OpenTech 2008

It was my pleasure to attend OpenTech 2008 at the weekend (having been at these things since their original guise as the NTK Festival of Inappropriate Technology) and jolly good fun it was too (despite my best attempts to turn up late, flustered and hungover). Far better posts will have been written about this – for starters check out Roo Reynolds‘ excellent summary – and also Phil Wilson. What follows is a splurge of my highlights in sort-of chronological order.

First up, the excellent Wattson from the guys at DIYKyoto. Taking the electric meter out of the basement and into your living room, and by making it tell you how much your electricity costs rather than some intangible kilowatt-hours measurement, it could really be a brilliant gadget in these energy-conscious times. A community site for that conspicuous non-consumption streak in you to share & compare with friends is on its way; additionally, Russell Davies‘ idea of making it a game is truly excellent. It is still a bit too pricey at ?150, but a different pricing structure (pay per year rather than in one lump?), some VC for additonal production & economies of scale, and a hookup with an environmentally-minded partner company could make it cheap enough to take off.

Secondly, Alex of The Yorkshire Ranter delivered a great piece on finding arms dealers with Python and some bits of string (which turned out to be a terrible pun). In a nutshell, he screenscraped data from airports’ public webpages describing flights in and out and then mashed it up with Google Maps to provide a tracking service for arms dealers (suspected) planes. He had some nice angles on the obstacles in his track – “typosquatting” of arms dealers’ companies where they vary the spelling, making it hard to track via simple text searches, and how to deal with the many spellings and phrasings of “Kandahar” (in different encodings) among them. I smiled when he mentioned he used Beautiful Soup – if only to expose my own woeful inadequacies: I use the exact same software, but for getting football league tables.

Thirdly, Adrian Hon of ARG designers Six to Start, sadly relegated to the graveyard slot in the smallest room, gave a great walkthrough Penguin’s We Tell Stories. This has little to do with open source or tech hackery, but holds geek appeal in being a masterfully inventive way of trying to tell stories in a more spatial, interactive and non-linear fashion. I thoroughly recommend exploring all the stories on the site, and keeping your eyes peeled for his next project with the BBC which should be appearing soon.

Finally, the guys at MySociety give me a reason to doubt qutting coding as a career with a demo of some of their latest projects (which I had been aware of but never found the time to explore). What Do They Know? is the latest project, a centralised collaborative effort allowing people to make Freedom of Information requests and then publish the information they have received to share with others (and thus save others’ time as well as exposing them to more eyeballs). Still in beta (of sorts) it looks really interesting and as soon as I can think of a decent FoI request I’ll make one through it…

Some of the presentations from the site are available over at Slideshare. And a postscript – the people from MOO were one of the sponsors and provided lots of free sticker books with nice ORG and NO2ID stickers on them (which now adorn my Asus Eee). As Annie reminded us today, MOO are hosting a summer street party in Exmouth Market (my stomping grounds during the working week, happily enough), at which I’ll be, so come along if you can!

Why I’ve stopped reading BoingBoing

Tom yesterday posted a thoughtful and sober piece about the BoingBoing/Violet Blue saga. This is less long-winded and decidedly more pushy. I unsubscribed yesterday, and here’s why.

In short, BoingBoing have removed a series of posts referring to a sex blogger called Violet Blue (someone on the periphery of my awareness – I don’t read her or claim to be a fan). BoingBoing followed up with a mealy-mouthed non-explanation hinting at dark events and asserting BoingBoing’s right to “unpublish” stuff.

No-one is disputing BoingBoing have ultimately own their content and have the right to delete content off their servers – although in the enormous (in fact, the largest I have ever read) MetaFilter thread this is made out to be end of the matter. The real matter here is BoingBoing’s own hypocrisy in choosing to exercise that right, especially coming from a blog that supposedly opposes censorship, berated the Society of American Archivists for deleting their mail archives last year, and supports those that elect not to self-censor after response from their community, such as Digg’s “brave stance” during the HD-DVD controversy last year.

The other argument is big deal, it’s just a blog. Well, BoingBoing isn’t just a blog, it’s one of the biggest in the world and as a business earns a hefty amount of revenue. It has blazed a trail for other blogs and is the model for the rapid change in online publishing – and as I’ve spelled out above, it has long preached values that many blogs have taken after. It’s an important publication, so how it conducts itself is a rightful matter of public scrutiny.

