Sen-Sa-Shun as recorded by Freddie King

Meant to post this sooner.   I just about get through this, but I don’t quite manage to summon up the presence of the big man, whom I regard as the greatest blues guitarist of them all.

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Thanking all bus drivers on behalf of Mozilla

I’m just back from Mozlandia, our informal all hands coincidental work week in Portland, Oregon.  In terms of what I got out of the event, I think this may be the best of its kind that I have attended.

On Friday evening, a curious thing happened.  I was sitting with Pierros and Dietrich in the salubrious Hilton hotel lobby.   We were accosted by a man who seemed in something of a rush, and who, by his appearance (specifically, the uniform he was wearing), was a bus driver.  He asked if we were from Mozilla.  We confirmed that we were.  He then thanked us for the work we were doing for net neutrality.

I often read people describing themselves as “proud and humbled” in our industry.  I have to confess, I have every bit as hard a time getting my head around how pride can be humble as Yngwie Malmsteen does with the idea that “less is more”.  I can, however, relate to the idea of taking pride in being humble.  And this was such a moment for me.

There are many people who know much, much more about net neutrality and its implications for the future of the internet than I do.  But still, I expect myself to know more about the topic than our friendly, Oregonian bus driver.  And so I find myself asking the question, “What is he expecting from net neutrality?”.  I believe that his expectations will amount to the internet progressing much as it has to date.  He probably expects there to be no overall controller, no balkanisation of access and content, and maybe he is even optimistic enough to hope that the internet will not give rise to the acceptance of widespread surveillance.

But I am guessing.  Guessing because I didn’t have time to ask him, (he pretty much flew through that lobby), and also because I am not entirely sure myself of what we can expect from net neutrality.  What troubles me is that “net neutrality” might be a placeholder for some, meaning not just net neutrality, but also a lot of the other aspects of a more – how do we put it – equitable internet.  At the moment, net neutrality is both disrupting the old order, but also giving rise to new empires, vaster and more powerful than those they are replacing.  Now, all empires fall: the ancient Romans, the British, Bell Telecommunications, even the seemingly invincible Liverpool FC of the 1970s and 1980s.  All empires fall.  The question is, “what will be their legacy?”.   It isn’t an easy question to answer, and the parallels between the carve-up of the unindustrialised world and the formation and destruction of nation states in the preceding centuries is a gloomy place to look for metaphors, some of which (balkanisation) have already entered our everyday language.

What I do know is that the bus driver expects Mozilla to do the right thing.  We have his trust.

I believe all of the paid staff at Mozilla are aware of our good fortune to be able to work with ideas and inventions that can shape the future of the internet in ways that we identify with, in ways that we want to believe in.   And as Ogden Nash put it, “People who work sitting down get paid more than people who work standing up.”  Working full-time in the tech industry has its hardships, but I can think of tougher places.  We have much be grateful for.

And so, when a bus driver thanks us for our service, I feel compelled to offer my gratitude in return.  We trust bus drivers to know where we want to go, and to get us there safely.  What do they trust us to do?

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Is the Web dying?

This article may or may not be pay-walled, depending on how you arrive at it.   It is an exploration of the shift to apps.

The history of computing is companies trying to use their market power to shut out rivals, even when it’s bad for innovation and the consumer….That doesn’t mean the Web will disappear. Facebook and Google still rely on it to furnish a stream of content that can be accessed from within their apps. But even the Web of documents and news items could go away. Facebook has announced plans to host publishers’ work within Facebook itself, leaving the Web nothing but a curiosity, a relic haunted by hobbyists.

This is something I was getting at with my post yesterday: that advertising remains one of the Web’s unique selling points.  It is much more effective as an advertising platform than mobile apps are.  At the moment, the Internet giants extract an enormous amount of value from the content on the Web, using it to drive engagement with their services.  The Web has very low barriers to entry, but economic sustainability is difficult and the only proven revenue model appears to be advertising at scale.  The model needs liberating.

(Note: The source of this article, the Wall Street Journal, may appear to refute that, (given it has a paywall), but I believe that their model is essentially freemium and it isn’t clear to me what revenues they derive from subscription customers.)

