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* researcher in infrastructure futures and theory (University of Sheffield, UK)
* science fiction author and literary critic
* writer, theorist, critical futurist
* dishevelled mountebank


Behind the scenes in the "Northern Powerhouse"

The North rejects the Oyster card model... but what does that actually mean?

“It’s not an Oyster card … We are putting something in for a next generation,” said Brown, adding the thinking behind smart ticketing was all about how to persuade drivers stuck in jams to take the train instead: “It’s about people sitting getting frustrated on the M62. What do they need that would persuade them to use a northern powerhouse rail system? None of them say: ‘I want a blue card in my wallet.’ They want affordable travel that they know how much they are going to pay to use, with a system that is easy to use and that they can use on every train.”

He added: “What people want is certainty about what you are going to pay in a day. You’d want some sort of account which said ‘thanks for travelling across the north, you’re going to get a discount’, and not worrying if you have got on the right train or bus, or wondering ‘have I bought the right ticket?’”

It's pretty apparent that they're talking about some sort of flexible contactless/near-field ticketing set-up, whether through cards or mobile devices; one suspects that the only difference from the Oyster system will be the opportunity to have a non-registered card which you top up as and when you need it; while that's a useful system for us as end-users, it doesn't capture enough valuable data exhaust and personal travel profile data, the reselling of which can be assumed to be a revenue stream already baked in to any plans. And of course we can't have anonymous travel because [terrorism].

Also, people are talking about a new cross-Pennine tunnel crossing:

Building a new road and rail tunnel under the Pennines was a “bold” idea, said TfN’s chair, John Cridland, former director general of the CBI, who insisted that as a very new organisation having been founded in November, TfN was in the early days of creating a pan-northern transport system.

“We have economic assets, Manchester and Sheffield, that are completely disconnected at the moment,” he said, revealing that a feasibility study had shown digging a trans-Pennine tunnel with road and rail side by side was possible. “If you are building a single economic entity while respecting the fact there are still the Pennines in the way you need to run up the flag post some bold thinking,” he said.

It's not bold at all -- it was bold in the 1800s, perhaps, when the original transPennine tunnels and canals were built, but now the only boldness lies in imagining that Gideon will actually put his hand into his pocket and give the grubby proles the toffee he's promised them.

Cynicism aside, what's often overlooked is that the idea of connecting up the Liverpool-Manchester-Sheffield-Leeds corridor isn't a new idea so much as an attempt to revert to the original and long-established economic orientation of the north, which was always dominated by an east-west flow with export connectionss to Europe, the Americas and beyond, and it has been argued that the dismantling of that east-west network, particularly the railways during the regrouping exercise of the interwar years, effectively removed the possibility of economic independence for the region.

However, over the last century we've moved from a situation where almost all long-distance freight went by rail to where it almost all goes by road, so improved transPennine rail links are only going to improve passenger travel times; the secondary infrastructure for rail freight that still exists is slowly rotting away since its abandonment during privatisation; hence the suggested need for a road link, which has the added bonus of being easier to sell to parliament (which has always loved roads, particularly when Tory) and car users (whose sense of entitlement to new infrastructure has been very carefully manufactured and sustained by parliament).

And who knows -- perhaps they'll pull it off:

Cridland urged northerners to take the powerhouse concept seriously, saying he would not have taken the 30-day-a-year chairmanship if he thought it was an empty gimmick.

(What a hero! Though I expect the compensation package may have been something of an inducement, too.)

The devolution deals signed with Greater Manchester and other city regions showed Osborne was serious, he insisted: “I just see an opportunity, of London prepared to let go. You have to almost pinch yourself a bit. [Osborne] has not just made a speech about it, he’s signing these deals, he’s signing off on things flowing in our direction."

Oh, yes: responsibility is definitely flowing in their direction, if not the ability to raise and spend funds, and I'm sure there'll be bountiful opportunities for the usual suspects in the consultancy industry before it gets kicked off into the long grass. 

If the north wants its destiny back, it'll have to do more than tug its collective forelock to London.


Leading with an apology: some thoughts on innovation in communications

5 min read

Something I'm finding interesting about the New Newsletter Movement (which isn't really a movement, but is surely a definite phenomena in a certain slice of the internets) is the normalisation of the Extended But Friendly Unsubscribe Disclaimer, wherein profuse preemptive apologies are made for the possible cluttering of inboxes, and the ease of avoiding such is highlighted. It's not surprising -- on the contrary, it serves to highlight that the move to newsletters was driven at least in part by a sense that there are an excess of push-notification demands on people's attention, and that we all know they're no fun any more (even if we're still occasionally unwilling to say so).

Email is a fairly pushy medium too, of course (which is why it's such a popular topic for those work/life balance articles), but it seems to me to have two main merits in the context of the current communications retrenchment: firstly, there are a lot more third-party tools and techniques for managing email as multiple flows and categories of comms (including, crucially, easy blocking and blacklisting); secondly, no one can envisage being able to give up email forever, so the inbox is both a comfortable and secure place in which to set up one's ultimate data redoubt. Hence newsletters: they're a one-to-many subscriber-based push medium, much like socnets, but -- crucially -- the interface through which both the sender and the receiver mediate and adjust their experience of communicating via newsletters, namely the inbox, does not belong to the company providing the transmission service. 

