Archive for January, 2010

Pretty vacant

How did anyone miss this one?

Metafilter! I love you all. I needed a crowd, and you brought me a mob. It’s been a four-figure day for the blog by 10 a.m., and more importantly created a truly superb boom in Dave from PR remixes. Looking at the detailed server log from TYR Classic, loads of people are googling for things like “blank david cameron” – a telling comment in itself – and “cameron poster generator”. You will be infected. It’s worth noting that it’s not just posters; I am aware of three poster generator sites – Andy Barefoot’s, the Cameronizer, and, whose domain name is a minor classic in itself.

Do I look like Obama? The terrible secret of space. Inevitably, Cthulhu made an appearance, as if enough malevolent alien gods and unconscious drives too eerie to even think about hadn’t been in the original. And again. Kittens. The truth. This one is brilliant:

The Conservatives: rather like bog roll

Others: Watching. Bicycle. 400 years without sun. Pong. Love the colour blue, lies, and broken promises? Vote Conservative. Worst-case scenario. Dignitas. How is babby formed. Cameron vs. Withnail & I. New in town and eager to please.

Here’s another of mine. He voted for it

Lessons? For a start, the Vital Importance of Stable URIs and REST. When Andy deployed the feature that produced a stable URI for your poster, there was an explosion of creativity. Two reasons – first, you could show them off, share them with others, promote other people’s work. Links introduced the social dimension. Secondly, it got rid of several steps in the process – download the image, re-upload it to flickr/somewebhost/whatever, then pass it around. Making it a Web service gave the user instant results.

Less technically, the poster and its fate tell us something about Dave from PR. The whole project of Cameron is essentially a drive to implement all the most satirised features of Tony Blair; they’re working on the theory not just that the 1997 campaign was an effective model for getting elected, but that the public actually likes media manipulation and verb-free sentences and trust-me face and truthiness and faintly Jesus-y canned emotion. It’s not the ad campaign – it’s the product.

As a result, everything about him has the odd over-perfectly stylised quality of that poster, and is therefore permanently poised on the edge of being self-satirising. It may be our last best hope to push him over it at every opportunity.

Today, I love all the people. (Although, so did Erich Mielke. So don’t kid yourself I’m going soft.)

yes, it really is that bad

Ah, the David Cameron poster machine is on line. And it’s gold dust.

Somehow, that poster seems almost designed for satire. There are excellent reasons why it works so well; it’s possibly the most stylised example of a political advert I can think of. In a sense, it’s a movie – not at all original, but highly competent in a limited way, and therefore a perfect subject for parody. You only need to identify a small number of controls, or variables, that define it, in order to produce a message that matches the requirements of the format perfectly but has an entirely different payload.

J.G. Ballard, of course, was very much aware that display advertising is in some ways a programming language. Hack work is one of the standard literary experiences, but Ballard’s time as an ad copywriter must have been especially telling on his writing. Ballardian has a superb post on his 1960s project to create a range of content-free adverts, based on randomly cut-up texts and unrelated photos, that he placed in Vogue.

Look at either the original, or the skits; note carefully where the content is. The backdrop is soothingly grey, but not blank – it’s chosen to be content-free but without being actually blank or being a block colour. Blank space or block colour are visual statements – in modernism, you’re being asked to concentrate on the elements of the object you’ll actually interact with, in post-modernism, you’re being asked to project your own internal imaginings onto the blank space. Either way, if you make the colour field bright red, you’re putting the viewer on notice that you want to say something. The blurred-out background of the Cameron posters is the colour of nothing.

In front of it, we’ve got the heavily retouched Dave. Look where he is. User-interface research in computing suggests that the most important part of the visual for the majority of people is to be found as follows; divide the screen in four equal quarters, then divide the top left-hand one in quarters again, and pick its lower right-hand sector. Search engines assume that over 90% of clicks land in this zone on the first page of results. (Back in 2004, ignoring this was how I did the Viktor Bout story – just keep ploughing through the Google output.)

So the big pink face goes here – it acts as a graphical and thematic anchor for the eye. Thinking of the poster as a frozen movie, the action begins here. It’s also true that we’re likely to pick out the monkey in the background flow of images first – before we react to anything else on the poster, we have the chance to feel the tebbly-tebbly concerned smile at a subrational, sublinguistic level.

We move on; saccading from left to right and top to bottom, the next scene is the message in big friendly letters, as Douglas Adams would say. It’s worth noting that the real thing always has two sentences, and although they are united by the same typeface (Franklin Gothic), the real poster has a slightly different colour mask for the second. This signals that there is a plot relationship between them. On the original poster, Cameron promises a crisis about the budget in the first colour, then promises not to cut the NHS budget in the second. So we’re setting up conflict and resolution here.

No matter that the two statements are contradictory – in fact, if they weren’t, it wouldn’t work as a film. We move on southeastwards – first of all, we see the whizzy logo, so we know how to recognise the next element in the plot, and then, we get the pay-off, the strapline at the bottom right-hand corner of the poster. This is important – it’s the finale, and it’s got to contain something actionable, in the intelligence sense rather than the legal sense.

For the first time across the vast span of three or so seconds we’ve spent watching this drama, we see the word “CONSERVATIVE”.


It’s probably worth remembering that a lot of these are meant to be installed next to motorways or major rail routes, where we will in fact approach them at speed. Treating it as a film rather than a static artwork is therefore very appropriate.

There’s quite a lot of buzz about this story, in which a DHS report into criminal use of aircraft over the South Atlantic gets rehashed. The “Air Cocaine” case in Mali has given the whole thing another layer of sexy, of course, and it’s good to know that the problem is recognised – even better that it’s no longer considered to be a potential ally.

However, it’s still a subject on which governments project their existing prejudices. For example, it’s not apparently enough for there to be 10 tons of cocaine in the 727 – to get anyone’s attention, you need to get a terrorist in there too. Similarly, you rarely get away without a ritual attack on Venezuela, which is getting to be a sort of happy hunting ground for fans of state sponsorship theories like the Bek’aa Valley used to be for Dick Cheney. And, of course, there’s the temptation to look for anything that connects the story with Viktor Bout.

Of course, the main reason why such aircraft might pass through Venezuelan airfields is that it’s on the way; 727 serial 21619 stopped in Fortaleza, which is even closer to West Africa, on the way out and probably on the way back, but I suppose Brazil is too big to pick on. The report linked does at least note that the geography is important.

For people like Paul Wolfowitz and his “network of friendly militias”, I suppose they saw a provider of useful services. The drugs people see it as part of the Drug War. The arms trade people see it as a small arms transfer issue, and the terrorism people see it as something to do with terrorism. I’m trying to see it as something to do with the ambiguities of globalisation; in a sense, it doesn’t really matter which terrorists or whose arms are travelling in whose aircraft.

There is, however, a fringe economy that empowers and profits from all these things, and there’s the rub. It does so in ways that confound the aims of the powerful (like the drugs and the terrorists) and it does so in ways that further them (like the Iraq logistics and arms to Angola). Finding convenient terrorists shouldn’t be necessary.

One thing that interests me about the South Atlantic element of this is that, if the Viktor Bout experience is anything to go by, a critical element is hybridisation with the legitimate economy, and especially major nodes of trade.

Both the Sharjah Airport free zone, for example, and the UAE airports themselves essentially permitted Viktor Bout, and many others, to operate outside the law while also enjoying the facilities of civilisation. They could get major aircraft maintenance done, compete for legitimate cargo, and also stash planeloads of arms in bonded warehouses. A long runway is a necessary but not a sufficient feature; there was a reason why they didn’t set up camp in Riyan or Machiranish.

So where’s HQ for the West Africa/Latin American community? I still like Ajay’s suggestion of Conakry, especially in the light of its increasingly dysfunctional junta (although, the trick is to put your base well away from the customers…). But I would expect to see more traffic there on the Vfeed. However, it’s quite probable that it will be located somewhere where there is an active interface between extreme free markets and an authoritarian state, and where there is substantial infrastructure. In fact, you could almost identify free zone authoritarians as a subtype of the modern thinkers.

Note that the typical aircraft types in the Atlantic are Western – Gulfstreams and Boeing 727s. This has consequences for their maintenance and support.

Sean McFate has an interesting piece about organising the army of post-Charles Taylor Liberia in Foreign Policy. Here’s a quote:

We formed investigative teams composed of one international and one Liberian investigator. Together they handled individual cases, traveling to a recruit’s home village to verify data and garner character references. We compiled and assessed existing public records for accuracy and volume and ran candidates’ names through the limited records that we found credible. To our surprise, some of the best records came not from the government but from local NGOs such as the West African Examination Council, which had administered and kept records of high school achievement tests for decades.

The Examination Council. There was a functioning exam board in 90s Liberia; that’s absurd and heroic all at once.

OK, so I did two things – I upgraded to OpenSUSE 11.2/KDE 4.3, which is great, and I’ve installed SQUIN, the semantic Web query server, on my laptop in order to work on WhoseKidAreYou. The concept of SQUIN is that it provides a SPARQL end point to do queries over the various, interlinked sets of data that conform to the Linked Data standard.

