I was on the sofa with a visionary

There was an article in The Daily Telegraph that I read on the plane yesterday. It’s titled “The happiest marriages start on the internet” and it’s about a large-scale survey that appears to show that couples who met on the web have a substantially lower rate of divorce and report higher levels of satisfaction. The article says that survey did not investigate why online marriages are more successful. But I know why.

A great many years ago, I took part in a programme about internet dating on a Sky channel. It was so long ago that I can’t remember when it was (late 1990s I would guess) or what the programme was called or even what channel it was on. Anyway, the idea of the show was they that would have a relationship expert and a technical expert on the sofa with a number of couples who had met through the then-new channel of internet dating. Since they couldn’t find a technical expert, they called me and, since I will do literally anything to get the company name on screen, I went along.

It was really fun. They asked me a few questions about internet security and how you could be sure whether the person you were talking to was who they say they are. I told them, essentially, you can’t. On the internet, no-one knows you’re a dogbot, and so on. But what I do remember is that the female relationship expert, who I think was a psychologist, said unequivocally that in the long run it would be internet dating that is the norm and that the idea that you would choose a mate while drunk in a bar would be considered ridiculous. I may be remembering incorrectly, but I think she made two main points about this.

The first was that internet dating enabled people to get to know each other a lot better before they met, so they could make much more accurate long-term selections.

The second was that women would benefit from this mode of dating because it enabled them to evaluate multiple men simultaneously and thus greatly improve their odds of selecting an appropriate mate. Women are pickier than men, so the online mode is very helpful to them.

The expert also absolutely predicted that in a few years time, internet couples would have a better success rate than non-internet couples, a prediction that appears borne out by the statistics I saw in yesterday’s paper.

I’m embarrassed I can’t remember her name, because she was spot on.

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes.

Jackie No

The “The Law of the Telephone” by Herbert Kellogg in The Yale Law Journal 4(6) (June 1895) is a fantastic read. It begins by establishing that the basis of the law of the telephone is the law of the telegraph:

Like all common carriers the telephone company may establish reasonable conditions which applicants must comply with; and the use of profane or obscene language over a telephone may justify a company in refusing further service, on the same ground that a telegraph is not liable for a failure to send immoral or gambling messages.

Thus the new medium inherits from the old one. But is this true in social terms? Whole books were written to set out an etiquette for the telephone and to explain to the person in the street how to use the new technology in a civilised manner. I predict we are weeks, perhaps hours, away from a similar book for new Google Glasses users. I can see that there has already been plenty of thinking about the ethics of wearable computing, so we should probably start there rather than wait for new regulation evolve to govern us.

He also said that in deference to social expectations, he puts his wearable glasses around his neck, rather than on his head, when he enters private places like a restroom.

[From Privacy Challenges of Wearable Computing – NYTimes.com]

I remember reading something about memes once. I can’t remember where it was ever couldn’t find it through superficial googling, but I remember the example that was given, which was the way that women started to wear sunglasses pushed up on the top of their heads apparently in emulation of Jackie Kennedy, wife of the noted philanderer Jack Kennedy. I’ve no idea whether this is true or not and I’m sure someone will be else send me a picture of a woman wearing sunglasses on the top of her head before Jackie Kennedy was born, but the example stuck with me and returns whenever I think about the spread of means within a population, evolving social norms and the role of media. So it is with great pleasure that I announce the first new meme for Google Glasses. I call it the “Jackie No” rule. It is this: when you go into a public restroom, you should push your Google Glasses to the top of your head, Jackie Kennedy style, to signal to anyone you might meet that you are not a pervert. I imagine that there are many circumstances where merely wearing Google classes will arouse suspicion you are not entirely normal, but here is one case where the inherent boundaries that make a civilised society possible must be made explicit for the safe functioning of civil society.

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes.

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


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