Archive for the ‘memes’ Category

Churnalism is a brilliant idea – no surprise that it was originally one of Chris Lightfoot’s. Basically, it allows you to determine how much of a given newspaper article was copied from which press release. There’s a nice graphic visualisation, and a diff, so you can see precisely what was altered and what taken over in its entirety. It’s right up there with Piggipedia and SukeyDating as a brilliant piece of geek activism.

However, here’s something amusing. There’s a basic API here; I chucked the text of the GSMA final press release from this year’s MWC at it, and I was quite surprised at the results. The first article it extracted from Journalisted was none other than this piece in the Guardian from…February 2008. One consequence of churnalism is that your newspaper is likely to get repetitive.

As far as I can see, if there’s anything missing here it’s that the comparison is mostly the wrong way – having a newspaper article and wanting to know what vacuous NIB-fodder got regurgitated into it is a much more common use-case than having a press release and wanting to know which newspaper articles it got into. Actually, the latter use-case is far more likely if you’re a PR and you’re trying to measure how the talking-points are spreading. But once it has more press releases on file, it’ll work better in that sense. And that’s just a question of hoovering Businesswire, PRNewsWire etc up.

Looking back at Tunisia, and forward at Egypt, I think there’s an important point that this post almost hits but not quite.

Specifically, I’m fairly sceptical about “Twitter Revolutions” and such – if your revolution has someone else’s brand name on it, how revolutionary is it? – but I don’t think it’s irrelevant.

I’m feeling a little sorry for Evgeny Morozov at the moment. He’d just hacked out a niche as Mr. Grumpy by royal appointment to the blogosphere, when first Wikileaks and then Tunisia and Egypt came sweeping through, and the Tunisian secret police hacked all the Facebook pages in the country, and the Egyptians turned off the Internet, just pulled all the BGP announcements… Sometimes it’s not your day.

I do think, though, that there is an important way in which a whole lot of Internet tools contributed to the revolutions. I recently posted on the way in which people can at least for a while function as if they were part of an organisation just because they shared certain assumptions. It’s the idea of the imagined community, which can be defined as a group of people who are behaving as if their weak social ties were strong ones. If you want a mental model of this, the revolution happens when enough people change state and start doing this, and it stops again when they revert to pursuing their interests in the normal way. Of course, what happens in between may have changed what those are and how they do it. From a different direction, look at Chris Dillow’s post here – it’s theoretically irrational to take part in politics, until it’s not. The point when it stops being irrational, though, is the point when people stop thinking it’s irrational.

In that sense, a lot of the work of starting a revolution is starting a myth. An ironic salute to this was the Egyptian government’s decision to turn off the Internet, and later the GSM networks as well. If the value of the Internet really had been as a way to pass on the time and place to assemble, this would have been a serious blow to the movement. But once you’re a really angry Egyptian, where else would you protest but Tahrir Square? It wasn’t that they needed it for tactical communication, but rather for strategic propaganda. Also, once they took this step, they had also inadvertently demonstrated to the other world media that This Was It. The mainstream media remains very good at bringing its own connectivity, and the main barrier to them covering the news is usually that they don’t think something is news. Giving Al-Jazeera and friends – who had been heavily criticised on the Web for being soft on the Egyptian government – a monopoly may have been a really bad idea as it forced them to cover the news or look indistinguishable from Nile TV.

I suspect that a lesson here is that the last thing authoritarian governments will do in future is turn the Internet off. For a start, they will increasingly need to keep it up for economic reasons – the ISP that serves the Egyptian stock exchange and central bank was left alone, and with time I would bet that it would become increasingly porous to information. But much more importantly, this is not a policy that has a great track record. Burma managed it, but started with advantages (not many users, only one network, and a strong position to start with). Iran did far better with its throttle-down-and-spy plan. Even though the Tunisians funnelled all the Facebook accounts in the country into one, controlled by the secret police, it didn’t seem to help.

Jamais Casco (via here) asked if you could start a genocide on Twitter – a sensible point, as we know you can do so with the radio, the cinema, television, the newspapers, and (thanks to Serbian turbo-folk) rock’n’roll*. Terrorists tried to start a nuclear war with a spoofed caller-ID. Whether or not you could do that, you can certainly start a mob of quasi-fascist loyalist paramilitaries on QQ. Out of all authoritarian governments, China does best, with strategic trolling and semi-official moderators, which may be more important than direct censorship. Andrew Wilson’s Virtual Politics makes the interesting point that Russia in the early Putin years didn’t so much censor the Internet, as distribute government talking-points and favours to carefully selected bastards.

Then again, was the greatest success of the wumaodang model the 2004 US presidential election? The best way to fight one myth is perhaps with another. And the best ones are distinguished by the fact they are sometimes called principles. The really depressing consequence of this is that Paul Staines probably has a job for life, although the less depressing corollary is that he gets to herd several hundred idiots yelling about ZaNuLiebour for the term of his natural.

A couple of other interesting links: Charles Bwele makes the point that in much of the world, the so-called new media are more like the first ones. Did you know about the Grozny riots of 1958?
*The world’s first genocidal remix is yet to come, but I wouldn’t rule it out by any means. All art aspires to the status of music, and just look what people get up to with books.

Now here’s a worthwhile Canadian initiative for you, from here. And he names the guilty men.

This would do as a HOWTO start a war.

The document, drawn up by John Williams, press adviser to the then foreign secretary, Jack Straw, spells out ways to soften up the media, including “critics like the Guardian”. Under the heading Not taking the UN route, Williams wrote: “Our argument should be narrow, and put with vigour – Iraq is uniquely dangerous.”

In his memo, he said drafts of the dossier at the time had no “killer fact” which “proves” that “Saddam must be taken on now, or this or that weapon will be used against us.” When Blair was launching the dossier three weeks later, he told parliament that intelligence had “established beyond doubt” that Iraq had WMDs.

Williams wrote: “Our target is not the argumentative interviewer or opinionated columnist, but the kind of people to whom ministerial interviews are a background hum on the car or kitchen radio. We must think Radio 5. Although the big Radio 4 programmes have to be done, we must not let them set themselves up as judge and jury.”

Repeat, repeat, repeat. Here’s Grant Shapps applying the same technique:

“We are still saying someone could have rent of £21,000-a-year paid by the taxpayer. How many could afford to pay that?”

Give him some credit – he even let on what he was doing.

So there’s this web application that does a corpus analysis of your writing and compares it to others….I chucked this post at it.

I write like
H. P. Lovecraft

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

I suppose Charlie Stross is right in linking the Lovecraft mythos and international politics. Further evidence – I tried the post before that one, about satellites and private finance initiatives, and got the same result.

Update: But when I write for Stable & Principled

I write like
Ian Fleming

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

So, I went to see Chris Morris’s takfiri flick, Four Lions. Short review – it’s desperately, barkingly hilarious. Stupidly funny. It started with the snickering. The snickering led to giggling and the giggling led to batshit honking horselaughs all night long.

Perhaps too funny – one of the markers of Chris Morris’s work is that everyone is an idiot, is responsible, and deserves the most extreme mockery and sarcasm. The jihadis are either simpletons, paranoiacs, or deluded. The police are bunglers. The defence establishment is desperately trying to be as ruthless as the CIA but can’t manage it. Democracy is represented by Malcolm Sprode MP, a contemptible Blairite stooge, brilliantly observed, babbling nonsense. The mainstream of British Islam is represented by a Sufi imam who is an obscurantist windbag full of half-digested quotations, who keeps his wife locked in a cupboard (“It’s not a cupboard! It’s a small room!”, he protests). The general public are either tiresome eccentrics or half-wits. The NHS employs the jihadi leader’s wife as a nurse – she is charming, tough, probably the most sane and competent person in the entire movie, and she offers him crucial psychological support when he doubts the wisdom of exploding. Even his little son is cool with Dad blowing himself up and encouraging all his friends to do so as well, and weighs in to help him through his dark night of the soul and on the way to self-induced fragmentation. The real jihadis on the North-West Frontier treat the international volunteers as especially low-grade cannon fodder, hardly surprising given the volunteers’ self-regarding pomposity and utter inability to do anything right.

This plays out in a nicely observed version of Sheffield; it’s as much a Yorkshire film as Rita, Sue, and Bob Too or This Sporting Life. There are a hell of a lot of jokes that turn on this; they only need to drive up a hill and climb over a dry stone wall in order to go from the deep city to somewhere you can safely test-fire a bomb without attracting attention. While meticulously reducing their stash of hydrogen peroxide and assembling the devices, they pose as a band – it’s Sheffield, after all. What else? Inevitably, they attract a rehearsal studio hanger-on somewhere between cool and fairly serious mental illness. Again, who else? Their in-house psychopath is responsible for proclaiming the Islamic State of Tinsley (I really began to lose it with this bit). The volunteers hugely overestimate their knowledge of Islam, and suffer from a sort of quasi-colonial superiority complex to actual Pakistanis in Pakistan – one of them makes the serious mistake of calling a Waziri sentry a “Paki banchut!”. (George MacDonald Fraser would have had him knifed for that, but Chris Morris has crueller plans for him.)

They learn that their cover has been blown from a news screen on the Sheffield Supertram; Omar, the leader, works as a security guard at Meadowhall.

There is a great moment of direction early on where the camera catches the shopping centre roof lit up just as the sun is coming up, catching it briefly showing off its oddly Islamic dome. Around the same time, we watch the CCTV feeds from within the centre through Omar’s eyes – the place is entirely empty and a large sign announces “SHOPPING”, with an arrow pointing upwards. Clearly, when he looks at Britain, this is what he sees.

Omar is a classic type, an autodidactic revolutionary, the only member of the cell with any self-reflection or intellectual depth or capacity for anything much. He’s a man surrounded by novelty-marathon running managers, daft younger brothers, and SHOPPING with an arrow; arguably, what he’s really rebelling against is the sheer horror of Chris Morris’s worldview. A main force in the plot is his progressive self-corruption – he is throughout the least convinced of them about the rightness of their cause, chiefly because he’s the only one with any capacity for doubt. As the mission progresses, he resorts to increasingly sordid deception to keep the show on the road through this or that crisis, and his eventual explosion is more motivated by horror at his failure to stop the others from blowing themselves up and a sense of having run out of options than anything else. It’s also telling that, despite his fury and loathing at British consumerism, self-satisfaction, etc, he’s by a distance the best dressed, shod, housed, and generally equipped member of the gang, redrafting his manifesto on a shiny new laptop in boxfresh trainers, although he does have to communicate with the others and The Emir through a children’s social network website called Puffin Party.

Barry, on the other hand, would have been the Islamic State of Tinsley’s chief of secret police. Barry is the only offcomed’un and the only white man in the group, not so much a convert to Islam as a lifelong convert to non-specific extremism and raging paranoia. As the plot progresses, despite his spectacular ineptness, he begins to take over as the driving force, and eventually it is his action that forces them to go ahead with the attack. One thing he has successfully learned in a long implied career of political madness is that paranoia, ideological enforcement, and ruthlessness pay. This doesn’t mean his thoughts make any sense, though; his idea of strategy is to blow up the mosque in the hope of triggering a wave of race riots and the revolution, but he rather undermines his planned false-flag operation by insisting on recording a martyrdom video taking responsibility for it. A hopeless case in anything that involves practical work, he helps to doom the plot by recruiting any fool he falls in with and blames everything that happens on Jews.

Cameras play a special role. The wannabe terrorists are compulsive film-makers – a running gag has Omar with a laptop at the kitchen table, despairingly trying to edit the latest rushes of his comrades’ martyrdom videos into something presentable. They keep filming and filming, but they always get it wrong – accidentally advertising fast food, posing with a tiny plastic gun, falling out about strategy as the camera rolls. Barry insists on doing a second video just in case they attack the mosque anyway. Omar is secretly keeping an out-takes reel for his own amusement. Reliably, people freak out and fuck up as soon as the red light comes on; Faisal falls over a sheep and accidentally triggers a suicide vest while clowning for a bit of impromptu iPhone video. Hassan makes a fool of himself at training camp by firing off a Kalashnikov for his holiday snaps. As well as Omar’s official making-of project, and their own unofficial video diaries, the state is also making a movie – several scenes show that they are under surveillance as they carry out a test explosion. But it’s a blooper in itself, a sight gag; the cops raid the wrong house and only succeed in giving themselves away and encouraging Omar to bring forward the attack.

