Archive for August, 2011

This is fascinating, especially when you remember GTech’s role in our own dear sordid raffle. Great reporting, too.

This Melanie Phillips piece is remarkably insightful.

Tanya Gold brings the fisk to A4E:

Why does this feel so dodgy? I called Harrison’s PR and asked her what will happen if there are no jobs. What then? “Emma believes there are jobs,” she replied. “There are hidden jobs.” Oh yes, those hidden jobs, buried under trees and lying at the end of rainbows. All the unemployed need is the imagination to see the invisible, and maybe a magic shovel and a friendly elf to hug them on the way to Mordor. So a slab of government policy is being handed to a woman who is in denial about the scale and cause of joblessness. The statistics are nowhere in the Working Families Everywhere material. There are 2.49 million people unemployed today in the UK.

So your assignment for today is to start reading the A4E Blog. I especially like the distinction between a “social enterprise” – a Blairite upsexing of what used to be called a charity and then became an NGO – and a “social purpose” company, which appears to mean a company whose social purpose is to buy its directors a very big house in the country.

The Coalition seems to have veered away from its brief enthusiasm for Big Issue founder John Bird, who briefly looked like he might make a comeback in public life. Birdy, infamously, moved to Los Angeles with his then girlfriend and alleged substance issues in order to pursue more ventures with the Big Issue’s funds (sample: The Bag Issue, a bag with messages about the homeless printed on it) until the funds ran out and the paper’s northern edition, which was a separate legal entity, had to bail out the national movement.

However, this didn’t stop Boris Johnson running through a string of similar types as mayor of London or the national Tories falling in love with A4E, which is arguably a far more pernicious and unpleasant phenomenon, having converted itself into a purely profit-oriented entity. Back in the day it was called Action for Employment, and was a grassroots charity based in Sheffield. A certain amount of scepticism might be in order, seeing as Sheffield is still one of the most unemployment-hit areas of the country after 25 years of the treatment.

Jamie Zawinski and Charlie Stross pitch in to the poisonous row about Google + and its “real names policy”. Now G+ seemed like a good idea to me because of this instant-classic paper, which demonstrated that a) people hate creepy targeted-advertising schemes even if you pay them to put up with it, b) we manage privacy by letting other people know things to different degrees depending on context, and c) we get really angry when other people talk behind our backs and violate the boundaries between contexts. When this paper appeared I literally chased everyone at Telco 2.0 around with it until they read it. Now, you can see with things like the “circles” feature that someone at Google did too.

But then, there’s this whole fiasco about trying to impose single identities that always consist of two space-separated UTF-8 strings containing only alphabetical characters, that seem normal to someone from Palo Alto.

unconferencing - 1

Yeah, just like that. Which reminds me of a story. Not so long ago, I was talking to the Google product manager for GMail, during – yes – an open-space workshop on privacy and identity issues. He (and he certainly is compliant with the policy sketched out above) asked if anyone knew why GMail lets you pick a graphical skin, basically a user stylesheet, for your account. After all, they spent millions on the pretty UI, so why would you want to do that?

Apparently the idea came from one of the UI/UX designers. Who said that it should be possible to tell at a glance which one of several GMail accounts you were using. The programmers and network engineers of course didn’t get it – why the hell would you want two GMail accounts? Hadn’t they just spent quite a lot of time and money and hard work building an e-mail service that you’d actually want to use? Wasn’t it a major design goal of the whole project that people would want to pipe their other e-mail accounts into GMail, far from creating more e-mail accounts? And surely, if you wanted to keep e-mail associated with different people or things or themes together, you could use labels, and set up filters to automate the distinction?

To which she said that if you have one privacy context that includes your thuggish ex-husband and his lawyer and your fundamentalist Christian teabagger mum, another that includes your high-functioning asperger’s coder boss and various similarly brilliant-but-awkward nice-guy types from work, and yet a third that includes your actual and very irreligious friends, the consequences of wrong-slotting an e-mail were far more serious than just posting to the dev list when you meant the user list or vice versa. Therefore, sometimes you needed a non-permeable membrane between contexts and a suitably glaring visual distinction.

A slow dawn spread across the meeting, someone pointed out that after all it was just an alternative CSS sheet technically speaking, and skins were added to the feature list for the next deploy. (Like the green-screen theme for GMail? Thank feminism.)

