Personal History

Our lives today are more tracked, recorded and interconnected than ever before, for good and ill. Our phones can track our every moment, CCTV and other forms of physical recording have reduced our opportunities for privacy whilst out in public and, as the Leveson inquiry showed, modern technology makes it easier and easier for those who want to to keep tabs on all our activity. However, the aspect of this I want to discuss today concerns our online presence, something that is increasingly becoming a feature of all our lives.

On this blog, I try to be careful; I don’t mention my name, age or specific location and never put any photos of myself up. I also try, wherever possible, to be careful in other places online too; I don’t put photos on my Facebook page (since photos can be seen by anyone, regardless of whether they are your friend or not), try to keep a hold of my tongue when on forums, and try to operate a ‘look don’t touch’ policy in most other areas. But then again, I’m kinda lucky in that regard; I am not highly sociable, so rarely find myself in the position of having 100 embarrassing photos & videos put up concerning ‘that HILARIOUS thing you were doing last night’, and am not a public figure in any way. Basically, I am able to maintain a reasonable degree of privacy on the web by virtue of the fact that other people are unlikely to… contribute to my online profile.

Others are, of course, not so lucky; either that or they don’t especially care, which is, I suppose understandable. Sharing information about ourselves is, after all, pretty much exactly what Facebook and the like are for. However, we are frequently told how damaging it is to have such a wealth of information about us so blatantly available online; a quick Google and Facebook search of a client is now pretty much standard procedure when it comes to job applications, and even if there aren’t any pictures of you with underwear round the ankles vomiting into a fountain, they can build up a negative image of a potential client. An interviewer (well, a presumptive one) might, for instance, take a look at all the pictures showing you hanging round with mates at a club and think you are a habitual drinker and partygoer, neither of which exactly say ‘productive worker who’s always going to be in on time and in top condition’. Even beyond the world of work, there is the potential for serial embarrassment if pictures that were meant to be shared between friends make it out into the big wide world, and there is even the worrying idea of ‘cyber stalking’, made so easy thanks to the internet, entering your life.

However, perhaps most interesting are those in the public domain, both people and companies, who must control what totally uncontrollable, and usually unknown, people can choose to put online about them. Not only can this be personally hurtful for individual people, but for many such figures their livelihood is dependent on their reputation. All it takes is a spree of bad press reports for a negative image to tar one’s brand for a long old time, and all of the incalculable lost revenue that comes with that. The internet has a large memory and billions of people to contribute to it, and even a few particularly vociferous bloggers can keep bad words in the Google suggestion bar for a very long time.

This has lead, in the last few years, to the rise of a new industry; that of online reputation management. These companies have a simple enough remit; to disassociate their client from negative connotations online wherever possible. Unfortunately, this isn’t a matter of just shutting people up, because this is the internet and that kind of thing never ends well.  No, these businesses have to be a mite more subtle. For example, let us imagine, for the sake of implausibility, that Benedict Cumberbatch is linked with a rabbit-murdering syndicate, and although nothing is ever nailed down there are enough damning news bulletins and angry blogs that this thing is going to hang around forever. A reputation management company’s initial job would be to get this off the front page of Google, so they have to create some more content to hide the bad stuff; 94% of Google searches never get off page one. However, they can’t just produce huge numbers of spam-like articles to the vein of ‘Benedict’s a nice guy! Look, he’s cuddling a kitten! He gives money to nice charities!’, because people are smart enough to tell when that kind of thing is happening. So, a large amount of neutral or neutral-positive stuff is generated; certain sites might be paid, for example, to talk about the next film or theatre project it’s announced he’s appearing in. A variety of content is key, because if it’s all just carbon copies of the same statement people will smell a rat. Once the content’s been generated, there comes the matter of getting it circulated. Just writing a program to generate hits artificially isn’t enough on its own; this is where the world of sponsored Facebook links comes in, trying to get people thinking and talking about non-rabbit murdering stuff. This prevents more negative content from being generated and existing stuff from getting traffic much more effectively. The job is, however, an extremely slow one; a news story that breaks over the course of a week can take a year or two to fix, depending on the ferocity of one’s opponents.

When the world wide web, or ‘the information super-highway’, as it was also known back then, first came into our workld back in the 90s, people had high hopes. We could learn things, share things, discover stuff about one another, foster universal understanding. And, whilst we can now do all these things and more, the internet has become infamous too, scaring corporations and people alike with what billions of interconnected people can make happen. It is a strange place that many try to tame, out of necessity or out of fear. For many, it’s a battle they are doomed to lose.

PS: I feel like I should slightly apologise for not really having anything to say here. I guess I didn’t really think of a conclusion in advance

Why the chubs?

My last post dealt with the thorny issue of obesity, both it’s increasing presence in our everyday lives, and what for me is the underlying reason behind the stats that back up media scare stories concerning ‘the obesity epidemic’- the rise in size of the ‘average’ person over the last few decades. The precise causes of this trend can be put down to a whole host of societal factors within our modern age, but that story is boring as hell and has been repeated countless times by commenters far more adept in this field than me. Instead, today I wish present the case for modern-day obesity as a problem concerning the fundamental biology of a human being.

We, and our dim and distant ancestors of the scaly/furry variety, have spent the last few million years living wild; hunting, fighting and generally acting much like any other evolutionary pathway. Thus, we can learn a lot about our own inbuilt biology and instincts by studying the behaviour of animals currently alive today, and when we do so, several interesting animal eating habits become apparent. As anyone who has tried it as a child can attest (and I speak from personal experience), grass is not good stuff to eat. It’s tough, it takes a lot of chewing and processing (many herbivores have multiple stomachs to make sure they squeeze the maximum nutritional value out of their food), and there really isn’t much of it to power a fully-functional being. As such, grazers on grass and other such tough plant matter (such as leaves) will spend most of their lives doing nothing but guzzle the stuff, trying to get as much as possible through their system. Other animals will favour food with a higher nutritional content, such as fruits, tubers or, in many cases, meat, but these frequently present issues. Fruits are highly seasonal and rarely available in a large enough volume to support a large population, as well as being quite hard to get a lot of down; plants try to ‘design’ fruits so that each visitor takes only a few at a time, so as best to spread their seeds far and wide, and as such there are few animals that can sustain themselves on such a diet.  Other food such as tubers or nuts are hard to get at, needing to be dug up or broken in highly energy-consuming activities, whilst meat has the annoying habit of running away or fighting back whenever you try to get at it. As anyone who watches nature documentaries will attest, most large predators will only eat once every few days (admittedly rather heavily).

The unifying factor of all of this is that food is, in the wild, highly energy- and time-consuming to get hold of and consume, since every source of it guards its prize jealously. Therefore, any animal that wants to survive in this tough world must be near-constantly in pursuit of food simply to fulfil all of its life functions, and this is characterised by being perpetually hungry. Hunger is a body’s way of telling us that we should get more food, and in the wild this constant desire for more is kept in check by the difficulty that getting hold of it entails. Similarly, animal bodies try to assuage this desire by being lazy; if something isn’t necessary, then there’s no point wasting valuable energy going after it (since this will mean spending more time going after food to replace lost energy.)

However, in recent history (and a spectacularly short period of time from evolution’s point of view), one particular species called homo sapiens came up with this great idea called civilisation, which basically entailed the pooling and sharing of skill and resources in order to best benefit everyone as a whole. As an evolutionary success story, this is right up there with developing multicellular body structures in terms of being awesome, and it has enabled us humans to live far more comfortable lives than our ancestors did, with correspondingly far greater access to food. This has proved particularly true over the last two centuries, as technological advances in a more democratic society have improved the everyman’s access to food and comfortable living to a truly astounding degree. Unfortunately (from the point of view of our waistline) the instincts of our bodies haven’t quite caught up to the idea that when we want/need food, we can just get food, without all that inconvenient running around after it to get in the way. Not only that, but a lack of pack hierarchy combined with this increased availability means that we can stock up on food until we have eaten our absolute fill if so we wish; the difference between ‘satiated’ and ‘stuffed’ can work out as well over 1000 calories per meal, and over a long period of time it only takes a little more than we should be having every day to start packing on the pounds. Combine that with our natural predilection to laziness meaning that we don’t naturally think of going out for some exercise as fun purely for its own sake, and the fact that we no longer burn calories chasing our food, or in the muscles we build up from said chasing, and we find ourselves consuming a lot more calories than we really should be.

Not only that, but during this time we have also got into the habit of spending a lot of time worrying over the taste and texture of our food. This means that, unlike our ancestors who were just fine with simply jumping on a squirrel and devouring the thing, we have to go through the whole rigmarole of getting stuff out of the fridge, spending two hours slaving away in a kitchen and attempting to cook something vaguely resembling tasty. This wait is not something out bodies enjoy very much, meaning we often turn to ‘quick fixes’ when in need of food; stuff like bread, pasta or ready meals. Whilst we all know how much crap goes into ready meals (which should, as a rule, never be bought by anyone who cares even in the slightest about their health; salt content of those things is insane) and other such ‘quick fixes’, fewer people are aware of the impact a high intake of whole grains can have on our bodies. Stuff like bread and rice only started being eaten by humans a few thousand years ago, as we discovered the benefits of farming and cooking, and whilst they are undoubtedly a good food source (and are very, very difficult to cut from one’s diet whilst still remaining healthy) our bodies have simply not had enough time, evolutionarily speaking, to get used to them. This means they have a tendency to not make us feel as full as their calorie content should suggest, thus meaning that we eat more than our body in fact needs (if you want to feel full whilst not taking in so many calories, protein is the way to go; meat, fish and dairy are great for this).

This is all rather academic, but what does it mean for you if you want to lose a bit of weight? I am no expert on this, but then again neither are most of the people acting as self-proclaimed nutritionists in the general media, and anyway, I don’t have any better ideas for posts. So, look at my next post for my, admittedly basic, advice for anyone trying to make themselves that little bit healthier, especially if you’re trying to work of a few of the pounds built up over this festive season.

The Encyclopaedia Webbanica

Once again, today’s post will begin with a story- this time, one about a place that was envisaged over a hundred years ago. It was called the Mundaneum.

The Mundaneum today is a tiny museum in the city of Mons, Belgium, which opened in its current form in 1998. It is a far cry from the original, first conceptualised by Nobel Peace Prize winner Henri la Fontaine and fellow lawyer and pioneer Paul Otlet in 1895. The two men, Otlet in particular, had a vision- to create a place where every single piece of knowledge in the world was housed. Absolutely all of it.

Even in the 19th century, when the breadth of scientific knowledge was a million times smaller than it is today (a 19th century version of New Scientist would be publishable about once a year), this was a huge undertaking, this was a truly gigantic undertaking from a practical perspective. Not only did Otlet and la Fontaine attempt to collect a copy of just about every book ever written in search of information, but went further than any conventional library of the time by also looking through pamphlets, photographs, magazines, and posters in search of data. The entire thing was stored on small 3×5 index cards and kept in a carefully organised and detailed system of files, and this paper database eventually grew to contain over 12 million entries. People would send letters or telegraphs to the government-funded Mundaneum (the name referencing to the French monde, meaning world, rather than mundane as in boring), who in turn would have their staff search through their files in order to give a response to just about any question that could be asked.

However, the most interesting thing of all about Otlet’s operation, quite apart from the sheer conceptual genius of a man who was light-years ahead of his time, was his response to the problems posed when the enterprise got too big for its boots. After a while, the sheer volume of information and, more importantly, paper, meant that the filing system was getting too big to be practical for the real world. Otlet realised that this was not a problem that could ever be resolved by more space or manpower- the problem lay in the use of paper. And this was where Otlet pulled his masterstroke of foresight.

Otlet envisaged a version of the Mundaneum where the whole paper and telegraph business would be unnecessary- instead, he foresaw a “mechanical, collective brain”, through which people of the world could access all the information the world had to offer stored within it via a system of “electric microscopes”. Not only that, but he envisaged the potential for these ‘microscopes’ to connect to one another, and letting people “participate, applaud, give ovations, [or] sing in the chorus”. Basically, a pre-war Belgian lawyer predicted the internet (and, in the latter statement, social networking too).

