Long, cold cyberwar

Berlinermauer

Let’s keep this post simple.

We’re near the start of a long cold, cyber war. Many things make this clear – from Stuxnet to Snowden, from the Sony hacks to Chinese DNS poisoning.

This is a hard time to be in information technology.

Just in raw, technical security terms this is tough – rebuilding every layer of computing infrastructure so that it is safe.

And that’s the easy problem.

The hard problems are emotionally and politically challenging: We have to prevent automated privacy invasion from creating new powerful fascist states. We have to keep the Internet competitive and innovative – a positive creative force.

To give a hint at how hard it is, here are three harsh yet promising articles on key subjects.

I don’t know how long this war will take. I’d prepare for, say, a century.

It took many times longer than that after the invention of the printing press for everyday ideas like copyright, the novel, universal literacy and the public library to settle down.

If it feels tough, that’s because it should be.

If, like me, you’re a programmer, the days of rainbows and unicorns are gone. It’s now about moral responsibility, professional integrity and the strategic creation of new concepts.

Let’s get to it.

I blinked and missed 6 exciting things in the last 20 years of space

I blinked.

A long, slow, twenty year blink.

And meanwhile, space exploration went… Phoooom!

From a distance it looks bad. We haven’t sent humans to the moon for over forty years. There’s no grand, visible, memorable showpiece – apart from space shuttles exploding and being decomissioned.

And yet, when I recently got interested again, I found a flurry of things had happened. Many I had seen in passing, but not really looked at. All together, they add up to something amazing.

1. Space telescopes

It’s simple. Without the atmosphere in the way, you get better pictures. Beautiful pictures.

Much-loved space telescope Hubble reached orbit in 1990. You’ll have seen its iconic photo of the Eagle nebula pillars.

But have you seen this one of young stars sparkling into life 20,000 light-years away?

There are endless more. I get lost reading the Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies and looking at Hubble’s top 100 images. Trying to imagine what they all really are.

2. Space station

You can’t even say this new space world excludes humans.

Since 1998, a station has orbited above us. Continuously inhabited.

Recently, the Internet gives this a new intimacy. You can follow Reid Wiseman, tweeting pretty constantly from space. 3 million people have watched this tour of the station by a departing commander.

Most immediate of all, the HDEV video project gives continuous pictures of the earth from the space station. Through your tablet you can stare, imagining you’re up there, looking down on our planet during a break. Every hour or two, snaking around the world.

3. Gamma-ray bursts

Every now and again we detect a fantastic, crazily strong pulse of energy, as much as the sun emits in its entire 10 billion year lifetime. Nobody knows what they are – perhaps neutron stars colliding with black holes?

To investigate this, astronomers made a series of increasingly powerful satellites, culminating in Swift, which was launched in 2004 and is still running now.

About once a day, Swift detects a Gamma-ray burst and sends its location out via the Gamma-ray Burst Coordinates Network. Immediately, telescopes all over earth and space swivel towards the burst, capturing its afterglow to try and learn more about it.

We don’t have very good photos of them yet. Although there are some gorgeous artists impressions.

The nearest compelling real picture is this one of a Wolf-Rayet star, which are a possible cause of the bursts.

4. Roving on Mars

You can hardly have missed that two chirpy robots have been wondering all over Mars since 2004.

This year, the remaining one finally outpaced the record for longest distance travelled on another world, previously held by a 1970s Soviet moon rover.

They’ve made major scientific discoveries about the atmosphere and geology of Mars.

For example, we now know lots about the water on Mars (there are even polar ice caps!).

More immediately, though, they’ve taken detailed panoramic travel photos of another world. For example, Opportunity snapped this one of the Victoria Crater. Hover over it and scroll right to see more.

5. Landing on a comet

It’s impossible to describe the Rosetta probe’s crazy journey, richocheting off four planets to gain speed. You’ll just have to watch this video.

Ten years in, Rosetta is now in a kind of jolty orbit round a comet. Comets are important as they may contain rock similar to in the early solar system, and they may have been the source of water on earth.

In this photo taken by Rosetta, you can see the dumbbell-shaped comet, and the faint jet of the comet’s tail which is just firing up as the comet heads nearer to the sun.

This month, Rosetta is going to release a baby probe which will land on the comet.

6. Baby universe

Maybe you’re tired of looking at the 12 billion year old galaxies in Hubble’s picture of the deep field, and want something a bit older.

Radiation from shortly after the universe begin, travelling for 13.7 billion years, finally reaches us each day. It’s from a time before stars, when the universe was a cloud of hot gas.

We’ve known about this “cosmic microwave background” radiation since the 1960s. It’s key evidence for the big bang.

Not content with low detail pictures, cosmologists have made a series of spacecraft. WMAP was launched in 2001. It lived way out, cuddled in a gravity well just between the earth and the sun.

After 9 years of observations, it produced this image. The colours represent temperature fluctuations which then grew to become galaxies.

Seeds in a photo of our baby universe.

An email to Nicholas

Dear Nicholas,

Thank you for your previous two letters. I’m sorry I was so slow getting back to you after the first one, that you had to write another.

I didn’t know Canon meant essentially the same things as Round. I’m sure I must have been told, but I never got what it meant or cared. I only really appreciated rounds at all in actually singing them with people at Kentwell (the Tudor recreation thing I do).

Amusingly, I look up the most complex round I know (it isn’t instant to learn, as the note of “well” sounds off, so you have to teach it to drunk people carefully), which is the original “cat is in the well”. It’s called Ding Dong Bell in Ravenscroft’s Pammelia. Where, so I just now amusingly founded, headed “Canons in the unison”.

While trying to find out what exactly round means just now, I came across what glees were originally, and glee clubs. I really wish they still existed!

The ground bass is clearly an important reason that I like Pachelbel‘s Canon. And it doesn’t vary in volume. Oh, and there are hardly any instruments – I think adding any more is basically a waste of time for me, as I’ll fail to pick them out.

Moving on to your second letter… It started to irk me right at the beginning – only at the end did you give me an easy way to articulate why. I wasn’t moved by Williams musical version of Christina Rossetti’s poem. Worse, I wasn’t even moved by the poem itself!

Doing as you say and describing my emotional reactions the first time I heard it…

The voice was irritating, overly oscillating such that I couldn’t pick out the words. It actually managed to make the poem harder to understand. There were some uplifting bits musical in the middle, but the tedium of the vocal parts overruled that.

As for the poem, my! It glazes my eyes over, making me simply not want to read it. It is full of metaphors that have no meaning to me. To such an extent that I’d have to force myself to read it as whipped homework to get anywhere further with it at all.

I am going to take your advice, to not try to “understand” music, and not do so :)

I agree with you that over analysis and understanding can defeat the joy of music. What it can do though, is breakdown practical barriers. I’d like a music recommendation service which could say “don’t bother Francis with Wagner, basically nobody with your low volume range of hearing ever ends up liking it particularly”.

For people who are good at music, and/or who have fallen deeply into one genre pool they can’t see out, these barriers are as fleas to a giant. To those in old people’s homes, or whose voices have just broken, or even who are deaf, and have had music torn for them often unknowingly… They are so important!

To slightly shift subject, I just got back from Bearded Theory. Three relevant musical observations from it:

  • To our surprise, we loved the ambient tent, at the right moments. Not being about love or sex was such a relief, the wilful suspension of the primate social, abandoned for rhythm, the raw dance. e.g. The Orb.
  • Revived acts, from The Stranglers to UB40, were just irritating. They had the odd song you knew, but they weren’t the same as when they were young, and if you didn’t like them already, you weren’t going to by seeing them live. This alone makes it worth supporting new acts, despite the cornucopia of amazing historic music we have at a click now. (Ironic, that contradicted by me liking for the first time ancient The Orb above!).
  • It’s fun playing the Ukelele and/or singing (or Kazooing along). Beardy Keef did a jam, managing to get half the famous musicians on site to turn up too. My strumming sucked, and I couldn’t instantly remember chord patterns after the first verse (they were unlabelled on the second)… But still, that Uke, it brings down barriers. Easier than a recorder or a piano to learn to that important stage of “have fun with” by far.
  • The Monster Ceilidh Band are great.