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Priceless

Many people don’t know/didn’t realise/don’t care/already know/already know and didn’t care, but I am back full time with Mozilla after a hiatus of a number of months.  In fact, I jumped at the chance to join Mozilla’s Content Services team and after a fairly short conversation with Darren, Mozilla VP of Content Services, I knew it was what I wanted to do.

I feel very happy to be back, and I wanted to put a few thoughts on paper about my motivation.  I think back to a conversation I had earlier this year in Barcelona with Alina, someone who always expands my thinking.  I believe in the web.  I believe in Mozilla’s efforts to maintain its importance in how the Internet is developed and consumed.  I believe it is entirely preferable to the reemergence of technological islands, walled gardens, empires, (call them what you will).  And yet, from a different perspective, isn’t the web evidently facilitating such empires anyway?

Taking it further: the web, this incredible creation that has enriched our lives in ways we could not have imagined for ourselves previously, is also an agent of economic and cultural imperialism, in the same way that free trade and liberalised capital markets arguably have been in the 1980s and 1990s?  I realise that many Mozillians will have an inherent faith in market solutions and I certainly believe in free trade…up to a point.

People will identify Content Services with advertising.  And how do I feel about advertising in general?  About the same way as when I first read J.K. Galbraith on the subject, over 20 years ago. Advertising troubled Galbraith, even in 1958 when he first published The Affluent Society.  Advertising gives cultural force to the means of production.  Or as he put it, “wants are increasingly created by the process by which they are satisfied”.  That is, advertising is the means by which supply creates demand.  It allows capital to influence our psyche and creates new cultural barriers to market entry.  In 2014, it’s hard to imagine an economy without advertising.  And while I do not entirely share Naomi Klein’s wholly negative views on what brands mean, I do find that idea that so many of our cultural signifiers are created with the purpose of persuading us to consume x in preference to y to be more than a little uncomfortable.

Given that perspective, why Content Services?  Well, Content Services is that it is not all about advertising.  Content Services will help deliver Mozilla a new voice for its community and with its users.  But saying that, the most important thing for Content Services is advertising.  That is because advertising is the most important economic activity on the web – by a long way.

Look at what advertising has enabled on the web.  How much content is free to consume as a consequence of federated advertising?  Many Firefox user choose to block adverts, and other people round on those users for failing to honour the implicit contract between the publisher and the reader.  I am not sure I subscribe to that point of view entirely, but to fail to view advertising as an exchange of value between the user and the website is to be disingenuous.  And it is something that the web does extraordinarily well – and at scale, and on an aggregated basis.  It has empowered the user, and the search engine, the social network, and it has wreaked havoc on publishers.

Almost every user of the web enjoys a huge consumer surplus.  That is, they would pay far more for the web than it costs them (once you’ve paid for access to the network, you “pay” almost nothing to use the web).  And some consumers enjoy a much larger surplus than others.  Typically, richer consumers, who have a higher propensity to pay, transmit an effective subsidy to poorer consumers who would have a lower propensity to pay.  And this aggregated arbitrage is a good thing. Generally.

Except that it has given rise to incalculably powerful and valuable empires.  These empires might be defined as the ones who own the user’s identity.  The ones you log in to, who know the most about you, about what you do, who you know and what you read.  Empires which extract value from all of the industries they touch, from online publishers to mobile network operators and ISPs.  I must stress none of this is a criticism of a Google or a Facebook: they have delivered huge utility and have successfully exploited their market positions.  But it is notable that a company with no significant patents or copyrights, nor indeed revenues, and which employed a reported 55 people could be valued at $19Bn. It is reasonable to suppose, under such circumstances, that there are major externalities generated by this business, or that this business is a significant free rider, which almost all internet business are: something those of use who support net neutrality implicitly agree is a good thing (I do not intend the term pejoratively).

What are the externalities?  As we’re fond of telling each other, if you’re not paying, you’re the product.  The price we pay is our attention and exposure to adverts, and knowledge about ourselves.  We are being broken down, analysed, reassembled as segments, profiles, tracked as individuals and as sub-markets and, yes, being spied upon.  Some people are relaxed about this, perhaps feeling that they have nothing to hide, and besides, they haven’t even come for the Socialists yet…

What’s more, the cultural impact is abysmal.  In the old world, advertising inventory was finite, confined to the space for adverts on billboards, in newspapers and so on.  When the Mozilla community created its iconic New York Times advert, it was an incredible demonstration of the power of a community – placing such an advert cost real money.  But in the online world, inventory is flexible, and theoretically infinite.  You can grow your inventory by retaining users, get getting more clicks.  And you do this by writing clickbait headlines, by instrumenting your users, by taking your publication downmarket, by designing your site so that one article extends over multiple webpages, and so on and so forth.  The effects on our culture are obvious.  The effects on our psyche, we’re only just starting to understand.

