House of snores

When I was bored on a plane recently, I switched on a show I’d never heard of before called “House of Lies“. It was mislabelled as a comedy, although it didn’t have a single even mildly amusing line in it. It was exactly as uninteresting as you will imagine it to be when I tell you it is about management consultants. The main characters are meant to be from Bain or McKinsey or somewhere like that, and the central plot device (which does accord with reality) is that the main purpose of their engagements with customers is to obtain more money from the customer rather than to fix any problems. The central characters form a realistic team: a very attractive women who is used to destabilise the largely male management of target companies, the male nerd and the main business guy. They work for a caricature rainmaker.

It was superficial, boring and annoying in that it clearly thinks it is being somehow subversive when it isn’t at all. I looked up a couple of reviews as I was writing this post and was astonished to find that some people like it. There really is no accounting for taste.

Although consultants as good-guys (even thieving good-guys) is itself a tough sell, House of Lies makes it all work by having the victims – companies, executives – look like even more unsympathetic dupes who deserve what they get because of their greed or stupidity.

[From TV Review: ‘House of Lies’ Gives Showtime a Raunchy Laugher – Hollywood Reporter]

The main conceit is that the characters are more interested in having sex than in work, but I suppose that’s true of any group of highly paid professionals who spend a lot of time away from home.

My advice is to ignore the show. Real management consulting reports are often funnier.

 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

Unlinked

I started getting a lot of messages saying that people had endorsed me on LinkedIn. Many thanks to everyone who did so. I’m genuinely grateful. But I’m afraid I won’t be endorsing anyone at all. Here’s the standard response to any request for an endorsement.

Please don’t take my refusal to endorse personally! I’m more than happy to endorse you in person to anyone, but not via LinkedIn. The problem that I have with LinkedIn endorsements is this. The first time I ever got a request for an endorsement it was from a guy I’d worked for a few years before. He was very good at his job, and I happily endorsed him. The second time someone asked me for an endorsement, it was from a woman who I thought was useless. I could not face the embarrassment of refusing her, so I decided not to take part in the system. Being English, I cannot deal with embarrassment and if I endorse some people, then other people will know that I’m not endorsing them, if you see what I mean! It’s nothing personal, but the LinkedIn recommendation system just doesn’t work for me.

When it comes down to it, I’m just too English to be able use the system.

 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

Government’s Magic Boxes will get rid of porn

Well, excellent scoop from Channel 4. Apparently, the government has discovered a Magic Box of some description.

Internet and phone firms are preparing to install “black boxes” to monitor UK internet and phone traffic, and decode encrypted messages – including Facebook and GMail messages.

[From ‘Black boxes’ to monitor all internet and phone data – Channel 4 News]

When I say scoop, of course, I’m being sarcastic, since the plans are well-known and several years old.

Home Office officials have told senior figures from the internet and telecommunications industries that the “black box” technology could automatically retain and store raw data from the web before transferring it to a giant central database controlled by the Government.

[From Government black boxes will ‘collect every email’ – Home News – UK – The Independent]

But Channel 4 say that these boxes have some pretty amazing abilities, including that of decrypting all internet traffic. Apparently the government’s Magic Box decrypts everything, throws away the content and then sends the message headers back to the ISP for storage, although why they would bother doing this isn’t clear – why doesn’t the government store them? Anyway, the point is that the government knows what you are looking at. So…

The Prime Minister spoke recently about the possibility that internet services or devices might come with a filter on as their default setting, and said that the government should investigate that option and seek views on it.

[From Ministers consult public on ‘opt in for smut’ plans • The Register]

Why can’t the government do this? Since it knows what you’re looking at, if you’re looking at child pornography, Nazi drug-dealing propaganda or the Labour party manifesto then the Magic Box can simply throw away the traffic. I’m thinking of popping along to the Conservative Technology Forum in a couple of weeks’ time so I’ll ask the question there: if these Magic Boxes do exist, then why doesn’t the government use them to block child pornography? And if they say that they won’t, then I’ll write the Daily Wail headline myself: “Cameron decides to allow child pornography”.

I’ve tried googling to find out how the Magic Boxes are going to decrypt SSL sessions but without success. It could be that one of the big IT suppliers has told the government that it can be done provided several hundred million quid are invested in building custom systems, and that when a billion quid has been wasted on it they will just cancel the project (like the NHS Supercomputer). One implication is obvious though: the government will have to ban VPNs and PGP.

 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

TEDdy bear

A few years ago, while banging my head against the brick wall that was Her Majesty’s Government’s ID Cards scheme, I had an idea for trying to explain what technology could do to deliver a better national identity infrastructure for the 21st century: use Dr. Who’s “psychic paper” as the narrative pivot, much as the technologists of a previous generation used the Star Trek “Communicator” as the template for the mobile phone.

What was an amusing notion for a talk at a small conference took hold and I developed the concept in a paper that was published in the Journal of Identity in the Information Society back in 2009 [here] and evolved the idea of the “Psychic ID”.

what started off as an idea in a discussion — basically, trying to visualise 21st-century digital identity management using Dr. Who’s psychic paper as a reference point, having given up on trying to explain keys, certificates and all the rest of the crypto-infrastructure — became a presentation and then a paper and finally a peer-reviewed paper that I’m rather proud of. I’ve found a way to explain to non-technical audiences — well, British non-technical audiences at least — that the combination of widely-available devices and intelligence can deliver an identity management infrastructure that can achieve much more than they imagine.

[From Digital Identity: I can see an article of some sort. Anyone called David?]

The idea went down tolerably well, so when I was very kindly invited to give my first TEDx talk at Sussex University I thought I’d give it a try. It was actually very difficult to know what to present. We ran through it a couple of times at the office, but I wasn’t sure who would be in the audience or what they would be interested in so it was hard to judge to contact. Anyway, it seemed to go down OK on the day, and I was quite excited when I got a link to a video of the talk.

When I saw the video, I was horrified! Points not made properly, interrupted trains of thought, stupid jokes in the wrong place (or half completed, including a good joke about banks having problems with id management), a series of distractions, key points not made properly, too many slides with variable pacing… I could go on. I rather pride myself on presenting as my only comparative advantage and contribution to Consult Hyperion, so I was, to say the least, not very happy with it.

Hence I was astonished, and genuinely flattered, to get an e-mail informing me that my talk was one of the less than one in a hundred of the TEDx talks that are shown on the main TED site. And as of today, there it is.

I won’t get over this for a while.

 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

Why don’t they listen to me?

I’ve been moaning about how stupid the general public are over on my reactionary parochial HTML emulation of talk radio at its worst, Citizen of Woking. But that left me wondering how come supposedly educated people can make such sub-optimal decisions about important economic matters. Consider the simple example of technology policy. The current government is supposed to be in favour of competition, progress and individual liberty. But when it comes down to it, they always cave in favour of vested interests by restricting competition, reducing economic growth and controlling the populace.

Look at the continuing fuss about Internet tracking and censorship. Economic evidence seems to suggest that a copyright term in the range of 12-15 years is best for society, balancing the rewards to IP creators and the rest of society appropriately, yet politicians keep extending the copyright term far beyond this level. This has an unfortunate spillover that leads to bad policy in other areas, such as internet privacy. Cliff Richard is against internet privacy for entirely sociopathic reasons to do with what economists call “rent-seeking regulatory capture”, but he finds a sympathetic ear in the government because a) the government don’t want privacy either – they want Chinese cyberwarriors as well as EMI and GCHQ to be able to listen in to your internet conversations – and find sobbing pop stars a useful smokescreen and b) because it’s more fun talking to pop stars than to dreary middle-aged “experts” (e.g., me).

