Media Influencer

helping people break out of pigeonholes since 2003

An anthropological introduction to YouTube

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Whit Diffie’s honorary doctorate at Holloway College

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Yesterday, I had the priviledge to attend the graduation ceremony at the Royal Holloway College as a guest of Whit Diffie who received an honorary doctorate for his achievements in the field of cryptography, namely, his pioneering work on the public private key. Wired article from 1994 on the topic sums it up:

Whitfield Diffie took cryptography out of the hands of the spooks and made privacy possible in the digital age – by inventing the most revolutionary concept in encryption since the Renaissance.

The ceremony started at 10.30am in the splendid college Chapel. Alas, as my flight from Boston was delayed by 3 hours the night before, I arrived too late to see whole thing. However, thanks to Alec I got there in time for Whit’s award and his acceptance speech and managed to record all but the first 10-15 seconds of it. Apologies for the quality, as this is recorded with my normal camera, from a screen outside the chapel.

…open to the opportunity to take risks and do things in unexpected ways and do what you want to but not what people recommend. On the other hand I think I can be said to have overdone this so they, when they give my resume, they normally, they gloss over details. I managed to graduate from MIT and I was later immatriculated at Standford university. Alumni register very tactfully shows me as having “graduated” in 1987, that is to say that have lost track of me. And I have two doctorates both kindly given by universities, both kindly given by universities that recognise quality of the work. And so, I find myself, you know, my work doesn’t seem that impressive to me, but fortunately it seems to have made a better impression on other people. So I found this eaxmple of the fact that it is possible to have a successful career without following the socially recommended paths. But I can also tell you that it must be much… easier to do it in the standard forms. As I can hardly say, I cannot say I don’t regret not having been more capable of a more sustained study and having been able to learn what I needed to learn rather than any given moment merely what I happened to be interested in. Thank you very much.

Diffie hasn’t just refused to fit into an educational system or innovate in structured ways. It was the thinking, Damned-if-I-follow-some-of-your-stupid-rules. Because some of them are stupid. As Steven Levy puts in his book Crypto:

Ultimately, it was only by questioning the conventional rules of cryptography and finding some of them “stupid” that Diffie made his breakthroughs. A case in point: the belief that the workings of a secure cryptosystem had to be treated with utmost secrecy. That might have held true for military organisations, but in the computer age, that didn’t make sense. There would be unlimited users who needed a system for privacy; obviously, such a system would have to be distributed so widely that potential crackers would have no trouble getting their hands on it and would have plenty of opportunity to practice attacking it. Instead, the secrecy had to rest somewhere else in the system.

The issue of privacy, boiled down for Whit Diffie to: How do you deal with a trustworthy person in the midst of a world full of untrustworthy people?

Diffie also believed in what he called “a decentralised view of authority”. By creating the proper cryptographic tools, he felt, you could solve the problem – by transferring the data protection from a disinterested third party to the actual user, the one whose privacy was actually at risk.

And this, in my view, applies not only to privacy and cryptographic tools but also to all the other tools that have made the web social and empowering to the individual. To that end, I want to look for ways to build tools that transfer the the data created by the individual in pursuit of his own goals (whether it involves conversations, relationships or transactions) from an abusive or exploitative party (vendor, platform and potentially any third party) to the actual user, the one who benefits from the data, communication and relationships directly.

Whit Diffie’s challenging of accepted rules, whether Doctor of Science or not, has been an inspiration to me, which couldn’t have come at a better time as I see several assumptions about the web ripe for such challenge…

Here are more photos from the event.

Whit Diffie in Holloway Chapel

What I did last weekend

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Last Saturday I went to OpenTech in the afternoon to hear Ben Laurie, Bob Blakley and Alec Muffett pontificate on security. And a good pontification it was!

Then on Sunday, met up with Bob again, together with his frighteningly smart daughter and Alec for brunch in Covent Garden. The conversation was whirling around networks, identity, relationships but not exclusively so. (I will write about that in a separate post.)

Afterwards, Alec and I proceeded to Bloomsbury to meet with Marc Canter and a friend in the London Review Bookshop cafe. Another intense and fun conversation ensued and I have the drawings to prove it for the posterity. There is something else preserved from that afternoon and that is Marc signing opera for his lemonade (he doesn’t drink tea or coffee so Alec’s blog post headline is a bit of an artistic license :) ).

Even Marc’s voice couldn’t stop the cafe from closing and so we relocated to the nearest pub. Lovely time was had by all it seems and I am definitely up for a repeat performance. :)

People make shoes, not money…

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Peter Drucker’s insight expanded by JP:

People aren’t interested in medical records, they’re interested in getting well, and staying well. People aren’t interested in bills and receipts, they’re interested in knowing that they did what they said they will do, or that they received what they expected to receive. People aren’t interested in financial statements, they’re interested in what they can do as a result of the security that income and savings and insurance and pensions. People aren’t interested in TV or radio schedules, they’re interested in watching things and listening to things. People aren’t interested in share prices and market movements, they’re interested in the things they can do as a result of performing their jobs well. It’s not the information that matters, but what we can do as a result.

Worth remembering when designing any tool for people to help them do something useful.

Quote to remember

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When you take an idea or a concept and turn it into an abstraction, that opens the way to take human beings and turn them, also, into abstractions.
- Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel

Quote to remember

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We’re looking for the mouse. We’re going to look at every place that a reader or a listener or a viewer or a user has been locked out, has been served up passive or a fixed or a canned experience, and ask ourselves, “If we carve out a little bit of the cognitive surplus and deploy it here, could we make a good thing happen?” And I’m betting the answer is yes.
- Clay Shirky, Gin, Television, and Social Surplus


Note: I know I linked to this yesterday in video and text, but this is close to my heart as that’s what I am trying to do myself.

Frozen in NYC

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A new type of ‘crowd control’? Talk about collective action! Is this what Clay Shirky means when he talks of the cognitive surplus no longer sucked up by TV? ;-) Wonderful.

via Scott (commenter on an Endgadget post)

Cognitive surplus

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… of human creativity that for the last 50 years or so has been sucked out by TV and other cognitive heatsinks. Clay Shirky as always – making sense on stilts. Watch to hear how the Victorians got through industrialisation and the shock of it with the help of.. gin. More importantly, he addresses the stupid question I hear so often from those who don’t have a clue about what the online world is like and what drives people in it – “Where do people find the time?!” It is a variation on too much information and I have fought on that front for a while.

The answer Clay gives is that as options to TV and other passive engagements emerge, people switch away to participate and create. He argues that with the web we start to see cognitive surplus as an asset (creativy, innovation and participation) instead of something to be dissipated. I believe he is right, let’s hope our faith in humanity is vindicated. :)

The money quote: Here is what a four year old knows – a screen that ships without a mouse, ships broken. Media that’s targeted at you but doesn’t include you may not be worth sitting still for!
. Amen, brother.

via Johnnie

Here is Clay’s post based on his talk.

Million-dollar Terry Pratchett

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This is an achingly wonderful speech. It comes from the other side of the healthcare divide – the person with illness that is disrupting his life, his mind and eventually his identity. This is not only about being a patient or about getting care from healthcare providers but about understand what it feels like from the human and personal perspective. Terry Pratchett gave the speech (and one million dollars) yesterday in Bristol at Alzheimer’s Research Trust Network conference.

Here is the full speech (link to pdf):

Ladies and Gentlemen. My name is Terry Pratchett, author of a series of inexplicably successful fantasy books and I have had Alzheimer’s now for the past two years plus, in which time I managed to write a couple of bestsellers. I have a rare variant. I don’t understand very much about it, but apparently if you are going to have Alzheimer’s it’s a good one to have. So, a stroke of luck there then…

Interestingly enough, when I was diagnosed last December by those nice people at Addenbrooke’s, I started a very different journey through Dementia. This one had much better scenery, interesting and often very attractive inhabitants, wonderful wildlife and many opportunities for excitement and adventure.

Those of you who’s last experience with computer games was looking at Lara Croft’s buttocks might not be aware of how good they have become as audio and visual experiences, although I would concede that Lara’s buttocks were a visual experience in their own right. But in this case I was travelling through a country that was part of the huge computer game called Oblivion, which is so beautifully detailed that I have often ridden around it to enjoy the scenery and weather and have hardly bothered to kill anything at all.

At the same time as I began exploring the wonderful Kingdom of Dementia, which is next door to the Kingdom of Mania, I was also experiencing the slightly more realistic experience of being a 59 year old who finds they have early onset Alzheimer’s. Apparently I reacted to this situation in a reasonably typical way, with a sense of loss and abandonment with an incoherent, or perhaps I should say, violently coherent fury that made the Miltonic Lucifer’s rage against Heaven seem a bit miffed by comparison. That fire still burns.

I want to go on writing! Admittedly, that means I have to stay alive. You can’t write books when you are dead, unless your name is L. Ron Hubbard. And so now I’m a game for real. It’s a nasty disease, surrounded by shadows and small, largely unseen tragedies. People don’t know what to say, unless they have had it in the family

People ask me why I announced that I had Alzheimer’s. My response was: why shouldn’t I? I remember when people died “of a long illness” now we call cancer by its name, and as every wizard knows, once you have a thing’s real name you have the first step to its taming. We are at war with cancer, and we use that
vocabulary. We battle, we are brave, we survive. And we have a large armaments industry.

For those of us with early onset in particular, it’s more of a series of skirmishes. My GP is helpful and patient, but I don’t have a specialist locally. The NHS kindly allows me to buy my own Aricept because I’m too young to have Alzheimer’s for free, a situation I’m okay with in a want-to-kick-a-politician-in-the-teeth-kind of way But, on the whole, you try to be your own doctor. The internet twangs night and day. I walk a lot and take more supplements than the Sunday papers. We talk to one another and compare regimes. Part of me lives in a world of new age remedies and science, and some of the science is a little like voodoo. But science was never an exact science, and personally I’d eat the arse out of a dead mole if it offered a fighting chance.

Fortunately, I have the Greek Chorus to calm me down

Soon after I told the world my website fell over and my PA had to spend the evening negotiating more bandwidth. I had more than 60,000 messages within the first few hours. Most of them were readers and well-wishers. Some of them wanted to sell me snake oil and I’m not necessarily going to dismiss all of these, as I have never found a rusty snake. But a large handful came from ‘experienced’ sufferers, successfully fighting a holding action, and various people in universities and research establishments who had, despite all expectations, risen to high places in their various professions even while being confirmed readers of my books. And they said; can we help? They are the Greek Chorus. Only two of them are known to each other and they give me their advice on various options that I suggest. They include a Wiccan, too. It’s a good idea to cover all the angles.

It was interesting when I asked about having my dental amalgam fillings removed. There was a chorus of “Hrumph, no scientific evidence, hrumph…., but if you can afford to have it done properly then it certainly won’t do any harm and you never know.”

And that is where I am, along with many others, scrabbling to stay ahead long enough to be there when the Cure, which I suspect may be more like a regime, comes along. Say it will be soon – There’s nearly as many of us as there are cancer sufferers, and it looks as if the number of people with the disease will double within a generation. And in most cases you will find alongside the sufferer you will find a spouse, suffering as much.

It’s a shock and a shame, then, to find out that funding for research is three per cent of that which goes to find cancer cures. Perhaps that is why, for example, that I know three people who have successfully survived brain tumours but no-one who has beaten Alzheimer’s… although among the Greek Chorus are some who are giving it a hard time.

