Tags: history

59

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An associative trail

Every now and then, I like to revisit Vannevar Bush’s classic article from the July 1945 edition of the Atlantic Monthly called As We May Think in which he describes a theoretical machine called the memex.

A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.

It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.

1945! Apart from its analogue rather than digital nature, it’s a remarkably prescient vision. In particular, there’s the idea of “associative trails”:

Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities.

Many decades later, Anne Washington ponders what a legal memex might look like:

My legal Memex builds a network of the people and laws available in the public records of politicians and organizations. The infrastructure for this vision relies on open data, free access to law, and instantaneously availability.

As John Sheridan from the UK’s National Archives points out, hypertext is the perfect medium for laws:

Despite the drafter’s best efforts to create a narrative structure that tells a story through the flow of provisions, legislation is intrinsically non-linear content. It positively lends itself to a hypertext based approach. The need for legislation to escape the confines of the printed form predates the all major innovators and innovations in hypertext, from Vannevar Bush’s vision in ” As We May Think“, to Ted Nelson’s coining of the term “hypertext”, through to and Berners-Lee’s breakthrough world wide web. I like to think that Nelson’s concept of transclusion was foreshadowed several decades earlier by the textual amendment (where one Act explicitly alters – inserts, omits or amends – the text of another Act, an approach introduced to UK legislation at the beginning of the 20th century).

That’s from a piece called Deeply Intertwingled Laws. The verb “to intertwingle” was another one of Ted Nelson’s neologisms.

There’s an associative trail from Vannevar Bush to Ted Nelson that takes some other interesting turns…

Picture a new American naval recruit in 1945, getting ready to ship out to the pacific to fight against the Japanese. Just as the ship as leaving the harbour, word comes through that the war is over. And so instead of fighting across the islands of the pacific, this young man finds himself in a hut on the Philippines, reading whatever is to hand. There’s a copy of The Atlantic Monthly, the one with an article called As We May Think. The sailor was Douglas Engelbart, and a few years later when he was deciding how he wanted to spend the rest of his life, that article led him to pursue the goal of augmenting human intellect. He gave the mother of all demos, featuring NLS, a working hypermedia system.

Later, thanks to Bill Atkinson, we’d get another system called Hypercard. It was advertised with the motto Freedom to Associate, in an advertising campaign that directly referenced Vannevar Bush.

And now I’m using the World Wide Web, a hypermedia system that takes in the whole planet, to create an associative trail. In this post, I’m linking (without asking anyone for permission) to six different sources, and in doing so, I’m creating a unique associative trail. And because this post has a URL (that won’t change), you are free to take it and make it part of your own associative trail on your digital memex.

Акула

Myself and Jessica were on our way over to Ireland for a few days to visit my mother. It’s a straightforward combination of three modes of transport: a car to Brighton train station; a train to Gatwick airport; a plane to Cork.

We got in the taxi to start the transport relay. “Going anywhere nice?” asked the taxi driver. “Ireland”, I said. He mentioned that he had recently come back from a trip to Crete. “Lovely place”, he said. “Great food.” That led to a discussion of travel destinations, food, and exchange rates. The usual taxi banter. We mentioned that we were in Iceland recently, where the exchange rate was eye-watering. “Iceland?”, he said, “Did you see the Northern Lights?” We hadn’t, but we mentioned some friends of ours who travelled to Sweden recently just to see the Aurorae. That led to a discussion of the weirdness of the midnight sun. “Yeah”, he said, “I was in the Barents Sea once and it was like broad daylight in the middle of the night.” We mentioned being in Alaska in Summer, and how odd the daylight at night was, but now my mind was preoccupied. As soon as there was a lull in the conversation I asked “So …what brought you to the Barents Sea?”

He paused. Then said, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

Then he told us.

“We were on a secret mission. It was the ’80s, the Cold War. The Russians had a new submarine, the Typhoon. Massive, it was. Bigger than anything the Americans had. We were there with the Americans. They had a new camera that could see through smoke and cloud. The Russians wouldn’t know we were filming them. I was on a support ship. But one time, at four in the morning, the Russians shot at us—warning shots across the bow. I remember waking up and it was still so light, and there were this explosions of water right by the ship.”

“Wow!” was all I could say.

“It was so secret, that mission”, he said, “that if you didn’t go on it, you’d have to spend the duration in prison.”

By this time we had reached the station. “Do you believe me?” he asked us. “Yes”, we said. We paid him, and thanked him. Then I added, “And thanks for the story.”

