# Horsemeat Crossword

I saw a story today about the horsemeat scandal investigation maybe being canned (and then sold as ‘meatballs’ in Aldi) and it reminded me that I never got round to blogging my crossword themed around the same incident. So here it is.

# Carnival of Mathematics 98

Hello!

First of all, regular readers confused by suddenly arriving at #98 in a series you’ve never seen before should read this page to find out what’s going on. In short, it’s a monthly collection of user-submitted maths blogging, hosted by a different blog each month.

Everyone else, welcome to the 98th Carnival of Mathematics! As per tradition, here are some facts about the number 98:

• 98 is 77 in base 13, and also 72+72. (This sounds impressive but all numbers of the form 2n2 do that in base 2n−1.)
• 98 is a Wedderburn-Etherington number, which is to say the number of weakly binary trees you can draw with a given number of nodes. The first three such numbers are 1. Then it grows. Fast.
• 98 is a nontotient. (Don’t Google that. Trust me.)

### Maths and things

Patrick Honner has been given a speeding ticket and has used maths to prove that he definitely did the crime for at least a moment. It seems unlikely that either the cops or a judge has thought it through this far, though, so it might be worth arguing the toss. It’s worked before.

Tallys Yunes has devised an alternative set of times for microwaving food such that the ten digits are used roughly equally. I suppose in theory it could help protect your microwave from wear and tear, but really it’s delightfully pointless. My old microwave would accept times like 2:90, so maybe we could take this work even further…

Niles Johnson has blogged a gallant attempt to draw some shapes that presumably live in 8-dimensional space. Since my grounding in such things extends basically to having nearly completed Antichamber, I’m afraid I don’t fully understand it.

Stijn Oomes submitted a post on ‘rational trigonometry’ which is rather nice maths. I can’t see the use for it, but then, when has that ever made maths worse?

Richard Elwes has blogged about totients, handily explaining what “nontotients” are for anyone who obediently didn’t Google them earlier. The formula for finding them quickly is neat — and sort of obvious in retrospect so maybe try to find it before he tells you.

Wolfram’s blog has a good writeup of the Ramanujan Gap recently filled using their software. The Gap is a handful of missing solutions from Ramanujan’s old notebook. It has some nice 2D colour graphs in it too.

Lastly, here is a post by Mohammed Ladak about how intuitive and obvious the rules of Set are, which makes our attempts to explain it at MathsJam all the more pitiful.

### Resources, books and so on

Colleen Young has found a nice set of stats resources, and Justin Lanier has found some more general-interest ones including a website for playing the Four Fours game (and variants thereupon). Frederick Koh has sent a quiz about vectors and has some others on the site so they might be useful for anyone learning such things.

Colin Beveridge tells us about the Mathematical Ninja’s ten favourite numbers, and Christian Perfect sent in a blog by Adriana Salerno who has found x in a museum.

Lastly, Katie sent me a post by Mr Reddy with photos of all the things in his Maths Cupboard. It’s best played as a sort of maths-nerd version of the Conveyor Belt round from the Generation Game.

# Some words have been removed from this dictionary following a copyright claim.

Apparently,

US search engine giant Google has successfully put pressure on the Swedish Language Council to remove an entry from its recently released list of new Swedish words.

In December, the council unveiled its customary annual list of new Swedish words. Among the words that Swedes had begun using in 2012 was “ogooglebar” (‘ungoogleable’). The California-based multinational soon got into a huff, asking the council to amend its definition. But the language experts refused to bow down to the demands, instead choosing a third option — removing the term all together.

“Instead, we’re removing the word today and stating our displeasure with Google’s attempt to control the language,” Language Council head Ann Cederberg said in a statement.

“It would go against our principles, and the principles of language. Google has forgotten one thing: language development doesn’t care about brand protection.”

