Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Dave Rosenberg's The Battle for the East End

I really enjoyed reading this, and learned a lot about a struggle that I thought I already knew about. There is a lot of detail, and some really well chosen anecdotes and presentation of primary material. It would have been nice to have had more pictures, though these are available in lots of other places.

It's a very generous book. The author freely admits that most pre-war BUF members went on to fight for Britain against Hitler. He acknowledges Mosley's personal charisma, and the extent to which his economic ideas were genuinely advanced and even progressive. He's more than generous about the role of the Communist Party in the fight against Fascism, though he gives appropriate space to dissident Communists like Joe Jacobs who have criticised the sometimes dismal tactics adopted by the Party (until the 11th hour of the Battle of Cable Street it was telling militants to stay away from the East End and go to a rally for Republican Spain in Trafalgar Square).

In fact, the only group about which he's not generous is the official Jewish leadership, principally the Board of Deputies. It's easy to despise the supine, cringing attitude of the Board - which argued that Fascism per se was not a Jewish issue, and that it placed full trust in the tolerant culture of the British people and the institutions of the British state. But that's been the political strategy of Jewish leaderships pretty much everywhere for at least a thousand years, and while it's not pretty it can be said to have worked, at least for the leadership groups themselves, for most of this period. Allying with the authorities to seek protection from popular discontent is what Jews have done. Since most rebellions and insurrections up to the modern period failed, it was a strategy apparently justified by history. And it's not obvious, at least to me, that when these leaderships praise the wise and tolerant authorities, that they are as stupid as they seem to be. It is at least possible that they understand what they are doing - that they know that the British people are actually at best ambivalent about immigrants, but that they think it's wiser to praise them for their tolerance, and then to appeal to that 'better nature' than criticise them for their lack of it. They might be wrong, but that doesn't make them stupid.

My other criticism is that the book doesn't locate the Jewish struggle against Fascism in the East End in terms of the overall politics of the CP. It was Mosley's misfortune that the critical time for his movement coincided with the CPs turn to the strategy of the Popular Front, and that this strategy seems to have been successful in the context of the Jewish East End in a way that it was not pretty much everywhere else. By and large the CP's strategy of allying with the "progressive wing of the bourgeosie" was a terrible failure. In Spain it led to the crippling divisions within the workers' movement and the persecution of the left. But among the Jews of the East End, where the 'progressive businessman' was at least not an oxymoron, it made some sort of sense. The immigrant community contained lots of people who identified with the left even though they are middlemen, professionals, or petty traders.

It sort of sticks in my throat to see the CP characterised as 'democratic forces'. Actually this is the CP of Stalin, and its fight against Fascism was about to take a most unusual turn. The strategy that it adopted in fighting Fascism was always subordinate to foreign policy needs of Stalin's USSR. Maybe the Jewish People's Council was not only a CP front, but it didn't survive the CP's twists and turns, and it didn't become an alternative centre of gravity for the Jewish community.

Nevertheless this is a great, readable book which I heartily recommend.

Friday, November 16, 2012


I made some kvass. I'd had it from a stall in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, and it had stuck in my mind as a nice not-too-sweet soft drink.

I mainly used this recipe but I also followed the 'raisin in each bottle' technique from another recipe. I bottled it in PET water bottles and I gave them a good squeeze before I screwed the lid on. Even so they fermented a lot, and several of the bottles exploded, a bit like in this video.

Still, the kvass was nice, if not exactly like the one I had in the USSR. It was a bit darker. I suspect that this mildly fermented drink is a bit like what the 'small beer' that they drank in the middle ages was like.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Karen Armstrong's History of God

Putting my review here, in case the tax-dodgers at Amazon get grumpy and refuse to publish it.

"Lots of interesting information about debates within Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but a rather partial account that focuses on the intellectual content of these debates rather than their social, political and institutional context. So lots about the debate within Orthodox Christianity about whether God has one substance, or whether he is three or one person, but nothing about the process whereby Christianity became the state religion and how that related to the need for a single position on doctrinal matters. Similarly with Judaism - you'd think Hasidism emerged just as a reaction to intellectual currents within rabbinic debates; the massacres of the 1640s, and even the name of Chmielnicki, don't even figure.

Perhaps more important for this atheist reader, there is a sleight of hand which is barely acknowledged. The God worshipped by Judaism, Christianity and Islam is a personal God, and the idea for him emerged from a tribal deity that was very much associated with some human and some super-human characteristics. The God of the philosophers - some distant first cause without any personal or human characteristics - is a very different entity (or as she would have it, not actually an entity at all, but something more profound). It might make sense to build a set of social institutions around placating and 'worshipping' the personal God, but the second one can only be contemplated. Worshipping it makes no sense. And yet religious clever-clogs, and people who make a living out of religion, somehow manage to conflate the two. It would be unfair to say she doesn't write about this, but I didn't see it satisfactorily addressed.

That said, there were some really good parts in the book. This is the first time I've ever understood why it was so important for the Greeks to have those rows about the essential nature of the trinity - it was an argument about the limits of human understanding and cognition, which is important for us now in relation to cosmology and physics, but the Greeks didn't have the instruments, so they made it a discussion about God. And she also touches on the way that the Romantics replaced a sense of the divine with a sense of the aesthetic, particularly in relation to nature. As one who only has what other people call spiritual feelings in relation to this sort of thing, it's nice to know it has a lineage, and it actually made me want to go and read Keats and Wordsworth.

So all in all, time well spent, despite a nagging feeling of dissatisfaction about the book."

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Web of Things company Evrything and Plato's theory of forms

Went to see Evrything yesterday - an interesting Internet of Things start-up with a heritage in the really rather clever Web of Things group at Zurich University. Lots to say, much of which I will cover in a proper Ovum report in our new 'On The Radar' format. A few things that won't go into that can go here though.

I couldn't help being struck by some of the philosophical aspects of what the company is trying to do. Essentially it wants to create a digital version of physical objects, and to use this to link to applications and control systems. It's not all that interested in exactly how to establish the linkage between the physical and the digital object - it knows that this can be done, and that there are various communications media and protocols that can be used. It's more interested in managing the digital version of the object. There is no particular reason why the digital version of the object should not continue to live on after the 'death' of the physical object from which it was derived - the digital avatar of my Ikea table lasting longer than the table itself.

This reminded me of Plato's theory of forms, whereby actual cubes are but imperfect copies of the 'real' cubes which exist in the perfect world of forms. I think that the Gnostics developed something of a spiritual and moral doctrine out of this, and a theological one that said that the imperfections of the physical world proved that it was created by a malign demiurge rather than the perfectly good God who was the real ruler of the universe.

Not sure exactly what relevance this has to Evrything's technology or business model, but I can't stop thinking about it - and about the implications of physical manufactured goods beginning to have digital lives of their own, separate from their physical antecedent.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Reflections on The Year of the Flood

I've been thinking a lot about 'The year of the flood' lately. I read it a couple of years ago, but I haven't stopped thinking about it. It's a good novel – not exactly enjoyable, because it is a dystopian fantasy, but very thought-provoking and not entirely devoid of hope.

It's set in the same scenario as 'Oryx and Crake'. There are some good characters and plot twists, but the real business of the book is the group known as God's Gardeners. The group is interesting because it is a survivalist cult with liberal, left-wing leanings. The group is religious in form. It prays, it has sacred books and songs, and it teaches its youngsters through catechisms and repetition. There is a strong suggestions that this has been a deliberate strategy by leaders who don't believe literally in their own religious teachings, and who have covertly used aspects of the modern world like computers that they present to their followers as somehow unkosher.

The Gardeners expect that some sort of catastrophe is coming – the 'waterless flood' – and their practices are mainly about preparing for that. They teach the members, especially the young ones, how to grow food, prepare medicines from natural materials, and how to defend themselves against attack. They prepare stashes of food and materials in secret, inaccessible places called Ararats, and they learn how to get by without many modern tools and social structures. Perhaps most important, they prepare mentally and culturally for the inevitability of disaster. Although their ideology might be thought of as deep green, they are primarily survivalists rather than political activists, though some are involved in conventional political activity sometimes.

