Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Does anyone else see a parallel between the Murdoch e-mail timeline; and some of the recent new information?

For example, the meetings with Cameron regarding the Sun coming out for him seem to have happened not long before the new policy of “eliminating in a consistent manner across NI…emails that could be unhelpful”.

More tellingly, just as the lobbying campaign for the BSkyB deal peaked in December 2010, with the push to get rid of Vince Cable, the barrage of meetings with Hulture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, and the secret meeting in Oxfordshire with the Prime Minister, there seems to have been a surge of activity. This was the moment when three different NI executives lied publicly about the e-mail, Scottish editor Bob Bird claiming that it had disappeared in India, solicitor Julian Pike saying that it had all been deleted in June, and CIO Paul Cheesbrough saying that everything since September 2007 was gone.

Actually, the spring of 2010 (i.e. the election run-in, the crisis, and the decision to bid) was busy, too. There was a large deletion at HCL in April, management were interested in the matter and were badgering for more e-mail to be destroyed, and Pike seems to have thought it important.


Ed Miliband joins Total Defence!

Labour councils across England will act as the “last line of defence” against the controversial health act, Ed Miliband said as he pledged to overturn its “free market, free-for-all principles”.

Speaking at the launch of the Labour local election campaign in Birmingham, Miliband said Labour councils would use the public health and well-being boards to resist the most damaging aspects of the Health and Social Care Act.

Meanwhile, the NE London Foundation Trust wrote to me to confirm that I am now a member. An amazingly large proportion of the letter is devoted to encouraging me to join the NHS staff-discount scheme, which apparently I now can. For some reason this reminds me of a remark my old college mate Tim Lewis made in San Francisco the week before last, to the effect that Virgin Atlantic is the New Labour airline. And on the flight back, yes, there is something distinctly Blairite about their general aesthetic. Boomer nostalgia/exciting purple/lower-case type/gratuitous Ginger Spice Union Flags/forced jollity/total lack of anything like dignity or design austerity.

Berlin’s city fathers destroyed the world’s best airport once, and now they’re going to do it all over again by killing off the wonderful spaceship/cold war modern, 20 metres from the kerb to the plane, German architecture and French Army engineering Berlin-Tegel so you can damn well traipse in from Schönefeld, which will become a giant shopping centre with a runway.

France, delightedly nuclear-armed power to our south, has absolutely no doubt about sticking with the Bomb and indeed maintaining both a submarine and an air-launched capability. The BBC interviews Jean-Dominique Merchet, Francois Heisbourg, both well worth reading.

Bruce Sterling apparently didn’t hear about the whole homeless-person-as-support-structure-for-WLAN-box thing so he hasn’t stuck SXSW right there with the CBOSS stand at Mobile World Congress, but he does have some interesting remarks although as always his commitment to staring right into the future’s eyes seems to render him less critical than he should be.

He has company. The New Aesthetic has the “scenius” of London’s Silicon Roundabout to support it. These people are working creatives of Bridle’s generation, with their networked tentacles sunk deep in interaction design, literature, fashion and architecture. They do have some strange ideas, but they can’t all be crazy….It’s also deep. If you want to get into arcane matters such as interaction design, computational aesthetics, covert surveillance, military tech, there’s a lot of room for that activity in the New Aesthetic. The New Aesthetic carries a severe, involved air of Pynchonian erudition.

So, ah, it appears to be me?

“Theory objects” from the Internet are squamous, crabgrass-like entities, where people huddle around swollen, unstable databases

And he thinks that’s a good thing. Squamous = either skin cancer or Cthulhu. Swollen, unstable database = big problem. Huddling around it = pointless. And what the North American-blinkered fuck is crabgrass, I’ve not seen any growing around Telco 2.0 Towers in the Curtain Road heart of Sillyabout? I’m tempted to use it as a synonym for vague futurist-y guff. “Hmmm, I see your point, but I think the next slide is nothing but crabgrass.”

Coming soon

A review of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow for the Fistful of Euros. That will be the high-style eurocratic version.

Another review of Kahneman for this fine blog. That is tentatively titled Kahneman for Thugs and will be a sort of juddering, noisy remix of the other one concentrating on action-oriented political advice derived from it.

Further action on the Lobster Project. I ported quite a bit of it from the pile of scripts on my laptop into ScraperWiki today, and I now need to debug and shake down those sections of the workflow. ScraperWiki now has the awesome NetworkX war-on-some-kinds-of-terror social network analytics lib, so I’m scraping in data, creating NX objects, and then reading out analytics in a string of loosely coupled scrapers. I’ve even been giving the look and feel some thought…sorry…oohing over fonts.


