March 2008

I’ve updated the LJ New Comments script so that it’s a lot faster at marking comments as new. While following the recent shitstorms in news, in which hundreds of angry LJ users are laying into the management, Firefox would seize up for a while and eventually warn me that the script was refusing to let go. Hopefully, the new version fixes that.

I’ve also changed the behaviour of the “NEW” link on new comments, so that clicking it now selects that comment. I think this makes more sense than taking you to the next new comment, as previous versions did, as I like to click to select the comment and then use the “n” and “p” keys to navigate.

Comments to the entry for the script, please.

The views of the Roman Catholic Church on contraception are well known, although perhaps fewer people appreciate that they form part of a pro-life viewpoint (including opposition to capital punishment, for example) derived from the RCC’s understanding of natural law. The current dire warnings on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill are, to the bishops sending the warnings, an obvious extension of these ideas. It’s a bit less obvious to the rest of us, though.

Cardinal O’Brien’s sermon betrays some misunderstandings about what the Bill allows. According to various source (including this one, from a real biologist on LJ), the “hybrid” embryos it allows are not going to be viable and would never be allowed to be implanted anywhere, so conjuring visions of ghastly chimeras is just plain scaremongering. Indeed, our LJ biologist objects to these things being characterised as embryos at all. What they seem to be (and I’d welcome comments from any other biologists out there) is factories for making cells of interest to researchers.

Like Yellow, I’m not sure how anyone knows what “natural” means in a technologically advanced world. Aquinas’s natural law isn’t merely the claim that anything which doesn’t occur in nature is bad, but rather seems to be an attempt to start from things which are basic in nature and argue to an ethical stance on a particular issue. Starting off with “respecting human life is a good thing” and ending up with “this Bill is bad” is requires an excursion into RCC precedents for what “respecting human life” means, which come to some surprising conclusions that you’d struggle to get from the Bible, even (no little rubber devices on your John Thomas, no abortion despite the soul entering the body at birth, and so on). They’re certainly not the sort of arguments you’d expect a secular legislature to take notice of, so I’m disturbed to see how much influence the bishops have over the British government. What was the Glorious Revolution for, you might wonder? (The commenter on the BBC’s Have Your Say site who called for “disestablishment now!” seems to be a few hundred years behind the times).

A free vote seems the best way forward now, as the excellent editorial in the Times argues. If the bishops and their flock in Parliament do sink this thing, I hope we’ll see a few MS sufferers picketing episcopal residences, as well as a few MPs who are unpleasantly surprised to learn that they made a courageous decision come the next election.

LiveJournal (who host this blog) will no longer let new users sign up for their advertising-free “Basic” account. Instead, new users can get the “Plus” account, which has adverts (if you’re using some quaint non-Firefox browser which still shows you such things), or they can get the “Paid” account, which doesn’t.

The announcement of this changed followed LJ’s standard practices of bungling and evasion when communicating with their customers, which new-ish owners SUP correctly describe as “the values and legacy of LiveJournal”. This has annoyed a few people, but I’m not sure why, because they should be used to it by now.

Anyhoo, livredor and hairyears are hosting some interesting discussions about it, here and here. hairyears makes the point that buying LJ is not just about buying people’s writings, you’re also getting stewardship of a community (or lots of communities) with their own values. My impression is that this applies more to LJ than to “proper” blogging sites, because of LJ’s mix of blogging and what we’d now call social networking. Social networking sites have the feel of places we go with our friends, so it’s not very surprising that we can be vociferous in defending them (LJ isn’t the only one with epic failures of customer relations: Facebook had the Feed and Beacon debacles).

Servers and bandwidth are not free, as GreatestJournal has been finding out (the hard way). But how do you make money out of such a prickly bunch? danahboyd‘s commenters have some good suggestions.

Geeks who still use Usenet (you remember, Usenet) have suggested a peer-to-peer system as a way around all this nonsense (see the comments on both livredor and hairyears‘s postings). This sort of thing is a reflex response from geeks to any outside manipulation of their stuff, until their enthusiasm is curbed by older and wiser geeks. Having been curbed, I realise that you’d need good answers to questions about how you make such a thing work, how you make it usable by non-geeks, and, related to that, how you interest people who don’t think the peer-to-peer part is intrinsically cool. Freenet has been around a long time and hasn’t become popular. BitTorrent has, because it gets people something they want (warez, pr0n, TV programmes, Linux DVDs) in a way which scales better than the centralised alternative.

I think robhu is right to say that the web browser has to remain as the interface (though that in itself makes security interesting), but it’s not clear that HTTP has to be the transport for such a thing. His idea of a federation of LJ-like servers is interesting, but once you centralise, you’re back to the question of how the people running the big servers make any money. There might be a place for the Usenet model, where each ISP runs a server for their users, or perhaps for the MSP model (which Usenet is moving to as its popularity declines), where I pay the people running a good Usenet server a yearly fee to access it.

The networking effects are a killer: you need something special to get off the ground and up to the stage where people are joining because other people are there. That, or you bodge your thing on the side of an existing infrastructure: can we do this using XMPP or Usenet or email, I wonder?