Part 1: Why did PledgeBank fail when GroupOn and Kickstarter flew?

“I’ll do X but only if N other people will do Y”

I was abuzz.

A cafe in Holborn. 2003. A secret meeting. James Cronin and Tom Loosemore, who’d made the genius does-what-it-says-on-the-tin FaxYourMP, bought me coffee and changed my world.

Wow, there’s actually other people who think computers can revolutionise democracy!

And they’ve an amazing top secret, ludicrously ambitious project to repurpose the whole of Hansard to make Parliament easy for the masses.

A little later, Tom Steinberg launched mySociety with a brilliant call for proposals. You can still read the entries here. But despite my already high ambient level of excitement, the one that I loved the best was PledgeBank.

Go and read the original proposal now.

It now seems strange, but once we got the money and started building WriteToThem, all I wanted to do was get on and build PledgeBank.

Oh PledgeBank!

I’ve never been really left or right wing. And what is brilliant about PledgeBank (and indeed all mySociety sites) is that both people who love Government and people who love business, love it.

The reason I liked PledgeBank was, in economic terms, simple. Typically, we either act alone by voluntarily buying something selfish for ourselves, or we let Government use the threat of violence to take money from us and spend it for our collective benefit. The former lacks scale, the latter lacks an immediate link to needs.

But with PledgeBank, you agree to do something collective, but only if lots of other people will too! Best of both worlds. The thing you do is voluntary, and yet magically it also has the power of impact of masses of people doing it! Lovely.

I’m sure there were several .com bubble startups using collective action, but by 2003 none were very noticeable – there was nothing obvious on the Internet that used this amazing collective action idea.

It was obviously going to change the world.

And yet, it failed.

That might seem a bit harsh for something that created Britain’s preeminent digital rights NGO, that kicked off the first wave of invasion of New Hampshire by libertarians, and that even now has successful pledges every week, and is altering the relationship between city and citizen in Barnet.

But it isn’t worth $13 billion, like GroupOn, and it hasn’t had a million people backing projects, like Kickstarter.

At first it might seem like a bit too much chutzpah to even compare PledgeBank to GroupOn and Kickstarter.

It’s not though – long after PledgeBank launched, Andrew Mason (CEO of GroupOn) started out by making a very similar site called The Point. It tried to organise collective action consumer boycotts. The Point even tried to buy out (er., merge with) PledgeBank to kill the competition (we were too hippy to accept).

Eventually they tried GroupOn as a sub-experiment, and it flew. GroupOn is collective action – it started out basically as streamlined pledges of the form “I, a restaurant owner, will give a 50% discount but only if 20 people will come try out my restaurant”.

It’s also not like we tried nothing making PledgeBank. We iterated with unstoppable passion to try to get it to take off.

We had pledge signing by SMS, automatically generated PDF posters, translation into a dozen languages, pledges in dozens of countries, beautifully copy edited hassle emails, local geographic search alerts, cobranded sites for companies and charities, geocascading pledges, Facebook integration… All back in 2005-2007.

So, what do you think? What went wrong?

Why did GroupOn and Kickstarter succeed, when PledgeBank failed?

Your thoughts in the comments.

This is the first post in a two part series. Read why I think it failed in part 2.

Newsflash: Geeks now good at usability, everyone else crap

We really struggled.

We felt guilt. Wracked with pain.

It’s the mid 1990s, and computers are impossibly hard to use.

Anyone who could program them, and who also cared about people, was ashamed.

So we fixed it.

Books were publishedwebsites launched, a new profession was born.

It took a while but many of the key insights from that furore benefit us all every day.

For example, on an iPad, or in Google Docs, you don’t need to remember to press save to not lose your work.

It’s now impossible to start a new Internet company without its proposition being clear and explicable to the general reader, with a control flow that leads anyone through to a happy conclusion.

The most important revolution in the technology of information is now accessible to billions.

It’s every other industry that sucks.

Three examples…

Music – I live in Liverpool, which I suspect has an interesting, thriving music scene. But it is completely impenetrable.

Look at the flyer to the left (click for larger version). If you haven’t heard of Wretch 32 or Spank Rock, it tells you nothing.

