Listening to Love And Theft

Love and Theft cover on Spotify
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It’s Bob Dylan’s  birthday, and I wanted to listen to some of his music but my music collection is a mess and I don’t even know where the external CD drive is, so  I headed online and found Love and Theft and went straight to my favourite song from the album, Sugar Baby, which is a song of loss and lack of redemption and sorrow and sadness and just keeping going.

One day you'll open up your eyes and you'll see where we are
Some of those memories /  you can learn to live with / and some of them you can't

It’s Idiot Wind, from an old man

I remember hearing it for the first time and feeling so strongly that it was a song from someone at or near the end.  Every day for months after I expected to hear the news that Dylan had died.

He hasn’t (at the time of writing).  I even saw him play Hyde Park in summer 2019, and today he is eighty and it feels like the whole internet and most of the BBC 6 Music is reflecting on his life in song.

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Thomas Clubbs (died May 6, 1981)

Thomas Clubbs in his garden, aged around 50
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My maternal grandfather Thomas Clubbs, known to me as  Granda, died forty years ago today, at the age of 81. Born in July 1899 he was always just unimaginably old, though I’m now the age he was when I was born in 1960.

I saw him a few weeks before he died.  I was in my second year at university and he was ill, so  sometime in March or April I took the train from Cambridge to Newcastle,   found my way to his nursing home and spent my last time with my last grandparent. 

He was in a nursing home because, after the death of his second wife Beattie, he had been unable to look after himself properly, as a man of a generation that did not cook or do domestic things. When I visited him he had developed severe ulcers and gone blind – I didn’t know at the the time what had caused them, but  I now suspect untreated cellulitis.  I remember sitting with him in the day room, and being shocked that a man I’d always seen as vigorous and energetic was so ill and frail. 

He had lived all his life in Hebburn, on the south bank of the Tyne, but  the nursing home, if my memory is correct, was  off Hadrian Road in Jarrow and is now demolished.  Although that’s based on a forty year old memory of walking from either a bus or a very new Metro station up a side road, and knowing that it was near where my cousin Elsie lives, and visiting Elsie years later  when my mum had moved to Calf Close Lane, south of the A194 that runs beside Hadrian Road… and all this is supposition prompted by clues from high-resolution satellite imagery and a desire for some other kind of resolution.

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Ismene: Pale Network

Pale Sister BBC Four screenshot
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One Sunday at the end of April  I was listening to Cerys Matthews’ show on BBC 6 Music, and there was a remarkable interview with the actor Lisa Dwan, who was talking about her role as Ismene in the recent BBC Four play Pale Sister. Written for her by Colm Toibin, the play tells the story of Antigone’s sister, the quiet one, the one who obeys Creon and would leave her brother unburied on the battle field.

As well as talking about the play and her performance – which is exceptional –  she discusses the reasons for wanting to perform a character who is normally a cipher, a figure in the dark,  and it was one of those moments when you go from half-listening to the bits between the music on the radio to full focus on something that you have realised is deeply important and addresses you directly.

Explaining how the play came about, Dwan started by talking about the need to revisit old stories and why, when Colm Toibin wrote to her and said ‘I’d like to write you a play’, she asked for a new version of Antigone, because she wanted to challenge the way the story had come to be understood. As she said:

“These archetypes are very much ingrained in us and passed on like trans-generational messaging, trans-generational trauma we know to be true, but maybe the biases that we harbour and tell each other and continue to help keep alive through narratives are very much in our minds…  I realised in that moment that something had to be done about the narratives that we tell about women,  that we have to go back and expand them, and keep challenging them and expanding them.”

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Take Me to Your Algorithm

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My former editor and current friend Alan Rusbridger spoke to the House of Lords communications and digital committee last Tuesday (2 March) in his capacity as a member of Facebook’s Oversight Board

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2021/mar/02/alan-rusbridger-says-oversight-board-will-ask-to-see-facebooks-algorithm

The board has been the subject of furious debate since it was announced, and subject to a lot of analysis.

The best read I’ve found is Kate Klonick’s piece in the New Yorker, though I don’t agree with the characterisation of the board as a ‘Supreme Court’ given how limited its remit currently is and the fact that Mark Zuckerberg could unilaterally abolish it tomorrow.  We may have the principle that a Parliament cannot bind it successor: Zuckerberg can change his mind twice before breakfast if he pleases.

https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/inside-the-making-of-facebooks-supreme-court

One of the points that came out of Alan Rusbridger’s committee appearance was that the board is, according to The Guardian report, ‘trying to gain access to the social network’s curation algorithm to understand how it works’. Indeed, Alan is quoted as saying:

At some point we’re going to ask to see the algorithm, I feel sure, whatever that means. Whether we’ll understand when we see it is a different matter.

This is such an unhelpful thing to say that I was prompted to tweet.

The reification of the algorithm really has to stop. It’s not an altarpiece. Ask the people who designed it what their intentions were and whether it has met them. You don’t need a code review.

I’d like to expand on this point.

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Launching Top Marques online in 1996

Ray Street, London. home of the New Media Lab
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A random post on LinkedIn that tagged me has reminded me that twenty-five years ago today, on February 27 1996, I launched one of the more significant websites of my career – the online presence of the car sales magazine Top Marques.

