Category Archives: internet

Dressing down

I had an argument today with a friend of friend about Sarah Millican’s dress.

Some background for you, in case you’ve missed the story.

Sarah Millican is a comedian who was nominated for a Bafta, had a wonderful evening and was eviscerated on Twitter for the temerity of having breasts. She was devastated but responded magnificently and very good for her. Millican was betrayed by her dress which she says looked lovely in the shop but which really didn’t look great in the photographs. This happens, the camera is a bastard at times. As she pointed out she’s a comedian not a model and has never learned to walk or pose in front of cameras.

What was egregious about the response to Millican’s dress was not that it was commented on, but that it was commented on in public.  There is a whole sub-specialty of fashion journalism dedicated to being bitchy about women on the red carpet. And then there is twitter. Oh lord.

I commented in a closed thread on Facebook about other choices Millican could have made and was roundly bollocked for doing so.  But I am English, and was brought up not to be rude to people to their face. Other people think we are a culture of hypocrites because we will comment discretely behind your back. The internet makes this hard, of course. Hence twitter storms.

However, I really felt for Millican. I have more or less the same figure and I never know where to put my tits in a photograph. I end up being so self-conscious when I know there’s a camera around that I always have the shifty look of someone who’s just wet themselves. The only photographs of myself that I like are ones where I didn’t know I was being photographed, or where I’ve given up responding to the camera at all.  So in this thread of doom I was reflecting on my own experience: I too face the difficulty Millican describes of finding clothes that I like and fit.

Two months ago I had my photograph taken for a national paper, one of the ones with a circulation in millions not tens of thousands, and it’s not an experience I enjoyed. I was more resigned than nervous; nervous is for situations where you have some agency. I settled for looking groomed rather than attractive and thought about what to wear for weeks beforehand. I had my hair and nails done,  I wore a highish necked dress and a waterfall cardigan that cut vertically across my boobs. The photographer hated the fact I wore black. If I had known, I’d have worn a different colour. I like to be helpful and he seemed to know his job. the piece has not yet been published, but I will probably ask someone else to read the comments thread for me. The ironic thing is that the story isn’t even about me.  Oh well.

I am so sad that Millican’s bubble was burst after the Baftas. She is a talented person, and deserves so much better.

A series of small epiphanies



For a while I’ve been planning  a talk about what it’s like to be  what Skeptics call “a Woo” and about my journey from there to being one of the folks running Skeptics on the Fringe.

“Woo” is a term I dislike for a bunch of reasons, mainly because labelling people makes it too easy to stop thinking about them as people and stereotype them. No-one should do that to anyone, but we are Skeptics, dammit: we should think, especially when we are complaining that the defining group of this other group is that they don’t think.  Irony, much?

I had a couple of hours of driving to do tonight, appropriately enough  visiting Ash Pryce founder of Edinburgh Skeptics and then Keir Liddle founder of Skeptics on the Fringe.  I used the time to sketch out the structure of the talk and identify the key points I want to make.  It’s now sitting as bullet points on my laptop.

I hate bullet-points because PowerPoint doesn’t kill presentations, bulletpoints kill presentations. I prefer slides – if they are used at all – to be images rather than words.  The bullet-points will become my speakers notes. I could even use this as an opportunity to learn Prezi.

So I need to get some images together.  This glamour-girl from the 1920s in my grandmother.  Come to the talk when I eventually give it and you’ll see why she’s there. Somewhere I have a supercute pic of my dad with me slung under his arm when I was about two years old, and if I can find that I want it in the slides, failing that there’s one of him in what looks like a bishop’s mitre.  I think I still have my O’level certificate somewhere.  And I want to include some book covers, some podcast logos, stuff like that.  As it says here, the talk is about a series of small epiphanies.

It’s going to take a chunk of time to put together yet, but I hope it will explain why intelligent and rational people are still attracted to Alternative Medicine, reincarnation and similar things, that it will interest scientists and atheists lucky enough to have been raised that way, that it will reassure skeptical activists that skeptical outreach really is worth it, and explain why Phil Plait was right when he said Don’t be a Dick.

I’ll be keen to do this talk at Skeptics in the Pub and other appropriate events once I’ve finished the slides. Contact me via if you’d like to discuss dates.


I’m distracted this week by the campaign to #saveH2G2.

What is H2G2, and why should you care?

H2G2 is one of the community sites shivering under the BBC’s axe. It was bought by the BBC on the 25th January 2001 and a decade later less one day the BBC announced it will be “disposed of”. “Disposed of”, note, not “closed” because there is something here of great vitality.

H2G2 is an open access writing site, where you’ll get thoughtful and constructive feedback on what you write through a system of writing workshops and peer review and where you can make friends (and enemies) that you’ll value for life.

H2g2'S new front page - the new skin is a bit buggy - oh the irony

H2g2’S new front page – the new skin is a bit buggy – oh the irony

But whenever I try to say more I just end up saying what it isn’t:

  • It’s not Wikipedia even though it predated it as an experiment in user-generated content and on-line communities being founded in 1999 by the late, tall, Douglas Adams as “the earth edition of the HitchHiker’sGuide to the Galaxy”.
  • But it’s not a fan site.  It really isn’t.  “Hootizens” respect DNA, but  don’t revere him.
  • It’s not a blog-and-comment site though users have their own “journals” and create “entries” with “conversations” hanging off them.
  • It’s not a creative writing site though there is a lot of creative writing on it.
  • It’s not even primarily a social network though it predates just about all of the ones still standing,  and it’s not  “a small town in cyberspace” though that is how I’ve described it for years. Well, a decade, I guess.

And after –  or because of – it’s indescribable past it now faces an uncertain future.  Nick Reynolds (Social Media Executive, BBC Online) and Jim Lynn (who developed the original platform) both express cryptic goodwill and commitment to the community.  But it’s hard to see who’d want to buy the site.

The future then and now

One of the great wistfulnesses about h2g2 is the difference between what it could have been and what it was.  Douglas Adams was an astonishing visionary about all things online…

49 minutes of uncanny prescience.
Where we are now predicted way back then
by Douglas Adams in 1990.

… but  the BBC never really took first mover’s advantage in any of the then-cool things that h2g2 was first to have.  And now the BBC are disposing of what has become a site that even those of us who love it have to admit is quaint.

Community action

And how have the h2g2 community responded?

By and large, pretty well.  As Nick Reynolds said:

H2G2 is the best behaved and most civilised community I’ve ever encountered. The way that you have reacted to the news is a great credit to you.

Members of the community have gathered in a Google Group called the h2g2 Continuity Consortium (h2g2c2 – geddit) and are trying to put the show on right here in the barn… er… server farm.

Some of the comment is skeptical,  but slightly to my surprise, I think we’ll succeed, partly because we are not trying to buy the site off the BBC. We want to ensure that the best possible group runs the site, but are rather reluctantly aware that group might end up being us.

We will succeed in the short term because the BBC is not pulling the plug immediately, because we’ve been overwhelmed by offers of server space, by advice from people who’ve done the same thing in other online communities, and by practical support from within the community.

And I think we will succeed in the long term because we are so old.  We know each other.   We’ve fought, flirted, argued and made up across timezones and forums for a long time.  We’ve danced at each others’ weddings, stood godparents to each others children, and grown from being school-children to adults, collecting relevant (and gloriously irrelevant) skills, experiences and qualifications in the process.

We know how the internet works, how online communities and social media and web servers and all the things that Douglas Adams predicted but the rest of us took ten years to find out.

And best of all, it turns out that we are not just a bunch of quirky names and flirty posts, but also a bunch of coders and project managers, change programme leaders, doctors and people claiming disability benefit or who are just plain on the dole.  We have skilz and we have time.  (A lot of the former and a bit of the latter).

In management speak, we’ve Stormed (ye gods how we’ve stormed) Formed and Normed (and abNormed, but that’s a different story).

Now we are ready to Perform.

The Facebook Privacy Row 2 – The Social Network

We went to see the film the Social Network last night, which is about how Mark Zuckerberg co-created Facebook, and the ensuing law suits with people who claimed he had misappropriated their ideas (in one case) and their money (in the other case).

