Archive for the ‘democracy’ Category

I recently sent off another report through FixMyStreet, pointing at the horrible state of the roads round here. (I am more than a little disappointed with the Android client app, by the way.) Within a week, some of the worse potholes had been tar’n’gravelled. Meanwhile, even more seem to have appeared or worsened. What it needs is someone to have a look down the street and think about resurfacing, or at least for some sort of statistical alert to fire showing an unusually high level of potholes based on the incoming reports.

I’m not aware that any of the councils are doing anything clever with the stats, which is itself disappointing. All the cool kids, meanwhile, are fascinated by people like Adam Greenfield and his “walkshops on networked urbanism”. He likes the idea of using a ticketing paradigm for things like FMS; I’m not so sure. (More here. First, as friend of the blog Duane Griffin pointed out, geeks love trouble-ticketing and nobody else does.

In fact, Duane’s exact words were that every young programmer eventually decides to design their own ticketing system. (What he didn’t say is that once they have wasted their time and failed, they are no longer young.) I suspect that this is simply a case of the face growing to match the mask – a hell of a lot of IT people spend significant chunks of their time in symbiosis with either a ticketing application, a distributed version control system, or both, and as a result they come to imagine that all the world’s problems are soluble in a typical Sourceforge project page.

Secondly, there is a more fundamental problem with this – it requires problems to be discrete, atomic, and transactional. In fact, as our keen and agile minds will no doubt have noticed, these characteristics are also intrinsic to the MySQL or SQLite databases that underpin these applications. You open a ticket, it gets assigned, it gets updated, it gets closed. But how do you model a persistent or repeating task, or one that involves a relationship rather than a truck-roll? I don’t, in fact, want potholes patching; I would like the road surface to be maintained, which implies changes in Islington Council’s budgeting and management procedures.

And I suspect that an unintended consequence of ticket-based support in general is that it trains everyone involved to prioritise cancelling the noise. Do the minimum necessary to outprocess the ticket. It requires a further, meta-level of analysis to recognise any root causes – there’s a kind of old fashioned Taylorist view of organisation embedded here. If change is needed, it has to come from some sort of management layer analysing the stats. Further, and more subtly, it models the user, customer, or citizen as an entity that is either silent, or whining. You are expected to shut up, until your environment becomes intolerable, at which point you squawk.

Now, Daniel Davies would probably say that negativity is useful. It is harder to contribute positively than it is to oppose stupidity, so you’re more likely to do some good to society by flinging poo than by drafting a manifesto on the future of the Left. He has a point. And Stafford Beer’s Cybersyn actually worked on this principle – enterprises were silent while they could deal with their own problems, and only escalated issues in the system when they encountered something they couldn’t fix themselves. But I can’t help being sceptical that this is any way of organising a city. By the time you get significant numbers of tickets for cracks in a viaduct, your problems are well advanced.



This is depressing; they couldn’t find enough volunteers to count the votes in the Norwich North by-election on the night. What’s especially worrying is that it’s one of those assumptions that you never think about – a sort of minimum of commitment to the special importance of voting. And it’s being eroded, just as the police are gradually making their uniforms more militaristic, having been originally designed to be specifically civilian.

Meanwhile, people like James Purnell get Ernst & Young in to make people change GP more often.

Something else that came up at OpenTech; is there any way of getting continuing information out of the government? This is especially interesting in the light of things like Who’s Lobbying? and Richard Pope and Rob McKinnon’s work in the same direction; it seems to me that the key element in this is getting information on meetings, specifically meetings with paid advocates i.e. lobbyists. Obviously, this has some pretty crucial synergies with the parliamentary bills tracker.

However, it’s interesting at best to know who had meetings with who at some point in the past, just as it is at best interesting to know who claimed what on expenses at some point in the past; it’s not operationally useful. Historians are great, but for practical purposes you need the information before the next legislative stage or the next committee meeting.

I asked Tom Watson MP and John “not the Sheffield Wednesday guy” Sheridan of the Cabinet Office if the government does any monitoring of lobbyists itself; you’d think they might want to know who their officials are meeting with for their own purposes. Apparently there are some resources, notably the Hospitality Register for the senior civil service. (BTW, it was a bit of a cross section of the blogosphere – as well as Watson and a myriad of geeks, Zoe Margolis was moderating some of the panels. All we needed was Iain Dale to show up and have Donal Blaney threaten to sue everyone, and we’d have had the full set.)

