See also On Humanism

January 8th, 2021 - Well, History doesn’t get made every day

Although it does rather feel like the past few days have definitely been historical. As I type this, a few hours ago Trump’s Twitter account was suspended indefinitely. There are all kinds of comments on social media about how it might be a bad thing for a private company to have such power. On the other hand, it is a private company and the rest of us get to choose whether or not to use these systems. It’s a choice. Nobody forces us to use the systems. It may well be the case that this is a watershed time for the systems themselves - after all we’ve all heard that the social media networks are amplifiers of all that is bad (and perhaps good). That remains to be seen.

What is true, as far as this writer is concerned, is that there are some times when there are not in fact two sides to every story. Sometimes you have to look at what might have been and realise that there would not have been a second side to the story had the people who advocate “difference is bad” actually been on the side that won. And then, it pays to look back at the times in history when this was in fact the case - one of which was still in the lifetime of many of the people on this planet.

It’s not right to think that people who don’t like you are less than you are. It’s not right to think that people who don’t agree with you are your enemy either. It’s not right to value your own freedom above the rights of others to stay alive and healthy. Freedom isn’t about being more important than other people, whoever you are. Freedom is about being able to choose to value everyone and everyone around you as special. It’s also about accepting the consequences when you don’t think others are less than you are. Because they are not.

Sometimes, you can’t let people say what they want. Sometimes there is a cost. Sometimes people have to pay. Sometimes the good people have to stop wringing their hands and realise that they are right and someone else is wrong. Way too late on the part of the various social networks out there, but there you are.

Actions have consequences. When you make a choice you have to face those consequences. This is one of those times.

It’s easy for us to feel guilty or be made to feel guilt by people who would have us question what happens by trying to turn our values against us.Ultimately, that’s a problem that is a consequence of us believing that other people are valuable.

This is not, in any way, censorship of free speech, it is the silencing of a voice of hate that demonstrably made the world a worse place, not least for the five people who died this week in Washington D.C.

Just to be clear, there are people in my family who fought against this, years ago.

I regret not one second of anyone standing against this hatred. Not one. I am proud of those who do. There is no place in civilised society for those who would believe others are not as valuable as they are.

I wish I could be more eloquent. These are difficult times. By taking a stand we can all make them better.

Edit - January 9th…
The hand wringing and arguments about what to do continue. Most recently Cory Doctorow on Twitter has gone through reasons why we should be concerned because there is an oligopoly, basically, of places for public speech. This may be true. I don't actually think it is though - after all, we managed to have 'free speech' before Twitter or Parler or Facebook. Let's also be clear that as President, Trump actually has a platform to talk to the people of America (and the world) any time he really wants to. But let's leave that bit aside for the moment.

Why do I disagree about the free speech oligopoly thing? Because there are always alternatives. I know people who live quite happily not tweeting or writing to the editor or standing on soapboxes. They seem to be able to get their views out alright. More to the point, there has always been a free speech filter - if the newspapers didn't want to print what you said as a politician or whoever, they didn't have to hand no-one was the wiser.

There are two things here: the first is that the speech that is being silenced was odious, hate-filled and has no place in any society, let alone one that purports to be civilized. It glorified violence against others as long as the others didn't look or think like you. Not having a platform for that kind of thing is just fine by me. Call it censorship if you like. I'm sure it is. I have no qualms about that.

The second, probably more important at the end of the day, is that nobody's voice got taken away. A platform, indeed many, decided that the speech wasn't something they wanted to support any more (way too late, as I've already noted). The voice is still there. It's just smaller. I frankly don't care if it was private companies that did it - it's not like the people in power did much to silence it over the past few years. And I frankly don't care that private companies have a lot of power over this kind of issue. Don't like it? Don't use them. At some point enough people not using them will affect what they do. As a sign on a truck I saw when I was driving to Arizona said: "Don't like trucks on the road? Stop buying stuff." I won't deny that the tech companies are too powerful. We can all see that. Figure out ways of making them less powerful and I'll be right with you. We will probably all benefit. But let me be very clear: there is not any excuse for allowing people who value others less than themselves to be allowed to continue to spread that kind of lack of humanity.

Do I care about freedom of speech? Sure. Do I think anything should be allowed to be said? Nope. Do I care who gets to decide? Sure, although the ones we elect have done a shoddy job of it recently, in Canada as everywhere else. Freedom isn't free. You get to pay for it - vote for people who can change what is happening if you want it to change, or stop buying iPhones, or stop searching on Google, but don't complain about it on the very platforms that you say are too powerful. Figure out another way.

Who gets to decide what is 'right' and what isn't? All of us, all the time. Do some people have more power in that respect than others? Yes, for sure. They always have. What can we do about it? Stop buying stuff…

December 30th, 2020 - Thoughts about screens and people and fairness

We have spent the past year in the grip of a pandemic the likes of which we last saw around 100 years ago. It has highlighted stark differences between various people in society. This almost certainly applies across most societies on the planet, but for some the differences are even more oppressive. Some of us are fortunate enough to work in professions that allow things like remote working, teaching, and indeed learning. Some of us have little choice but to go to work and bear the brunt of the tempers of people who should know better. On which note, the past few years have exposed a vast underbelly of nastiness that the veneer of civilization hid for a while, but that’s a thought for another day.

The end of any year brings introspection, The end of a year like this has definitely brought introspection about how we managed - how ‘zooming’ became a thing, how school at home and online learning was endured by some and welcomed by others, and so on. Being able to be virtual has become the latest version of them vs. us. Naturally there are people on both sides of the argument about the digital divide. As usual, many of the arguments seem to revolve around the concept of a bucket of crabs: if some members of society can’t have something then we should make sure no-one can, or perhaps just make those that can feel guilty about it and turn them into social pariahs for even thinking that it’s nice to stay home and work online. On the other hand, there are people who seem particularly tone deaf to the concerns and needs of those among us who simply can’t afford to stay home, and even if they did couldn’t work online.

As ever, there are nuances. The thing that strikes me most about this and other similar situations where society is seen as stratified is that in an awful lot of arguments I hear that we should bring everyone to the same level by making sure that the ‘haves’ are vilified enough that we can bring them ‘down to the level’ of the ‘have-nots’.

What a ridiculous notion.

Surely it would be better to be able to bring people who are struggling to a state where they are not? How do we do this? Well, we could start by paying people properly. Universal Basic Income might be nice. A little more respect for those who give service in the many ways they do, perhaps? When was the last time you actually thanked the your grocery store teller? When was the last time you suggested to the billionaire owners of grocery chains that paying their staff a fair wage and providing sensible protection would be both a good thing and a requirement for you shopping there? When did we think about providing sensible at home child care for ‘essential’ workers for free? It’s not actually like we can’t afford it as a society.

I digress. This isn’t a rant about equality in pay or anything like that. That can come at another time. This is a set of thoughts about living digitally, which is a huge part of what exposed the other problems in such a stark light this year. It’s worth mentioning that I am as guilty as many others in not thinking or indeed doing enough about the problems of society and that this year has shown me many different ways of thinking about that.

There have been many differences brought to light in this year. The difference that this piece is about is being able to live digitally, or not. Naturally, I have some thoughts in that direction. Let’s explore those and what they might mean for everyone in the future.

To be continued…

September 2020 - Oh my, has it been this long

Apparently it has. But that's better than the 3 years between the previous 2 thoughts. Not that I don't have thoughts all the time but sometimes I forget…

Well, here we are in the midst of a pandemic. The world is unlikely to return to what it was this January for many years, if at all, and I have to ask, why would we want it to?

And then, of course, comes the US Presidential Election. I'm not at all sure, and I hope I am wrong, and sure I'm a liberal, if not a socialist, so the choices are stark. It seems like, with all seriousness, the choice the Americans face is between good and evil, and whilst the pandemic runs amok the rest of us hold our breath - at least, those of us who can about where we're all going on this pale blue dot. Which brings me to a quote that works in this instance, from Carl Sagan, who said it was a pale blue dot in the first place (it's also apropos that 2020 is the 30th anniversary of that picture).

Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.
Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot. Random House USA Inc., page 6.

(from NASA, the 30th anniversary image. See here.

I don't think I need to say much more, except that I think that we've lost it and I don't know how to get it back.

Words fail me when I try to describe how that makes me feel.

September 2018 - Rest in Peace, The Ultimate Human in the Loop

On September 26th 1983 Lt Col Stanislav Petrov saved the world. This May 19 he died age 77, a fact only now reported. In a world of analytics and technology and AI it is worth remembering, only people are wise. We are all here because of that.

Stay calm, slow systems down, keep existing.

May 8th 2015 - No better way to wake up

It's been a while since I posted. This one is less about external and more about internal, to my life, things. I was wandering back from the barn this morning and thinking happy thoughts. So to remind myself of that when the winter comes back around, here's a small paragraph on the best way ever to wake up.

First, be with someone you love. Better still, someones you love. It helps to make the rest of the wake up perfect.

A cup of tea, feeding the dogs, playing with the oldest dog (Piper's old but she's a good 'un). Feed the cats. They always have food on hand, but they like to have someone pop upstairs to where their food is to make sure it's topped up. Perhaps break up a face-off between the two boys - Gremlin and Alastair, who, though fixed, still think they're all that.