So, I should be able to pull data from the FOAF db, from DBpedia, and all sorts of other stuff in the same query statement. Cool. And you’ve got to hand it to them, as well, the install is almost comically easy. But, as with SPARQL in general, there are things I’m not getting. The idea of Linked Data is that you should be able to follow links from a record retrieved from one DB into another related one – for example, if the DBpedia record for somebody contains FOAF information, the query client should note the link, recurse along it into FOAF, and get you any information that matches your query that’s in FOAF as well as DBpedia.

You’d think that the main problem would be constraining the search and filtering the results. Essentially, I’m trying to replicate the behaviour of a cynical and intelligent person searching the Web for the authors of everything they read, and it’s obvious that someone doing that uses most of their brain effort to sieve the search results. Similarly, if you’re writing a SQL query to pull data out of a classical relational database, your biggest concern is usually how to filter, reduce, group, aggregate, summarise, or limit the volume of data that comes back.

But I find the difficult bit with SPARQL is maximising the volume of data that comes back. It’s incredibly easy to get nothing at all for quite trivial queries. Another thing is that if one of the variables in the query doesn’t match, none of them do, and the query will return nothing. You can use the OPTIONAL keyword, but as far as I can see, you need to OPTIONAL each and every statement. The syntax is annoyingly “almost, but not quite, entirely unlike SQL” and it’s oddly difficult to get a data variable, rather than a URI, into your query.

Also, I find the Linked Data element of this a little hard to visualise. Presumably, if you want to query across datasets, you need to use prefixed namespaces that are common to them all. I think, but I’m not sure, that you can mix multiple prefixed namespaces.

Regarding SQUIN itself, I’m also suspicious that the queries return very, very fast; there’s not enough time for it to be doing any recursing that involves multiple network round trips. Here’s an example:

PREFIX foaf:
PREFIX dbproperty:
PREFIX dbresource:
SELECT ?influenced ?page ?knows ?knowspage
?name dbproperty:Name dbresource:Martin_Amis .
?influenced dbproperty:influencedBy ?name .
?page foaf:page ?influenced .
?knows foaf:knows ?influenced .
?knowspage foaf:page ?knows .

This should declare the query variables in the SELECT clause, get the value of the Person/Name property of the DBpedia article Martin_Amis, bind it to ?name, then get all the values of the Person/influencedBy property that match ?name, bind them to ?influenced, and then the FOAF:Page values that match ?influenced. We’re then, going to query FOAF for the FOAF:Knows values for each of the influenced, and their home pages.

As that’s uncertain as to whether they have them, it’s an OPTIONAL clause, as is the one that gets the foaf:pages in the first place. DBpedia’s SNORQL interface chokes on the reference to Martin Amis (who wouldn’t). SQUIN considers it valid SPARQL, but produces no results whatsoever. If you browse over here, you’ll find that all the values involved are present and as described; and, indeed, the first influencedBy has a foaf:page attribute. In general, semantic web things seem to be good at failing to return data they actually have under the attributes they have for it.

What is it that I’m missing? Is there a huge tarball of data I need to load in SQUIN? Surely the point of Linked Data and semantics is that you don’t have to scrape the Web and snarf it all into a big database, but rather treat data on Web sites as if it were in a database?

which can eternal lie…

An interesting question. Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were survivors of the Nixon and Ford administrations. Which crawling horrors from the Bush years will be around to plague us in the future? With a year’s hindsight, it ought to be fairly clear who’s recovering. For example, a lot of the senior posts in the current shadow cabinet are held by people who were in it within the first couple of years of Blair, and you could say the same for punditry.

The question is easier to answer in the negative – it’s pretty unlikely that Douglas Feith or Dan Senor have glittering bureaucratic futures ahead of them. A whole gaggle of second tier people were killed off by the various scandals ranging from CIA corruption to the US Attorneys. The connoisseur’s answer is David Addington, but there’s only one of him. That leaves us with an impressive known unknown – we know there will have been a handsome new crop of pig-bastards, but we don’t know who they are.

Apparently a lot of them were transferred into the permanent civil service in the last months of the regime; presumably, this involves gazetting the appointments, so there must be data out there somewhere. It’s still an astonishing thought that they managed to keep the Vice-Presidency’s phone book secret.

How could I forget this?

The Obscurer‘s coverage of the Undabomber has been marked by one man. Here he is:

Peter Hoekstra, the senior Republican on the House intelligence committee, said it was examining Mutallab’s links with the radical Yemeni imam, Anwar al-Awlaki, who has inspired a number of terrorists.