One option is to issue a bucketful of FOIA requests covering everyone in sight, then take cover; carpet-bomb disclosure. But, as with the MPs’ expenses, this gives you a snapshot at best, which is of historical interest. As Stafford Beer said, it’s the Data-Feed you need.

So I asked Francis Davey, MySociety’s barrister, if it’s legally possible to create an enduring or repeating FOIA obligation on a government agency, so they have to keep publishing the documents; apparently not, and there are various tricks they can use to make life difficult, like assuming that the cost of doing it again is the same as doing it the first time, totalling all the requests, and billing you for the lot.

So what do we need to know about a parliamentary bill?

First of all, as soon as a piece of legislation is published, it has certain meta-data. Date originated; originating department; originating MP; originating house; type – primary legislation, order in council, statutory instrument; current status (pre-legislative/Green/White Paper, first reading, committee, report, second, third, Royal Assent, repealed/superseded). And, of course, a unique identifier. But they aren’t isolated; they amend, supersede, or repeal other legislation, so every Bill object needs to keep this information as well.

And if it’s secondary legislation, it has dependencies on at least one past Act of Parliament, so anything with the types order-in-council or statutory instrument has to track which Acts it inherits from. Similarly, a primary Bill may create possible secondary legislation.

Now we need to look at the revisions. Once the bill is published, it starts to attract changes; but it remains the same bill. So we need to have further rows which are permanently associated with the original bill, but uniquely identifiable in themselves. It’s probably simplest to keep only the changes at each step, because much of the point of the whole project is to monitor the changes. It feels right to me, if nothing else, to consider all the texts of a bill to be revisions, contained within the bill wrapper.

So a revision contains the title, the text in its sections, the status of the text, the originating organisation, if possible the originating MPs, the timestamp, and the amend/supersede/repeal/inherit information, and a revision ID. At each revision stage, a new item is added, until the final version gets Royal Assent; it would make sense to sort them in reverse chronological order and make the most recent version the default that is retrieved when that bill is requested.

This gives us a reasonable database of legislation, but it’s not going to be much use; for that we need some more comprehensible semantics. So each bill needs both a summary and some category tags, and both the bills and revisions will need to have users specify their own tags and notes. Add those fields as well… And we’ll need links to the debates at each stage, as well. Chuck in a URI field for Hansard in each Revision.

Summing up in object oriented terms, we’ve got a class called Bill, which has instance methods for the various metadata we’ve described, and a subclass called Revision, whose instance methods provide all the fields for each revision, but which always inherits the metadata and unique identifier of the Bill that created it, and possibly a further subclass of Revision called Comment to contain user notes. Further, the Bill needs a method Amend that creates a new Revision with the amending text, which remains provisional (inheriting the amending Bill’s current status) until the amending Bill is finalised. Of course, if we implemented it in something like Django the code could be precisely that.

In database terms, each Bill is a row with a primary key that uniquely identifies the bill and all its revisions and comments; each Revision and Comment is a row which has the same key as its parent Bill and a key which identifies it in the context of that Bill.

Update: Comments point out that a Comment shouldn’t be a subclass of Bill, for because it’s not legislation itself and it should be an is-a relationship not a has-a relationship. Good point; actually, commentary should probably be logically parallel to the actual text of legislation, but related to it – Commentary, with subclass UserComment, linked by the bill and revision IDs to the actual text.

And Dsquared tells us that the German Bundestag already has a public version control system for legislation! Here it is; it’s very complete and logical, I’ll say that for it, but there is no facility to annotate anything. But if you want to know precisely what the Baden-Württemburg delegation wanted to change in the law on modernisation of accounting requirements in the Federal Council’s Committee stage, it gets you there in two clicks from the search page. User experience design does not mean making things pretty.

Brilliant post from Dan Lockton on the design problems of making smart meters usable and useful.

In a sense, it relates to this post at the RSA’s Social Brain about “the dark side of “nudge””; of course, the downside of all these neat ideas about adjusting people’s decision processes into ones that are more rational, or at least less harmful, isn’t a sinisterly hyperefficient world where all troublesome individuality has been, blah, blah, but instead a world of undermaintained, malfunctioning good intentions.

In science-fiction terms, rather than a space-opera dystopia, it’s a New Wave one we’ve got to watch; all greasy handrails, important safety devices rigged to stop them making a noise, and infinite reserves of bitterness and resentment. From Dan’s scenario-planning:

The display is still there on the fridge door, but when the batteries powering the display run out, and it goes blank, no-one notices.

Quite; like the indefinitely deferred maintenance that tends to kill modern buildings. In fact, what that snippet reminded me of was democracy.

Resistance – The Essence of the Islamist Revolution is Alistair Crooke’s survey of modern Islamist thought. It would be clearer to say it is a couple of books occupying the same space; one would be a history of Islamist thought since the origins of the Iranian Revolution, with a polemic for greater understanding of such thought, and another would be a slightly eccentric, neo-Platonist rant with overtones of Ian Buruma’s notion of Occidentalism.

Well, that sounds fun, doesn’t it? Then you have to add in Crooke’s career; the book glosses him as an advisor to the European Commission on the Middle East, but makes absolutely no mention of his term as SIS station chief in Tel Aviv, in which role he negotiated a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, which lasted until an unfortunate air raid resulted in the deaths of a round dozen civilians and not the Hamas man the Israelis were after. (The story is here.)

The war resumed, and Crooke was recalled; officially this was for “security reasons”, but if anything imperilled his security it was probably that after the event, the Israeli tabloids discovered his job title, identity, and photograph with un-mysterious suddenness. He eventually fetched up in Beirut, running a thinktank called the Conflicts Forum, devoted to contact between Western powers and Islamists. (Time was, it would have been a nightclub, but we live in fallen times.)

So, what upshot? Crooke makes a strong case for modern Islamism as a classical reaction to colonialism and modernisation, or rather an interwar vision of modernity. He relies on an impressive battery of reading ranging into cultural Marxism at one end and into hardcore conservatism at the other. More controversially, he tries to place Islamism since the 1950s in a context of rebellion against free-market economics drawn from Naomi Klein; but the Ba’athist and similar regimes hardly qualify as Friedmanites, with their nationalised oil companies, state military industries, and extensive Soviet influence in administration, secret policing, and military doctrine and structure.

He draws on a battery of confidential interviews, which are some of the most interesting things in the book, to illuminate current ideas and practice, specifically among Hezbollah thinkers. Notably, they argue, the Caliphate should now be seen as a world-wide network of loosely interconnected “communities of resistance”, rather than a state or any other kind of hierarchical organisation. The aim of these is to uphold the practice of an ideal, self-organising community of believers against a total onslaught by the forces of liberalism, which wishes us all to be atomised individuals.

In practice, this demands a sort of liberation theology/community-organising/vaguely anarchist drive to create base groups everywhere, drawn together by the practice of mutual aid and the study of critical texts, and if necessary to form the underground shadow-administration common to all good guerrilla armies.

Crooke is interesting on the military implications of this, but I think what he describes is less original than he suggests. Flat, highly networked command structures, with a high degree of autonomy down to the squad and the individual, are not characteristic of Islamic or Islamist warfare; what he is describing here sounds a lot like Auftragstaktik. Also, he describes the requirements of a Hezbollah leader as integrity, authenticity, reliability, personal charisma, and ability to mobilise others; would anyone at all disagree?

There is an interesting side-trip into Islamist economic ideas. He criticises Westeners who assume that the main aim of these is to find technical workarounds to make the normal course of business sharia-compliant; apparently the real thing is considerably better. However, a lot of it (as described here) consists of accepting a market economy but not letting money be the be-all and end-all of everything, etc, etc; in practice, this seems to mean a welfare state. No surprise, then, that one of the thinkers he quotes had to write an entire book to rebut the charge that his ideas were indistinguishable from European social democracy.

According to Crooke, the main distinction is in the field of monetary economics; but, in so far as his writing is a true misrepresentation of it, it seems to be distinct in a way which isn’t particularly original. Apparently, Islamist economists are very exercised about M3 broad money growth, on the grounds that this represents the growth of credit in a fractional-reserve banking system and that this is the root of the evils of capitalism. Instead, they are keen on…the gold standard, that most free-trade imperialist of economic institutions!

