Tag Archives: Politics

ORG 3rd Birthday

The UK Open Rights Group has now been around for 3 years, and they have released their 2008 Review of Activities. It shows how busy the group has been, and also how much more they are needed.

It seems that a week doesn’t go by when a CD isn’t lost or a laptop isn’t stolen containing personal data. Surveillance, ID cards, RFID passports, all are being touted as necessary to keep us secure. But when it’s so poorly implemented, it becomes a liability, and is it really necessary?

As more and more music is bought and distributed digitally, the ORG has a part to play in ensuring that you own the music you bought, rather than just owning a license to play a file which can be revoked at will.

There are many more issues. The review describes the problems that face not just the ORG, but everyone living in the UK. Happily, the ORG is making great progress in advising, guiding, and where necessary, stopping the powers that be. The review is packed with info on work with the grassroots, the press and behind the scenes with policymakers, and it shows that ORG is now a respected digital rights advocate and also looks forward to expanding our operations in the coming years.

As one of the Founding 1000 members, I can show you these fantastic badges. I need to choose one to put in the sidebar, but in the meantime, here they all are. As you can see, I was member number 192!

Now that I live in the US, I’ve joined the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is the US equivalent of ORG. It’s been around longer, and has more permanent staff, and it’s had some very high profile cases, including suing President Bush, the various Attorney Generals, and the NSA. I’m proud to support them both.


I’ve not said much about the US election campaign swirling around me in my first few months living in the US. I’ve not felt confident enough to express my hopes. If you talk to me, I’ll explain who I wanted to win. But here, I don’t know - I think there are so many political commenters, I’ll leave it to the experts and the articulate.

I went home on my own last night, and used the TV to watch the results coming in. I was flipping between NBC and CNN. I preferred NBC, even though their graphics were a bit shiney-shiney. I like NBC anchor Brian Williams, he’s very funny when he appears as a guest on the Daily Show. I don’t watch TV news normally. The KPBS newsroom just looked a bit sad and, well, publically funded. “No commercials; No mercy!”

California lags behind of course, due to the vastness of the country. So Obama was announced President-Elect at 8pm local time, just as the CA voting closed. It was pretty clear by then, but still it needed to be stated. It was kind of funny that they were in a commercial break, and when they returned, the news was announced as if it had happened about a minute ago. Why didn’t they break from commercial to bring us the news?

I enjoyed watching McCain’s “gracious” concession speech. I used quotes there to show that the general concensus is that the speech was gracious, not to show that I don’t think that. He even managed to quiet the booing hundreds when he mentioned Obama – a nice change from whipping them up yesterday and throughout the campaign. Palin said nothing. Good. She’ll be back though, despite being a major reason people voted against McCain.

I was folding laundry while Obama gave his speech. It was fine, no surprises (apart from the puppy!). He’s a good talker, no doubt. The part where he would end a paragraph with, “yes we can” and the crowd would respond irritated me a bit. It sounded like a church service with the little interruptions from the congregation that I only see when I go to weddings. Or like Adama from Battlestar Galactica saying, “So say we all!”.

I was also watching a few websites – CNN, NBC, NPR local affiliate KPBS, FiveThirtyEight.com, Twitter, and of course, LittleGreenFootballs.com. All were slow to update, but that may have been my PC being an old one of Cassie’s, until I can get my proper one fixed. Seeing as all the results came from the Assoicated Press, it was just a case of the various channels interpreting the data. It was pretty frutrating at times, seeing such a big disparity between the channels, and waiting for the refresh.

It was also frustraing that all the news sites I was looking at didn’t mention the ballot measure Prop 1A for a Californian High Speed Rail system. This is dear to me because it is the project  I was (kind of) brought to the US to work on. If it had failed, there was a risk I would have no project to work on – although I had been assured by my masters that I would have been found something else to do. The stationery cabinet needs organising, for example. We need firewood for the approaching winter.

I found that KPBS had the most detailed local results. When I went to bed, I was a bit nervous, but the Trader Joes pizza and Karl Strauss beer helped me drift off. Prop 1A was trailing in the results, with about half the precincts having returned their totals. When I awoke, however, 95% of the precincts had returned, and Proposition 1A had passed!

Other good news (IMHO) from the ballot measures: Prop 2 has passed (food animal welfare); Prop 3 has passed (childrens hospitals); Prop 4 has failed (doctors informing parents about abortions on minors).

Bad news: Prop 8 passed, in a shameful display of bigotry and paranoia. Replace the word “gay” with the word “interracial” in the measure text, and see what you get. “But think of the children!”. Oh grow up. In California of all places! “But the Bible says…”. Stop. Your holy book does not apply to everyone.