What genre is the music? How varied is it? Might I like it? How much does it cost? What is that weird fuzzy blob in the top right, and the strange # sign? What’s an early bird?

If it was a computer startup it would be held to an even higher standard – you’d have to assume the reader didn’t even know what a “festival” was.

And this is one of the good examples.

Partly I think it is in cliques wanting to keep people out as they don’t have room in their venues. At least, that is how I feel as an outsider. Just like normal people felt about computers in the 1990s.

Every time I walk past a wall of such flyers, I gaze longingly and mystified. With no time, with no usability, I move on.

Another starving musician loses access to my discretionary spending.

House buying Diagrams such as this are complex, but actually make it look relatively straightforward.

The process, especially in the UK, is insane.

The incentives are distorted, customer service low, paperwork excessive. And that’s even when you’re paying a decent lawyer.

Let’s just say, Steve Jobs hasn’t had any influence over the design of the property purchase system.

There are obvious improvements Government could make, but they screwed them up.

Estate Agents are locked into old business models, and seemingly don’t care.

Sellers stubbornly refuse to drop prices to actually sell their property, as if the market was being fixed by an evil demon, rather than natural laws of supply and demand.

Buyers get the information they need at the wrong time, forcing them to unnecessarily renegotiate or drop out.

Mortgage companies require copies of byzantine sequences of documents, with no logic, sense or humanity behind it.

And heck, even the usable alternative of rental is unusable, as there are inadequate rights by social convention (no pets, no painting, no security of tenure…), and not even a decent system where the community of renters can praise good or shame bad landlords.

In short, it is crapper than even a 1990s computer by far.

Government – You can probably all think of a recent occasion when you found part of Government excessively hard to use!

Benefits and tax systems that are so complex, so time wasting you can’t optimise them, unless you are weak enough that your local council pays someone to work it all out for you, or strong enough you can afford tax havens.

Democratic systems so unresponsive, so unaccountable, voting not only seems pointless, but is pointless.

At mySociety, we were obsessed with usability from the early days. A significant part of its purpose is to spread “usability” to Government services, by involuntarily making them more usable.

Nowdays, parts of Government are valiantly trying to fix such problems, but even that has come from the computer geeks. At best though, it’ll be lipstick (really lovely lipstick! that will show the way! but still lipstick) on a pig.

Where are the people on the inside radically revamping services throughout their supply chain to be awesome? Fixing the “whole product” of Government.

I’m sure they’re there, but I’m also sure there aren’t enough of them.

(Next time all this annoys you, take positive action by slinging mySociety a donation, they’re taking action on it at all sorts of levels, not just in the UK but internationally these days too).

So yeah, enough guilt from us geeks.

When’s the rest of society going to step up, take responsibility for their parts, and make everything usable?

Astonishments, ten, in the history of version control

“If you really want to … truly ancient history, you have to go back to delta decks on punch cards.” (Jim Rootham)

In a world where biographies of cod are not just accepted, but rightly popular, it wouldn’t seem entirely crazy to write a history book on how computer programmers store the vital product of their labours – source code.

Since neither you nor I have time to read or write such a thing, we’re going to have to settle on this one blog post.

It’s an important subject.

The (for now) final end product seems incredibly obvious. And popular.

Yet it took decades of iterative innovation, from some of the cleverest minds in the field, to make something so apparently simple yet powerful.

And every step was astonishing.

1. Source code is text in a file! (1960s)

With hindsight, it’s obvious that source code is best stored as just writing in simple documents. A brief read of the history of ASCII gives a flavour for the complexity of agreeing even that.

2. Humans can manually keep track of versions of code! (1960s)

As everything, to begin with there was no software.

“At my first job, we had a Source Control department. When you had your code ready to go, you took your floppy disks to the nice ladies in Source Control, they would take your disks, duly update the library, and build the customer-ready product from the officially reposed source.” (Miles Duke)

3. You can keep lots of versions in one file! (1972, 1982)

Using a fancy interleaved weave file format, SCCS ruled the roost of version control for a decade.

It took some years to develop a good method for recording the changes from one version of a file to the next. “An Algorithm for Differential File Comparison” is a relatively late paper to read on the subject (1976).

In 1982, SCCS’s successor RCS (original paper describing it) used these diffs in reverse to beat SCCS, and astonished this commenter:

“Along came RCS with its reverse-deltas, and I thought it was the bee’s knees” (Anonymous)

4. You can each have your own copy checked out! (1982)

At the time, people tended to log into a central mainframe and work together via that. With RCS, using symbolic links, it could be arranged so that each person was working with the same version control, but their own working copy.

“there will be a file called RCS that is a symbolic link to the master RCS repository that you share with the rest of your group members” (Information on Using RCS at Yale)

5. Wow! You can version multiple files at once! (1986)

Amazingly, up until CVS, each version control system was for separate individual files. Yes, you can use RCS with wildcards to commit multiple files, or mark particular branches. But it isn’t really part of the system.

In CVS it was the default to modify all the files recursively. Software was suddenly a recursive tree of text files, rather than just a directory or an individual file.

It was badly implemented as it wasn’t “atomic” (successor Subversion fixed this in 2000), but really that doesn’t matter for the purpose of astonishment.

6. Two people can edit the same file at the same time, and it merges what they both did! (1986)

In the late 1990s I worked at Creature Labs. We were changing from Visual SourceSafe (commercial, made by Microsoft) to CVS (open source, made by a bunch of hippies).

There was frankly disbelief that it could do its main magical promise – let multiple people edit the same file at the same time, and be able to flawlessly merge their changes together without breaking anything.

The exclusive locking of SourceSafe was a real problem when we were making Creatures 3. I remember a particular occasion we were adding garbage collection which meant editing most code files, and the lead programmer had to check out every file exclusively over the weekend while he implemented it.

This paper from the 1986 is an excellent historical record of this magic, wherein Dick Grune suffers the same problem while his team code a compiler in Holland, and so invents CVS.

7. The shared repository can be on a remote machine! (1994)

Most of this time people were mainly using version control on one computer. Some versions of RCS, and hence CVS, had a remote file sharing mechanism to let you have a remote code repository in 1986.

“If a version of RCS is used that can access files on a remote machine, the repository and the users can all be on different machines” (Dick Grune)

But it looks like it was only in 1994 when a TCP/IP protocol added, that the idea really took off.

“[CVS] did not become really ubiquitous until after Jim Blandy and Karl Fogel (later two principals of the Subversion project) arranged the release of some patches developed at Cygnus Software by Jim Kingdon and others to make the CVS client software usable on the far end of a TCP/IP connection from the repository” (Eric Raymond)

8. Free open source version control hosting! (1999)

This isn’t an advance in source control technology, but it was astonishing, and on the Internet social advances can be as important as technical ones:

The tendency was for older OSS versions to be hard to find … John T. Hall had the insight that if projects were developed on the site, the old versions would be there by default. A development platform service was audacious, but no one else was doing it, and we thought “why not?” (Brian Biles)

Partying like there was no tomorrow (for their stock), VA Linux introduced SourceForge to the world. This was great for new projects (like my TortoiseCVS).

It was hard and expensive to get a server on the Internet back then, and it wasn’t easy or cheap to set up source control and a bug tracker. This new service, despite its lack of business model, fledged numerous projects that bit earlier.

9. You can distribute it all so there’s no central repository! (2005)

There was a wave of version control systems in the early noughties, making version control completely distributed.

That is, your local machine has an entire copy of the history of the code, and can easily branch and merge on a peer to peer basis with any other copy of it. By the way, the same feature makes it much easier to branch and merge in general.

Given that, it seems unfair that I’ve dated this astonishment 2005. That’s because I’m not recording the first time anyone made the astonishing thing, but the first time it was productised and became popular. April 2005 was when both Mercurial and Git were released.

The post “The Risks of Distributed Version Control” (late 2005) shows how radical this new-fangled stuff was seen to be.

10. When you checkout that’s a fork too, and you can do that in public! (2008)

The success of GitHub is for several reasons (that deserve a whole blog post, although I’ve alluded to one of them before).

In the context of this post, the astonishment was that you might want to make even your tiny hacks to other people’s code public. Before GitHub, we tended to keep those on our own computer.

Nowadays, it is so easy to make a fork, or even edit code directly in your browser, that potentially anyone can find even your least polished bug fixes immediately.


Have a quick look back up at those decades of progress. Yes, some of the advances were also enabled by increasing computer power. But mainly, they were simply made by people thinking of cleverer ways of collaborating.

It makes me wonder, what is next? What new astonishing thing will happen in version control?

More broadly, can the same thing happen in other fields?

Are core parts of our information infrastructure – that ultimately block innovation in government or healthcare or journalism or data, as capable of such dramatic improvement?

I have this feeling we’re going to find out.

Want more? Read “The version control timeline” (on Plastic SCM’s blog, don’t miss the comments) and “Understanding Version-Control Systems” (by Eric Raymond).

Why I just joined the Green party

I’m pretty sure lots of people are going to ask me why I just joined the Green party, so here’s the reasons.

  1. I’ve moved to an area of Liverpool where green is strong – two Green councillors live nearby, there’s a very local organic box delivery, and the main indy co-op food shop has just moved up the road. It’s nicer to be in a party when there is local activity to join in and build on.
  2. Since I’m no longer being paid to work for mySociety, I’m no longer worried about any accidental partisanship being a member of a party might bring. Not that I think you can’t be a good civil servant or work for mySociety if you are a member of a political party, but it requires extra energy. Lack of bias is extremely important for both.
  3. I’m quite worried about Climate Change (and other things). We need to continue to try to both prevent it and to build up our societal resilience to deal with the consequences of it. We can’t do either unless we act in groups, and politics is part of that. More on this another time.
  4. Strategically I think the Greens are where it’s at in Liverpool. Democratically, i.e. to meet the needs and wishes of Liverpudlians, what Liverpool needs is a (slightly) more “left” party than modern Labour. Every city needs a strong opposition, and the Greens are the best candidate.

Finally, and to be clear, I think the Labour party, Liberal Democrat party and Conservative party are all excellent. I think the recent Labour Government did many good things particularly in its first term, and I think that the Tory/Lib Dem coalition is doing many good things and will continue to do so too.

I don’t join a party because I agree with everything it thinks. Fundamentally, of course I don’t, I’m unique! And I’m not going to lie and pretend otherwise. Every party is internally a coalition. Call me on it if I ever drink the Kool-Aid and start claiming it is more than that.

In this context, one good thing about the Green Party is that it is democratic. You can change policies using a documented, democratic process. For example, their science policies are in the middle of much needed reform.

Lots of work to do, and that’s the whole point. You don’t get input into the political system by not putting in any input.

Parties have had a bad reputation in recent years. There’s been a kind of twisted war with modern campaigning and the media ratcheting the cynicism up in a spiral – until you can’t work out if it’s voters or politicians who are the worst in their systemically forced negative actions.

I’m having no truck with that, and nor should you.

What’s a “startup” and why do I care?

You know when you have those really annoying arguments that turn into disputes about definitions of words? And they end up a tangled mess of pointlessness, and you just don’t want to be there any more?

Well, I’ve just realised that they’re much more important than I thought, but you have to think about them in terms of shared group culture. By which I mean, lack of shared group culture.

If I’m in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I say the word “startup” (as in a “business startup”), then most people will probably have a clear idea what I mean. And because I’ve read enough books and blogs, because that meaning has spread around the world’s Internet entrepreneurs, I’ll have pretty much the same meaning as them.

To give my readers who aren’t in this bubble a definition, this is how current valley beaux Eric Ries defines it:

A startup is a human institution designed to deliver a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.

Important about this is what it isn’t… If you’re Starbucks, you’ve already got tens of thousands of coffee shops, you’ve got mesh networks of computers crunching your loyalty schemes, and you’ve bought the best demographics that money can buy… Then opening a new shop is not a startup. Because you know the product, you know its market, you know how likely it is to succeed – you’re not even uncertain, never mind extremely uncertain.

Actually, anyone opening a coffee shop isn’t a startup. Yes, in everyday language, the person opening it will be “starting  a new business”. They’ll be working very hard, they’ll be risking their own money. They’ll be gambling that they can extend the coffee shop market a few blocks from where it was before, or that they can out execute other nearby coffee shops.
However, they’ll be doing something that many have done before. They can download a tested business plan, meet and chat to people who’ve done it before, and even hire them. They know how to execute well, because they’ve been a customer themselves in a coffee shop before, and they’ve worked in a coffee shop before.

Startups are about new products in new markets. Fundamentally it is about innovation. Does it have the possibility of changing the world?

You’ll notice that Eric’s definition didn’t say you have to be for profit, an organisation like mySociety is a startup. You don’t even have to be a new organisation, existing large companies can create groups within that are startups, but it is hard and rare (read the Innovator’s Dilemma if you care why).

But typically, startups tend to be new, for-profit businesses, like ScraperWiki that I run. Although that’s partly just because those kinds of startups are more visible.

So why do I care?

I think we’re in a lot of trouble at the moment, things are on edge. As a human race, we have to be innovative to get out of this. Not any old innovation will do (I’ve recently blogged about the kind of thing I think is most helpful).

But if people just carry on the same, setting up the same kinds of businesses, running their charities and governments in the same old ways, then we’re definitely screwed. So I’m glad that Eric is spreading the idea of how to create new, scalable, world-changing organisations, in clear and simple language (his book is a good place to start).

And I’m going to be using the word “startup” in the Silicon Valley sense. Tough.

Seven facts about the Global Village Construction Kit

Every now and again a project comes along that could change everything. I’ve been lucky enough this year to come across two of them.

The first I wrote about in Seven facts about Unhosted. It has the potential to decentralised the web again, while simultaneously keeping it just as easy to use and powerful.

Today I’m writing about the Global Village Construction Set. It has the potential to decentralise our industrial society.

I tweeted about it every day last week. Here are the links:

  • [ @OSEcology fact #1/7 ] finished 6 of 50 industrial machines that together bootstrap a small-scale civilization
  • [ @OSEcology fact #2/7 ] there’s a TED talk on Global Village Construction Set; “hope to transcend artificial scarcity”
  • [ @OSEcology fact #3/7 ] it’s open hardware (specs are Creative Commons / GNU FDL); anyone can make the machines (now or after apocalypse)
  • [ @OSEcology fact #4/7 ] bricks for building are made in a Compressed Earth Block press, they’re tough
  • [ @OSEcology fact #5/7 ] how to make a 2-axis CNC metal-cutting torch table; vital for build/repair of other parts
  • [ @OSEcology fact #6/7 ] GVCS is being tested at the “Factor e Farm”, a 30 acre site, 65 miles from Kansas City
  • [ @OSEcology fact #7/7 ] it’s half crowdfunded – 420 “true fans” donate at least $10/month each, big donors too

We’re very separated from the material supply chain that feeds us, keeps us warm, keeps us healthy. This is fine while it continues to work. But we know that one day – maybe not this year, maybe not next year, maybe not in a hundred years – we know that one day it will fail.

In reasoning terms, that’s a fairly simple claim (one aspect is covered in the old book the Limits of Growth, or you can just reason that everything will one day end). Reason though isn’t enough to make a mind believe. For a personal, real experience version, I think of the financial crisis or the recent riots at the end of my street.

So yes, the Global Village Construction Set, if completed, is a kind of insurance policy against the fragility of our just-in-time civilisation.

You don’t need to be so forward thinking and selfish though to find value in it. For example, it’s potentially useful now to millions of people in the world who aren’t already living in material wealth. And there’s also another good reason I’ll explain…

The Global Village Construction Set is a challenge. Can we, together, design a complete set of tools that can be used to mutually repair and rebuild each other, and self-reliantly sustain a reasonably good standard of living?

That’s a fun goal!

How can you help them? You can become a true fan by donating just $10 a month. They use it to buy the equipment and skills they need to develop the machinery, and they open source the designs they make. Or you can get involved deeper.

We take extraordinary business models for granted

It’s really easy to get used to business models. As if they were natural things that have always been there.

But actually, all the successful machines that make money were at one point extraordinary – inspired wonder when the first company found them.

Here are some recent examples:

1) Flickr. Invented “freemium” for SaaS on an at all large scale. Before then on the Internet you had to either buy things, or things were free.

2) Dropbox. It’s virality was geniunely new feeling. Sure, there were affiliate schemes and coupons before, but few things that were quite so financially linked to the business.

3) Github. Despite “freemium” branching out into other areas, everyone before github was either offering free open source code hosting OR selling private code hosting, not doing both in one company.

(I’ll get at least one comment pointing out earlier companies using the same models as some of those. That’s OK – different people will learn about different businesses first that hit on a certain method of success)

Many years ago I got reasonably far making a Subversion version control hosting service with Rufus. This was before Flickr or Github, and it just didn’t occur to us that it was possible to have a freemium model. Maybe servers were still too expensive for it to work, maybe we just weren’t as imaginative as the Flickr founders.

Going further back, there are endless interesting cases.

Imagine when somebody first thought of insurance, or owning a market in a city charging for stalls, or selling a leasehold on a property. Basic things that we do every day were once the wild ideas of genius entrepreneurs.

In the vast phase space of functional businesses, there are lots that are alien and strange, that nobody has tried yet, or nobody has tried well, or that only just now could work because of a change in technology or society.

A startup is a boat, hunting for them.

Seven facts about Unhosted

Unhosted is finally the project I’ve been waiting for, that stands a chance of decentralising the web.

Unhosted logoIt separates application writing from hosting your data. Encryption magic means that neither the writer of the application nor the storer of your data can access your data.

This will empower users, create more competition and boost open source web applications.

I’m sufficiently excited about Unhosted that I decided to tweet once a day about it for a week. Here’s what I said:

  • [ @unhosted fact #1/7 ] There’s a busy and technical mailing list e.g. discussion about protocol extensions
  • [ @unhosted fact #2/7 ] early stages, but 4 unhosted apps have been made already – vote for the best
  • [ @unhosted fact #3/7 ] Architecture: browser grabs webapp javascript from X, encrypts data, writes to any store Y (at home), Z (an ISP)…
  • [ @unhosted fact #4/7 ] Used to: buy desktop apps from one company, store data elsewhere – we control. Unhosted brings that to web.
  • [ @unhosted fact #5/7 ] Three unhosted storage node implementations. Bet one makes a packet on the decentralised web.
  • [ @unhosted fact #6/7 ] Browser-based javascript crypto is controverisal – – @unhosted is a reason for it.
  • [ @unhosted fact #7/7 ] Cunningly, unhosted itself is decentralised – a protocol and a cloud of miniprojects.

If you’re not a coder then Unhosted isn’t much use to you yet.

But if you are one, particularly if you’re interested in developing standards (and I think this will be a very important standard), now’s the time to get involved.

Join in on their mailing list. Be the first to write an Unhosted app for auctions, book selling or office documents. Code up that commercial Unhosted node storage service before someone else still agile like Dropbox beats you to it.

Dinosaur media and the Internet both suck, a Booktrust story

“Government U-turn over book scheme cuts” blares the Independent newspaper today. Apparently the UK Government decided to cut a scheme that gives books to all children last week, and has now changed their mind in order to decide not to cut it.

I don’t have any knowledge, or a particularly strong view, about how we should best encourage people to read as a society.

I do want to use this as an example, a simple and basic one, of how terrible information flow on the Internet is, and on how terrible modern journalism is. By terrible here, I mean just how utterly our society fails at giving the most basic tools for intelligent people to be able to have opinions based on any sort of knowledge or evidence.

The article, and all other articles I could find easily, fail to answer three obvious questions that even the most basic journalism on this story should answer. And in the modern world, answer means to give hyperlinks to full sources as references.

  1. Where is the announcement that the scheme was being cut?
  2. Where is the announcement that the scheme is not, after all, being cut?
  3. How good is the Booktrust bookgifting scheme? Where’s the research showing whether it is value for money and helps with reading?

A quick search on Google News and Google Blog search finds not a single article with a link to a primary source answer to any of those questions. The best you get is:

