Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category:


Pull My Trigger

There were two things that stopped me from seeing the original performance of Ken Campbell’s adaptation of Robert Anton Wilson and Bob Shea’s Illuminatus trilogy:

The first reason I didn’t see the original adaptation was, at the time Illuminatus! was performed, I hadn’t yet come across the books, and didn’t know how much I would fall in love with them, and the worldview that created them.  Indeed, it almost felt like there was a conspiracy both introducing me to Illuminatus, and stopping me getting my hands on a copy.  The story of how I finally managed to get my grubby mits on a copy of Illuminatus is a complicated one, involving roleplaying games, two IRA bombs, a gorilla bookseller, almost dying of heat stroke minutes away from Disneyland, a chance discovery on the wrong bookshelf and counting sheep (and in the process turning them into sweet, sweet, money), but not one I choose to go into right now.  Suffice to say that along with “Godel, Escher, Bach” and “Practical Computer Programming for the BBC Microcomputer and Acorn Atom” it is one of my Desert Island books (I’ve never understood desert island disks – I have lots of music trapped in my head, but I can’t easily reread books without actually having them to hand)

The second reason I didn’t see the original adaptation was that I hadn’t been born.

Yet despite the lack of me being in the audience, Illuminatus was a groundbreaking production, and a key stepping stone in the careers of many people who have gone on to become well known and loved faces in theatre and on screen.  I have often wished I had been there.  But such things are not to be.

However…

Another of my Desert Island Books is Robert Anton Wilson’s ‘Cosmic Trigger’ a combination of autobiography, philosophical discussion and general introduction to the world Robert Anton Wilson inhabited as he wrote Illuminatus.  It is simultaneously mind expanding, laugh out loud funny and poignant.

And, word came to me from the doggiez from sirius (or possibly from a webpage…) that someone has been fool enough to consider putting on a stage adaptation of Cosmic Trigger.  And also that the particular someone is Daisy Eris Campbell, Ken Campbell’s daughter.  You can imagine my ears perking up at this.  Also, Alan Moore is going to be the voice of FUCKUP, which is rather cool in and of itself.

Cosmic trigger is going to be crowdfunded.  I’ve already made a small contribution, but the crowdfunding proper begins tonight (quite why the 23/5 was chosen as the launch date for the crowdfunding campaign is anybody’s guess…)

And so I shall tonight be making my way down to a small and exclusive gathering where similarly discordant people will be meeting, and almost certainly pontificating (literally).  I am told my cosmic trigger will be pulled.  The launch party is a sell out, but should you wish to be not only a patron of the arts but also a genuine official pope, you may want to head over to http://cosmictriggerplay.com/ tonight and give them all of your money.

Love, Drugs, and Sticklebricks.


Some things you should know about me (or some perhaps just some tedious narcissistic self reflection):

I am an introvert.  I live inside my head.  The role I portray in the ‘real world’ (I find that term laughable, as the real world is clearly the one inside my head – it has far more interesting avenues and pathways.  But outside my head is where books and other people’s ideas live, so I feel obliged to visit it from time to time and even to subscribe to the mythology that it is in some way more real) is distinct from who I am.  What you see is a shadow of me, a sanitized version, usually specifically constructed for whatever specific environment I happen to be in.  Work Ben cares passionately about his work, the aims of his company, and getting things done in the most effective way.  Home Ben would much rather be thinking about something interesting than the tedious drudgery of work. And Social Ben (who only steps out at carefully preplanned times, because being Social Ben can be quite draining) likes to get into deep, rambling, philosophical discussions, and then puncture the mood with a terrible pun.

This is about Core Ben. Well, it’s about ‘The Core Ben I am prepared to write about’ – some things, I guess some of my innermost secrets, will remain unsaid, in a dark void where I am not yet prepared to confront them.  But it is about the Ben who lurks behind all the other Bens.  The Ben who is constantly hiding from view.  Because the hiding is tiring.  And – with a new year (yeah, this is ‘New year, new me, resolution, personal growth bollocks’ inspired. And when I typed ‘inspired’ just then, the god of Freudian typo’s decided to put insipid on the screen.  Read of that what you may) – I want to be less tired.  I want the feeling of connection I have with the outside word not to be the sensory overload I feel now, but something more akin to passion.  And to do that, I think I have to be honest about myself, and who I am.

I don’t know how secret any of these things I’m writing about actually are.  For all I know, everybody who knows me possibly knows everything I’m writing here.  I’m not writing this to unveil any secrets – I’m writing so that I know I have unveiled the secrets, and that they are not secret any more.

Once, many years ago, I took a tab of acid.  It was the only time.  I enjoyed the experience; I was glad to have had it; And I felt no need to experiment with it further.  Now, to understand me, you need to know that before I tried LSD, I had researched it, I knew lots about how it was meant to affect me, what was likely to happen, and what risks were involved.  I try not to step out into the unknown without at least having assembled a guide book for myself.  I also find not knowing something that I think I should know unbearable.  If you ask me the wrong (or, perhaps, very right) question, you can send me off into hours or days of research.  I ask myself the wrong questions all the time.

