Writing

What I am, and have been, up to

It’s been a while since I posted anything about what I’m doing, so…

(Summary: I’m freelancing again. It’s fine.)

I left Berg a little over a year ago, shortly before it sadly wound down. I spent a few months last summer trying to work out where I would, ideally, like to work next. During that time I dabbled in the bizarro world of D3.js and spent way too long making a thing that no one, not even me, would find particularly useful. This seems to be a habit.

Towards the end of that summer I joined a new team at Citizens Advice who were starting to work out how to transform all the charity’s digital stuff: how to make their vast quantity of advice more usable and understandable, how to make the public site work better and do more, and how to improve on the tools their employees and volunteers use to help those most in need.

My contract expired at the end of March this year and I decided not to carry on, although the team is now growing and moving on to the next phase. You can see the content and tools we developed over those few months. I wrote the bulk of the code you see there and — taking the usual excuses and embarrassment about one’s own work as read — I’m reasonably pleased with it.

But I think I’m not cut out for working in large organisations like Citizens Advice. I realise the journey to making good, difficult, worthwhile stuff is rarely smooth but I get overly frustrated. The quiet contrariness in me simmers away as I keep my head down and do nothing but the internet typing, and that doesn’t feel like enough (for me to be happy or to be most useful). It’s probably a good thing that I never signed up to work on GOV.UK like so many of my friends; I can’t imagine what I’d have made of the civil service. More than ever, you all have my mystified admiration.

And so, now…? Right now I’m back to freelancing. For the next 2-3 months I’m spending some time with the very lovely folk of Failbetter Games doing front-end development, and the rest of my time putting together a site for another client using Craft, a CMS which looks good so far.

After that? Maybe more freelancing, but I’m not sure.

I first gave freelancing a go back in 2003, when I left UpMyStreet.com, because I had no idea where I wanted to work. I wanted to work somewhere I felt excited about, and eager enough to do a great job, but I couldn’t think where that was. So I tried freelancing and a decade later I was still at it.

(I feel obliged to acknowledge that being able to ponder “where do I want to work?” is an absurd luxury when there are plenty of people with skills and knowledge scrabbling to make any kind of living.)

A dozen years later I feel like little has changed. Freelancing is fine. It’s reasonably varied, and I’m fortunate enough that I seem able to work on fairly interesting projects with nice people and get enough of it. And there’s a simplicity to doing a discrete chunk of work somewhere then moving on. But all the reasons I wanted a change a few years ago still stand:

  • The scale of the work varies little — I usually work on small projects as the sole developer or the sole back- or front-end developer.

  • The work is quite narrow — the client needs x to be built, so there’s less involvement in other aspects of the project than there could be.

  • There’s no chance to build something over the longer term — this is the reverse of the enjoyable “simplicity” I mentioned above. Freelancers are rarely around long enough to see something grow (or not).

  • I’m only briefly part of a team — I won’t be around long enough to see a team change, develop, and learn to work well together over the long term.

  • It’s easy to stagnate — while it’s possible to keep learning new technical skills, there’s little scope to grow in terms of my role, whereas that might be more likely as part of a growing, developing organisation over a longer period.

Of course, this is comparing some bad aspects of freelancing with working in a mythically brilliant organisation. We could just as well compare the many benefits of freelancing with the downsides of the worst permanent roles.

But with that list nagging at me, I’m usually dissatisfied, wondering what it is that would excite me enough that I’d really, really want to join, or really, really want to start. And the longer I carry on with wondering, the higher the stakes feel, and the more perfect something would have to be for me to commit to it.

So, while freelancing is fine, I can’t help but constantly look around, trying in vain to find the place where the grass is not only greener, but, by now, the perfect shade of green. Maybe this is silly. I’ve been looking aimlessly around for so long. Maybe I should accept that standard green grass is fine, that this is fine.

So, that’s what I’m up to. It’s fine.

In Work on 10 May 2015. Permalink

Classic menswear blogs

A good proportion of the time I spend reading things online is devoted to reading about men’s tailoring. This might seem odd, given I’m not exactly a dandy, but I find it fascinating. It’s another world, an escape from reading about technology or current affairs or whatever else.

