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]

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]

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

How is it they know so little about technology?

[Dave Birch] The government, generally, is made up from lawyers and PPEs, not people who really understand how anything actually works. Hence they periodically come up with technologically-enhanced versions of the Dangerous Dogs Act (or, I suppose the Dangerous DNS Act).

The UK government plans to legislate to make households “opt in” to be able to access porn on the internet. ISPs are expected to put some kind of registration, age-related classification and/or filtering mechanisms in place.

[From Racingsnake – Robin Wilton’s Esoterica: UK Govt plans to “turn off” internet porn]

Well, this is excellent news: someone, presumably one of the management consultants advising a government departments, has discovered how to read and interpret the contents of internet traffic. Let’s hope none of the subversive out there discover how to set up an SSL VPN. But I’m curious as to why porn is the only category for blocking: what about Islamist hate sites and anything to do with the X-Factor? Surely the government’s commitment to protecting the children should extend to bomb-making instructions, Facebook pages connected to gang crime in South London and political parties espousing demonstrably harmful philosophies, such as socialism.

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

Hello? Hello?

[Dave Birch] I was writing something about mobile payments when I began to think that the way that we use phones for things like payments is still pretty new, and that we probably don’t envisage how they will be used in the future, in the sense that while I can see how the technology might work, I’m still not sure how it will be used. Will people be tapping their phones together? Will we want to? Will it seem odd to meet someone new and not touch your phone to their phone?

The etiquette may be evolving, but the technology is moving faster than our social practices can adapt

[From The Many Faces of You – NYTimes.com]

We’ve been here before, of course. When the telephone originally reached the mass market, people had to learn how to use it. No-one knew what do or how to behave on the line, so helpful guides were designed for them, containing useful tips such as

If you get a busy signal, it does not mean that the person you are trying to reach does not wish to speak to you, or that the operator is being rude or lazy.

[From Early Telephone Etiquette | Teachinghistory.org]

Indeed.

There was also advice on how to answer this tricky piece of technology. The 1934 phone book warned against confusion. “Don’t say Hullo! Announce your identity.”

[From BBC NEWS | Magazine | Dial H for history]

The key resource in this field is Claude Fisher’s “America calling: a social history of the telephone to 1940“. He gives a fascinating tour through the evolution of telephone etiquette. It strikes me that people felt about the telephone then they way they feel about Facebook now: allowing strangers to call your wife, servants and children without you at “gatekeeper” would inevitably lead to social breakdown. People wondered what was acceptable, and what wasn’t. In 1914, one Florence Hall wrote about telephone etiquette and advised strongly against inviting people to anything over the phone because “the person invited, being suddenly held up and the point of a gun, as it were, is likely to forgot some other engagement”. In the 19th century, arguments about whether the telephone was the friend of the criminal or the friend of the policeman adumbrate exactly the same debates about the internet a decade ago and social networking today.

Another factor was that the telephone companies saw their business as linking businesses, or as linking businessmen to their homes, they did not see the potential for domestic interconnection and, specifically, the use of the phone by women in that context. In “Hello Central?: Gender, Technology, and Culture in the Formation of Telephone Systems, Michele Martin says that the early structure of the domestic telephone networks shows that they were primarily used within friendship circles, which expanded as new exchanges were opened. We probably don’t see the telephone as social media, but it was.

The point is that the social impact of the communications technology was not something planned by the developers. It takes time for new communications technology to really become part of the fabric of society, and I don’t believe we’re there yet when it comes to social media, mobile phones, games consoles or, for that matter, the internet itself.

Presumably someone is writing a book a Facebook etiquette?

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In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes