Tales from the Bitface

Martin's Journal

The Circle by Dave Eggers (Books 2014, 16)
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This is interesting. Seems to have got a lot of attention when it came out, but somehow I wasn’t aware of it. It’s very much a novel of now, though probably set slightly into the future — five minutes or so, probably.

Our hero, Mae Holland, is a young woman, not long out of college, who is just starting a job at the Circle. The Circle is GooTwitBook, essentially: a massive internet company that has gobbled up all the previous incumbents (it owns 90% of search, for example) and redefined interaction on the net via its TrueYou identity technology. Real names are not just encouraged; they are required.

Internet trolling disappeared overnight, it seems.

Unbelievable enough. Perhaps more so: no-one (almost no-one) seems to be in the least bit bothered by the reductions in privacy, the spread of The Circle into every aspect of life (putting chips in kids to prevent kidnapping; nobody complains; is kidnapping that much of a problem in the US?)

I thoroughly enjoyed it, I should say, before I tear into it too much. Eggers keeps the pages turning, which is always a plus. On the other hand, it takes a long time before anything significant happens. Mae starts her job, learns the ropes, meets people, gets more and more involved in the social-networking aspects of the circle… we know things are going to take a turn for the dramatic, because the blurb tells us so (“… the closer she comes to discovering a sinister truth…)

But it must be 200-odd pages in (of nearly 500) before we get much more than scene-setting.

And ultimately, while I can see how someone like Mae could be drawn further and further in after starting out with the best intentions, I find it very hard to believe that the entire rest of the world would go along with the extremities of the Circle’s plans. It’s set in essentially our world: where are the [EFF](https://www.eff.org)? Where are the [ACLU](https://www.aclu.org)? Where are the voices from other countries that aren’t keen on an American corporation’s hegemony?

Where, even, are the corporations that stand up for privacy? I’ve just got a new iPhone 6 as I write this, and I can’t help but think that Apple’s pro-privacy stance — their assertion that no-one can get at our data stored in iCloud — not even them, not even if there’s a court order — is antithetical to everything that the Circle represents.

Which is one of the reasons why the Circle looks most like Google (it has three guys at the top, known as “the Three Wise Men”).

Of course, these criticisms might be just symptomatic of what can happen when you approach a “mainstream”, “literary” book with a science-fiction head: you question the worldbuilding, of course.

Ultimately it’s a shame: the Circle the organisation is completely believable and convincing in itself. It’s just hard to believe that it could expand in quite as unchecked a fashion as it does. And I found Mae to be partly endearing, partly annoying, which could be a realistic portrayal, and a good example of characterisation. In truth, though, she has no character. And possibly less believable than the growth of the Circle is the extent to which Mae gives herself to it, to its beliefs; even when they break her best friend, Annie, who got her the job in the first place.

So all in all, something of a wasted opportunity.


This entry was automatically crossposted from my blog, A Labourer at the Bitface. You can comment here on LJ, but it might be nice if you commented over there.

An elective monarchy, again
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I was reminded of my recent post when I watched Thursday night’s <cite>The Big Bang Theory</cite>. It was the episode where they try to recreate a high-school prom — at their originals of which, all of them but Penny had bad experiences, of course.

Sheldon refers to the possibility of him being “elected Prom King,” and goes on to say that he’ll point out that kings aren’t elected.

He’s smart, but not that smart. Prom Kings and Queens, by definition, are elected, and in that context, that’s what the words mean.1

And words mean what we make them mean, and meanings change all the time.


  1. People often say that parliamentary elections “shouldn’t become a popularity contest.” But that, of course, is exactly what prom ones are. []

This entry was automatically crossposted from my blog, A Labourer at the Bitface. You can comment here on LJ, but it might be nice if you commented over there.

How to fix the UK constitution
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There is a solution to one of the great constitutional questions of our age, and I have it.

Not, I might add, the question of making parliament more representative (that’s actually quite an easy one, and we even had a referendum on making it a bit better in this parliament, but we voted the wrong way). Nor indeed the one triggered by the Scottish referendum. It’s not even the most basic problem of our constitution, though I’ll answer that in passing: write it down.