When it comes, the flood is not what they seemed to have been preparing for. It's not triggered by the internal contradictions of a civilization that has drawn too heavily on its supporting environment and fouled its own nest, though Atwood depicts that toxic reality very well. Instead, the collapse is caused by an extraneous factor – the laboratory-made epidemic distributed via combined aphrodisiac-contraceptive pills described in Oryx and Crake. The plot concentrates on the experiences of a few of the Gardners, both before and after the collapse. There is no attempt to portray the survivalism as an overwhelming success, but it nevertheless does help a few cult members to live through at least the initial stages of the disaster.

Survivalism is rare among greens. This is surprising really, because lots of us are not particularly optimistic about the future. A lot of the climate change activists that I know have little faith in the readiness or the ability of politicians or states to deliver the change needed to prevent even runaway climate disaster. “Sustainable business” is mainly greenwash, and community action and bottom-up initiatives are whistling in the dark – they make the people involved feel better, but they do nothing to turn the supertanker that is our catastrophe-bound civilization.

So why aren't more of us preparing our own personal or even communal adaption and mitigation strategies? Is it because it isn't done to admit defeat on the political question, for fear that if only we had held on and continued to believe we might have achieved a happy ending? Or because we've grown up with too many movies and books in which the central characters win through in the end, despite overwhelming odds and a seemingly-impossible situation?

Interestingly, the Right doesn't have this problem. Before their recent turn to climate scepticism, the BNP used to think a lot about ecological catastrophe – particularly around the issue of Peak Oil, which fitted nicely into a nationalist world-view. Rightwing blogs and websites carried a lot of discussion about how to move to the countryside, grow food and prepare for the coming collapse. I haven't looked lately, so I don't know if it's still there – there is only so much poking around in those corners that one can take.

Perhaps it's time we at least started to have some conversations about community-based responses to climate change. To its credit the Transition Town current (which elsewhere I have been rather critical of) at least does this, albeit in a rather apolitical, Poujadist sort of way. At least it's a start. Time to engage; at the very least, the sign of us actually preparing to deal with catastrophe will have some rhetorical value, as evidence that we really do think that the shit is going to hit the fan – that we are not just talking about climate change as part of some bureaucratic conspiracy to cheat honest Daily Mail readers out of their God-given right to cheap electricity and petrol.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Fifty Shades and the sadomasochism of everyday life

Lots of women are reading 'Fifty Shades of Grey'. Really really lots. They read it on trains, on planes, in airports. Quite a few of them complain that it was badly written and that it was a struggle to read all five hundred pages, not to mention what a drudge it was to read the sequels. Some compare it adversely to 'The Story of O', which was much more literary, apparently. Few mention that it was any sort of turn-on.

What's unusual about Fifty Shades is that it's S&M for women. Although it's often taken for granted that womens' sexuality is somehow linked to masochism, there isn't much evidence of this in the form of material actually aimed at women. There's a huge amount of material designed to gratify male masochism. S&M permeates 'straight' male porn, and non-porn or 'soft porn' depictions of sexy women. Fetish clothes and props like whips and riding crops abound. These objects have more or less become signifiers of sexualisation. Images of men being dominated by leather-clad women with whips are commonplace in fashion photography and in music videos. What was once a slightly shameful 'outlaw' sexual orientation is now heading for the mainstream.

What is behind this? I think that sexual masochism, for both women and men, is a response to the increasingly complex demands of modern life. Everyday life involves ever more choices. Some of these are trivial (like which of 27 different kinds of milk to buy), but they still take up brain resource. Others are both very difficult to make and of great consequence – how to save sufficient money to avoid an old age of misery while still managing to live somewhere decent enough to bring up a family. This paradox of choice has been much commented upon. It's been observed that the richer you are, the less time you seem to have – because having more money means that more options (even for pleasure) are open to you, competing for your time and mental resources.

Everyday life involves more role conflict than it used to. We are parents for longer, because though our 'children' have their own ideas about how to dress, socialize, and spend their time earlier than their predecessors, they are financially dependent on us until much later in life, because the demands of the education system, the labour market and the current housing market are much more cruel to them. We are children for longer too, because our parents live longer than their predecessors, surviving the physical ailments that used to kill them to 'enjoy' a life of declining mental faculties and social disadvantage in a culture that does not celebrate or value old age. The flexible labour market means that our jobs are not secure, the 'delayering' havoc of repeated waves of management consultant-led reorganisations have done away with the expectation of a career path, and a self-managed career means both frequent job changes and lots of effort to demonstrate 'good attitude'. And that's at the same time as being a good parent and a dutiful child.