But we were talking about acid.  I lay on the grass, on a hot summers day, waiting for it to take affect.  I was looking up at the white streaky stratus clouds that stretched over the sky.  Gradually they seemed to take on a new form – they warped into something more like a sierpinski’s gasket or koch snowflake.  Fractal shapes, mathematical in origin, which had become more popular with the masses as the computer revolution had allowed us to experiment with them. But more cloudlike.  And slightly shiny. As I looked at this, and recognised it as my first hallucination I said to myself ‘Oh fuck, I’m a computer programmer deep down inside’

Looking up at the fractal clouds, I was right.  I am a geek.  I love technology.  I love the possibilities it offers, and the way it changes the world.  I love to know how and why things work – not just what causes them to work, but also why people find them so compelling.  I’m a man constantly frustrated that the future hasn’t yet arrived, but also in love with the opportunities that technology provides me.  I used to love to program.  And sometimes I still do. But that part of me has been handed over to Work Ben, who trades the coding for money.  Now I don’t often have the energy and desire to write code for myself, on my own time, and this makes me sadder than one might imagine.  I have sold a part of me, and I don’t quite know how to buy it back.

Looking up at the fractal clouds, I was wrong. I’m not a computer programmer deep down inside.  Though I am something similar.  I’m not a scientist – part of me believes in science as the ultimate expression of truth, but another part rails against the limited worldview science offers.  I want to use the word engineer to describe myself.  But the word is overloaded.  Engineers are both the people who make sure bridges don’t fall down, but also the people who can’t get my computer to stop showing me the blue screen of death.  I’m part of the second group. I think I’m going to call us not engineers, but inventors.  Nevertheless, the question of inventors vs scientists raises a great debate inside of me as I try to understand who I am:

An inventor is not a scientist.  The scientific method says ‘Come up with a hypothesis, Come up with a way of testing the hypothesis.  If you can’t test your hypothesis, then your hypothesis isn’t worth thinking about right now.  Test your hypothesis by measuring something.  Then work out if your hypothesis is right or wrong, based on the results.’  Though this is also not what scientists do.  What scientists do has more to do with coming up with hypotheses that will attract funding, and conclusions that won’t piss off people who are more important that you in the academic community (or waiting a generation until people who are less attached to their ideas start turning up).  Some scientists like to talk about the scientific method more than they like to talk about the realities and politics of day to day life.

An inventor is not a scientist.  This gives the engineer power, as he can use the scientific method, but only if he wants to.  While the scientific method is a thing that defines what a scientist does (or rather what a scientist thinks he should be doing), for an inventor it is just another tool in the toolbox.  The scientist (or at least the scientist who has read Karl Popper, and deified him.  Which isn’t all scientists, but does tend to include some of the shoutiest scientists) tells you that the unmeasurable hypothesis is meaningless, because it can’t be tested.  The inventor says ‘The scientific method doesn’t work here.  So lets do something else’.  The social scientist probably says something about half-arsed statistics and broad cultural trends.  But even inventors look down on the social sciences.  (I have vague plans to write something – a book or a website or an illuminated manuscript for all I know, on the subject of ‘liminality’.  At that time, I will be able to look down on myself).

What do inventors do?  Inventors ask themselves questions.  And they try to find answers to those questions.  But often, in the process of answering one question, they discover newer, more interesting questions and divert their attention – sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently.  They also make mistakes.  Their process tends to be combining other people’s ideas in ways in which those ideas have never been combined before.  Often it is a bit like trying to solve a rubik’s cube by randomly rotating the sides.

Being a scientist (and I use the term in an oddly pejorative way here) is like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle.  You ignore your younger brother, who is happily playing with his stickle bricks, you complain about the piece in the box which clearly came from a different (and inferior) puzzle.  You worry that some of the pieces of the jigsaw are lost and might be undiscoverable.  And you keep working at the puzzle, because you know that the puzzle and only the puzzle is ‘fun for all the family, ages 8 to 80’.  It says so on the box.  There is no other way to have fun.

Being an inventor is like playing with lego.  But not like they do at LegoLand.  The inventor takes the lego out of a big box and uses it to build a house, or a car, or whatever he fancies.  Then, taking the house, he puts it besides the model railway.  He drives the car down the model railway’s tracks.  Then, having stepped barefooted on one too many sticklebricks, he takes more bricks out of the box and starts throwing them at his brother.

Different inventors use different things for their lego bricks.  At work, I use code.  Though often the questions I pose myself are not that inspiring – often because the questions I really want to ask might upset the people who choose to pay me money for answering the questions they want answered.  At home, my lego bricks are less tangible (which frankly makes them less immediately useful as projectiles) – I tend to build palaces, parks and gardens (along with the occasional car wash and inner city slum) out of ideas – out of all of human thought.  Or at least, out of the bits of human thought which spark a fire in my mind.

The bits of thought which spark a fire in my mind are out of my control. It doesn’t matter what is true or false – or how you come to the conclusion about truth or falsity in the first place.  Amongst the things I devour are books, websites and articles on subjects as divergent as religion (from ancient christian theology to new age hippy fluffiness and candles), philosophy, science, economics, business theory, self help (again ranging from books by respected psychologists like Martin Seligman all the way to The Secret), history (I still seem stuck in the Elizabethan era, moving slowly towards the enlightenment), alternative history (think Von Daniken) and the really really alternative history (in which we are all descended from sentient plants).  In the last year I have read cookbooks, learned about linguistics, delved into cryptogeography and toyed with chaos magick.

Of course, to the rational mind, much of what I read is complete rubbish.

If you are looking for the truth in it.

But if you are only looking for a truth, it suddenly becomes more useful.  Indeed, sometimes more useful than the truths we are sold by establishments.

Because I’m an inventor.  I don’t care where a particular cog, gear, pulley, or nuclear warhead comes from.  All I care about is what it does when I put it together with other cogs, gears pulleys and nuclear warheads.  Much of the time I don’t care about anything more than n=1 trials.  Because when the 1 is me, and the only thing I’m trying to change is me, then letting n exceed 1 isn’t just wasteful, it actually dilutes the truth that is important.

And more importantly, if I’m having fun, and I’m not hurting anyone, who cares?

I sound, perhaps, like I’m trying to convince myself.  And I am.  Ben the scientist is looming over Ben the mystic and trying to restrain him.  Ben the scientist has won these battles time and time again.  But Ben the scientist doesn’t always win – especially not when I’m alone.  And in writing this I’m hoping to ensure he knows he is one amongst many, and that he has to live in the shadow of all my other interests, styles, techniques and approaches to the world.  I love Ben the scientist.  He is a useful person to know.  But Ben the mystic is always hanging around, and if you want to know me, you probably need to know him to.

At heart, I’m a mystic.  I’ve always been a mystic.  I remember my first communion at church.  I was expecting something.  Anything.  It was called communion, for God’s sake.  I didn’t feel any more than non-alcoholic wine and chopped up granary bread.  And as I’ve looked around the machinery of churches, one way or another, I’ve not found the thing that does it for me.  I don’t want to trash the church (well, no more than Jesus did) – it seems to do a good job providing a tried and tested route for lots of people to fill a hole they need filled.  But I have a similar hole, and the church fails to fill it.

Back when I was a kid, I didn’t differentiate between religion and history.  I thought if you knew it all, and followed the rules, everything else would come along for free.  In retrospect, I should have been Jewish.  Then I spent a week with a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I figured out a bit about what they believed – and they were clearly crazy.  How on earth could they come to their conclusions?  A bit more research and I discovered exactly how they reached their conclusions – they had wacky and weird ideas about which bits of the Bible were important, and how to interpret them.  So that was that settled.  Until I realised that my church had similarly picked and chosen the parts of the Bible they cared about, and were relying on a combination of philosophy, theology and politics to back up their conclusions.  Rather than relying on anything which approached truth.  This upset me somewhat.  And I gradually concluded that the Bible was worthwhile as a source of culture, history and ideas, while my religious tendencies should be directed inwardly.

In another time, I might have been a monk or a hermit.  But monasteries and caves are not known for their broadband connection.

As you look at the history of religions, most seem to begin with mystical experience, and gradually fall into a more dogmatic and political  framework – a framework which appears to suit many people, but leaves the mystic less enfranchised.  There are places for mystics within religions – Islam has its sufis, Christianity its monks and contemplatives, but for the mystic who does not plan to withdraw from the world, the west offers few options.  The east offers more possibilities, and the west has tried to embrace them.  Unfortunately eastern religion draws from the shared cultural experiences and metaphors which the west doesn’t share.  And so any attempt to get in touch with one’s spiritual mystical side becomes something akin to pick and mix.  Pick and mix is about as good at supporting the growth of a working western mystical school as it was at supporting  Woolworths.  We get our share of flakes, crazies, hippies, gullibles, delusionals and conspiracy theorists.  We also get earnest seekers.  And our ideas merge and breed, our language is shared.  Frankly we all sound mad.  But amongst us some people have felt a spark of something, had their own experiences of the divine, know some things that most people never get to see.  Of course, there is still politics, maneuvering, and “I’m more spiritual than you” infighting.  People are people.

I’m a flake, a crazy, a hippy. I’m also a seeker.  Despite the fact I spend most of my life working in the rational, logical, buttoned down world of computers, engineering, bits, bytes, wires and truth tables there is something about people willing to go away from the rational and into themselves, earnestly looking that makes them part of my tribe.

Tribes are, however, a problem for me.  Not only am I fickle, flicking through a multitude of tribes, changing my face each time, lying about who I am to gain acceptance, I am also exhausted by people.  I am an introvert.  And I find relationships hard.

I offer what follows as an explanation, but not as an excuse.  Back, long ago now, I was bullied. And this has shaped me.  I was an introvert before I was bullied.  And I cannot claim that I was not in some part responsible for my being bullied – though I was too young and too inexperienced at the time to realise that this was the case.  I hold no one responsible for it – we were all children, and most people involved probably didn’t even realise the game they were playing was happening. We can all be blind to our actions sometimes.  But bullying cost me a lot.  It cost me all the friends I had at the time, everyone I held dear, it cost me my self worth (though, oddly, I recall myself trying to destroy my self worth when I was much younger.  Someone, I assume, had convinced me I wasn’t special.  Maybe I was just overcoming the solipsism of childhood, but I regret losing it), and it cost me my trust in people.  It now takes me far too long to trust people – by my reckoning, it takes a year for me to consider anyone my friend.

There has been one person in recent years, who I have trusted.  Adelina.  That is why I first found myself loving her.  And in part, a sense of complete trust was why I married her.  Married life has not always been easy.  Adelina needs people as much as I need space.  And as a result we now live apart.  And somewhere, a shard of the trust I had has been lost.  This is not Adelina’s fault.  We can’t live together – if we continued one of us would die.  Or be killed.  Or be forced to live a lie.  I don’t know if our marriage will last.  There is no term to describe what we are doing.  And everyone is looking for a label.  People look at us thinking our marriage has failed. They try to get us to hate each other. Because they understand two people who hate each other. The understand betrayal, weakness and blame. Betrayal, weakness and blame are as much part of the simple Hollywood packaging of romance as flowers and candlelit dinners. They are not ready to deal with something this raw and complicated and real. They tell us, or imply to us, that we should hate each other at a time when we need to love each other and support each other the most.