No, I’m speaking of the problem of the head of state. Now it seems to me to be uncontentious to say that we need to move from a hereditary system to an elected one. The existence of a hereditary element to the government of a democracy is anathema; this is plain.

But if you suggest this to many (perhaps still most) British citizens,1 they will speak of a great affection for the Queen; maybe for the monarchy as an institution; and for the pageantry, and how great it is for tourism. Plus they’d point to recent less-than-impressive examples of US presidents, and say something like, “I wouldn’t want President Tony Blair.” Well, I could argue against any or all of those. But there’s no need to. Here’s the thing: as soon as we want to, we could switch to having an elected head of state, without losing any of the positives there, or introducing the negatives.

Well, we’d have to lose the Queen; the actual, current one, Elizabeth II. But that’s no problem: there won’t be any serious talk of change in her lifetime anyway. And probably not in Charlie’s for that matter. But at some point in the future we could have an elected head of state, and still keep the monarchy, the pageantry, and the palaces.

How? We just redefine the words “monarch”, “king”, and “queen”. We redefine them to be the title of the elected head of state in the UK. We elect one every few years — four, six, eight, it doesn’t really matter — and we keep everything else exactly the same. Because of course, we’re a constitutional monarchy. The monarch has no real power, officially,2 except to ask the leader of the party with most seats at a general election to form a government.

The rest is window-dressing: pageantry and symbolism. The individual doing the job could as easily be one chosen by the electorate as one assigned the task by chance of birth.3

Sure, such a person would be a president — a powerless president — in all but name. But I’ve come to the conclusion that the name is — to a lot of people, at least — what matters. Or at least that the concept referred to by the name does matter to many.

We would let the Windsors live on in reasonable splendour, in some of the Royal Palaces. We would only require one — and realistically it should probably be Buckingham Palace — to be the official residence of the new monarch. The others would still be owned by the state, of course, but the descendants of the last hereditary monarch would be allowed to live in them for a few generations at least.

Now, what sort of person would stand for election to a position with a fair amount of responsibility (state visits, and so on) and very little power? I don’t know, but that would work out over time. The principle works well enough in countries like Germany, where the president — yes, Germany has a president; who knew? — has a similar status to that of our elected monarch — and gets to live in a state-owned palace.

Furthermore, one power that the monarch does have is being the entity to whom members of the armed forces, the police, and indeed, MPs take an oath. But event that wouldn’t be a problem. Those oaths are worded something like, “to Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors.” The new, elected monarch would indeed be the “successor” of the last hereditary one.

It turns out, not surprisingly, that this idea has been thought of before. There don’t appear to have been many examples of it, and slightly disturbingly, one of the few examples of one that’s currently in use is the Vatican. But in that case the Pope is head of state, head of government, and sole executive power; an elected dictator-for-life, in fact (and by a tiny, restricted electorate). My version would be much more limited in what they could do. And they wouldn’t think they had a direct line to anything more supernatural than the prime minister’s office.

When looking into the matter, I also found this forum discussion wherein people keep saying things like, “It’s a contradiction in terms: monarch means hereditary ruler…” Do they forget that English is a changing language, always growing, expanding, shifting meanings? If we want to redefine a monarch as being an elected person, we can.

Oh, and hey — there’ll be nothing to stop a Windsor standing for election. You never know, they’d probably win. But at least then they’d have a mandate.


  1. Which we are, despite what confused people think; just look at your passport. []
  2. Charles’s “black spider” letters notwithstanding. []
  3. They could be assigned it by lottery, by random choice, as with juries; but that’s a whole different thought. []

This entry was automatically crossposted from my blog, A Labourer at the Bitface. You can comment here on LJ, but it might be nice if you commented over there.

“Netflix: because your DVDS are allll the way over there”
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So true.

“Netflix: because your DVDS are allll the way over there”.


This entry was automatically crossposted from my blog, A Labourer at the Bitface. You can comment here on LJ, but it might be nice if you commented over there.

Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale: the Final Chapter by Russell T Davies and Benjamin
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I read the original version this a few years back, when my sister bought it for my son. It was good, very interesting and informative. And I wanted to read this expanded edition when it first came out. Although it’s called “The Final Chapter”, as if it were purely an additional piece, it contains both the original book and the new work — which is a lot more than just a “chapter”. But it was always just ferociously expensive.

