Sunday, 1 February 2015

On Essays

A friend recently suggested to me that there was no way she could do well at [humanities subject]. Despite being reliably articulate, and having a deep interest in the subject, she was convinced she could never be so virtuosic as to write a Good Essay, like a proper Student of Literature. I found this pretty horrifying, but I suppose it's not hard to see why certain parts of the humanities might cultivate this sort of harmful mystique about basic writing skills.

In particular, I point the finger at literary criticism, which has spent the last few decades in a desperate struggle to prove its own worth and relevance. It's not that lit crit shouldn't exist; someone ought to be keeping an eye on our civilisation's cultural output. But as a discipline, it is embarrassingly insecure, and it's not hard to see why.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Easy mocking with Clojure [tech]

Attention conservation notice: Technical post of interest to programmers only. If you just want the link to my mocking system for Clojure, click it.

I hate testing.

I know that when I have a computer checking and re-checking the behaviour of my code, it's more reliable. I know that I can make changes more confidently, knowing that if I accidentally break something, it will probably get caught. I know all this, and yet I am still put off by the sheer tedium of building all the scaffolding any non-trivial piece of code usually needs.

So here's a library to make it easier, in my current favourite language.

Friday, 9 December 2011

The Social Messages of "Tangled"

Pixar has historically been slightly tone-deaf on gender issues. This jaw-dropping quote, allegedly from a Pixar executive, embodies the problem:
"We're very aware of it and we're trying to change. But sometimes it's just so hard to find a way to justify adding a female character to the story. We want to be fair, but every character has to have a reason to be there."
(If you can read that without thinking that something is obviously, glaringly wrong in the imagination of the speaker, you might want to skip this post - it relies on premises I'm not going to go into right now.)

But come back, Disney animation, all is forgiven. Tangled has genuinely strong female characterisation, a frank description of emotional abuse, and is quietly packed with positive messages.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Don't study computer science

I've been helping out with a couple of admissions outreach events lately. This has brought me into contact with a bunch of bright young minds who are hoping to read computer science at my fair institution. Many of them already fit the industry definition of the hacker - not only a competent programmer, but possessing a deep understanding of, and playful delight in, the way computers work.

But I always feel a tension when advising at these events: I want to seize the best and brightest of these students, shake them, and shout, "don't do it!" Something in me feels like a computer science degree is a terrible waste of a hacker mind.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Startups, China, and my increasing ambivalence about capitalism

I used to be all for entrepreneurship. I long took it for granted that I’d found a software startup as soon as possible after graduating. But I’ve started to worry that prolonged direct contact with the incentives of a free marketplace would either demand that I be - or worse, turn me into - someone more morally compromised than I really want to be.

The genius of a free market is that it measures the entire complexity of the world in one dimension - price. But this one dimension along which the world is measured does not precisely correspond to "good", in any human sense. It's not completely unrelated; it correlates well enough to have produced immense advances in human well-being over the last few centuries. But the invisible hand teaches to the test: it optimises ruthlessly for the one thing it measures. The market is like evolution: not evil, but an extremely powerful force not quite aligned with your or my interests.

The Green Counter-Revolution

I now have a piece up at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank, about Iran's eavesdropping on GMail, how it happened, and some international context. I even have a go at some policy implications (internet censorship: a bad thing, apparently).

It sort of grew out of Monday's post on the topic.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Iran Intercepting Access to GMail

Technical summary: A user in Iran is reporting on Google's support forums that users attempting to access GMail from Iran are periodically being given a false SSL certificate. Update: Google have now confirmed this on their blog.

Non-technical summary: The Iranian government appears to be getting increasingly sophisticated in their war on Internet dissidents. Notably, this is one of the first "in the wild" applications, by an authoritarian state, of an attack that has been widely forseen by security experts.

(Updated some links Tuesday)

(Updated "advice if you're in Iran" on Thursday. I have now written an article on this attack for the Royal United Services Institute, including a bit more international context)