Wednesday 27 July 2011

On heiding thistles

The symbols we choose tell us something about how we see ourselves, and, perhaps, a little of how we really are. Only in Scotland would we seek to extirpate our national flower. Only in Scotland would we celebrate a poem which speaks of doing so. Only in Scotland would we be utterly confident that we will never succeed.

The thistle is a hardy creature. It will grow anywhere, on the poorest soils, in the harshest conditions. It defends itself fiercely with many sharp weapons. It cheerfully travels great distances to find a new home. And wherever it grows, it throws up its gay plumes of flowers, each armed with a potent hand-grenade of seed...

The thistle endures harshness and poverty and creates beauty; it spreads widely. But it's prickly, over-aggressive, defensive, leary of the world, and offers little freely to anyone else - except the bees. It's little wonder than one of Scotland's best-loved history books is called 'The Field of Thistles'.

I write this after a day heiding the thistles in my fields. This farm is organic; we use no poisons. That means that to control weeds, we need to stop them seeding. In meadow or pasture the thistle is a weed, unpalatable to most grazing animals. So we must seek to control it, to cut down each flower before its little hand grenade can explode into a puff of silky down. A little thistle down goes (literally) a long way, so in a sense in heiding my thistles I'm benefitting my neighbours as much or more than myself. And it's sad, because they are things of beauty, besides being a good food source for bees.

But I need not fear to lack thistles next year. Every thistle my neighbours miss will contribute a drifting orb of down to bring that army with its bold, cocky purple plumes back to my fields next year. Not even the Scots can extirpate thistles.

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed, 
The trembling earth resounds his tread. 
Clap in his walie nieve a blade, 
He'll mak it whissle; 
An' legs an' arms, an' heads will sned, 
Like taps o' thrissle. 

Friday 22 July 2011

The state of social media


You post to the social media system of your choice. Your friends - the friends you choose and no-one else, unless you choose to make your post public - see it on the social media system of their choice. If they choose to respond, they respond to a common thread which all your friends (and possibly theirs, if you've allowed that) can see, limited by the specific capabilities of their chosen system. For example users of one system might see the discussion as a branching threaded discussion like Usenet, while others see a single unbranching thread. Common conventions for tagging, reposting and referencing other users are used across heterogenous social media systems.

Impossible? Technically, no.

Parts of this vision exist. Firstly, let's hear it for Diaspora, which I shall review in more detail below. Diaspora already - by default - allows a post to be reflected out to both Twitter and Facebook; as Diaspora development moves fast, I expect Google+ to be added very soon. You write once, but it creates three separate threads, so that those who respond on Facebook do not see responses posted on Diaspora, and vice versa.

A plugin for Google's Chrome browser called 'Start G+' adds features to Google+ which provide a considerable degree of integration between Google+ and both Facebook and Twitter; not only does it allow forwarding of posts to Facebook and Twitter but it also integrates other people's posts from Facebook and Twitter into your Google+ Stream. At least, I believe it does. The problem is that to do so it depends in part on the author's own server, and either because that server is extremely overloaded or because my Internet connection is poor I can't get this to work.

Reality: Diaspora

Diaspora is really very good. The user interface is slick, clean, elegant, easy to use. Although there isn't a dedicated Android app, the web interface is adaptive to the device and works just as slickly on a hand-held as it does on a desktop. The developers are thoughtful, engaged and responsive. In terms of features, Diaspora is most similar to Google+ - your contacts are organised into groups called 'aspects' which are essentially the same as Google+'s circles.

Best of all, Diaspora is designed for a distributed world: the project is open source, and rather than one organisation owning all Diaspora servers the whole idea is that different Diaspora servers owned by different organisation should interoperate, and that if your home is on one Diaspora node your posts can by seen by friends on any Diaspora node. Furthermore, since the interchange protocol is open, there's no reason in theory why Google+ or Facebook or LinkedIn shouldn't write their own sharing interface which allowed them to look to Diaspora like any other Diaspora node, this achieving the vision I set out at the top of this essay...

No technical reason, that is. No reason except the commercial reason. We'll come back to that later.

In summary from a software point of view - from a usability, design, and technical point of view - Diaspora is the best social network system out there today. I really, really recommend it. Sadly, I think it's doomed to fail, which again I'll discuss when I get round to talking about the commercial background. But at present it's the best there is.

Full disclosure, I put seed money into getting Diaspora up and running. I'm glad I did. I think some good is bound to come out of the project.

Reality: Facebook

Facebook is the incumbent. It's very simple to use, works well and looks smart. Most importantly, it has critical mass - it has the users. All your non-geek friends - if they have a presence in social media at all - are on Facebook. And because it (deliberately) doesn't interoperate well  with other social media, to talk to those friends you have to be on Facebook.

Facebook isn't technically so shoddy, either. With the amount of money they have to spend they certainly should not be! They do have an answer to Diaspora's aspects and Google+ circles. It's called 'groups', and almost nobody uses it. Why not? The functionality is hidden and the user interface isn't very good. And that sums it up for Facebook, really. It's grown like topsy, without a clear vision of the architecture; it's got the users; and now, provided it offers those mainly non-technical users a consistent and familiar user experience, it really doesn't have to try very hard.

Reality: Twitter

Twitter isn't really trying to out-Facebook Facebook. It's trying to do something distinctive and unique, and has succeeded, probably, past its creator's wildest dreams. Twitter is not a platform for private discussions between friends - there's no way you can prevent a tweet being retweeted by anyone who can see it. Threaded conversations are handled poorly (although they are supported to a degree). And, of course there's that notoriously short post length.

What Twitter does, though, it does well. It does live events better than anything else at present (although Google+ clearly intends to challenge that).

Reality: LinkedIn

LinkedIn is the one of the current generation of social media systems that I've been on longest. So what to say about it? It's social media for business people. It makes a virtue of dullness. Everything on it is dull. The people are dull. Even the people whom one knows are emphatically not in the least dull - like my good friend Andreea - appear dull in their LinkedIn profile. No-one I'm connected to posts anything interesting there except me, and I only do because I have it automatically pick up my Twitter posts. It probably has some excellent features, but frankly who cares? It's dullsville. Dull.

Reality: Niche systems

LinkedIn might be seen as a niche system for dull people. At the other end of the scale, Fetlife is a niche social media system for interesting people. I'm sure there are a lot of other interesting and good niche systems in other areas of life, but I'm not aware of them.

Fetlife is social media for sadists, for masochists, for bondage sluts, for transvestites and for transexuals, for people, generally, of transgressive sexuality. It's unsurprising that many people don't choose to express that side of their personality on mainstream social systems; for many people their sexuality is at least to some extent hidden from their colleagues and friends.

Surprisingly, Fetlife don't use a generic SM engine (sorry!). They roll their own. And actually it's very good. It is in some sense a hybrid between a social media system and a forum/newsgroup system - the main feed shows your friends' activity like Facebook, but most activity takes place in discussion groups which are mainly public (although many are moderated). Look and feel is excellent; performance is excellent; user experience is very good.

Underneath it there's some very solid software engineering, with a lot of thoughtful data-caching and graceful failure code. Specific parts of the system, particularly in these geeky data-management areas, are released as open source, but the core engine has not been, yet. Like Diaspora, Fetlife is under very active development, with a sufficiently small user community (hundreds of thousands, not millions) to allow the developers to be responsive and engaged with their users.

Reality: Usenet

Usenet is a dinosaur - a beloved dinosaur, but a dinosaur - and it is dying. It was - once - very vibrant. It predates not merely the Web but the Internet itself, and its faults have informed the features of the social media systems of today. Essentially Usenet is an anarchic peer-to-peer amalgam of servers owned and managed by different institutions, which share with one another a vast collection of hierarchically organised discussion groups. Some of these are technical in nature, but many are in effect social clubs.

So, what are these faults and how do they influence the design of modern systems?

Firstly, the institutions which own the systems gain little financial return from running them. While some are now run on a subscription model, usually the service is provided for free or bundled in with other services. For this reason the actual owners of the core servers have little resource to dedicate to manage the system and have offloaded that responsibility onto 'democratic institutions' of users. In theory, that seems a good thing, but it results in control being put into the hands of people who have literally no interest at all in the success and vibrancy of the system and are often more interested in playing politics than carrying out the responsibilities to which they've been elected.

The remainder of the problems all come back to that first problem, because in fact all the problems with Usenet are technically fixable - if those with the power to do so had the will.

So the second problem is the lack of verified user identities. It's fairly easy to make a post to Usenet which appears to come from some other user. It's extremely easy to set up multiple posting accounts and to make attacks on other people from behind the barrier of anonymity. There are very few sanctions which anyone can use to dissuade antisocial behaviour, because the antisocial person can easily abandon one identity and reappear with another.

As a matter of design Usenet is a broadcast medium. You can choose not to read certain identities messages (by using a 'kill file), but you cannot choose who can read what you post. You send your message out to a specific group, but you cannot exclude anyone from reading that group. That's not a fault, it's a decision. But I think that modern social media's mechanisms for optionally limiting ones posts to circles of known, chosen people is a consequence of learning from the social consequences of this aspect of Usenet.

Finally, Usenet's user interface is horrible. To be precise, there are many client applications which provide a frame to Usenet, and those have better or worse user interfaces. But under it everything is plain unstyled text geared to a mainframe era 80 column teletype. For the upcoming generation, it's simply bizarre that anyone should choose to read such ugly and poorly formatted text.

Reality: Google+

Google+ is the new contender. It has learned a lot from a series of relatively-failing social media systems which Google has tried. It's feature-rich and slick. It looks very good. Features are mostly intuitive and easy to find and to use. It has all of Facebook's functionality, all of Twitter's, most of Diaspora's; and, in addition, a built in realtime chat/video conferencing system which is significantly ahead of the Facebook chat system (although I don't yet know how useful this is). Furthermore, it integrates seamlessly with Google's existing mail, talk, photo storage (picasa) and calendar systems and I suspect will soon integrate with Google's groups system.

Google is putting a lot of investment into this, a lot of good design and a lot of infrastructure. It already all works - and it all works fast.

Of motivation and potential

I've said already that I think Diaspora is the best of what's out there. I've said also that I don't think it will win. Why not?

Microsoft have, over the past two decades, captured and held the world market in word processing. A major part of the reason is the appropriately named 'network effect' - in order to exchange documents with people who use Microsoft's word processor, you have to use Microsoft's word processor yourself. Markets with network effects are intrinsically monopoly-generating. It's in the interest of commercial companies to seek to establish monopolies, of course; they're profitable. Governments can seek to oppose this - and, in the case of social media, easily could by requiring a common, open, discussion interchange API - but Governments move extremely slowly and this market moves fast.

To provide a useful service you have to capture the majority of users within a population; otherwise, your users' friends will not be on your system and your users won't be able to communicate with them, so will move to other systems where their friends are. This is the 'network effect'.

To capture the majority of users, not only do you need to have the buzz and brand stature to capture a lot of interest quickly, you also have to have the infrastructure to provide responsive performance for all the users who choose to adopt your system. You have to scale very fast. And it helps if you have a lot of users to start with.

To pay for that infrastructure, you have to have a means of monetising the system. The infrastructure does not come cheap. Diaspora's model does allow some nodes to carry advertising. It does allow some nodes to be paid for by user subscription. But it also allows some nodes to be free and without advertising, and there's a lot of users who would prefer to use such nodes. Many such servers will be run by amateurs, will have low power and low upstream bandwidth. There's no way obvious to me that Diaspora can load balance. Slow servers in the network will, I suspect, slow the performance of the whole system.

Furthermore, there's no powerful central body with sufficient media clout to promote the system. Ten million people have joined Google+ in a fortnight; I doubt that number have even heard of Diaspora, in a year.

