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

Guidelines

Barclays have started a new service whereby you can upload your own image and get a personalised debit card. This sounded like a really fun idea, so I thought I’d give it a try. Unfortunately, Barclays rejected my chosen image because it “has not met our image guidelines”. So I thought I’d better read them before I send another image. The guidelines are that the image must not contain any of the following:

  • Trademarks or company names (e.g., images marked with ® or ™ signs);
  • Images or text protected by copyright (e.g., images marked with © or other watermarks or notations);
  • Slogans, tag lines, branding, marketing or promotional products, services or images of companies;
  • Images of, or the name or nickname of, celebrities, musicians, sportspersons, entertainers, public-figures, film stars, cartoon characters, members of the Royal Family or other famous people;
  • Contact information (e.g., telephone numbers, online usernames, account numbers, addresses or e-mail addresses);
  • Political statements, or images relating to ethnicity or religion;
  • Images of flags;
  • Images, signs, symbols or text relating to money, currency, drugs, tobacco, alcohol, gangs, hatred, graffiti, betting, gambling, or financial products or services;
  • Provocative, lewd or sexual images or content;
  • Nudity;
  • Offensive material (e.g., images, signs, symbols or text relating to violence, death, injury, racism, cruelty, profanity, obscenity, weapons, firearms, ammunition or terrorism);
  • Anti-social or obscene behaviour, or socially unacceptable groups;
  • Content where drinking (or being drunk), smoking or gambling is the focus;
  • Text unless benign and in the English language;
  • Any image that might reflect poorly or might engender hostility toward company brands (including MasterCard®, Visa® or Barclays);
  • Any reference to the Olympic Games, World Cup or any other international branded event;
  • Reference to any bank, building society or other monetary institution;
  • Any inappropriate content;
  • Weapons may only be included if they are being shown in a ceremonial context.

Having scoured the contents of my hard disk I’ve been unable to locate a single image that doesn’t fall foul of these guidelines, so I’ve had to abandon the experiment.

Interestingly, my existing Barclays debit card appears to fall foul of these guidelines because it makes reference to a bank and shows my account number. I will call the help desk to warn them.

 

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

Slide rule precision

I’ve written before about my interest in paleofutures. I think it’s important not just to look at what people used to think about the future but why they thought it. Not to make fun of them, but to try and understand why they were wrong, so that we can use that knowledge to help to construct our own narratives about the future. I need these for work, because narratives are the way to create shared visions for organisations try to develop realistic strategies (and therefore make the right tactical investments right now).

Technology’s Martyrs: The Slide Rule” by Kirk Johnson in the New York Times (3rd January 1987) covers the story of Keuffel & Esser. This company, founded in 1867, was America’s pre-eminent manufacturer of slide rules. In 1965, they sold one million of them. In 1967, their centenary, they were commissioned to prepare a report about the future called “Life in the year 2067”, looking a century on. They interviewed scientists to come up with a vision that predicted electric cars and 3D TV. What it didn’t predict was that they would be out of business within a few years because of the electronic calculator. The end came quickly. On this day in 1976

K&E produced its last slide rule, which it presented to the Smithsonian Institution.

[From Computer History Museum | Exhibits | This Day in History: July 11]

In less than a decade they were gone because of technological change. But note the “Gibson” take on this: the invention that destroyed them, the electronic calculator, already existed when they wrote their report. In fact the first all electronic calculator desktop calculator went on sale in 1961

At the end of 1961 the Bell Punch Company put the Anita Mk VII on the market in continental Europe and the Anita Mk 8 in the rest of the world as the world’s first electronic desktop calculators. These were the only commercial electronic desktop calculators for more than 2 years

[From Anita: the world’s first electronic desktop calculator]

What’s more, the first electronic all-transistor calculator (from Sharp) went on sale in 1964. So by the time the slide rule guys did their study, the technology that would destroy them had been on open sale for several years. They made the mistake, I guess, of thinking that because slide rules cost $10 and calculators cost $1,000 they would never compete, forgetting that the inevitable curve of technology price/performance would do for them in time. And, I suspect, the scientists that wrote the report all used slide rules and were perfectly happy with them.

 

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

Can’t see the wood for the degrees

There’s been some media debate over the last few days about web blocking, censorship and the like., most of which makes absolutely no sense and does not come from any informed position and does not put forward any practical (or sane) suggestions for how the relationship between mundane and virtual identities should be managed in a modern society. Like almost all political comment on the inter web in particular, the views are confused. Here’s a comment from our Shadow Media Minister.

I really feel at the moment that the web is a bit like the forest in the 14th century: it’s totally outside the law.

[From New Statesman – “The web is a bit like the forest in the 14th century: it’s totally outside the law”]

Now, obviously, there was no reason for Helen to pick up much in the way of the technology (or history) during her time reading PPE at Oxford, so I hope I not being mean by saying that she’s got this wrong. The reason why people escaped to the forest was to get away from an oppressive feudal system, so they did indeed represent a kind of freedom from tyranny, but the forests were not lawless: forest law, introduced by William the Bastard, was outside of the common law and exceptionally cruel. Poor people venturing into the forest to catch a rabbit could be executed. I’m sure Helen doesn’t mean that we live in a tyranny and the internet is the only place of escape, or that the internet is the preserve of the aristocracy and plebs should not be allowed in (since that plainly isn’t true). So what she must mean is that the internet is outside the common law. But this isn’t true. If you threaten to blow up an airport on twitter, for example, you will be tracked down and prosecuted.

