(Further) OpenTech thoughts

There was an O’Reilly stand (well, table) at OpenTech, which had a dazzling array of O’Reilly books. O’Reilly books nearly all have a distinctive, but as of yet has not become boring, style of animal engravings on the front (sometimes with puns – Python books have pythons, shell scripting books have tortoises, etc.). Which got me thinking… what if O’Reilly runs out of animals? Alright, there are a lot of species out there, but there’s also a lot of O’Reilly books. I envisaged a nightmarish future where O’Reilly goes evil, enters the genetic engineering industry and starts churning out transgenic species – half-dolphin, half-cougar, something like that, just for the purposes of making new cover art. Anyway, I took advantage of the local discount and bought Mind Hacks – the title is a slight misnomer IMHO but it’s still a really interesting book.

Alright, some seriousness. In the midst of my last post I omitted some other interesting people; Rufus Pollock and Tom Chance of Free Culture UK and Remix Reading, both of whom talked of the importance of grassroots open culture, getting actual artists and creatives to jump in and start producing and using CC-licensed stuff (which is good, and a damn sight better than last year’s music remix speakers, who didn’t really care for Creative Commons). I agree with them, and think very much the “get people to take part first, and then introduce all the intricacies, legal issues and differences between users as part of the practical learning curve” approach advocated works best – getting people working with them hands-on is the way forward.

I also missed out some stuff we saw from the Backstage BBC developers – social tagging of BBC News stories is just the beginning in this area, I think. There was also Social Documents, a collaborative text-annotation project which could be really cool for schools and universities to work on

Some good blog posts on the day’s events: Ewan Spence, the guy behind the iPod shuffle shuffle tells all, Vagueware provides a good summary of the day’s events too, as does Chris Green and Neil Turner. Tom Reynolds recounts his moment on stage, while there is the odd dissenting voice about the whole thing.

Davblog also talks about it, before entertaining the scary notion of a Greasemonkey arms race did slightly worry me – although the author corrects himself slightly in saying pages won’t be entirely unreadable if websites obfuscate their code, Greasemonkey’s job of parsing the tree is certainly easier in well-marked up HTML (e.g. using <h2> rather than <b><font size=”+2″>), and although it won’t stop scripts being made, it might set back the semantic web cause somewhat. But the entire point is that this kind of thing should be embraced by the mainstream, and so we should attempt to co-opt the content producers and start telling them that this is a good thing (the customer is always right, right?) until (eventually) they start to listen (hopefully).

One talk I missed – promise.tv looks really exciting, and I wish I’d gone to the talk about it – more info about in on BoingBoing (Max and Armand, you’ll probably both be interested in this).

Big thing I really missed, as I didn’t attend the relevant seminar, was Danny O’Brien’s discussion of whether we need a British version of the EFF. And the result? A nice shiny pledge to donate ?5 a month to a British EFF. Go on, sign it. Danny talks more about it in detail here.

And finally – Technorati’s list of posts about Opentech and an enormous set of Flickr photos tagged accordingly. And most fun of all, the audio streams of the day are also up, so if you couldn’t make it all, or regret missing some bits (like I did), you can catch up.

Bombs don’t kill people, coppers do

What to make of the tragic death of an innocent man? Should we now treat the Metropolitan Police, who stand out with their funny dress, different customs and method of speech, with suspicion every time we see one out on the street, or in a train station? Should we suspect all white young men of being potential killers with guns under their jackets, the mysterious “plain clothes officers” who have gone incognito, the better to blend amongst us?

Of course not. Not just because unwarranted suspicion and fear of our police is highly demoralising and counter-productive, but because it is ridiculous. It’s ridiculous not just because it’s obvious that only a minority of policemen wield hidden arms and there only stands a tiny chance that it is you they are going to shoot, if anyone; it’s ridiculous by sheer social convention. We all know the average copper is not going to kill you (even after the cases of Harry Stanley and James Ashley).

The same social convention does not, however, apply if you look or act even remotely like a terrorist. The BBC’s Have Your Say has a telling selection of comments, with many people rationalising that a mere possibility (not high or near-certain probability, just a possibility) of innocent people being blown up is just cause for an innocent person to be shot in the head five times. There’s not even much hand-wringing over the difficulty of it all – it’s straight-off “sod it, shoot them”:

“There should be no witch hunt or scapegoating of the police. I hope they will robustly defend their actions and not be demoralised.”

“As unfortunate as this man’s death has been, I fully believe the police were only acting in the best interests of the public.”

“If anyone carrying a bag on the Tube is running from the police and ignores their orders to stop then they ought to be shot. The lives of hundreds of innocent civilians must be paramount.”