The Diaspora team's motivation is to build cool software. They are building cool software; they're succeeding. But their other motivation is to provide people with the means to keep their personal data out of the clutches of the big corporations. Both Google and Facebook have the same fundamental: to aggregate data about every person on the planet in order to be able to sell us as market-fodder to other corporations. This is lucrative; it makes money. It makes money which helps Google and Facebook hire good engineers and build good infrastructure which can support a fluid, responsive user experience.

Knowledge is power; knowledge about us is power over us, and there are very real civil liberties issues about corporations having so much power. As we've seen with News International, for one corporation with its own political agenda to control the majority of media through which flow the key day to day information within a polity is inherently corrupting.

Which brings us, finally, back to Diaspora. Diaspora offers a mechanism to support a distributed and potentially heterogenous cloud of 'pods' each providing a home for different groups of users. No one organisation controls, and, provided Diaspora have got their security right, no one organisation can see the data of all the users. But all the users on all their different home 'pods' can nevertheless collaborate with one another, share the information they wish to share with the people with whom they wish to share it, and engage in conversations as they choose. They can also discover their friends across the Diaspora cloud.

As I've argued above, there's no technical reason why Facebook or Google+ could not configure their service to appear to the Diaspora cloud like just another Diaspora 'pod'. Then, users on Facebook could share information with, and join in discussions with, their friends on any other social network which also conformed to the Diaspora APIs (including, obviously, Diaspora). Such an arrangement would also make it easy for users to choose to migrate their 'home' social media system from one provider to another - you could move all your contacts, all your circles, all your pictures from one home to another, and continue to share and converse with the same friends.

There's no techical reason. But there's a strong commercial reason why Facebook, at least, won't do this (and why Google probably won't either), unless they're forced to. Everyone uses Facebook, because of the network effect: your friends are there, so you have to be there. But overwhelmingly we don't feel warmly towards Facebook itself. The company is widely distrusted, and the software doesn't seem much loved. If it was easy to move, if it was easy to share with friends on Facebook from outside Facebook, Facebook would lose users; probably, quite a lot of users.

Google, on the whole, is still a more trusted brand than Facebook. But the days of 'don't be evil' seem to be fading into a more naive past, at least in the public perception. I've started to be concerned about how much Google know about me; not because they now know more - they've known a very great deal for very many years - but because I now trust them less. And I think many other people trust Google less than I do. They, too, stand to be losers from a more heterogeneous social media landscape.

Government - either the US or the EU - could, of course, require major social media systems to open up, through a mandated open sharing API possibly derived from Diaspora. That's what would, I believe, happen in an ideal world. If it does happen in the real world, however, it's likely to be botched and too late. Government processes do not operate at the speed of modern technical innovation.


Which means, in the end, I come down reluctantly on the side of Google+. It offers a slightly more fluid user experience and a slightly wider range of slightly better functionality than Facebook, from a slightly more trusted monopolist. Most of my friends are not geeks. My chances of dragging my friends to Diaspora are slim, because they won't find their friends there. And, if there were to be a mass migration from the corporate systems to Diaspora, I think it would be extremely hard with no central organisation and no significant revenue stream to make the system scale. So I think Diaspora will probably lose, and that Google+ will probably over time supplant Facebook as the place where tout le monde et sa femme hang out.

Monday 18 July 2011


It's been a big week here on the farm; so big, a journal entry is required. But so big too that, here in the lull that follows, my memory is already confused. I'm setting down events as I remember them; I could be wrong.

The core of it has been hay. We decided, early in the year, to put the majority of the farm down to hay as needing least work. We all knew that this would be a busy year...

We've needed to harvest the hay for a while; it's been ready. Finn had bought - out of his own pocket, as his own property - the basic equipment needed: a mower, a hay-bob, a baler. All of them were old, second hand, sold, in fact, as scrap. But Finn, our smith, is talented with metal mechanisms, and he fettled them up and made them work.