I’d like a chance to die like my father did—of Cancer, at 86. (Remember, I’m speaking as a man with Alzheimer’s, which strips away your living self a bit at a time). Before he went to spend his last two weeks in a hospice he was bustling around the house, fixing things. He talked to us right up to the last few days, knowing who we were and who he was. Right now, I envy him. And there are thousands like me, except that they don’t get heard.

So let’s shout something loud enough to hear. We need you and you need money. I’m giving you a million dollars. Spend it wisely.


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Tomorrow I’ll be at BarCampNYC3, which will take place at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, where I plan to do a session on VRM. And looking forward to seeing Tracy Sheridan there too.

Social cloud and the blue pill

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A great presentation by Kevin Marks on social cloud. The cloud is an abstraction that we create of the net. It is the perception of the network, the internet, by people who no longer see or need to think of all the piping and wires. Those are in the background, invisible to most of us.

There are several important points that Kevin makes but here’s a taster.

The younger generation doesn’t see the cloud, it experiences it as oxygen supporting their digital lives. The older generation sees this as a poisonous gas that has leaked out of their pipes, and they want to seal it up again.

Another important bit is the one about our brains and minds being the best social networking tools. Software cannot match out ability to sort out our friends and contact, establish how much we trust them and how we arrive at that trust. No software can fully map the relationships, let alone replace our natural ability to create and maintain them The implication is that therefore software should support the kind of cloud abstraction we have around the internet, also around our social relationships. You can feed it (the social networking app) relationships that are in the ’software in your head’, feed the stuff related to people in your network to software online. Users will assume that your software (this is aimed at developers) will be able to see the information that they have already fed into the software and be able to use it. (Please watch the whole thing as I hardly did full justice to Kevin’s talk.)

This skirts the edges of what I see in VRM – tools and software enabling me to take charge of my relationships by helping me with the data around them, their capture and manipulation. The cloud is abstraction of my relationships but before it recedes into the invisible strata I need to be able to breathe freely. The starting point is having healthy lungs and not having to worry about the tubes and the mechanics of breathing. And we are far from that.

matrix04_hooked.jpg At the moment, we are all connected to the matrix, with tubes still being more important than our freedom to move. The many silo-like platforms try to keep us hooked and locked in, whilst giving us enough delusion of capabilities. Alas, there is only so many times you can (super)poke or zombie someone before you start wondering what’s the point.

The point is I want to be able to hook or unhook myself at will. I want to be able to connect and create relationships without lock-ins (other than the ones that relationships bring with them naturally :-) ). I don’t believe I will be able to do that unless the tools are built around me, for me and eventually by me. Blogging took off when people could set up a page and start publishing in a way previously available only to geeks with html skillz. Today I can do more things with my blog than just publish – tag, add videos, plug-in more functionality etc. with the underlying technology is invisible to me now.

I want tools and applications that will help me do that with my relationships (as social network platforms are rather inadequate for my purposes) and ultimately transactions.

One of the fundamental building blocks of VRM is the ability of individual users to take charge of their data instead of managing them via a platform and ‘trading’ that data for the functionality that the platform might provide. Once I have it in my hands, I can manage, analyse and whatever else I wish to do with them, applying various functionality directly. And share and interact with others in ways richer than platforms currently allow. It might be messier to start with but closer to human affairs in its complexity. And that is a Good Thing.

Apologies to Kevin for hijacking the cloud imagery. :)

Sound recommendations for business

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From an interview with Mitchell Baker [free registration needed], former CEO and now Chairman of Mozilla Corporation and a director of Mozilla Foundation:

The Quarterly: What can other leaders learn from the Mozilla project about running an innovative company?

Mitchell Baker: Turning people loose is really valuable. You have to figure out what space and what range, but you get a lot more than you would expect out of them, because they’re not you.

Second, figure out where you want input. There are different varieties of input and user-generated content. Figuring out what you really want is very important because you can get benefits out of any of those things. But if you’re doing one thing and sending out a message that you’re doing another, I think you’re dead.

Third, look hard at whether there are areas where you can give up some control, because the returns are great.

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