Book: The Cult of the Amateur

I just finished reading Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur, a highly provocative and controversial book that argues that the net’s user generated content is in fact destroying our culture.  Keen decries everything he believes to be wrong with the Web 2.0 which is namely the mediocre work of amateurs:

… democratization, despite its lofty idealization, is undermining truth, souring civic discourse, and belittling expertise, experience, and talent. As I noted earlier, it is threatening the very future of our cultural institutions. I call it the great seduction. The Web 2.0 revolution has peddled the promise of bringing more truth to more people—more depth of information, more global perspective, more unbiased opinion from dispassionate observers. But this is all a smokescreen. What the Web 2.0 revolution is really delivering is superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment. The information business is being transformed by the Internet into the sheer noise of a hundred million bloggers all simultaneously talking about themselves.

Moreover, the free, user-generated content spawned and extolled by the Web 2.0 revolution is decimating the ranks of our cultural gatekeepers, as professional critics, journalists, editors, musicians, moviemakers, and other purveyors of expert information are being replaced (“disintermediated,” to use a FOO Camp term) by amateur bloggers, hack reviewers, homespun moviemakers, and attic recording artists. Meanwhile, the radically new business models based on user-generated material suck the economic value out of traditional media and cultural content.

Keen is an excellent and engaging writer and whilst I dont actually agree with his views I did find them interesting, thought provoking and quite entertaining. I have to be honest, his over the top vitriol against the collaborative and distributed nature of the content generated on the internet in this Web 2.0 world, is at times so over the top that I couldn’t help but laugh.

Keen does raise some very important points about intellectual property, authenticity, authority and even identity and whilst its easy to dismiss some of his vitriol as the rantings of a self proclaimed (although  he was being sarcastic at the time :p ) “disgraceful fascist luddite communist control freak monarchist failed dotcom entrepreneur” ,you can’t dismiss the fact that some of concerns he raises are not only valid but deserve thought – even if you have to dig to see it! 

I also took the time to read one of the articles Keen wrote for the Washington Post in which he likens the promise of Web 2.0 to Marx’s promise of Communism …

Just as Marx seduced a generation of European idealists with his fantasy of self-realization in a communist utopia, so the Web 2.0 cult of creative self-realization has seduced everyone in Silicon Valley. The movement bridges counter-cultural radicals of the ’60s such as Steve Jobs with the contemporary geek culture of Google’s Larry Page. Between the book-ends of Jobs and Page lies the rest of Silicon Valley including radical communitarians like Craig Newmark (of, intellectual property communists such as Stanford Law Professor Larry Lessig, economic cornucopians like Wired magazine editor Chris “Long Tail” Anderson, and new media moguls Tim O’Reilly and John Batelle.

You don’t have to like his views or even agree with them, but it would be a mistake to ignore them entirely. For that reason I think the  The Cult of the Amateur is a valuable text that will hopefully spur on some constructuve debates within the Web 2.0 community. 

Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix

I have had a very long week at work, it’s been a lot of fun but I often fall foul of becoming entirely absorbed with what i’m doing and that kind of tunnel vision leads to me totally ignoring everything else going on around me. Fortunately though I did get a chance to go out earlier on in the week to watch the new Harry Potter movie at the IMAX here in Birmingham.

The last 20 minutes of the movie where in 3D and it was stunning! 3D in cinema has come a long way, although I did find that after the film had ended I had an awful headache and felt quite dizzy for a day or so. Oh well!

The film itself was very enjoyable and whist the book was very dark and in ways very disturbing the film didn’t focus on the darker or sadistic elements of the fifth book. It’s also impossiblet to squeeze everything in the book into two and half hours on screen but I still found the film to be extremely enjoyable.

If you get the chance to watch it in 3D I do recommend it! It’s tonnes of fun!

Peter Morville talks to Talis

Last month I talked about Peter Morville’s tech talk over at Google about his new book Ambient Findability. Well last week Peter was interviewesto one of my colleagues here at Talis, Richard Wallis, about his book and his views on Web 2.0, information architecture, authority and a number of other issues you can listen to the podcast here…

Download MP3 [40 mins, 36Mb]>



When midnight mists are creeping,
    And all the land is sleeping,
Around me tread the mighty dead,
    And slowly pass away.

    Lo, warriors, saints, and sages,
    From out the vanished ages,
With solemn pace and reverend face
    Appear and pass away.

    The blaze of noonday splendour,
    The twilight soft and tender,
May charm the eye: yet they shall die,
    Shall die and pass away.

    But here, in Dreamland's centre,
    No spoiler's hand may enter,
These visions fair, this radiance rare,
    Shall never pass away.

    I see the shadows falling,
    The forms of old recalling;
Around me tread the mighty dead,
    And slowly pass away.

              by Lewis Carroll

Calling PHP Functions from XSL

Craig, a colleague of mine who newly joined our development team at Talis showed me this neat little trick. Many things are far easier to do in PHP than they are in XSL, and some things simply can’t be done in pure XSL. A solution is to call PHP functions directly from within your XSL.

1) In your xsl stylesheet add:

   namespace xmlns:php=""

2) To call the php function and access the result use:

  2.   <!– for string use this –>
  3.   <xsl:value-of select="php:functionString(‘phpFunctionName’, /xpath)"/>
  5.   <!– for DOM Nodes use this –>
  6.   <xsl:copy-of select="php:function(‘phpFunctionName’, /xpath)"/>

You can pass as many parameters as you want to either php:function or php:functionString – the latter merely converts output to a string and otherwise they are identical.

3) you must register them with the XSL Transformer:

  1. span class=”co1″>// This is the important call for this functionality

4) In your php function, access parameters passed in as strings as if they are a php string. If you pass a dom structure as a parameter then you need to access it along the lines of:

  1. span class=”st0″>’namespace’, ‘element-name’

$DomList will include the root element of the XPath used to call the PHP function

If you want to dump what you pass to PHP as a string you need to do:

  1. span class=”co1″>// note this function isn’t yet documented in the PHP manual !
  2.  }

It’s a very useful feature … good luck with it.

Harry Potter, St. Augustine and the Confrontation with Evil

I was intrigued when I came across this talk by Jean Bethke Elshtain. Right at the beginning of the talk she argues that the language of evil, sin, horror and the like have been banished from the vocabulary of many elites in the west and particularly amongst the clergy. She goes on to suggest that its easier to talk about syndromes than about sin, or easier to talk about maladjustments than about evil, because evil seems archaic and elemental and too judgemental. Whilst some might find these assertions provocative they certainly piqued my interest.

During her talk Jean refers often to the works of Andrew Delbanco, and in particular to his book “The Death of Satan:How Americans have lost the sense of evil“. I haven’t read the book yet but from her talk it’s certainly one that I want to read. Jean states that Delbanco makes the assertion that:

Without evil we will abandon any notion of the sacred of that which should not be violated. Without evil it is difficult to articulate what is good … the repertoire of evil has never been richer but never have our responses been so weak. We have no language for connecting our inner lives with the horrors that pass before our eyes in the outer world.

We have no language for connecting our inner lives with the horrors that pass before our eyes … that’s quite profound and it’s a statement I’ve been pondering since first listening to this talk. Jean’s premise, if I’m interpreting it correctly, is that as a society or even culturally we are no longer able to talk about evil. It’s something that she maintains even children’s literature has shied away from, that it is perhaps too frightening for the young, or too judgemental. Evil, though, plays a central role in the Harry Potter books; it’s given a name, personified and confronted – I wonder if she considers this to be a more traditional view? She certainly uses the Harry Potter books as a vehicle to illustrate her points, and she does it very well. Now, whilst I have read the books and seen the movies, that isn’t the reason I found this talk so captivating. I found it interesting because of the theological questions and cultural issues she touches on. Of them all this is the most interesting …

If a good God created the earth, then how did evil enter into it.

It’s a question that theologians and philosophers have been fretting over since the likes of Irenaeus and St Augustine presented their theodicies on the subject. Theodicy is a specific branch of theology and philosophy that attempts to reconcile the existence of evil or suffering in the world with the assumption of a benevolent God. To try and understand the nature of the problem Augustine in his Confessions expressed the dilemma as such:

Either God cannot abolish evil, or he will not. If he cannot then he is not all-powerful. If he will not then he is not all-good

One way to view this is that a good God would eliminate evil as far as it is possible. If he is omnipotent then all evil should be eliminated. However, evil exists. So, why does God allow evil to continue?

I debated the issue with Amanda I think they’re was a difference of opinion I wont put words in her mouth but I struggled with the notion of Original Sin and I’m going to leave it to her to offer her views on this topic. From my point of view if Evil entered this world it’s because of our free will. I think that for man to respond freely to God, he must be able to make his own decisions. This means that ultimately, a man may choose to do good or commit moral evil. The reality is that no one is entirely good or entirely evil. To take this logically further this means that God cannot intervene to stop suffering because this would jeopardise human freedom and take away the need for responsibility and development.

From my limited reading on Theodicies I get the impression that my standpoint is more in line with Irenaeus view – he argued that Evil was the result of our free will – which I believe is also the Islamic view ( taken from here ):

the angels protested to God against man’s creation, but lost in a competition of knowledge against Adam, who was taught the names of all things. The Qur`an declares man to be the finest of all creatures and he willingly bore the trust which the heavens and the earth refused to bear. All of creation was subjected to man, who by virtue of the rational faculty with which he was endowed, was enjoined to, and entrusted with, the development of civilization. In such endeavor he may be, either righteous or corrupt, a monotheist or an unbeliever. As the Qur`an affirms, there is no compulsion in faith and religion; in other words, faith belongs to the domain of individual freedom and choice. Moreover, life and existence were not created in vain, but were brought into being so that God is obeyed and worshipped. Thus, Islam is profoundly teleological while affirming theodicy in creation.

It must be noted that Islam views human nature as fallible and faltering- that man is oppressive and prone to ignorance- despite his lofty station in the universe. By contrast to angels who are instinctively obedient to God, man is inclined to error. Pride is the cardinal sin of man- a sin which detracts man from submission to a unique God, and which makes him ascribe partners to Him. In Islam, the most heinous of transgressions is shirk or polytheism

As such it is at odds with St Augustine’s view which was that God created the world and at that time it was Good, and that Evil is a “privation of good”, in other words it isn’t an entity in itself – like blindness could be viewed as a privation of sight … that seems to resonate with something Amanda was saying that Evil “was a lack of something”.

Anyway this whole discussion has given me something to think about … and I do enjoy these philosophical debates with Amanda.

Haiku, no?

Now steady friend
Welcome does remainder gleam
Earth's enemy long dead.

I’ve become fascinated by Haiku – a form of Japanese poetry with a clear picture designed to arouse a distinct emotion and suggest a spiritual insight. Haiku has one additional requirement that poems must only contain 17 syllables. This makes the poems very short ( three lines long ) and they can often seem very cryptic or impenetrable.

BBC Using PhotoSynth …

The BBC is performing a technical trial of the PhotoSynth technology as part of it’s How We Made Britain television series. You can find out more about the trial here, and you can view the synths at , for a list of all the collections related to the TV series click here – This list contains Ely Cathedral, Burghley House, Royal Crescent in Bath, Blackpool Ballroom, Scottish Parliament Building and Trafalgar Square

The level of detail in all these Synth’s is amazing and the technology provides a wonderfully intuitive way of exploring these buildings and places. PhotoSynth continues to impress and I can’t wait to find out when MS intend to launch desktop versions of the tool that we can use at home with our own library of photo’s.

I also found this Synth of Gyeongbok Palace in Korea, it’s stunning!