Cutting hay in Scotland is gambling. Once it's cut, it needs to dry in the field for a few days before it can be baled. To aid it drying evenly, one must turn it regularly - hence the need for the hay-bob, a device which in one configuration lifts loose hay up and throws it backwards in a wake as from a speed-boat, and in another gathers it up into neat rows to await the baler. The thing is, you need a run of (reasonably) dry days; you have to time your cut to fit between one Atlantic depression and the next.

The first time I thought we had an opportunity to cut, Finn wasn't ready. The second time, Finn judged the weather wouldn't hold (he was right; it didn't). Last Tuesday was the third time. Alex and I were on the sawmill cutting wood. We were concerned about the hay cut. All the hay cutting machinery is Finn's, and he wasn't happy about anyone else but Willie using it. Finn's first baby was due that day. But, as we were muttering, Finn and Willie turned up, and through the day we saw and heard them working on the north croft, cutting and turning. Also on Monday, Alex and Alice's caravan arrived, on Mark Wilson's huge trailer.

Mark is a farmer from Screel, the other side of the village. He fits every urbanite's stereotype of a farmer, a man more of muscle than of mind but with an inexhaustible supply of agricultural anecdote. His father and grandfather were famous locally for their heavy horses, but Mark's metier is machinery: tractors, diggers, harvesters. The bigger the better.

One day, one croft cut. We had four to cut...

Wednesday, I set the day aside mainly to help with haying, but Finn and Willie weren't ready for help, so I got on with the office instead, with some help from the kids. Outside, Alex and Alice were sawing. Finn's baby was being born. Willie was cutting and turning the electric croft. By late afternoon, Finn was back and baling; Alice and I went down to help by stacking bales, clearing space for the baler to work; about seven, Finn had finished baling for the day, and after some discussion with the others, I walked home over the hill, calling Penny back from hunting rabbits in the hilltop gorse as I went.

Thursday morning as I walked back up to the steading I saw to my surprise what appeared to be a massive haystack on the north croft. In fact, it turned out to be something better: Mark Wilson had returned shortly after I had left, and, with Alex, Alice and some others, had got the caravan off his trailer and stacked it instead with some two hundred and fifty bales. By ten o'clock the whole gang had assembled, and, with the dew evaporating, while Finn continued to bale the north croft, Alex got his mog hitched up to the trailer, and pulled it back to the old byre in the steading. We offloaded the bales by hand, stacked them, went back out to the field, filled the trailer again.

When I was a child we did the hay harvests like this: pulled in everyone who was available and manhandled bales onto and off trailers. At age eleven it was my job to drive the tractor which ferried bales back to the barn, because everyone who was strong enough to lift a bale was lifting bales. But by my teens we used the 'square eight' system: a special sledge, pulled behind the baler, automatically arranged the bales into a two by four square, and released them in that square into the field. A special grab on the front loader of a tractor lifted those eight bales together, and laid them together onto the trailer, rapidly building stacks. Hay harvest became quicker and needed less hands. Since then, of course, most commercial farmers have moved onto round bale systems - bales so large they cannot be manhandled, can only be moved by machinery.

But here at Standingstone, this year and probably for the forseeable future, we're fifty years in the past. We don't even have a bale elevator. We don't ourselves have a trailer suitable for moving bales. And here at Standingstone, on Thursday, with rain forecast on Friday, Finn was still baling on the North Croft. Ruth phoned James Baird, another local farmer who still has old fashioned square baling kit, and asked him to come to turn and bale the electric croft.

Meantime, under bright warm sunlight, with Mark's huge trailer filling like a top-heavy Spanish treasure galleon, we cruised around the North Croft collecting another great load of bales, and ferried them back. At some stage we stopped, briefly, for lunch. At some stage, Ruth, going down to the village for more diesel for the tractors, returned with ice lollies. By four it was clear that we would struggle to get all the bales in - we were not finished on the North Croft, not started on Electric Croft - and we phoned round friends to try to drum up more help. Friends came, and we worked through the evening, bringing home a third great galleon-load. And though it was hard work, I think the whole crew were finding it fun.

