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.

 

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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!

 

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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.

 

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Mobile data paradox

My chum Tony Poulos interviewed an analyst from Ovum about mobile data pricing recently. I was listening to this, and it reminded me about a huge telecommunications conference that I attended a couple of months ago. There were hundreds of people and operators from all around the world. At one point during the event, the wifi went down. At this point, not only did people stop blogging, twittering and otherwise recording what was going on but actually stopped looking at and listening to the speaker. Basically, at an event full of people from telcos, no-one had data roaming turned on.

The mobile operators have priced mobile data roaming so insanely that they are encouraging their customers and their own employees to seek alternatives. Instead of making a reasonable amount of money from them, they make none, and are actively training the customers to reduce future revenues. I don’t need my e-mail every second – it’s not like I’m a heart surgeon waiting to hear about a transplant – and people can text me if there’s anything urgent. So I leave roaming turned off and wait until I walk part Starbucks or wherever.

If they keep this up, they may be able to persuade to turn off mobile data completely.

 

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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

Adult story

I have an unusual story to relate. I obtained it first hand, from a contact I believe to be reliable, and I couldn’t resist posting it. Please don’t bother asking who I got it from, I will not tell even if waterboarded (well, maybe if London Pride-boarded) and I have changed a single fact in the tale (which doesn’t affect the narrative or the point) that makes it, I’m think, untraceable. It concerns the adult entertainment industry: if that bothers you, please turn away now (although I should say that I don’t think any of this is not suitable for work). It’s a tale of entrepreneurship, technology and, of course, money.

Apparently, years ago, the adult entertainment business in New York was controlled by the Irish. When adult video stores, peep shows and strip joints were roaring in the 1970s, much of the proceeds went to Irish gangs and was used to fund various kinds of organised crime. Although the Irish gangs controlled the business, they hired Jews to run the shops because they thought the Jews were good businessmen. This provided employment, often for young Israelis coming to the US for college or to look for more respectable jobs.

In time, the business began to clean up and become legitimate, and the Jews bought the businesses from the Irish and ran them as “proper” retail and entertainment enterprises. Legitimacy and efficiency saw incomes soar. My source tells me that he personally worked in one of these outlets in New York and it took $40,000 per night, running an adult store and peep show on one level and strippers on another level. For some reason that wasn’t explained to me, the Jews often employed Sri Lankans to work in these outlets.

Today, there are fewer outlets and they make only $5,000 per night. They get the occasional big spender (my friend tells me he saw an American Express Black Card used to purchase several thousand dollars’ worth of “new releases” recently) but generally speaking the basket size is falling and the margins are low. The Jews sold to the Sri Lankans. My contact told me that his former Jewish boss had taken the money and invested it in a shopping mall and some apartment buildings. (In fact, and I paraphrase, he told me that Jews were good at retail and property businesses — I report this faithfully, and I apologise if anyone is offended by the ethnic content, but I thought it was interesting to pass on what I told.)

So now the Sri Lankans are in charge. Young guys, with new ideas. And this is how the story reached me: one of these young Sri Lankan guys raised some capital and bought an outlet in Detroit. An adult store, with a peep show, and an adjoining strip club. He invested $4,000 in 42 CCTV cameras throughout the complex and connected them to the internet (my contact was part of the team that did the installation – that’s how I know the story). Then he hired people back in Sri Lanka (for only $300 per month, much less than employing physical security personnel in the US) to monitor the cameras. He first hired his sister (!) and then some other extended family.

His revenues are up, and he is making good money again.

Why? Because the adult business is a cash business. When my contact was telling me about this, I thought he was going to say that the CCTV was to watch for shoplifters, robbers, extortionists. But it was to watch the staff. Apparently some of the staff in the business (the cashiers, the strippers, the bouncers, the bar staff) are less than completely honest. Although the business takes cards, very few people pay with anything other than cash, and keeping track of that cash is a major expense for the business. From strippers doing private shows to cashiers giving special deals, everyone in the business is doing what they can to get hold of the cash floating around the premises.

By installing CCTV throughout the enterprise, and then offshoring the monitoring, this particular adult enterprise has seen revenues rise and the increase in profits has meant an excellent return on investment. You can have half a dozen people in Sri Lanka monitoring the cameras 24/7 at a fraction of the cost of a couple of physical security staff in the USA: the combination of money saved on staff plus money saved from dishonest staff adds up to a significant sum.

I thought this was a lovely parable of cards and cash, new technology and investment, globalisation and security so I hope none of you minded me posting it.

 

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.

 

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