Empire State

I’m in New York. Again. This time it’s for Google’s AMP Conf, where I’ll be giving ‘em a piece of my mind on a panel.

The conference starts tomorrow so I’ve had a day or two to acclimatise and explore. Seeing as Google are footing the bill for travel and accommodation, I’m staying at a rather nice hotel close to the conference venue in Tribeca. There’s live jazz in the lounge most evenings, a cinema downstairs, and should I request it, I can even have a goldfish in my room.

Today I realised that my hotel sits in the apex of a triangle of interesting buildings: carrier hotels.

32 Avenue Of The Americas.Telephone wires and radio unite to make neighbors of nations

Looming above my hotel is 32 Avenue of the Americas. On the outside the building looks like your classic Gozer the Gozerian style of New York building. Inside, the lobby features a mosaic on the ceiling, and another on the wall extolling the connective power of radio and telephone.

The same architects also designed 60 Hudson Street, which has a similar Art Deco feel to it. Inside, there’s a cavernous hallway running through the ground floor but I can’t show you a picture of it. A security guard told me I couldn’t take any photos inside …which is a little strange seeing as it’s splashed across the website of the building.

60 Hudson.HEADQUARTERS The Western Union Telegraph Co. and telegraph capitol of the world 1930-1973

I walked around the outside of 60 Hudson, taking more pictures. Another security guard asked me what I was doing. I told her I was interested in the history of the building, which is true; it was the headquarters of Western Union. For much of the twentieth century, it was a world hub of telegraphic communication, in much the same way that a beach hut in Porthcurno was the nexus of the nineteenth century.

For a 21st century hub, there’s the third and final corner of the triangle at 33 Thomas Street. It’s a breathtaking building. It looks like a spaceship from a Chris Foss painting. It was probably designed more like a spacecraft than a traditional building—it’s primary purpose was to withstand an atomic blast. Gone are niceties like windows. Instead there’s an impenetrable monolith that looks like something straight out of a dystopian sci-fi film.

33 Thomas Street.33 Thomas Street, New York

Brutalist on the outside, its interior is host to even more brutal acts of invasive surveillance. The Snowden papers revealed this AT&T building to be a centrepiece of the Titanpointe programme:

They called it Project X. It was an unusually audacious, highly sensitive assignment: to build a massive skyscraper, capable of withstanding an atomic blast, in the middle of New York City. It would have no windows, 29 floors with three basement levels, and enough food to last 1,500 people two weeks in the event of a catastrophe.

But the building’s primary purpose would not be to protect humans from toxic radiation amid nuclear war. Rather, the fortified skyscraper would safeguard powerful computers, cables, and switchboards. It would house one of the most important telecommunications hubs in the United States…

Looking at the building, it requires very little imagination to picture it as the lair of villainous activity. Laura Poitras’s short film Project X basically consists of a voiceover of someone reading an NSA manual, some ominous background music, and shots of 33 Thomas Street looming in its oh-so-loomy way.

A top-secret handbook takes viewers on an undercover journey to Titanpointe, the site of a hidden partnership. Narrated by Rami Malek and Michelle Williams, and based on classified NSA documents, Project X reveals the inner workings of a windowless skyscraper in downtown Manhattan.

Teaching in Porto, day two

The second day in this week-long masterclass was focused on CSS. But before we could get stuck into that, there were some diversions and tangents brought on by left-over questions from day one.

This was not a problem. Far from it! The questions were really good. Like, how does a web server know that someone has permission to carry out actions via a POST request? What a perfect opportunity to talk about state! Cue a little history lesson on the web’s beginning as a deliberately stateless medium, followed by the introduction of cookies …for good and ill.

We also had a digression about performance, file sizes, and loading times—something I’m always more than happy to discuss. But by mid-morning, we were back on track and ready to tackle CSS.

As with the first day, I wanted to take a “long zoom” look at design and the web. So instead of diving straight into stylesheets, we first looked at the history of visual design: cave paintings, hieroglyphs, illuminated manuscripts, the printing press, the Swiss school …all of them examples of media where the designer knows where the “edges” of the canvas lie. Not so with the web.

So to tackle visual design on the web, I suggested separating layout from all the other aspects of visual design: colour, typography, contrast, negative space, and so on.

At this point we were ready to start thinking in CSS. I started by pointing out that all CSS boils down to one pattern:

selector {
  property: value;
}

The trick, then, is to convert what you want into that pattern. So “I want the body of the page to be off-white with dark grey text” in English is translated into the CSS:

body {
  background-color: rgb(225,225,255);
  color: rgb(51,51,51);
}

…and so one for type, contrast, hierarchy, and more.

We started applying styles to the content we had collectively marked up with post-it notes on day one. Then the students split into groups of two to create an HTML document each. Tomorrow they’ll be styling that document.

There were two important links that come up over the course of day two:

  1. A Dao Of Web Design by John Allsopp, and
  2. The CSS Zen Garden.

If all goes according to plan, we’ll be tackling the third layer of the web technology stack tomorrow: JavaScript.

Teaching in Porto, day one

Today was the first day of the week long “masterclass” I’m leading here at The New Digital School in Porto.

When I was putting together my stab-in-the-dark attempt to provide an outline for the week, I labelled day one as “How the web works” and gave this synopsis:

The internet and the web; how browsers work; a history of visual design on the web; the evolution of HTML and CSS.

There ended up being less about the history of visual design and CSS (we’ll cover that tomorrow) and more about the infrastructure that the web sits upon. Before diving into the way the web works, I thought it would be good to talk about how the internet works, which led me back to the history of communication networks in general. So the day started from cave drawings and smoke signals, leading to trade networks, then the postal system, before getting to the telegraph, and then telephone networks, the ARPANET, and eventually the internet. By lunch time we had just arrived at the birth of the World Wide Web at CERN.

It wasn’t all talk though. To demonstrate a hub-and-spoke network architecture I had everyone write down someone else’s name on a post-it note, then stand in a circle around me, and pass me (the hub) those messages to relay to their intended receiver. Later we repeated this exercise but with a packet-switching model: everyone could pass a note to their left or to their right. The hub-and-spoke system took almost a minute to relay all six messages; the packet-switching version took less than 10 seconds.

Over the course of the day, three different laws came up that were relevant to the history of the internet and the web:

Metcalfe’s Law
The value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users.
Postel’s Law
Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.
Sturgeon’s Law
Ninety percent of everything is crap.

There were also references to the giants of hypertext: Ted Nelson, Vannevar Bush, and Douglas Engelbart—for a while, I had the mother of all demos playing silently in the background.

After a most-excellent lunch in a nearby local restaurant (where I can highly recommend the tripe), we started on the building blocks of the web: HTTP, URLs, and HTML. I pulled up the first ever web page so that we could examine its markup and dive into the wonder of the A element. That led us to the first version of HTML which gave us enough vocabulary to start marking up documents: p, h1-h6, ol, ul, li, and a few others. We went around the room looking at posters and other documents pinned to the wall, and starting marking them up by slapping on post-it notes with opening and closing tags on them.

At this point we had covered the anatomy of an HTML element (opening tags, closing tags, attribute names and attribute values) as well as some of the history of HTML’s expanding vocabulary, including elements added in HTML5 like section, article, and nav. But so far everything was to do with marking up static content in a document. Stepping back a bit, we returned to HTTP, and talked about difference between GET and POST requests. That led in to ways of sending data to a server, which led to form fields and the many types of inputs at our disposal: text, password, radio, checkbox, email, url, tel, datetime, color, range, and more.

With that, the day drew to a close. I feel pretty good about what we covered. There was a lot of groundwork, and plenty of history, but also plenty of practical information about how browsers interpret HTML.

With the structural building blocks of the web in place, tomorrow is going to focus more on the design side of things.

Going rogue

As soon as tickets were available for the Brighton premiere of Rogue One, I grabbed some—two front-row seats for one minute past midnight on December 15th. No problem. That was the night after the Clearleft end-of-year party on December 14th.

Then I realised how dates work. One minute past midnight on December 15th is the same night as December 14th. I had double-booked myself.

It’s a nice dilemma to have; party or Star Wars? I decided to absolve myself of the decision by buying additional tickets for an evening showing on December 15th. That way, I wouldn’t feel like I had to run out of the Clearleft party before midnight, like some geek Cinderella.

In the end though, I did end up running out of the Clearleft party. I had danced and quaffed my fill, things were starting to get messy, and frankly, I was itching to immerse myself in the newest Star Wars film ever since Graham strapped a VR headset on me earlier in the day and let me fly a virtual X-wing.

Getting in the mood for Rogue One with the Star Wars Battlefront X-Wing VR mission—invigorating! (and only slightly queasy-making)

So, somewhat tired and slightly inebriated, I strapped in for the midnight screening of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

I thought it was okay. Some of the fan service scenes really stuck out, and not in a good way. On the whole, I just wasn’t that gripped by the story. Ah, well.

Still, the next evening, I had those extra tickets I had bought as psychological insurance. “Why not?” I thought, and popped along to see it again.

This time, I loved it. It wasn’t just me either. Jessica was equally indifferent the first time ‘round, and she also enjoyed it way more the second time.

I can’t recall having such a dramatic swing in my appraisal of a film from one viewing to the next. I’m not quite sure why it didn’t resonate the first time. Maybe I was just too tired. Maybe I was overthinking it too much, unable to let myself get caught up in the story because I was over-analysing it as a new Star Wars film. Anyway, I’m glad that I like it now.

Much has been made of its similarity to classic World War Two films, which I thought worked really well. But the aspect of the film that I found most thought-provoking was the story of Galen Erso. It’s the classic tale of an apparently good person reluctantly working in service to evil ends.

This reminded me of Mother Night, perhaps my favourite Kurt Vonnegut book (although, let’s face it, many of his books are interchangeable—you could put one down halfway through, and pick another one up, and just keep reading). Mother Night gives the backstory of Howard W. Campbell, who appears as a character in Slaughterhouse Five. In the introduction, Vonnegut states that it’s the one story of his with a moral:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

If Galen Erso is pretending to work for the Empire, is there any difference to actually working for the Empire? In this case, there’s a get-out clause for this moral dilemma: by sabotaging the work (albeit very, very subtly) Galen’s soul appears to be absolved of sin. That’s the conclusion of the excellent post on the Sci-fi Policy blog, Rogue One: an ‘Engineering Ethics’ Story:

What Galen Erso does is not simply watch a system be built and then whistleblow; he actively shaped the design from its earliest stages considering its ultimate societal impacts. These early design decisions are proactive rather than reactive, which is part of the broader engineering ethics lesson of Rogue One.

I know I’m Godwinning myself with the WWII comparisons, but there are some obvious historical precedents for Erso’s dilemma. The New York Review of Books has an in-depth look at Werner Heisenberg and his “did he/didn’t he?” legacy with Germany’s stalled atom bomb project. One generous reading of his actions is that he kept the project going in order to keep scientists from being sent to the front, but made sure that the project was never ambitious enough to actually achieve destructive ends:

What the letters reveal are glimpses of Heisenberg’s inner life, like the depth of his relief after the meeting with Speer, reassured that things could safely tick along as they were; his deep unhappiness over his failure to explain to Bohr how the German scientists were trying to keep young physicists out of the army while still limiting uranium research work to a reactor, while not pursuing a fission bomb; his care in deciding who among friends and acquaintances could be trusted.

Speaking of Albert Speer, are his hands are clean or dirty? And in the case of either answer, is it because of moral judgement or sheer ignorance? The New Atlantis dives deep into this question in Roger Forsgren’s article The Architecture of Evil:

Speer indeed asserted that his real crime was ambition — that he did what almost any other architect would have done in his place. He also admitted some responsibility, noting, for example, that he had opposed the use of forced labor only when it seemed tactically unsound, and that “it added to my culpability that I had raised no humane and ethical considerations in these cases.” His contrition helped to distance himself from the crude and unrepentant Nazis standing trial with him, and this along with his contrasting personal charm permitted him to be known as the “good Nazi” in the Western press. While many other Nazi officials were hanged for their crimes, the court favorably viewed Speer’s initiative to prevent Hitler’s scorched-earth policy and sentenced him to twenty years’ imprisonment.

I wish that these kinds of questions only applied to the past, but they are all-too relevant today.

Software engineers in the United States are signing a pledge not to participate in the building of a Muslim registry:

We refuse to participate in the creation of databases of identifying information for the United States government to target individuals based on race, religion, or national origin.

That’s all well and good, but it might be that a dedicated registry won’t be necessary if those same engineers are happily contributing their talents to organisations whose business models are based on the ability to track and target people.

But now we’re into slippery slopes and glass houses. One person might draw the line at creating a Muslim registry. Someone else might draw the line at including any kind of invasive tracking script on a website. Someone else again might decide that the line is crossed by including Google Analytics. It’s moral relativism all the way down. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t draw lines. Of course it’s hard to live in an ideal state of ethical purity—from the clothes we wear to the food we eat to the electricity we use—but a muddy battleground is still capable of having a line drawn through it.

The question facing the fictional characters Galen Erso and Howard W. Campbell (and the historical figures of Werner Heisenberg and Albert Speer) is this: can I accomplish less evil by working within a morally repugnant system than being outside of it? I’m sure it’s the same question that talented designers ask themselves before taking a job at Facebook.

At one point in Rogue One, Galen Erso explicitly invokes the justification that they’d find someone else to do this work anyway. It sounds a lot like Tim Cook’s memo to Apple staff justifying his presence at a roundtable gathering that legitimised the election of a misogynist bigot to the highest office in the land. I’m sure that Tim Cook, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Sheryl Sandberg all think they are playing the part of Galen Erso but I wonder if they’ll soon find themselves indistinguishable from Orson Krennic.

We must love one another or die

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

W.H. Auden

Adoption

Tom wrote a post on Ev’s blog a while back called JavaScript Frameworks: Distribution Channels for Good Ideas (I’ve been hoping he’d publish it on his own site so I’d have a more permanent URL to point to, but so far, no joy). It’s well worth a read.

I don’t really have much of an opinion on his central point that browser makers should work more closely with framework makers. I’m not so sure I agree with the central premise that frameworks are going to be around for the long haul. I think good frameworks—like jQuery—should aim to make themselves redundant.

But anyway, along the way, Tom makes this observation:

Google has an institutional tendency to go it alone.

JavaScript not good enough? Let’s create Dart to replace it. HTML not good enough? Let’s create AMP to replace it. I’m just waiting for them to announce Google Style Sheets.

I don’t really mind these inventions. We’re not forced to adopt them, and generally, we don’t. Tom again:

They poured enormous time and money into Dart, even building an entire IDE, without much to show for it. Contrast Dart’s adoption with the adoption of TypeScript and Flow, which layer improvements on top of JavaScript instead of trying to replace it.

See, that’s a really, really good point. It’s so much easier to get people to adjust their behaviour than to change it completely.

Sass is a really good example of this. You can take any .css file, save it as a .scss file, and now you’re using Sass. Then you can start using features (or not) as needed. Very smart.

Incidentally, I’m very curious to know how many people use the scss syntax (which is the same as CSS) compared to how many people use the sass indented syntax (the one with significant whitespace). In his brilliant Sass for Web Designers book, I don’t think Dan even mentioned the indented syntax.

Or compare the adoption of Sass to the adoption of HAML. Now, admittedly, the disparity there might be because Sass adds new features, whereas HAML is a purely stylistic choice. But I think the more fundamental difference is that Sass—with its scss syntax—only requires you to slightly adjust your behaviour, whereas something like HAML requires you to go all in right from the start.

This is something that has been on my mind a lately while I’ve been preparing my new talk on evaluating technology (the talk went down very well at An Event Apart San Francisco, by the way—that’s a relief). In the talk, I made a reference to one of Grace Hopper’s famous quotes:

Humans are allergic to change.

Now, Grace Hopper subsequently says:

I try to fight that.

I contrast that with the approach that Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau took with their World Wide Web project. The individual pieces were built on what people were already familiar with. URLs use slashes so they’d be feel similar to UNIX file paths. And the first fledging version of HTML took its vocabulary almost wholesale from a version of SGML already in use at CERN. In fact, you could pretty much take an existing CERN SGML file and open it as an HTML file in a web browser.

Oh, and that browser would ignore any tags it didn’t understand—behaviour that, in my opinion, would prove crucial to the growth and success of HTML. Because of its familiarity, its simplicity, and its forgiving error handling, HTML turned to be more successful than Tim Berners-Lee expected, as he wrote in his book Weaving The Web:

I expected HTML to be the basic waft and weft of the Web but documents of all types: video, computer aided design, sound, animation and executable programs to be the colored threads that would contain much of the content. It would turn out that HTML would become amazingly popular for the content as well.

HTML and SGML; Sass and CSS; TypeScript and JavaScript. The new technology builds on top of the existing technology instead of wiping the slate clean and starting from scratch.

Humans are allergic to change. And that’s okay.

The Rational Optimist

As part of my ongoing obsession with figuring out how we evaluate technology, I finally got around to reading Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist. It was an exasperating read.

On the one hand, it’s a history of the progress of human civilisation. Like Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels Of Our Nature, it piles on the data demonstrating the upward trend in peace, wealth, and health. I know that’s counterintuitive, and it seems to fly in the face of what we read in the news every day. Mind you, The New York Times took some time out recently to acknowledge the trend.

Ridley’s thesis—and it’s a compelling one—is that cooperation and trade are the drivers of progress. As I read through his historical accounts of the benefits of open borders and the cautionary tales of small-minded insular empires that collapsed, I remember thinking, “Boy, he must be pretty upset about Brexit—his own country choosing to turn its back on trade agreements with its neighbours so that it could became a small, petty island chasing the phantom of self-sufficiency”. (Self-sufficiency, or subsistence living, as Ridley rightly argues throughout the book, correlates directly with poverty.)

But throughout these accounts, there are constant needling asides pointing to the perceived enemies of trade and progress: bureaucrats and governments, with their pesky taxes and rule of law. As the accounts enter the twentieth century, the gloves come off completely revealing a pair of dyed-in-the-wool libertarian fists that Ridley uses to pummel any nuance or balance. “Ah,” I thought, “if he cares more about the perceived evils of regulation than the proven benefits of trade, maybe he might actually think Brexit is a good idea after all.”

It was an interesting moment. Given the conflicting arguments in his book, I could imagine him equally well being an impassioned remainer as a vocal leaver. I decided to collapse this probability wave with a quick Google search, and sure enough …he’s strongly in favour of Brexit.

In theory, an author’s political views shouldn’t make any difference to a book about technology and progress. In practice, they barge into the narrative like boorish gatecrashers threatening to derail it entirely. The irony is that while Ridley is trying to make the case for rational optimism, his own personal political feelings are interspersed like a dusting of irrationality, undoing his own well-researched case.

It’s not just the argument that suffers. Those are the moments when the writing starts to get frothy, if not downright unhinged. There were a number of confusing and ugly sentences that pulled me out of the narrative and made me wonder where the editor was that day.

The last time I remember reading passages of such poor writing in a non-fiction book was Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan. In the foreword, Taleb provides a textbook example of the Dunning-Kruger effect by proudly boasting that he does not need an editor.

But there was another reason why I thought of The Black Swan while reading The Rational Optimist.

While Ridley’s anti-government feelings might have damaged his claim to rationality, surely his optimism is unassailable? Take, for example, his conclusions on climate change. He doesn’t (quite) deny that climate change is real, but argues persuasively that it won’t be so bad. After all, just look at the history of false pessimism that litters the twentieth century: acid rain, overpopulation, the Y2K bug. Those turned out okay, therefore climate change will be the same.

It’s here that Ridley succumbs to the trap that Taleb wrote about in his book: using past events to make predictions about inherently unpredictable future events. Taleb was talking about economics—warning of the pitfalls of treating economic data as though it followed a bell-curve curve, when it fact it’s a power-law distribution.

Fine. That’s simply a logical fallacy, easily overlooked. But where Ridley really lets himself down is in the subsequent defence of fossil fuels. Or rather, in his attack on other sources of energy.

When recounting the mistakes of the naysayers of old, he points out that their fundamental mistake is to assume stasis. Hence their dire predictions of war, poverty, and famine. Ehrlich’s overpopulation scare, for example, didn’t account for the world-changing work of Borlaug’s green revolution (and Ridley rightly singles out Norman Borlaug for praise—possibly the single most important human being in history).

Yet when it comes to alternative sources of energy, they are treated as though they are set in stone, incapable of change. Wind and solar power are dismissed as too costly and inefficient. The Rational Optimist was written in 2008. Eight years ago, solar energy must have indeed looked like a costly investment. But things have changed in the meantime.

As Matt Ridley himself writes:

It is a common trick to forecast the future on the assumption of no technological change, and find it dire. This is not wrong. The future would indeed be dire if invention and discovery ceased.

And yet he fails to apply this thinking when comparing energy sources. If anything, his defence of fossil fuels feels grounded in a sense of resigned acceptance; a sense of …pessimism.

Matt Ridley rejects any hope of innovation from new ideas in the arena of energy production. I hope that he might take his own words to heart:

By far the most dangerous, and indeed unsustainable thing the human race could do to itself would be to turn off the innovation tap. Not inventing, and not adopting new ideas, can itself be both dangerous and immoral.

A brief history of the World Wide Web by web developers

The web will be so much better when we have images.

The web will be so much better when we can use more than 216 colours.

The web will be so much better when we have Cascading Style Sheets.

The web will be so much better when we have Cascading Style Sheets that work the same way in different browsers.

The web will be so much better when we have JavaScript.

The web will be so much better when we have JavaScript that works the same way in different browsers.

The web will be so much better when people stop using Netscape Navigator 4.

The web will be so much better when people stop using Internet Explorer 6.

The web will be so much better when we can access it on our mobile phones.

The web will be so much better when we have native video support.

The web will be so much better when we have native video support that works the same way in different browsers.

The web will be so much better when Flash dies.

The web will be so much better when we have more than a handful of fonts.

The web will be so much better when nobody is running Windows XP anymore.

The web will be so much better when nobody is running Android 2 anymore.

The web will be so much better when we have smooth animations.

The web will be so much better when websites can still work offline.

The web will be so much better when we get push notifications.

The web will be so much better when…

Everything is amazing right now and nobody’s happy.

The voice of MOL

The latest issue of Spaceflight—the magazine of the British Interplanetary Society—dropped through my door, adding to my weekend reading list. This issue contains a “whatever happened to” article about the military personnel who were supposed to crew the never-realised MOL project.

Before Salyut, Skylab, Mir, or the ISS, the Manned Orbital Laboratory was the first proposed space station. It would use a Gemini capsule and a Titan propellant tank.

Manned Orbital Laboratory

But this wasn’t to be a scientific endeavour. The plan was to use the MOL as a crewed spy satellite—human eyes in the sky watching the enemy below.

The MOL was cancelled (because uncrewed satellites were getting better at that sort of thing), so that particular orbital panopticon never came to pass.

I remember when I first heard of the MOL and I was looking it up on Wikipedia, that this little nugget of information stood out to me:

The MOL was planned to use a helium-oxygen atmosphere.

That’s right: instead of air (21% oxygen, 79% nitrogen), the spies in the sky would be breathing heliox (21% oxygen, 79% helium). Considering the effect that helium has on the human voice, I can only imagine that the grave nature of the mission would have been somewhat compromised.

Slight return

I’ve been in a contemplative mood lately, probably because I’ve been time travelling.

This year’s dConstruct—which wrapped up just under two weeks ago—marked ten continuous years of running the event. Ten years!

It feels like a lot happened ten years ago. 2005 was the year that Andy, Richard, and I started Clearleft. The evening after dConstruct this year, we threw a party to mark our decadal milestone. What happened at the Clearleft birthday party stays at the Clearleft birthday party.

I had already been living in Brighton for five years before Clearleft was born. That means I’ve been here for fifteen years now. Before that I was living in Freiburg in the heart of Germany’s Black Forest—that’s where Jessica and I first met. In one of those funny twists of fate, we found ourselves travelling back to Freiburg last week, the day after the Clearleft party. It’s like I was going further and further back in my own timeline.

I was in Freiburg to speak at Smashing Conference. I wasn’t on the line-up though. I was the mystery speaker. I took my mysterious duties seriously, so much so that I didn’t even tell Andy, who was also speaking at the event (it was worth it for the look on his face).

Once Smashing Conference was over, Jessica and I made our way to Prague for the Web Expo. When the website for the conference went live, it looked like a Clearleft school reunion: me, Andy H, Cennydd, Anna, and Paul were all on the home page.

I had been to Prague before …but I had never been to the Czech Republic.

That’s right—the last time I was in Prague, it was still in Czechoslovakia. I was there in the early nineties, just a few years after the Velvet Revolution. I was hitch-hiking and busking my way around Europe with my friend Polly (she played fiddle, I played mandolin). When I visit foreign countries now, I get to stay in hotel rooms and speak at conferences. Back then, I sang for my supper and slept wherever I could find a dry spot—usually in a park or on the outskirts of town, far from activity. I remember how cold it was on that first visit to Prague. We snuck into an apartment building to sleep in the basement.

But I also remember extraordinary acts of kindness. When we left Prague, we travelled south towards Austria. We were picked up by an old man in an old car who insisted we should stay the night at his house with his family. He didn’t have much, but he opened up his home to us. We could barely communicate, but it didn’t matter. I will never forget his name: Pan Karel Šimáček.

I remember walking over the border into Austria. That switchover was probably the biggest culture shock of the whole trip. There was quite a disparity in wealth between the two countries.

When we reached Vienna, we met another couple who were travelling through Europe. But whereas Polly and I were travelling out of choice, they were in desperate search of somewhere to call home. Their country, Yugoslavia, was breaking up. One of them was Serbian. The other was Croatian. They were in love. They couldn’t return to where they had come from, but they had nowhere to go. They peppered us with questions. “Do you think England would give us asylum?” I didn’t know what to say.

A few weeks later, we were crossing over the alps down into Italy. We got stuck at a service station for two full days. There wasn’t much there, but I remember there was a Bureau de Change with LCD numbers showing the conversion rates for the many currencies of Europe. Yugoslavia was in the list, but its LCD numbers weren’t illuminated.

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Cobh really has become quite the tourist town. Today we—myself, Jessica, and my mother—took a boat over to Spike Island and enjoyed strolling around the fort and taking in the magnificent views. Then we went back across to town and had lunch where the White Star Line office used to be, sitting right next to the pier used to load goods and passengers for the Titanic.

We finished the evening in a pub listening to some great tunes (once the bodhrán player got the hint and left). Plenty of sunshine and plenty of pints. A really nice day.

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My friend Jeffrey has been writing on his website for twenty years. There are very few things on the web that last that long. I’m very, very glad that his website is one of them.

I remember finding Zeldman.com—and Ask Dr. Web, and the Ad Graveyard—back when I was first “going online.” I remember being so grateful for his generosity, but I also remember that what really struck me was the warmth and humility in the writing.

My own website will turn twenty in another few years. I never would have started it if it weren’t for Jeffrey.

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Yesterday I wrote about a tenuous serendipitous connection between Spacewar and the creation of the internet. In the appendix to Stewart Brand’s 1972 Rolling Stone article I spotted a reference to the one and only Bob Kahn.

Except it turns out there is more than one Bob Kahn. A kindly email from Jack Dietz set me straight: there’s Robert Kahn who demoed ARPANET and then there’s Robert Kahn who advocated public access to computers.

This has taught me two important lessons:

  1. Names are not the best unique identifiers, and
  2. The best way to get feedback is to publish.

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In between publishing the Whole Earth Catalog and spinning up the Long Now Foundation, Stewart Brand wrote an article in Rolling Stone magazine about one of the earliest video games, Spacewar.

Except it isn’t really about Spacewar at all. It’s about the oncoming age of the personal computer.

The article was published in 1972. At the end, there’s an appendix listing some communal places where “one can step in off the street and compute.” One of those places—with 16 terminals available—was run by a certain Bob Kahn.

Together with Vint Cerf he created the Internet’s Transmission Control Protocol.

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When I got back from Bletchley Park yesterday, I immediately started huffduffing more stories about cryptography and code-breaking.

One of the stories I found was an episode of Ockham’s Razor featuring Professor Mark Dodgson. He talks about the organisational structure at Bletchley Park:

The important point was the organization emphasised team-working and open knowledge sharing where it was needed, and demarcation and specialisation where it was most appropriate.

This reminds of another extraordinary place, also displaying remarkable levels of collaboration, that has an unusual lack of traditional hierarchies and structure: CERN.

Bletchley Park produced the computer. CERN produced the web.

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There was a Clearleft outing to Bletchley Park today. I can’t believe I hadn’t been before. It was nerdvana—crypto, history, and science combined in one very English location.

Alan Turing’s work at Station X is rightly lauded, but I can’t help feeling a bit uncomfortable with the way we make heroes of those who work in the shadows. After the war, England’s fictional hero was James Bond, the creation of former Bletchley worker Ian Fleming. And now we have GCHQ spying on its own citizens.

Righteousness in the past doesn’t earn a country a free pass for the future.

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I grew up in Cobh—pronounced “cove”—Cork, Ireland. There’s a statue in the middle of town; an angel presiding over the figures of local fishermen who lost their lives 100 years ago when a German U-boat torpedoed and sank The Lusitania off the old head of Kinsale. They were attempting to rescue survivors.

On the outskirts of town there’s an old cemetery where a mass grave was dug for the bodies of the Lusitania victims.

Cobh’s history is filled with ill-fated ships. It was the last stop of The Titanic. The ships are now memorialised as pub names.

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Yesterday was April 30th. On April 30th in 1993, the world changed. But this world-changing event was marked by the simplest of actions—a couple of signatures and a some rubber stamps.

Twenty two years ago the World Wide Web was placed into the public domain.

When I was at CERN a few years ago with my fellow hackers, Robert Cailliau produced his copy of this document. It passed around the table. When it came to me, I held it like a magic scroll.

“Be careful—there are only two copies of that,” he said. “And CERN have misplaced theirs.”