There are a few palliatives to this. A few people can manage to practice mindfulness and meditation, consciously and actively clearing this stuff from their minds when it isn't helpful or appropriate – but this is really hard word that takes a lot of training and effort. Activities that offer total engagement and 'flow' can do the same thing via physical discipline, which some people find easier than mental training. Joyful submission to a religious system cuts down on lots of choices and gives strong guidance on how to resolve those that remain. For those looking for a quick fix, safely bounded fear of the kind offered by a horror film or apparently dangerous theme park ride can provide a few hours or minutes of relief by focusing the mind exclusively on present circumstances.

And then there's S&M sex. Sexual arousal provides the focus on the moment, and sexual submissiveness provides the abication of responsibility and the demands of role. Under the control of another, it's possible to escape from all those choices and conflicting demands. For the time of the session, the submissive is completely absorbed in their own feelings, of both pain and pleasure. It's been suggested that the these two sensations are linked rather than opposites, that the distinction between them is not as clear-cut as sometimes supposed – or that at least some people have their wires crossed in such a way as to confuse the way that they experience pain and pleasure.

That may be so, but I think the pay-off from sadomasochism is primarily social and cognitive rather than physiological. The benefit is the freedom from choice and responsibility; pain is the price that the submissive pays in order to lend versimillitude and make it feel like the freedom is genuine. That's what the props are for too – the whips, the bondage, the fetish clothing. They are necessary to sustain the fantasy, in the same way the price of a lottery ticket is needed to sustain the brief fantasy of winning the lottery. Having nasty things done to you, or being forced to do nasty things, is proof to yourself that you really can't make any choices, and are therefore genuinely 'free' from your responsibilities.

This has usually been presented as the domain of high-status men (as depicted in the film about Cynthia Payne 'Personal Services', where all of the clients seem to be generals and high court judges), but it now seems to work for lots of men, and as the success of Fifty Shades illustrates, for women too. We've all got too much responsibility and too many choices now.

The consequence is that S&M comes to stand for the kind of transcendence from the everyday that sex used to represent. When music videos represent a woman as sexy, she wears leather or latex and waves a whip about. Whereas once a sitcom would get a laugh out of allowing a couple to be discovered having sex, now it depicts them as having S&M sex. When an advertisement depicts an executive having a session with a prostitute in his office, she is a dominatrix. For many men, the props of S&M have become quite literally fetishes, in that they are imbued with the aura of sex even though they are not sexual objects.

Ultimately this is bound to lead to disappointment. As  S&M becomes mainstream, it loses the power to offer total absorption. It's one thing for Madonna to suggest that she is a bit of a dominatrix in her personal life as part of maintaining her fifty-year-old 'edginess'; when Kylie Minogue not only incorporates S&M scenes into her stage act but is also is photographed at a charity event with a pair of nipple clamps we've entered a new phase.

The extent to which S&M is already a familiar theme in advertisements suggests that this process is well under way. Eventually that whip will remind you to buy shoe polish rather than take you out of yourself.

There is another reason, too, why S&M sex is not a useful escape route from the pressures of everyday life. Acting out domination fantasies actually takes a great deal of care and attention. Few people really enjoy serious amounts of pain and discomfort. There is a thin line between sustaining the pretence that the submissive has surrendered control and actually hurting. As the anti-porn feminist Andrea Dworkin, and lots of others more sympathetic to S&M have noted, it is the submissive who is really in control of the S&M session. But where can the submissive find someone who is up to this difficult task? More men might be inclined towards submission, but there isn't a corresponding increase in the number of women who want to play the role of the dominatrix. They're all out looking for their own Christian Grey.

S&M is not an escape from the pressures of everyday life but a dead end, an engagement with yet another set of roles and responsibilities to be negotiated. Maybe it would be different under socialism...

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The sharing economy and the casualisation of labour

I love sharing and the sharing economy. I think the idea of collaborative consumption, P2P 'production', and commons-based economics is great. I'm attracted to the idea of sharing physical goods, either through joint purchase, through commercial sharing schemes (like car clubs) which provide 'thing as a service', and through making my stuff available when I am not using it. The internet makes all of this a lot easier, though it's important not to overstate this - after all, public libraries are an old idea.