Like, old-school hardback price for a large-format paperback. And it never seemed to come down, or come to in a smaller-size, mass-market paperback edition. So it always just felt too daunting.

Then eventually I saw it was on Kindle for what seemed like a more reasonable price, so I grabbed it.

It’s nothing more or less than an edited, long, email conversation between Davies and Cook. Sometimes several emails a day, in which Cook asks Davies questions about the latter’s writing process and other aspects of making Doctor Who (and to a lesser extent Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures).

And it’s absolutely fascinating read, especially if you’re at all interested in the creative process, in how writers write, and so on. It also feels a bit like you’re eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation at times, Somehow that’s not a problem, though. After all, it’s an interesting conversation, and we’ve been invited to listen in.

It’s clear that Davies enjoys sharing his thoughts on his process in this way, and it sort of makes you wonder why he doesn’t blog. But then, if he had been writing these emails as blog posts at the time, he couldn’t possibly have shared as much as he did with Cook, and with us several years after the events.


This entry was automatically crossposted from my blog, A Labourer at the Bitface. You can comment here on LJ, but it might be nice if you commented over there.

Thin
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We used to call this “thin clients”; or just a terminal logged on to a server or mainframe. Jason Snell writes of something newish that Adobe and Google are doing with Chromebooks:

This week I got a demo of Photoshop running inside Chrome, and while it was really interesting, some of my assumptions were faulty. It turns out that when Adobe says Photoshop is a “streaming app,” they mean it—it’s much more like screen sharing than native software. Photoshop runs remotely on a Windows-based server, and video of the app’s interface streams to the Chrome browser.

via Six Colors: Adobe streams Photoshop to Chromebooks.


This entry was automatically crossposted from my blog, A Labourer at the Bitface. You can comment here on LJ, but it might be nice if you commented over there.

Hijacked
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Can anyone explain to my why this is resignation-worthy?

Simon Danczuk, Labour MP for Rochdale, … told the Mail Online it was “like the Labour party has been hijacked by the north London liberal elite, and it’s comments like that which reinforce that view”.

The comment was, “Image from #Rochdale.” It was a picture of a white van outside a house covered in English flags. And that can drive a shadow cabinet member to resign. What?!?


This entry was automatically crossposted from my blog, A Labourer at the Bitface. You can comment here on LJ, but it might be nice if you commented over there.

“EU ‘benefit tourism’ court ruling is common sense, says Cameron”
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I’m assuming the UK government won’t be bound by this European court ruling. After all, UKIP don’t like European court rulings, and government policy these days is all about keeping the Kippers sweet, isn’t it?

EU ‘benefit tourism’ court ruling is common sense, says Cameron


This entry was automatically crossposted from my blog, A Labourer at the Bitface. You can comment here on LJ, but it might be nice if you commented over there.

On Writing by AL Kennedy (Books 2014, 11)
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Unlike Stephen King’s book of the same title, this isn’t exactly “a manual of the craft.” You won’t find much about the writing side of writing here; nothing about crafting sentences, forming paragraphs, developing characters or plots.

It’s less about the craft of writing than about the life of a writer; and it shares with King’s eponym the part-memoir approach. Kennedy spends a lot of time describing how writing has been bad for her health in various ways, and how in turn her pathological fear of flying has made the writing life more difficult, (travelling to North America by ship for a signing tour) for example.

The largest and most entertaining part of it was originally published as blog entries on The Guardian’s site.

It’s very good. And not from the book, but with Doctor Who back (and nearly finished) you should read her meditation on it and on the state of Britain.


This entry was automatically crossposted from my blog, A Labourer at the Bitface. You can comment here on LJ, but it might be nice if you commented over there.

MPs to escape expenses investigations after paperwork destroyed by Parliament – Telegraph
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You are fucking kidding me!

MPs accused of abusing the unreformed expenses system will escape official investigation after the House of Commons authorities destroyed all record of their claims.


This entry was automatically crossposted from my blog, A Labourer at the Bitface. You can comment here on LJ, but it might be nice if you commented over there.