Otlet has never been included in the pantheon of web pioneers- he died in 1944 after his beloved Mundaneum had been occupied and used to house a Nazi art collection, and his vision of the web as more of an information storage tool for nerdy types is hardly what we have today. But, to me, his vision of a web as a hub for sharing information and a man-made font of all knowledge is envisaged, at least in part, by one huge and desperately appealing corner of the web today: Wikipedia.

If you take a step back and look at Wikipedia as a whole, its enormous success and popularity can be quite hard to understand. Beginning from a practical perspective, it is a notoriously difficult site to work with- whilst accessing the information is very user-friendly, the editing process can be hideously confusing and difficult, especially for the not very computer-literate (seriously, try it). My own personal attempts at article-editing have almost always resulted in failure, bar some very small changes and additions to existing text (where I don’t have to deal with the formatting). This difficulty in formatting is a large contributor to another issue- Wikipedia articles are incredibly text-heavy, usually with only a few pictures and captions, which would be a major turn-off in a magazine or book. The very concept of an encyclopaedia edited and made by the masses, rather than a select team of experts, also (initially) seems incredibly foolhardy. Literally anyone can type in just about anything they want, leaving the site incredibly prone to either vandalism or accidental misdirection (see xkcd.com/978/ for Randall Munroe’s take on how it can get things wrong). The site has come under heavy criticism over the years for this fact, particularly on its pages about people (Dan Carter, the New Zealand fly-half, has apparently considered taking up stamp collecting, after hundreds of fans have sent him stamps based on a Wikipedia entry stating that he was a philatelist), and just letting normal people edit it also leaves bias prone to creep in, despite the best efforts of Wikipedia’s team of writers and editors (personally, I think that the site keeps its editing software deliberately difficult to use to minimise the amount of people who can use it easily and so try to minimise this problem).

But, all that aside… Wikipedia is truly wonderful- it epitomises all that is good about the web. It is a free to use service, run by a not-for-profit organisation that is devoid of advertising and is funded solely by the people of the web whom it serves. It is the font of all knowledge to an entire generation of students and schoolchildren, and is the number one place to go for anyone looking for an answer about anything- or who’s just interested in something and would like to learn more. It is built on the principles of everyone sharing and contributing- even flaws or areas lacking citation are denoted by casual users if they slip up past the editors the first time around. It’s success is built upon its size, both big and small- the sheer quantity of articles (there are now almost four million, most of which are a bit bigger than would have fitted on one of Otlet’s index cards), means that it can be relied upon for just about any query (and will be at the top of 80% of my Google searches), but its small server space, and staff size (less than 50,000, most of whom are volunteers- the Wikimedia foundation employs less than 150 people) keeps running costs low and allows it to keep on functioning despite its user-sourced funding model. Wikipedia is currently the 6th (ish) most visited website in the world, with 12 billion page views a month. And all this from an entirely not-for-profit organisation designed to let people know facts.

Nowadays, the Mundaneum is a small museum, a monument to a noble but ultimately flawed experiment. It original offices in Brussels were left empty, gathering dust after the war until a graduate student discovered it and eventually provoked enough interest to move the old collection to Mons, where it currently resides as a shadow of its former glory. But its spirit lives on in the collective brain that its founder envisaged. God bless you, Wikipedia- long may you continue.

Web vs. Money

Twice now, this blog has strayed onto the subject of legal bills attempting to in some way regulate the internet, based on the idea that it violates certain copyright restrictions, and everything suggests that SOPA, PIPA and ACTA will not be the last of such attempts (unless ACTA is so successful that it not only gets ratified, but also renders the internet functionally brain-dead). However, a while ago I caught myself wondering exactly why the internet gets targeted with these bills at all. There are two angles to take with regards to this problem; why there is any cause for the internet to be targeted with these bills, and why this particular problem has bills dedicated to it, rather than simply being left alone.