Now, it doesn’t look like she’s been consulted on this particular project, and I think her input would probably be worth having. But then the feminists would have something to say about why nobody seems to have asked. Actually, although our Googler didn’t name names and I therefore won’t name him, a bit of lateral thinking suggests her career appears to have developed in a manner to her advantage, so perhaps it’s one for the theory of bureaucracy instead.

I bet you thought I was kidding. But try this lede:

Taped to the inside of a Sainsbury’s window in King’s Lynn, a printout of a map reminds teenagers of the town’s restrictions. Next to it, a notice on Norfolk Constabulary headed paper spells out the terms of a dispersal order: within the marked area, groups of two or more youngsters can be broken up by police not only if they have caused intimidation, harassment, alarm or distress to members of the public but also if their behaviour is deemed likely to do so. Initially, the order focused mainly on the area around the supermarket and adjacent bus station, but when groups of young people who were deemed to be behaving antisocially relocated, it was extended to cover most of the town centre. Drinking in groups, verbal abuse and reckless or dangerous cycling are among the antisocial activities listed.

It must be deeply weird to grow up with this stuff. Years ago I blogged that in the future, the government would introduce universal ASBO conscription – everyone would be given an ASBO at birth, and the restrictions would be removed progressively as they demonstrated that they could behave responsibly, in a manner that balanced the rights they were granted.

But in this case, they’ve implemented pretty much that. Of course some idiot will show up to say that they shouldn’t misbehave, but note that the terms of the order give the police essentially total discretion. After all, if you can’t think of a reason off the top of your head why three young people might not potentially, at some point in the indefinite future, annoy any hypothetical citizen, you simply lack imagination and you’ve got no business being on the force.

PS, what would we say if, say, a government in central Europe declared a “Roma dispersal zone” across one of its cities? Probably not much, although the EU was in fact pretty aggressive about it during the accession process and British representatives in it were no different. But you see what I mean.

so…

Tom Watson’s twitter feed linked the transcript of the BBC Radio story on re-opening the Daniel Morgan case. There’s not much in there that’s new if you’ve been reading this, but I’ve excerpted the best bits.

1: The story that vanished

But the Report can tonight reveal that we’ve seen a copy of a witness statement
to the police suggesting that a week before Daniel Morgan died, he said he was taking a story to a newspaper exposing police corruption.

The witness believed the paper was the News of the World, and that Daniel’s contact there was Alex Marunchak. If Daniel ever had a story, it never appeared.

2: Finances

GOLDBERG: So, just how important was the News of the World to Southern Investigations.

BOOKKEEPER: Erm, the News of the World really was the biggest customer, we used to invoice out maybe five to six hundred invoices a month but all of the invoices were for only for 50 pounds or less. Generally when you generate invoices you actually send them to an accounts department and then somebody in the system
will give the OK that they are OK and they are not fraudulent and they are to be paid, whereas with the case with the News of the World all of the invoices were hand- delivered to a man at the News of the World, not to the accounts department, and he would release an invoice to be paid now and again, so that they didn’t all go through in one lump.

GOLDBERG: So who was the man that they were hand-delivered to at the News of the World?

BOOKKEEPER: Alex Marunchak

GOLDBERG: And what did you hear about the relationship between Southern Investigations and Alex Marunchak, what was said about that?

BOOKKEEPER: I think they were pretty good friends, I think it was just a case of he could help us and we could help him, that sort of thing. He did have his credit card paid off at one time and there was a little comment thrown in about the fact that they had paid his school fees, and they obviously didn’t go through the books and I can remember Jonathan Rees and Sid Fillery talking about that before they went out
to lunch and joking and laughing and saying that this would be the first time in his life that Alex Marunchak had been out of debt.

3: A bit of Watson

WATSON: I know that Jonathan Rees and Alex Marunchak had a very close relationship over many years to the extent that they were even in contact whilst Rees was serving a prison sentence. That kind of relationship between a very senior Newspaper Exec and a private investigator with a criminal record deserves greater investigation.

It’s mostly style-and-tone, but that’s not unimportant. The inverse path is interesting – the fact that substantial amounts of money were flowing from the police back to Marunchak.

But I think the next topic for speculation should probably be what the hell that story was. A significant fraction of why we’re all arguing about this now, 25 years on, is driven by the Morgan case.

Strange, really – yet another news/Stross crossover post. We surely need the Laundry’s take on the News of the World affair…

The Obscurer has possibly the first intelligent article on the whole “turn off their Facebook! that’ll learn em!” furore. Notably, they interviewed one-man UK mobile industry institution Mike Short. Go, read, and up your clue. I especially liked that the piece provided some facts about the 7th July 2005 terrorist incident and the mobile networks.

There is only one reported case of a UK network being closed by police. During the 7/7 London suicide bombings, O2 phone masts in a 1km square area around Aldgate tube station were disconnected for a number of hours.

Police have an emergency power to order masts to be put out of action known as MTPAS – Mobile Telecommunication Privileged Access Scheme. The move has to be approved by Gold Command, by the officers in highest authority during a major incident, and is designed to restrict all but emergency service phones with registered sim cards from making calls. But a shutdown can have dangerous knock-on effects. Short says that phones within the Aldgate zone automatically sought a signal from live masts outside it, overloading them and causing a network failure that rippled out “like a whirlpool”.

On the day, other networks were simply overloaded as Londoners sought reassurance and information. Vodafone alone experienced a 250% increase in call volumes

MTPAS is the GSM-land equivalent of the old fixed phone Telephone Preference Scheme (not to be confused with the new one that blocks cold-callers), which permitted The Authorities to turn off between 1% and 90% of phone lines in order to let official traffic through. As far as I know, the Met never asked for it and it was City of London Police who initiated it without asking the Met or anyone else, and in fact O2 UK’s network had been keeping up with demand up to that point, before the closure caused the cascade failure Short describes.

The significance of O2 is that it used to be “Surf the Net, Surf the BT Cellnet” and some residual gaullist/spook reflex in the government tried to keep official phones on what was then one of two British-owned networks.

Anyway, this weekend seems to have the theme “The Intersection of Charlie Stross and the August 2011 Riots”. Charlie’s talk at USENIX is sensibly sceptical about some tech dreams as they apply to networking.

This leaves aside a third model, that of peer to peer mesh networks with no actual cellcos as such – just lots of folks with cheap routers. I’m going to provisionally assume that this one is hopelessly utopian, a GNU vision of telecommunications that can’t actually work on a large scale because the routing topology of such a network is going to be nightmarish unless there are some fat fibre optic cables somewhere in the picture. It’s kind of a shame – I’d love to see a future where no corporate behemoths have a choke hold on the internet – but humans aren’t evenly distributed geographically.

Especially as the theoretical maximum bandwidth of one fibre is about the same as the entire radio spectrum. And the point about routing table size and complexity is a very good one, especially as it’s assumed that the routers aren’t CRS-1s but rather Linksys fifty quidders or mobile phones.

However, one thing the liberation technologists should take away from the riots is that you shouldn’t get hung up on bandwidth. It’s great to be able to post the photos on Flickr, but it’s more useful to have your own secure voice and messaging. When the Egyptian government relented on its GSM cut-off, the Egyptian Twitter feeds lit up with calls for more people to this or that exit of Tahrir Square or medical supplies to the clinic or (and I remember this) that a lost child was waiting at the press tent.

It was what NANOG users would call operational content. There was of course no need whatsoever for it to go via a Bay Area website – all Twitter provided was the one-to-many element, very important, and the publicity on the Web. The latter is a nice-to-have feature, the former, critical. Text, or even voice, is not a high bandwidth application and doesn’t necessarily need access to the global Internet.

So yes – perhaps there is in fact quite a bit of angular momentum to be had in a mobile mesh-WLAN client as an instrument of democracy, as long as you’re willing to accept that it’s not the sort of thing that can be exclusive to people who agree with you. But then, that’s the test of whether or not you actually believe in democracy.

Something else, between Charlie’s USENIX talk and the riots. Isn’t one of the biggest disappointments, from a police point of view, the performance of CCTV? No doubt it will help put some of the rioters in jail. But it didn’t prevent the riots and neither did it seem to help quell them much. It’s possible that the whole idea that potential surveillance (like the original panopticon) is a policing influence isn’t as strong as it’s made out to be.

