There is a top level navigation menu at the foot of the page

"…a decent society…"

There’s been a little flurry of le Carré activity in the British press this week, following on from release of MI5 archive files that indicate that an MI5 agent, known as Jack King ran a network of UK nazi collaborators during WWII. Highly fortunate timing for the British spooking establishment to garner some positive press, some might say. The last couple of months the news reports about them have mostly been about illegal mass surveillance techniques attempting to record and analyze all internet traffic at source, and creepy write ups of mass automated collation of private video chats. Some of them intended to be particularly private, no doubt.

Journalists had a bit of fun trying to retrospectively finger the real Jack King. The Telegraph decided King was probably John Bingham, Lord Clanmorris, whose name is usually mentioned in passing in press stories about ‘le Carré’, itself a pen-name for David Cornwell, who often mentions that Bingham is one of the component inspirations behind his super-famous fictional master spycatcher, George Smiley. The Telegraph also span off an article about Bingham’s sense of disapproval of his protégé's literary exploits. Mr Cornwell, writing under his given name, sent in a marvellously succinct letter by way of reply.

Bingham was of one generation, and I of another. Where Bingham believed that uncritical love of the Secret Services was synonymous with love of country, I came to believe that such love should be examined. And that, without such vigilance, our Secret Services could in certain circumstances become as much of a peril to our democracy as their supposed enemies.John Bingham may indeed have detested this notion. I equally detest the notion that our spies are uniformly immaculate, omniscient and beyond the vulgar criticism of those who not only pay for their existence, but on occasion are taken to war on the strength of concocted intelligence

Navigating around the little flurry of reportage about this little back and forth, I found this engrossing older Q&A with le Carré, from the Paris Review, held at the time of the US publication of “The Tailor Of Panama”, back in the late 1990s. It is a marvellous read, concerning the mechanics, circumstances and techniques of his fictional writing, and touches into politics. This quote leapt off the page at me.

My definition of a decent society is one that first of all takes care of its losers, and protects its weak.

Quite. He’s quite a writer, that Mr. le Carré. If all you know of his work are the mostly excellent TV and motion picture adaptations of his more famous works, you might do yourself a favour, and read a few of the source novels. They work best tackled in publication order.

posted Sunday, March 9, 2014 at 15:42 by cms in books, history, internet, privacy | No Comments »

Useless bullshit: jwz doesn’t want to scrobble.

2013-12-07 by cms in computers, internet,, links, music

Scrobble, or DIE!

Top Skaters

This is what my final day at looked like.

In the morning, this. 720° team

In the evening, this.

Yes, I'm working on getting a MAME cab smuggled into Moonfruit.

posted Saturday, July 6, 2013 at 10:07 by cms in games, history, internet, | No Comments »

Enron Email Dataset: cleaned up, organised, and presented as part of the Internet Archives dataset collection.

2013-07-06 by cms in history, internet, links

Every HN Thread, ever: It's a particular flavour of Eternal September over there.

2013-03-08 by cms in internet, links

Netbot for iOS

A-list iOS developer shop Tapbots today released a remix of their excellent twitter client (Tweetbot), focused on tiny pay-subscription social network platform I think Tweetbot is probably my favourite thing about my  iPhone, and so I immediately purchased it. No obvious disappointments, all the slick performance I like is there, and it brings across some features I've been lacking in ADN for a while, like the ability to swiftly upload photos. I promptly celebrated by taking photos of every staff member with an ADN I could track down. I think this will probably increase my use of ADN moderately. Mobile is an essential component of gathering the off-the-cuff asynchronous status updates a service like this is built upon.

I'm not sure that it will gigantically increase my engagement with ADN alpha. I was a bit suspicious of all the frothy cliques, with an intangible unease that I struggled to define, at least until I suddenly realised it was a cogent reminder of the very earliest days of bootstrapping the IMDb message boards. That left me feeling more comfortable with what the thing was, but no more inspired to engage. I'm still in love with the idea and the ideals of the place, and I'm reasonably confident it hasn't yet fallen into it's proper, more useful place. I'm shallow enough to enjoy my sexy low user id on some level that even I don't properly understand.

Has App Dot Net "arrived?". I think not yet. Netbot feels like a threshold event of some kind, in as much as serious developers are prepared to put enough effort into the ADN platform to produce fully realised software harnessed to it, and this degree of finish does not come cheap. ADN seems to be on a little draught of second wind recently, there's been a couple of fun toy apps, some positive press, and the recent price drop, bringing a wave of fresh users in. I'm still very positive about ADN as a concept, an indicator that there's now a long tail of internet folk interested enough in paying for stuff to make services like this potentially viable. I won't be really excited about ADN until I see the first compelling application built over it that is some mostly new and useful thing, rather than a new skin on an old one.

posted Wednesday, October 3, 2012 at 20:42 by cms in computers, internet | Comments Off

Paying for stuff

It's not exactly the done thing on today's web, but I'm a huge believer in paying for web services. I've never been comfortable with the ad-supported web. When pure advertising is the only revenue stream supporting a product or service I worry about the deleterious effect upon that product or service.

I don't like the implication that they're really working for their sponsor's interests ahead of mine. I don't like the mental effort of hunting down all the opt-outs, of second-guessing potential consequences of the creepy data-mining and covert information sharing with networks of 'trusted partners'. More straightforwardly, for many cases, I suspect the numbers don't really balance; I find it difficult to rely heavily on something with a potentially precarious revenue stream. I don't want to push too much content into, or build infrastructure around things that won't necessarily be around in a year or two.

Paying directly for things makes everything seem more explicit and straightforward. I'm the customer. I can make informed decisions about the cost and usefulness of the thing. It's in the better interests of the service provider not to abuse the relationship. A product unspoilt and unhindered by commercial marriages should stand a better chance of evolving towards it's essential form. So I'm a relatively easy sell as a consumer. Offer me a useful service, at a reasonable price, and I'm quite likely to pay you for it. 

The flipside of this is that I'm really cautious about the reverse. Purely ad-supported sites, especially ones that seem to be offering far too much for free without being noticeably saturated with advertising make me feel slightly paranoid. I like to see which way the money flows.

Here's a list of the sort of internety things I currently pay for, and will happily endorse. 

