Texting the Riot Act

In a way, we shouldn’t be surprised at some of the bonkers comments that ministers and members of Parliament are making about mobile phones, social media and the role of the inter-web tubes in the recent unpleasantness in London and some of our other deprived, inner-city areas such as Gloucester. Remember, not only do these people not really understand how any of the technology works, they have no technical or scientific training to help them think any of their ideas through. So an MP will say that RIM should stop looters from communicating with each other, not realising that not only is there no practical way of doing this, but that there is no conceivable reason as to why we should even want to try. We WANT looters to communicate via BBM, Twitter and text, thus providing an excellent forensic trail.

I suspect that some of the comments about social media, masks and so forth all derive from the same confusion about what identity is and what it should be in an online society. The government has no strategy for this, no guiding principles. And I’m convinced that their knee-jerk comments about these issues are wrong. Here’s why. We are all bored with seeing that same old cartoon over and over again: (in cyberspace no one knows you’re a dog). Well, yes. But as I’ve consistently pointed out since the earliest days of the inter web:

In cyberspace, no-one know youre a dog but on the other hand no-one knows you’re with the FBI either.

[From Journal of Internet Banking and Commerce]

On balance, do you want criminals to coordinate their activities using post-it notes, invisible ink and secret signs or do you want them to record all of their activities electronically? Personally, I’m for the latter.

A new Google Group called “London Riots Facial Recognition” has appeared online, in the wake of the riots that rocked the U.K. capital over the weekend. The group’s goal is to use facial recognition technologies to identify the looters who appear in online photos.

[From Google Group Members to Use Facial Recognition to Identify London Rioters | TechCrunch]

I heard somebody on the radio earlier on (I don’t remember who it was) saying that Facebook should find ways to stop looters from uploading pictures of their trophies. Like this one.

article-2023667-0D59940300000578-97_634x604

I disagree! Surely a rational policy would be to exploit the advances in face recognition, pattern matching and network analysis to encourage the looters (a great many of whom are, frankly, not the sharpest tools in the box) to post as much of this stuff is possible to make their automated detection as easy as possible.

There’s a similar argument about the physical world. I think I heard one of the MPs in the Commons debate earlier on say that it’s illegal for people to wear masks in public for the purpose of concealing their identity and therefore the police should have been arresting looters in masks. But this would require huge police manpower and will be very difficult to execute. A much better idea would be for plainclothes policeman to join the crowds wearing masks themselves and capture as much intelligence as possible so that they can work towards arresting the ringleaders instead of expending effort on arresting teenage girls for stealing six bottles of nail polish. A simple scheme would be to carry a can of spray paint and put a mark on the back of ringleaders, a more complex one might be to shine a laser pointer on them to guide in missiles fired by drones.

Anyway, there’s a general problem with technology and the government’s policies and responses. And there are all sorts of reasons: educational standards, funding for research etc etc. I know many people disagree with me, but I think in the British environment there is another factor: class.

Mr Cameron responds that many of the rioters used closed networks, such as Blackberry, to organise their activities and this has to be looked at.

[From BBC News – MPs debate riots]

David Cameron (Eton, Oxford, PPE), Theresa May (grammar school, Oxford, Geography) and George Osborne (St. Pauls, Oxford, History) may not be the best people to comment on the use of BBM, Twitter or Facebook since I’m sure they have no picture of how these work and how they may be “controlled”. I’m not being anti-public school or anti-Oxbridge: I would welcome more public school, Oxbridge scientists into positions of power. The most senior civil servant I have ever met (who was responsible for a huge government programme based on IT) had read English at Oxbridge and hadn’t got a clue about the project. He began one meeting by saying “I don’t understand the technology”. We should have got up and walked out at that point, but of course we didn’t.

PM announces crackdown on gangs and social media

[From Telegraph.co.uk – Telegraph online, Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph – Telegraph]

What on Earth is he talking about? A “crackdown” on social media??? This makes no sense – it’s like saying he’s going to have a crackdown on printing or telephones. This something that bothers me about MPs, ministers and and civil servants lacking the mental models necessary to make sense of the technology. I can’t write Objective-C code or debug a Java middle at but I can understand what the twitter client on my mobile phone is doing because I have the framework of understanding. Many years ago CP Snow rather famously said that you couldn’t be a gentleman without understanding the 2nd law of thermodynamics (which is that there is no such thing as a free lunch, essentially). Perhaps updated version of this might be that you shouldn’t be entitled to call yourself a gentleman unless you understand the difference between TCP and IP, or something like that.

As delivered in 1959, Snow’s Rede Lectures specifically condemned the British educational system… This in practice deprived British elites (in politics, administration, and industry) of adequate preparation to manage the modern scientific world.

[From C. P. Snow – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia]

Absolutely nothing has changed.

 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

Room for improvement

E-Books are, to me, an emotional topic because I’m so viscerally connected to the book as a physical artefact and the bookshop as a physical place. Yet e-books are undeniably eating away at paper and shelves.

Europe has lagged behind the U.S. in widespread adoption of e-books, but a new report suggests that they are finally taking off. The e-book market in Western Europe grew by 400 percent in 2010, a new report finds. By 2015, e-books should make up 15 percent of total book sales in the region. (By contrast, in the U.S., they were already at 6.4 percent in 2010.)

[From Western Europe Sees Huge Shift Toward E-Books | paidContent]

I find myself using e-books more and more and I think I have developed a reasonable strategy. The thing is, I love books. I can’t stop buying them. I love browsing around bookshops, I love buying books and reading them on the train home, I love ordering off of my Amazon wish list ready for an upcoming business trip. I’m writing this in California. On the plane on the way over I finished the excellent “Forgotten Fatherland” by Ben Macintyre (I enjoyed it so much I’ve added his “Agent Zigzag” to my wish list for my next trip) that had been recommended to me by my brother-in-law and started a new Christopher Priest novel “Inverted World” that I’d picked up in Forbidden Planet the other day (I decided I fancied some Sci-Fi but wasn’t sure what, so I went for a potter about their shelves). Books, all of them.

On the train from San Francisco down to San Jose, though, I was reading Henry Fielding’s “Tom Jones“. I’ve discovered that there are hundreds of classics that I can download to my iPad’s Kindle app for nothing. Free. I read Charles Dicken’s Christmas Carol for the first time a couple of weeks ago, using the iPad on the train when I can’t get a seat (which is actually making me think of buying a Kindle because the iPad is a little heavy when you are standing up on South West Trains). Downloading the free classic novels and reading them on my iPad in addition to buying physical books of one form or another is really working for me! I feel as if I’ve discovered an useful balance between the real and physical that is actually “improving” (in the Victorian sense)..

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

Which emergency service? Digital Champion please.

Yet more speed camera misery in our house. 50 in a 40 at 12.30pm on a deserted stretch of well-lit road near Guildford. But hurrah! A form arrives saying that as a means to rachet up middle-class motoring taxation a notch further, my good lady wife can opt to go to on speed awareness course and thus get off of the points. We fill out the form — name, address, driving licence number and so on (every single field on the form was something that they already knew) — and send it back.

A couple of weeks later, we get another letter, saying that they have not yet heard from us and that if they don’t hear from us then my good lady wife will be fined and “pointed”. So I set about filling in the same form yet again. Why can’t I do this online? The missive from the “Safety Camera Partnership” has a unique reference number, after all. There’s no phone number on either the form or the covering letter, so they clearly don’t want us to phone up, but there is a URL at the bottom of the letter so, hurrah, I assume I can deal with the issue online.

But, of course, there is nothing remotely transactional about the site. You can’t fill out the form online (and I’ll bet a pound to a penny that on the twentieth anniversary of the founding of Netscape on 4th April 2014, you still won’t be able to) although you can, in a nod to the 21st century, download the forms to fill out. Digital Britain at its finest: a pretty web site that cost zillions to build and but unable to execute any useful work at all. Isn’t this the sort of thing our Digital Champion is supposed to be doing when she’s finished teaching a fifth of the population to read so that they can use websites?

 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

Mundane indeed

One of the fellow members of my writers’ circle wrote an excellent short story (that really should have been a novella) about the future, in which people met in cyberspace, for reasons that I will not spoil by divulging. In her story, her characters refer to their physical bodies as “mundane”. The use of “mundane” as the opposite to “virtual” struck me as a wonderful and appropriate use of language. Just a reminder: mundane means…

  1. Lacking interest or excitement; dull
  2. Of this earthly world rather than a heavenly or spiritual one
  3. Of, relating to, or denoting the branch of astrology that deals with political, social, economic, and geophysical events and processes

The use of the word is perfect across all of these meanings. I read a review of the movie Inception — a quick google fails to find it — that mentioned that the shared dream state in the movie is remarkably similar to the virtual world experience. Seeing my teenagers “jack in” to World of Warcraft does indeed seem rather similar to seeing the characters in the movie connect to a shared dream.

As I write this post, my younger son is playing World of Warcraft with a number of his friends. He is wearing a headset and talking to them via Skype while they work co-operatively in the “game”. In the virtual world, his primary loyalty is to the guild, as is his friends’, and they are working together, immersed in the physics, but particularly the economics, of their shared hallucination. When they switch off, they will be back in a world where they are just kids, it’s raining and there’s nothing on telly. Mundane indeed.

Following my friend’s brilliant insight, I shall stop using the word “real” and from now on will only refer to the mundane world as the “opposite” of the virtual world. They’re both “real”.

 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes… [posted with ecto]

Why I’m looking forward to Clare’s Law

I’m always suspicious when Home Secretaries get involved in the Internet, or indeed any other form of new technology. They are not, by and large, people who understand technical issues and are therefore subject to blandishments of management consultants and solutions vendors, who will tell them that computers are the way to solve whatever the issue of the day is. This is why when I heard on the radio about some new law requiring the police to tell you who are are dealing with on the Internet, I did a quick google on the superficially mad proposition and was not surprised to find the current incumbent to the fore.

According to the Mail on Sunday, Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has indicated in a letter that she is considering the idea.

[From Government considers ‘Clare’s Law’ – Telegraph]

I didn’t really read the rest of it, but I assume the idea is that when you click on an online newspaper article at, let’s say, the Daily Mirror or the Daily Mail, then you are automatically connected to some kind of police database that will tell you whether the reporter has been arrested or imprisoned for phone hacking or whether, let’s say, Trinity Mirror or Associated Newspapers have been involved in any underhand news-gathering techniques.

If you ask me, it’s a bit of a knee-jerk reaction and it will be impossible to implement. Reporters will simply use fake names or pretend wire services in Mozambique and carry on as normal. I think we have to persuade the publoc to adjust to the new reality: you simply can’t trust anyone who claims to be from a British newspaper, no matter how plausible they seem.

 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes… [posted with ecto]

I don’t know about “intellectual”, but someone has to think this through

Our Communications Commissar, Mr. Ed Vaizey, has been having some more meetings with key stakeholders (other than, for example, the public) about copyright and such like. The people consulted about this are, naturally, the vested interests who would benefit from stricter copyright enforcement (provided the costs can be offloaded onto the taxpayer) rather than the diffuse and disparate interests who would benefit an environment more supportive of innovation. But there’s more at work here than Bastiat’s candlemakers, and I suspect something pernicious. As John Naughton picked out of the Hargreaves report on Intellectual Property:

In the case of IP policy and specifically copyright policy, however, there is no doubt that the persuasive powers of celebrities and important UK creative companies have distorted policy outcomes.

[From The stupidity of our copyright laws is finally laid bare | Technology | The Observer]

The economist John Kay is absolutely spot on about this in his comments on the Hargreaves report.

Mr Hargreaves deplores the way government policy has been led by business interests and not evidence of its effects. The Carter report, unintentionally, illustrated his point in every chapter.

[From FT.com / Comment / Op-Ed Columnists – Publishers badly need a new Sir Thomas Bodley]

If the debate were led by rational business interests, maximising the value of the industry for UK plc, that would be one thing. But it isn’t. It’s led by pop stars egged on by record companies, misguided authors and the owners of rights. I put this point to none other than Fearghal Sharkey, once upon a time the lead singer of the Undertones, but now the CEO of lobby group UK Music.

