Naturally Firefox...

A way of joining up different uses of the web so when you want to invite someone out to dinner, say,

For the early adopters amongst you, Mozilla Labs have released a very early version of new Firefox (you are using Firefox, right?) extension Ubiquity, which they describe as “an experiment into connecting the web with language”. Like most 0.1 releases this is a long way from a tool you can rely on, but there’s enough here to warrant a download to get a hint of what could be possible.

Ubiquity aspires to providing a natural language solution for bringing together uses of the web which are currently disconnected. The example they offer, of trying to invite a friend to a local restaurant for dinner using the internet is persuasive. Currently, you’d need to locate the restaurant on map, perhaps find some reviews and then copy and then paste them into an email before sending it on. In other words, lots of ‘trundling between sites’ as the developers would have it. In Ubiquity, the aspiration is to be able to invoke the window and type something like ‘find a map for restaurant x, find some reviews, then email it to Britney’. It’s a long way from being able to do that yet but still has enough functionality to be meaningful. For more information, head of user experience at Mozilla Aza Raskin has published an in-depth overview on his blog.

One of the core problems with a project such as this is always the extensibility of it, the ability for contributors to create Ubiquity commands for their web services. Being an open-source project, that was foremost in the developers' minds when it was created. A rapidly growing selection of third-party commands are already being posted at the commands in the wild page which bodes well for the sustainability and adoptability of the project.

Natural language input has featured in a number of system level projects, Enso on windows and Quicksilver for Mac - but the core difference here is the move to the browser itself becoming the platform. Ubiquity has a long journey ahead to convince mainstream users of the value of that, but it’s a great start and chance to get in on the ground floor of what could become a hugely important application in the future.

Ubiquity

Other natural language input:

Enso

Quicksilver

Facade

Iain Simons writes, talks and tweets about videogames and technology. His new book, Play Britannia, is to be published in 2009. He is the director of the GameCity festival at Nottingham Trent University.
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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia