Freesteel Blog » Why was it called “Ask Aristotle”?

Why was it called “Ask Aristotle”?

Thursday, January 8th, 2009 at 2:51 pm Written by:

Back in 2005, about a year after PublicWhip and TheyWorkForYou were getting going on the back of significant unpaid volunteer work by people like me who were expecting to, you know, get some kudos for it in the form of, say, at least one newspaper article about the how’s and why’s of the project, and which would be able to get across the sense that maybe more people should try getting involved in this sort of activism, the Guardian Newspaper produced its Ask Aristotle site entirely independently.

Great, we thought, another source of structured data to link to from the TheyWorkForYou pages under the more useful links for this person to things like the constituency voting results back to 1997.

  • Never mind the fact that The Guardian didn’t put any links back to the TheyWorkForYou site or support it in any way.
  • Never mind the fact that nobody could ever find the people behind it who did the work, much of which replicated what we had done, and we have always wanted to collaborate.
  • Never mind the fact that all our work was open source and free, consciously, so that other organizations like The Guardian could re-use it and integrate with it. We never thought of investigating why they weren’t, because, well, they were free not to.

I always wondered why it was called “Ask Aristotle” anyway. It’s a stupid name. Whenever I puzzled about it out loud to my friends, I always got some mumbo jumbo about some ancient Greek philosopher back, and look, there’s a sort of a grey-haired dude in the icon.

You can look as hard as you like, but you won’t find anyone on the Guardian website explaining this philosphical choice of a name.

They don’t explain it anywhere.

Everyone outside seems to have been satisfied with not asking the question, or sticking with the answer that they made up themselves. We’re used to seeing stupid names for internet things.

Doing some research on what’s possible for the next General Election, I’ve found better theory:

25 Years of Excellence in Politics and Technology

Aristotle was founded in 1983 by John Aristotle Phillips and Dean Aristotle Phillips. The company’s principle activity was the development of specialized software and databases for elected officials. With early success and rapid growth throughout the 1980’s, Aristotle is largely responsibly for developing the Political Technology field as we know it today…

With our base philosophy of providing power tools for political professionals, Aristotle has continued its growth by expanding its portfolio of services, adding several new employees and opening offices in Toronto and London… Our International Services division has bought the company global acclaim for its work overseas, including Campaigns & Elections International Campaign of the Year for its work on the Victor Yushenko campaign for Ukrainian Prime Minister in 2004.

Aristotle International, Inc. is a private company which has made one set of detailed filings for the year 2000 at the Securities and Exchange Commission.

What’s neat about these filings is they are supposed to inform investors about the risks associated in gambling on the stock investing in the company:

As we expand the scope of our Web services, we may face greater competition from a number of Internet companies and other media companies across a wide range of different Web services. Many of our competitors may have advantages over us in expertise, brand recognition, size, financial and personnel resources and other factors. Several companies offer competitive products or services through Web advertising networks, including 24/7 Media, Inc., DoubleClick, Inc., Flycast Communications Corporation and L90, Inc. In the Internet authentication services industry, our principal competitors are Equifax, Inc. and ChoicePoint Inc. Our Internet advertising business may also encounter competition from providers of advertising inventory, database management products and related services, including AdForce, Inc., DoubleClick, Inc. and Engage Technologies, Inc. In addition, we may face potential competition from a number of large Web publishers, search engines and ISPs, including America Online, Inc., Excite, Inc., Infoseek Corporation, Juno Online Services, Inc. and Yahoo! Inc. Competition may also materialize from political or public policy websites, including Grassroots.com, Politics.com, SpeakOut.com, Vote.com, Votenet.com and Voter.com. Moreover, we compete with television, radio and print media companies for a share of companies’ overall advertising budgets.

Hm. No Google. This was back in 2000, after all.

But what about their business income?

For the year ended December 31, 1999, we derived approximately 21% of our revenue from a contract with the National Rifle Association. We have completed this contract with the NRA and, although we have entered into a new contract with the NRA, we do not expect to derive substantial revenue from this client in the current fiscal year or under the terms of the new contract.

For the six-month period ended June 30, 2000, we derived approximately 12% of our revenue from a contract with MatchLogic. We recognized $350,000 from this contract in the three-month period ended June 30, 2000 and will recognize the remaining $100,000 of services over the next 24 months.

We rely on a third-party database program to store our voter and departments of motor vehicle records, and our ability to deliver our products would be impaired if we were unable to use that database program or replace this program in a timely manner.

Our voter records and departments of motor vehicle records are stored on a standard, commercially available database program that we license from Microsoft Corporation. If we were to lose access to this database for any reason, including our breach of the license agreement with Microsoft, we would be required to transition our database to an alternate commercially available database program, which could cause delays in our ability to offer our products and services associated with the voter records and departments of motor vehicle records. This delay could lead to dissatisfied clients, potential liability to clients, damage to our reputation and loss of any competitive advantage we enjoy.

Anyway, we’re talking about the US of A here. They are a big sophisticated advanced FUBAR democracy. What does it mean to us?

License of United Kingdom Voter Records

On February 21, 2000 the Company entered into an agreement with a third party to license voter records in the United Kingdom. For the use of these records, the Company will pay 50% of its after tax revenues generated from the use of the licensed data. The contract also provides for minimum per record royalties based upon the total number of records licensed to third parties. The Company made a non-refundable deposit of approximately $15,000 which will be used to offset the initial royalties. The agreement expires in 2003 with the right to use the voter records expiring one year later.

We have licensed the voter records of the United Kingdom, and although we have made only one sale in the amount of approximately $10,000 through June 30, 2000, we may collect voter data and expand our sales efforts in the United Kingdom and other countries, if appropriate opportunities arise.

Use of our products and services in foreign jurisdictions may be heavily regulated. For example, in order to collect campaign contributions online in the United Kingdom, a website operator may have to comply with the legislative requirements contained in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill, which has not yet been finally approved by the British Parliament. We believe that this legislation could place restrictions on access to and use of information about registered voters in the United Kingdom. However, we cannot foresee the scope or nature of these restrictions or their ultimate impact on our operations, if any, because the legislation has not yet become law or been made publicly available.

Further, the terms of our contract for our license of the United Kingdom voter records provide that the licensor can terminate our license if the licensor reasonably determines that the contract is no longer commercially viable, as a result of a change in circumstances. If our collection and use of voter records were ultimately too heavily restricted to make our products commercially viable, or if our license to use the United Kingdom voter records were terminated, we would lose our investment in acquiring the license to this data. Similarly, other countries into which we intend to expand may enact their own privacy regulations that may limit the collection and use of voter information, which, if applied to the sale of our products or services, could negatively impact our results of operations. Given the early stage of our discussions, we have not yet engaged legal counsel to research the existence or extent of any foreign restrictions that may be applicable to our operations.

These days activity seems to be thin here, though maybe things will be ramping up for the next UK election after two years of all money being in the United States. I don’t have time to check whether Aristotle International Europe Ltd has anything to do with them.

Other trivia

The founder was the kid in Princeton University who famously got in trouble with the FBI for designing an Atomic weapon from publicly held available information in 1977. His supervisor was Freeman Dyson, father of Esther Dyson, who stood on the board of Aristotle International, among her other interests.

This alarmed me, because Esther Dyson is on the board of The Sunlight Foundation, so to see her involved in what appears on the surface of it to be a completely evil anti-democratic sell-out-to-anything corporation doesn’t bode well.

But a Vanity Fair article about the company explains it:

“It seemed really intriguing,” she says of the company’s mission, “using market mechanisms to foster political action.” But she gave up her seat after concluding that Phillips was more interested in making a profit. “The focus changed,” she says.

From the same December 2007 article:

“You can target Labour Party voters in the business section of London with the same systems you use to target people in the Virginia primary,” Phillips says, the excitement rising in his voice. “There are going to be global referenda in the not-too-distant future, I think, where people all over the world are going to vote at their A.T.M. machine, from their mobile phone. We’re getting to an age when there’s going to be that kind of direct democracy, and direct democracy requires ready access to the ability to communicate with voters.”

What are the conclusions?

One of the most effective ways to win in business, politics, or even sport, is to destroy the competition. Poisoning or starving your competitors makes them easier to beat and therefore win the pot of money reserved for the “best”. Do nothing to help them.

Clearly, by this logic, Aristotle International isn’t going to want to have anything to do with us (citizen activists developing our own web technologies), because that cuts into their own business/profit interests. If they can, they’re going to want to prevent such grass-roots activities from taking hold — at least until their business has become established and dominant (but then it becomes even easier to suppress and discourage).

As I have discovered, political engagement during elections doesn’t seem to happen in the UK in the same way as it does in the US where political lobbies routinely attack a candidate on a particular Parliamentary vote. So their services might not have been so successful as expected. Who could have predicted that back in 2003 when we all thought that the Iraq War would have some tiny effect on Tony Blair’s re-election.

In any case, the allegation I can make, based on the evidence collected and presented so far this morning, is that Ask Aristotle may have been a joint venture between The Guardian Media Group and Aristotle International, Inc to establish a UK business in the sector of corporate manipulation of electoral behavoir for profit, and in the process of this they discouraged, failed to engage with, and failed to publicise the exciting nascent web activities of democratic activists in their country (by not even putting in back-links) in a way that the most forward-looking, high-quality, dynamic on-line web-enabled media outlet would have been expected to have done had they not been planning to make money out of it by instead selling all of their brand and expertise to an outside US corporation whose intentions would be to make politics here as absolutely shitty, expensive, dire and misinformed as it is over there.

I don’t like this thought at all. I hope it’s wrong. Everything can be explained by the answer to the question “Why was it called ‘Ask Aristotle’?”

An on-the-record article explaining how it is connected to the philosopher and not to the corporation brand name derived from some greedy Princeton graduate’s middle name would do the trick.

Update 1: Archive.org shows that Ask Aristotle began on 23 March 2008 and was “sponsored by Syntegra” probably for the election. I’ve no idea what Syntegra was in 2001, but it’s now BT Consulting. Anyway, it makes this conspiracy theory look a little weaker, but doesn’t completely get to the bottom of these questions.

Update 2: The April 2001 archive.org of Syntegra says it was part of BT “dedicated to creating winners in the digital economy”, but with no mention of The Guardian being one of its customers.

From the Sponsorship opportunities on the Guardian:

There are various search boxes across the Guardian Unlimited network which are available for sponsorship. As part of their campaign to promote their brand as ‘The brains behind the scenes’, BT’s Syntegra sponsored the search boxes on the front of the Guardian Unlimited network, and the Ask Aristotle search boxes across the Politics site. The three-month package included integrated statements of association, and Syntegra was the exclusive banner advertiser on the results pages generated by using the search tool. The package also included buttons on the front of the network and across the Politics site.

Usually banner advertisements are hyperlinked to the sponsor, but not according to the HTML source. It’s not yet clear whether employees of Syntegra, the Guardian, or Aristotle International are responsible for the sub-site. Syntegra could have the connections to do it, given their association with the Statute Law Database as far back as 1993. Ultimately it would take someone involved in its creation to make themselves known.

2 Comments

  • 1. Etienne Pollard replies at 10th January 2009, 11:21 am :

    Julian

    It was called Ask Aristotle because he seemed like a wise old bird, not because of any particular link with the company you mention above.

    Etienne

  • 2. Julian replies at 14th January 2009, 7:28 pm :

    You might be right. Although if my speculation was true and it was a failed business venture, I don’t believe anyone would admit it to me.

    The SEC filings do include the statement:

    We may not be able to use the Aristotle brand name as a result of an alleged trademark infringement.

    We have received letters dated February 29, 2000 through June 22, 2000 from Beacon Street, Inc., a provider of Internet access, website design and hosting, requesting that we cease using its registered trademark Aristotle in connection with our website design, Web hosting services and our domain name, and that we make disclaimers of affiliation with Beacon Street on our website and
    promotional material. We have engaged outside counsel to evaluate the claims, and are challenging the assertions made by Beacon Street. Any negotiated
    resolution of this issue, or the result of litigation, if any, may preclude us from using the name Aristotle for our website design product and services or website domain names. If we are unable to use the name Aristotle for these products and services, or as part of our domain name we would be required to develop a new brand name, which could negatively impact our sales and marketing activities.

    You would have expected the Guardian to steer clear of such a brand-name to avoid any hassle from this company that was just opening up its business at the time.

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