The post was from Lee Williams who worked with me on the site, and brought a whole raft of memories flooding back of good times in The Guardian’s Ray Street office in Clerkenwell, across the road from the main building on Farringdon Road.

I don’t know much about cars, and I don’t really care much about cars, but at the time I was the (founding) head of the paper’s New Media Lab, where we were experimenting with new formats for online publishing, and I was interested in two things: the future of online advertising, and ways of publishing lots of structured data online.


The Guardian was part of the Guardian Media Group, and at the time GMG also owned half of Auto Trader, the massively popular car listing magazine launched by John Madjeski in 1977 as “Thames Valley Trader”. Auto Trader published a niche magazine for classic and more expensive cars, called Top Marques.

The team at the New Media Lab talked to the Auto Trader digital team regularly about strategy and opportunities, and Lee and I came up with a plan to put Top Marques online to see how it might work. It was a fortnightly publication (I think) and had far fewer listings than the main magazine, so it seemed manageable.

The rest is 25 year recall, so please let me know if you know better…

We had the online infrastructure at The Guardian- a working web server and an internet connection, so we agreed to host and manage the web side. The Top Marques team would generate the appropriate data from their newly installed digital publishing system and send us the files so that we could publish online on the day the printed magazine came out.

I’d worked with a range of database management systems including Oracle, Sybase, Ingres and Informix, and had even worked for a software house in Cambridge that had written its own in-house system, SPIRES (the company was Bensasson and Chalmers but the only reference I can find to is in an column I wrote for BBC News in 2009: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/8211355.stm ).

At the time MySQL was about a year old and not very stable. The others would require licenses and we had no real budget, so we decided to do the whole thing as a flat-file structure and not use a database management system, since the number of records was small and we didn’t need to do updates or inserts or anything other than filter and display some static data.

The idea was that the Top Marques team would export all of the car listings as a delimited text file, which we would read into a collection of records, one per file, in a directory on our server. They would also send us all of the images that they had, each named the same as the relevant text file.

The website had a very simple tables-based layout – TABLE had been introduced late in 1994 and was considered stable enough – which showed the basic information about Top Marques and then listed all the relevant adverts in some order. The HTML for these was generated on the fly by (I presume) a PHP script but it could have been something more complicated like a C programme.

There was a search feature – or rather a filter -that let you select type of car and, I recall, search the advert text.

Each fortnight we’d get the files, unpack them into the right directory, and point the home page at it on publication day. Sometimes it took some wrangling because of oddities in file formats, but it worked reliably enough and became part of the routine on the 4th floor at Ray Street. And it worked.. as Lee wrote ‘within weeks we had dealers contacting us about buyers coming in with mysterious printouts’.

The site taught us a lot, and later that year we launched a proper database-driven ad site for The Guardian, RecruitNet. RecruitNet only lasted a year or two after I left, but I do think that if they had invested seriously in their own online ads service then Google and the other platforms would not have developed in the same way.

So, Lee, thanks for the memories and the fun times. I’ll see what I can remember about EuroSoccer.com in time for its anniversary…

And if you’re interested in cars, you can find Lee here https://www.linkedin.com/in/mrleewilliams/

A history of The Guardian
https://www.theguardian.com/gnm-archive/2002/jun/11/1

Auto Trader history https://plc.autotrader.co.uk/who-we-are/our-history/

Losing my registration

Screenshot from UK government website re .eu domains
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At some point tomorrow one of my email addresses will stop working, and at the start of 2022 the domain it uses will be offered for sale to any EU citizen who would like it.

This will happen because I’m no longer entitled to hold  a .eu domain, and so billt.eu, which has been mine since  April 2005, will be taken away from me as  consequence of the UK leaving the EU. 

I registered it as a vanity domain, and as a concrete expression of my European identity, and I used it mostly to register for non-critical services or email lists. I never bothered putting a website up, just redirected it to whichever blog I was using at the time. It just gave me a warm feeling, like the Euros in my wallet, the gold embossed EUROPEAN UNION on my passport, and the way being in Venice felt just like being in London.

But these symbols have all been undone by  political reality, and the debate is over. It is no longer a matter of public policy or political controversy: the UK has left the EU; I am no longer an EU citizen; and the transitional arrangements which allowed me to retain the domain come to an end tonight.

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First you assimilate..

Test and Trace QR Code
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I’ve been reading a lot recently about how we have adapted to the various types of lockdown or other restrictions that we have faced around the world as we respond to SARS-COV-2 and the Covid-19 pandemic in our various ways.

Of course the adaptations have been greatly influenced by personal circumstances, regional and national responses and the wider geopolitical situation. My life here in Stonesdale in North Yorkshire among a farming community is very different to that of someone in Delhi or Sao Paolo or Melbourne, or even London.  It’s something we’ve tried hard to respect each week on Digital Planet, where our experience as a production team is shaped by local circumstances so can’t be generalised. When we talk lockdown we do so in our context, and acknowledge the different ways other people’s lives have been changed.

But just as the internet has changed the lives of everybody on the planet. even if they have never used a computer or phone or sent an email, so Covid-19 has changed something for everyone.  The systems that surround us have had to adapt. There are fewer travellers,  more checks and restrictions, increased constraints on many sorts of interaction, and a changed set of assumptions about what is safe or risky or must be endured. This is as true for someone in Kibera, Nairobi as it is in Silicon Valley, California or here in Stonesdale, North Yorkshire.

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