Photo0017

Fun. We had an honest to and fro with Rory Cellan-Jones of the BBC in the middle and it made for an enjoyable end to a long day listening to people discussing the future of consumer electronics. I said, essentially, that I thought that copyright should be reduced to a welfare-maximising level of around 15 years in return for more effective enforcement of unauthorised copying of the material because the legal and regulatory environment should be constructed to the benefit of society as a whole and not be co-opted by the economic interests of particular sectors and he said, essentially, fuck off.

 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes… [posted with ecto]

Not neutral

Emily Nagel, the CEO of Yankee Group, has a book called “Anywhere“. I happened to be reading this last week, and I came across the section on “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” in Chapter 11, “Anywhere Unknowns”. In it, she makes a good point about net neutrality and she says

…at Yankee Group our perspective is that legislating the ways in which the network capacity can or cannot be monetised by the networks’ owners is likely to stifle their efforts to find ways to monetise the constantly increasing traffic loading their networks.

This is absolutely spot on. It is perfectly reasonable for Virgin Media to charge me for QoS and GoS (Quality of Service and Grade of Service, as us old telecommunications hands still think of them). But it is not reasonable for them to charge me depending on what, or who, I am connected to. What’s more, it will never work. If Virgin (my ISP) wanted to charge me extra for looking at the BBC website or accessing BBC iPlayer rather than Virgin’s web site, then I would simply log on through an SSL VPN all the time, instead of only when I am overseas and want to telly, as I do now. I also use a US VPN when I want to watch “The Daily Show” sometimes. Once everyone has switched to encrypted VPNs, then none of the ISPs will know what anyone is connected to. Anyway, who would be against net neutrality?

In a speech entitled “The Open Internet” Communications Minister Ed Vaizey was said to have opened the floodgates for, say, Sky to provide a broadband service that prioritised its TV catch-up services and made those of the BBC practically unwatchable.

[From Ed Vaizey: ‘My overriding priority is an open internet’ – Telegraph]

I went along to the Houses of Parliament a few days ago at the invitation of Stephen McPartland MP and Alun Michael MP to hear Britain’s Communications supremo, Ed Vaizey, talk about this. The Hon. Edward Vaizey went to one of the most expensive private schools in the country (the same one as Nick Clegg) and is a barrister, and is therefore ideally suited to job of Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries. Hansard says that one of his specialist subjects is “light bulbs”. That was why I was looking forward to his speech. He said that:

  • The Government’s communications policy is going to attract high-tech industries to the UK. He never said how, and I was left puzzled as to how his views on net neutrality might support this contention.
  • There will be a digital single market… Broadband… inclusion… Consumer confidence…
  • We should develop “rights management system fit for a digital age” but he didn’t even allude to what this might be or what its requirements might be. I strongly suspect that he is not thinking of maximising the net welfare, but that’s a personal opinion.
  • Competition in telecoms is a good thing and national regulators should stand up to incumbents, something that I’m sure we’d all agree with, especially when those incumbents campaign against net neutrality (this is what BT mean by traffic management based on “types of expected usage“).

He mentioned something about IPv6 in passing, but I didn’t quite catch it. I may be wrong, but I shouldn’t think he knows what IPv6 actually is, so it probably doesn’t matter. He didn’t take questions and left immediately after his talk, but I’m sure we was able to ascertain many of the opinions of the assembled experts by some sort of osmosis as he brushed through the crowd to the exit. Incidentally, he also said “Britain is no longer an island”, which made me laugh out loud because it reminded of the old Not the Nine O’Clock News sketch where “Lord Carrington” says “Britain is not an island” and “Robin Day” cut him off with “Well I’m afraid it still is Peter”.

 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes… [posted with ecto]

Fight them on the breaches

Naturally, we are all worried about the potential for cyberattack by agents of foreign powers bent on destroying our way of life. Or Skynet, whichever comes first.

Kroes called on Europe’s 27 member states to develop the region’s first contingency plan for cyber attacks and form emergency response teams by end-2012. Regional and local attack exercises should become a matter of routine, and individual countries should help develop agreed global security principals for the Web and cloud computing.