But it’s not just about Violet Blue. I don’t normally read the comments on Boing Boing and it was through the MeFi thread I found out about the standard practice of disemvoweling – removing the vowels to render the comment so hard to read it’s not worth bothering.

Now, I know comment moderation is both tricky and necessary. I’ve removed or at the very least delinked comments on this blog that were spam. I keep a fairly liberal policy of comments here (not that I get many) whether they agree or not, and the only material I’ve ever deleted (apart from spam) has been outright race hate on a BNP-related thread.

This is not the case with BoingBoing’s disemvowelling however, and is best summed up with this post, where the bit of one comment that agrees with them is kept, and the bit that isn’t disemvoweled:

that’s a rad book cover, for what i’m assuming is a pretty rad book. it’s equally rad that people are hand making covers for your book. and admittedly it’s incredibly rad to be on so many excellent book lists.

t’s hwvr ncrdbly nrd tht y pst bt t vry thrtn scnds. thr s fn ln btwn prmtng yrslf nw nd gn n blg t whch y cntrbt, nd bcmng cmpltly slf ndlgd tl. ‘d lk t sy y’r wlkng tht ln, bt n lngr thnk tht’s th cs.

Which thanks to the re-emvowelment tool, probably originally said:

It’s however incredibly unrad that you post about it every thirteen seconds. There is a fine line between promoting yourself now and again in a blog to which you contribute, and becoming completely a self indulged tool. I’d like to say you’re walking that line but no longer think that’s the case.

Maybe it was the use of the word “tool”, but it seems any critcism of Doctorow’s relentless pushing of his “Little Brother” book (Google says 24,900 – probably a few too many but still you get the idea) – and it seems any criticism, no matter how mild, gets struck out.

Ths s jst t mch. Y trnd m ff frm byng ths bk lng g wth yr nrlntng psts bt t. t’s nt bst sllr nd t’s nt th bbl. rlly thnk y cmprms th ntgrty f ths st wth ths ndlss slf-prmtn. Strt sprt wbst t prmt th bk r plcs ds fr t, bt pls stp dmntng ths st wth s mny nn-strs bt t.

which was (approximately):

This is just too much you turned me off from buying this book long go with your unrelenting posts about it. It’s not a best seller and it’s not the bible really think. You compromise the integrity of this site with this endless self-promotion. Start a separate website to promote the book or place ads for it but please stop dominating this site with so many non-stories about it.

To me this is the most obnoxious form of moderation there is. Firstly, by modifying what someone writes it leaves them open to ambiguous interpretation – if the letters “cnt” turn up several times in a post, are they being exceptionally rude or just using the word “cant” or “cent” a lot? Unless you plug it into a program and do a bit of educated guesswork, you’ll never know. Furthermore it’s highly ostentatious – it’s not just enough to clean up a thread, but you have to show everyone that someone’s been naughty and you’re making an example of them. Note that the poster’s identities stay so everybody in class can see who the naughty one is. And finally, as I’ve demonstrated, it’s especially bad when done to silence detractors rather than just people who are genuine griefers.

The arbitrariness and preachiness is summed up in the moderator’s comments they say when closing the thread:

I’ve just disemvowelled eight comments (actually seven-and-three-quarters) in a thread with fewer than 40 comments. That means this thread was over 20% people who think Cory talking about Little Brother is boring, but themselves talking about their sense of entitlement is interesting. So I’ve turned off comments on this thread. I (or Teresa) might turn them back on later today; we might not. Meanwhile, you’re still free to follow the link to Abi’s Flickr set and leave egoboo there.

I’m not sure how insecure you have to be to believe that when less than four-fifths of the thread agree (or at least don’t disagree) with you, it’s a snarkfest that must be closed. Nor can I get my head around the cognitive dissonance where Cory Doctorow yacking on about his book isn’t “egoboo”, but the mildest of complaints is, regardless of validity. And as for the general passive-aggressive tone – “maybe we will, maybe we won’t” – ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.

So, it’s partly the lack of transparency. Partly the sheer hypocrisy. Partly their attitude to anyone who disagrees with them. And partly how rude and snide they are about it. That’s why I’ve stopped reading BoingBoing. And I suggest you do the same.