternatively, if we all sit at home blogging, we get the discussion, the nuances, the creative interplay of ideas. Sometimes our discussions even bubble up to the political level and get widely talked about. In the media!

    But, as of yet, not much more. Anti-war blogging certainly did nothing against the war. I'm not sure that even the pro-war blogs actually affected a policy which seems to have been designed in the early 90s.

    So far blogging's political power is parasitic on that of the regular media and dependent on the message perculating across to the press and TV.

  • Online petitions, virtual marches, Fax your MP etc. have a mixed success. It's easy to filter out or ignore them.

  • Black hat hacktivism against government or corporate computer systems suffers the same problem as all terrorism. It fails to achieve anything but a violent reaction.

  • Massive, peaceful civil disobedience allegedly works. And it may work in the case of P2P filesharing forcing a change in copyright.

On consideration, none of these seem to solve the problem of the disenfranchised protestors. There's something missing : a way for the voices of large numbers of people to affect policy that isn't via the media or representatives or a glorified Freemasonry of who knows who through blogging.

It does require social communication technology. It does involve groups of grassroot activists finding each other and starting projects for themselves. But it has to connect with the institutions of state which aren't part of this agoric network : government, the military, the courts and police.

I think we're still short of some crucial ideas.

The best I can think of at present is applying reputation management to elected representatives. Allow people to vote on how trustworthy they believe candidates are on various issues. Allow people to view the ratings during elections. (If this doesn't already exist, Lazy Web should create it) If you categorize, people can make decisions based on their particular policy (do I want a hawk on war but a liberal on drug use?)

But it reveals the other problem of representation : you get policies as a package. What if I want a dove who's liberal on drug use but I only have a choice of libertarian hawk or puritan dove? Could the existence of a system which rates candidates on a number of categories, force those candidates to fragment their beliefs so that they respond to the majority opinion on each one.

Perhaps this is misunderstanding the whole point of ED. Perhaps it isn't about the government institutions. Perhaps networks of activists should boycott other products by the conglomerates that make the weapons. But when defence spending is so high, defence contractors often don't need any customer except the government.

So, smart thinkers in the ED conversation. Help me out here. What institution / culture / technology could have given the anti-war movement any kind of influence proportional to it's strength?

Thursday, March 20, 2003

One has the feeling that Blair is that kind of very decent Englishman who will always say no to drugs and never say no to Washington.


Fucking hilarious ...

Having stampeded us into war, letting everyone think it's gonna be quick and painless, now the Bush and Blair governments start warning : The war against Iraq could take longer than people expect, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon has warned in the wake of the first fighting.

These people are so transparent it's unbelievable.


Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Dave Winer : I hear so much concern for the people inside Iraq. Come on. You right wing guys don't really care about them, do you? If so, why only Iraq? Why not take on civil strife, starvation and disease where ever it happens. I don't believe you really care about the people of Iraq. Sorry.

This is a great essay on what you must believe to be anti-war.

Raed is now essential reading.

Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Cards on the table time


White House declares US forces would enter Iraq even if Saddam Hussein obeys order to leave.


Does this mean the US wants Iraq? Irrespective of whether Saddam is there or not?

OK, a quickie opinion on the war. (Just for the record I'm against ... being rushed into it on a timetable to suit US politics, Pax Americana behind it all, a toughened but smarter containment / diplomacy / sanctions strategy could have speeded disarmament, imposed more democracy and improved human rights, and could do so even now etc. etc.)

But, what I think is going on today is this:

Blair has bought Short's co-operation by promising her a role in the rebuilding of Iraq. Promising UN role etc. Blair genuinely believes this.

But Blair is being strung along by the US

When the war's over and Iraq is under military occupation by the US all these good intentions and promises are going to be forgotten pretty quickly.

The record :

  • rebuilding commitment to Afghanistan neglected
  • Bush government continuously demonstrates neglect of commitments to the rest of the world. (Now they know they're more unpopoular than ever, they feel no commitment whatsoever. Blair can go whistle when he comes asking for an international role in post-war Iraq that doesn't suit the US.)

Monday, March 17, 2003

Paging vs. Scrolling

The problem with this usability study is that scrolling is done with the mouse and scrollbars. Of course scrolling sucks if you have to use that interface.

But I'd like to see a proper comparison with Page Up and Page Down keys; which are my scrolling interface of choice.

You can, of course, support both those users who want scrolling AND paging by using a single HTML document with internal links between page-like sections.

Naomi Klein on the Argentinian war against piqueteros. Here.

Piqueteros, the poor disenfranchised by Argentina's economic collapse, squat not only unproductive land and empty buildings, but also derelict factories, putting them back to work.

A supporter of Hernando de Soto would try to legitimize their property rights over this squatted territory as soon as possible. The existing government, apparently encouraged by the IMF, uphold the existing property rights (often violently) despite the lack of economic activity.

Does xpertweb actually exist? As something I can sign up to like Or is it a specification? Or vapourware? Or what?

The site doesn't do a good job of explaining the status of xpertweb. It talks as if it's already running but there's no joining or using instrucions. Or maybe it's a closed, members only club?

I'm confused.

Rafe Colburn on Perl vs. Java

Sensible(ish) points being made but this strikes me as weird :

Update: you could write Perl code that looks almost like the Java code above, and it would work, but if I saw Perl code like that, I'd think you were a bad Perl programmer. There are too many easier ways to do it to go down that route (this is both the blessing and curse of Perl, as I've mentioned).

Why shouldn't I use Perl to take advantage of the things I like (little type checking, no compilation, late-binding, strings as first class citizens, easy access to reg-exp etc.) while using standard C like control structures which are readable and allow me to switch easily between languages with less cognitive dissonance?

I suspect Rafe of deliberately misepresenting the Perl hacker mindset as snobbish and intollerant. What happened to TMTOWTDI?

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Mitch Kapor quits Groove because Pentagon using it to build surveilance system.

Is this the beginning of Gaming's "punk" movement?

Greg Costikyan : A Specter is Haunting Gaming

Tom Coates worries whether supporting a Laissez Faire attitude towards networks (as in The World of Ends) implies you should become a free market liberal.

My take, posted in his comments :

Tom : I'm looking for someone who can explain to me why it's OK to hold such different opinions, or where the qualitative difference exists that would allow me to reconcile them...

For me the difference is this. On the internet we only care about the overall, statistic properties of the system. If a packet gets lost, no problem, send it again. Packets are dispensible. The global economy is different because we care that the individuals have rights and dignities which we must respect. If a kid goes hungry, that may be a good thing from an overall perspective. But we have a moral obligation to treat this as a failure of the system.

Monday, March 10, 2003

and the blogroll's back too ...
continuing the debate left off in BlahBlahWorld

Why have I been homeless so long? Partly 'cos I got out of blogging and into wiki-ing. (Coming soon)

But sometimes, lack of a real blog is a positive social embarrasment ...
guess who's back ... tell a friend.