Wander down to the chickens to feed them (they love: pears, bananas, bread (of course), their regular food, in fact just about everything you care to throw in their direction. Except celery (and there are a few not so good for them things)), collect their gifts to us - they're still young so we're getting an egg a day each, which is fantastic. They're also cuddly, and love to be stroked and are happy to hang around with you when you're with them.

Next, pop into the stalls to feed the old horse, Marty. He gets stalled at night and extra feed to keep the weight on and his energy up. It seems to be working, and he loves his routine. Wander over to one of the pastures to say hello to the other boys, who are right now alternating between hay and grass, mostly because the grass is still recovering from the winter and the hay is plentiful and easy for them. Horses aren't exactly lazy - to me from the outside it seems they love to move and rejoice in their ability to express themselves through that movement. I will never tire of their grace and powerful beauty.

And all the while enjoy the warm sun on your face - it's so nice to have a sunrise at the same time as you do these wee chores (Winter is a little more difficult since it's, well, dark and cold!)

Then wander back to the house, grab a cuppa (tea: best drink of the day!) and get down to work.

There you go, the recipe for a perfect wake-up.

In the biography I put out for talks and things, I mention that I live with horses, dogs, cats, chickens and people, each of whom has something to teach us about trust.

Trust is what I think about every day and every one of these creatures educates me every one of those days. I'm lucky to be able to share my own life with them.

And now, to work.

January 16th, 2014 - Digital Failure and Grace

Cory Doctorow, an excellent, prescient writer for whom I have a great deal of time and respect, wrote an interesting piece in the Guardian today about failing gracefully, being at the heart of a healthy relationship with technology.

I think, though, in this instance, he was perhaps using the wrong terms, or at the least conflating them.

The piece wasn't really about digital failure, it was (perhaps predictably) about digital obsolescence, DRM, and business practices associated with information (which wants to be free and expensive, etc.). There were a few bits in there about 'invisibility' too just to cloud the issue a little - invisibility in terms of 'it just does it' rather than invisibility in terms of 'you can't see the things that do it' - so, invisible HCI rather than AmI, the first of which is not necessarily something I think is necessarily a good thing. But I digress, and that's a discussion for a later date.

So, what Doctorow says is that failure is when you can't listen to mp3s on a specific service because it changed its rules. Failure happens when you lose your laptop and your valuable information is compromised. Failure happens when you die, and people can't access the information because the carrier, or the application that created it, is obsolete.

This isn't failure. It's obsolescence. That doesn't make it a good thing, just a different one, one for which we can plan differently. I leave it to the reader to decide how to put in place systems for managing it, but bear in mind that books are still not obsolete, and a reasonably well preserved written document is rather a good thing to have, in many respects. I have lots of digital photos too, but truly, the ones I value most are printed.

Failure, to be accurate, happens when the systems we are using cannot do what they were supposed to do in the context for which they were designed. Sometimes, failure happens because we made the wrong assumptions. Sometimes it happens because the environment changes, or there is an attack of some kind. And sometimes it happens because ultimately, it's all about people, and people are fantastic 'edge creatures'.

What's an edge creature? It's something that pushes boundaries, something that finds edges, even inadvertently. Humans are great at it - pushing, searching, tweaking and testing the edges of their space. And when you do that with a system with boundaries, it will 'fail' at some point - it simply won't do what you want it to, or worse, it'll do something you don't.

Doctorow is right when he talks about this coming down to a relationship between person and technology (that relationship is a part of the system, in fact). This relationship is key to handling the inevitable failures because, whilst humans are great edge creatures, that means they are invariably pretty good at managing the failures that happen on the edge.

But we can't manage it unless we know it's happening.

We've written before about failure, it's one of our ten commandments for trust systems - see e.g. this piece. The point is this: graceful failure is about the technological part of the system letting the human part of the system know it cannot cope, it's at an edge, or beyond it, and the results are going to be at best partial and at worst wrong or non-existent, dangerous or boring. When the technology can see that, and can tell the human, the human can manage it better. That is where the relationship truly matters, and that is where trust is leveraged as well as fostered.

Being able to play my music in 10 years? Great. Being able to trust the technology I use to tell me when it's in trouble so that I can protect myself? Priceless.

October 2nd, 2013 - Immigrants, Patriotism, The Daily Mail

I'm an immigrant. I am also a patriot. I read this piece in the Guardian with some sympathy for the immigrants in my home country, the UK. Like many people I'm not a fan of Alistair Campbell, but I am totally in support of what he did last night. The Daily Mail is "the worst of British values posing as the best of them" indeed, odious little newspaper that it is.