And then, there is a battle over online privacy.  Or perhaps, more aptly, an arms race.  Privacy measures are met with counter-measures.  Tracking cookies, which still seem important today, may seem positively anodyne in years to come.  The more intimacy we gain with the internet, and the more capabilities it assumes, the deeper and deeper this problem becomes.

So, where does all this leave us?  Well, there is another Mozillian I would mention who has frequently inspired me: former CEO John Lilly.  Almost exactly four years ago, John gave a talk for the House of Commons, in which he presciently suggested that just as troubling as the Orwellian aspects of the internet are, so to should be aware of the dangers of a culture that is amusing us into bovine submission. John is a man who reads books, and as he points out, the internet is as much Brave New World as 1984.  And John also spelled out the importance for mass participation in the creation of counter-measures to this.  Actually, just go and read his post again, if you haven’t already.

Advertising on the web is a problem, it risks trivialising our culture, creating a mass surveillance system and is supporting new forms of digital empires.  And yet, it is better than the alternatives: all this economic value being pushed to proprietary technology platforms.  And it is in danger: it is in danger of being unpalatable in a modern democracy, and of being superseded by proprietary technologies with even worse consequences.  That is why Mozilla has to act, and why it is entirely appropriate that we involve ourselves in this industry.  It is why we should conceive and build solutions to these problems, and look to empower all parts of the internet ecosystem that generate value for the consumer.  This problem is our problem.  We must not just try to wish it out of existence.

Our first duty is clear: it is to the Firefox user, and the trust they have in Mozilla.  It would not be right that we would send our users to whichever service on the internet and rule out-of-scope the consequences for them (and nor do we).  We build Firefox users the tools to be in charge of their experience.  But we must help instantiate the rest of the world we want to see, bringing advertisers and publishers who share these values into the Mozilla community.  We will understand their needs, and where they are transparent, where they scale and support heterogeneity, where they offer a reasonable, knowable and workable exchange of value, we should finds ways to facilitate them.  Until that happens, the concentration of power on the internet will only continue.  And honestly, who else but Mozilla is going to address this problem?

And more important to me than any of this, is to be working side-by-side again with my many wonderful friends at Mozilla.

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The most important decisions we make

UPDATE: Many people after reading this wanted to check if Marit is ok.  She is fine – all clear – as I evidently had not made clear enough in the post itself.  It was just a scare.  Thanks to everyone for your concern.

 

NOTE: The views expressed here are not necessarily those of anyone else.  Also, I’m supposed to be in California this week.  Reading this, hopefully you’ll understand why I’m not.

It’s been a scary weekend.  On Saturday afternoon, in an increasingly futile attempt to stave off the effects of incipient middle age, I went for a short run.  When the sweating, panting mess I so rapidly degenerated into wilted through the front door 20 minutes later, something was wrong, but for a change, not with me.  My wife was talking seriously about something on the phone.  I could tell she was concerned.  My first reaction was that a friend had called for help – my wife is the kind of person people turn to – but as the crashing sound of blood pumping through my ears started to dissipate, I realised she was talking to a nurse about an attack of some kind she had just experienced.  Could be anything.   Better get it checked out, to be sure, was the advice.

So I threw some clothes on and we jumped into the car, talking logistics all the way to Accident & Emergency: a babysitter to stand down, a restaurant booking to cancel, friends to disappoint.   We parted at the hospital, and I took the girls home for dinner.  Two hours later, a phone call that made the room spin: my wife was undergoing emergency neurological tests and would be under observation for 72 hours.  My nervousness must have communicated itself to the children who, without me speaking, started envisioning a worst case scenario.

Cue internal chaos.  Packing a bag, cooking food to take, trying to think straight and not let fear take hold.  Dropping things off at the hospital a second time was worse, squalid logistics getting in the way of managing the children’s and our own feelings to any degree of satisfaction.