I would like to add, HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

is the primary regulatory body for the advancement and cultivation of the Swedish language. The council is partially funded by the Swedish government and has semi-official status. The council asserts control over the language through the publication of various books with recommendations in spelling and grammar as well as books on linguistics intended for a general audience, the sales of which are used to fund its operation.

The Swedish Language Council has its roots in the attempt to assert control over the official language use among the Nordic countries.

In short, that is to say, it is a silly body that exists to try to control what is and is not correct Swedish. It is the linguistic equivalent of the Indiana Pi Bill, or at least of the popular misconception of it. It is less Galileo mapping the heavens than it is the Catholic Church demanding that facts conform to their prejudices.

I suspect it’s a little more knowing than that makes it sound. More inclined to nudge the language than claim literal authority. It’s hard to be sure. Many countries have just such a quaintly absurd body — we nearly had one here before the Great Fire of London mercifully distracted everyone — and I presume there’s a spectrum between insane prescriptivism and sad acceptance of their own irrelevance. But in any case the irony is amusing: you can’t control something as natural and free as language, they say to Google, because that’s our job. The language will not respect the wishes of large, multi-national companies: it will respect the wishes of medium-sized, national bodies. No, Google, says the popular misconception of King Canute, I refuse to pass on your instructions about what the tides shall do.

Damn, but knowing the real versions of popular urban myths is inconvenient for metaphor.

# Keep Calm and Generate Slogans

If you’ve been on Twitter today you will have seen a lot of people getting angry about a range of t-shirts on Amazon with slogans like “KEEP CALM AND RAPE A LOT” (or a lot of people sucking up to Justin Bieber and keeping Harry Styles up to speed with the feline obituaries — it rather depends which parts of Twitter you frequent).

It eventually became obvious that the shirts are printed on demand from a catalogue of thousands, generated automatically by combining every common verb short enough to fit with a handful of stock prepositions, pronouns and adverbs (THEM, A LOT, NOT, IN, US, ME, HER, OFF, OUT, ON, and IT) so there was no reason to be upset after all and everyone could just calm down which (spoiler alert) they didn’t. I am a firm believer that if you have been offended by a computer then either that computer has passed the Turing test or you have failed it. There are only two ways a computer can swear at you: either it was programmed to swear at you, or it wasn’t programmed not to — if your number plate spells out ‘bums’, the only sane response is amusement.

Computers control huge amounts of stuff these days so we’re starting to see fun, and sometimes scary, glitches more and more in real life. There are whole TV channels run with almost no human involvement. Even if error-free code existed it would doubtless have some edge case or subsequent hack that nobody considered that will make it unthinkingly do something stupid. Computer programs play the stock market very well until something slightly odd happens, whereupon they very efficiently wreck the economy before anyone can turn them off. There are products on Amazon priced by similarly cunning algorithms, which you’d never notice until they point only at each other, and the prices spiral out of control with no reference to any reality but the one they created. It generates dumb signs that proudly promote infinitesimal discounts, error boxes informing you that there has not been an error, and that time I saw MTV ask viewers to text the same code to vote for two different songs, then get all surprised when it was a dead heat. The programme crashed, and the channel was plunged into silent darkness.

If you understand how software thinks, this is all very obvious and a bit amusing. If you’re thinking sure, but there’s a simple and obvious fix, you’re right: just program the systems to play random music after thirty seconds of ‘dead air’. If you didn’t understand the term “edge case” earlier, it refers to something unusual but potentially important that could make your simple and obvious fix go crazy and offend people, such as Remembrance Sunday.

But I think another part of the issue is that people have the idea that computer-run enterprises are the preserve of large, rich corporations. Maybe because traditionally only a large corporation could afford that much processing power, or only large corporations could act so unthinkingly. But nowadays you can get enough computing power to automatically and unwittingly offend an entire gender for $25. If you’re willing to put in a little time, learn a couple of APIs and write a Python script, I bet you can have your own headless company up and running in a week or so, and it will provide you with a tiny trickle of money as long as your broadband stays up. Nobody will ever buy 99% of your products, and the rest will sell maybe a couple, but that’s still enough to turn a profit if you never spent anything in the first place. There are hosts of blogs out there set up on free platforms by computers, posting content nicked from other sites by computers, and plastered in adverts. They cost nothing to run and very occasionally make a few cents, but that’s enough to justify doing it. You can buy automatically generated books, printed on demand from Wikipedia, or any other text some guy’s computer can find. I would bet good money that Solid Gold Bomb, the company actually selling the shirts, is one or two guys operating out of a bedroom. But much of the outrage has made demands like “mandatory training for all staff on domestic violence, workplace harrassment, and general decentcy; donation/corporate volunteering commitment to a suitable charity”, which only make sense for a pretty large organisation. But they must be big, right? Their stuff is on Amazon! That’s like, official! (That, and, Solid Gold Bomb’s apology blamed “a scripted programming process that was compiled by only one member of our staff” which if I’m right is very disingenuous but also a bit funny.) I’ve found the response to all this generally very interesting. How people react to subtly different moral dilemmas usually is, and in this case we have quite a nice one: I do not believe that anyone would be offended if Solid Gold Bomb simply had a text box you could type anything you want into and receive a t-shirt with those words on it, in Gill Sans with a picture of a crown. As it is, Amazon was designed for normal shops full of products that actually exist, and so quite reasonably require a pre-populated list of those products. SGB kludged this latter system into the former, by working through every conceivable phrase, generating a picture, and submitting the whole lot. Suddenly, people are upset that the list includes certain things — even though the ‘list’ is really little more than two dictionaries multiplied by each other, cached as an artefact of the kludge. That distinction, I think, is fascinating. Partly that’s simply because when the list is there and you can look at it, it’s not obvious what’s happened — especially if you just saw a tweet with a link to the worst thing on it. But the distinction appears to be quite robust to finding out. The attitude has been, ironically, Stay Mad And Carry On. One commenter on the blog I just linked to insisted that this incident betrayed a “cultural sense of entitlement”, without offering any evidence to counter Hanlon or Occam’s respective razors. So determined are some to stay mad that they refuse to believe that the thousands of near-identical shirts are computer-generated at all. They look for inconsistencies in the truth and find them whether or not they exist, just like they do with inconvenient clinical trials and the moon landing videos. And while some combinations (eg, “KEEP CALM AND RAPE HER”) are notably missing, and “HIM” isn’t even in the list of possible endings, most of the inconsistencies arise from a misunderstanding of how the shirts are generated and/or an inability to search Amazon properly. Some who do accept the facts have put forward excuses to stay mad at Amazon. Some have suggested that human oversight should have prevented it. Those people have fundamentally misunderstood the Algorithmically Generated Tat industry: if even a small cost is incurred making products available then it won’t work, for the same reason that you don’t get anything like so many advance-fee scams through the mail when you have to actually buy stamps. The sort of person who thinks “I hope none of these generated strings are misogynistic; I’d better check” does not sell products generated at random. They open Etsy or CafePress stores with carefully-drawn designs. And someone with less scruples takes their place in the Generated Tat marketplace. Others have argued that there should have been a software filter. I can only assume those people have not thought it through. OK, so in retrospect anything with “RAPE” in it was probably asking for trouble, but ‘rape’ is unlikely to be included in any list of obscenities so it’s easy to see how it would slip through. It’s particularly tricky given the richness of the English language — “Keep calm and fuck me” is boorish and dumb, but “Keep calm and fuck us” might be a political message of solidarity with the 99%. Sure, “fuck” was always going to be a problem word, but this is how most common verbs work in English when you carelessly bolt pronouns onto them — “KEEP CALM AND JUMP IN” is a happy-go-lucky kind of slogan, but “KEEP CALM AND JUMP HER” is all rapey again. Nobody can filter all eight thousand combinations under these conditions. Computers can’t and humans cost too much (and still mostly can’t). And if you filter out the offensive shirts, you probably also lose any that might have sold anything — nobody is likely to buy the “KEEP CALM AND SKI HER” shirts, are they? But the most revealing excuse put forward to stay mad is that look, they have “KEEP CALM AND HIT HER” shirts too. This seemed to do the rounds a little while after the original “RAPE” version of the scandal, raising the possibility that a previous version of the same scandal is why “KEEP CALM AND RAPE HER” isn’t available and now we’re working our way through all the other combinations of words in descending order of offensiveness. I find it hard to believe that anyone would happen upon such offensive combinations by accident, so either they’re typing offensive words into a search box and then getting all prissy because the computer obliged them, or they’re actually looking for a “KEEP CALM AND RAPE HER” shirt, in which case there is nothing you or Amazon can do to stop them making one themselves. That is simply the world we live in now — although “the world where anyone can make their own t-shirt” is not a new world. You can make an offensive t-shirt with a bin bag and a marker pen if you’re suitably determined. I am forced to conclude that at least 50% of this outrage, and probably the whole lot, was generated deliberately by someone who knew perfectly well what was happening and chose to stoke up some fire. And the real winners? I bet somebody bought a t-shirt today. # I’m glad I’m not the only one with too much maths to take this seriously. I saw this on xkcd the other day: What’s always bothered me about this claim is that everyone knows bacteria grow exponentially. If you kill 99.99% of them, they need only double about 13.3 times before the population returs to its original size. Under optimal conditions, that’s roughly 133 minutes. That’s only as long as it takes to watch Donnie Darko or have a perfect Christmas. If you wash your hands, kitchen or whatever less often than that, the bacteria will win. And I’m pretty sure Dettol only claims to kill 99.9% of germs. That might not sound like much, a difference of 0.09%, but it only takes bacteria 98 minutes to claw back that difference. That’s a quarter of an hour you’ve lost. But I can see how their marketing people thought “kills 99.99% of all germs” sounded better than “buys you an hour and a half in your doomed battle against the unstoppable onslaught of disease”. # How to beat “Blue Monday” So, another Blue Monday is upon us. It’s not clear exactly when Blue Monday is, but we do know it’s upon us. The Daily Mail has gone with last Monday; The Training Room, one of the four billion companies who have used it for marketing, have gone with next Monday. But we can work it out, because we have the equation:$Misery = \frac{(W + (D-d)) \times TQ}{M \times NA}$…unless it’s this one$D = N + M (T+1) C R \frac{B-S}{J}$but nobody uses that one. Anyway, it’s definitely a Monday, and it’s definitely in January because$T$is time, which increases with time and so is highest in December, and$Q$is how many new year’s resolutions you’ve given up on which is also highest in December look don’t think about it shut up. Anyway, we know these formulæ are real because they make predictions. One intrepid PR man compiled a formula for the perfect marriage which results in thirty-some pre-specified romantic gestures you have to make every month. Since months are of different lengths, that means you need be less romantic in the longer ones. This formula about a marriage clearly makes the unrelated prediction that February should be the most romantic month; that there should be some kind of festival of romance smack in the middle of it. Since every restaurant I’ve been in lately has taken great pains to confirm that this is indeed the case, the only rational, skeptical or scientific conclusion is that these formulæ represent the very real cutting edge of science. While it is obviously bad news that we are all scientifically depressed either last or next Monday, it does offer a ray of hope. Here, you see, is the formula for the perfect Christmas: I’m assuming that the second “divided by 3D” on the bottom is a typo. Firstly because this formula otherwise defines some kind of festive acceleration, which even a cursory analysis of the Twelve Days Of Christmas song teaches us is dangerous, but mostly because if it’s a real fraction then the numerator has an equals in it. The point of this equation is— Actually, first I should point out that$W$appears twice: once to represent a walk, and once to represent a glass of wine. This might be an error, but I prefer to assume it is a deliberate simplification introduced because walking and wine are somehow equal. I say this because this is the Times’ “Offset Your Carbs” wallchart: It quite clearly shows that going for a walk is equal to garlic bread: It also shows (although I haven’t got a close-up photo of this) that a glass of wine is equal to some sex. Taking the new result that wine equals walking,$Garlic Bread = Walking = Wine = Sex$The strangest thing here is that mathematically, Peter Kay is now the filthiest comedian in Britain. Anyway, the point is that the$D$in the formula for misery is Christmas debt. If we can reduce that value we can all-but eliminate Blue Monday. So how do we do that? Well, the formula for the perfect Christmas is:$ P_\chi = \frac{8F \times (4P + £23)}{3D} + \frac{3G}{3D} + \left(1+\frac{1}{4C}\right)\frac{2W}{3D} + \frac{5T}{3D \times 1NR}$Christmas debt is$8F \times 4P \times £23 = £736$. Quite a whack. But we can reduce it without affecting$P_\chi$— I’m generously assuming what is probably an$X$is a$\chi$— because it’s in a fraction. Dividing top and bottom by 4, we get$ P_\chi = \frac{8F \times (1P + £5.75)}{18 hours} + \frac{3G}{3D} + \left(1+\frac{1}{4C}\right)\frac{2W}{3D} + \frac{5T}{3D \times 1NR}$That gets us below £50, but that’s still a lot. Let’s dispense with seven family members and divide through by eight.$ P_\chi = \frac{1F \times (1P + £5.75)}{135 minutes} + \frac{3G}{3D} + \left(1+\frac{1}{4C}\right)\frac{2W}{3D} + \frac{5T}{3D \times 1NR}$Now our only problem is that the times are inconsistent: 135 minutes in the first term, and three days thereafter. Never mind, just divide all the fractions by 32, top and bottom:$P_\chi = \frac{1F \times (1P + £5.75) + \frac{3}{32}G}{135 minutes} + \left(1+\frac{1}{4C}\right)\frac{\frac{1}{16}W \times 32NR + 5T}{135 minutes \times 32NR}$This new, abbreviated Christmas is interesting.$G$, for example, represents a nice family game, of which we must play three thirty-second fractions, and while the formula for the perfect family game (obviously there is one) doesn’t readily divide by 32, there is a game that does. Three Chess Over Thirty Two features six squares with three pieces on them, and luckily for anyone wanting to knock out Christmas in a little over two hours, requires only one move for checkmate. But however dull a game Three Chess Over Thirty Two can be, however unsatisfactory one sixteenth of a glass of wine (or walk), and however overfilling you find the 32 portions of nut roast you are forced to consume because it was inexplicably on the denominator, the cold, mathematical reality is that$P_\chi$has not changed and therefore Christmas has been totally and objectively perfect, while costing less than six pounds. This, in turn, means that our formula for misery loses much of its sting, and that is how you beat Blue Monday. This is adapted from part of my Stupid Formulæ Talk which can come to your local Skeptics in the Pub or similar event if you think your audience would enjoy hearing me be approximately this silly for the better (or at least longer) part of an hour. # If you disagree with me then you were extremely foolish to read this. This is a letter sent from the boss of King Edward VII Hospital to the boss of 2Day FM. I’m sure you all know the context. I am writing to protest in the strongest possible terms about the hoax call made from your radio station, 2Day FM, to this hospital last Tuesday. King Edward VII’s Hospital cares for sick people, and it was extremely foolish of your presenters even to consider trying to lie their way through to one of our patients, let alone actually make the call. Then to discover that, not only had this happened, but that the call had been pre-recorded and the decision to transmit approved by your station’s management, was truly appalling. The immediate consequence of these premeditated and ill-considered actions was the humiliation of two dedicated and caring nurses who were simply doing their job tending to their patients. The longer term consequence has been reported around the world and is, frankly, tragic beyond words. I appreciate that you cannot undo the damage which has been done but I would urge you to take steps to ensure that such an incident could never be repeated. My understanding of this story is that a DJ rang up a hospital, said she was the Queen of England, and asked for confidential patient information and the hospital provided it. By any reasonable standard, the party at fault here is the hospital — the only possible excuse for failing to check that the caller really was the Queen is that the Queen, being merely Kate’s mother in law, is not actually entitled to information about her condition. This attempt to shift the blame to the DJs is pathetic, and astonishingly unhelpful. If the call had been made by a Guardian journalist investigating data protection standards in high-profile hospitals, nobody would accept even for a second that it was “extremely foolish”, “truly appalling” or “ill-considered”, or that any steps should be taken “to ensure that such an incident could never be repeated” by anyone except the hospital management and the Information Commissioner. I don’t see why it should make any difference that it was made by DJs for a light-hearted chat program. Arguably, it makes it more newsworthy, because the serious journalist would probably have perpetrated a more convincing fraud. And even if we accept that the DJs fucked up, have we not learned not to hound people with a solid week of international newspaper coverage every time they make a mistake? If one of these DJs is found dead tomorrow then Lord Glenarthur, who wrote this ridiculous letter, must shoulder his share of the blame. Then he should be fired. And if they’re not then he should be fired anyway because of the shameful flouting of data protection laws displayed under his watch and his subsequent failure to accept any responsibility, fix anything or apologise. But so far, there has been no suggestion from anyone in a position of power that the hospital has done anything improper. The mob, instructed by the print media, has decided who it wants to blame, and now the people who actually should have prevented all of this are using that to get away with it. That is the long-term issue here: tabloid newspapers are apparently in charge of regulating our healthcare system. # “Unicorn” “lair” “discovered” “in North Korea” Today, the Guardian helpfully informed me that a unicorn lair had been discovered in North Korea. Apparently the journalist in question didn’t entirely believe this news, since “discovered” was in quotation marks. If it were me, I might have chosen “unicorn” as the word to call into question, but apparently we’re assuming unicorns are plausible but discovery is suspect. Okay, whatever. Readers of the Daily Mail, Telegraph and Sun will be familiar with the story. I don’t know who broke this inane non-story, but it’s probably safe to assume the others copied it, since three of them refer to the unrelated Chinese report that Kim Jong-Un had been voted the world’s sexiest man but turned out to be based on an Onion spoof, and two included — verbatim — the sentence “satisfied with his performance, he reportedly immediately declared his retirement from the sport.” They’re all very keen to point and laugh at the zany North Koreans, aren’t they wacky, look, they think they’ve found unicorns, and while Korea has its share of silly beliefs and absurd propaganda I think it’s safe to assume their main news network doesn’t actually believe in unicorns and maybe give them the benefit of the doubt until you’ve done just a dash of research, hm? Attached to each article is a stock picture of a unicorn, literally all of which have a shitty lens-flare effect Paint Shop Pro’d onto them, which is not really a good start because Eastern “unicorns”, actually called Qilin or Kirin, have nothing whatsoever to do with them, look more like lion-ox-dragon chimeras, and often don’t have the Narwhal-style horn at all. But then, maybe these were added by a subeditor later. On the other hand, if we look outside the British print media, where loads of other people have reproduced this garbage, Time Magazine have inexplicably gone with “Unicorns’ Existence Proven” according to “North Korean scientists”. Go on, blame your editor for that. The unicorn’s grave was rediscovered near a temple in the capital Pyongyang, with a rectangular rock engraved with the words ‘Unicorn Lair’ at its entrance, according to the report. The report did not elaborate on what further evidence of the royal unicorn’s existence was discovered. The Guardian, and only the Guardian, helpfully provided a link to the original story, so we can have a look and figure out whether or not the zany Koreans actually think their ancient king rode around on an actual unicorn in actual real life. I think it’s useful to bear in mind while we do this that our patron saint is principally famous for killing a dragon. io9 and Archaeopop have good articles debunking it (although io9 also have the stupid version) and basically what it seems to boil down to is: the Korean equivalent of King Arthur had Kirin instead of a wizard and a magic sword and periodically North Korea likes to make a big show of rediscovering the site Kiringul (where they lived) in North Korea, and not South Korea, which makes their country the most important therefore hooray. Nobody is suggesting the Kirin actually existed any more than the existence of Jerusalem proves that God exists (which by the way is at least arguably less plausible than unicorns so maybe we should be a bit less cocky about mocking other cultures for their apparently silly beliefs.) I appreciate there can be precious little motivation for a journalist to do research that can only destroy his story, but the willingness of just about everyone to assume Koreans believe that unicorns either exist or would be a good thing to pretend to have without apparently wondering if something might have been mistranslated is a little sad. # Freedom of expression is more important than boobies. It’s never a good thing when you’re forced to come out in support of creeps, but such is the way of things at the moment. It is, obviously, creepy and perverted (or cynical and mercenary) to point a high-magnification lens through a gap in a fence and take blurry pictures of women with their tops off. It is, obviously, unethical to sell topless photos of unconsenting women in a society where breasts are sexualised. And it is, obviously, pretty shady to buy those pictures and sell them on in your magazine. But if, as the BBC reports, the Royal Family are pursuing criminal charges against the photographer, then side with him I must, because I’m not at all comfortable making the publication of any photograph taken in a public space a criminal offence. Maybe you’d like the right to mow the lawn naked, safe in the knowledge that it is illegal for anyone to take a picture, but before we start limiting ‘free’ expression to just the bits we approve of, ask yourself this: Are your tits more important than my right to photograph landmarks without fear of harassment? Are your tits more important than protecting teenagers from being prosecuted as child pornographers for taking pictures of themselves? Are your tits more important than the reporting of Parliamentary proceedings about illegal toxic waste dumping? Are your tits more important than protecting frustrated travellers from being branded as criminals for venting on Twitter? Are your tits more important than protecting legitimate pornographers from moralistic prosecution? Are your tits more important than protecting drunk idiots from prosecution for making homophobic remarks about a horse? Are your tits more important than allowing people to hand in evidence of child rape? Are your tits more important than the right to express any hatred of the police you may have without them arresting you for it? Are your tits more important than fighting the promotion of dangerous and expensive bullshit to, and the disgusting but profitable emotional manipulation of, vulnerable people? Are your tits more important than protecting insensitive pacifists from being convicted for swearily suggesting that the death of six soldiers in an IED explosion is less important than the many people soldiers on the same side have pointlessly killed? Are your tits more important than my right to safely criticise barbarous religious practices? Are your tits more important than the right to non-violent protest? Are your tits more important than exposing the horrors, and precipitating the end, of a war? Yes? Then put a fucking shirt on. # The internet needs fewer customers, fewer products and more hippies. There are two groups of people leaving Twitter at the moment: interesting celebrities who’ve taken enough shit, and angry nerds who don’t like the direction Twitter is going at the moment. Neither party is leaving in droves, but it’s a steady trickle that might easily be a drove’s scout party. The nerds’ complaints are generally that Twitter has started to act more like a business and less like it gives a damn, which it is and doesn’t. It’s pushing for users to point their eyeballs at the profitable bits of Twitter rather than just the interesting ones, and seems willing to shut down anything that tries to work around that aim. That’s a completely reasonable position for Twitter to take — remember that if you haven’t paid for a service, you’re not a customer but a product — but it’s a bit of a kick in the teeth to the early-adopting developers and users who invented Twitter phone apps, replies, mentions, hashtags, URL shorteners, image hosting services, retweets, search, and basically everything else that makes Twitter different from Google Reader. Things the community felt it owned, Twitter took for its own. And it’s not the first plantation owner in the digital sharecropping economy to do so. But that’s the problem: Twitter is a business, and probably so is your calendar, email, newspaper, address book, photo album, to-do list, notebook, social network, blog, RSS reader, backup, and map. There’s always the risk that any one will suddenly vanish, or become something you don’t like, or something nobody likes but that’s incrementally more profitable. That’s why so many websites look like this: That’s not for the users. Nor are “frictionless sharing”, competitions you enter by spamming your friends, articles you can’t read without sharing them, ‘toolbars’ full of adverts, overlaid and interstitial adverts, automatically-playing audio adverts, articles split across five pages, or big-name websites running adverts that are obviously scams. But that’s the reality of a free internet. The alternative is the ‘premium’ services: ad-free, deliberately nice to use, but the pricing is arbitrary and ridiculous (£10 will get you five weeks of the Times’ iPhone app or two years of the Guardian’s) and most of them are liable to dick you about for a bit then get bought out and shut down by Google or Twitter anyway, because they don’t care about you either. They just have a slightly better motivation to keep you on-side. For now. There have been two notable attempts to build a ‘people’s’ Twitter, free of these problems. The first was to launch an ‘open’ protocol, OStatus, which is decentralised: the system can run on several servers, and users on one can follow users on another. It’s more of a faff than using regular Twitter but it’s more robust to meddling commercial interests. The second is App.net, which launched with a$50 one-year membership fee and a promise never to shut developers out of their API. The users are paying, the developers are paying, and advertisers are not. You’re a customer, not a product, with all the rights that brings.