Awlaki had contacts with Major Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist who is accused of carrying out the massacre at Fort Hood, Texas, in November in which 13 people were murdered. According to government officials, Awlaki was also the spiritual adviser to two of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, while he was an imam at a mosque in northern Virginia. The FBI investigated him in 1999 and 2000, believing him to be a possible procurement agent for Osama bin Laden.

In Toronto, a terror cell watched videos of Awlaki at a makeshift training camp where an attack was planned on the Canadian parliament and prime minister. “He’s a star attraction as a recruiter to young Americans and Canadians,” one former American intelligence official told the US media.

This month, in an interview with Al Jazeera, Awlaki expressed surprise that the US military had failed to uncover Hasan’s plan, to which he gave his backing. “My support to the operation was because the operation brother Nidal carried out was a courageous one, and I endeavoured to explain my position regarding what happened because many Islamic organisations and preachers in the west condemned the operation,” he said.

Awlaki left the US and moved to Yemen in 2002 where he established an English-language website that has thousands of followers around the world. In January 2009, he published an online essay, 44 Ways to Support Jihad, in which he asserts that all Muslims must participate in jihad, whether in person, by funding mujahideen or by fighting the west.

There’s something missing here…can you spot it?

Concerns about his influence in the UK have been expressed by experts on community cohesion. In August, the Observer reported anger that Awlaki was due to speak via a video link at Kensington town hall. The broadcast was dropped after the local council stepped in. He has also been invited to give talks via video link at several London universities. “Mutallab is the latest in a long list of terrorists [Awlaki] has inspired and encouraged,” said Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens of the Centre for Social Cohesion.

“The preacher has long been a highly respected figure within a number of British university Islamic societies because, unlike most other radical preachers, Awlaki speaks English as a first language, and being born and raised in America has given him a good understanding of western culture. This makes him very appealing to young western Muslims.”

Meleagrou-Hitchens called for British universities to increase their vigilance. “This incident should act as a wake-up call to university authorities,” he said. “It is crucial that they now accept the central role they must play in resisting extremists and preventing student groups from promoting hate preachers.”

Did you spot it? The Obscurer didn’t actually say that he had any connection with the pants bomber. They didn’t even quote Hoekstra saying so – and Hoekstra is a comedy rightwing buffoon anyway. They didn’t adduce any evidence of his connections with him in any way – just cut straight to Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens. Whose kid are you?

Oh, right. He’s “worked” for Standpoint, the Centre for Social Cohesion, Policy Exchange, and the Henry Jackson Society. I think he gets a free cup of coffee and 200 air miles if he can punch another content-free wanktank funded by the Tories’ neocon wing on his loyalty card.

PolEx’s Web site has an “Alumni” page, but mysteriously it bears no trace of him. Google, however, knows:

He has also worked at the Stanford University based think tank, the Hoover Institution for War, Revolution and Peace, and the Washington DC based think tank, Foundation for Defence of Democracies (FDD).

He holds an MA in International Relations from Brunel University, and a BA in Classics from King’s College London.

Alexander researched for publications providing policy recommendations on creating a robust defence against the threat of terrorism in the UK and abroad.

FDD as well! Free cuppa for you! There is, of course, no suggestion of or link to any work on terrorism he ever did.

Today, he’s in the Obscurer again. Let’s roll the tape.

Recordings of Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaida sympathiser who is believed to have inspired Abdulmutallab in Yemen, can be bought through British-based websites and bookshops. Three shops in London and Manchester were contacted by this newspaper last week. Staff said they could sell DVDs of the speeches by the cleric, who is banned from the UK.

As recently as last April, students at London’s City University Islamic Society’s annual dinner were invited to hear the words of al-Awlaki being broadcast live into Britain.

So why is he “believed” to have inspired pants boy? Where is the evidence? It’s not even the electioneering torture fan Hoekstra this time.

Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, a research fellow for the think-tank the Centre for Social Cohesion,

For it is he.

said that al-Awlaki has become an increasingly influential figure. “For well over a year now, organisations such as ours have repeatedly warned about the dangerous influence of this man, with most of our warnings falling on deaf ears,” he said.

Call now and buy your anti-terrorist water ioniser – 20 per cent off before the end of this broadcast! And don’t forget to donate now and claim Gift Aid!

“They had no objection to his giving a video sermon to a gathering at Kensington and Chelsea town hall. We are also often told that, although al-Awlaki’s views may be unsavoury, he has never been convicted of any crime. Clearly, this excuse is simply not good enough.”