[From Kroes calls for coordinated cyber security | Telecoms Europe]

When I read this, I the word “local” tripped me up, because I’m not sure what it means in this context, but then I thought of a kind of 21-st century home guard standing by to repel them on the e-beaches and wondered if this makes more sense given Europe’s demographics. Neelie Kroes specifically mentions Belgium in the article. In Belgium only half of the adult population work: the rest are unemployed or have retired on generous pensions, so the idea of a group of retired bank managers, policemen, local government officials and unemployed persons coming together to form the new Dad’s Cyber-Army (“who do you think you are kidding, Mr. Assange… tra la la”) made me start laughing. I’ve already got some ideas for the first few episodes, and have a classic punchline ready for action: “What’s your password?” / “Don’t tell him it’s ‘Pike'”.

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes… [posted with ecto]

What a treasure

My natural suspicion of politicians talking about technology — I automatically assume that they are talking complete rubbish unless presented with sound evidence to the contrary — was aroused today when I read that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had turned up at some Google event to go on about cyberattack.

Foreign intelligence agencies are carrying out sustained cyberattacks on the UK Treasury, targeting it with malicious emails and programs designed to steal information, the Chancellor, George Osborne, has revealed… He said that government systems are the target of up to 20,000 malicious emails every month

[From Osborne: Treasury under sustained cyberattack | Technology | guardian.co.uk]

This is a very unimpressive figure. I’m the target of 20,000 malicious e-mails every month – I’ve just looked in my junk folder and there are hundreds of them in there right now. I suppose they might not all be malicious, because many of them are in Russian so I have no idea what they say. But you get my point. The log from my internet router at home shows intrusions attempts every few minutes – surely international cyber terrorists would be more interested in the Treasury than me? If anything, the Chancellor’s figures show sustained disinterest in the Treasury from malicious e-mailers the world over.

What really puzzled me about the historian Baronet Osborne’s remarks were that he thought that there might be anything in the Treasury computers worth stealing. What on Earth would these Johnny Foreigners.com want with an always-wrong economic forecasting model and Gordon Brown’s plan to borrow the UK into permanent penury? I doubt they’re after the credit card number, because that was maxed out by the Scottish solicitor Alastair Darling some time ago. If anything, I would have thought that the Treasury’s activities over the last few years are evidence that it has already been penetrated by Asian wizards dedicated to the UK’s demise, inscrutable IT mountebanks who have planted a virus rendering the British government incapable of sound financial management. This theory would explain an awful lot of recent activity: aircraft carriers with no aircraft on them, for example.

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

My first choice

[Dave Birch] As some of you may know, there was a referendum on voting in the UK, asking the British public (a fifth of whom are functionally illiterate) what the best system for electing a Parliament is. Why anyone thought that the public might be qualified to make this kind of decision is unclear to me — I’m with Polly Toynbee on this in thinking that the level of ignorance in our once-great nation is so high as to call the universal franchise into question — but they were being asked to choose between the current “first past the post” system and a proposed “alternative vote” (AV) system whereby second, third, fourth and, indeed, Nth choices. Natural conservatism won out and we voted to keep things exactly the same as they are. But other more innovative people are exploring alternatives.

Having worked with Facebook and various broadcasters over recent months, MIG has successfully integrated the IBP with Facebook, giving fans of some of the world’s most popular participation TV shows the ability to place real-time votes, and enter polls and sweepstake competitions using their Facebook Credits virtual currency.

[From MIG Completes Facebook Credits Integration |]

Never mind AV, or whatever it’s called, here’s a way to improve the participation in the political process in the UK. Since 1 in 6 web page views in the UK are currently Facebook, then why not simply use this open and transparent mechanism. We could simply elect the MP with the most Facebook friends in the constituency, or the one with the most “likes”. The kids could understand that. But I propose using the mechanism in the best way possible.

To use the system, fans of a participation TV show access the show’s Facebook Page, where they can buy votes using Facebook Credits,

[From MIG Completes Facebook Credits Integration |]

Aha! There’s an honesty to this. If you care a lot about something, then you’ll buy some more votes. Alternatively, pressure groups could stockpile Facebook credits and then use them to support candidates. Everything would be above board and instead of a system of hidden bribes and promises, the public could see who exactly had bought the rotten boroughs.

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes