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Bad Lieutenant (the band, not the movie) October 25, 2009

Posted by Michael Kowalski in whatever.
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Went along to see Bad Lieutenant, Bernard Sumner’s new band, at Heaven under Charing Cross last week. I was curious to see whether Barney is (like me) one of the few people left in this country who still pronounces the “f” in “lieutenant”. I think he is, though both times he announced the band’s name he mumbled it and the acoustics were dreadful, so bit hard to be sure.

bad lieutenant

Those once-cherubic looks haven’t gone entirely, meaning he has now begun to rather resemble Alan Bennett. Though of course Barney wouldn’t be caught dead wearing specs, let alone thick framed ones; more’s the pity. Think what a coup it would have been if he could have got Alan B in to deliver a rap, something in the style of Neil Tennant on West End Girls!

In fact, he did have somebody to help out on vocal duties. One of those young wispily-bearded slightly-modelly looking guys who can hold a guitar well enough to pick up university girls; you know the type. Bit of an odd choice for this audience though, which tended to the middle-aged bloke end of the spectrum. At least he could sing well enough to remind us that part of Barney’s attraction has always been that his singing and songwriting are both a bit rubbish, ie. and therefore “real”.

The new material isn’t bad. Yes, some truth in the “New Order with bits missing” reviews, but still. Sumner himself seemed unconvinced, somewhat apologetic about playing new songs at all. That was just before launching into a handful of New Order and Joy Division classics: Temptation, Crystal, Bizarre Love Triangle, Transmission and even Love Will Tear Us Apart. Storming stuff, despite a rather anaemic bassline coming out of the shadows at the back of the stage. Hm, maybe a better name for the band would have been “The Long Shadow”.

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The content management supertanker September 18, 2009

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At a conference yesterday, heard Chris Thorpe from the Guardian’s Open Platform describe content management systems as being like supertankers, great at regular delivery of similar-sized packages of content, but not quick-moving enough for anything else (I paraphrase, probably badly). Hence “use the right tool for the job”; which in their case mostly means Django, but if I’d hired Simon Willison it would mean that for me too.

Well, I do think WCM can be more agile than it has been up till now—but really, I couldn’t agree more. The “big science” approach to WCM, which assumes you have this monolithic system that you use to implement everything, is kind of stupid. Content management should be a component, not a system.

Why I hate democracy June 20, 2009

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Ok, I’m being slightly linkbaitish there. What I really mean is, why I hate “democracy”.  The word, not the concept.

Because actually, there are two quite distinct concepts covered by this word.

First, there’s “democracy” meaning a sort of fuzzy ideal of power by the people for the people, where each individual holds as much sway as the next.

Then there’s “democracy” meaning a system of government practiced in one form or another across much of the world.

It ought to be pretty obvious that these two concepts have very little to do with each other. Oh, they did back when the Greeks came up with the notion (if you discount women, slaves and foreigners). But they parted ways a long time ago. As far as I know, there is no country in the world that practices democracy in the 1st sense, though no doubt the technology exists to make it possible even with large populations.

Let’s take the specific case of the UK, where I currently live. In the UK, we have a multiple-choice election once every five years. Generally speaking, it’s a multiple choice without any correct answers. We don’t get to vote for the prime minister (the ruler). We don’t get to vote for who’s in the cabinet (the ruling body). Technically speaking, we don’t even get to vote for the governing party: all we get to vote for is our local representative, who may or may not toe their party line (mine doesn’t). What if you like the party but don’t like your representative, or vice versa? Tough. Most people (me included) live in safe seats, so the result of our particular vote is anyway a foregone conclusion. But here’s the killer: we don’t get to vote on any specific items of policy.

It’s hard to conceive of a voting system where your vote counted for less (unless the vote is actually rigged—more on that later). It would be much better if we all used a different term for this system of government, say “elective government”.

This reached farcical proportions for me in the last election. The key issue as far as I was concerned was ejecting Tony Blair, a man I regard as a war criminal. But my local MP is a noted “maverick” who no doubt felt much the same way. So, if I voted for him, was I voting anti-Blair (my MP), or pro-Blair (my MP’s party)? I couldn’t find a resolution to this puzzle so I didn’t vote. But that’s an extreme case. The norm is, I’m in a safe Labour seat so my vote is anyway worthless. Hey, once I lived in a safe Tory seat! Then my vote was worthless in a different way.

Some countries have slightly better systems than the UK, eg. with an element of proportional representation. But still, none of them are real democracies in that 1st sense of the word. They are all about allowing for minor, periodic changes in the ruling elite.

Would it be a good idea to introduce democracy? I’m not sure. I’d like to see some country give it a whirl, but preferably not Britain, which I expect would effectively end up ruled by Rupert Murdoch with the connivance of a slew of celebrities. The truth is (or we suspect it is) that our ruling elites are more progressive and liberal than the population at large: yes, even the rightwing elites (Bush the 2nd is maybe an exception here, which is why we in the rest of the West found him so disturbing). The poster child here is minority rights, where governments have lead the way and populations followed. Look at the rise of gay rights in the UK, pushed forward by the government while the general population was perhaps rather doubtful: but some years later, and the opinion polls show a big shift in public attitudes. If we introduced direct democracy now, I doubt these changes would be rolled back. But other liberalisations, down the line? Who knows.

What annoys me about all this is that people constantly confuse these two usages. They start waxing about democracy in a way that implies it is both this idealised good AND our system of government (random example from memory: the last chapter of Wikinomics was an offender)

OK, so yeah, I’m working my way round to Iran. Looks like the current elite rigged their election ineptly (though weirdly, it seems as if it was an election they would have won anyway). I find it hard to care much. Yes, it’s bad that they rigged the vote. You should at least abide by the rules of your farce: but that doesn’t stop it being a farce. I’d like to see Iran have a better government, just like I’d like to see our good allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt have better governments (hey, I’d like to see the UK have a better government, come to that). Specifically, I’d like to see Iran with a less religious government.

But it’s got nothing to do with democracy.

Ballard watching over my desk April 20, 2009

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People coming into my office often ask whether that framed portrait hanging over my desk is a picture of my dad. Er, no. It’s JG Ballard.

I will miss Ballard. One of my favourite writers, both for his distinctive stylistic voice (a matter of cadence as much as anything) and for his often remarkable and original subject matter. He wasn’t, mostly, a science fiction writer, but it’s easy to see why he was so often mistaken for one—like them, he worked in the literature of ideas. Just this year in the Guardian, a caption to a picture illustrating a piece on exoplanets used the phrase “some alien world JG Ballard might have dreamed up”. But he wasn’t in the business of dreaming up alien worlds, believing the psychopathology of our own was interesting and bizarre enough.

Going by today’s obits, journalists by and large only read the (fictionalised) memoir; but that was not The Work. If by chance you’ve never read any Ballard (or ONLY read the Shanghai memoir), then the beginning is as good a place to start as any. The Drowned World is his first novel. It’s one of a series of “apocalypse fiction” novels from his early period. Like Philip K Dick, a writer with whom he much in common, Ballard’s work went through a number of “periods” where he would obsessively explore a set of themes and ideas, almost rewriting the same book multiple times. 

I’m guessing Ballard’s work will outlast that of most of his British contemporaries. He wrote engagingly and thoughtfully about contemporary subject matter that nobody else would touch, and that will trump any amount of elegantly written social realism.

Ricardo Baeza-Yates “People don’t want to search” – The Next Web April 16, 2009

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Ricardo Baeza-Yates “People don’t want to search” – The Next Web.

This is true. But at the same time, we haven’t come up with a better solution for navigating very large datasets.

“Things are a little complex in Java” April 7, 2009

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Oh yes. Always.

In this particular case, it’s retrieving gravatars:
Gravatar – Globally Recognized Avatars.

Casual gaming meets music discovery March 27, 2009

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Loudcrowd This is interesting. Not so much because this particular site is any good—actually the ugly design doesn’t look too promising (though I haven’t had a chance to actually try it yet). More because  of the beginning of what I guess will be a long wave of gaming working its way into other software, not excluding business software. Still looking for a gaming angle wrt content management, but it must be out there.

Global crisis to strike by 2030 March 24, 2009

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BBC NEWS | UK | Global crisis to strike by 2030

Luckily, the Singularity is coming.

Carter on “Digital Britain” February 24, 2009

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I went to see Carter talking about his “Delivering Digital Britain” report at NESTA this morning. Good summary on Techcrunch. Though personally, I don’t think we’re going to deliver much useful at 8 in the morning ;)

Carter’s remit isn’t as broad as some in the audience would like: his focus seems to be on broadband/wifi delivery infrastructure + what to do with C4, and fair enough. But someone asks the question “delivery of what?” There certainly seems a risk that the government’s approach will be more about rescuing existing organisations than helping new ones to flourish.

The creative & media sector has always been very strong in the UK, and with the fall from grace of financial services, media people are thrilled at that prospect that their industry could be the single basket where we put all our eggs. What makes this odd is that, as Kestenbaum, the head of NESTA, puts it, none of them know “what their model will be in 10 years time”—or, more to the point, whether they will even have one.

I don’t own a television, and so don’t pay the licence fee. But my expenditure on media consumption started rising last year, mainly because the number of DVD titles available at a reasonable price crossed some kind of threshold. This year, thanks to iTunes, I’m guessing I’ll spend more than the licence fee on TV programmes alone (possibly alarmingly so—must keep an eye on it!). Otoh, it’s some time since I’ve watched an advert outside the cinema. There is revenue there, if not as much as before.

Ecofont December 23, 2008

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Ecofont | less is more

Save precious ink! Use the ecofont!