To begin with the second one of these- why the web? Copyright violation most definitely existed before the internet’s invention, and many a pirate business even nowadays may be run without even venturing online. All that’s required is a copy of whatever you’re pirating, some cheap software, and a lot of blank discs (or USB’s or hard drives or whatever). However, such operations tended to be necessarily small-scale in order to avoid detection, and because the market really isn’t large enough to sustain a larger-scale operation. It’s rather off-putting actually acquiring pirated stuff in real life, as it feels slightly wrong- on the web, however, it’s far easier and more relaxed. Thus, rather than a small, fairly meaningless operation, on the internet (which is, remember a throbbing network with literally billions of users) piracy is huge- exactly how big is hard to tell, but it’s a fairly safe bet that it’s bigger than a few blokes flogging ripped off DVD’s out of the boot of a car. This therefore presents a far more significant loss of potential earnings than the more traditional market, and is subsequently a bigger issue.

However, perhaps more important than the scale of the operation is that it’s actually a fairly easy one to target. Modern police will struggle to catch massive-scale drugs lords or crime barons, because the real world is one in which it’s very easy to hide, sneak, bury information and bribe. It can be impossible to find the spider at the centre of the web, and even if he can be found, harder still to pin anything on him. Online however is a different story- sites violating the law are easy to find for anyone with a web connection, and their IP address is basically put on display as a massive ‘LOOK HERE’ notice, making potential criminals easy to find and locate. The web is a collective entity, the virtual equivalent of a large and fairly open ghetto- it’s very easy to collectively target and wrap up the whole shabang. Put simply, dealing with the internet, if a bill were to get through, would be very, very easy

But… why the cause for dispute in the first place? It’s an interesting quandary, because the web doesn’t consider what it’s doing to be wrong anyway. This is partly because much of what a corporation might consider piracy online isn’t technically illegal- as long as nothing gets downloaded or made a hard copy of, streaming a video isn’t against the law. It’s the virtual equivalent of inviting your mates round to watch a film (although technically, since a lot of commercial DVD’s are ‘NOT FOR PUBLIC PERFORMANCE’, this is strictly speaking illegal too- not so online as there is no way to prove it’s not from a public performance copy). Downloading copyrighted content is illegal and is punishable by existing law, but this currently often goes unregulated because the problem is so widespread and the punishment for the crimes so small that it is simply too much bother for effective regulation. The only reason Napster got hit so hard when it was offering free downloads is because it was shifting stuff by the millions, and because it was the only one out there. One of the great benefits that bills like SOPA offered to big corporations was a quick, easy solution to crack down on copyright violators, and which didn’t entail lengthy, costly and inconvenient court proceedings.

However, downloading is a far smaller ‘problem’ than people streaming stuff from Megavideo and YouTube, which happens on a gigantic scale- think how many views the last music video you saw on YouTube had. This is what corporations are attempting to stop- the mass distribution of their content via free sharing of it online, which to them represents a potentially huge loss in income. To what extent it does cost them money, and to what extent it actually gets them more publicity is somewhat up for debate, but in the minds of corporations its enough of a problem to try and force through SOPA and PIPA.

This, really is the nub of the matter- the web and the world of business have a different definition of what constitutes violation of copyrighted content. To the internet, all the streaming and similar is simply sharing, and this is a reflection of the internet’s overarching philosophy- that everything should be free and open to everyone, without corporate influence (a principle which is astoundingly not adhered to when one thinks of the level of control exerted by Facebook and Google, but that’s another story in itself). To a corporation however, streaming on the huge scale of the web is stealing- simple as that. And it is this difference of opinion that has led to such controversy surrounding web-controlling bills.

If the next bill proposed to combat online piracy were simply one that increased the powers corporations could take the prevent illegal downloading of copyrighted content, I don’t think anyone could really complain- it’s already definitely illegal, those doing it know that they really shouldn’t and if anyone wants to grumble then they can probably stream it anyway. The contentious part of all the bills thus far have been those which attempt to restrict the streaming and sharing of such content online- and this is one battle that is not going to go away. At the moment, the law is on the side of the web. Whether that will stay the case remains to be seen…