So yeah, I don’t need sophisticated analysis of music. (Although the part of me that wants to understand consciousness, and suspects music is a vital hack on our brains that will reveal a lot about them, is curious.)

Instead, I want analysis so people can have fun, without being put off by usability barriers that there are gorgeous ways round.

But there is a danger that we become distracted by such intellectual diversions in a similar way that one might become fixated by the form of a Sonnet while missing its meaning

It works both ways. To return to Dr LJ’s Tweet… Is everyone, even just in England, actually hearing Beethoven’s 9th? What’s the most efficient way to make that possible, in the cases where they would like it but just don’t have a way of getting to it?

Coincidentally I was at Bearded Theory with a music therapist (there are very relevant links to papers and things on the News and Downloads page!). Singing war solidarity songs to people with dementia… Makes sense to me.

And alas you need research, like in the paper Dr LJ linked to, to stand a chance at knowing how much to spend on nursing and how much on music.

Best wishes,

Francis

Properly funding Democracy Club

Democracy Club logoPolitics is broken.

At the last election, a few people made an amazing organisation to try and fix it.

Democracy Club is a non-party-political group of volunteers. At the next election, we want to hold candidates to account, and stimulate public engagement.

We do this by emailing people small, easily achievable tasks. These small tasks will add up to hugely useful resources. (Democracy Club about page)

7000 volunteers (in every constituency!) found out who the candidates are, what they thought about local and national issues, and monitored their election leaflets. (I wrote up what they did on the OKFN blog.)

Amazingly, another group of people is emerging who want to do it again. Better. I think it can have a real impact. However, to really have reach on a national scale, it needs money. I want Democracy Club to be a permanent national institution.

The question is, would you pay?

It’s really hard making a new revenue model work, there’s lots of risks. We could just run a Kickstarter to fund this General Election. Then, everything would collapse again come May 2015. I think this is too important – we should do local elections and European elections, and build up information, volunteers, media contacts between elections.

I want to pay monthly.

The question is, do enough people? Is it even feasible? To find out, I would very much appreciate it if you could fill in the short questionnaire below.

I’ll blog again [update: left a comment below instead] with the answers in a week or two.

Thanks for your help! Let’s fix our politics.

Irony of extensions that remove junk slowing Chrome down

I thought I was ruthless at not installing browser extensions. It’s part of the process of getting old, customising things less and less. Despite that, I’ve accumulated seven extensions.

(The most unusual and interesting one lurking in there is Churnalism, which tries to tell you whose press release each newspaper story is copied and pasted from)

As you can see, this morning I disabled them all.

Chrome extensions

Why?

I noticed that to load my list of datasets on ScraperWiki, a relatively complicated but in modern days not untypical SaaS application, was taking round about 2 seconds (that’s the DOMContentLoaded number in the Network tab of Chrome’s developer tools – actually I use Chromium on a Mac, if that matters).

When I disable all the extensions it takes only 1.5 seconds.

Timing to load page in Chrome

I briefly tried a binary search to find the culprit. It turned out there wasn’t a specific one, just lots of plugins scanning the DOM with lists of URLs to remove privacy bugs or block adverts. Each one eating up a small sounding but incrementally vast change. Further and proper statistical study required.

I must have gradually installed them in a fit of solidarity for privacy software makers post-Snowden. My previous policy was to try to experience the web in the way that non experts did, so I would be forced to either make it more usable, or at least all suffer together.

Now I’ve turned off all the plugins, the whole web feels fresh and fast again.

Skills you need to get product/market fit, all in a line

When delivering a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty, you need a range of skills.

To help understand what skills are needed in a startup team, I’ve found it useful to think of people’s skills as being spread out along this line.

Line of startup skillsConsider people you know, and place them on the line. e.g. A UX designer who can also code Javascript is maybe somewhere towards the technical end of product.

1. Technical

This is someone who understands the substance the product is made of in great detail, and can work it to do what is needed. So for software, a computer geek.

2. Product

Deciding what the product should do, by both understanding what is possible with the technology, and what is needed by users. A product manager.

3. Market

Classifying who customers are, what inspires them, how to find them. Using whatever methods to help bring them to the product they want. A marketeer.

4. Sales

Filling that last gap between a product and its users. Cold calls, hustles, pesters. Whatever it takes to bridge two organizations. A salesperson.

Product/market fit boundary

Some lucky (skilful!) people sit right in the middle. They have a balance of product-side and market-side skills, and as a result often seem preternaturally good at crafting organizations.

You can train yourself to get nearer to that place – sales people can learn more product design, geeks can learn about marketing. And of course, you can join forces with people with complementary skills.

Why put all this on a line?

Two main reasons.

1. People’s skills are more likely to be near some point on the line. It’s common to find technical people with some product skills, rare for them to have full on sales skills. It’s helpful in terms of spotting balance – if your technical person is very extreme, it might help to have a product person who is over towards the market side.

2. There are analogies (homomorphisms, if you know your maths) between the roles, as if the product/market fit boundary were an Alice in Wonderland mirror.

Alice's mirror

  • Hacker (doing all to make tech work) is the mirror of Hustler (doing all to make a deal work)
  • Developers claim they have time to code everything, Salesmen claim they have time to sell to everyone
  • Geeks tell you too much about particular tech, Salesmen tell you too much about particular deals
  • Making (what product people do) in the mirror is Meaning (what marketing people do)

(I suspect these homomorphisms are quite deep, see my post on product and market being the same thing for a taste of why that might be)

I’ve found such analogies help me understand both the vital importance, and the weaknesses, of those different from me. It emphasises that to create a viable new product or service, you need all four skills working in unison.

In a world where a key limiting factor in the creation of new businesses is a lack of social ties between product-side and market-side people, it’s a start.

How we used email as a customer support system at mySociety

Customers

You’ve seen it. The red eyes… An ennui for life…

The drained sadness of someone who has been lost for weeks in a customer support ticket tracking system.

At mySociety (the awesome Internet democracy charity I was on the founding team of) we tried using Request Tracker for a while, and quickly fled.

We could flee, because we had the comfort of a simple email based system to return to.

It worked like this:

a) All support or feedback email comes in to a particular address (we used team@ – for example team@theyworkforyou.com for the site TheyWorkForYou)

b) That address is set up as an alias (like a group in Google Apps) to transparently forward mail to everyone working on that product.

c) Everyone filters their email, so those support emails all go into a special support folder.

d) When replying to customers, always use reply to all. This is so replies go into everyone else’s support folder, both so they have a record, and so they know the customer has been replied to.

e) When either you or someone else have fully dealt with a mail or a thread, archive it. Otherwise, leave it in the support folder.

f) Be really disciplined about this. Anything in the support folder represents a customer who isn’t satisified.

g) Make sure at least one person on the team goes and looks at slightly older, harder messages, and bullies appropriate people into resolving them one way or the other.

This particularly works well early on in a product, when there is relatively little support. It’s particularly important then that everyone working on the product lives and breathes the customers. Even just seeing the emails go past with other people answering them can help with that.

I’ve used it to manage support for probably a dozen web products in total. It’s surprisingly robust…

It worked well (and still does as far as I know!) with half a dozen volunteers on WhatDoTheyKnow. It worked fine even when we were launching the Downing Street petitions system, with millions of users and front page newspaper stories (Matthew had many long sessions of email answering – and that’s a good thing!). We’ve just been looking at customer support systems for ScraperWiki, the startup that I run.

The main products (like ZenDesk) seem to be aimed, both in price and functionality, at larger, more corporate organisations than we are. They look overly complicated, we really only need something as featured as the Github Issues tracker.

I don’t know what we’ll move to using yet – that’s partly why I’m writing up a description of mySociety’s email based system.

It could perhaps be simplified by using a shared GMail account. Careful use of labels and folders would also make it more powerful.

It would need some training and discipline. Everyone handles their personal email differently. When it is customer support requests, it needs more discipline than just chilling out in the tao of a flow of passing messages.

This is natural to people who have the horrible habit of using email as a todo list, less so to anyone else.

Comments please! What questions do you have about the above system?

And can you recommend a lightweight customer support tracker?

How to use time-travelling anthropologist pollsters to tell good from evil marketing

SplinterMany British geeks (including me, once) have an instinctive distaste for marketing.

This is wrong – it lets the evil people get all the advantages of marketing. It hides really good and useful products and services from people.

Instead we need a morality to distinguish the good from the bad. The only definition that I’ve come across – and it’s custom designed for geeks – is as follows (this is courtesy of Julian Todd):

Imagine the universe splinters into two at the point you decide whether to carry out a (what will be successful in some way) marketing (or sales!) action. For simplicity, assume the marketing here targets a particular person to change their behaviour in some way.

A) You take the action, and somebody decides to buy your product (vote for your party, whatever)

B) You don’t take the action, and the person doesn’t buy your product (they buy another, they don’t vote, or whatever)

Then imagine you had a team of time travelling anthropologist pollsters. They would hop to universe A and to universe B. They go to the point where the target is on their death bed and do a sophisticated happiness survey of them.

Whichever universe they’re happiest in, indicates whether the marketing action was good or evil.

Do every marketing hack you can. As ruthlessly as you can. With that moral criteria.

Tudor time travel – Episode 1 of Crazy theories.txt

Kentwell Potter

Because I work in technology, people are often surprised that I spend 2 weeks a year living in the 16th Century.

The first episode of a new Podcast by Jonathan Deamer and I explains why.

What is Kentwell Hall? Were the Tudors a high technology society? What does it mean to be human? Why do both Jonathan and I have a long file of interesting subjects we never get round to blogging about?

All this and more in Episode 1 of Crazy theories.txt.

Crazy theories.txt – Episode 1 – MP3 (click on this one to listen!)
Crazy theories.txt – Feed to add to your podcatcher

BTW, it being Easter weekend, you can visit Festive Easter at Kentwell as a tourist, and see what all the fuss is about. It’s in easy day trip train range of London if you get up early, otherwise you’ll probably need to drive to Suffolk – there’s lots of other tourist things nearby too, if you want to make more than one day of it. It was a major centre of the wool trade, back in the day.

Kentwell Barn School

Links for this episode:

Awesome Foundation – Liverpool Chapter

There’s not enough awesomeness in the universe.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s quite a lot. But we could do with a bit more.

That’s why we’re lucky that Tim Hwang set up the Awesome Foundation a few years ago. It began in Boston, and has spread to dozens of cities.

How’s it work? 10 trustees pay $100 a month each to fund a $1000 prize. The prizes are awarded to things that 1) Have a purpose, 2) Are on a budget, 3) Create joy. Things like phones that can make calls without a base station, flooding a whole city with swings, or a stunning weather balloon to monitor the gulf oil spill. Things like that.

Watch Christina Xu explain…

A bunch of us are setting up a Liverpool chapter of this craziness.

Three things you can do to help…

1) Become a trustee. Email me francis@flourish.org if you’re interested. You need to have £50 a month (or so) disposable income, and be prepared to spend a fun evening helping pick which project gets the award. We’ve got four people so far, and I’ve just agreed to be one.

2) Have an idea! We’re not open for our first applications yet, but that shouldn’t stop you thinking. Again, get in touch with us if you have questions about whether an idea is suitable (hint: they all are! we’re very open to what kinds of projects Liverpool will create).

3) Tell your friends about us! Join Awesome Liverpool on Facebook, or follow Awesome Liverpool on Twitter and share the joy.

Awesome Liverpool