The excuse that he hasn’t done anything wrong.

Further, Hitchens Minor seems to be missing someone in his laudable crusade on the home front. I refer, of course, to the current and past tenants of Kensington & Chelsea Town Hall, or in other words, the Conservative Party in London. Could this perhaps have something to do with the fact that his boss at Policy Exchange is now the Conservative Mayor of London’s director of policy?

Dan Lockton would probably be interested in this…

The robot is this Bristol Robotics Lab project; both people in the thread at Jamie Zawinski’s I saw it in, and everyone I’ve shown it to, immediately think it looks like a cat.

In fact, in a sense, they do recognise it as a cat – it’s roughly the right size and shape, it’s in the right place, and if you wave a piece of string in its whiskers it responds much like a cat. But actually, as the project Web site tells us:

The robot was designed to reproduce the behaviour of rats as they use their whiskers to explore their environment. To get a clearer picture of how rats use their whiskers we filmed them using high speed video cameras (500fps) and manually tracked the position of each whisker in the array on a frame by frame basis. Software based automatic tracking is still very much in its infancy though there are a number of groups (including our Sheffield partners) who are now working toward such an application.

The data from this whisker tracking allowed us to quantify the kinematics of whiskers as the rats explored novel environments. From this we found that following a whisker making contact with an object there was a very rapid (~13ms) change in the velocity profile of the ‘whisking’, or movement pattern of the whiskers. We also observed that the rat will tend to move, or orient, its nose toward the exact point of contact.

Our hypotheses were that the rat was trying to optimise the force applied by the whiskers making contact with the object as well as bringing as many addition whiskers as possible, and its nose for smelling, to bear on that point. The orienting behaviour we see as an example of a higher level control loop through the brain, very similar in nature to how we as visually dominant animals rapidly orient, or saccade, the fovea of our eyes toward interesting events detected by our peripheral vision.

To this end we designed our robot to mimic both the low level contact mediated adaptation of the whisker motion pattern and the ability to orient its ‘nose’ towards points in three dimensional space. Designing the physical robot to be capable of mimicking these behaviours allows us to test different computational models of the underlying brain structures which can control it.

So it’s a ratbot, and interestingly enough, it’s an example of a hardware simulation of a biological phenomenon.

But this is also an example of an interesting design phenomenon; if you want objects to be immediately comprehensible, it helps to use the patterns Dan details here; notably, in this case, similarity, mimicry, and role-playing. Everyone knows how to act around a cat; a robot, not so much. We’ve been trained to do so by cats. And this part of the project will be unavoidably cattish:

We hope to be able to demonstrate the validity of the proposed brain model by the robot being able to chase an object (perhaps a remote controlled car) moving through its whisker field

Aww. Also, our associations for cat- and also dog-like behaviour stimulate our curiosity towards them, in part because we project it on them. Just as making a new smartphone an interesting object to handle speeds the learning process, a robot that encourages curiosity and interaction towards itself will speed its users’ learning process.

I suspect that the response to the Bristol Scratchbot would have been rather different had we been told in advance that it was emulating a rat. (Special note – much of the robot was made on a rapid prototyper.)

a modest proposal

Everyone’s taking the piss out of the Tories’ proposed £1m prize for a…something or other…ah,

an online platform that enables us to tap into the wisdom of crowds to resolve difficult policy challenges

Of course, it might be possible to make statements about this if only it was better specified. So everyone’s contented themselves with making fun of the press release and blaming blogs for the Iraq war. Or something. But underspecified is good in some ways…

If you want a proposal that could certainly be delivered for less than £1m, I’ve got one. Free Our Bills,’s proposed Web site to allow anyone to track the drafting process of UK legislation – to view amendments, make notes, monitor changes, and lobby Parliament in real time. Here’s my crack at a rough design of it, with a link to the Germans’ solution to the same problem.

Essentially, it’s a package manager for legislation – this talk at CCC describes relevant technology that’s actually being used for the Government’s

And you know what? David Cameron is on record supporting it. However, his party is also keen to fuck up anything the new Speaker, John Bercow, who is also sympathetic and is actually in charge of these things, wants – purely out of spite.

Also, if there’s any change left out of the cool million after that, you could even make a start on Who’s Lobbying – specifically, by setting up an internal registry of contacts with lobbyists for the Government. I asked Tom Watson MP about this last OpenTech – he thought there was no such log, which surprised me as it is something that would materially assist No.10 Downing Street and ministers in tracking what is actually happening in politics, quite apart from its utility as citizen technology.

But…the Government’s already promised to start doing it.