Network Tiles

John Fass’s cork tile / rubber band / drawing pin methodology for eliciting social networks has become a focus of my work in terms of providing a context for people to discuss their communities, as well as the direct network information it generates.

However, the finer points of the methodology are not yet fixed, and there is also a question as to how robust the process is. Will two people, describing a similar network, generate similar results? If one person is asked to complete the process twice, will they produce similar results? Do these questions matter?

To address some of these questions, I took the opportunity of being on holiday with my family to get them to have a go. I asked them to fill out a network around where they lived, indicating “people, places and organisations”. I interviewed each person separately, half received more detailed instructions, half were shown a photo of a completed tile.

In terms of stability, I found the tile process quite variable. For example, my Mum & Dad have fairly similar networks, but produced very different tiles. My Sister and her two daughters also have overlapping networks, but also produced quite different output. This is in part down to the differing and (deliberately) vague instructions. Of course, it also represents the fact that different people will see the same things differently.

Overall, I felt that showing people a photo of completed tile didn’t help them understand the process very much. The single most helpful instruction (which I was omitting to start with), was to ask participants to put a drawing pin in the middle of the board to represent themselves. Although it is possible that someone might feel they are not the centre of their own network, making this instruction leading, it guides users past the intimidating blank canvass they are otherwise faced with.

Further thought is also required about the hypergraph aspect: should users be able to use one rubber band to link multiple pins?

Roland Burt Visualisations

Reading Neighbor Networks: Competitive Advantages Local and Personal, and looking at his formula for various measurements of the network (density, connectedness, access to structural holes), I was struck by how they could be explained visually in the style of Bret Victor. This may be a project for the future, it would be a great way for me to get my head around Burt’s work.

Continuing development of the Network Observatory

As ever, writing a web app is always a bigger project than you think. It’s the first time that someone else has tried to use the Network Observatory code, and it’s proving a challenge. For some reason, deploying the code to the Modulus hosting services proved to make it much slower, which is annoying, because part of the appeal of the Meteor framework is that it’s fast.

(Which reminds of me of another point – that writing for Meteor has meant a lot of difficulty in terms of not having a relational database, I’ve spent ages writing what is automatically handled by the Rails ORM. There must be a way round this)

Password reset emails weren’t working, the interface does unexpected things, and it doesn’t give enough feedback when users carry out actions.

Hopefully, I’ll tackle these and the app will start to become more mature and usable.

Art Vs Science

I’ve been working on an essay for ages, about the culture clash between the arts and the humanities, but it doesn’t seem to have taken much shape yet. For a long time I’ve been trying to fit it around the structure of an update on CP Snow’s Two Cultures book / lecture. It’s been something of a breakthrough to realise that this is not the correct starting point at all. A project to return to in the future.

What I’m Doing

I’ve wanted to update the headline version of my PhD for a while, but every time I do it, it turns out to be extremely time consuming. Now it’s done, I hope it will be a helpful way for me to describe my work to people; it’s also helped clarify things for me.


Tom Bryan came down to work on a new track for Rifff, our randomised-with-intent sequencer. As ever, plenty of bugs to work out of the system, especially since it hasn’t been used for so long (expired AWS keys etc). But I was pleased to get a whole, new, cogent track up — however at this stage the randomisation is perhaps too subtle to notice.

Barbican Digital Revolution

Went to see the Barbican Digital Revolution exhibition and was struck by how difficult it digital artefacts are to display. On the most pragmatic level, a lot of the exhibits weren’t working as intended, even Will.I.Am’s (‘Artist, Humanitarian, Philanthropist, Inventor’, according to the blurb) obviously very expensive installation had robot instruments that weren’t working. Durable, functional, robust digital / physical artefacts are hard.

Chris Milk’s large scale interactive projection, which, in its favour, was utterly robust, seemed out of place. As a piece of work, I think it’s scale made would have made it more suitable for integration with the architecture of a building rather than presenting it as another exhibit. I felt that might have been a way to minimise the emphasis on the technological aspect of it (‘Using interactive projection!’) and more on the effect, the aesthetics of it could stand on their own.

The most compelling exhibit was a video wall explaining the production process for the movie Gravity, which gave a really compelling description of what was going on, and how complex the production was. A technical feat, but with a purpose: to create the believable world that made a successful film.