I love my wife.  Being married to her defines who I am more than any other choice I have made in life.  The goodness inside her sustains me and the thought that anything was so threatening to her well-being is monstrous.  And in those fearful hours, all I had to cling on to was that identity.  Four words, “I am her husband”, would tell anyone everything they needed to know about my right to access, to information, to respect.  When suddenly the life my wife and I have built together seemed under any kind of threat, the monument of our public commitment to each other was the main thing to hold on to.

Very often, critics of the notion of same-sex marriage seem to feel it can be reduced to something empty, as though symbolism carries no weight.  As though legal constructs around civil partnerships, common law marriages, tax codes, inheritance rights and so forth suffice.  All of that misses what’s important.


This week, one man’s political activism against same-sex marriage has been held up as defining his ability to lead Mozilla.  There have been no complaints (none whatsoever) about his behaviour, and the oganisation he founded has one of the most inclusive and open cultures of any I have ever been associated with.  But it seems that Brendan Eich, for reasons he chooses to keep private, opposes equality for same-sex couples.  I think he is wrong to do so.  And it is a wrongness that isn’t theoretical or abstract, it’s a visceral one.  Marriage is not about the easy things, it’s about the hard things.  Denying the support of the institution of marriage to same-sex couples is denying many people the very thing they need to lead a fulfilling life.

You or I may be troubled by Brendan’s personal support of prop 8, but there are many issues of ethical substance that the Mozilla community – any community – is capable of disagreeing on, and remaining a coherent community, including some that in 2014 could be regarded as even more important  than that of same sex marriage (importance in some absolute terms – it is also possible for me to imagine there are many people for whom this is the most important issue of the day).  And I feel I (and many other Mozillians), feel the need to clarify where we stand.

So, why does Brendan’s donation matter so much to so many?  I suspect it’s this: the issue of same-sex marriage has become a litmus test in north America. It defines whether you are red or blue.  I grew up in a radically left-wing but somewhat socially conservative city.  One’s stance on same-sex marriage defines little else about how someone thinks for me, but I realise that in other cultures, it might signal a great deal.  And if you’re gay, lesbian or bisexual, it might seem to define how they think about you.   For constructive thoughts from such a perspective Christie Koehler’s blog on the topic is recommended.

Let’s get this on the table.  I do not wish to engage in Whataboutism.  The notion that you cannot raise an ethical objection in one field without philosophical clarity in all others is, of course, unhelpful.  But we should also recognise that social attitudes change.  That this is normal.  That at any one time, there will be a plurality of views on issues that in hindsight, appear open and shut.   The language of my grandparents’ generation wouldn’t pass muster these days.  As recently as the 1970s, there were open campaigns for paedophile rights in the UK.  In the 1980s casual racism was celebrated in light entertainment on television.  And to this day gender equality is very obviously a mess and not regarded as a mainstream issue worthy of similar activism as same-sex marriage.

One example that will appear trivial to many: I am a vegetarian.  When people learn this, they typically have one of three reactions: to tell me how little meat they eat themselves, to tell me how they couldn’t possibly live without meat, or to ask me how long ago and why I became a vegetarian.   The answer to the latter is since I was 13 or 14, and that for as long as I could remember, it always seemed to me obviously wrong to cause distress to and kill animals needlessly (more or less).  I do not suspect I would win many converts if I became more militant in my vegetarianism, although I am always happy to engage with people that wish to discuss it, both seriously and flippantly.  But I need to be accepting of the wider moral context.  Not many people share my perspective.  Regarding it as defining of someone’s character is futile.

What about issues we can all agree on?  How many Mozillians supported Obama in 2012, even after it became clear that drone strikes were a chosen instrument of foreign policy for his administration?  Many Mozillians had “Obama 2012″ stickers on their laptops even as mechanised death rained down from the sky on young children born in the wrong part of the world.  How will we view the Obama era in 20, 30 years’ time?  A great man compromised by circumstance?  The lesser of two evils?  A leader who guaranteed his own nation’s security whatever the price?  Will Americans view it differently to non US-nationals?  There’s debate to be had there.  And however strongly I feel about same-sex marriage, I am capable of feeling even more strongly about the 174 Pakistani children reported killed in drone strikes before Obama’s reelection.  Should we judge Obama through the lens of drone strikes?  Should I decide whether or not I will work with someone through the lens of their support for a president who himself supports drone strikes?  I believe that would be self-righteous, not righteous.  It would be a failure to understand the choices they feel they have in front of them.  It can seem absolutely wrong and yet part of a complex picture.