I think these are both useful steps in a good direction, but neither solves the problem: open protocols aren’t immune from death-by-committee, basically all OStatus users rely on a free but commercial server such as identi.ca to host their feed, and App.net is still run by a small, unaccountable group. In both cases, we’re not so far from the position as we were in with Twitter, but with an iota more power against a more-apparently benevolent dictator. That doesn’t feel like a long-term solution to me. I remember when everyone thought Google was warm and fuzzy.

Moreover, they feel like very techie solutions, when meatspace has had the tools to solve the problem for years: co-ops. In a co-op, you’re neither customer nor product: you’re a member. An owner, on equal terms with the people who set it up. A customer co-op can’t easily screw its users, because it is its users. I don’t think it’s entirely a coincidence that the Co-operative Bank didn’t seem to miss a stride when the financial sector melted down that time (you remember).

If enough users were willing to buy into a service with centralised resources but distributed control and ownership, they’d have no need to submit to any other interest. These .coop services wouldn’t suffer from centralisation because the service couldn’t do anything without its users’ permission, and nor could it refuse to do anything its users wanted from it. The users want 300-character messages? OK. They want to give free accounts to the unwaged? Done. They want to vote off an unpopular user? Depends on the rules they’d voted in for themselves previously. It’s open to abuse, but if anyone knew of a better system I would hope we’d be using it to run countries.

This might even go some way to protecting beleaguered celebrities. If a loud minority of trolls are making the network unpleasant for well-liked and popular users, then the service has an interest in altering its rules or functionality to remedy that, if only so everybody else can enjoy their chatter. Twitter, on the other hand, is happy to lose the engaging semi-famous as long as Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian are on hand to drip-feed their absurd fanbase their little snippets of nothing.

It would be harder to set up something like this than something like App.net: as well as all the technical difficulties, you’d have all the organisational difficulties of setting up what is quite a complex decision-making process (and eventually a majority of users are likely to ask for something superficially reasonable but technically impractical). There are organisations already out there to help co-ops get started, though, and people make them work all the time. There are a lot of details that need to be worked out before anything could get off the ground, but I think this is the model best able to replace the obnoxious-but-free/pretty-but-expensive dichotomy for those types of people no longer satisfied with it.

Who are, I think, the sorts of people most likely to join co-ops.