What is shown on the screen must be pretty much law-suit proof.  We are talking about the bio-pic of a billionaire, after all.  There are other signs that the big spend was on lawyers.  It certainly wasn’t on special effects; the “outdoor” scenes at Henley Regatta were clearly filmed in a tank.  And it wasn’t on stars either; the only name star is Justin Timberlake playing Sean Parker who co-founded Napster. (We are of course meant to love the knowing irony of that casting).

In the first five or ten minutes of the film, Zuckerberg’s girlfriend when he was 19, Erica Allbright says:

You are probably going to be a very successful computer person. But you’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.

And that more or less positions Zuckerberg for the rest of the film.

Would you entrust your privacy to the Zuckerberg portrayed here?  Hell no.  But of course, film is a two-dimensional medium.  If you look for them, you can see the usual narrative compressions: two of the four people who co-founded Facebook are barely mentioned in the film, for instance, and neither is Zuckerberg’s current girlfriend who (according to Wikipedia (I know….)) who was with him throughout.  And that is an interesting omission, because he comes across as someone whose IQ is stratospheric but whose EQ (emotional intelligence) approaches zero.  Portraying him as maintaining a relationship all that time would undermine the idea that he’s a nerd and an asshole.

I was intrigued that Zuckerberg is portrayed not as someone who  has good ideas, but as someone who spots them.  In one scene a friend asks if a particular girl is dating someone and Zuckerberg realises that “relationship status” is the thing that will change Facebook from an app to a killer app. Likewise, he is portrayed as using the Winklevoss’s idea for a campus-wide social network in the first place, and borrowing Savarin’s algorithm to rank girls based on how hot they are, which is itself an idea he took from some one else.  So he’s portrayed as a harvester,  not a creator.  But if harvesting ideas was easy, everyone could do it. In the movie, Zuckerberg’s stance is summed up by his line:

If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.

And he has a point.

So was anyone in the film actually a good guy?  Savarin, the friend who stumped up the original seed money for servers, is the nearest thing to a good guy.  But our sympathies lie with him because of where he sits in the narrative: he’s portrayed as being out-maneuvered when Facebook got cool and Sean Parker got involved and they all went to California.  He’s the loyal friend, shafted by the asshole.  Then there are the other litigants, the Winklevoss brothers. In one of those unnecessary strokes of narrative cuteness occasionally thrown up by real life, they are olympic rowers and twins.  As one of them says when they are discussing whether they want lawyers or the Sopranos:

I’m six-five, 220 pounds, and there are two of me.


Privileged, ambitious, with a sense of entitlement which is annoyingly substantiated by actual physical achievements?Just another kind of asshole, really.

If no-one touches the sympathy button, was anyone here a victim? No, not really.  Not as portrayed in this film. It’s an enjoyable movie about how the prospects of billions makes not particularly attractive people do not particularly attractive things. Im irritated that we are presented with Zuckerberg as a tragic hero in the last five minutes of the film. Heroism isn’t really something you can tack on at the end.

I’m wary of assuming that this bio-pic is accurate simply because it wasn’t made by Oliver Stone even if there are no actual law-suits against it, and it seems I am right to be wary.  An excellent NYT article quotes the film’s writer as saying:

“I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling” … “I feel like, had I met Mark, I would have felt a certain obligation to make the character sound like Mark, walk like Mark, all of those things. And frankly, I probably would have had an affection for him that I wouldn’t have wanted to betray.”

So there are lies, damned lies, and movie scripts.

That said, it’s an entertaining movie if you like that sort of thing, which I do. On top of that, the script is sharply clever, and I like clever.

But I still keep my Facebook settings shut down tight.

Valley girl

Oracle, Redwood Shores

Oracle, Redwood Shores

That’s not just an Oracle campus.  That’s THE Oracle campus.  I’m not a fan-girl of the database company, but I still squeaked with excitement every morning when we stopped at the lights on our way from our hotel in Redwood to the office.

Redwood Shores.

Menlo Park.

Palo Alto.

Santa Clara.


These are the birth-paces of our modern age, as important as Athens, Rome or Sumeria and, to my geeky mind, as breath-takingly exciting. Yes, if you visit California, then it makes much more sense to hang out in San Francisco than to do a tour of the business parks.  But… but… these are the earthly homes of cyberspace. Giants walk here.

Apple moved out of the garage and into Cupertino.  Electronic Arts and Oracle are at Redwood Shores.  Santa Clara has Intel inside, not to mention the Googleplex and Stanford University.

Stanford would matter if it’s only contribution had been Google and Yahoo. But it helped to give us the very Internet itself: one of the four original internet nodes was at Stanford, back in the day when the internet was ARPANET and years before the Stanford University Network was incorporated as SUN Microsystems.

And then there’s Palo Alto.

It’s hard to over-estimate just how many innovations that shape our daily lives started in Palo Alto as scribbles on an engineer’s blackboard. It’s no surprise that Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center – Xerox PARC – brought us laser printing. It’s more of a surprise to discover that WISIWYG text editors and windows-based interfaces were first thought of here.  When Xerox made the decision to focus on hardware, Apple and Microsoft took their ideas about software and ran away with them.  And the tech-savvy might be interested to know that object-orientated programming and ethernet also came out of PARC.

So there I was, San Francisco smiling at my inner tourist and Silicon Valley whispering to my inner geek.  I’m civilised.  I didn’t even try to persuade my colleague that we should do a tour of the local business parks.  We went into San Francisco to watch the Giants play baseball, and we ate seafood and drank Californian wine on Fishermans’ Wharf.

Sucks to be me.

Different strokes for different folks

Head shot

Head shot

The chap in the badge on the right is my husband.  Don’t worry, he’s fine. He’s researching strokes and dementia; if you stand still long enough near a research MRI scanner you’ll be cajoled into lying still in it while the radiographers calibrate some particular sequence of scanning.

So of course I got hold of the scan and of course I got those nice folks at Zazzle to make it into a badge.

What’s been fascinating is the range of reactions I get when I tell people what it is.

  • Colleague – female – late 20s – “Euch – no, sorry, that’s gross”
  • Artist – male – mid 20s – “Do you have a larger copy of the image?”
  • Career counsellor – female – early 50s – “… how… interesting … “
  • Accountant – female – early 30s – “But why can’t you see his teeth?”
  • Neuroscientist – male – late 20s – “Where did you get the badge made?”
  • Cousin – female – early 70s – “Hmmm. Why did you do that?”

Me, I think it’s cool.  And at least I didn’t get it made up into a t-shirt.

Who knows your name? Who knows where you live?

The other day someone worked out where I live from a previous post on this blog.


Now I’m reasonably careful online: I’ve written about password security, I know emails are less private than postcards, and I don’t geotag pictures out of an instinctive preference for privacy, and I certainly don’t tweet or blog about going away before I actually go.  So you may think it’s odd that I blog in my own name, but I’ve a professional interest in Web 2.0 and I need to type the type as well as talk the talk.

When we went away a couple of weeks ago, I dropped a very late email in to the folks who deliver our veg to cancel the box for the week. Unfortunately the email addy I used was a benwarsop one, and I am a customer of theirs in my married name.


Or so you’d like to think.

You see, my email sig includes a link to this blog and the top post that week showed  some flowers on my kitchen windowsill.  I thought no harm of it: central Scotland is full of kitchens with views like mine.

I see sunflowers, you see the house opposite

I see sunflowers, you see the house opposite

But Ms Holmes was smarter than that.  She knew which day I have my veg delivered from the email and it was easy enough to check the route for someone whose first name was “Ben”.  It was probably a list of 1, but even if it had been more, it was only a matter of comparing the relevant Google Street View(s) with the pic on my blog, and bingo! No veg left to rot for a week, and a happy but rather unnerved Ben.

So if you want excellent organic veg delivered by tech savvy folks, go to GrowWild and say I sent you.  They know both my names now.

And if you don’t want to be tracked down, find somewhere to live that Google Street View hasn’t got to yet. It’s good advice. Property values in places like that will soar.

Not just normal… supernormal

Telegraph: Monster burger containing 4,800 calories unveiled in US

Telegraph: Monster burger containing 4,800 calories unveiled in US - click to read story

I’ve been catching up with podcasts recently, and was fascinated by For Good Reason‘s recent interview about supernormal stimuli with Dierdre Barrett.  She explains much about our problems as animals living in an artificial world: why we over-eat, why socialising online or by texting is more compelling than hanging out with our friends, why everything is louder and faster these days.

Essentially, Barrett researches the way that animals (including us) respond better to artificial over-stimulus than we do to natural levels of stimuli. We want saltier, sweeter, fattier food, bigger breasts, poutier lips, louder and more driving bass beats, faster cuts in our movies and more exciting roller coasters.  We want everything up to 11.  Hell, we want everything up to, 12, 13, 130 … faster, deeper, harder, MORE!

Two examples of animal responses to supernormal stimuli she cites are birds who ignore their own eggs in favour of bluer ones with bigger, blacker polkadots (how sweet, how stupid) and butterflies who boff card-board cut-outs and ignore the real lady butterfly flapping her wings enticingly nearby. How stupid. How ridiculous. How much does this explain about the porn industry?

Barrett’s soothing mantra is that we are people with brains and free-will, and are therefore able to overcome our response to the supernormal.  I was disappointed that Grothe didn’t challenge her on this. I like the way he inhabits the role of devil’s advocate to draw out his interviewees, but he ducked this one. There appears to be increasing evidence that free will is either an illusion or operates at trivial levels at best, which is something that Grothe is well aware of.  (A search for ‘free will’ in his previous podcasts at Point of Inquiry yields 117 hits). It is of course much easier for everyone if we act as if we have free will.  If we don’t, then all sorts of things about society will unravel. But that is another blog post for another day.

So while none of this was epiphanic, it deepened my awareness of the issues.  And if you don’t subscribe to Point of Inquiry or For Good Reason, and you like that kind of thing, then let me recommend them.

The Facebook Privacy Row – 1

Facebook Privacy Settings

Facebook Privacy Settings

Isn’t the Facebook privacy row a fascinating piece of anthropology?

Mark Zuckerburg presents himself as a geeky regular dude who just created a really cool app for his friends. Here he is in the Washington Post:

Facebook has evolved from a simple dorm-room project…
Mark Zukerburg

However, many Facebook users think he’s made of cunning, harvesting our personal information for his personal gain and  saying  “aw shucks, my bad” when people object. There may be no contradiction here, given the gap between a person’s view of themselves and the effect they have on the world. Wired sees naiveté ascending into arrogance,  a third interpretation which may also be true.

But isn’t the normitivity of Zuckerberg’s and Facebook’s approach intriguing? They say they want to change the world, but it seems they want to change us. They express surprise whenever users point out other assumptions are available. The problem, they hint, is our secretiveness and inability to use the privacy options. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we did like our moms told us, and shared nicely with others?

What they hint, Scobleizer states. He thinks we should get over ourselves and accept that privacy is dead. Indeed he thinks that a desire for privacy is downright suspect:

Just what are you doing that needs to be so damned private? Are you having sex inside Facebook? Doing illegal drugs? Cheating on your wife?

… which suggests either a blessed lack of complexity in his life, or a complacent sanctimoniousness.  He argues that Facebook is at its most useful when it is wide open, and opens his profile wide accordingly. But he is disingenuous, and has a more personal personal account.

Facebook shows a parochial lack of imagination for a service which is already global: there’s fluffy talk about peace and connection, but a lack of respect for diversity or acceptance that different folks want different strokes.

What I find interesting is the underlying assumption that openness is good, that  we are old-fashioned meanies who just “don’t get it” when we say “my data is mine, not yours Mr Zuckerberg, and no I don’t know you well enough to call you Mark”.

Here’s my real question:

Are Zuckerberg and Scobleizer culturally naive? They wouldn’t be the first Americans to think of the rest of the world as the 51st state. Or is the naiveté just PR for the punters as Facebook backs slowly and cynically away from a strategic position that’s increasingly unpopular and no longer compatible with a geeks-of-the-people, guys-with-integrity act?

Here, incidentally, are some more geeks-with-integrity who are developing an open-source alternative to Facebook, with privacy built in by default.

Colour me world-weary but it will be interesting to see if they are still as squeaky clean 3 or 5 years from now.

PS – I’ve no idea if I’ll post on this subject again but it seems likely, so I thought I’d number it anyway.

I’ve got life – Happy 101 Sweet Friends

I usually steer clear of bloggy memes because  they are a lazy way to pick a subject, but I am distracted at the moment (houses to sell, motorways to drive on, MSc assignments to think through, you know how it is) so I’m grateful for May’s nomination for the Happy 101 Sweet Friends meme.

Besides which, as anyone who reads me regularly knows, I believe those of us who live in the West should be be grateful for the unfair hand of fate that’s given us food and security and shut the bleep up about ‘artistic differences’ or whatever it might be.

The instructions are: List 10 things that make your day & then give this award to 10 bloggers.

  1. The chance to bang on about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is always guaranteed to cheer me up, and it’s great to have an excuse to listen to Nina Simone who puts it so much better:

    There – you feel better for that, don’t you?
  2. Having no plans turns a day into a gift. That old proddy work-ethic means I rarely plan frivolity, so it’s only when a plan falls through that I kick back and have some fun.
  3. A cup of tea in the morning. There is nothing, but nothing, like the first cup of tea of the day. It’s not so much that it makes my day, as the lack of a cup of tea undermines it.
  4. Sunshine. I open the curtains hopefully every morning and look for blue. And yet I move further north to greyer skies year after year.
  5. Evesdroppings. My current favourite was an elderly lady telling her middle aged children that she had been in Blackpool when their father bought her engagement ring:  ‘ a cheap one’ she reassured them kindly. A Yorkshire-women wouldn’t want a fecklessly expensive one, now would she.
  6. My cat. What can I say? I’m a woman of a certain age.  My husband says the cat’s needy, but I choose to think of him as affectionate. Besides which, he spends hours jumping on his own shadow which always cheers me up. Hard to tell which of us is the simpler-minded, really.
  7. The chance to do good Visio. Or any other kind of systems diagram.  I like analysis diagramming and haven’t done enough of it lately.
  8. A clean kitchen. I even like cleaning the kitchen  so long as there’s a good comedy podcast in the background.
  9. Not over-eating. Stopping smoking was a cinch in comparison. I’m chewing over Kate Moss’s mantra that nothing tastes as good as skinny feels. (Chewing over, geddit?)
  10. Being married to my honey. Soon to be a daily delight.

And now… 10 bloggers whose blogs give me pleasure

  1. Paddy K – acerbic, atheist and Irish, living in Sweden. I wish I could nail a subject with Paddy’s pointed venom.
  2. Colm – also atheist and also Irish. Colm’s post frequently make me wish I’d written them myself.
  3. Jon Pashley – far too sporadic a blogger, Jon posts with energy and excitement in ways that leave me thoughtful or spark my interest
  4. SoRB  –  doesn’t blog, but his comments are trenchant, provocative, thought-provoking and thought through. I should start a FaceBook Group for people who want him to blog.
  5. Dr Z – gives us windows into two worlds impossible for outsiders to imagine let alone experience: he’s a doctor and he’s a female to male transsexual. He’s also an engaging writer.
  6. Eyoki – a blogger who reflects on the artistic and cultural experiences that come his way, occasionally through the lens of his transsexuality.
  7. Charlotte Otter – I have a huge bloggy-pash on Charlotte whether she’s writing about her family, her native South Africa or her progress as an author. She just writes so damn well. Not fair.
  8. Hairy Farmer Family – the Hairy Wifey bakes cakes to diet for, swears up a storm and makes me laugh.  She also champions her son’s battles with the the NHS, and I find her blog a fascinating counterpoint to Dr Z’s.
  9. Sol – who’s already been nominated – is intelligent, clever and lovely, and her son is a genuinely adorable boysy boy. And she doesn’t blog about him enough.
  10. May – who nominated me – May more regularly than any other writer tosses out a turn of phrase which leaves me frothing with envy.  I can be clever and funny, but never quite that clever or quite that funny dammit. Life is being shitty to May and I know of no-one more deserving of an even break than May and her lovely husband H.