cracks in the ceiling, windows on childhood

This bedroom.  Where she knew the pattern of cracks in the ceiling better than any other fact of her life.
Shipping News, p.54

Reading this, I realised I also remember the patterns on the ceiling above Mum and Dad’s bed in the big bedroom in Bangor Street, where my sister and I also slept in bunk beds.  As I lay, falling asleep with monkey held close, the pattern above seemed like the face and shoulders of some giant that had slept in the attic and left his impression in the plaster like the smaller dent in the sheets when I got up in the morning.

I had forgotten it, but I can see it now, patterns upon light green woodchip ceiling paper, as clear as the sky and grass before me where I am sitting now, and mornings with tea from the Goblin Teasmade and Dad bringing up marmalade-laden toast cut in triangles before, workman-fashion, he sipped hot tea from the saucer.

wisdom of the crowds goes to court

Expert witnesses often testify in court cases whether on DNA evidence, IT security or blood splatter patterns.  However, in the days of Web 2.0 who is the ‘expert’ witness?  Would then true Web 2.0 court submit evidence to public comments, maybe, like the Viking Thing or Wild West lynch mob, a vote of the masses using Facebook ‘Like’ could determine guilt or innocence.

However, it will be a conventional judge, not the justice of social networks, who will adjudicate if the hoteliers threatening to sue TripAdvisor1 do indeed bring the case to court. When TripAdvisor seeks to defend its case, they will not rely on crowd-sourced legal opinions, but lawyers whose advice is trusted because they are trained, examined and experienced and who are held responsible for their advice.  What is at stake is precisely the fact that TripAdvisor’s own site has none of these characteristics.

This may well, like the Shetland newspaper case in the 1990s2, become a critical precedent for many crowd-sourced sites and so is something we should all be watching.

Unlike Wikipedia or legal advice itself, ‘expertise’ is not the key issue in the case of TripAdvisior: every hotel guest is in a way the best expert as to their own experience.  However, how is the reader to know that the reviews posted are really by disgruntled guests rather than business rivals?  In science we are expected to declare sources of research funding, so that the reader can make judgements on the reliability of evidence funded by the tobacco or oil industry or indeed the burgeoning renewables sector.  Those who flout these conventions and rules may expect their papers to be withdrawn and their careers to flounder.  Similarly if I make a defamatory public statement about friend, colleague or public figure, then not only can the reliability of my words be determined by my own reputation for trustworthiness, but if my words turn out to be knowingly or culpably false and damaging then I can be sued for libel.   In the case of TripAdvisor there are none of the checks and balances of science or the law and yet the impact on individual hoteliers can make or break their business.    Who is responsible for damage caused by any untrue or malicious reviews posted on the site: the anonymous ‘crowd’ or TripAdvisor?

Of course users of review sites are not stupid, they know (or do they) that anonymous reviews should be taken with a pinch of salt.  My guess is that a crucial aspect of the case may be the extent to which TripAdvisor itself appears to lend credence to the reviews it publishes.  Indeed every page of TripAdvisior is headed with their strap line “World’s most trusted travel advice™”.

At the top of the home page there is also the phrase “Find Hotels Travelers Trust” and further down, “Whether you prefer worldwide hotel chains or cozy boutique hotels, you’ll find real hotel reviews you can trust at TripAdvisor“.  The former arguably puts the issue of trust back to the reviewers, but the latter is definitely TripAdvisor asserting to the trustworthiness of the reviews.

I think if I were in TripAdvisor I would be worried!

Issues of trust and reliability, provenance and responsibility are also going to be an important strand of the work I’ll be part of myself  at Talis: how do we assess the authority of crowd-sourced material, how do we convey to users the level of reliability of the information they view, especially if it is ‘mashed’ from different sources, how do we track the provenance of information in order to be able to do this?   Talis is interested because as a major provider and facilitator of open data, the reliability of the information it and its clients provide is a crucial part of that information — unreliable information is not information!

However, these issues are critical for everyone involved in the new web; if those of us engaged in research and practice in IT do not address these key problems then the courts will.

  1. see The Independent, “Hoteliers to take their revenge on TripAdvisor’s critiques in court“, Saturday 11th Sept. 2010[back]
  2. The case around 1996/1997 involved the Shetland Times obtaining a copyright against ‘deep linking’ by the rival Shetland News, that is links directly to news stories bypassing the Shetland News home page.  This was widely reported at the time and became an important case in Internet law: see, for example, Nov 1996 BBC News story or article.  The out of court settlement allowed the deep linking so long as the link was clearly acknowledged.  However, while the settlement was sensible, the uncertainty left by the case pervaded the industry for years, leading to some sites abandoning link pages, or only linking after obtaining explicit permissions, thus stifling the link-economy of the web. [back]

beyond books and blood

With most others, I was sickened by Pastor Terry Jones’ threat to burn copies of the Qur’an; it is directly counter to the Christian message and basic human decency.  Happily, this now seems to have been abandoned. However, while this was provocative and insensitive and may be used as an excuse for violence across the world, there seems to be a subtle and worrying shift as many have suggested that he will be responsible for any violence or even deaths.

However vile Jones’ threat was, the responsibility for violence lies with the perpetrators.

We seem to have lost the plot somehow when the burning of a book claims more news time and more  condemnation than those persecuting, maiming and killing people.

I am sure both true Muslims and Christians know that God’s dignity is not diminished one iota by the desecration of any book or building (including Ground Zero), even though our own feelings, dignity or pride may suffer. And I am certain they also know that God’s love extends to victims whatever their beliefs.

Let’s set our attention on the important things and leave those like Pastor Jones to the obscurity they deserve.

Across Ireland to Limerick: Stepping Out of Time

Early last week I had  a few days external examining the iMedia course at Limerick.  A wonderful course I was impressed again at the Dawn 2010 show pieces produced by the students who come predominantly from arts or design backgrounds and many of whom have never touched code or soldering iron before starting the course.

As it was Bank Holiday weekend, flying would have meant spending 24 hours in an airport between flights and airport hotels in each direction, or alternatively driving south to an airport.  It seemed more sensible and more fun to drive south through Ireland itself, and in the process satisfy a little my itinerant spirit.

I didn’t manage to write as I went along, but have retrospectively made a number of post-dated photo-blogs:

Roads of the Sea — Tiree to Larne

Into the West — Larne to Westport

Serendipity and Song — Westport to Doolin

Last Day — Doolin to Limerick

Full set of photos at my Limerick-Aug-2010 Flickr photo set

Said goodbye to our little dog Tansy over weekend.  I am not one of nature’s dog lovers, but it is amazing how one gets attached to a small bundle of fur, I just wish I had been at home in Tiree with Fiona at the time.  At nearly 17 she was very old in doggy years, seemed to be happy to the end and certainly gave a lot of happiness to others, which is a pretty good epitaph for anyone.