At this point you might want to halt briefly; Islamist Auftragstaktik applied to community organising? The Caliphate in terms suited to Clay Shirky? Dear God, Islamist monetarist gold bugs? Phew! And you could, perhaps, take comfort from the thought that however strange Iranian political thought may be, their economic thought is no stranger than Fraser Nelson’s or Jude Wanniski’s. Placing an upper bound on the strangeness, after all, is probably an important step towards international understanding.

Then we get into the second book. Crooke is always quoting Plato, specifically the apposition between the port and the city; he attacks Karl Popper, and uses a great deal of Horkheimer and John Gray. It is fair to say he accepts entirely the complex of critiques that argue that life is meaningless without a higher purpose usually decided by higher people, that the freedom offered by liberalism is no such thing, that trade (or commerce, or industry) is “mere”; it is harder to say whether he accepts this for the sake of argument, as much of the Islamist thinking he is discussing bases itself on these ideas.

And there is a valid argument that a lot of it claims to represent the up-side of such critiques – the need for a self-empowered, cohesive community, the problems of the free market – but might just as well be the downside. The economy should be directed, at a national level, towards certain “great concepts”; this could be post-war French indicative planning, and might well be, having been written in the 1950s – or it could be a Straussian exercise in National Greatness Conservatism. We should work and care for society; or is it, as one of Crooke’s interviewees says, that “life is not worth living without something worth dying for”?

None of this stuff about “false reconciliation” and “self-pacifying”, materialism, etc, etc, answers E. P. Thompson’s classic attack on “theories that assume that ordinary people are bloody silly“, either. Strangely enough, towards the end of the book, we have a sudden swerve back towards liberalism; freedom is not so bad after all, it turns out, compared with a neoconservatism informed by Leo Strauss.

Curiously, I left the book with a feeling that it had set out to make right-wing Americans feel closer to political Shi’ism.

I’m trying to tally the uses of the phrase “middle class” in Britain. So far, I’ve come up with:

Synonym for “bourgeois” – which is problematic, because almost as soon as Marxism was invented, the idea that the bourgeoisie *owned* industry rather than managing it became obsolete. The middle class owns houses, it doesn’t own industry, except in the highly abstract sense of insurance or pension fund shareholdings.

And it certainly doesn’t own land. That’s the upper class; look at the circle around the princes, who mostly aren’t aristocratic or even very rich, but they are all landowners. There are as few Vodafone executives as there are asylum seekers. Ah, surely we’re getting somewhere? But isn’t that just a cheap version of the old distinction between the plutocracy and the aristocracy, the iron boss trying to ape the duke, a cliche of 19th century books? However, the top end of the middle class stereotypically buys property in the country as soon as they can afford to.

OK, the reductive sense; they are not the upper class, they are not the rich, they are not the working class. What is left between these lines must be the middle. But then, things that are described as “middle class” (estate cars, detached houses, Sainsburys) overlap the skilled working class and quite a bit at the top too. Politicians and advertisers draw a careful distinction between the C2s and the ABs.

Further, the suburbs are middle class, but so is London; most of the London so described is actually quite poor. The middle class is supposedly worried about private school fees and always votes Conservative, but statistically neither of these statements can possibly be true.

The middle class is sometimes used as a derisive term for what other European countries call the intelligentsia. At the same time, it supposedly doesn’t care what the intellectuals think. It is a national cliche that the middle class is a fearsome lobby, but also that it is incredibly surprising, faintly comic, and rather touching when its members are moved to protest.

My conclusion is that the phrase means everything and therefore nothing and should be decommissioned in an orderly fashion.

And then I was fool enough to look at another newspaper. So, with Labour you can at least hope they’ll look after us in the recession, right? No, they want to give bailiffs the right to restrain people, and to charge interest on social fund loans. And they’re blowing hot and cold on the Jaguar-Land Rover loan. (Did you know their sales are actually ahead of last year’s? You think all that stuff about the City not wanting to lend industry any money was true?) Merry Christmas to you, too… It’s not just the why – it’s the why now? Interest on loans for mattresses for the poorest of the poor, in the depths of The Crash of ’08?

On the other side, Michael Portillo devotes his column in the Times to explaining why Britain has lost its stomach for a fight and the US willl not think we’re “reliable” because of withdrawing from Iraq. (Although it’s their declared policy to, ah, withdraw from Iraq.) Jesus. Portillo talks like he’s some sort of ironclad veteran, rather than the defence secretary who allowed someone-or-other to exaggerate the troop requirement for Bosnia by a factor of 10 while his mate Douglas Hurd was collecting fees at NatWest Markets for privatising the other side’s telecomms network.

And as Dean Godson scurries back under his stone, Anthony “VDARE” Browne clears the decks for his inevitable safe Tory seat.

Pakistan Policy Blog speaks sense:

Zardari’s attempt to present himself as a savior belies the reality and the way most in Pakistan and even the United States see him. Billionaire Zardari is part of Pakistan’s feuding oligarchy, not a revolutionary against it.

The sad fact is that most Pakistanis have been hostage to this sadistic version of Bill Murray’s Groundhog’s Day for 60 years. There will be no messiahs in Pakistan. Pakistanis need the rule of law — neither Baitullah Mehsud’s law, nor Farooq Naik’s law — and a system with real checks, balances, and accountability to free them from their malaise.

Read the whole thing; I mean the whole blog, if you’ve got time. I suppose it couldn’t last; the position since the formation of the PPP-PML(N) government was just too good. The government had genuine public support, civil society had given The Tyrant a beating, both the Punjabis and Sindhis were represented, and no bugger voted for the Taliban tribute bands.

Now it’s back to normal service; a weak, unpopular, corrupt civilian president without support from half the country. I confidently predict there’ll be a coup in three or so years. What is genuinely depressing is the role of Zalmay Khalilzad – whether officially or pseudo-unofficially – in egging Mr 10 Per Cent on. The Americans seem to think that Pakistan is a 1970s rightwing military dictatorship, by nature. Says Mr. Douglas State:

Sweating with indignation, as of course they have every right to be, the great majority of the public would go communist tomorrow – and then, what? So, you see, we have to support General Caudillo. I agree he’s unattractive, but, you can’t do everything…

But they won’t – even the NWFP recorded about 15% of votes for the various Taliban tribute bands. They don’t trust the Americans. So what? I don’t. After all, they got new F-16s from the US, to replace the ones they didn’t get the parts for the time before that; they got a couple of spanking new GSM networks from dealing with Norwegian and UAE interests, respectively.

They need exactly the opposite of this kind of government, and this kind of ethic. It’s especially painful that, despite all the “freedom agenda” bollocks, the people who defied the tyrant precisely to defend the rule of law are being sold out. We’re on the wrong side of history, again.

This, meanwhile, is purely irresponsible, unless the game is to bring about a new military government. The upshot is that the Pakistanis turn off the MSR via Karachi; now, their interests and the other side are aligned.

Back in 2004, this blog went to the European Social Forum – we weren’t that impressed, but we did call it “the Caesar’s Palace of Ranting”. I’m not sure what the equivalent for the UKUUG’s OpenTech 2008 would be; there was plenty of ranting, but a sight less committee wank, more practicality, even if no-one can answer the question of what any of this stuff stands for. I ran into, among others, Liz Henry, most of MySociety, the author of Spyblog (who has some damn good war stories), various readers including Duane Griffin, and a small galaxy of assorted hackers, militants, gawpers, freaks and mutants. Good People, as the Doctor would say.

And they are, too; even if the live demonstration of the ViktorFeed didn’t happen due to the lack of a routable IP address (or even working connectivity for that matter), there was the loan of another laptop when OpenSUSE didn’t want to speak to the projector. When I’d finished the show and dealt with all the questions, I was faced with at least two offers of colocated server capacity, and the services of at least three professional software developers, as well as an interview for the BBC World Service, a spare USB key, and a pint of lager. All of which would have come in handy the night before, when I foolishly attempted to change something in the code after midnight and borked the whole thing, forcing me to get up at six the next morning to fix it.

As it turns out, having met Francis Irving, I’m probably going to be assimilated by MySociety, or at least my project is. I was also very interested in some of the green/geek crossover projects – I missed the session on solar power and IT, but I did get to the AMEE presentation on their automated carbon dioxide profiler and Hotmapping’s show of their IR surveying work, intended to classify buildings by the rate at which they lose heat. Apparently they’d already found one urban cannabis farm.

And BT Osmosoft’s TiddlyWiki – a wiki in a single file – may not sound all that much; but I really liked the idea of a zoomable, pseudo 3D interface for wikis. I’m quite keen on the idea of using this to organise contacts – who puts their friends in alphabetical order after all?