I feel very proud to be a Mozillian and very fortunate to work full time for the project.  This week, a number of individuals who are as fortunate as I am in this regard called on Brendan to step down as CEO because of his personal political activism against same-sex marriage.  They are to be applauded for their courage: being prepared to take a stand, big or small, on a matter of conscience defines social progress.  The now unacceptable attitudes of previous decades I mentioned above have, in part, been modernised by such activism.  But I am not prepared to allow my association with the project be defined by this issue.

We have what unites us: the work of Mozilla.  I feel on safe ground in declaring the Internet is the greatest change to the world in our lifetimes.  Its effects are widespread, and unpredictable.  And must be directed to the public good.  Do we want an instrument of progress, of participation, or of passive consumerism?  Do you share the belief that connecting economies, societies, and individuals on their own terms has great potential for humanity?  Do you believe that this needs protecting, nurturing?  That is what defines us, what gives us clarity of purpose.  Not drone strikes, not vegetarianism, not same-sex marriage, and even as we frequently find commonality of views within our community on many of these topics, we must also accept there will be divergence.  Like many Mozillians, I have aspirations that the open Web will improve the world and the situation with respect to many of the issues that I hold dear.  But I don’t believe it is reasonable to demand that everyone else who believes in the open Web must have the same aspirations for it.  We can, however, continue to contribute to the great culture of this community: a culture of intellectual curiosity, of respect, of inclusiveness (as Lukas Blakk amongst others is doing), and, in other weeks at least, of fun.


Mrs Finch is home now, recovering, worst-case scenarios (I won’t elaborate here) dismissed. She’s fine.

The night we met, a mutual friend took me to one side and told me, “forget about her Patrick, she’s out of your league”.  I’m just hoping she never realises.  What is inevitable, however, is that we will face a more serious situation one day.  Every couple will.  And when they do, I believe that they should be able to do it together, as their partner’s wife or husband.

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Saluting Mozilla Macedonia

If I had to say, “what makes Mozilla special?”, I’d probably point to someone like Gorjan, a remarkable guy.

In this blog post, he could brag about the astonishing things he has done n the community at a very tender age.  He could.  Instead, he writes with honesty and humility about volunteering for Free Software projects in his country.

 

 

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Why “You Should Date an Illiterate Girl” is wrong-headed

This is possibly the second or third time that “You Should Date an Illiterate Girl”, by Charles Warnke has been circulated to me via one form of social media or another.

While there is some commendable sentiment in it on the nature of living and loving deliberately and the great privilege of having a partner who leads a rich inner life, it’s generally dreadful.

Why?  Because it perpetuates the same myth that all popular culture seems to about the nature of romantic love, and because the author is generally excusing himself.

First, the myth: the way that the final scene in most romantic fiction ends when a couple are actually united, and that a rewarding relationship is essentially predestined from that point.  Popular romantic culture is every bit as unhealthy as the popular fast-food restaurants that line every high street, creating and rewarding urges for instant gratification and denying you knowledge of what your body and soul really needs.  Romance being entirely about acquisition.  That’s not romance, that’s comedy, in several senses.

And meanwhile, there is a conspicuous absence of popular culture on the topic of making a life-long relationship fulfilling.  “You should date an illiterate girl” dresses itself up as something more profound, but the object of the author’s ire remains his choice in the first place: to date a girl who didn’t read books.  The final scene of his rom-com saw him step out with the wrong person, and so now he idealise the other, the “girl who reads” who would have made him a better man, given him a better life.

Second, his excuses.  Sure, he describes his own irritability, his own misogyny (‘Dispatch with making love. Fuck her.”) and his own lack of deliberate living.  But still, it’s always all her fault for not being better, for not making him better.

It’s vividly written and possibly extremely honest (and I am all for dating girls who read books).  The author describes very well how his own vanity and eager willingness to have a partner he could dominate intellectually and emotionally have served him badly.  But the minor tragedy of the life he describes wouldn’t have been averted without more self-knowledge than this.

(by the way, my wife does read)

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