But that isn’t the worst thing. The worst thing is that the shard of trust which broke off when we moved apart digs further into my heart each time I consider what has been, could have been or will be.

I don’t know how to talk about this.  All I know is that it hurts.  And that I don’t want the hurt to go, because its real and important and necessary to me.

And that however much I have needed space and quiet and peace and contemplation, now I feel alone.  Not just from Adelina, but from the whole of humanity that she loves, and that through her loving she helped me to love and trust however slightly.

I’ve never been a happy person.  Depression, the black dog, pads around behind me.  I’ve spent a lot of time learning first to recognise that the dog exists, and second to train him.  This is at the heart of much of my desire for personal development.  I have become so good at keeping the dog to heel and stopping it running away, that I fool myself one day I may just be able to tell it to stay while I walk away into emotional freedom.  Depression is horrible.  You feel it is your fault, because that is the game that it plays.  It is a deadly illness.  An illness which kills many – far too many.  But the sufferers don’t get told they are brave, don’t get lauded as heroes, we get told we are weak.  Or we learn to hide it, and deny ourselves.

This is not an attempt to make myself happy.  This is an attempt to rid myself of the many different faces I project to the world.  Its a call to make myself free.  Its a chance to integrate the many opposing, contradictory, viewpoints I hold and perhaps perfect.  I’ve held onto these different faces because I fear losing those who love, respect and tolerate me, just as I lost so many people.  All the while I’m showing different faces to different people, and not acknowledging who I am to myself, I feel somehow unfinished.

I don’t like to finish things.  When I finish something, it is done, fixed in time and space.  And, unless it is perfect, it stands there as a permanent memorial to my own imperfections.  I don’t want people to know I’m not perfect.  But I’m not.  I don’t like to be judged.  And I don’t like detail.  I don’t enjoy to work of editing, revising, filing off the rough edges.  I’m a big brush man.  I love the big picture.  The broad, sweeping strokes.  I love the overlying structure, the framework.  Someone else can dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s.  So I can’t make things perfect – because in the process of striving for perfection I stop being me, stop being the person I enjoy, stop being true to what I want.  So I am left with imperfection, which I try to never hand to anybody else, lest they see me for who I am.  Or worse, I am left with imperfection which I am forced to hand to somebody else.  Every bug in my code is a cross I bear.  Every typo in anything I publish shows me how worthless I am.  I hate everything I create.  It is only in retrospect I can look back on things and sometimes notice the beauty.  And by then, it is too late.  The person who produced the good things in the past is gone.  And only the weak-willed hack who spews out page upon page of unfinished, unfinishable crap remains.

This is not a cry for sympathy.  This is not a call for help.  This is truth and this is honesty. This is warts and all. This is me.  I am Ben.  I am one.  I am depressed, yet I am also a hero who has consistently managed to whip depression into something that allows me to live my life.  And I love my life.  I love living my life.  I’ve fucking lived it for thirty five years, and I’m not even half done yet.  I love being me.  I’m an inventor.  I’m a mystic. I’m a flake.  I’m a scientist.  I’m trying my best not to constrain myself by using any label.  I’m a living breathing walking contradiction.  I’m a paradox.  I’m unanswerable.  Yet I am truly simple. I’m vulnerable.  I’ve been told I have kind eyes.  And deep down, all there is to me is love.  But sometimes – too often – I forget that I can let myself feel it.

I am not the Core Ben.  I am Ben. I am the Whole Ben.  There is only one of me.  And, from now on, if I can manage it, I’m all or nothing.  Take the whole of me.  I’m no longer a buffet service, I’m a set meal by a gourmet chef.

I’ve never written anything this difficult.  I’ve never been more afraid of letting anybody else read about who I really am.  I quite scared of admitting it to myself.

But this is me.  And I am brave enough to be me.  And that is something new.  And something I have never been before.

I make no apologies for who I am.  Because I’m pretty damn amazing.

Classical Ideas

So, a Tory MP may or may not have called a police officer a pleb.

The reason this makes the news is not that we find the term pleb particularly offensive, but because it shows that Tory politicians are all the same – that they are bad people who believe they, the monied elite, are better than us (and by us I mean the middle class journos who are making a song and dance about this).

Except it doesn’t.  However this might fit the story we want to tell ourselves about what Conservate politicians are like (and, as a liberal, I’m pretty keen to tell myself that story from time to time), all we have is statistical evidence that maybe one member of the Conservative party has class based prejudices which show themselves in a moment of anger.  It is true that all the evidence from people talking about Andrew Mitchell suggest he isn’t the nicest guy – but sometimes people like that turn out to be particularly effective in doing certain jobs.

However, more to the point, assuming for a second that Andrew Mitchell should be sacked for having insufficient class sensitivity to call someone a pleb, then we need to ensure anyone who has ever called anyone a chav should also be sacked.  Because what pleb means to the public schoolboy, chav means to the middle classes – essentially: someone who, due to the education they received, financial situation of their parents, accent and dress, are to be despised.  And, while I’m at it, its equally bad to assume public schoolboys, even Bullingdon Club members, consider the population to be made mainly of ‘plebs’ – from my experience it is, at most, a small minority – the rest are, again, the class based imaginings of a resentful middle class.  Don’t think that the outcry over Andrew Mitchell isn’t just as much about class based resentment as any comments he may or may not have made.