  1. The Daily Mail article, Children’s book funding to be cut as Government axes £13m from reading charity, describes the news of the original cut most clearly for me. It says that the first source of the story was Booktrust, and that someone at the Department for Education confirmed it via a “statement”. The actual text of the press release from Booktrust or the statement from the Department seem unavailable. And there is certainly no link to a detailed Government budget spreadsheet or similar, so we could for example put the spending cut into the context of the amount spent on libraries.
  2. Everyone’s source for the u-turn stage of the story seems to be the Press Association article Government in Booktrust U-turn. Again, no sign of the actual text of the joint statement by the Department and Booktrust. A search on the DfE website doesn’t even find mention of Booktrust on the entire site, and the Booktrust blog doesn’t cover it.
  3. The only expert, if anecdotal, evidence on the quality of the scheme that I can find is in the comments on The Bookseller website. There is strong disagreement. Some comments from people working at the involved agencies liking the scheme, one from a librarian and one from a middle-class parent who think it is a waste of money giving reasonably well off people books, several comments describing how there are plenty of sources of money to keep the scheme going. I’d hope a blog search would find some detailed, analytical blog posts from experts in the field, but it didn’t.

I’m struggling to decide who comes out worse from all this. Every single newspaper and blog that I could find on the Internet, for not even taking the time to get basic factual information other than from press releases and statements by organisations. The Government, both political parties running it and Booktrust for failing to publish any information at all about the whole matter. The whole of society for letting our information infrastructure get so bad.

Tactically, I think the Labour party comes out quite well. It has taken merciless PR advantage of the failings of the media and the Government. But strategically it has lost it – it had a chance to persuade me with evidence that Booktrust is a good value scheme, something Labour should be proud of. But it has given no evidence.

Most irritatingly, I’m not even sure if there was a u-turn. From the evidence we have, it could well be a power game where the Government is trying to get publishers to contribute more to the scheme. Or a simple administrative thing – they want to renegotiate the contract, so they said they wouldn’t renew it, and then Booktrust did some PR on that. Or it could be a genuine u-turn – which could be a good thing, depending why they did it. Governments should u-turn, if they’re doing so because they’ve listened to evidence!

With the quality of reporting available, I can have no idea.

So, what do we do about it?

  • We, or at least I, need better tools for finding good information. Yes, I can try reading pay for sources which sometimes dig deeper, such as the Financial Times or the Economist. But they’re not much good here, when I want to respond to tweets about a live political issue. Is there a blog search tool that only finds me good, analytical posts, from people with some knowledge about a field, or the time to research it? If not, perhaps someone enterprising can build it. Perhaps from a large curated list of blogs, perhaps via a new website with a community adding structured commentary to clusters of newspaper articles.
  • We need a much stronger force to stop newspapers, NGOs, political parties and Governments from making statements without giving detailed references and sources. It should be totally unacceptable, as unacceptable as it would be in an academic paper. The Media Standards Trust are working on a nice tool which I hope will shame newspapers that just copy and paste press releases. But that’s not enough. Maybe we could have a boycott, or maybe we could get the Google News people to drive traffic only to newspapers that give proper references. Ideas please!

The particular example of Booktrust is just one example. This problem happens to me nearly every day. I get two partisan views of every political issue – ones I could have guessed from the headline. What I want is deeper understanding, sources I can trust to be finding the evidence that will help society take the right decision as a whole.

Happy New Year!

Monsters not loony enough

Official Monster Raving Loony Party [The]_1

Looking for some sample data for the election quiz software I’m writing, I naturally went to the Official Monster Raving Loony Party website. The very first policy they list is:

Cool on the outside:
To combat global warming and climate change all buildings should be fitted with air conditioning units on the outside. (Source: Monster Raving Loony manifesto proposals)

At first this sounds just funny… Until you realise that we do have a technology that is the same as “air conditioners on the outside”. Indeed, the office building I’m in right now is heated by one. They’re called air source heat pumps (Energy Saving Trust link).

This air conditioner on the outside won’t solve global warming by cooling down the atmosphere, but instead by saving energy on heating, and reducing the amount of fossil fuels we have to dig up and burn.

According to the Energy Saving Trust page above, they generate 2.5 times more heat by pumping than an electric fire would using the same electricity. Julian and I looked up the spec sheet for the ones in the basement of Liverpool Science Park ic2, and it claimed 4 times. There’s a picture of the pumps and some details in the 10-page synopsis of David MacKay’s energy book.

The Official Monster Raving Loony Party have 26 candidates according to YourNextMP. I wonder if all their policies secretly actually would work, and are only merely apparently funny? Much like I stopped reading the Onion when the normal headlines got as crazy (round about 2004), perhaps now is the time to start voting for the OMRLP.