Also Props 7 and 10 for renewal energy and alterntaive fuel vehicles failed. Fair enough, the price of oil is coming down now. You thick f*cks.

I spoke to Cassie a couple of times. She was with her roommate and a few friends in LA, having a little Election Night party. We were nervous at first, then relieved, then nervous again as the votes for the California Ballot Measures came in. Cassie told me her roommate Brendan looked like her nephew on Xmas morning. Big grin.

The atmos in the office is quiet (then again it is just 8am). I think many people will be happy, but equally as many will not be. Unfortunately, some of those are people who think Obama is a secret Muslim, and that abortion should be made illegal, and that God said marriage is one man and one woman, and why should I have to teach my children about gays? So no party poppers here. But there will be some secret smiles in the corridors.

All this, and I didn’t even vote!

My American Fellows

Danny O’Brien describes his reaction to the current showbiz extravaganza that is the Democratic National Convention. I don’t really like writing about politics here, because I’m too inarticulate (basically I’m a Euston Manifesto type of guy, with all the “yes, but how?” vagueness that entails). But as an Englishman now living in San Diego, I’m interested to read other “expats'” views. I agree with what he says about the pageantry. I do like a good show though, but only if the audience shut up long enough to let it happen.

I’ve become a fan of both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report (both of which pass for satire* in the US) but they are short programmes made a lot longer by the whooping and hollering that follow every punchline (that’s not to say that Radio 4’s much-more-restrained The News Quiz is any better – in fact the insufferable smugness of some of the panellists is worse). But I do find myself fast-forwarding through the atrocious rock-and-horn-section soundtrack (a Bob Mould tune played by They Might Be Giants, if you can imagine such a thing without weeping) and the five minutes of cheering before I find any satirical content. I say “pass for satire” – actually there’s often some really good and funny stuff on here, but too often they drift off into skits about the presenters themselves.

Back in the “real” world of political news, I still can’t understand the (apparently many) people who were supporters of Hillary Clinton, who since Clinton is out of the running are now “undecided” between Obama and the Republican McCain. I want to shake them by the shoulders and ask, are you a Democrat or not? Are you so opposed to Obama that you would rather have a Republican in office? It sounds very much like sulking to me – “Well, if I can’t have my candidate, then I’m taking my ball home, and crossing to the GOP”. Absolute fecking madness.

Most of the speeches at the DNC have ended with the orator say, “God bless you” or “God bless America” or some such. It got me thinking about whether the US would ever be able to accept a stated atheist as a President. Never mind the trouble they have with a black man, or a woman – imagine a leader would said they couldn’t say “God bless America” with a straight face because they don’t believe in an invisible superhero who lives in the sky?

Ah, politics and religion. Yet another excellent piece on Flesh is Grass about the debate between the militant secularists and the pro-faith left. I think I lean towards the Coates end of the argument. Lean, and mutter.

claimer: Flesh is Grass is one of my favourite blogs, and is written by one of my favourite people. I miss them.

May 2008 London Election – ORG Reports

The Open Rights Group, with whom I used to volunteer, has published its report on the May 2008 London Election. It is also viewable here in a screenreader.

The upshot is that ORG is still unhappy with electronic voting and counting, and with good reason. Their concerns, stated many times in the past, highlight that fact that because e-voting and e-counting systems are commercial products, there are commercial pressures to prevent audits of the software being used to count the votes. This is a large block to the transparency that is so vital to real democracy.

The independent body set up to organise the elections did a good job, by all accounts. But there were several ways in which the attempts at providing transparency were a sham. In addition, the system allowed for paper ballots to be retrieved in case of an unclear count; this was not done anywhere, even when the possible discrepancy was greater than the majority of the winner.

But still they carry on with this belief that throwing public money at private companies to fix a problem that does not exist will create 100% voter attendance and higher engagement with the democratic process. These companies set up their Potemkin Villages and the naive civil servants are duped by the salespeople into stumping up for these unproven, unsecure, and unreliable systems.

I love new technology, when it does something better than the old method. In the case of voting, paper, pencil and manual counting remain the most cost-effective, reliable, secure and transparent mechanism for recording and counting votes in a democracy.

In other political news, my ex-colleague from the Cooling the Tube Programme (blogged by various people recently), Kulveer Ranger, is now a member of the board of Transport for London. Kulveer was one of the consultants responsible for commissioning the Oyster card across London. ORG have mentioned the Oyster in the past, but only in relation to Deloitte’s use of open source software to save money. The fundamental security issues surrounding the Oyster card are covered extensively elsewhere.