In case it’s of interest, here are the sites I currently follow. Thankfully they don’t all post frequently. If you know of something not listed here which might be up my street, do let me know.

General blogs

Usually by individuals about the clothes they buy and related topics. Permanent Style and The Sartorial Journal are probably my current favourites. Put This On can be good, but the signal:noise ratio can be off.

Die, Workwear!
By Derek Guy in New York. Lots of ideas, news, details on classic menswear, I think based in New York.
From Squalor to Baller
By Ian Anderson in San Francisco. On his own purchases and outfits, along with general thoughts on suits, shoes, stores, etc.
Grey Fox
By David Evans, UK-based, and aimed at the over-40s. Lots of quite detailed ideas, reviews of clothes, etc. Sometimes a bit more ready-to-wear “men’s fashion” than the others here.
Ivory Tower Style
By David Isle. General posts on classic menswear, accessories and occasionally unrelated things.
The Journal of Style
By Torsten Grunwald somewhere in Europe. Examples of outfits, vintage illustrations, posts about clothes and shoes he owns or is having made.
Men’s Flair
By various London-based authors. Ideas and reviews of their new clothes. Rarely quite hits the spot for me, for some reason.
Permanent Style
By Simon Crompton in London. One of the most popular blogs on these topics. News and reviews, often of Crompton’s own gorgeous and expensive commissions.
Put This On
By a few US-based authors. Prolific. Ideas, reviews, news, quotes, roundups of interesting stuff on eBay, etc. Probably the most like a conventional magazine, but online.
The Sartorial Journal
By Aleksandar Cvetkovic, in London. Visits to tailors and shoe-makers, reviews of suits he’s had made, more general posts. His taste is quite different to mine, but I really enjoy his enthusiasm.
Sleevehead
New York-based. General news, ideas, etc. It’s getting really hard to know how to describe and differentiate all these blogs.
The Suits of James Bond
By Matt Spaiser, looking at men’s tailoring through the lens of Bond films. I’m not a huge Bond fan, but it’s still an interesting way to compare and discuss different styles.
Voxsartoria
Busy Tumblr of well-dressed famous folks from decades past.

Tailors

Individual tailors

A Tailor Made It
By “Terri … a theatrical costume cutter/tailor at North America’s largest repertory theatre.” So not about clothes one would wear in the real world, but lots of photos and thoughts on costumes during creation.
Alievens
By “Arno”, with photos of suits etc he’s made for himself (I think; it’s not heavy on description).
Davide Taub
Head cutter at Gieves & Hawkes. Lots of photos of newly-made G&H suits, coats, etc.
Made By Hand
By Jeffery Diduch at Hardwick Clothes in Tennessee, not that you’d know it. Posts about the industry, equipment, and photos of new creations.
TaylorTailor
Based in Tennessee, Taylor is learning how to design and make his entire wardrobe from scratch, and documenting it here.

Tailors’ shops

These tend to be more self-promotional and so usually less interesting.

Anderson & Sheppard: The Notebook
A blog by one of Savile Row’s tailors, documenting and occasionally promoting goings-on there.
Budd Shirtmakers
By the tiny shop on Piccadilly Arcade. Mostly promotional.
The Cad & The Dandy: The Wardrobe
By the relatively affordable tailors based on Savile Row and in the City. Mainly promotional, with some posts explaining details of styles or giving ideas.
Dashing Tweeds: News
By the makers of interesting modern fabrics and ready-to-wear clothes. Promoting their new products.
David Reeves
New York-based English designer. Some promotional stuff, some nice explanatory posts, although not updated for a few months.
English Cut
By ex-Savile Row, now Cumbria-based cutter Tom Mahon. Mostly promotional stuff, although in 2005 he was way ahead of everyone, with a load of great posts (starting here) about bespoke suits. The first things I read on the topic.
Graham Browne Bespoke
By the relatively affordable City-based tailors. News, photos of new suits, etc.
Richard James: The Row
By the Savile Row tailors’. Mainly promotional stuff, and I’m usually on the verge of unsubscribing.
The Savile Row Tailor
By Steven Hitchcock, Savile Row tailor. A few promotional posts, and others about the details of bespoke tailoring.

Forums

Styleforum: Classic Menswear
I think SF is the biggest, busiest forum, way too busy to keep up with. I occasionally dip in and have a browse, and subscribe to a handful of long-running topics. Generally US-heavy.
Ask Andy About Clothes
This claims to be the “most popular”, and is also largely US-oriented. I never get round to looking at this.
The London Lounge
Small, friendly, very knowledgable, London-based. The host, Michael Alden, gathers support for having small runs of fabrics made up.

There we go. It’s a bit like window shopping. Gradually absorbing the names, terms and ideas from an unfamiliar field is a welcome escape or distraction.

In Misc on 5 April 2015. Permalink

Parsing a Wikipedia page’s content with python

A while back I was asking on Twitter and Stack Overflow about how to parse a Wikipedia page’s content using python. It seemed harder than I expected, given the number of Wikimedia-related tools available. Here’s what I ended up doing.

What I wanted to do:

  • Fetch the content of a particular Wikipedia page.
  • Tweak that content (e.g., hide certain elements).
  • Save the resulting HTML.

Given MediaWiki has an API I initially thought the best thing would be to grab structured content using that, remove the elements I didn’t want, then render the rest into nice, clean HTML. This seemed more robust than scraping a rendered page’s HTML, parsing it, removing bits, then saving the remainder. Scraping always feels like a last resort. And there was an API!

But MediaWiki content is much more complicated than I first thought and, following the discussion on my Stack Overflow question, it seemed like turning Wikipedia’s raw wikitext into HTML was going to be more trouble than it was worth.

A small step up from scraping standard Wikipedia pages would be to omit all the stuff surrounding the content, which can be done by appending ?action=render to the URL, e.g. for /Samuel_Pepys. Then it would be a case of parsing the HTML, ensuring it’s sane, and stripping out anything I didn’t want.

The resulting python script (on GitHub, tests) is part of my Pepys’ Diary code, in Django, but is fairly standalone.

The process is:

  1. Fetch the HTML page using requests.

  2. Use bleach to ensure the HTML is valid and, whitelisting only the HTML tags and attributes we want, strip out unwanted elements.

  3. Use BeautifulSoup to further strip out HTML elements based on their CSS class names, and to add extra classes to elements with certain existing classes.

  4. Return the new, improved HTML.

It seems to work alright, resulting in some decent-looking copies of Wikipedia pages.

For completeness, here’s the code at the time of writing, but the GitHub version may be newer:

from bs4 import BeautifulSoup
import bleach
import requests


class WikipediaFetcher(object):

    def fetch(self, page_name):
        """
        Passed a Wikipedia page's URL fragment, like
        'Edward_Montagu,_1st_Earl_of_Sandwich', this will fetch the page's
        main contents, tidy the HTML, strip out any elements we don't want
        and return the final HTML string.

        Returns a dict with two elements:
            'success' is either True or, if we couldn't fetch the page, False.
            'content' is the HTML if success==True, or else an error message.
        """
        result = self._get_html(page_name)

        if result['success']:
            result['content'] = self._tidy_html(result['content'])

        return result

    def _get_html(self, page_name):
        """
        Passed the name of a Wikipedia page (eg, 'Samuel_Pepys'), it fetches
        the HTML content (not the entire HTML page) and returns it.

        Returns a dict with two elements:
            'success' is either True or, if we couldn't fetch the page, False.
            'content' is the HTML if success==True, or else an error message.
        """
        error_message = ''

        url = 'https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%s' % page_name

        try:
            response = requests.get(url, params={'action':'render'}, timeout=5)
        except requests.exceptions.ConnectionError as e:
            error_message = "Can't connect to domain."
        except requests.exceptions.Timeout as e:
            error_message = "Connection timed out."
        except requests.exceptions.TooManyRedirects as e:
            error_message = "Too many redirects."

        try:
            response.raise_for_status()
        except requests.exceptions.HTTPError as e:
            # 4xx or 5xx errors:
            error_message = "HTTP Error: %s" % response.status_code
        except NameError:
            if error_message == '':
                error_message = "Something unusual went wrong."

        if error_message:
            return {'success': False, 'content': error_message} 
        else:
            return {'success': True, 'content': response.text}

    def _tidy_html(self, html):
        """
        Passed the raw Wikipedia HTML, this returns valid HTML, with all
        disallowed elements stripped out.
        """
        html = self._bleach_html(html)
        html = self._strip_html(html)
        return html

    def _bleach_html(self, html):
        """
        Ensures we have valid HTML; no unclosed or mis-nested tags.
        Removes any tags and attributes we don't want to let through.
        Doesn't remove the contents of any disallowed tags.

        Pass it an HTML string, it'll return the bleached HTML string.
        """

        # Pretty much most elements, but no forms or audio/video.
        allowed_tags = [
            'a', 'abbr', 'acronym', 'address', 'area', 'article',
            'b', 'blockquote', 'br',
            'caption', 'cite', 'code', 'col', 'colgroup',
            'dd', 'del', 'dfn', 'div', 'dl', 'dt',
            'em',
            'figcaption', 'figure', 'footer',
            'h1', 'h2', 'h3', 'h4', 'h5', 'h6', 'header', 'hgroup', 'hr',
            'i', 'img', 'ins',
            'kbd',
            'li',
            'map',
            'nav',
            'ol',
            'p', 'pre',
            'q',
            's', 'samp', 'section', 'small', 'span', 'strong', 'sub', 'sup',
            'table', 'tbody', 'td', 'tfoot', 'th', 'thead', 'time', 'tr',
            'ul',
            'var',
        ]

        # These attributes will be removed from any of the allowed tags.
        allowed_attributes = {
            '*':        ['class', 'id'],
            'a':        ['href', 'title'],
            'abbr':     ['title'],
            'acronym':  ['title'],
            'img':      ['alt', 'src', 'srcset'],
            # Ugh. Don't know why this page doesn't use .tright like others
            # http://127.0.0.1:8000/encyclopedia/5040/
            'table':    ['align'],
            'td':       ['colspan', 'rowspan'],
            'th':       ['colspan', 'rowspan', 'scope'],
        }

        return bleach.clean(html, tags=allowed_tags,
                                    attributes=allowed_attributes, strip=True)

    def _strip_html(self, html):
        """
        Takes out any tags, and their contents, that we don't want at all.
        And adds custom classes to existing tags (so we can apply CSS styles
        without having to multiply our CSS).

        Pass it an HTML string, it returns the stripped HTML string.
        """

        # CSS selectors. Strip these and their contents.
        selectors = [
            'div.hatnote',
            'div.navbar.mini', # Will also match div.mini.navbar
            # Bottom of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_II_of_England :
            'div.topicon',
            'a.mw-headline-anchor',
        ]

        # Strip any element that has one of these classes.
        classes = [
            # "This article may be expanded with text translated from..."
            # https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afonso_VI_of_Portugal
            'ambox-notice',
            'magnify',
            # eg audio on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bagpipes
            'mediaContainer',
            'navbox',
            'noprint',
        ]

        # Any element has a class matching a key, it will have the classes
        # in the value added.
        add_classes = {
            # Give these tables standard Bootstrap styles.
            'infobox':   ['table', 'table-bordered'],
            'ambox':     ['table', 'table-bordered'],
            'wikitable': ['table', 'table-bordered'],
        } 

        soup = BeautifulSoup(html)

        for selector in selectors:
            [tag.decompose() for tag in soup.select(selector)]

        for clss in classes:
            [tag.decompose() for tag in soup.find_all(attrs={'class':clss})]

        for clss, new_classes in add_classes.iteritems():
            for tag in soup.find_all(attrs={'class':clss}):
                tag['class'] = tag.get('class', []) + new_classes

        # Depending on the HTML parser BeautifulSoup used, soup may have
        # surrounding <html><body></body></html> or just <body></body> tags.
        if soup.body:
            soup = soup.body
        elif soup.html:
            soup = soup.html.body

        # Put the content back into a string.
        html = ''.join(str(tag) for tag in soup.contents)

        return html

In Web Development on 25 March 2015. Permalink

Practical Television, February 1952

A while back I bought a copy of Practical Television from February 1952. It’s a fascinating look at a time when TVs were new technology and there were societies of people interested in what we might now call “hacking” with their TVs.

Cover of Practical Television, February 1952There are articles full of circuit diagrams like “From VCR97 to Magnetic-2; Converting a Receiver for Standard Tubes” and “Modifying the AN/APR-4”. There are also lengthy tips on getting the most from your Murphy Receiver and how to make a slotted indoor aerial for “fringe area reception without an elaborate outside array.” (There’s a lot of mention of “fringe areas” as presumably signal coverage was patchy.) It also has plenty of adverts for components and tools — valves, face plates, scanning coils, test meters — but none at all for televisions themselves.

For some context, one report mentions that in nearly three years the number of television licenses (required to own a TV set) has increased from 285,500 to 1,113,900, which is still less than 5% of today’s number. This is around 16 months before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II which, in Britain, is seen as the moment TV-watching hit the big time. There was only a single TV channel to watch, the BBC, and it only broadcast for a few hours each day.

I’ve uploaded a scan of the magazine to the Internet Archive, and have also pulled out a few of the most interesting snippets below…

From “Televiews”, the introductory editorial page:

Some of the Sunday newspapers have been criticising a BBC producer because he declines to devote programme time to a talk on breathing as an aid to health. Some time ago this same producer was in trouble with the doctors because of his broadcasts on slimming for women. Perhaps this has made him cautious. We, however, support his decision for we do not believe that a talk on correct breathing would have been of interest since it is taught in every school.

From the “Telenews” section:

Interference from Lights

According to a Midlands electrical contractor, Mr. S. Dagnall, interference on television screens over the Christmas period may have been caused by the on-and-off flashing of fairy-lights on Christmas trees.

Suppressors could be fitted, but only at a cost of between 15s. to £1, and as this was not considered worth while, Mr. Dagnall refused to sell the lights.

Cinema’s Ally

Mr. J. Goodlatte, chief of the ABC cinema circuit, believes that the effect of television on box office takings in this country is only slight.

… Mr. Goodlatte praises the everyday housewife and places her second only to the films themselves as the cinema’s greatest ally. After a hard day at home it is she who most wants to go out for her entertainment.

Television Tape Recordings

It was recently announced in Hollywood, California, that a method of recording television images on a magnetic tape is expected to be ready for commercial use in a few months.

This system is the result of two years of research, financed by Bing Crosby.

Viewing in the Clouds

A British firm are planning a receiver for installing in airliners, to provide entertainment for passengers.

The biggest snag would be interference from the engines.

Appeal from the BBC

The BBC recently appealed for better behaviour from patrons at televised outside events where candid cameras take close-ups of crowds or where commentators hold interviews with people surging in the background.

Some viewers have complained about hand-waving or face-pulling from people who should know that they can be seen at home.

From “Underneath the Dipole”, subtitled “Television Pick-ups and Reflections”:

What a magnificent array of talent took part in the TV Christmas Party. Norman Wisdom, recently returned from America, … proved that his particular line of comedy is well suited to TV. When he was in America, he took a trip to Hollywood for a “look around,” and amongst other things was shown a television set by Stan Laurel which gave a choice of twelve programmes — most of them absolutely first-rate in entertainment value.

From “Here and There”:

Sport

An announcement is expected shortly from The Television Sports Advisory Committee concerning efforts that are being made to reach some agreement over the televising of sporting events.

The committee is expected to favour the broadcasting of all forms of sport and, if necessary, to televise only parts of matches, events or meetings should promoters not favour the transmission of whole programmes — that is, the first or second half only of a football match or one period of an ice-hockey game.

Some sporting associations have had no objection in the past to the televising of complete relays — the Lawn Tennis Association and the Rugby Union, for instance — but most promoting bodies feel that though the idea may have advertising qualities, the relaying of a complete afternoon’s sport would affect attendances and cash losses would be the inevitable result.

If only they could see how much sport broadcasting deals bring in today.

And finally:

“American Menace”

In a cable from California, U.S., where he is staying, “Wee Georgie Wood,” considers television in the United States to be a “menace to the country.”

That is the item in full.

In Television on 15 February 2015. Permalink

Temporary archiving

Perma.cc is (another) way of archiving web pages. This time in an “authoritative”-sounding manner. From the front page:

Perma.cc helps scholars, journals and courts create permanent links to the online sources cited in their work.

Perma.cc is powered by libraries because we’re in the forever business. We’re already looking after printed materials. It’s time we did the same for links.

Links become permanent when they are “vested” by someone affiliated with a vesting organization, such as a journal or court.

Which all sounds good. The more archiving the better if you ask me, given how ephemeral everything is around here.

However, if we leave the big text of the home page and visit the small print of the Terms of service we find these clauses:

9. Termination of Service

We reserve the right at any time to modify, suspend or discontinue the Site or Service, in whole or in part, without notice, and shall have no liability for doing so.

10. Disclaimer of Warranties; Limitations of Liability and Remedies

(a) WHILE WE ASPIRE TO PRESERVE LINKS AND ARCHIVAL COPIES OF CONTENT STORED AT THE DIRECTION OF USERS, WE MAKE NO REPRESENTATIONS, WARRANTIES, OR UNDERTAKINGS AS TO PERMANENCE OR THE DURATION OF PRESERVATION. AS INDICATED ELSEWHERE IN THESE TERMS OF USE, WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO DELETE OR DISABLE ACCESS TO USER SUBMITTED CONTENT, AND TO TERMINATE ALL OR PART OF THE SERVICE AT ANY TIME. YOU ACKNOWLEDGE THAT STORED LINKS MAY FAIL TO WORK.

Brilliant. An archiving service that explicitly states: it might not keep things forever; it might delete some things; or, even, it might close without notice.

This seems to contradict the front page blurb selling the ability to “create permanent links” and boasting “we’re in the forever business”.

I assume those running the service have the very best of intentions and fully intend (or, at least, hope) to be as permanent and “forever” as humanly possible. But if so, why the ugly bundle of caveats hidden behind-the-scenes? They effectively turn the front page puffery into outright lies.

It’s easy to say you’ll archive copies of anything, forever. It’s much harder, and more interesting, to set up the technical, organisational, financial and legal structures to actually do it. Which, as far as we can tell, are the important things that seem to be missing here.

In Misc on 1 February 2015. Permalink

Reading about dancing about architecture

Ages ago I asked on Twitter if anyone could recommend music blogs to read, because I felt a bit out of touch. A few people suggested sites and I meant to summarise the advice. And here we all are.

  • Pitchfork — I’ve heard Pitchfork referred to off-handedly as if it’s too popular to be credible and so, being afflicted with terrible reverse snobbery, I didn’t even read this one. Although I do find their Spotify app handy for ideas of new albums to try.

  • The Quietus — I have no frame of reference for these things. Is this like a less popular Pitchfork? Should I like it? What does it like? I ended up unsubscribing from it as the RSS feed only has brief summaries of each post.

  • Wondering Sound — Again, I’m not quite sure how this differs from the previous two but I quite like it. The RSS feed contains full articles, the design is nice, and I even found myself enjoying some of the writing, which is more than I hoped for. I’m still subscribed.

  • Popjustice — I used to subscribe to an RSS feed from here which was quite fun but I unsubbed because a lot of the posts assumed too much existing knowledge. It was like overhearing someone else’s in-jokes.

  • No Rock and Roll Fun — I’m still subscribed to this one. Fun, brief, a good old blog like they used to be.

(Apologies to the people who recommended these; I can’t remember who suggested which sites now. But thanks.)


It’s tricky though, this. These sites churn out loads of posts and I wasn’t interested enough to click on most of them to read further. I only want to read the posts about musicians I like, or ones I find interesting, or ones that I don’t know yet but might like.

But there’s no way of doing this except by going through everything. Even with a nice RSS reader, and only subscribed to two of those sites above, this feels more of a tedious task than if I was skimming through a paper magazine. My heart sinks as I see 35 new posts and I have to decide which to try reading and which to mark as read. It’s more of a chore than flipping paper pages until something catches my eye.

I think, also, I was hoping to recapture something from when I last regularly read any music press. But that’s like wishing I could grow back the hair I had at the time, and just as unlikely.

When I was 18 and reading Melody Maker in the library my horizons were narrow (or short? or close?). I loosely felt like I was in some kind of club. It was for me. The music news felt precious and rare. I could get interested in, say, Suede’s apparently amazing debut singles even though I’d never even heard them. I knew too much about the Scene That Celebrates Itself. I liked Mr Angry. I’d read overly long interviews with scruffy guitar bands that went nowhere. I would read reviews of albums and singles by people I hadn’t heard of just in case they sounded interesting.

Decades later my horizons are wider (longer? further?). I’m interested in more types of music, but less passionately. There are many, many more ways of reading about music. I’m not part of a particular scene or club. I can, if I want, easily submerge myself in more music news and reviews than I could ever read, and yet none of it feels like it’s just for me now. So maybe it doesn’t matter if I feel out of touch, and no longer know all of the backstories. So long as I can, somehow, keep finding new music, I can just listen to it, rather than read about it.

In Music on 30 January 2015. Permalink

Tech’s tunnel vision

A couple of days ago I linked to this post by Tim Maly which is full of interesting thoughts sparked by attending the XOXO conference. I wrote then: “Makes me want an at least partly explicit socialist / social democratic tech conference.”

Yesterday a friend asked me what I meant by that, so I had to spend longer thinking about it than the few seconds it had taken me to write the sentence.

While I frequently roll my eyes at the more extreme examples of the tech industry’s Randian selfishness and California Ideology thoughtleading, the homogeneity of the mainstream ideas seems just as alarming. Free market capitalism, to one degree or another, is the default setting and it’s hard to imagine alternatives.

In part, these are the times we’re living in (in “the West” at least). In the UK the three main political parties offer variations on a theme rather than drastic alternatives. I’m in my 40s and have no adult memory of a time before the 1980s, and haven’t lived in any countries that offer an even slightly different society (e.g., maybe the Nordic model). I find it really hard to imagine a different kind of economy and society; my brain has, by now, been wired to accept free-market capitalism, with slight variations on the amount of social saftey-net, as the default and only possibility.

The tech industry takes this tunnel vision even further, with its standard economic behaviours being more extreme and showing less variety than in business as a whole. Not all tech companies are funded by venture capital, growing as rapidly as possible, concentrating on growth over profit, and caring little about wider society, but enough of them that this is the default. You can do things differently, but it almost seems peculiar. You need a very good reason.

None of that should be a revelation of course, but I’m trying to explain why thinking of different ways of doing things is so difficult. The default stories are so strong, so ingrained, that even imagining viable alternatives is hard. But there must be alternatives; there always are. And the tech industry loves alternatives! Let’s disrupt!

Trying to imagine a tech conference that would embody an alternative viewpoint — a more “socialist / social democratic” alternative — actually seems like a good way in. I don’t have to imagine a whole new society and economic model, but only try to imagine what kinds of topics might be talked about at a conference along those lines. Some topics I quickly wrote down:

  • Different models for start-ups. Co-operatives. Employee ownership. Normal, slowly-growing, profit-making businesses.

  • Ruricomp — technology for people who don’t live in cities.

  • Technology for people who don’t live in the first world. (There’s a lot of them and they have a lot of technology, but most of us know nothing about it.)

  • What governments can do, should do, and are doing.

  • Websites that make the whole Web better. (To quote Tom Coates (PDF).)

  • New services that work fine on technology that’s been around for years.

  • Innovative ideas for improving genuinely public transportation (rather than private transportation or very expensive “public” transportation).

  • The benefits of unions, and how to start or join one.

  • Services designed for people who have little money.

  • Services designed for people who aren’t fully able.

  • Models for keeping services running over the long-term. (What happens when your company closes, or to your personal projects when you die?)

  • The state of technology and digital services in the NHS.

  • How to treat low-paid workers as humans rather than interchangeable meat robots.

This is a very mixed bag. You may be able to come up with more and better ideas. And I suspect a conference that included some or all of these topics could be utterly unbearable and full of tedious bleating people like me wanting to make the world a better place. I make me sick.

But I’ve realised that I spend a lot of time getting annoyed about things in this industry that annoy me, and I’m worried I increasingly define myself by the things that I don’t believe in. Not all of tech is terrible. There are plenty of decent people doing worthwhile things, whether traditionally “worthy” or not. I need to start noticing the things and ideas I do believe in, that I want to emulate, help or achieve.

I’m still fascinated by new technology and ideas and problems but the frame within which those are set is important. The default worldview of the tech industry feels constraining rather than liberating, and restricts the kinds of technology, ideas and problems that we think about. There are alternative viewpoints, even if they’re hard to imagine.

In Misc on 23 September 2014. Permalink

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