Another point; not all crimes are punished or even taken notice of. This is obvious. Less obvious is that the degree to which the police ignore crime is an important political fact. Is it possible that CCTV, by forcing them to make at least a token response to everything that passes in camera range, actually contributed to using up the police strength? In a riot, the police aim is to demonstrate public, mass control. They are usually willing to ignore quite a lot of individual criminality in the process. It’s possible that surveillance culture and technology are opposed to strategy.

Yes, they are all black

Back in 2006, I said to Charlie Stross that the zeitgeist of the near future would be exasperation. I also said something similar as a comment on the Halting State book-in-progress, so if you think everyone in it seems grumpy, you’ve got me to thank.

But, of course, we’ve now landed in the near future of 2006. Scottish independence didn’t show up on schedule, but a shitkicker of a recession did, and the exasperation seems to be doing pretty well. After all, I think we could all agree that los indignados are as exasperated as they are indignant. Which makes me ask: what if David Starkey was right? Scholars of blogging will recognise the move I just pulled – I think of it as a Dillow, after Chris Dillow, who begins most of his posts with a bit of provocation for the dads that usually consists of him claiming to agree with some horrible rightwing ogre or other.

Having Dillowed, let’s get to the point. Obviously, it’s not his bizarre belief that everyone around him speaks Jamaican patois (Language Log fisks), or his bog standard moral panicking, or getting himself up in Enoch drag, that I wish to examine. It’s his contention that “the whites have become black”.

Random serendipity takes us to Jezebel of all places (party like it’s 2008!), where they’re covering American youth being advised to fix their problems by lowering their expectations, because the economy sucks and has done so since 2007, they’re in enormous tuition-fee debt, and nobody has any intention of doing anything at all about this. The comments at Jared Bernstein’s are pretty good too.

Here’s John Harris in West Bromwich for the Guardian, as part of a really excellent trio of field reports from the riots:

The rate of youth unemployment here is 33%; the town centre has a pinched, sad ambience, and there are precious few of the usual high street names….”If they’re stopping EMA [Education Maintenance Allowance],” added another, “what do they want us to do?” Hearing this, I wondered whether this was a line cynically pinched from some talking head on the TV, and parroted back at me, but all six said they wanted to go to college – a music course was mentioned, with retakes of GCSEs – but in the absence of the EMA, they were now wondering whether it was worth it.

Shiv Malik, in Salford and also back in the office, playing a blinder:

In one of the first barometers of attitudes from the generation who have found themselves entering the job market during the economic downturn, the survey overseen by academics at Teesside University, found that 57% said that employers were discriminating against them because of their youth. It also found that almost one in four were depressed about their future.

Teesside youth and communities expert Professor Tony Chapman said the results were “very worrying” especially if it meant that young people would now give up on their future. And at the heart of this depression lay a lack of security. Only 49% believed they would have a secure job in five years’ time…

In interviews with the young people it was clear that they were shocked and angered that their futures had suddenly been made so uncertain by the hiking of student fees and the abolition of the education maintenance allowance…

Housing benefits are being slashed for the young more than for the old through the mechanism of the share room rate. The house building budget has been slashed by 60% at a time when a housing shortage has hiked up prices, making it impossible to get on the housing ladder. And on top of the scrapping of the Future Jobs fund and the tripling of student fees, local councils have also aimed their cuts on youth services as they are not deemed essential services. Another exacerbating factor is that of fast inflating rents in the private rented sector, where most young people now live because it takes years for them to get their own social housing…

Also, this piece of Pual Lewis’s isn’t much for analysis but is plenty of field reporting.

This from Adbusters (aww! party like it’s 1999) is predictably quite the rant, and it kicks off with that UN “survey of childhood” that made the papers a while back. As a former boy, I doubt strongly that I would have been happier through spending more nights in with my parents, but if you read past the first stick or so it picks up force and effect. It also makes the case that the problem is not moral and not even one of “consumerism” or any such – rather it is political and economic and architectural, an issue of power and money and buildings.

Here’s a fascinating chart that I was sure I’d blogged somewhere, from the Resolution Foundation. It shows the type of housing tenure in various income groups. Under 35s are on the left, general population on the right.

So where am I going with all this? First of all, back to the exasperation. You think I was pissed off in 2006? At least there was a long slow upwards drag ahead. I eventually got rid of my student overdraft by quitting T&F Informa and taking ship aboard Telco 2.0, in the credit-crunching summer of 2007. A few classes further back, though, everyone was being delivered from the education system direct into the great crisis, just with even more student debts, after a school career characterised by even more hectoring and testing than mine. This all started long before anyone cared about it – a detail that stands out in my mind is that we had mock mock exams to prepare for the mock exams intended to prepare us for the exams, and I recall being really terrified of the future as far back as year 7 because I cocked up an end-of-year paper.

Outside the school gates, property went through the first wave of hyperinflation in 2001-2002 and wages stopped rising a year afterwards. And, well, what I said:

Meanwhile, we were told we ought to consume and keep the economy going, take part in the creative industries and volunteer, but do this while joining the job market, to borrow heavily to pay for further and higher education, to accumulate savings on deposit, to save for retirement (or in other words, to pay others’ pensions), that we were a bunch of unserious greenies, that we were politically apathetic, that we would face the consequences of climate change (after it became respectable to worry), that we were all drug fiends and music characterised by repetitive beats was against the law, that we weren’t getting on the housing ladder, that we were borrowing too much money (this from the people who brought you Citigroup) and that people who were slightly younger ought to be punished for playing hooky in order to demonstrate against the Iraq war. To cap the lot, we were told we were drinking too much. If we were, who could guess why?

So, is David Starkey right? Is it, in fact, true to say that the young have all become black, in a moral, political, and especially, economic sense? I rather think it is.

Whether you like Robert Altemeyer’s thesis that about 20% of the population are predisposed to authoritarian thinking, whether as leaders or followers, and gravitate to it quite independently of what the authoritarianism is about, or whether you prefer an analysis of racism that emphasises a Marxist view in which it’s a substitute for class, or whether you take the view that it’s one of the ways society defines an enemy on which it can project its own moral failings, I think you can make a case that youth-hatred has become a substitute for racism.

If you’re not meant to harass the black kids any more, it’s far easier just to harass the kids, incidentally getting the black ones, than to harass nobody. That would imply real change, and the authoritarians, they don’t like change.

This is a caricature, of course. But I do think it is interesting and relatively new that young people think they are the targets of systematic discrimination as such, while their interests are in fact affected by problems we would find no difficulty at all in denouncing as injustice if they were, for example, all black. They are, actually, disproportionately unemployed, indebted, under-housed, bothered by the police and by the forces of authority more generally, subject to constant insults by the official media, and the losers from major changes in government policy.

Of course, everyone will say that they had no intent to discriminate against the young. But it was impossible to do anything serious about racism until the barrier of intent was crossed, and it was no longer sufficient to say that the black people just happened to get searched by the police at absurdly high rates, because after all nobody had ordered the police to do that.

slightly less lazyweb

So I couldn’t just drop the OAuth library into the plugins directory because I didn’t have sudo rights there, so I wgot and zipped it and uploaded it as a plugin via the web interface and changed the include to point there. And now the end of the bifurcation era may be in sight. Not there yet, but the first 25 posts got transferred out of a mere 2,725 and 1,943 comments (before we get to thinking about the Enetation ones, I’ve got the dump file somewhere, and that’ll make a python project for one of these days).

Meanwhile, has anyone got experience of running XBMC or one of the many other Linux media centres on a cheapo Android tablet or netbook device, preferably with the content somewhere on a network? I’m thinking of building a not-a-hifi system that lets me have different music rooms – just because I can.

Over at Stable & Principled, I’ve been blogging about running out of policemen and how the Prime Minister doesn’t seem to have any thoughts at all that weren’t adequate-ish newspaper columns from about 2004. But how did we get to the stage of using up the Met and most of the wider police forces’ reserves of manpower just like that? This isn’t a “What does it all mean?” post, although inevitably we’ll have one of them for you as well. It’s more like a “How does it all work?” post.

In all, 2,347 people have been arrested nationally. This is only a rough lower bound on the numbers of people involved, as obviously not everyone got caught and some of the people arrested are innocent. At an arrest rate of one in 10, that would give a total of 23,000. 51% of the arrests were in London, or to be precise the Met’s area of operations, which gives us the answer to one question at least – the police eventually quelled the riot by outnumbering the rioters, 16,000 cops versus an estimated 11,500 rioters. Obviously if you pick a different arrest rate fudge factor you’ll get a different answer, but then at least we’re using a model of sorts.

It’s certainly interesting, though, that a fairly small crowd was able to exhaust the policing resources of most of the UK. If the 23,000 rioters had shown up in central London to march on Whitehall, even assuming they were willing to be as troublesome and violent as they were elsewhere, I think the Met would have handled it without breaking sweat and certainly without needing to summon the South Wales force as mutual aid. Even the most hayseed British police forces deal with crowds of 23,000 young men reputed to be ready for violence, every weekend, quite commonly several at the same time, without very much happening. They are lower division football matches. And to be frank, a 23,000 strong national demo is disappointing.

So what’s up? One point is dispersion vs. concentration. Demonstrators want to occupy symbolic space and show their organisation by the very fact they could concentrate all these people. Casuals want to duff up the other mob. Therefore, the police problem is to either prevent them from getting to Parliament Square or the match, or else keep them segregated from other people while they are there. The police are on the tactical defensive, but the strategic offensive – if they stick it out they win.

Obviously, the demonstrators (or thugs) can’t counter this by dispersing because that would defeat the point. They have to come to the Bill, and the Bill can then canalise them. Kettling is the ultimate expression of this thinking.

If the police have to look for the crowd, though, this is obviously going to be a much more labour-intensive exercise. You can’t kettle several dozen groups of ten or so people spread over a dozen streets – the idea is absurd. You have to go looking for them. That in turn conditions what the crowd can do – it can’t stage a classic mass demonstration – and favours people who are willing to just randomly destroy stuff that happens to be undefended, while the traditional mass demo favours a show of what you might call subversive respectability. The slow march of the Zulus, if you like.

Another important point was that there was no key identity-group here – it wasn’t aligned with any one ethnic or religious group or geography and wasn’t even totally young, and it didn’t explicitly identify with a class either. Therefore, anyone who felt like it could join in, and did. This obviously helped it go national and also made a traditional (since the 80s) police tactic more difficult. How do you call community leaders to ask everyone to go home if you can’t identify the community? From the other direction, how do you negotiate with authority if you can’t identify a community?

(This is of course the final problem with the Big Society – its only organising principle is that it’s a society and apparently it’s big.)

I wonder if a lot of the violence was driven by the fact anyone could turn up, and therefore the only way to demonstrate that you really were one of the gang rather than a do-gooder or a fink or just some random spectator was to do something obviously illegal.

Also, did this kind of riot drop in between the classic modes of British policing? If someone commits a crime, there’s investigative policing, if it’s the right kind of crime and the right kind of victim. If the Chartists are marching on Westminster, line up on Westminster Bridge with shields and big sticks. And of course there’s community policing if there’s time between the other two for some cups of tea and old ladies, etc.

Investigation was rather irrelevant while it was going on, although of course it’s not any more. And the heavy mob couldn’t draw a shield wall around every shop in London. Neither could they find enough bodies to kettle every group of rioters, or find enough rioters in one place to kettle. It does look like the December 2010 student riots were a tactical learning-experience for a lot of people.

Finally, those BlackBerries. Not much to say here, except that the most important feature involved seems to have been the fact that BBM is multicast. You can message groups rather than only individuals. There are apps that let you emulate this with SMS, although the reply will only go to you.

As a general rule, BlackBerry Enterprise Server traffic should be hard to do anything to as the server, typically hosted by an organisation for its own purposes, generates its encryption keys when it’s set up. It’s not anything RIM or your operator has to know about. But this is of limited relevance – plenty of people run their own mail servers, but I’ve never heard of anyone who self hosts BlackBerry. The BlackBerry Internet Service, which is hosted by operators, certainly can be monitored by the operator as they own the server. UK operators would be covered by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and might have to hand over logs from the BIS servers.

I don’t know, however, if the BIS machine archives the content of what passes through it (which isn’t required by RIPA anyway). Obviously, the traffic-analysis data of who messages who and when is potentially revealing.

From a network point of view, though, I doubt if snooping on the traffic in transit would be very useful. You’d know that someone was using a BlackBerry, as it would be opening Packet Data Profile connections through the network and querying the BlackBerry network DNS. But as they monitor messaging all the time, that isn’t very useful information. Certainly nothing as useful as the BIS server log.





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