But there is another element of class based resentment, which I worry is a little more insidious - in that it seems to be agreed upon by almost everyone across the political spectrum.  And because, as far as I can tell, it is not only wrong, but harmful to the quality of life of – well, almost everyone in the world.

The idea is that : There exists a class of scroungers, people who live a life of luxury without putting in a day of work in their lives.  Also, they tend to have lots of children, which in some way means they get to live an even more luxurious and more work free life.

Now, I’m not denying there are some families who live, generation to generation, on welfare.

What I am saying is that, if the life they live is the most they want, then good for them.

What I’m also saying is “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all live the life we want without having to work?  Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we, as a society, decided to make that a goal, rather than the concepts of economic growth, which often keep us trapped in lives we don’t want to lead”

I’m not, for a second, suggesting that everyone become lazy, TV watching, drones – you’re back to the class stereotypes if you even considered that.  Without a day job, I would be busily learning, writing, coding, thinking, creating – all on my own.  Some of my ideas and creations would be useful to others.  I’m sure people would take those ideas on and develop and improve them, sanding down the rough edges that I may prefer to leave unfinished.  In short, I would be providing value to society… and I think, left to their own devices, most people would.  The value might be a different sort of value from what we have grown to understand in the education to factory or office to retirement to grave treadmill – but people want to be useful, they want to both give and receive – they just need the opportunity.

Even if we had the money to fund giving everybody a state mandated living allowance – and that we could do so without weird inflationary effects – I wouldn’t suggest switching over to this new model tomorrow.  There is a need to remove (and ideally automate, rather than sending oversees) the jobs that people don’t want to do.  We’ve already started.  The servant has been replaced by the hoover and washing machine.  We should not fear the loss of jobs through automation, but we should try to make up for them, by making it increasingly possible for people to live without he need to do someone else’s work.

Right now when a job is automated, we put the spare labour back onto the job market, which lowers the amount people are paid to do similar jobs, which ultimately means we are all working harder to stay where we are.  When people predicted a three day week, they were optimistic that there wouldn’t be enough work – instead we find that every time we finish one job early, there is more work to be done  or else we will be out competed by someone who is willing to put in more effort in order to gain a rung or two ahead of you on the (material) ladder of life.  We can’t, as a society, win if we keep on going in this direction.  We are in an arms race which, at best, will lead to us burning out rather than burning brighter.

So when you hear the cries of ‘scrounger’, don’t ask ‘How can we get rid of that?” ask ‘How can we get more?  How can we raise everyone’s basic level of living so that, should I want, I too can be a scrounger?’.  It should be a goal of society for us all to be able to do exactly what we want, for us to aim for our highest potential, rather than the highest level of corporate management we can fill.

 

Why you should develop your web app in public

For mortals – those of us not gifted with insane levels of insight about how other people work – the process of design goes something like this:

Find out about a problem

Figure out a way to solve that problem

Come up with a suggested way of solving the problem

Show the suggested solution to someone who has the problem

Listen to what they have to say about it

Change your understanding of the problem

Iterate.

 

This is true when it comes to designing the next ubercool widget, and its true when designing the stodgiest piece of business management software.  It is true when designing web apps.  Unless you have a huge usability lab and can fund focus groups, your best way of testing web app ideas is to get them out there, in front of people, and see what they think, so that you can iterate and improve the design.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and came to the conclusion that it might be a good idea to do all of your web app development in public – not just making the app available online, but also the source code.  It was an idea which gnawed away at the back of my skull, not fully formed, until I read the following article http://techblog.netflix.com/2012/07/open-source-at-netflix-by-ruslan.html and specifically the following quote:

We’ve observed that the peer pressure from “Social Coding” has driven engineers to make sure code is clean and well structured, documentation is useful and up to date.  What we’ve learned is that a component may be “Good enough for running in production, but not good enough for Github”.

I want to explore wether the benefits of opening your web app code to the world outweigh the disadvantages.

Lets start by remembering that we have had this argument before.  Back in the late nineties we were discussing wether Open Source code was the way forward.  Gradually that argument has matured, and a world without open source software would be unrecognisable – a probably significantly behind our current world.  So there is social benefit to some forms of open code – by releasing your code, and playing your part in the open source community, you are doing a good thing, and moving technology forwards.

Lets also consider that, in the case of web apps, sharing your code is not a common or usual behaviour.  There must be a reason for this (even if the reason is wrong, or out of date)  Perhaps, in looking for these reasons, we can understand why, in the net app space, people are less inclined to share.

The arguments I can think of stand as follows:

I want to get the full benefit of the code I have written.  If I were to share my code, others would be able to compete with me based on what I have written.  I might lose out to someone who hasn’t written the code.

Sharing the code, packaging and documenting the code, is too difficult or labour intensive.  It isn’t what I want to spend my time doing.

I don’t want to expose my code to the world, only the functionality, because I am scared of being judged on the basis of my code.

Opening the code might allow people to spot security holes

When writing an article such as this, it is always a worry that I am creating straw men to knock down – so I would be pleased to learn about other arguments against opening up code to the world – please mail me

The NetFlix quote adresses the argument about judgement.  By exposing your code to the world, you are forced to make the sorts of decisions about your code you would generally only make in the face of peer review.  It will lead to better, more readable, more maintainable code.  This is a good thing.  If the problem is not the quality of your code, but rather the fear of public ridicule, then I suggest that posting and being damned is absolutely the best way of getting over this.

The question of security holes is similar. We know that security by obscurity is ineffective against a dedicated attacker – all you are doing by not publishing your code is giving yourself a false sense of confidence.  By opening the code, you not only open it to potential attackers, you also open it to other people who may wish to use your code, and who may spot the flaws and help you correct them.  Open Source software has a deserved reputation for addressing security issues well – there is no reason why open web apps should not do the same.

Sharing and packaging the code is too difficult.  A while ago, I would have agreed.  But now we have github.  While github is far from perfect, all you have to do is keep a copy of your code there.  I don’t make any suggestion that you need to make your code easy for other people to use – just that you make it available.  If other people care about packaging your code, documenting it, making it nice – let them.  Thats their work, not yours.  You don’t have to become a community leader, you just have to keep on doing what you enjoy doing.

The final one of my arguments against opening your code is that you don’t want anyone else to benefit from your work.  To this I might make a few comments:

1.  You must be kidding.  Odds are your site is running on an open source language on an open source operating system.  You’re using web browsers (the majority of which are open source these days) to let people get to your site – over the internet (a technology which has had a huge amount of development form other people).  Your’re probably using open source libraries and open source databases and web servers. You are absolutely standing on the shoulders of giants.  Is you’re shitty first draft web app really that difficult to come up with, in the big scheme of things.

2. You’re not kidding?  Right, well in that case, consider that the value of a web site is more than just the value of the code.  It is also the value of the design, the graphics, the quality of the  site’s dev ops and the community which use it.  You have the opportunity to succeed in all these areas.  If you don’t win in these areas, you probably don’t deserve to win

3. Still not convinced?  Copying the first draft of a web app is cheap.  Especially since web apps don’t generally do things which are particularly complicated – the thing that gives them value is the idea, and the way it is made available to the user (the design).  Copying design and idea – then writing code to fit is a lot easier than writing the code from scratch.  Just by putting your web app out there you are making it easy to copy – especially from the big boys you are, presumably trying to disrupt.  When you introduce a new idea, the hope is you get big before Google or Facebook notice you have disrupted anything.

4. First mover advantage works.  In the open source world we don’t often see major forks of code – and when we do, it is normally because people want to do something significantly different with the code.  This is less clear in the web app space, but let me point out an example:  Wikipedia.  Right now, I can download all the data.  I can download mediawiki. I can set up my own wikipedia.  But I won’t beat wikipedia.  Because they have the community.  Because they were there first.

5. You might benefit from other people’s code.  If they are using your code, and making changes to it, then you get the benefit of those changes.  If you want to be sure of this, release your code under an affero license.  You might also benefit from someone using your code.  Lets consider Google – lets say they decide to compete with you.  Unless you’ve got the community sewn up, you’re screwed, wether they copy your code or write their own version.  However, if your code is available, why the hell wouldn’t they try to use your code, and bring you onboard – sure it might not be the megabucks you make from creating the next big web app, but its an income based on your work, your love and your passion.

I really don’t see anything except for upsides when it comes to releasing the code which runs your web app.  All you are doing is adding to the ecosystem you draw from.  And in that sense, not only is sharing your code a logical imperative, it is a moral imperative too.

(Random question:  Why can I not fork GitHub?  It really seems like the sort of thing I ought to be able to do)

I’ll Be Damned

I’m not a perfectionist.  Not your normal kind of perfectionist.
I know damn well I’m not perfect.
I can list all my flaws.  One after another.  Want to hear them?  You’ll be here a while.
What I can’t face is anyone else knowing that I’m not perfect.
So, keep it to yourself, would you?
What I like to do is think.
Ideas are where I live.
The real world is just a place to inspire ideas.
The real world is imperfect.
When I try to bring my ideas into the real world, the light of the real world shines on them and reveals imperfections.
Those imperfections weren’t there in my mind
Or maybe they were.  And I overlooked them.
(But that would mean I was imperfect.  So shhhhh)
I can’t bare for my ideas to be imperfect… not if anyone else is going to see them
So I destroy my creations.
Or I hide them away.  Away from the light.
More recently I just plain got good at never letting my ideas out in the first place.
In my head, they are all my babies.  And I take care of them.  They don’t need the real world.

Ideas, in my head, unexpressed, are wonderful and priceless.
To me.
To others they have no value.  They do nothing.  They don’t even exist.
And so, I guess to others I have no value either.
Since I am a combination of my ideas, and a seething mass of repressed imperfection.

This has to stop.

I have to stop fearing the imperfect.

Occasionally I look at my old ideas – ones I realised, then hid, ashamed.
Lots of them are pretty good
Not great.  But pretty good.  I like them.
Not enough to share – you understand – that time has passed.
Those ideas are old now.  They belong to another me, a me from the past.
I have new ideas.  Perfect, unsullied ideas.

So my mission is to share my ideas.

Its not a mission.  A mission is a cause you live for.
I live for the ideas.  The ideas will never die.
But my soul might.
Because if the ideas are me.  And they are.  Then to share them is to love.
I don’t love enough.
Because I don’t share enough.

When I said my ideas had value, did you think I was talking about money?

This is the plan.  The idea.  The first idea:
Make it easy to write.
Have a keyboard to hand at all times.
Forego brain numbing entertainment and embrace boredom
Boredom is a great motivator.
Encourage boredom, and you encourage creativity.
Do not fill the spaces in between.  Make them wider.  Look inside them.

The second idea is dangerous.
I do not like it.  It taunts me.
I am afraid of it.
But it has power.

“Publish before thinking.”

I publish everything now
(well, not everything.  But lots.  every day)
I do not edit.
Because editing implies I could make it perfect.  Or more perfect.  And that reminds me of the imperfections.
I spellcheck, because I like getting rid of the red lines.
I do not reread it.
I just hit publish.
And it is out there.

I do not always publish under my own name.  Because I am scared, and because names have power.
But I have shared.
I have loved.
Loved in the manner of a man who dare not approach his muse – dare not even look at her.
But loved.

And my love, out there, lasts.
My ideas stand on their own.
Imperfect.  But beautiful.

They are not all beautiful.
Some, i know, are ugly and twisted.
I will revise them, I tell myself.
But not yet.  Because there is more to share.
And in time maybe the ugliness will wear off.

I doubt the ugliness will wear off.

But I have shared.

If these ideas are worth anything to anyone, then I have done good.
If they are worthless, then I have done my best.
Because striving for perfection
Is striving to add so little
and succeeds in only adding great disappointment
When the ideas refuse to step outside.
When I keep the ideas locked inside.

No.  I have shared.
I will continue to share.
I will not edit.  Because editing stops me from sharing.
I will publish and be damned.
I will publish, and maybe the ideas, the me inside of me, will be saved.

[Note from Ben:  I wrote this.  I think its a poem.  I don’t think I started out writing a poem, but thats what it seems to have become.  It was meant to be a manifesto against keeping ideas to yourself because they are not perfect.  It seems less optimistic than it was meant to be, but I think it shows how scared I am of coming to terms with this concept - a concept which is, I am pretty sure, the right way for me to behave.  It is, nevertheless, empowering.  In its own way.  I didn’t post this right away, which makes me a fraud and a liar.  But also human, and very much me.  I will post it.  I will.  It will not be revised.]

How privacy is nothing but a modern menace

Is it possible that our current view on privacy is actually quite new?

Lots of people are trading their privacy for being allowed to use websites – or for cheap downloads.  Increasingly we have no privacy.  The new age of the net is taking our privacy from us.

But is the view that we have a right to privacy a new one? Not long ago, many more people lived in villages, proper communities, places where everyone knew everyone else. Back then, if you wanted a job, your prospective employer would know all about you or would know someone who did. I’m guessing this all changed with growing urbanization- or possibly with the growth of personal transport, and perhaps the suburbs.

Right now, the privacy we value may only be 60 or so years old.

What the net has done is made the world smaller.  Your Facebook profile is your gossipy friend. Google is the old lady twitching the curtains -the one who always knows what everyone is doing. Twitter is where your conversations down the pub can be overheard. Its a cliché, but it really is a global village. And for all the benefits that brings, the village gossip is the price we pay.

And we benefit by being in this community, because everyone else has lost their privacy too, the moment they joined.

Is it possible that privacy only really existed because we could travel faster than our social networks?

Why I Write This Blog

When I was writing the article about Susan Cain, I ventured into the territory of discussing the value, to me, of blogging:  The fact that knowing I have done something with an idea – that I have shared it, even if no one reads what I’ve shared, is cathartic – its relaxing, and lets me get on with other things.

In the previous article about TEDXGranta I opined that it was a shame that ideas, when expressed were not always presented as well as they could be – and that that got in the way of the message.

So clearly this blog is perfect.  And I’m proud of everything I’ve written, right?

Yeah.  Whatever.

You see, I would dearly love this blog to be perfect.  But I’m lazy.  Too lazy to strive for perfection.  Which is, I admit, a flaw.  But even worse, I have great trouble with letting people perceive me as being imperfect.  Which means I don’t want to show them anything I’ve done.  Nothing I do will ever be perfect enough – so to myself, I will always seem to be too lazy.

However, I have ideas, and until I started this blog, they were just buzzing around in my head, waiting for me to do something with them.  Something I would never do, because to actually realize my ideas would show up imperfections – both in the idea, and in my attempt to do something with them.  I’m keeping myself locked up in a gaol of my own creation.  And if so, then this blog is a halfway house back to society.

You see, I didn’t tell anyone about this blog.  I just wrote to it.

And, when I wrote to it, I never cared that much about checking what I wrote.  There was no deep planning, just thinking thinking thinking until I was fit to burst, then writing until the muse left, or I reached a sentence which sounded like a conclusion.  After that the copy editing was negligible and I published without caring what the world thought.  Because, it was only under this set of rules that I could get anything written at all.  Only under these rules that I could do anything with my ideas.

And this is the way I’m going to continue.  At first, when I wrote to this blog, I thought I would write mainly about things I had special knowledge of – I have quite deep knowledge of the Windows driver ecosystem, and have attended enough of Microsoft’s conferences to let me think I have some insight into their corporate mind.  But as its moved on, I’ve used it as a place to dump other ideas.  Mainly technical ideas.  Applications I’ll never write.  Business strategies I’ll never convince the person who has power to take seriously.  But more and more, I want to talk about other things – the things which sit on the top of my mind from hour to hour.  The last two articles were examples of this – I’ve written about Introversion – which is both a major curse and a god given boon to me, and I’ve talked about ideas – which is the landscape I live in – away from the minor irritations of day to day life.

But there are other paths where I still fear to tread.  Spirituality.  My own half assed philosophies.  Stuff which could be described as the trashiest of self help, where the only scientific proof is an n=me sample.  Maybe I’ll find a way of broaching some of that here.  Because even if ideas only work for a few of us, its worth it if the idea is out there.

I’ve heard it said that ideas alone have no value.  When I first heard it, I agreed wholeheartedly.  Because I had ideas, and no one was paying me for them.  But this was just an excuse.  My ideas may have been priceless.  But all the gold in the world doesn’t do anything if you keep it locked away and don’t let anybody know you want to sell it.  No ideas do have value.  I buy books because I want to expose myself to good ideas.  Sure, the clarity of the writing helps.  The references to back up the ideas are nice.  Anything which stops my thoughts getting in the way of me paying attention to the idea is good.  But if there was no idea, no matter how nice the writing, I would consider the book to be almost valueless.

This all means I can put a price on ideas.  The sort of ideas I read about (which often are not that huge or world changing) I might expect to get one or two of in a paperback.  So to me, a good idea is worth, perhaps, a fiver.  The good thing about ideas, is that you can sell them over and over again to different people.  The bad thing about ideas is that, no matter how much you want to, you can’t own them.  And if someone can express that idea better than you – more clearly, more easily to get hold of, in video when you’re still on a cuniform tablet, then they’ll take the money.  And you can’t complain – because the idea isn’t yours.  But you also can’t complain, because the idea is being spread.  And because one idea being taken doesn’t mean you are out of ideas, it means you have more space to create more ideas.  And it means you know your ideas are valuable.

I’ve noticed many authors say they keep getting asked the question “Where do you get your ideas?”.  And I’ve noticed them having glib answers.  Answers which don’t answer the question.  Because the authors don’t know.  They might know what inspired a particular idea.  But they don’t know where the ideas come from (though Elizabeth Gilbert has some good thoughts on this.  See her TED speech.  Also, she doesn’t let her fear of being judged get in the way of writing about the spiritual side of her life.).  he fact is, authors have lots of ideas – they don’t get their ideas from anywhere – in fact their biggest job is to know which ideas not to use (or not to use just yet). I rather suspect authors, on their death beds, are more upset about the infinity of stories they haven’t been able to tell yet then of the few finely crafted stories they got out into the world.  People who say they never have ideas – or don’t know where ideas come from are wrong.

Its a lot like people who say “I never remember my dreams” or “I never dream”.  Everybody dreams.  We have pretty decent scientific proof that everybody dreams.  People who don’t remember their dreams, are people who don’t think paying attention to their dreams is important.  If you want to remember your dreams, all you have to do is the following

1. When you wake up, don’t move.  Moving seems to be the thing that eats dreams

2. Ask yourself:  was I dreaming just then.

3.  If you were, write down everything that you remember.  And perhaps meditate on bits to see if they help you remember other parts of your dream.

4.  Also, if, during the day, you recollect a dream fragment – you realize that a memory you recall couldn’t possibly have happened, write it down.

Do that, and often you’ll be remembering multiple dreams a night.  Don’t do that, and you could go on thinking you don’t ever dream.

Ideas are very similar.  We all have ideas.  We all think, from time to time “This sucks”.  That’s an idea.  When something sucks, there’s an idea telling you that something could be better.  Give it a couple of seconds pondering, and you might have a notion of how something could be improved.  It might be a fanciful thought.  You might immediately realize why it wouldn’t work.  But its an idea.  Seriously we have ideas all the time.  We just don’t recognize them.

For the record – its unlikely that you’ll have original ideas.  Because original ideas are mind bending weirdness, things that take a leap of consciousness to obtain.  Original ideas are for the prophets, philosophers, scientists and artists. (and only the very few of them, the rest are hacks, just like you and me).  What most of our ideas are is about combining things we already know in new ways.  Ideas are usually about 1 + 1.  God ideas are about the result being 3.  Bad ideas are about the result being .5.  Very rarely will we have to invent a whole new numbering system.

When we do recognize ideas, they have a habit of buzzing around and annoying us.  They want to be applied to everything.  Or they want us to apply them instead of washing the dishes and turning up for work.

When I talked about dreams, I talked about thinking about them, and about writing them down.  By honouring dreams, we mark them as something important to us.  Something we should pay attention to.  Ideas are the same… we need to honour them – to recognize them as important.  And we honour ideas by doing something with them, something more than just thinking about them.  When you honour dreams, you don’t keep getting the same dream – you net new dreams. The same is true of ideas.  Ideas don’t dry up.  The more ideas you’ve had, the more you are able to have, so long as you keep recognizing them as important.

 

This blog is about honouring ideas.  Its a place where I write about them.  A place where I share them.  A place where anyone can take them.  These ideas may not be worth a fiver.  And I certainly don’t expect anyone to pay me for them (though any donations you might like to offer won’t be rejected out of hand).  This blog is about putting them out there in case anybody finds them valuable – or anybody who isn’t a perfectionist might actually want to realize them.  Its a gift to myself, and (in a way) my gift to anyone who cares.

As of yet, I haven’t told anybody about this blog, even though I’ve been writing it for 6 months.  Google knows about it.  My wife knows about it.  Occasionally people stumble across it, and probably wonder where they are.  But the people who know me, don’t know about it.  I’m not sharing the ideas widely enough yet.  This may have to change.

Soon.

But not quite now.

Because I’m scared they’ll find out I’m imperfect (like they don’t already know)

But ideas want to be free.  They want to be shared.

So someday.  Soon.  I promise.

© Ben.Cha.lmers.co.uk
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