Good luck to Kulveer. I hope he makes a better job of it than some of the other people in Boris’s team. Gawd help us if Ross Kemp is making more sense than the officials. I’m with Charlie Brooker when it comes to Boris Johnson anyway.

I’m keeping tabs on the news in the UK. But I suspect it may get drowned out in the next few months…

1966 Seaman’s Strike – Photos of Stranded Ships

I found these photos in my Dad’s stuff. In May 1966, a strike by seamen caused several cruise liners and other large ships to be stranded in Southampton Docks. My family were on holiday down there at the time, and they went on a boat trip around the docks. My Dad took these photos (click for larger versions, or here for the full set in Flickr). Amongst the ships are the SS Canberra and the Queen Mary.

Southampton, 1966 Seaman's Strike Southampton, 1966 Seaman's Strike
Southampton, 1966 Seaman's Strike Southampton, 1966 Seaman's Strike
Southampton, 1966 Seaman's Strike Southampton, 1966 Seaman's Strike
Southampton, 1966 Seaman's Strike
Southampton, 1966 Seaman's Strike Southampton, 1966 Seaman's Strike
Southampton, 1966 Seaman's Strike Southampton, 1966 Seaman's Strike
Southampton, 1966 Seaman's Strike

Sterile Platforms and Cheese Straws

Last night I joined M at the RSA for a fascinating and entertaining lecture by Jonathan Zittrain to launch his new book The Future Of The Internet: And How To Stop It. Sadly this purpose was rather undermined by the fact that they gave away free hardback copies of the book, which Jay-Z was then happy to sign at the free-bad-wine session afterwards, where I also saw Becky Hogge from ORG, and also ORG’s Michael H as well, though only in the crowd.

The talk was based on the idea that the old computing paradigm of a mediator coming between you and the technology was creeping back more and more. The locked-down Apple iPhone, the mobile phone with web access on the manufacturer’s terms, the DVR with the forced ads and remotely-deleted content, the list goes on. It started with the punch-card-based census machines created by precursor-to-IBM founder Herman Hollerith, and the sales model he used, i.e. it wasn’t a sales model. The machines were rented to the Government, and all training, maintenance etc was left to Hollerith. The user was dependent on the supplier to use the machine. They didn’t own the machine, they were in a relationship with the service provider, who, based on the contract, could conceivably alter the machine or it’s function at any time.

JZ gave a nasty possible outcome of this with the judgement in favour of Tivo against Echostar, which resulted in all the Echostar boxes being remotely erased and disabled. Suddenly the machine people had bought was just a brick. A similar extension of this is the recent screwing by MSN of their music store customers. You bought the music, or you thought you had. MSN has announced that they will be shutting down their license server, which means that after that, if you buy a new computer or hard drive, which would mean re-licensing your music to that new device, then you won’t be able to. The key here is that you need a license to listen to stuff you thought you own. You don’t own it, you are in a relationship with a provider who lets you listen in limited ways – and now, it appears, for a limited time. This is what is called Digital Rights Management. DRM BAD. Don’t buy from iTunes, MSN Music, or any other online music store that doesn’t sell simple MP3 (or OGG or whatever) files with no DRM. You will regret it.

The irony of the talk was that is was sponsored by AOL, who were one of the classic ‘portal’ companies who provided net connectivity, software and a crippled browser designed to allow you access to AOL content (and by extension, content from Time Warner) and pretty much nothing else. They were a service and content provider. Sadly their avalanche-style marketing methods were unpopular, and if you wanted to cancel the service you were paying for, you were yelled at and treated like an idiot, and their software was traditionally a bitch to uninstall.

It was heartwarming to see all the old machines JZ displayed on the screen during his initial concise history of computing, from the Jacquard Loom, to the IBM System/360, to a PC clone with a DX2-66 chip complete with speed display and turbo button (like my old Gateway – long since dumped, although I think I have the floppy drive from it somewhere). I recognised most of them, to my eternal pride/shame. I said to M as we exited the hall, “You don’t see many 360’s around these days”, and guy next to me said, “First machine with virtual memory you know”. We shared a moment.

I didn’t recognise the fascinating Friden Flexowriter, which was a typewriter which recorded your typed words on a paper tape, then could replay the tape to produce copies of the document. By cutting, pasting and looping the tapes, you could do mail merges, spamming, tedious art installations, everything.

A big angle JZ spoke about was the hacker/nerd asthetic – the re-purposing of technology, and the discovery of wonderful new uses of a technology by “mischievous asocial poorly dressed nerds” and so on. The university mainframes running the early game Spacewar! spring to mind. The machine it was written on (the DEC PDP-1) had one of the first CRT displays, and it came with a simple kaleidoscope routine to show the graphics off. Pretty, but uninspiring. So the nerds, having just read Smith’s Lensman series, created a space battle game which put the capabities of the machine to good use. It was so successful that DEC, the manufacturers of the mainframe, included the game with the machine as a demonstration.

The talk ended on a kind of “we have to be careful” note, which is fine. A lot of the problems people fnid themselves in with sterile technology is market-driven. I think JZ’s final point was, “Nerds! Come out of the corner!”

Great talk. I’ll be reading the book very soon (bit of a queue to get through first). Great to see M as well, and by the way, if you’re reading, here are a couple of links about what I was trying to tell you about.

Phorm Targetted Advertising System Analysed, Found Wanting

Richard Clayton of the Security Research section of Cambridge University’s Computer Laboratory, and Becky Hogge of the Open Rights Group met with Phorm, creators of the Webwise targetted advertising system last week. Richard has since published his findings, and they make interesting reading, even if you (like me) don’t understand all the stuff about 307 redirects.

Richard’s analysis leads him to say:

Overall, I learnt nothing about the Phorm system that caused me to change my view that the system performs illegal interception as defined by s1 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.

Phorm’s blog fails to quote the negative majority of Richard’s article, and doesn’t link to the article itself. Instead it just quotes a single vaguely favourable paragraph. I commented on the blog, including a link to Richard’s full article – it’s currently awaiting moderation.

Richard also points out that while the system arguably protects the user data, and thus complies with the Data Protection Act, it is still in principle a way of snooping around in and analysing a user’s web browsing habits to figure out what they are looking at, to allow advertisers to throw ads at them based on their current browsing. This is different from a website inserting ads based on their content to help pay for bandwidth. The Phorm ad-feed is done by the ISP, and introduces a  couple of issues regarding the ability of the website owner to opt out of the system, let alone the web user avoiding the targetted ads.

One specific point that is made is that Phorm says that webmail sites will not be analysed, and they say that Webwise is aware of “over 25” of these sites already. My web host provides me with a webmail service for my own site’s email. I doubt Webwise is taking these types of webmail service into account.

In addition, what they claim is an opt-out is in fact only opting-out from seeing the ads, not from having your traffic sniffed.

To paraquote Sir Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the WWW and Director of the W3C), an ISP should be an impartial provider of bandwidth and nothing more, like a gas or electricity provider. Or as ORG say, “Keep your mitts off my bits”.

Disclaimer: I volunteer from time to time with the Open Rights Group.

“Sorry, what can I do? Politics!”

A most interesting and fun evening was spent attempting to keep up with my old friend MV, both in walking speed and intellectually. We met at Liverpool Street for a drink and chat, and the first thing she did was to hand me a leaflet from a bunch of “Truthers”* called We Are Change. This group claims the 11th Sept 2001 attacks were set up, or at least allowed to happen, by the US guvmint, to allow them to start the War on Terror.

*meaning any group which has the word “truth” in their title, such as (these are made up) MMR Mothers For Truth, 9/11 Structural Engineers For Truth, or any group which says they are searching for truth. What it often means is that they have a fixed view of the world, and a fixed agenda, which they claim is the truth, and anything that doesn’t agree is just plain wrong.

The leaflet is the usual mish-mash of “why are these questions still not answered?”, and quotes from unnamed structural engineers who claim that the steel used couldn’t have collapsed the way it did, etc. It would often state a “fact”, such as “the temperatures in the wreckage reached 10000C” then ask “how could this have been without explosives”. But the “facts” themselves are not attributed or referenced, so you have to take it on trust that they are true. And the questions may not even be relevant.

It’s all very difficult. It often comes down to a clash between investigations or research, and in that respoect it’s similar to the arguments surrounding homeopathy and other Bad Science. Some piece of research has one finding, another piece has another finding. Both are reported by the media equally, or unequally to push an agenda or sell papers with sensationalism (usually in tabloids like the Daily Mail or The Express). But often one piece of research is later discredited, and it isn’t reported. The example of the MMR vaccine is a classic. One piece of research said it was dangerous, and all the breeders got up in arms. Think of the children (translation: “Think of my children”)! Then lots more research was done which discredited the original. But some people said, “There’s no smoke without fire”, a phrase which can be used to prove anything you want.

I would link to the Truthers site, but it just crashed my browser, which is a bit of a giveaway if you ask me. Surely if You Are Change, you want as many people to read your site as possible, and you won’t do that by punishing IE-at-work users. Pillocks. If your message is so powerful, like a snowball of truth smothering the tyranny of imperialism (to paraquote the page), then plain HTML should do the trick, shouldn’t it?

Anyway! MV and I had some sushi (great reverse tempura) and Kirin in Liverpool Street, and then went for a pint of Youngs Special in Dirty Dicks, complete with mummified cat, jackalope head, and what appeared to be a stuffed animal with the head of another stuffed animal stitched to its arse. A Push-Me-Pull-You?

A really nice evening, and MV was able to offer advice about what I should do to get to LA ASAP. OK?

My Knee-Jerk Politics

Approaching Tooting Station this morning, I saw two nice young people handing out leaflets. As I passed them, I smiled and took one, without stopping. I think I just caught the headline “Fair Deal For Tooting Station” and then I saw that horrible scribbly-tree logo, and the word “Conservatives”. I involuntarily blurted, “Oh! No thanks”, stopped, turned and gave the leaflet back. I didn’t catch the reaction to that, but it was clear why I did it.

I hate the Tories. Sometimes it feels like a knee-jerk reaction, or a throwback to an earlier, simpler age. Other times my hatred and contempt for them burns with a flame that is clean and pure. But should I have read the leaflet? Probably. What “fair deal” could they be offering? Tooting is in Wandsworth, a Tory local authority, hence the poor street cleaning and low council tax. The Tories forced through the dismembering of British Rail that left us with Railtrack vs. the Infracos. They’re already responsible – what possible suggestions could they have?

Maybe I should have read the leaflet. But it’s like music – people may say (no-one I like or trust, mind you), “Matt, have you heard the new U2 album? I know you don’t like U2, but this one’s really good”. It’s U2, though, isn’t it? Bonio, The Side or whatever he calls himself, the lot of them. The personnel are the same. They’ll never change.

Public Photography Petition

There are a number of moves promoting the requirement of ‘ID’ cards to allow photographers to operate in a public place. It is a fundamental right of a UK citizen to use a camera in a public place, indeed there is no right to privacy when in a public place. These moves have developed from paranoia and only promote suspicion towards genuine people following their hobby or profession.

A petition against these moves has been raised on the new 10 Downing Street petition website. Click here to sign.

I’ve been looking at the other petitions on the site. They’re all raised by members of the public, and I’m pretty horrified by the poor grammar and spelling in many of them – it doesn’t inspire confidence. Also, the big flaw with these simplified petitions and voting mechanisms is the lack of flexibility. I agree with the above petition, therefore I can sign it without compunction. But another petition makes me rather cross, and makes me wish I could respond to the petitioner in the negative.

The petitioner makes the case (rather petulantly, if you ask me) that only chartered engineers should be able to use the job title ‘engineer’. He says this is because of the dilution of the word by common usage to mean anything from a car mechanic to a photocopier repair technician. He also says that he is going to take his ball home because he doesn’t get respect from the media. I agree to a certain extent that many occupations incorrectly get called engineering. These jobs are skilled, valuable, well paid for the most part, but not engineering. I heard of once case where a photocopier broke down. An ‘Engineer’ arrived to fix it, realized he couldn’t, and announced that he would, “have to call the Technician.”

I am an engineer. I have a degree in Computer Engineering, I work for an international engineering firm, my job title and my current project position has the word ‘engineer’ in it, I write and review engineering specification documents, I attend engineering fora. I have not, as yet, made any moves towards getting further qualifications. This is due to many things, including indolence, life distractions and lack of confidence. I respect those people who do, or at least, I respect the hard work that they have done.

But if only people who have done all the work to get to be called a Chartered Engineer can call themselves an Engineer, what do I call myself? A Chartered-Engineer-In-Waiting? What if I have no intention of gaining further qualifications? It wouldn’t stop me doing my job, or moving up the career ladder, although I would quickly reach a ceiling, and fair enough.

Chartered Engineers get to be called Chartered Engineers. They also earn more, and have gained the respect of their peers and of the industry as a whole. Isn’t that enough?

And here we have the problem with a simple petition like this. There is no mechanism to allow me to respond to the petition. All I can do is watch the signatures add up (>3000 at the time of writing [and 35,349 at the close of the petition]) and get a nasty feeling that I am unwanted and unvalued in my industry. This is clearly not the case (I hope), but I would like to put it to the petitioner and the signatories, and ask what they think.

Voting systems like this are dependent on the questions asked being well written and thoughtul of shades of response. Multiple choice votes break everything down to rigid answers. Yes/No votes make it even more black and white, even if the real answer is grey. Petitions remove the No vote completely. They have their uses, but when you feel strongly against the motion, you feel powerless.

Anyway. Happy 2nd Birthday Shuggie!