  • Spotify – I'm a long-time tenner a month customer. I think it's too expensive, but I somehow never quite unsubscribe.
  • Flickr – I have a pro account for photo hosting. 
  • DynDNS – I have a paid account, which gets me DNS zone hosting as well as a dynamic hostname
  • – I like this bookmarking service. I was a very early adopter, and therefore my account cost a pittance due to the unique way pinboard is funded. 
  • Lastpass – I like this service so much I subscribed, just to do my bit to ensure they stay in business
  • Linode – my internet hosts are linux virtual machines hosted with this service. Linode is excellent. 
  • Word Podcast: I subscribed to the (now sadly folded) Word Magazine, primarily to access their very enjoyable podcast.
  • Metafilter: I don't use this site very much any more, but back in the old days, I got so much surfing out of it, I eventually bought a paid account just to contribute back.
  • Reddit: Similarly, I bought a founder Reddit Gold account when they appealed for cash, because I really enjoyed Reddit back before the eternal September.
  • iTunes: I use iTunes for quite a lot of things, apps, movie rentals and purchases, music purchases, and I have an iTunes Match subscription. If you have enough Apple gear to make an 'ecosystem', it's a good service.
  • Amazon Prime: I love Amazon. Some days, I wish I still worked for them.
  • Netflix: Most of my TV watching these days is netflix via Apple TV
  • – I signed up for an account the second I heard about it.
It's not a huge list. I'd like it to be larger. There's whole categories of things I'd probably cheerfully pay for should they exist. I'd pay a subscription for a decent search engine that wasn't a front for a creepy advertising juggernaut. I might pay for a subscription 'social' network, maybe something like a family-focused Yammer. I'd love something like a cheaper netflix that just focused on pre-1960s movies and archive TV. I'd like something like the old programming.reddit or hacker news. I'd love a smart news aggregator, and if I can't find one to pay for soon, I may have to invent one.
In the olden times, there was a lot of talk about internet micropayments, and about how they couldn't possibly work, or how they were imminent and essential to safeguard the future of the web. They never really quite happened, and the shiny allure of the internet as a huge content pipe of free everything triumphed over all, but lately it feels to me like the mood is perhaps shifting a little.
People seem to be wising up to some of the privacy considerations of infinitely free stuff that is only ever paid for covertly. The mobile app store culture has engendered a user community more acclimatised to fee-paying for services. Kindle is powering a minor revolution in self-publishing. Finally, there's Kickstarter, which is perhaps the most interesting current development in internet financing.
There's nothing particularly new about the thinking behind Kickstarter. Through a combination of great execution and timing, it seems to have hit critical mass over the last 12 months. In the midst of all the long-tail nerd-bait (I recently signed on for my first funding)  and snake oil there are signs of some interesting funding efforts converging towards the mainstream. Champion self-publicist Amanda Palmer recently powered her project past the magical $1,000,000 mark, to flurries of 'old media' press interest. is a manifest demonstration that I'm not completely alone in this line of thinking. Launched slightly before twitter's recent frantic, shark-jumping, repositioning of it's terms of service, it seemed a futile, quixotic gesture when I signed up to fund it on it's kickstarter-esque ( apparently kickstarter's TOS precludes funding things like ongoing businesses, so they rolled their own thing ) signup page. I fully expected it to fall short of it's goal, but maybe pick up some positive news coverage as it flamed out, much like Diaspora did before. To my surprise it charged past the funding target ahead of the deadline, and closed way ahead of the target figure. Since then, they've launched the API, and built a sort of twitter clone built across it at, which is busy enough to be an almost useful, slightly cliquey chit-chat network of it's own. It seems like has the potential to self-host itself as at least a niche social network for privacy nerds and web developers. For some, that might be good enough, but I suspect the real power of lies within it's potential to become a kind of ad-hoc real-time message bus for higher layered services over it's API. It remains to be seen if it can gather enough developer / user mindshare to deliver on the potential.
The most high-profile campaign I've yet seen is the Penny Arcade Sells Out. High profile, high traffic funny-picture sites are the gold-standard of high volume ad serving, with content that massive audiences enjoy, but are used to reading for "free".  Although they fell short of their more extravagant targets, including the 'complete ad removal', they hit their funding target, and raised half a million dollars. An A-lister website demonstrating the ability to generate competitive income with top level ad-sales entirely from direct user funding? Nearly. Is the tide turning? I don't know, but I can feel it pull.
posted Saturday, September 8, 2012 at 15:56 by cms in internet | 1 Comment »

Presenting elfm.el

tee hee hee

elfm.el is a rudimentary radio client implemented within emacs lisp. I wrote this at work to present at our internal "Radio Hackday"; dedicated to encouraging staff to experiment with the radio services and API, and make something with them in a day and a half for show-and-tell. Kind of 20% time distilled right down to an essence.

I wasn't sure if I was going to have enough time to contribute anything, so I wanted to focus on something I could hack on by myself, because I didn't want to hold a team back if I got called away. So I picked something jokey, inessential, yet hopefully thought-provoking, as per my usual idiom.

I had a real blast participating. I don't usually get time to attend things like proper hack days, being all old and family-bound. I really enjoyed the atmosphere of inspiration and industry. All the other hacks were amazing, and waiting for my turn to demo I felt quite embarrassed about my stupid cryptic toy, but it worked perfectly in the spotlight. I got almost all the laughs, and all of the bemusement I was aiming for.

The code is here. It is awful. I haven't written any coherent lisp on this scale for many years. It uses too many global variables and special buffers. It doesn't scrobble. I had to rewrite all my planned asychronous network event machine halfway through implementation, when I re-discovered the lack of lexical closures in elisp. ( I've been reading too many common lisp books in the interim, I suspect ). I think there's enough of the germ of a useful idea in there that I might just clean it up and try and extend it into a proper thing.

I built and run it using GNU Emacs 23.4.1 . I used an external library for HTTP POST, which I found on emacswiki ( HTTP GET I glued together using the built in URL libraries). I've also put a copy of the version I used in the distribution directory. I used mpg123 for mp3 playback, which I installed using Mac Ports. The path to mpg123 is hardcoded in the lisp somewhere, probably inside play-playlist-mpg123.

Here's my demo script, which I evaluated in a scratch buffer. Evaluating these forms in sequence will authorise the application, tune in the radio, and then fetch a playlist of five tracks and start playing them.

;;;; -----DEMO , this example code is out of date, see README 
; will open a browser to authorise application
; authenticate a user session
; tune the radio to this URL
(radio-tune "lastfm://user/colins/library/") 
; refresh the playlist 
(get-request (get-playlist-url)) 
; filter the playlist response to sexps, play the list
(play-playlist-mpg123 (reduce-playlist)) 

There is only one playback control at the moment; stop, which you can manage by killing the buffer *lastfm-radio* which has the playback process attached to it.  You can retune the radio with any lastfm:// URL format,  by re-evaluating radio-tune, and then refreshing and playing the playlist i.e. repeating the last three steps in sequence.

 The internal hackday was a cracking idea. Most of the hacks were focused around radio enhancements with broad-ranging appeal, the vast majority of them looked practically useful. I suspect most of the work will filter out into site and product updates. In addition to this, and perhaps more valuably, it worked really well as a community exercise, evolving knowledge-sharing, cross-team working, and enthusiasm, and converting them into inspiration, craft, and art. More of this sort of thing, everywhere!


I've iterated on the original hack quite a lot to make it slightly less brain-damaged, and a bit cleaner to import into anyone else's emacs. Updated code is here and so is a README file with updated running instructions. It's still not really in a usable state for anyone else, but it's amusing me to fiddle with it, and I vaguely plan to get it to a releasable alpha state, at which point I will publish a repository.

posted Saturday, April 28, 2012 at 10:49 by cms in computers, internet, programming | Comments Off

Retro enigma

My friend Jim won 15 quid by solving the New Scientist Enigma Puzzle. The really neat thing is he did it 32 years after the fact. Read all about it here, in his own words.

Would anybody with a working BBC like to contribute a real world run time for his BBC BASIC based solution?

Jim runs the Enigmatic Code blog about his hobby of solving New Scientist's Enigma puzzles using short python programs, which anyone can play along with at home.

posted Thursday, February 23, 2012 at 11:36 by cms in computers, internet, programming | Comments Off

Vox Populi

I was churlishly unimpressed by the iTunes "12 days" Christmas promotion this year. However whilst subsequently browsing the iTunes Store home page I did find one app that impressed me enough to blog about.

There's a store section called "Apps Starter Kit" which lists a dozen or so applications that Apple are promoting as "must have" installs for new iOS users. I installed a handful of these to my iPhone 3GS, but the one that has most impressed me so far is the iOS edition of DragonDictate.

It's a "split brain" app, by which I mean it uses "the cloud" to perform the text-to-speech conversion. So far I have been quite impressed with the accuracy of the process, in fact I have created this blog post by dictating while walking the dog, with just a little editing afterwards for tidy up and to add hyperlinks. I suppose it is a little like a poor man's edition of Siri, minus the pretend A.I. and the search and reminders integration.

You can get text by dictating into a text box within the application and there is a quick menu of options that allow you to create an SMS or an e-mail or copy the text to the system clipboard easily for use in other applications. This collaboration isn't too clunky and although dictating text into your phone is a little stilted it doesn't seem to be significantly less effective than my relatively crappy typing on the iPhone on-screen keyboard.

The app was free, presumably it's intended as a promotional device to introduce users to the Dragon family of software applications. Obviously there are some privacy concerns raised by having the voice processing performed on a remote server, but the terms and conditions include a privacy policy which guarantees to preserve your anonymity and keep your data private. The application did even prompted me to ask if I wanted all of my contact names uploaded to the remote service for greater the use of name recognition, and took pains to explain that this would only include name fields from my contacts database and no other personally identifying information or contact details.

I am not sure I would make a habit of using it for writing long articles or even blog posts like this but I think it could prove to be quite useful for such purposes as short e-mail replies or even sending SMS messages in situations where it's inconvenient to type.


posted Sunday, January 29, 2012 at 22:02 by cms in computers, internet | 2 Comments »