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The Greatest Propaganda Machine in History

If you haven’t yet seen Sacha Baron Cohen’s remarks to the Anti-Defamation League’s summit on antisemitism and hate in New York – which has been covered extensively in the media – here’s your chance. Well worth watching the full thing.

Video courtesy of The Anti-Defamation League

There’s a couple of things that stood out to me: that Facebook, Youtube, Google et al are effectively the biggest publishers on earth, and that with that, and the way they police their platforms, they become the largest and most effective propaganda machines ever created. He singles out Facebook as being the worst offender – especially Zuckerburg’s assertion that they continue to allow politicians to serve targeted lies because accountability trumps censure.

The algorithms these platforms depend on deliberately amplify the type of content that keeps users engaged – stories that appeal to our baser instincts and that trigger outrage and fear. It’s why YouTube recommended videos by the conspiracist Alex Jones billions of times. It’s why fake news outperforms real news, because studies show that lies spread faster than truth … As one headline put it, just think what Goebbels could have done with Facebook.

Sacha Baron Cohen

A few years ago a friend of mine, one of the most compassionate, fair and reasonable people that I know, shared a post on Facebook created by Britain First (a fascist pseudo political organisation) which in turn ended up on my feed. My friend had no idea who the author was and the post wasn’t actually offensive – it was cleverly designed to amass likes so that their other content would show higher on peoples feeds – but I was offended that my friend had been manipulated into sharing it. That was the day that I permanently closed my Facebook account.

Large social networks are certainly the worst thing to happen to the internet, and probably one of the worst things to happen to our societies.

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RSS makes the web tolerable again

Back in the halcyon days of the early web the large internet portals, like Netscape, Yahoo and AOL, were starting to think about how their customers would access the ever-growing amount of content being produced on the internet. The answer they came up with was ‘syndication’. From the user perspective this was as simple as adding a BBC News or Wired widget on your homepage. If you are as old as me you might even remember doing it. Behind the scenes these content transactions were powered by a syndication protocol called RSS (which stands for ‘Really Simple Syndication’ or ‘Rich Site Summary’, depending on who you ask). Theoretically this was good for everyone: content providers were able to to reach people they would never have reached before, users had control over how and where they receive content, and the portals kept customers on their sites for longer by offering personalised experiences, like this:

For a while RSS was ubiquitous, but it faltered when the larger social networks became the main vehicle of syndicated content – and it didn’t help that it has never been particularly user-friendly. Most people now get their news from social media but recent years have shown that this can be problematic: social media platforms are not neutral content providers. They manipulate how, when and what content is delivered to end users for their own ends and you have to sift through all the ads, outrage and general horror of social media to get to the content you want to see.

It’s not all bad news. In fact there is very good news: RSS never actually went away. Most websites, whether they advertise it or not, still provide an RSS feed and you can use it right now to take control of how content is delivered to you.

Here’s a screenshot of my RSS aggregator this morning:

I subscribe to nearly two hundred feeds. That sounds overwhelming but while some sites publish multiple times per day, some only put out a handful a year. I can scan through the headlines of all of these sites in a few minutes. It would be very difficult to keep track of that content without RSS.

I use RSS to keep track of:

  • Blogs
  • Twitter accounts & hashtags
  • Instagram accounts
  • Reddit subreddits
  • Newspapers

My feed reader can do clever stuff like filtering out certain key words or phrases. I can, for example, make Boing Boing tolerable by filtering out posts about Trump or those authored by Cory Doctorow. I can organise my feeds into folders – so if I want to avoid the news one day I can just skip that folder, or mark the whole thing read and pretend nothing happened that day. One of the biggest benefits for me is that I’m less likely to open my browser and get lost down the rabbit hole.

Getting started:

It’s easy to get started with RSS:

Step 1:

Sign up for an account with one of the many feed aggregators. Some of the more popular ones are:

All of these have mobile applications – some have desktop companions too. I use Readkiton OSX and Fiery Feeds on iOS. Many people like Reeder. There are options for other operating systems too and the web applications don’t care what OS you use.

Step 2:

Subscribe to some feeds. Most readers will automatically find the feed if you put in the address of the homepage. If you’re short of inspiration you could take a look at my blogroll.

Step 3:

Marvel at your technical wizardry, the amount of time you save and your new found freedom from algorithmic content delivery.

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A walk around Welton

My friend Dave and I took a walk around Welton on what turned out to be a sunny evening. We’ve walked the various routes around Welton before but this route was new to us. The first small climb offered up some great views over Ellougton Wold and out across the Humber that we hadn’t seen before.

The route took us back down to our starting point through Welton Dale – which has sadly been fenced on both sides now so it feels like you are being kettled as you walk down the valley. If you’re prepared to jump off the path for a bit you’ll find the Raikes Mausoleumhidden within the woodland. The structure is two hundred years old and sadly in need of some attention now, which is a shame as it still houses the remains of some of the family. It was a bit spooky at dusk and we didn’t hand around – so no photo.