I like the sharing of 'non-rival' goods even more. There are some things that I can share with you without having to give it up myself - digital goods are an example of this, though not the only one. If I put my music collection in the cloud, other people can enjoy it as well as me, and even at the same time as me. Lots of people do this without any expectation of reward, as part of a reciprocal thank you to other strangers who do the same thing. It's wrong and silly to call this piracy or theft, and to put it on a par with going into a shop and stealing a physical object.

At the same time, it's clear that this does have implications for the earnings of the producers of non-rival goods. We can argue about whether the way that the value chain for such goods is structured means that the main losers are not the actual producers but the bloated middle-persons who sit between the producers and the consumers. But it's obviously true that the internet is making sharing easier, and thereby reducing the returns to the ultimate producer. It's harder to make a living as an independent artist producing recorded music. A little bit of artisanal production and the life-style that went with it has been destroyed by the forces of the internet. These forces include not only me and you sharing our records on an 'outlaw' website, but also the massive advertising businesses of the internet, who make their money by selling our eyeballs to the sellers of physical and other goods. These are as much winners from the sharing economy as the musicians are losers.

This is not a unique phenomenon in history, as the history of printing, and then radio, show. There was a time when the production of illuminated manuscripts allowed some people (mainly monks) to sustain a higher standard of living than the pure sale of their labour power would have given them. There was a time when being able to manipulate a wooden pen and steel nib to produce nice handwriting was skill enough to provide a decent living.

The latest generation of 'sharing' internet projects takes this one stage further. Taskhub and the older Taskrabbit are happily endorsed sites like 'People who share' as if they were a benign, P2P community-building phenomenon. Taskhub's launch video portrays it in exactly that way, with a little group of more or less equal people taking each other's dogs for walks, doing each other's ironing, and then getting together for a party. This is just dishonest. These 'task' sharing sites are not about sharing at all; they are about making the market for low-grade casual service work available to more buyers, and making that market work more efficiently so as to drive the price of casual labour down. It's a nineteenth century hiring fair, with all the misery that this entails, but hidden away behind screens and avatars.

The return of domestic service over the last twenty years has been little discussed. Alongside Downton Abbey and the return of Upstairs Downstairs, many people who cannot afford full time servants nevertheless buy domestic service on a part-time, cash-only, undocumented basis. The proliferation of dog-walkers, cleaners, child-minders and so on indirectly provides a cheap labour subsidy to these people's who employers, who can get them to work for longer hours because the reproduction of their labour power is done for them more cheaply than they could do it themselves.

Many of the buyers of domestic services see the relationship as mutually beneficial, and so it is - as are all buys and sells of labour power in a 'free' market. They are just not equally beneficial. One side in the market is in a much weaker position than the other. They are often women, often immigrants without documentation or language skills to get better jobs, often needing to work around their own childcare needs. The absence of little lace caps and aprons as servants' uniforms makes this culturally more acceptable.

Task sharing sites are not part of a 'commons-based' approach to sharing out the work; they are away of expanding the market for domestic service to a new layer of users, and in the process driving down the price of casual labour to the lowest possible level.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

On Democratic Socialism

Revolutionary socialists have a narrative. In that story, the capitalist system and the power structures that sustain are overthrown by an uprising of the workers, more or less organized, and more or less led, by a party of revolutionaries with a sense of opportunity and a winning program. The power of the state is more or less seized and used to destroy the power of the capitalist system and its ruling class.

Democratic socialists have a narrative too. In their story, a party of reforming socialists wins an election, takes over the reins of the state, and uses its power to re-organize the economy and redistribute wealth and power. This doesn't happen all at once, but the first steps towards it prove sufficiently successful and popular for the reforming socialists to be re-elected and take the plan further forward. Society thereby becomes more fair, equal and humane, without all that nastiness of fighting in the streets and firing squads.

In their occasional engagement with revolutionaries, democratic socialists are keen to point out how rare successful revolutions have been in advanced capitalist countries. Uprisings are neither necessary nor possible, and the revolutionaries are indulging themselves with a retro-bolshevik fantasy rather than taking part in the serious work of proper politics. A fair point.

But how realistic is the democratic socialists' own narrative? For it to make sense we have to believe:
  • That a party of the left will actually adopt and seriously advocate a program of major reforms – in the face of the criticism and ridicule that it will face from its external opponents and the mass media, and despite the internal resistance to adopting policies which are 'unrealistic' (that is, counter to the interests of the rich) or 'unpopular' (that is, criticised by the mass media).
  • That the party will be able to win an election on the basis of this program – even as the external criticism builds, and the army of 'independent experts' from mainstream economics, think tanks, and 'business leaders' constantly explain why it runs counter to the natural laws of the market.
  • That after it has won the election, it remains committed to the program, despite all the further obstacles and discoveries about how difficult it is to implement in the face of obstruction from within the machinery of the state (including both the bureaucracy and the organs of state only nominally under democratic control), and continuing domestic and international pressure.
  • That the powers of the government are sufficient to carry through much of the progam, despite the limits set by 'the rule of law', international treaty obligations and the power of the financial markets.
  • That despite all the inevitable setbacks the party remains popular enough to win further elections so that its steps towards a fairer society can be sustained rather than reversed – and of course, that the government is not overthrown by force or other means, or that its ministers do not meet with unfortunate accidents or assassination at the hands of 'lone gunmen'.
We don't need a whole hand to count the examples where this has happened. Most of these relate to historical episodes where the legitimacy of the 'natural laws of the market', and/or the authority of the traditional ruling class, has collapsed as a result of manifest economic catastrophe, defeat in war, or collaboration with an external enemy. In other words, the democratic socialist narrative is as much a fantasy as the Trotskyist wet dream of a re-run of October 1917. It isn't going to happen.

The Swedish example is probably the closest that reality can offer to match the democratic socialist narrative. What is striking about it is (a) that it has been replicated so rarely – few other European countries have seen long unbroken periods of rule by democratic socialist parties and (b) how similar the result is to what has been achieved in other northern European countries without the repeated electoral success of democratic socialists.

Take Germany, for example. Here too, as in Sweden, there is a different model of capitalism, with a greater role for direct state intervention in the productive economy, more tightly regulated labour markets and housing markets, alternative frameworks for finance and investment, and a modicum of redistribution to protect the weakest and innoculate against the spread of 'social problems' resulting from the market allocation of wealth. And there's legislated worker participation in management, equality legislation, tight environmental regulation. And all this sits alongside a fundamental unequal distribution of wealth and power, private ownership of the media, capital markets which are open to international participation. For democratic socialists in Anglo-Saxon countries, Angela Merkel's Germany is the pinnacle of what they might aspire to.

All this rather begs the question: if the German model of capitalism is what we are aiming for, what is the point of democratic socialism? If there is a 'realistic' aspiration for something more, apart from sustainable careers for democratic socialist politicians in administering this utopia, then I think we should be told. And if not, and this kind of 'feasible socialism' of redistribution and intervention through market mechanism is the best we can hope for, then maybe it's not the party of the left that ought to be the object of our attentions, but the party of the democratic right – perhaps the problem isn't that we have the wrong socialists with the wrong program, but that we have wrong conservatives.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Alcoholic ginger beer

No claims for originality here, except that I have metricated and reconfigured the amounts to fit my saucepan and fermenting vat.

To make 10 litres of  ginger beer: 
  • Use 0.36kg of peeled and grated ginger root, 2.1kg's of sugar, 2.5 lemons - juice, but also zest. 
  • Boil and simmer all ingredients in a large pan for 30 mins (enough to get really lovely ginger taste). 
  • My biggest saucepan is 5l, so I do all the ingredients in that much water then pour into fermenting barrel, and top up with cold water.
  • Make sure water is lukewarm and add 1 sachet of champagne yeast - I bought it on ebay for next to nothing.
Wait 7 days. Bottle, leave for further 7 days at room temperature. 
This is actually the most tricky part. I use plastic water bottles, and I make sure I squeeze them when bottling to allow room for expansion. I tried bottling in glass once and was lucky to escape with my life. 
After seven days chill and enjoy!

According to the original recipe the finished product will be around 4 - 5 % proof. Not sure if this is true, but it has quite a kick anyway.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Extreme Citizen Science

Last week I attended the 2nd Citizen Cyberscience Summit on behalf of my employer, Ovum. It was probably the most exciting place I've been – at least in a work context – for the last ten years. The conference had been moved at the last minute to the Royal Geographical Society to cope with the unexpected number of attendees, and it was buzzing from the very beginning.

The crowd were mostly young, with a preponderance of postgrads, though there were a few greyheads too. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was fairly evenly balanced between men and women – much more so than most of the industry events that I attend. Everyone was really friendly, in the kind of open smiley way that I usually associate with music festivals. The discussions were lively and good-natured; I think I only heard one tetchy comment across the entire three days.

The fact that I'm writing this up now, having taking three days to digest, is of course a reflection of my age. Most of the other participants were blogging and tweeting as they went, as well as checking out the websites and blogs of the presenters as they spoke.

There was a trend towards the more weird and wonderful as the conference went on. The first day included some fairly mainstream citizen science projects, which were about crowd-sourcing effort and attention – using wannabee-scientists to do some heavy lifting on science projects that might otherwise be difficult to do. Examples included the rather wonderful Oldweather.org, which is about getting historic weather data for climate models. The data source is the logbooks of the Royal Navy, since ships' captains recorded detailed observations (along with time and position) every day of every voyage. The logbooks themselves have been scanned, but the images are not susceptible to machine reading – so volunteers do the reading and the data entry. The reward for this are only symbolic, but the results are fantastic. In one year 24,000 volunteers have transcribed 800,000 logbook pages. Similar projects included Planet Hunters, and Stardust@home.

Interesting to note that there were quite a few Israelis around – the conference was organised by Mordechai “Muki” Haklay of UCL – and his students, organised at the “Extreme Citizens Cyberscience network. Ofer Arazy from the University of Alberta spoke about citizen science as a peer production community, and invoked the spirit of another Israeli, Yochai Benkler. On the second day I found myself sitting next to Liora Malki-Epshtein, another lecturer from UCL. Given recent discussions I've had with friends about what a self-centred, materialistic and unequal society Israel is, I wondered whether the interest in co-production is a sort of protest against the loss of an earlier culture which was - at least ostensibly – committed to equality, sacrifice and voluntary participation.

By the second day – at UCL itself – the tone and the content were more radical and more avowedly political. Instead of focusing on getting citizens to support and participate in 'proper science', there was more emphasis on science that served community activists. There were projects on community noise mapping through smartphones and web apps, projects on community air qualitymonitoring through self-built connected sensors, and a DIY "satellite" imaging kit based on helium balloons and open source software from the US-based Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS).

The inspiration of open source, in terms of both hardware and software, was everywhere. One of the sponsors was the small Italian open source electronics company Arduino, and one of the most compelling speakers was Tom Igoe, a co-founder of the company as well as a lecturer in the completely wonderful Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University. On the third day he led a workshop where those taking part (including yours truly, who hasn't made anything more complicated than a curry for years, and who last wrote a line of code in 1977) built their own sensors from scratch and then programmed them using C.

All around were people sharing things, making stuff together, swapping ideas. There were DIY sensors to monitor the levels in sewage outfalls – the fabulous Dontflushme project, which also included an internet-connected lightbulb.

A few times in my life I've had the sensation of a curtain being pulled back to reveal another world – where all sorts of great things have been going on, out of site, for a long time. I had the same feeling at the beginning of the 1990s, when I discovered the magazine Mondo 2000 and the first few editions of Wired. During the day I was writing reports about “value added network services” for telecoms companies, and in the evenings I read about what weird groups of scientists and 'hackers' were using the internet for. There was, of course, no connection between the two activities. The telecoms companies were not interested in the publication and knowledge-sharing tools of a bunch of particle physicists; they had serious networks to build and commercialize, running important services like EDI, X.400 email and store and forward fax networks.

I had the same feeling at this event. No-one here was likely to become rich from their inventions, and most of them had no interest in doing so. The stuff they are building isn't “enterprise-grade”, it isn't secure, and there isn't a viable business model. Pretty much the same sort of things that any expert would have said about the web in 1992. The tools that these people are making and using, though, will turn out to be important, and they will be part of the story of what the internet does next. 

There is so much more to write about, but I feel I want to post something now, if only so that I can begin to sleep at nights again rather than wondering how I am going to put this experience in to words. It's made me question so much, including what I am doing with myself, and why the practices of the industry analyst companies are all - without exception -- so wedded to outdated industrial-era production techniques and management styles. I can't help thinking that all sorts of businesses, but especially ours that is so much about knowledge production, can learn a lot from the motivations and behaviours of citizen scientists.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Documents in my reference library

A random collection of links to documents - not all favoured, just a place to keep the links so as to file the hard copy (sometimes in the round filing cabinet).












Edward Bond's Bingo

Last night we went to see Bingo by Edward Bond.
We were all pretty fed up with it, and bored at the absence of character or plot development.

I've since had the chance to think about it, and I sort of understand it better now.

Edward Bond is a avowedly Marxist playwright. He thinks he's the English Brecht. He's not writing entertainment – the point of the play is to drive home a point. In this case (as so often) it is that the process of capitalist development involves brutality and cruelty, which is graphically depicted on the stage and described off it. The point is introduced early on the play – Shakespeare meets the nasty Coombs character, who explains that his plans to enclose the common will hurt the poor but benefit the town in the long term. In a short speech he manages to articulate the main principles of capitalist economics – the self-regulation of the market through the price mechanism, the re-allocation of resources to more productive uses, and so on.
The rest of the play is just driving this home. There isn't really a plot, we just see the full implications of this being played out. The poor do suffer, the vagrant girl is hanged, violent disorder and protest is crushed with greater violence. The Shakespeare character is perhaps a proxy for the middle class audience that Bond expects to be seeing the play. He is unhappy about the suffering but is concerned about his own financial security, and so refuses to act. Most of the play shows him not acting, and meditating on the fact that he hasn't. 
Unsurprisingly, this is not very enjoyable to watch. If there is another theme, it is that the family – particularly relations between parents and children, but also between husband and wife – are based on deceit and disrespect, not love. Both of the families depicted are unhappy, though the wife in the servant family is at least kind to her mad partner, while the wealthier Shakespeare is not kind to his mad wife.
So no plot really – just a long speech about the misery of capitalist accumulation, in period dress and with Shakespeare as a character because it's a play.
Here is the link to the good Wikipedia article about the play http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bingo_%28play%29
By the way, the other playwright in the tavern is Ben Johnson – Christopher Marlowe was dead by 1593, and the play is set later, around 1615, when Shakespeare is old.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Why I created my e-petition for a referendum on whether England should leave the United Kingdom

I'm not a nationalist of any kind. I don't think that England would be better off without Scotland, and I wouldn't necessarily call for separation from Scotland if I did. I don't bear Scotland any ill-will – like a lot of people in England, I'm quite sympathetic to Scottish independence. I like Scotland, and on my visits there I have been increasingly aware how much it is already a separate country.

I'm aware of the dangers of letting nationalist genies out of bottles, as happened in Yugoslavia. I'm aware of the danger that England without Scotland will be even more weighted towards the Tories.

I am, though, fed up with shoddy, ramshackle constitutional arrangements that sometimes pretend that the 'United Kingdom' is a federal state, when it so clearly isn't. The collection of 'nations', 'principalities', 'provinces' and what-not that make it up are not treated in anything like a common or symetrical way. If there is a Scottish Office, why isn't there an English Office? Why isn't there an English Parliament?

The United Kingdom is no longer a sensible working arrangement. Political manoeuvring and the games between Cameron and Alex Salmond might allow it to be preserved even further past its sell-by date, but that would be shame when there is a chance to put something better in its place.

I'm fed up with not even knowing what to write in the 'nationality' section on forms, and not knowing where to find my country on drop-down lists – is that United Kingdom, or Great Britain, or England...?

I'm also mildly fed up with the hypocrisy of politicians who pretend that they care what the electorate think, and go through the charade of these e-petitions, but don't really give a toss.

So creating an e-petition on an English referendum gives me the opportunity to have a go at all of this.

If any of this resonates, please sign the petition. It will at least be entertaining to hear the excuses that 'unionist' politicians come up with as to why Scotland can leave the United Kingdom, but England can't.