Category Archives: drollery

Everything new is old again

Printed in iSeries NEWS UK, February 2006

Everybody’s talking about Web 2.0! Web 2.0 offers a whole new way of looking at the Web, a whole new way of developing applications and a whole new way of making enough money to retire on for some irritating bunch of American students who dream up applications you can’t see the point of anyway! Web 2.0 is different because it’s a whole new departure from the old ways of doing things – and what makes it new is that it’s so different.

Web 2.0 breaks all the rules. The rigid document-based format of HTML became a universal computing standard in the early days of the Internet, some time around Web 0.9 [Can we check this? – Ed]. Web 2.0 emerged when a few pioneering developers broke with this orthodoxy, insisting that a page-based document markup language like HTML was better adapted to marking up page-based documents than to running high-volume transaction processing systems. With the industry still reeling from the shockwaves of this revelation, an alternative approach was unveiled. The key Web 2.0 methodology of AJAX – Asynchronous Javascript And XML – breaks the dominance of the HTML page. Now, applications can be built using pages which are dynamically reshaped, driven by back-end databases and the program logic defined by developers. Screen input fields can even be highlighted or prompted individually, without needing to refresh the entire screen! It’s this kind of innovation that makes Web 2.0 so different.

What’s more, it’s new. Web 2.0 is not in any way old – it’s not even similar to anything old! Some people have compared the excitement about Web 2.0 with the dotcom boom of the late 1990s. It’s true that Web 2.0 is likely to involve the proliferation of new companies which you’ve never heard of, and most of which you’ll never hear of again. However, there are three significant differences. The typical dotcom company raised big money from investors, spent it, then got bought out for small change by an established business. By contrast, the typical Web 2.0 company raises small change from investors, spends it, then gets bought out for big money by an established dotcom business. Secondly, dotcoms usually had a speculative long-term business case and a meaningless name interspersed with capital letters; they also used buzzwords beginning with a lower-case e. By contrast, Web 2.0 companies generally have a speculative short-term business case and a meaningless name interspersed with extraneous punctuation marks; also, their buzzwords tend to begin with a lower-case i. Finally, Web 2.0 is quite different from the dotcom boom, which took place in the late 1990s and so is now quite old. Web 2.0, on the other hand, is new, which in itself makes it different.

Above all, Web 2.0 is here to stay. In the wake of the dotcom boom, dozens of unprepared startups crashed and burned. As the painful memories of WebVan and boo.com faded, little remained of the brave new world of e-business: these days there are only a couple of major players in each of the main e-business niche areas, and some of them are subsidiaries of bricks-and-mortar businesses, which is cheating. By contrast, the big names of Web 2.0 are all around us. In the field of tagging and social networking alone, there’s the innovative picture tagging and social networking company Flickr (now owned by Yahoo!); there’s the groundbreaking bookmark tagging and social networking company del.icio.us (now owned by Yahoo!); and let’s not forget the unprecedented social network tagging company Dodgeball (now owned by Google). Meanwhile blogging, that quintessential Web 2.0 tool, guarantees that fresh new voices will continue to be heard, thanks in no small part to quick-and-easy blog hosting companies like Blogger (now owned by Google) and the new kid on the block, Myspace (now owned by Rupert Murdoch).

Web 2.0 is new, it’s different, and above all, it’s here – and it’s here to stay! So get down and get with it and get hep to the Web 2.0 scene, daddy-o! [Can we check this as well? – Ed] Don’t say ‘programming’, say ‘scripting’! Don’t say ‘directory’, say ‘tags’! Don’t say ‘DoubleClick’, say ‘Google AdSense’!

And don’t say ‘hype’. Please don’t say that.

Got a web between his toes

Now that Nick has read the last rites for Web 2.0, perhaps it’s safe to return to a question that’s never quite been resolved.

To wit: what is Web 2.0? (We’ve established that it’s not a snail.) Over at What I wrote, I’ve just put up a March 2003 article called “In Godzilla’s footprint“. In it, I asked similar questions about e-business, taking issue with the standard rhetoric of ‘efficiency’ and ’empowerment’. I suggested that e-business wasn’t – or rather isn’t – a phenomenon in its own right, but the product of three much larger trends: standardisation, automation and externalisation of costs. (Read the whole thing.)

Assuming for the moment that I called this one correctly – and I find my arguments pretty persuasive – what of Web 2.0? More of the same, only featuring the automation of income generation (AdSense) and the externalisation of payroll costs (‘citizen journalism’)? Or is there more going on – and if so, what?

Update 16/11

It would be remiss of me not to give any pointers to my own thinking on Web 2.0. So I’m republishing another column at What I wrote, this time from February of this year. Most of you will probably have seen it the first time round, when it appeared in iSeries NEWS UK, but I think it’s worth giving it another airing. Have a gander.

The age of intuition

As a brief postscript to the local elections, here are some tips for successful canvassing.

1. Do introduce yourself, even if you’re a local MP – or rather, especially if you’re a local MP. Do give the person on the doorstep (hereafter ‘the punter’) a chance to tell you they’re not interested. Don’t just launch into your spiel, like a Jehovah’s Witness or an npower salesperson. Yes, they can see the rosette. Yes, they can always shut the door in your face. Not the point.

2. If the punter disagrees with you or expresses opposition to your party, do say something mollifying about how you understand their concerns or appreciate their point of view before resuming your attempt to gain their support. Don’t argue back. Some examples:

2.1. Punter complains about communications with your party (wrongly-targeted mailshots, unanswered letters etc).
Do say: “I can’t recall that particular letter, but I will look into it for you and make sure we respond to it.”
Don’t say: “When did he send it? Well, you can’t expect us to have acted on it by now.”

2.2. Punter complains that your party’s campaigning was negative.
Do say: “I appreciate your point of view, but I think we did have a strong positive message in the area of…” (and complete as appropriate).
Don’t say: “No it wasn’t!”

2.3. Punter complains about the absence of appeals to ethical principle in party’s campaign literature.
Do think of something. (“I understand your concerns, but…”)
Don’t say: “Like what?”

3. Do talk to the person in front of you. You may have a particular voter on your canvass list, perhaps because he/she has told an earlier canvasser that he/she intends to vote for someone else. If you find that the punter isn’t your target voter, do ask him/her whether you can count on his/her vote. Don’t make it look as if you don’t care about anyone who’s not on your list.

3.1. In particular, don’t do this when your target voter is male and the punter is his female partner. Really, really don’t.

This guy has a good voting record at Westminster, but his doorstep technique could do with a bit of work. Manchester was one of the few areas where Labour did well last week; they gained four seats from the Liberal Democrats. I’m slightly disappointed, but I can’t say I’m surprised.

Not a fish at all

On the subject of broadcast vs broadband, Tom writes:

There’s nothing rapid about this transition at all. It’s been happening in the background for fifteen years. So let me rephrase it in ways that I understand. Shock revelation! A new set of technologies has started to displace older technologies and will continue to do so at a fairly slow rate over the next ten to thirty years!

My sense of these media organisations that use this argument of incredibly rapid technology change is that they’re screaming that they’re being pursued by a snail and yet they cannot get away! ‘The snail! The snail!’, they cry. ‘How can we possibly escape!?’. The problem being that the snail’s been moving closer for the last twenty years one way or another and they just weren’t paying attention.

In comments, Will writes:

If one person is claiming that the world is moving fairly slowly, and has some sound advice on what this might look like (as you are doing here), and another person is claiming that the world is moving extraordinarily quickly, but offers some quickfire measures through which to cope with this, the sense of emergency will win purely because it is present. From here, it almost becomes *risky* not to then adopt the quickfire measures suggested by the second person. Panic becomes a safer strategy than calmness. Which explains management consultancy…

and John asks:

does web2.0 count as a snail too?

But Web 2.0 is not a snail.

Web 2.0 is the people pointing and shouting ‘The snail! The snail!’

Web 2.0 is also the people who overhear the first group and join in, shouting ‘The whale! The whale!’ and pointing vaguely upwards and towards the nearest ocean.

Web 2.0 is also the people who hear the second group and panic about the approaching whale, or is it a land-whale? what is a land-whale anyway? whatever it is, there’s one coming and we’d all better… well, we’d better tell someone about it, anyway – I mean, there’s a land-whale coming, how often does something like that happen?

Web 2.0 is also the people who hear the third group and improvise a land-whale parade, with floats and dancers and drummers and at its centre a giant paper land-whale held aloft by fifteen people, because, I don’t know, but everyone was talking about land-whales and it just seemed like a good idea, you know?

And Web 2.0 is the people who come along halfway through the parade and sell the roadside spectators standing-room tickets.

Never even not known

Just to clarify, I’m not saying Johann Hari is crazy.

Language is weird – weird and treacherous. It gives thought a medium and a structure, and yet it has its own properties – both formal regularities like verb forms, and arbitrary quirks like puns – which cut across whatever it is you’re trying to say. (With the result, if you believe Freud, that what you want to say can leak through.) When I was much younger I worked as a psychiatric nurse, briefly. Looking back on the way the people I was caring for talked, one of the things I can hear is how language can betray the person using it; language is full of trap doors and dead ends. Language is a place where you can get lost.

A character in the Residents’ Not Available uses what sound very much like schizophrenic speech patterns:

To show or do
Or to be shown
Some questions never
Even not known
Not even by many
To exist, to show

Or to be shown
Some questions never
Even known
Not even by many
To exist…

The character is plagued by these “never known questions” – questions he can’t answer and can’t ask anyone else, questions which have never been asked before. Questions like, for example:

How much marriage urges a windmill to paint infinity?

It’s a tough one, you’ll admit.