“It is a war we’re fighting and the enemy is not playing by any rules of engagement. Support your police, they are doing it for you.”

Maybe they held these opinions before July 7, maybe they have developed them as a reaction since; either way, the fact that being in possession of a non-white skin and running when men in plain clothes chase after you with guns is now seen by many as just cause to end your life. Of course, it would be interesting to see if the same people would support themselves, or a relative, being sacrificed on this dubious altar of “maybe”.

Scary as this mentality is, it has no bearing on the facts of the case. Was this a cold blooded murder or an honest mistake with fatal consquences? I don’t know, and I am not trying to pronounce guilt upon the man who shot Mr de Menezes – there may well have been sufficient misleading but compelling signs to draw a near-certain conclusion that he was a terrorist about to blow up a train. It’s not up to me to decide. It’s up to the criminal justice system to decide. Jean Charles de Menezes deserves justice every bit as much as the 52 people who were murdered on July 7th, and that means removing the false and dangerous idea that just because a decision is difficult, one should be absolved of responsibility for its outcome.

(First) Thoughts on OpenTech

So… a day at OpenTech (I still prefer the old name of NotCon). Aaanyway, I had a thoroughly good time, tempered only by the fact that I had (unwisely) stayed up drinking till 3 the previous morning, then (along with Tom) fallen foul of London’s night bus system, and didn’t get to bed till 5. Still, on three hours sleep and a pernicious hangover were not enough to distract me (or Tom, who managed to make it too) from the delights that lay within. Having been to several of these now, I can say that the organisers have got things pretty much down pat; OpenTech was quite well-organised, compared to its predecessors; the timing of talks generally kept to schedule and the audio/visual setup now runs pretty smoothly. Unfortunately, a lot of talks and seminars I was interested in happened to clash at the same time, which was a real shame.

The practical open content talk was a good starter; Paula Le Dieu of Science Commons was an particularly nice and engaging speaker, talking without notes on the project: a commons of scientific resources (not just papers but data and even materials and specimens); I would have loved to have talked about the more tacit, less explicit forms of knowledge (working practices, subtle nuances, local habits etc.) which some sociologists of science like Harry Collins have talked about. I’m not sure how they can be shared, apart from maybe setting up databases of people who can register particular skills or experiences, whom others can meet in person to learn from them. Meanwhile, Openstreetmap was launched, an open mapping project using GPS and a community of volunteers, which has an impressive-looking Java applet with which one can edit and annotate data directly onto the map, Wikipedia-style.

The social factors seminar (with some of the guys from MySociety – who I must apologise to, as I met them in the depths of my hangover and wasn’t very lively or conversational as a result) was interesting, as an overview of what kinds of things are out there. However (and the same complaint goes for any sort of social software in general), is that there is very much the case of “build the technical, and the social will follow”, as if the social has no input whatsoever. From a sociology of technology POV the issue is: what key decisions did you make, and how were they informed? Was it purely decided by the technology or were there other factors? Martin Belam from the BBC was a little more open about the role of the user and the design decisions made for the recent ‘special’ BBC homepages for the return of Doctor Who and Live 8, but the influence of the social on the design of the technical is either not appreciated, or perhaps more specifically, is tricky to explain properly. My hunch is that designers and programmers often take many decisions without realising it (especially OSS programmers, if they are doing it from home), and thus asking them themselves to recount their actions and their reasons later can be quite tricky. Maybe we need to transport some into a lab and do some proper ethnographic studies…

The blogging and social software seminar was also good. East London’s favourite paramedic Tom Reynolds was just as entertaining in the flesh as he is online, in his talk on how not to get sacked for your blogging (I recommend the PowerPoint slides, especially if you like cats). Paul Mutton had an informative piece on mapping social networks, which was good, but at the moment his diagrams are not telling us much more than what we know already. The content needs to become richer – lines between nodes should have different types (love/hate/gossip/jokes etc.), maybe different weights for different directions (does one person dominate the other?). The discussion afterwards was dominated by discussion of another project, What Should I Read Next? (a free/open version of Amazon’s recommendation system that does not rely on a purchase actually being made), which I fear may bomb once the publishers catch on and spam it to death.

Jamie Zawodny of Yahoo! gave a good if not highly illuminating presentation, talking a lot of good stuff about open access to APIs, RSS and combining and aggregating data from many sources, which set up nicely for the final talk, which was on web applications, and things like Greasemonkey, the demonstrations of which were highly impressive (having resisted the urge to start hacking Greasemonkey things together, I now really, really want to play catch-up and start writing one right now). Some of the apps (especially Book Burro) were very small, self-contained examples of high-quality need identification and innovation by the user.