The police response, like the mad conspiracy theories and the bomb making and the ratty, third rate band scene gaffs, has obviously had the benefit of careful observation and a close reading of the Stockwell II report – it follows the detail for Operations KRATOS and C closely, and as actually happened, the command and control system breaks down at once and the wrong man is shot, but there is far worse left to happen.

I urge you to see this film at once, although given that you read this, you probably already have done.

I’m actually quite pleased with our little demo. I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic when we assembled in Trafalgar Square, where various speeches were made of which not one word was audible (note to the various orgs involved: I’d happily spring for some batteries for the loud hailer. I mean, my student union would have got that right, to say nothing of the SWP…). And Morrismen kept invading our space.

I originally thought this was some regrettable, Lucky Jim example of sandal-socks liberalism. Actually no; I’m informed by Tom from Boriswatch that this is actually our mayor’s idea of culture, and actual taxpayers’ money is being paid out to them. Perhaps it’s a sort of defensible-space gambit to make it harder to protest there.

Eventually, Billy Bragg – for it is he! – suggested from the platform that we march to Smith Square and picket the Local Government Association building, where the Lib Dem MPs were meeting. This basically turned the demo around, and at least it stopped him singing; off we went down Whitehall, snarling up the traffic, calling on the recently expanded camp around Brian Haw’s pad, hurling abuse at the Sky News media-slum in College Green, flanked by policemen radioing each other to work out where we were heading.

Smith Square is not roomy; this is why those TV pictures of Tories celebrating outside Central Office always looked like more of a party than they probably were. So the crowd looked bigger and the shouting was louder. And, well, we stuck around yelling until Nick Clegg came out to speak. Again, I couldn’t hear a word, and we actually found out what he said via Twitter on Tom’s BlackBerry. Which made sense, as a major aim of the demo was to get onto the TV streams and RSS feeds the MPs would no doubt be obsessively monitoring.

It wasn’t a big demo, but it was targeted – the LGA building was already staked out by a huge media presence, with the steps of the church opposite festooned with camera crews, reporters buzzing around like flies round shit, and a big ambush of photographers and more TV cams on the LGA’s steps.

This was crucial – as we were arriving during the meeting, there would be nothing for them to report on or film other than the outside of a decentish Queen Anne block, which is better architecture than it is telly. All it took was for the camera gang on the steps to swivel through 180 degrees to get a perfect angry-mob shot, while the ones on the church had a reverse angle view of a crowd apparently besieging the building. Cropping in to emphasise the speakers would tend to compress the scene, giving the impression of a more dramatic confrontation.

The results? Well, we got far more news than I expected; and we seem to have traumatised Kay Burley.

The expression on her face at the beginning is priceless. How dare they! This wasn’t on the autocue! There’s more here; later in the day, I was with Boriswatch and his charming son, Alfie, who seems to be training as a Dickensian pickpocket (he relieved his father of a £10 note with positively Sicilian panache), in the Westminster Arms, which offers its customers two TV screens, one locked on Sky News and the other to BBC News-24. With a bit of neck-craning, you could just about watch both simultaneously in a sort of split brain media experiment – what was telling was that there was more Shannon-information in the BBC feed, far less repetition, the BBC didn’t deliberately misquote Nick Clegg in all its on-screen graphics, and the BBC didn’t insist on informing me every three minutes that Mohamed Al-Fayed had sold a rather unfashionable department store.

Seriously – yesterday of all days, Al-Fayed’s sale of Harrods was in the top three stories on Sky News for at least two hours. And, as a hint, Nick Clegg didn’t say the Tories had a “right to govern”, which they repeatedly asserted as a direct quote; he said that the largest party had the right to be consulted about a coalition first, which is far from the same thing.

Just a couple of disorganised thoughts on this. There’s a sort of integrated cultural package of denialism out there; rather like Michael Berube’s Wingnut Software Package.

Key components: Computer hate. I encountered people complaining that the Eyjafjallajokull ash cloud was being forecast with “the same computer models that forecast global warming”. No doubt we’ll soon see the reverse argument. In general, anything involving a computer is wrong.

Bending it like Ulrich Beck-ham. There’s a sort of bastardised version of the thesis of Beck’s The Risk Society, which is that “politicians” or “bureaucrats” are uniquely risk-averse. This isn’t content-specific; any and all decisions get the same response. It also doesn’t preclude you from attacking them for being incautious if the decision is later reversed. Essentially, the notion of taking precautions that you might then reverse in the light of better information is unacceptable.

Hating women. Intelligent men in positions of responsibility were willing to blame Harriet Harman for a volcanic eruption. This is literally a witch-hunt.

Apple’s internal security team may be scary – and especially the name (Worldwide Loyalty Team). But they are as nothing, in terms of creepiness, to this Microsoft web page, which provides the criteria against which MS employees are assessed for their use of humour and the targets they are given to improve. You will not be able to unread this.

In fact, it’s the kind of thing for which the only valid response is to pretend to take it seriously. Why not print out a copy and carry it around? Score your friends against this fine 4×4 matrix chart!

Via this comment, it turns out that the program is based on the ideas of a 70s cult leader who fell out with the Scientologists in a dispute about intellectual property – how very Microsoft of him – and who reconverted his organisation into the management consulting industry. (I’ve often thought a terrorist group should try that one some day.)

The Wikipedia article on the dispute is very funny – two blind men fighting over a comb doesn’t really do justice to the full absurdity of it, as two cult/hucksters duel over the rights to the kind of ideas that shouldn’t be treated so much as property as like toxic waste, or one of those weird codicils that occasionally force some poor swing-voter to fork out for a new church roof. If they were sane, they’d be fighting to get rid of this stuff; but then they wouldn’t be there.

But the really interesting thing is that Werner Erhard’s ideas have already killed one of the great computer-development groups, Doug Engelbart’s Augment Lab at SRI, which dissolved into a stew of project failure and ego wars under their influence. Here’s the money quote, from What the Dormouse Said:

A woman who Bob Albrecht, the People’s Computer Company guru, had been involved with went through the training and came back transformed into a very un-Zen-like creature. She no longer believed that everything was interconnected, but rather had decided that she wanted it all for herself and would do anything to get it.

There’s a key cultural inflection point right there. And I bet Linus Torvalds doesn’t make sure to check that

Do I ever encourage a near party atmosphere because of my comfort with using humor?

always returns False, or worry about finding his personal brand.

Aaronovitch Watch reflects upon dinner with Denis MacShane. There’s an important point here, and one that was well made as a by-product of Nick Davies’ brilliant reporting on Operation PENTAMETER 2, a giant police sweep looking for prostitutes brought into the UK by force that failed to find even one. It turned out that the entire project was driven by policy-based evidence – a succession of politicos and thinktanks progressively taking what had once been the upper bound in an actual study, treating it as an actual forecast, and then adding a bit.

Not so long ago, I had the opportunity of discussing this with a source in the Met vice squad, and the take-home message is Davies was being conservative – it was actually worse than that.

Anyway, one of the most egregious examples of PBE in the story was the fault of none other than MacShane, who promptly responded by writing to the Guardian and accusing Davies of “taking the side of the managers of the sex industry”. As Davies pointed out in the original story, the whole thing followed the pattern of the campaign for war with Iraq with uncanny accuracy.

There was the exaggeration by stripping out caveats, the practice of using deliberately extreme limiting cases as central forecasts, the search for anyone who would provide the right kind of intelligence when the intelligence services’ intelligence didn’t fit around the policy…and the shameless red-baiting attacks on anyone who disagreed. Sniff, sniff. Are you a good anti-Fascist? Will you condemn, etc, etc?

The lesson, however, is that some people seem to gravitate to this set of tactics or political style (because that’s what it is); if Denis MacShane worked for the Party of Kittens, he’d be secretly briefing the press that Mickey Mouse was part of a decadent Hollywood-liberal elite in league with feline leukaemia, based on his summary of a leaked report from the newly established Council for a Flea-Free Future, and if you called him out on it, he’d get all the members of the Accuracy in Cat-Related Media mailing list to write and accuse you of being objectively pro-dog.

Come to think of it, it’s part of the package of modern thinking; you need a Boris Johnson-esque clown figure, a Tony Blair-esque tebbly tebbly concerned type, and a MacShane-esque underhand thug.