When Helen is questioned further about her plan to end anonymity on the web, she says

There’s obviously also a big question mark about anonymity on the web. Of course, a lot of people blog and tweet under nicknames, and that’s OK, but what I do have a question mark about is whether you should be required to give your real name and address when you get an e-mail account, so that if someone’s a persistent offender, it would be easier to trace them

[From New Statesman – “The web is a bit like the forest in the 14th century: it’s totally outside the law”]

This reminds me of the brilliant plan by Derek Wyatt MP, the then chairman of the All Party Internet Group, who I wrote about in my “Second Sight” column in The Guardian way back in 2003.

[Wyatt] recently returned from a fact-finding trip to the US. He’s a man with a plan. To end spam, the government should legislate to make all email addresses contain their owners post code. I would become dave.birch@GU27EB.chyp.com. It is a cunning plan. If someone sends you spam, you can track them down.

[From Inside IT: Who has a plan to end spam? | Technology | The Guardian]

There’s been no obvious improvement in the quality of political thinking about technology in general and the online world in particular since the earliest days of the interweb tubes. Perhaps we should either force political parties to forgot about women-only shortlists have some science or engineer-only shortlists or perhaps enforce a parliamentary quota to limit the number of MPs who are PPEs or lawyers (lawyers are particularly damaging to the parliamentary system, because they are trained to win arguments not to find the correct solution to a problem).

What I found most disturbing, though, was when the interviewer asks Helen about one of the practical problems with her plan and is told “I haven’t really thought it through” which might stand as a motto for our entire political class.

Honestly. The quality of debate at the intersection of politics, culture and technology is pathetic.

 

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

War stories

The science-fiction action adventure movie Aliens is one of my all-time favourite films. I’ve watched it countless times, in the cinema, on video, on DVD and now on Blu-ray in the directors cut and the original theatrical release. I know the whole film off by heart yet I never get tired of watching it. Just like the original movie alien I think the visualisation is superb: it pretty much all looks real (except for one single effect, which is the drop ship entering the atmosphere).

James Cameron had several designers come up with ideas for the drop ship that took the Marines from the Sulaco to the planet. Design after design, he finally gave up on them to come up with on he liked and constructed his own drop ship out of a model of an apache helicopter and other spare model pieces.

[From Aliens (1986) – Trivia – IMDb]

I love the “Colonial Space Marines” and their equipment. I love the way they storm in and then have to survive as it all goes wrong. I love their vehicle and their assault cannons, their auto-sentries and their flamethrowers. Fantastic. And what exciting future it would be!

We all know, of course, that they won’t really be like that. The most advanced military machine that we have today, the US Armed Forces, already employs more drone pilots than actual pilots. They’re building robots that can climb stairs and sensors that fit in tiny mechanised bees. We would really fight the aliens on the distant planet LV-426 by sending in men and women? I don’t think so. By the time we’re mining asteroids in the year 3000, the standard intergalactic assault will be to send in nano bots to get a DNA sample of the enemy and then use it to engineer a virus that will wipe them out in a week. A couple of days after I wrote the first draft of this post, I read

From state-sponsored cyber attacks to autonomous robotic weapons, twenty-first century war is increasingly disembodied. Our wars are being fought in the ether and by machines. And yet our ethics of war are stuck in the pre-digital age.

[From Cyber and Drone Attacks May Change Warfare More Than the Machine Gun – Ross Andersen – Technology – The Atlantic]

As is often said, science fiction isn’t really about the future. It’s about now. The Colonial Space Marines fighting the aliens represent US Marines fighting asymmetric wars around the globe right now. (And just as in the movie, they won’t be held to win unless they take off and “Nuke it from orbit, it’s the only way to be sure”.)

The role of technology in the future of conflict will be critical but it won’t be romantic. I don’t see my great-grandchildren reading the equivalent of the Commando picture library that gripped me when I was a kid, or watching movies like Apocalypse Now or Saving Private Ryan.

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

App empire

When the App Store first came along for the Macintosh using OS X, I wonder whether I would ever use it because they seem to be plenty of ways to buy software already. But I’ve already reached the point where I will only buy software through the App Store, for the simple reason that it means I never have to remember the serial numbers, where the discs are or what stupid usernames and passwords I created at the vendor sites.

This is worth so much from me the love already purchased more than one piece of software from the App Store when I’ve already got home on a CD or DVD somewhere. In fact I just did it with DragonDictate! I was copying software across to a new machine and when I ran Dragon it asked me to insert some data disc that I had no clue about. A cursory search of the bomb site/office where I keep things didn’t reveal anything but said Dragon Dictate when I searched through my e-mail I couldn’t find where I downloaded it from. So I just went and bought Dragon Express from the App Store and that’s what I’m using to dictate this message. (In fact, I’m using this message is a bit of a test since I’m going to post it unedited just to see whether the quality of dictation is sufficient for blog posts and the like.)

As far as I can see, it is not perfect, but not bad!

 

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