Compare with the (musical) keyboard that had each of it’s keys mapped to radio stations from round the world. Cleverly done, well presented, but why? It’s an interesting idea, but I’m not sure anyone has to actually make it.

Roland Burt
Having spent a long time looking for an accademic backbone to my PhD, it feels like at least an area of the literature might be hoving into view. Previous forays into the literature around Human Computer Interaction have been informative, but since only a part of my project is about computer human interaction, it didn’t feel like it was foundational. More over, none of the various approaches to HCI seemed to particularly leap out as a powerful tool for designing better interfaces given my constraints.

The other path I was looking at was using social capital as a yard stick for the effectiveness of any intervention I might do. However, it’s such a broad concept, and it’s so hard to get hold of empirically, that it never really sat quite right.

Roland Burt’s work looks at social capital, but through the lens of networks:- what kinds of connections between people maximise social capital, performance at work, or knowledge sharing? This ties in neatly to the kind of analysis of online behaviour that I’m able to perform.

My hope is that his work, or work that I find through his, could become a grounding theme for my PhD.

This is my first week note, hope I manage to make this a habbit.

Ames gunstock

Ames Gunstock Lathe in the Science Museum’s Making of the Modern World exhibition

The Ames Gunstock Lathe is a tool for carving rifle gunstocks from wood. It functions by running a probe over an already shaped “template” gunstock. The probe is mechanically linked to a cutting head that produces an identical copy from a wooden blank.

According to geographer Jarred Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel, the ability to make guns has shaped global history. Ian Morris, in his book Why The West Rules For Now echoes this sentiment, suggesting that mass-produced guns tipped the power balance away from nomadic tribes and in favour of the sedentary urban populations that we now take to be defining feature of civilisation. Mechanisms such as this lathe are clearly influential in the broad sweep of history.

Specifically, this tool was built in the Springfield Armoury in the United States. The facility’s ability to mass produce guns had a profound effect on American history, and is now a national monument and museum for this reason. The production techniques pioneered there also seeded the Industrial Revolution in the United States.

In terms of historical impact, this exhibit couldn’t have much better credentials for inclusion in a gallery about the making of the modern world. It was the novelty of the mechanism that caught my attention, but what set me thinking more deeply was the attached description:

“This machines’ legacy is the computer numerically controlled (CNC) machining systems that characterise mass-production today”.

Perhaps if the label had been written more recently it would have referenced 3D printing instead of CNC.

To me, it’s not clear the lathe warrants a place in the gallery on this basis. While superficially similar to a CNC lathe in terms of it’s ability to automatically produce a complex form, the two things are in fact profoundly different.

The authors of this description have not appreciated that the Ames Gunstock Lathe has no numerical or computational aspects at all.

The machine is so fascinating exactly because it operates without any level of abstraction. It takes as input one gunstock and makes another with no representational intermediate. In this sense it’s the absolute antithesis of the “information age” in which now live, as defined by the rise of abstract representation.

In fact the lineage that leads to modern computer technology and CNC tools was already well established by 1857. The Jacquard loom used holes punched in cards to control the patterns which it wove into fabrics, a genuine information technology. The link between the Jacquard loom and modern computing is unambiguous. The system of using holes in cards as an encoding method was prevalent in computing right up until the 1960s. Much of the standardisation of punch cards was undertaken by IBM, very much a link to the contemporary.

So the Ames Lathe, which was built 50 years later than the first Jacquard looms, doesn’t feature in the genealogy of CNC machines after all.

Disinheriting the Ames Lathe is more than just an exercise in taxonomy. Comparing the Jacquard loom to the lathe is a case study which can shed light on the defining characteristics of information technology.

Claude Shannon published A Mathematical Theory of Communication in 1948, giving an account of how measure information that is widely accepted. However what information actually is and how it is deployed in technology is less clear.

The Ames lathe is a vivid illustration of the contrast between highly malleable and liquid data which powers the modern world, and the non-representational physical object which has been so much less fertile in terms of innovation.

As far as I can think, the only functional modern device that users an analogous mechanism to the Ames Lathe is the machine used for copying keys at high street shops. Meanwhile, the informational approach of the Jacquard loom was already exhibiting the advantages that make information based manufacturing so powerful.

For example, the cards that controlled the Jacquard loom could be converted into electrical signals, sent over telegraph nearly instantaneously and recreated at some distant location. Conversely, by requiring a physical full scale wooden representation of a gunstock, the Ames lathe can only transmit a design at the same speed as any other medium-sized physical object.

Punch cards can be reordered to produce new patterns in woven cloth with very little effort, while for Ames lathe to produce a new design a whole new template must be hand made.

This ease of manipulation and transmission are the key features of information technology.

For me the inclusion of this lathe says more about the making of the modern world than many of the exhibits in the gallery that genuinely embody computer technology. By illustrating a technological cul-de-sac it throws into sharper contrast the path that progress has actually taken.

Balint Bolygo mechanical sculpture

Device using similar mechanism made by artist Balint Bolygo. In this image it is copying a cast of his head onto paper.

Does it matter if Twitter, defacto forum of online political discussion, is run as a private enterprise out of San Francisco? Could we do better than that?

I intend this post as a survey what might motivate a non-commercial Twitter clone, what it’s scope could be, and what other attempts have been made. It was triggered by at least three independent conversations that I’ve had about why such a thing ought to exist. It feels like everyone is thinking about it.

There’s a very productive analogy between political rights in physical space and those in digital space which can be used as a tool for examining this question.

In public physical spaces we expect to be allowed various political rights such as freedom of speech and the right to protest – for example on high street or in a park. It’s an intrinsic part of democracy, but it’s also part of an important idea that the space is owned by and run for the community.

Many people worry about spaces that are appear to be public but are legally considered private, for example in shopping malls or Olympic Park in East London. These ‘faux’ public spaces could be used to rob us of our freedoms without us noticing. At the same time, most reasonable people accept that you can’t hold a protest in a hospital ward or on a cricket pitch during a game. It’s a balance.

Using this analogy to prime our intuitions, have we got the balance between public and private space right online?

Facebook is an expensive thing to run, hosting billions of photos and messages; it constantly evolves. Without investment, it would not exist. And if you don’t like it, there are other ways to keep up with your friends. For those two reasons I think it’s at least reasonable that Facebook is a private enterprise.

Twitter is different, it’s a classic ‘faux’ public space. It is the public forum for digital debate. Several features ensure it’s a perfect fit for that role: public by default, the follower-followee model, and the @ message system which means that everyone at least has a chance of being heard by their target. From haranguing customer services to following the operation against Osama Bin Laden, it truly is the digital inheritor of the notion of the national town square.

Also, it’s extremely simple. They do huge amounts of work to fight spam and operate at massive scale, but the fundamental mechanism could be written on a napkin. This is not true of Facebook, or, for that matter of Google, or even Amazon. It could exist without lots of money to support it, much as Wikipedia does.

Twitter, or something like it, is the key part of a digital, participative democracy. For these reasons, the commercialisation of the public space that Twitter represents is a terrible deal for society. The balance is wrong.

Freedom of speech should not be at the mercy of a corporation’s terms and conditions. You should not have to see adverts to see what your politicians are saying.

So why not build a free, open version of Twitter?

If you built a Twitter clone only to provide a public online space it could actually be a bit simpler than Twitter itself.  No need for DMs or locked accounts, even favourites aren’t part of the core offer (nor are the complex system of “entities” that the site uses in the background). Just the ability to post and repost updates, to follow and block other users. That’s it.

The Twitter clone’s underlying API (the server) could exactly copy Twitter’s, bearing the previous scope limitations in mind. Just like Twitter, OAuth would solve authentication.

Then anyone could repurpose any Twitter clients they have hanging around to use the new service (I realise Twitter has banned using their API to build clients so not many people will have been developing them, but I’m sure some people have been messing around or have old ones.) A Twitter-style client is not a complex thing to build from scratch in any case.

Even if the API is conceptually simple, scaling is another issue. However, Twitter and Facebook have been open sourcing software that helps solve exactly this problem, for example Cassandra. Given all this, I wonder if building a limited Twitter clone might not be as hard as you’d at first think.

It would also be possible to build a federated version that shares the load between many server owners, though I’m not sure if it would be advisable, for reasons I’ll discuss in the context of Diaspora. If server prices became prohibitive, my first response would be to discard old messages – if the service did gain traction archive could be left to third party services.

Isn’t this Diaspora?

Diaspora is a federated, non-commercial version of Facebook. Fundamentally, it designed to provide privacy, as Facebook does, not the public space that Twitter does. However it does aspirations in terms of non-commercial ownership – in fact there is no single owner at all, instead it’s a connect network of servers owned by different people or groups (‘pods’).

This system points up the complexity of federation. Diaspora’s protocol has to be very complex to allow the transmission of messages between different ‘pods’ while ensuring only people with permission see the messages. One reason to do that is the legal protection offered by a service whose servers are not located in any one jurisdiction.

Our Twitter clone would alleviate a some of this complexity because all the messages are public, however I still think there is danger that it’s too conceptually difficult for average users.

I say that because on Diaspora the technical complexity is very visible to the user, and because of that I think it won’t catch on. Certainly it hasn’t so far.

In fact, I think Mark Zuckerberg saw this. Realising it was a fatally flawed Facebook alternative he donated money to the project to prevent a more threatening rival emerging.

What about is a service that provides an online identity. You can use that identity to log into any of their ecosystem of apps. The first app they offered was a Twitter clone, with the insanely confusing name of “Alpha” (they also have an app called Omega, both of which are presumably in beta). Their thought process seems to have been roughly similar to that outlined above, though focused not on notions of public and private space, rather on ownership of data.

My feeling is that’s project is enormously broader in scope than an open Twitter clone, and that, perhaps for this reason, it doesn’t seem to have gained much traction.

What about encryption? What about the NSA?

All the messages are public, so there is no need for any attempt to hide anything. I’d consider this to be a considerable advantage since it makes the build so much simpler.

So what? 

I’d love to push it further, to a back of envelope calculation of what such a service might cost to run, perhaps restricted to just the UK.

Every day, every day. Every day on my laptop. If feel a bit like a prisoner in solitary confinement who forgets how to walk more than two paces: my arc of gaze is limited to the 13″ of my MacBook. It’s a voluntary arrangement, but it’s so useful I can’t get away from it. Will it be like this forever?

I’m interested in the iPod as activity-specific device. You can listen to music, but not browse the internet or send an email. As a result, it could never dominate your life like a laptop does.  I think we’ll see more of activity-specific form factors, instead of the ‘swiss army knife’, all purpose devices that pervade at the moment.

Steve Jobs said that Apple would not be releasing an e-book because “people don’t read“. Obviously some people read, what I take from that statement is that the e-book market is too small for Apple to bother with. (It’s seems like they were right: Amazon has a particular strategic interest in the Kindle, things like the Nook have not be very profitable.)

What Apple would rather sell is a universal device that can do everything, and therefor has a bigger market. The iPod was a beachhead, a personal device from a time when screen and processor tech made a multipurpose device impossible. Even then, the iPod targeted a use-case, listening to music, that is almost universal. As soon as it could, Apple bought us the iPhone and the iPad, which allow you listen to music, browse the web, any task someone can write an app for. This is a great place for them to be because the market is enormous.

Now they are stuck. What could make the iPhone or iPad or MacBook better? I would suggest there are essentially no improvements to be made to it (I’m not alone). The only things left are incremental tweaks to the OS, battery life, camera technology. Apple isn’t alone in this, phones and tablets all offer similar specs with few obvious areas for improvement, except perhaps battery life. Chromebook laptops are available at virtually disposable prices, and are increasingly reasonable offerings. Especially if you put Ubuntu on them.

The crux of it is that the tech to build a great device is not expensive or rare any more. A Raspberry Pi (£18) has (just) enough power to run an OS and a web browser, which is basically all you need. Any additional complexity can be shunted into the cloud.

The free availability of Android and tailored versions of linux obviously make a big difference, but perhaps the biggest factor is that we’ve stopped demanding faster and faster processors, there just aren’t any tasks a consumer wants to do that are pushing at this limit any more.

For these reasons I foresee that tablets and phones will be increasingly commodified (as do others) in the future. Probably laptops also, however for reasons I don’t understand no one seems to make laptops that are quite as good as Apple’s – perhaps because they have the whole area locked down with patents (just a guess).

I started by contrasting the universal device with the activity specific iPod. I think the pendulum might swing back to the activity specific device while the big manufactures are stuck in a cul-de-sac of increasingly commodified universal devices.

There are two reasons. Firstly, as devices get cheaper it will become feasible to own more of them. Secondly, the only significant improvements remaining to be made to devices are their physical interfaces, moving away from the “picture under glass” paradigm.

An example of this I’ve been toying with is the idea of portable device specifically for writing. It would have an excellent, real, tactile keyboard and a e-ink screen. It might connect to the Internet to save files, but would have no browser to avoid distractions. Without a backlit screen it could have great battery life and be very portable. It could be cheap, perhaps less than £100. I’d buy one.

I think this diversified future is something to look forward to. While Facebook and Google might still dominate the web landscape, perhaps in devices there will be a more pluralistic market. Lower barriers to entry and smaller markets to harbour niche manufactures.

Finally, I’d like to suggest this vision might be a more plausible frontline for the Internet of Things. At the moment, we mostly think of IoT as putting processing power in previously non-digital objects: often fridges, or smoke alarms, or bedside lamps. I’m not always sure these offerings quite ring true for me. Perhaps the slightly IoT-ified tablet or laptop will be the way that ubiquitous computing creeps into our lives. It seems more plausible the computational ubiquity will seep out through devices that look gradually less and less like a laptop, as opposed to leaping directly into the toaster or bicycle.


Every Big Picture event (run by Thought Menu) at Limewharf has been really different, all of them great fun. The last one was an opportunity for Vinay and Smari to sketch out their ideas for the future. Ed Geraghty also spoke, his thoughts were of a very different nature so I’ve not discussed them here.

Vinay & Smari’s visions were radical, and radically divergent. They only spoke for 15 minutes, so they didn’t get a chance to go into detail. Here are some of the salient parts of their views, as I understood them:

  • Smari (video here) wanted national governments entirely replaced by highly localised institutions running along “liquid democracy” lines, possibly using some of the software he has written. He also described a “craft economy”, which I assume means less mass manufacturing in line with his localism.
  • Vinay (can’t find video of this one) suggested that for humanity to flourish we must move manufacturing to the moon(!), while people on earth live in deindustrialised rural villages. Manufacturing on the moon is a necessity because of the dangers of nano and bio technology – in particular that (otherwise useful) biotechnology equipment could be used to engineer apocalyptic bioweapons.

Both of them described intriguing thought experiments addressing existential issues: climate change, disease, resource shortage.  But as I ran the experiments in my head – projecting myself into their hypothetical worlds –  I found myself in a rather disenfranchised society of limited political agency and narrowed horizons. They replaced our broken system with functional but politically uninspiring alternatives.

It’s very easy to conceptualise as yet unborn citizens as a kind of homogenised, infantilised mass whose biological needs are met by the paternalistic helping hand of the utopian envisioner. People are free to make the small decisions (local ones) while the big structural decisions have been taken for them, for example manufacturing safely sequestered to the moon like a box of matches hidden from a child.

I’m sure that neither Vinay or Smari intended this – perhaps it’s a consequence of the short amount of time they had to present. I wanted to point it out because I hear so many descriptions of the future that take an authoritarian approach to citizens.

Local democracy (liquid or otherwise) might empower people to take control of their village, but in so doing it must inhibit or discourage organising at the global or national level – because we all know that the design of a democratic process will influence the outcome, and here localism is the goal. Yet many of the problems we face are global. How can you reconcile the two? Implicitly it is because all of the biggest problems have already been sovled by the architect of the utopia.

In any case – who wants to live in a village? The idea of village life as idilic is an illusion of the rich. People move to the cities because of money, but also because of they are exciting. In their excellent book Poor Economics Abhijit Banerjee & Esther Duflo do a fantastic job of explaining just how boring villages are, and how important boredom is for population dynamics. They point out that in remote villages people will go without food so they can have a television just to ward off the boredom.  Cities are where ideas happen – why should we attempt to deny out future selves the excitement of urbanisation?

It’s striking how much Vinay & Smari would (I think!) dislike living in the worlds they propose. They both love the possibility of acting at the global level, and would hate the idea of living out someone else’s utopian blueprint – rightly so.

At all of the Big Picture events, we’ve focused on… big picture issues. It’s been about global issues, about the totality of the supply chain, about the possibility of large scale, leaderless cooperation. These things are a lot of fun to talk about.  Little Picture Days wouldn’t be so inspiring – how should we run the town hall? On what terms should we trade with the village next door?

It’s telling that the Big Picture Day events could only happen in a big city. How would you get 40 people with niche political views in one place if everyone lived in villages?

We should aim to address existential problems while taking into account that people, whenever they are alive, will be just like us. No doubt some will be happy to live a problem free bucolic existence, but many will want to live in a city and engage with the foment of ideas.

Some people, perhaps an increasing number, like the idea of a craft economy, but others get a buzz out of making the largest impact they can. Writing code scales naturally and globally, which is precisely why people like Vinay and Smri do it.

Our future selves will be as keen as we are to seek out challenges and sacrifice comfort for intellectual stimulation. It’s often said that the past is another country. In our heads the future is another planet – but we should remember that, at least for a very long time, it won’t be.


The campaign for Britain to put Jane Austen on banknotes in the name of gender equality crystallised my thoughts on the way we articulate injustice.

There is a well established template for ethical debate that’s come to dominate the way we think, and it is deliberately reinforced by the way we are taught history. I say deliberately reinforced because politicians, who set the national curriculum, love the template because it distracts us from issues that put politicians in a difficult position.

The fixed ethical template

1) Identify some well defined, discrete demographic, often women, ethnic minorities or gays

2) Investigate to see if there is some sphere in which they are systematically disadvantaged

3) Lobby the responsible authority for change

I absolutely agree that discrimination, as captured by this template, is wrong. I don’t think it’s the only kind of injustice though. Moreover, I think this three-stage model of injustice is vastly over represented in the national conversation.

There is much discussion about the gender wage gap. For the people I follow on Twitter gender inequality is perhaps the salient issue of the day. The gender pay gap is a subtle problem with many contradictory facets. The difference in what men and women get paid for doing exactly the same job is very hard to calculate, and smaller than most people think – though of course any difference is wrong and should be condemned.

Demographic: women, injustice: wages, authority: legislators -  all the hallmarks of an ethical problem that fits the template, and much time and energy is spent on this topic. Especially on Twitter.

There is another group of people who experience a very, very large wage gap which is statistically undeniable: poor people. Yet directly addressing the issue of income inequality is uncommon. If the issue of poverty is so clear cut and so large, why is public debate is so dissipated? I would argue that it doesn’t fit the template. Poor people are not a well defined, discrete demographic. Moreover, it’s not clear who is responsible for inequality – we wouldn’t ask our MPs to make poverty illegal. It’s just not such a neat ethical problem as, say, gay bishops.

Another case study is the shooting of Trayvon Martin. It was a big story because it had the right components: a demographic (black people) were subject to an injustice (vigilante shooting) and an authority (the police) needed to address the situation. I would contend that the problem was not racism, the problem was the crazy stand your ground law that virtually gives the go-ahead for exactly the kind of vigilante behaviour that George Zimmerman was perpetrating. Zimmerman was cleared of the charges not because of a racist jury but because he did not break the law.

Racism & sexism are very comfortable topics for politicians

In the case of Treyvon Martin, politicians got a debate they were very comfortable with. First of all, the vast majority of voters agree that racism is wrong. So if you are politician, it’s a surefire winner to condemn a racist shooting. Second of all, there are no legislative consequences – racist murders are already illegal, so there are no policy implications that flow from denouncing racist murders.

Conversely the stand your ground law, which is the actual problem, is likely to divide voters, and has actual policy consequences:  any politician who condemns the stand your ground law should try to have it repealed. In my opinion, most politicians would prefer to engage with the race debate instead of the substantive, but potentially unpopular, question of stand your ground.

In the case of the gender pay gap, every sensible person agrees that it should not exist. We already have a law against wage discrimination. So for a politician to condemn the pay gap is easy. The wage gap that we currently experience is the result of social phenomena that are very hard to address through legislation, ergo politicians have done their bit. It’s a great campaign topic.

Wage inequality in general is much harder for politicians to talk about. Rich voters, unsurprisingly, will often not want to see this issue addressed. Any politician who says “I want the rich to be less rich” is in a difficult position: there are many policies that would achieve this, and advocating them will be controversial.  Much easier to tackle (or talk about) homophobia, racism, or sexism.

Using history to shape the template

Godwin’s law, that any internet debate will eventually start using the Nazis as an analogy, is a perfect embodiment of the way the template is inculcated through history. Nazi Germany is probably the most extreme example of discrimination by a state. Other episodes include the Civil Rights movement in the US, the Slave Trade in the British Empire, Apartheid South Africa, the Suffragette movement. Certainly when I was at school, these were popular historical subjects. These are all examples where an authority (a government) singled out defined demographics for ill-treatment, even murder. The solution is clear – the authority has to change the legislation or be destroyed. By constantly looking to these past examples of hideous, egregious immorality, we are taught to see the same problems in contemporary society. We are drawing the wrong analogies.

Today, at least in Europe and North America, governments do not support discriminatory laws, and discrimination, which is exists and is awful, cannot be solved by shouting at legislators.

Other historical injustices, which genuinely are analogous to today, go virtually unmentioned. During the long period that Britain was the richest country in the world, a tiny veneer at the very top of society became absurdly rich while most people huddled in slums and got almost no stake in the newly created wealth. The rich miss-allocated their wealth in ludicrous acts of self-aggrandisement, while shaping the laws to make themselves ever richer.  The Corn Laws and Enclosures Acts are at least as salient analogies to contemporary injustices as, for example, the Rosa Parks bus protest.

When we learned about communism in school we were taught that one good thing about it was the equality of men and women, as though the equality of everyone was an after thought.

We’re hypnotised by systemic discrimination against particular demographics, but in truth, we’re (nearly) all getting screwed by a break-away set of super rich people sucking in all the resources.

The fact that there is a tiny cabal of City bankers making a fortune from investing the nation’s wealth with no democratic control and no incentive to look to the long term is terrifying, and it wouldn’t much better if they were a gender-balanced, ethnically representative subset of the population.

Many well-remunerated, London-dwelling white collar workers profess their stand against discrimination almost as though it’s a talisman against the accusation that they themselves might be thoroughly implicated in a system which isn’t really very nice.

In some cases I even feel like rallying against racism and sexism on Twitter is just a kind personal positioning exercise to ensure everyone knows that you have political views that are simultaneously strident and completely uncontroversial.

We’d be better to spend less time discussing which pictures are printed on our money and more wondering about where it’s all going.

* Deliberate at a subconscious level, I don’t think it’s a conspiracy



I made a bookshelf at the weekend. As with the table that I built before (which I wish I’d written up), it involves no screws, nails or glue. I’ve tried to design it so that cutting and drilling isn’t required to be particularly accurate either. The idea with both is to put the complexity into the design rather than the build.

It took 10 standard, 8ft lengths of 2″x 2″ and about 3 meters of dowel. Each length of 2″x 2″ had to be cut once and drilled 3 times. Then I just threaded the dowel through to make a grid. To make it stand up, I tied string between the dowels on the back. Materials cost ~  £70.

You can concertina it back up if you wanted to – I don’t why you’d want that. Or take it right a part into its constituent parts.

Being “on the diagonal” means that you can use tension to make it stand up, unlike a standard “vertical / horizontal” bookshelf.  Well, actually, you could use tension on a “vertical / horizontal” bookshelf, but it would be hard to stop it wilting in one direction or another. On the diagonal, it balances itself.

The strings at the back are under quite a lot of tension, and each play a note when plucked. They are about C, A# and D, as determined using a guitar tuner. It might be possible to tune them properly by rebalancing the books.

If you look carefully, you’ll be able to see a VHS copy of Hangin’ With Leo. I hope Leo would appreciate the lengths I’ve gone to to store his video.

I use Soundcloud and YouTube to listen to music. Occasionally Spotify. When I like something on Soundcloud, I just try and remember it. When I like something in YouTube I ‘like’ it. In both cases, it may well get deleted later – especially common on YouTube, where things are taken down for rights infringement. In the case of SoundCloud I’ll probably forget it.

I used to use Hype Machine a lot – all the music I’ve ‘hearted’ on there I never listen to – I just don’t go to the site anymore.

What I’d like is a service where I can keep a list of the names of artists and songs that I like, which is permanent and lasts forever. I’d also like to be able to put them in categories. And it would be completely separate from any specific music provider.

For YouTube, SoundCloud, Spotify etc. you could paste in the URL and the music bookmarking service discovers the artists and song title automatically – but you could also enter it manually.

The important thing is that it decouples storing the music metadata from the music itself. The music bookmarking service wouldn’t actually playback any music – it would just be a place to keep track of things you like.

This is exactly what Tomahawk does, but it’s on the desktop, so it’s dead to me.

I’m not sure how it makes money, but generate some really high quality data about music preferences. Because it requires a lot of personal agency to put the data in, it would be much more indicative of people’s true favourites than whatever people happen to listen to on YouTube or Spotify.