I do not support many political opinions. I have my own. I defend the right of everyone to hold their own. I refuse to accept that this right allows others to use anyone's family against them, and most particularly when there is, it seems, not a shred of truth in the accusations made.

The piece has a wonderful quote at the end, which I reproduce here to remind me:

Patriotism is proud of a country's virtues and eager to correct its deficiencies; it also acknowledges the legitimate patriotism of other countries, with their own specific virtues. The pride of nationalism, however, trumpets its country's virtues and denies its deficiencies, while it is contemptuous toward the virtues of other countries. It wants to be, and proclaims itself to be, 'the greatest', but greatness is not required of a country; only goodness is.
Sydney J. Harris

September 20th, 2013 - computers, humans, the process, flawed

Technology quite often replaces humans (indeed, any living organism, just ask the horses and oxen who used to plough fields). Often it's simply because the artificial can do the job better, faster, more.

But there are places where we need to think about people making the job work better because they are slower and think.

I'm not a huge fan of people who make vast profits on the backs of others. But the argument in this New York Times piece is valid: if we want to ensure the process is working properly, we need to put humans into it to actually slow it down! Flash crashes are a technological problem, not a people problem.

The Device Comfort model we are working on re-integrates the human in the loop - expressly reminding the human of their 'responsibilities' and asking them to think, calmly and reflectively, about their actions and the actions of the devices around them. Humans are asked to take responsibility because they can and should. After all, it's their information the devices are throwing around.

Stop. Think, Pay Attention. Reflect. Be calm. Be Comfortable. Those things, people can do. Technology almost certainly can not do it better, but it can help along the way to get the people back into the system, where they should be.

September 20th, 2013 - on iOS7

Might update this as I go along.

Initial thoughts - like it, fresh and interesting, and sufficiently different from iOS6 etc. that it exercises the little grey cells. Not sure about the bouncy things happening on the home screen and such, but I'll get used to it (although perhaps not at 3am when I have to get out of bed to drive to work).

Here, I'll put some pointers, for my own benefit, of what things you can do that were in iOS6 and have changed, for me.

The first - how to force quit an app (used to be nice and easy, and took me a while to figure it out, but now it works well)

September 13th, 2013

And so, all of us become part of a great adventure. I remember the launch. Not sure I ever imagined then where I, or it, would be now.

September 6th, 2013

Bruce Schneier often has interesting things to say about security. Some of these things appear obvious at the outset, but that usually only works until one considers that obvious and reality are not always the same thing. In his piece today on the Guardian website, he has not only stated the obvious, but in a powerful way that any of us who are invested in the Internet and using the Internet should pay attention to.

Yes, that means all of us.

Governments do not have the right to indiscriminately delve into their citizens' lives. This statement is a fundamental part of the social contract as I see it. All else follows.

Here's the thing: engineers can try to take back what they made, but those of us who may not have those skills must engage - it's not enough to rely on a small group of smart people to 'fix' it, every human being who cares about the way the world is evolving and what they want it to become, for themselves, others, their children and beyond, has to take a stand against surveillance, against totalitarianism in all its guises.

Fortunately, it's not just a few little people affected by this, it's a whole bunch of people who use these systems. That's a lot of people. Time to push for a change.

August 20th, 2013

You couldn't make this up. A howler indeed. Nicely put by Tom Watson.

August 15th, 2013

Interesting stats about A-level results in the UK - including net gains associated with getting such for different genders. I was, however, given a salient reminder at the end of the piece with this:

But for too many, today will see little cause for celebration. "With all the focus on results day, it sometimes easy to forget that the majority of young people don't get two A-levels and that almost half don't achieve level three qualification at all," said Dom Anderson, vice-president of the National Union of Students.

We forget, in academe, that we're often removed from people who matter too. It is worthwhile remembering and putting ourselves in places that can help. Being good at exams, or even wanting to do them, is not everything. Vocations come in all shapes and sizes, and everyone should be responsible for helping everyone else achieve theirs, somehow.

1952 and today…

I love this one, and it's a worthwhile rejoinder to the new 'head of science for Canada', the president of the NRC, an organization I was proud to work for for many years, now sadly not living up to the high ideals of research, who has decided that "Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value". Words fail me as to how shortsighted some supposedly intelligent people can be.

“If we value the pursuit of knowledge, we must be free to follow wherever that search may lead us. The free mind is not a barking dog, to be tethered on a ten-foot chain.”

Adlai E. Stevenson Jr. Speech at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, October 8, 1952

As an aside, it now appears Google has decided it's oh-so-important 20% rule is not to be followed (by fiat if not by explicit order). Yet another example of how money trumps thought.

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