I’m not saying Johann Hari’s crazy. I don’t think he’s a very good columnist (I could name six people who could do a better job without drawing breath, and without even naming myself); I like Nick’s suggestion that he would have made quite a good Jon Ronson/Louis Theroux-type interviewer, drifting inscrutably between charmingly genuine naivety and calculating faux-naivete. (I mentioned Jon Ronson on alt.folklore.urban once, years ago, and he mailed me shortly afterwards. Hi, Jon!) But there’s something strange about the way his mind works (Johann Hari’s, not Jon Ronson’s) – there’s something strange about the places language takes him.

I’m not going to fisk his column from Saturday’s Indie – it would take far too long. Besides, what can you say about weird, overworked constructions like “with one leap of faith” or “defuse the ticking-bomb of jihadism”? (Better a ticking-bomb than the exploding kind, I suppose.) “We are more likely to discuss Coke vs Pepsi than justice vs injustice” – possibly because there’s room for discussion on the difference between Coke and Pepsi. “It took seventy years and fifty million deaths until nobody would kill or die for Bolshevism.” Shame Stalin didn’t step up his work-rate, it could all have been over in half the time.

Figurative language, in particular, does strange things when Hari gets hold of it.

We have all seen the Rumsfeld approach. Fill screens across the Muslim world with the orange jumpsuits of Guantanamo and the Muslims-on-a-leash of Abu Ghraib.

Muslims-on-a-leash“? But anyway…

The Galloway approach is just as dangerous: give them what they want. Meet Osama’s immediate demands and hope they’ll leave us alone. Both encourage the totalitarian ideology to spread faster, one by beating it with a bloody stick and the other by offering it a carrot.

The basic problem here is asymmetry: you can’t just follow that ‘bloody stick’ with a carrot. It should be an Iraqi carrot, perhaps, or a Jerusalem carrot. An oily carrot, maybe. And does Osama bin Laden even like carrots? It doesn’t really work.

Then there’s the oestrogen:

No ideology can survive on terrorising half the population indefinitely. When it comes, the Islamic Reformation will be drenched in oestrogen.

That first sentence is deceptively tricky, incidentally. The message seems to be something like “Any community in which the dominant self-understanding of social norms is such as to mandate terrorising half the population cannot perpetuate itself unchanged indefinitely” – only with ‘community’, ‘norms’ and ‘self-understanding’ collapsed into a lump labelled ‘ideology’ and the possibility of change edited out.

But the oestrogen… My problems with the oestrogen begin with the disconcerting physicality of that ‘drenched’: an abstraction collides with a (physical) liquid substance and gets (physically) wet. It gets worse when you remember what oestrogen is: a hormone. Which means that it’s carried in the blood. Which suggests that Hari’s envisaging a Dantonesque heroic generation of Islamic feminists, cut down (literally) by some Islamic female Robespierre. Presumably that wasn’t quite what he wanted to say. (Unless you believe Freud.)

All this and a carrot for Osama, not to mention a ticking-bomb and some Muslims-on-a-leash. Some images never even known, not even by many to exist…

I read the news today, oh boy

Middle England says: Why can’t they just stop people doing nasty things? No, really – why not?

Under the new laws, the owners of hedges that are more than two metres tall can be fined up to £1,000 by their local authority if they refuse to cut them down.

The only problem is that some councils will charge those who complain about their neighbour’s hedges a fee of up to £550 to investigate and rule on the matter. One protest group has described the charges as “deplorable”.

“If I throw a brick through your window, when the police come, they don’t charge you a fee, do they?” said Clare Hinchliffe, a spokeswoman for Hedgeline, which lobbies on behalf of victims of high hedges.

The police say: We shoot to kill and we don’t care who knows it

Ball-bearing guns used by children could be banned after a string of
cases involving serious injuries.

The pistols, which fire plastic pellets, are not classed as firearms
because they are considered too low-powered to be fatal.

But the death of two-year-old Andrew Morton after being shot in the head with an airgun in Glasgow earlier this year prompted safety concerns. Police officers have also warned that teenagers carrying them may be mistaken for armed criminals and shot by marksmen.

A Guardian reader says: This really doesn’t make any sense, does it?

So the police will have the right to stop me in the street to check my ID card. If I don’t have the card, I may be required to present it at the station at a later date, as drivers may be required to present their documents. If I fail to comply, how can the police prove it was me they asked? If they can prove it was me, what’s the point of the card?
– Dave Forbes, Widnes

Vegans say: Why can’t everyone else be like us? No, really – why not?

Vegans branded the event “unethical” and said the cheese should be replaced with a non-dairy alternative.

Yvonne Taylor, chair of the animal rights campaign group Peta, said: “It’s just not fair that vegans cannot enjoy the fun of the cheese rolling contest.”

lobbies on behalf of victims of high hedges

mistaken for armed criminals and shot

It’s just not fair.

Petulant self-righteousness, meet unaccountable authority. You’ll get on well together.

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