Sure, that interface may well belong to someone other than the end-user -- most likely G**gle or another webmail provider -- but the point is that the route between sender and receiver has a whole bunch of waypoints, seams between one system or platform and another where one or another of the communicants can step in and control their experience. With FarceBork or Twitter, that communicative channel -- the interface apps, the core protocol and its design principles -- is all in-house, all the time, a perfect vertical: it works this way, that's the only way it works, take it or leave it. (Note that it takes either network effects or addicition mechanisms, or possibly both, to build the sort of product where you can be so totalitarian about functionality; note further that network effects are easier to achieve in closed and/or monopoly networks.) So the newsletter is a point of compromise: a one-to-many-push model which retains plenty of control at both the author and reader ends. 

And so we have a situation where one of the most common features of the use of a particular opt-in medium is a disclaimer about how easy it is to avoid further messages from the same source. I find this of some considerable interest -- not least because rather than being a technical innovation, it's actually a reversion to older technologies which have been rearticulated through a new set of social protocols and values.

That said, it's a little odd that we've jumped all the way back to email, skipping over the supposedly-failed utopia that was the Open Web (or whatever we're now calling it in hindsight): y'know, blogs, aggregators, pingbacks, RSS, all that jazz. I do hear some lamenting for the Open Web, but it tends to be couched in a way that suggests there's no going back, and that the socnets pushed all that out of the way for good. And while that may be true in commercial terms, it's not at all true in technical terms; I can't speak to the change in running overheads, especially for anyone running anything more than the website equivalent of a lemonade stand, but all that infrastructure is still there, still just as useable as it was when we got bored of it. Hosting is cheaper and more stable than it was a decade ago; protocols like RSS and pingbacks and webmentions only stop being useful when no one uses them.

So why didn't we go back to blogging? After all, the genres of writing in newsletters are very similar to those which were commonplace on blogs, it's a one-to-many-pull medium (so no accidental inbox invasions), and the pertinent protocols are just sat there, waiting to be written into software and used again.

But it's a lot more effort to run even a small blog than to run a newsletter (you effectively outsource all the work besides the writing to your newsletter provider, for whom it's less a matter of work and more a matter of maintaining automated capacity), and you still have to go "somewhere else" (whether directly to the site, or to an RSS aggregator) to catch up with the news from others. Newsletters are just easier, in other words -- sufficiently easy that the inherent deficiencies of the medium don't seem too much of a chore to manage, for sender or receiver.

Whether that remains the case for newsletter authors with very large audiences, I have no idea -- and how long it will remain the case is just as open a question, as is the question of where we'll move our discourse to next. However, it's pretty clear that the newsletter phenomenon thumbs its nose at the standard models of innovation, wherein we transition to new technologies on the basis of their novelty and/or technological advantages. This is good news, because it means that we're perfectly capable of rearticulating the technological base of the things we do in response to changing social meanings and values -- and perhaps it even suggests that those meanings and values are more influential than the supposed determinism of the technological stack itself.

We can but hope, I guess.



Apple and Star Wars together explain why much of the world around you looks the way it does - Quartz

Yet “as little design as possible” is precisely not that. It is, rather, the exhaustive application of design until every detail, every offending element, is brought under strict, harmonious arrangement. We notice nothing because everything is under control. And this is where we get to the essence of the resonance between the artifacts of Apple and that of the Empire of Star Wars: the exertion of control, and power, over the complex, messy reality of systems and objects.

The thesis is perhaps a little too neat and just-so, but this is a wonderful piece of writing.


The End of Big Data

2 min read

Jim Bridle turns his hand to writing science fiction, and does a good enough job of it that I wonder why I still bother. Snip:

While I was out cold in my bunk last night, eyes in the sky were dowsing for covert data farms: telltale transmissions near the dew point. You can do a lot with fans, water mist, recirculation and chillers, but thermodynamics is pretty unforgiving. The energy of computation has to come out somewhere, and the combination of heat and rare earth traces is, ultimately, undeniable: a forensics of the machine. Between RITTER’s infrared and the EUROSUR air contaminants grid, we can usually triangulate any processor over 25 kW. A few months ago it took the ground crew almost a week to locate some Estonian ex-Salesforce analysts whose lock-up in Tallinn was cold as stone. Turns out they were piping their server exhaust a kilometer outside of town, but we got there in the end. This morning the sensors picked up suspicious heat sources in Poland and Slovenia. Could be generators, could be thermal dumps. I’ll get to them once my initial sweep is done.

Go read. I nearly cheered out loud at the ending.


What fresh hell / what's in a name

1 min read

Varieties, cultivars, brands:

Perhaps most important, Byrne says, is the ability to organize marketing campaigns that convince consumers to buy the variety, and stores to stock it. Nobody did that for previous varieties, because anyone could plant them.

"If anyone can plant [a new variety], why could I put half a million dollars into a marketing campaign, out of my pocket, when everyone else can ride the coattails of that campaign?" says Byrne.

This is the future of the apple section in your supermarket, he says. Apple-growing clubs will compete for shelf space. Traditional "open" varieties, because they lack marketing muscle, will have trouble competing and may disappear. "It is going to be a world of managed brands, just like the soup aisle or the potato chip aisle or any other aisle," he says.

This is another one for the files, too; the proxy for natural is "authentic", and as the piece above illustrates, "authenticity" is a fiction of brand-management. (Cf: Debbie Chachra on authenticity.)



Behavioural obduracy

2 min read

Interesting story about throughput experiments on the tube escalators; unsurprisingly, once you think it through, it turns out that keeping half the width of each flight clear for people to run rather than stand loses way more bandwidth overall than it saves for individuals in a hurry.

Trouble is, eny fule kno that you're supposed to stand on the right and that hurrying people can scoot down the left, and no one likes change, least of all British people... so getting them to do it differently withoutchanging the design and rationale of escalators themselves is, unsurprisingly, a lot of hard work. But it's an interesting case, because the practice in question has been and is indeed still being shaped and encouraged by signage all through the rest of the underground system -- signage that's at least as old as I am, I'd guess, if not older. So we're seeing here not the challenge of developing a new protocol or ettiquette for a new technology, but the challenge of erasing a deliberately introduced and well-established individualist public practice and replacing it with a more egalitarian one, without recourse to major material intervention in the infrastructure underpinning said practice. If TfL can crack that problem, it'll be quite an achievement.


Amazon moves to secure the base of the infrastructural stack

2 min read

He who owns the pipe controls the flow:

Ocean freight is cheap right now. As of January 2016, Flexport’s ocean freight customers were paying less than $1300 to ship a 40-foot container from Shenzhen to Los Angeles. More than 10,000 parcels can fit in a single container, so the price for the ocean freight leg could be as low as $0.14 per parcel. Here’s another way to think about that figure: Right now it costs under $10 to ship a flat screen television across the Pacific.

This can only be good news, surely? After all, ocean freight is super-low on carbon emissions, and cheaper shipping means cheaper stuff for everyone!


With ocean freight itself so low, a considerable portion of logistics costs come through labor costs—particularly compliance and coordination of cargo handoffs between different players in the chain. It’s here that automation, something no traditional freight forwarding company can do even one percent as well as Amazon can, becomes the key competitive advantage over legacy freight forwarders. By using software to eliminate additional transaction costs associated with government filings, status updates, pricing, booking and more, Amazon will be able to cut their costs significantly. At the same time, fulfilling products directly from China to consumers in the U.S. will cut handling costs at U.S. warehouses.

Which is a really elaborate and euphemistic way of saying "this'll let them wander through the payroll like combine harvester". Cheaper stuff, then, but even fewer folk with an income that'll let them buy it.

If we’ve learned anything from Amazon’s strategic playbook over the last two decades, we can expect that it will price freight as close to marginal costs as it can get.

And the only way to achieve that goal is to establish an effective organisational monopoly over the core routes of the network across which those transactions flow.

Credit where it's due: the heroes of the Valley make the rail barons look like provincial waterhead gangsters. But then again, if the rail barons had understood network theory... well, we'd probably be living in something like the world of The Difference Engine.


State of the Blockchain 2016

I'm not a major blockchain fan, not because it doesn't work, but because ultra-libertarian hackers can't solve a nest of institutions like finance with plug-and-play crypto solutionism. Bitcoin plummeted from the mathematical noosphere into an all-too-human snake-pit of fraud, trolling, censorship, palace intrigue and Chinese nationalist fire-walling.

The Bitcoin veteran here may not be entirely, mathematically accurate in his glum analysis of what went on with Bitcoin in real life. He may well be lying, special-pleading, backstabbing his many enemies and also deceiving himself. However, that behavior is not "part of the problem." The human element actually is the Bitcoin problem.

-- Bruce Sterling


Silicon Valley tech firms exacerbating income inequality, World Bank warns | Technology | The Guardian

The economics of the internet favor natural monopolies, the absence of a competitive business environment can result in more concentrated markets, benefiting incumbent firms. Not surprisingly, the better educated, well connected, and more capable have received most of the benefits – circumscribing the gains from the digital revolution.”

“Regulatory puzzles are posed by firms such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google ... These firms confound conventional competition law because they do not act as traditional monopolies. The risk is that states and corporations could use digital technologies to control citizens, not to empower them,” it continued.

It's not just the economics of the internet, but the economics of networks in general which favour natural monopolies; indeed, a network without an organisational monopoly is a broken network (cf. privatised UK railway system). All infrastructures are networks, and infrastructure considered collectively is a network of networks, a metasystem. The only way to harness the full utility of any network is to allow it an organisational monopoly. The only way to constrain an organisational monopoly is collective ownership. Farcebork et al are monopoly interface protocols, not themselves networks; they merely organise and instrumentalise the physical connectivity of the infrastructures upon which they depend. Protocols are best regulated by the careful maintenance of system standards in the infrastructural layer-- another process which requires an effective organisational monopoly.

Renationalise. Now.