Finally, every bale from the North Croft - dry and pale and sweet smelling - was safe in the old byre. I arranged tarps over the damaged skylights in the byre roof. We ate an impromtu evening meal at Ruth's. and then went to stook the bales on the Electric Croft, to expose them to air; they hadn't really had enough drying time, nor been turned enough. Cloud was blowing in threateningly from the west, but there was no more we could do. The light was fading from the sky. All of us were stumbling with exhaustion. We went our various ways home, and, as usual, I collected Penny from her happy hunting ground in the gorse.

Friday was an altogether different game. Alice, Meg and Rosie had a dental appointment. Finn was caring for his new family. Willie, who's mother's funeral had been on Thursday, was (unsurprisingly) not back. Also, it was cold and windy, and the threat of rain was lowering on the air. So it was a reduced crew - Alex, Ruth, Gavin, Kein, myself and, after a short while, Girl Alex - who set to work.

Our plan had been to make stacks in the field, and get as many bales as we could back to the Void to dry under cover. But there weren't enough of us, and we were all exhausted. So we built one stack - not very large, and frankly, not very good - and filled the big trailer just once before the storm came in. In the wind and the beginnings of stinging rain, we struggled to get tarpaulins over the lot; the rest of the bales we just stooked. Fortunately, James arrived with fresh muscles, and helped greatly.

I staggered home through wind and thin rain, made myself a good meal, and turned in early.

I was awoken at half past three in the morning by torrential downpour combined with wind which whipped my wood, setting the summer palace swaying. Spray drifted in on the wind, making everything damp. I thought of my impromptu tarpaulins on the skylights, and realised that they weren't likely to survive this weather. So I got up, and dressed, and trudged up to the farm, and spent two hours fighting with tarpaulins before the rain front blew through and I went back to my damp bed. But I was up again before lunchtime, to go into Castle Douglas to buy some corrugated plastic sheet as a better repair to the skylights. With help from James, I got that in place. And then I went back to bed.

While all this was happening on our land, beyond the dyke the Wickerman festival - still in theory a week away - was starting to set up its tents and staging. For fifty-one weeks of the year, my wood is one of the quietest and most undisturbed places in Scotland. This week? Not so much. Machinery, shouting, bashing and clanging, and the occasional blast of over-loud music goes on from dawn until dark. Nevertheless, through Sunday I mostly slept.

Today is Monday. The stooks on the Electric Croft are mostly still standing, but they're awfy wet. The tarps on the stacks are still in place. My home, too, is wet, and bitter cold forbye. The wild weather persists, and the noise beyond the dyke destroys the peace. I'm still tired. I'm damp - my bed is damp, my clothes are damp - and I'm filthy. I hate being filthy...

In truth I'm a little demoralised. Thursday was brilliant. We all worked together. We had a great time. But we got one croft's worth of hay won. Another croft is cut and may still be won, but the longer it sits wet in the field the less chance we have of winning it. And whether we win it or not, we'll have to pay James Baird for baling it. Two crofts aren't even cut, and, if they continue to be beaten down by the weather, won't be worth cutting. Even if we can cut them, I'm not sure we can get the gang together for that sort of heroic effort again. And our late sown barley is looking very poor, while our neighbours is already in ear and starting to ripen. I think it's likely that we're going to make a loss on farming operations this year.

We've also exposed tensions that we need to resolve, about how we manage the land. Amongst all the other things the question has suddenly blown up over whether or not our produce is certified organic - because the farm has had no money, we've been delaying paying our dues to the Soil Association. Now, they're insisting on us getting our return in today. Amongst everything else on Friday there were tense discussions about whether this was worth it. And the issue of the farm having no machinery of its own, and having to hire Finn's or bring in outside contractors, also needs to be addressed.

There's been a great deal positive in this week. But it's also been tough.

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The fool on the hill by Simon Brooke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License