I told Dave that Welton was quite posh, but I don’t think he believed me until we walked past a million quids worth of helicopter parked on someones lawn.

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Auribus Teneo Lupum

For those that don’t follow the machinations of British politics – and I would understand if you chose not to – a leadership election is about to get underway. Between general elections and ill-conceived referendums, leadership elections are about the only other thing that breaks up the monotony of parliamentary democracy. As the party holding the election is currently in power the winner will become Prime Minister. Why anyone would want this job is beyond me, but that’s how it is. The next Prime Minister will be (probably) the biggest influence on the direction that Brexit takes from this point forward.

One of the underdogs in the race is Rory Stewart. He’s had an interesting and varied life outside of politics (Brad Pitt bought the rights to a film about him) and appears to be clever & coherent. This means that he’s got no chance of winning, but his ground campaign is pretty interesting and he’s doing a good job of putting some of the Brexit nonsense to rights. Rory is against a no-deal Brexit (yay), but he also thinks that a second referendum would be a mistake (boo). A couple of months ago I would have strongly argued that he is wrong, but acceptance sets in as time goes on and I’m developing some sympathy for this view. His reasoning is straightforward and nothing to do with sovereignty or democracy or any of the other tropes that Brexiteers wheel out, simply that there’s no point in an exercise where the result will only tell us what we already know: the country (or at least those that vote in these things) is still split. A referendum only solves the practical issue of whether we stay or leave – it does nothing for the social or political fallout, which will far outlast it.

The latin term _auribus teneo lupum_ translates to ‘hold a wolf by the ears’ and is used to describe situations where doing nothing and doing something are equally risky. A more modern interpretation would be ‘dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t’. It feels fitting for our current predicament.

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The mines of Paris

I’ve long had a fascination for things abandoned and decayed. Nowadays this manifests itself as an interest in history; touring castles and National Trust properties and sensible things like that. When I was younger, slightly less foolhardy and much less afraid of death or injury, my friends and I would seek out and explore abandoned buildings. It’s hard to explain to someone where the fun in this strange hobby is. Part of it is in the excitement of ignoring the myriad of signs that warn of danger and the consequences for trespass – mostly it was the excitement of being somewhere you were not supposed to be. There is a subset of urban explorers who prefer the underground to the overground – in the UK is manifested by ‘drainers’ who explore the vast sewage networks under our streets. You wouldn’t have caught me down there for any money but I do understand the appeal.

Underneath Paris, approximately five stories deep, lies one of the holy grails for urban explorers: a network of over two hundred miles of tunnels hewn out of the limestone bedrock. Known as the The Mines of Paris (carrières de Paris) or sometimes simply ‘The Catacombs’, the tunnels are the result of the five hundred years of mining activity which built the city above. A small section is open to tourists, where they can gawk at the millions of bones that were decanted there from the cemeteries above, but much of the tunnel network is off limits and the extent of them only known because of the small number people, driven by the unknown and the forbidden, that mapped the secret parts for future explorers.

Those secret parts have been used to host raves, dinner parties and film screenings – but for most explorers they offer something quite simple: somewhere secret, where the normal rules do not apply. After reading the recent New Yorker article on The CatacombsI found these lovingly created maps, showing the astounding scale of the tunnels:

Digital Map
Hand-drawn Map

Tourists have become less welcome since the internet brought the tunnels to wider audience – but the young urban explorer in me would have liked this place very much.

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Narrowing of perspective

In relative peace and prosperity we settle into micromanaging our lives with our fancy technologies and custom interest rates and eleven different kinds of milk, and this leads to a certain inwardness, an unchecked narrowing of perspective, the vague expectation that even if we don’t earn them and nurture them the truly essential amenities will endure forever as they are. We trust that someone else is looking after the civil liberties shop, so we don’t have to. Our military might is unmatched and in any case the madness is at least an ocean away. And then all of a sudden we look up from ordering paper towels online to find ourselves delivered right into the madness. And we wonder: How did this happen?

Ezra Baker in Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday
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Architectural renders of temporary Commons

The Palace of Westminster, home to the House of Commons and the House of Lords, is literally falling down. Putting aside philosophical musings about whether this is a reflection on the perilous state of our democracy, the situation has become so severe that MPs are going to have to move out.

I take some dark pleasure from imagining specific MPs having to beg for hot desks around central London like many local government workers now do, but that wasn’t ever going to happen. Instead, they’ll have to slum it out in these temporary digs:

The architects have done a grand job with their brief, but it seems that the brief was somewhat limited in scope. The adversarial seating style no longer reflects the make-up of Parliament, so it’s a shame they didn’t have the option shake-up the layout a bit – or to move it out of London. Despite these gripes, I rather like it.

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Book: Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport

Cal Newport’s second book, Digital Minimalism, is somewhat timely given the increasing concern about the role of technology in our lives. In it, he asks us to look critically at the technology we allow into our lives as individuals and consider whether it adds genuine value, or whether we use it as a crux to pass time which would be better spent doing something else.

Top of his hit list is social media, which he argues most people simply do not need & those that do need it probably need it a lot less than they think they do ( he says 20 – 30 minutes a week, tops). In 2015 I closed my accounts on the big social media platforms and am embarrassed to admit how difficult I found it. On reflection it hasn’t made any meaningful difference to my life. True, there are people that I have lost contact with, but I still talk to the people that matter and the level of that contact is more substantial than a ‘like’ or a quick comment.

He goes on to set out the merits of of solitude – being alone with your thoughts without external interference. We’ve become so accustomed to filling every spare minute with something: checking social media feeds, reading emails, listening to podcasts and audiobooks – we very rarely allow or brains the time to just think. This something that we don’t fully understand the long term effect of.

He also makes a case for analogue activities. Humans are happier, he says, when they are creating something. We should prioritise demanding activities over passive consumption and cultivate high quality leisure activities – things that are meaningful and have defined outcomes.

It’s a good book and there isn’t a lot of waffle in it. It isn’t anti-technology, it just reminds us that we are the masters of our own time and need to take responsibility for how we use it. It was persuasive enough for me to reset my iPhone and ruthlessly cull and lock down my apps.

Definitely worth a read.

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Testing cheap ‘true’ wireless headphones

I picked up these SoundPEATS headphones for £26 from Amazon and they are far, far better than they have any right to be for that price:

I already have a pair of KZ6 in-ear monitors, which in their wired configuration are probably the best in-ear headphones I’ve ever owned. They come wired as standard, but you can swap out the wires for a bluetooth module if you don’t mind sacrificing convenience for sound quality (which I don’t). Alas, while sounding great, they suffer from the same problem as most other bluetooth earbuds: the battery module. This usually sits a little way down from one of the earbuds and makes them slightly heavier on one side and swings as you walk. It’s a minor design issue – but I want to be able to forget that I have the earbuds in.

Truly wireless earbuds seemed to be what I was looking for. I did some research on what was available and found some that sounded good on paper, but almost all came at considerable outlay. Apple’s AirPods would be the obvious choice but they’re reallyexpensive and look a little odd. These SoundPEATS headphones are listed at £32 on Amazon, with over two hundred reviews and a four and a half star rating (plus a 20% discount when I ordered). I’m normally suspicious of unknown brands with loads of good ratings but at this price they seemed worth a punt.

There isn’t much in the box – just the headphones, the charging box, a tiny USB cable, some different sized tips and a small manual. I had a little trouble getting the earbuds to connect to each other at first but since I figured it out now they connect automatically (you have to take the right one out of the charger first). The sound quality won’t blow you away but it’s far from awful – and these are over a hundred quid cheaper than AirPods. They are advertised as sweat and splash proof, but not waterproof. Battery life is supposed to be around 3 hours and the case will charge them three to four times before it needs charging. I can’t exaggerate how handy it is to be able to charge your headphones while they are in your pocket and have them fully charged when you need them. The connectivity is excellent too. I haven’t had any stuttering with my phone in my bag or my back pocket. They even work well with the Apple Watch.

Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’d highly recommend these if you want to see if truly wireless earbuds are for you.

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1.32 Gigabytes

We have a weird internet set-up at home, with our connection coming in from a device on our roof instead of via fibre or ADSL. It mostly works okay, but if the provider starts to oversubscribe connections then our speed suffers, especially at peak times. We had some extended periods of poor service when the service first went live but we stuck with it and over the past year or two it has worked mostly okay. It’s not stellar, but it’s cheap and unlimited.

In January we started no notice that we were struggling to stream at peak times and my wife was having issues browsing on her phone. I figured that this might be a good time to switch to fibre, it’s around £15 a month more expensive, but bound to give us a more stable connection and it would be faster too.

I logged into my router to find out how much data we use so that I could price up the right fibre package, and noticed something strange:

During a standard month we usually download around 500gb of data, and upload 50-60gb. In January we downloaded 450gb, but wait, what the.. we uploaded 807gb. We’ve already uploaded nearly 700gb this month too, in total nearly 1.5 terabytes of data and more than we’d use in two years. Something was very wrong somewhere.

My instant reaction was to ask my teenage daughter if she had anything on her laptop that might be uploading stuff. Torrents? She offered me a blank look. Then I remembered the torrent client running on our home server. And there was the problem: three torrents had been seeding endlessly since the end of December, to the tune of 1.32 terabytes. Whoops. Theoretically uploading shouldn’t affect download speeds, but I think that my creaky network was saturated by the constant transfers. Lesson learned.

Anyway, to those lucky people that were able to download a particular torrent 987 times.. you’re welcome.