In all, OpenTech was good, although somewhat less exciting than in previous years – while it is a good, no, actually a great thing that the likes of the BBC, Yahoo! and Amazon (who all had presenters there) are now considering the open source/open access/hacking/user-led innovation/whatever you want to call it as a resource, it doesn’t mean every presentation has to be as serious or straightforward. While in past years there was live hardware hacking on stage and construction of clocks from prawn sandwiches, there wasn’t enough of the conference oriented towards useless fun rather than practical fun (apart from the disastrous iPod Shuffle shuffle, where people would donate their own Shuffles to a pool and get a random one back – lovely idea in theory but too impractical to actually do). There was motherboard kerplunk but it wasn’t officially on the timetable and so I missed it.

Still, I had a good time and there were plenty of interesting things said. My one regret was that with little break-time during the day (and my feeling under the weather) I didn’t get to talk much to people, especially as I had to leave pretty soon after it ended for another enagement (so apologies to anyone I met and said I would meet later). I still need to watch the half of the conference I missed (in particular the BBC Backstage launch and Danny O’Brien on the need for a British EFF).

Right, off to enjoy a very rainy Sunday. More reflections on OpenTech to come (hopefully).

Destination: London

Today’s eerily reminiscent, but also pathetic bombings in London provoked two reactions – firstly, “OK, the security services can be forgiven for not knowing anything about the first one, but they’ve really dropped the ball in letting this one slip through, in the midst of the biggest anti-terrorism investigation ever”.

Second reaction is about the bombers – “You fuckers, you’ve closed all the Tubes just in time for my weekend visit. Bastards. Bastards. Bastards.” Yes, I’ll be down there this weekend, and if anyone else is going to Open Tech on Saturday then look out for me; I’ll be more than willing to have a chat and drink during the day.

Battle Royale

The other day it was my, er, pleasure to watch Battle Royale, the cult Japanese Lord of the Flies meets The Running Man (whilst on crack) movie. The basic premise is that a government, losing control of the nation’s youth, tries to reassert its authority by instituting a brutal social programme. Every year, a randomly-selected class of school pupils are drugged, taken to a remote island, given weapons and told only that they must kill each other; the last one surviving will be allowed back home as an example of the monstrosity they are clamping down on.

My first thoughts on watching it was My God, I just hope no-one from the Home Office watches this. My more settled thoughts are that it’s not a bad film, it has its flaws for sure, and no doubt some of the best dialogue is lost in translation (such as this – warning, spoiler), but it’s quite a stark telling of what happens when otherwise innocent and happy people are demonised, ghettoised and made to turn on each other. More refreshingly, there’s none of the crap that you’d get if there had been a British version, which would no doubt try and hook it up with the whole reality TV phenomenon merely to please the likes of Mark Lawson and Zoe Williams, happily chin-stroking in the media columns (aargh, my thoughts are polluted by Ben Elton’s Dead Famous). Nor is there the shlocky post-ironic fauxmodern, let’s see how cool you can make yourself look by referencing as many films as you can throughout (and if we can get some boobies in there too, that’d be great) that you’d get if it was turned into an American slash flick. No. No blatant and desperate attempt to be seen ‘commenting’ on ‘current issues’, no egotistical worship of false idols, instead, it’s good, old-fashioned combination of brutal violence, betrayal and emotional bonding, with just the right amount of gallows humour, which nicely makes what satire there is much more subtle. It is uncomfortable to watch, absolutely, but that’s because it’s honest: it’s human beings mercilessly killing other human beings. You should be uncomfortable watching it.

Applegate’s first law of mashed potato

You can never have too much mashed potato.

After finishing dinner today, I’ve realised that every time I have mashed potato (which isn’t that often, I hasten to add, spuds are always more of a chore to prepare than rice or pasta), I am preparing larger and larger portions. And then after the meal, when I am all done, I will head back to the pan I mashed them in and scrape out what’s left. No matter how much I make, I am never sated. It’s quite worrying, really – mashed potato is one of those foods that tastes absolutely delicious (especially with a dab of pesto, or some fried shallots or spring onions, mixed in) and yet doesn’t make me feel that full. I’m getting worried now – especially as I know if I made chips out of so many potatoes and then ate them I’d probably drop dead on the spot.

To top it off, I’ve just remembered have a box of instant mash in the cupboard for emergencies, and now I have a terrifying image of me making a midnight dash and guzzling half the packet, before suddenly feeling terribly, terribly ashamed. Hmm. Might have to go for a brisk walk to clear my head…