 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

Working (?) lunch

A couple of years ago I was interviewed on the BBC television programme “Working Lunch”, shortly after which it was taken of the air and is sadly now only a memory. It happened to be on a day in the school holidays and I was taking my sons into London to go to a movie or something, so I brought them along with me. The BBC were very kind hosts and let the boys come and see the gallery while I was being interviewed. This was quite exciting for them so they shot some video with their phones. Later on, I thought it would be funny to put the “making of” documentary up with the interview on our family YouTube channel (which is password-protected and only viewed by family members). I hadn’t looked at it for ages, but I was showing to a family friend the other day and I noticed that the soundtrack cut out. Why? Well, there’s a weird comment appeared with the video that says something about copyright!

Those BBC bastards! I’m a licence payer, and if I want to include a clip from an old episode of Working Lunch on my private YouTube channel because I WAS BEING INTERVIEWED then I should be allowed to it.

 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

Liberal interpretations

I once read a fascinating article in Prospect magazine about an experiment to explore moral dilemmas. The thought experiment rests on notions of railways, tracks and switches: essentially, people are asked to make choices about life and death. In one experiment, you can set the switch to send an out-of-control train down one branch, where it will kill five people, or down another branch, where it will kill one person. That sort of thing, in all sorts of different configurations.

I thought the most surprising result of the experiment was the difference between liberals and conservatives. In an experiment where subjects could save a Philharmonic orchestra by pushing an African American on to the tracks or could save the Harlem Jazz Orchestra by pushing a WASP on to the tracks, the liberals showed a marked propensity to make different choices, whereas conservatives did not. This suggests to me, at least, that there is a deep-seated difference between the world views, more than simply political attitudes.

 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

Tough on bankers, tough on the causes of bankers

I posted before about a great financial crisis, industry collapse and bailouts. Not the banks of today, but the railways of the Victorian age .

When the Directors of these gigantic enterprises that dominated the economy went to see the Prime Minister in 1867 to ask for the nationalisation of the railway companies to stop them from collapsing (with dread consequences for the whole British economy) because they couldn’t pay back their loans or attract new capital, they didn’t get the Gordon Brown, investment banker advisers, suspension of competition law and the tea and sympathy of today. Benjamin Disraeli told them to get stuffed: he didn’t see why the public should bail out badly run businesses.

[From Bailing out | 15Mb: yet another blog from Dave Birch]

Good man. And there’s another lesson worth learning from that crisis. Last year I read a paper from Andrew Odlyzko called “The Collapse of Railway Mania, the development of capital markets, and Robert Lucas Nash, a forgotten pioneer of accounting and financial analysis”. It talks about how many of the modern accounting methods that take for granted arose during that period.

The moral of the tale, such as it is, is that letting the railways collapse not only led to a stronger railway industry but it also helped other industries as well, because it meant that new standards for accounting and reporting were put into place. The banking crisis has followed an entirely different trajectory, where public money has been used to put things back exactly as they were before. Somehow, we were persuaded that the banks are a special case, not subject to the same rules of business, a point echoed by the noted economist John Kay.

We need to stop thinking of financial services as a unique business whose problems are sui generis, and whose economic role is one of special privilege. The historic deal, which limited competition in banking in return for an expectation of prudent behaviour, has been abrogated by the actions of banks and bankers. Today, both consumer protection and macroeconomic stability will be best served by the policies to promote competition which are rightly favoured in other sectors of the economy.

[From John Kay – Should We Have ‘Narrow Banking’?]

Hear hear. And surely one of the central policies to promote competition should be that people who make catastrophically bad decisions should go out of business. Another one might be to adopt a more robust approach to banking activities that turn out not be to strictly congruent with the letter (or spirit) of the law.

A $2.6 billion financial fraud that has shaken the government of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saw the heads of three of the country’s banks ousted on Tuesday as lawmakers threaten to impeach the economy minister. The biggest fraud in the 32-year history of the Islamic Republic could result in the death penalty for anyone found guilty of it and has become part of an increasingly ugly split in the conservative elite that runs Iran.

[From UPDATE 1-Iran bank chiefs ousted in $2.6 bln fraud fallout | Reuters]

Tough on bankers, tough on the causes of bankers. It’s the only language they understand.

 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

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

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]