June 2005

Chiark is a Unix box on which a large number of Cambridge geeks have accounts (I’m not one of them, as it happens, but I know some of them by name and a few of them by sight). It runs some local newsgroups, which are only accessible to people with accounts. They’ve recently added a journals newsgroup, to which some people are publishing their LJs (it’s a one way street at the moment, by the sounds of it: entries and comments go from LJ to the newsgroup, but not vice-versa). This has caused some excitement on my friends and friends-of-friends lists. Of particular note are atriec‘s posting on what LJ’s are for, emperor‘s own views (I’m not sure why Chiark is “cabal” there, but it’s the same thing being discussed), and mobbsy‘s comparison of LJ and newsgroups. There are a couple of coupled problems here: LJ’s interface is not useful for having discussions (as opposed to simply pontificating) and some people don’t actually want to have discussions anyway.

LJ’s limitations do annoy me. As I said to livredor recently, I’m here for the people, not the interface. Compared to sites like Google or Flickr, LJ hasn’t done very well at making its stuff accessible by computer programs which might do useful things with it, such as re-presenting it in a way which is easier to to read, remembering what I’ve already seen and alerting me to new stuff, and so on. OK, so there’s RSS, but that’s no good for comments. OpenID is a step in the right direction, but largely solves the opposite problem, namely letting non-LJers put their stuff here. The client protocol is, again, designed to let people put stuff on LJ, not to take it out. LJ explicitly says that they don’t like screen scraping (that is, programs which extract information from the LJ pages which are designed to be read by humans) as lots of programs doing this will request lots of pages very rapidly and put more strain on their server more than they’d like.

LJ slowly getting better as a discussion forum, but the pace of change is slow. Tags are useful, OpenID is pretty cool, but on the whole LJ’s developers also seem to spend a lot of time on making it look pretty (a worthy goal, since newsgroups are pretty ugly by comparison, but probably not worth all that much time from the developers, who could just provide the users with the tools to do it themselves). That’s probably down to their target audience, I suppose: a few refreshes of the random journal link shows that LJ is largely populated by teenage girls (and by Russians, for some reason). See also the large number of people saying “actually, we want more user icons, not this OpenID thing” on the OpenID announcement.

There’s also the question of what a LiveJournal is for. livredor‘s posting on manners on LJ made the point that nobody is very sure what the etiquette is for making comments on other people’s postings. Having been brought up on newsgroups, I assume that anything I can see and which has comments enabled is fair game, although in deference to the fact that I’m entering someone’s personal space, I’ll usually introduce myself before diving in. But I suppose I could still end up horribly offending someone. It’s possible that most LJ users don’t want to have long discussions on their journals, in which case LJ would be wasting their time by making that easier, and I should just find somewhere better suited to that, which supports OpenID.

What would be the ideal, for me? The distribution system of Usenet (the network of servers which provides access to the public newsgroups) means that you can’t really recall postings once you’ve made them, and also makes it hard to make the equivalent of friends-only postings (you could do it, but it’d be hard to conceal the fact that you’d at least made a posting that someone else couldn’t see). So, I don’t object to LiveJournal’s centralisation in itself, because it helps me keep control (and now OpenID means I can entrust non-LJ people with my friends-only stuff, if I want). On the other hand, the interface sucks when you want to follow a discussion.

I’d like to see more machine readable stuff (especially comments) and a better API for clients to use to pull out comments and so on. I suppose I’d really like to see LJ run an NNTP (newsgroup) server which wouldn’t distribute stuff, but which would allow the same restricted amount of HTML that LJ itself does. A journal would be a group, an article would start a new thread, and the comments would be followups. Stuff that you weren’t meant to see just wouldn’t show up in the group, because you’d need to log in to the server to see it. I like this idea, although I can’t really see LJ implementing it. Maybe we should start a meme to campaign for it? We could call ourselves the Campaign for Real News.

From my Bloglines feeds, I give you a bunch of links I’ve been meaning to write about.

Where America is going, and the next generation of leaders who will take it there. Scared yet?

I also came across Private Warriors, a documentary on the use of mercenaries (excuse me, private military contractors) in Iraq. On PBS’s site, you can watch the documentary and also read background material.

theferret gets into an interesting discussion of the intentions behind the way women dress. Interesting for what I think is a common male perspective. I can see his point, but with the caveat that all this straightforwardness would be fine in an ideal world where all men are bright enough to realise when their attentions are not welcome (dealing with the non-ideal world in which we live is the subject of his followup article). This comment seemed a pretty sensible response from a woman.

And so to bed.

In recognition of her recent elevation, S will now be known as Dr S. While on the way in to town to celebrate this the other night, we saw an unusual busker:
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It’s a good way of drawing attention to yourself, although it’s probably a bit hot and smelly, and I wasn’t too sure about the acoustics. He was singing an Oasis song, but we gave him some money anyway. There also seemed to be any number of hen parties out on Riverside last night. Never thought of Cambridge as a hen party destination before.

Last night, the BBC screened Parting of the Ways, the final episode in the new series of Doctor Who. <lj-cut text=”Cut for spoilers”>I liked it for the spectacle of lots and lots of Daleks doing their thing. I also liked the way future humans (as personified by Captain Jack) have turned into the Culture and are happily unrestrained in their affections (the loony Christians who were protesting about Jerry Springer must be absolutely steaming). Alas, the plot made no sense.

The current fad for deus ex machina endings is getting a bit tired, especially after Boom Town (arguably, that might be seen setting the stage for the latest one, I suppose). If all the TARDIS’s can do that, why did the Time Lords ever feel remotely threatened by the Daleks? Rose as Time Goddess made it look a bit too like Buffy for me (the earlier Rose/TARDIS effects were more like Lyta Alexander in Babylon 5), though if it had been written by Joss Whedon, Jack would have stayed dead, and the episode would have been better for it. Possibly the BBC would get more complaints from parents of kids who were distraught about dead Jack than they will about a gay kiss on Saturday night “family” TV.

Nobody explained why the massive TARDIS energy didn’t kill Rose as well as the Doctor. “Bad Wolf” turned out to be a meaningless phrase which might just as well have been “Arthritic Hamster”. And the bit about opening the TARDIS console with a recovery truck was just silly.

But there were lots of Daleks, and everyone lived happily every after (except the ones who Rose didn’t resurrect). Did I mention that there were lots of Daleks?

Charlie Stross (known as autopope in these parts) has released his latest novel, Accelerando, on his website. I’ve been reading it on and off all weekend. My opinions might be skewed by that peculiar disassociation which sets in when you’re reading about the Singularity at 3 am in the middle of a heatwave, but I rather liked it. I found the earlier, near future, chapters more fun than the software iiiin spaaace stuff. The bits about cats were always good. The software iiin spaaace parts reminded me of Greg Egan’s Diaspora, though Stross’s characters aren’t as clinical as Egan’s, which makes them more bearable.

The book shows signs of an SF writing singularity, whereby books become incomprehensible to people from primitive cultures where they don’t know what slashdot is (perhaps a better description would be “unsullied”, rather than “primitive”, in that case). I’m not quite sure what someone who hadn’t spent most of their life in geekdom would make of it. Perhaps someone who meets that description could read it and tell me?

In any case, it’s a wonderfully exuberant book, and worth a read.

After much prodding, LiveJournal has finally introduced tags, a way of categorising entries and of retrieving entries which have a particular tag. I’ve spent an entertaining hour going back through my old entries and tagging them. So, for example, you can see all my posts on religion or all the posts where I mention what I’ve been up to lately (I’ve nicked livredor‘s “quotidian” tag to describe my daily life). Hopefully they’ll do something similar to Flickr and allow you to search other people’s journals for particular tags, or get a feed which displays all posts with a particular tag.

Speaking of what I’ve been up to lately, I had an excellent time at S’s Graduation Dinner the other night (although the name is a misnomer as they’ve not graduated yet). It was at St John’s, who produced some of the best food I’ve had at a Cambridge college. My favourite photo is this one, as the Three Musketeers seem to be enjoying themselves.

Adam Kay and Suman Biswas, medics themselves, have joined to form Amateur Transplants, a beat combo. They are reminiscent of Flanders and Swann or Tom Lehrer, but with gratuitous use of the word “fuck”. You might have heard their seminal London Underground a while back, but it turns out there’s a whole album, entitled Fitness to Practice. Our favourites are Paracetamoxyfrusebendroneomycin and Snippets, for the excellent parodies of Coldplay’s Yellow and Phil Collins’s Against All Odds. Some MP3s are here, but sadly, physical copies of the entire album seem to have sold out. They should charge to download the remaining MP3s or something: it’s for charidee.

S and I want to go on holiday somewhere scenic, not too hot during the summer (anything over the high 20s in Celsius is too hot, in my book), and not monumentally expensive. Any suggestions?