After the wave of links posts, here’s a links post with no particular theme.

Fantastic new civil servant blog has some interesting thoughts on Trident replacement and the interactions with US defence cuts. Specifically, as the Americans reduce their nuclear arsenal, will they still want an Atlantic and a Pacific SSBN fleet, and in the case that they close Kings Bay naval base, is it practical for the RN boats to sail to the West Coast to pick up new rockets?

Jeffrey Lewis at Arms Control Wonk discusses whether the US might be thinking about a minimal-deterrent option, in which case it might paradoxically be less of a problem for the UK as submarines would be relatively more important.

The best paper map. I was really pleased to see a demo at Mobile World Congress in which the radio coverage footprint was overlaid in Openlayers onto the OpenStreetMap.

UKBA stops signing up new users for the IRIS biometric identifier. Thank God we spent all that money issuing new passports! Passing through Gatwick North on Thursday night, I noticed that, as usual, it took several times as long for IRIS to deal with a passenger as it did for a human.

A history of Sharjah Airport…but only up to 1952.

General Washington’s compliments to General Howe. He does himself the pleasure to return him a dog, which accidentally fell into his hands, and by the inscription on the Collar, appears to belong to General Howe. He does this in the context of an exchange of compliments between armies arguing over who torched the mill to deny the other grain, and what this would do to the civilian population. Kings of War has been excellent recently after an influx of new bloggers.

Hopi Sen’s grandad and the propaganda film.

There’s a trio of kittens tucked into a tiny bed,

and what looks like a Golden Retriever in a shirt and tie, holding a long-stemmed rose between its teeth. At the bottom of the image it says, “PUPPIES & FRIENDS.” “One deity rules over all the other spirits,” Henry tells me as the sacrificial chickens are plucked and tossed into a hot caldero. “He is the Godfather.

We saw this one coming, and here it comes. Katharine Birbalsingh’s academy (that’s the one with the “private school ethos” right down to “I don’t need to know Ohm’s law, I read Greats”) won’t be opening due to a lack of buildings, money, and indeed anything.

Voidy contributes to King Mob vs. IDS, demonstrating that the DWP has been very keen to get rid of embarrassing facts from its web site.

I just got an e-mail from my MP, Lynne Featherstone, regarding publishing the NHS Risk Register. Here’s the important bit.

Risk registers are used by government departments and more generally by private companies to plan for worst-case scenarios. They range on everything from flu epidemics to terrorist attacks. As you can imagine, publishing these documents could cause unnecessary alarm and compromise sensitive information and investigations.

If the Government publishes the NHS risk register, it would then set a precedent to publish all registers. An unintended but dangerous consequence would be that government officials hold back vital information for fear of being connected with bad news. The most significant risks would therefore no longer be recorded, and no contingency plans would be identified.

This is a common argument used by the government against transparency. It is formidably stupid. In what universe is it a good idea to specifically protect the practice of giving advice you are not willing to explain, defend, or take responsibility for? I mean, this is cracksmokingly insane. Let’s work through the process.

So I’m a civil servant, and am responsible for working up policy options on some issue. I have a brilliant idea that will solve the problem at a stroke. But for some reason, it is so politically unpopular, embarrassing, or evil in an ethical sense that I would be afraid or ashamed to put my name to it. Further, even if it works, it is still so awful that neither me nor my Minister would want to be associated with it. Not just that, it’s so clever that despite being conspicuously weird, violently anathema to some major section of public opinion, or monstrous, and capable of resolving a major issue of public concern, nobody will notice it when it happens.

This last is required, because if they did notice it, it would surely not take too long to head over to and look up the Department’s organisation chart.

How likely is this? How likely is it that politicians would refuse to take credit, deserved credit, for something successful?

On the other hand, how likely is it that policy advice whose author is unwilling to take responsibility for it is bad advice? If you give people an out like this, you’re likely to get more ideas that are evil, politically impossible, or simply idiotic. These classes of ideas will always be out there, and one of the reasons why we have things like public records and select committees is to act as a restraining influence on their production. “What would the papers say?” is not a stupid or cowardly statement. The constraint that your ideas should be defensible is a useful discipline, and one that may even be an aid to creativity, like the rules of a sonnet.

As far as I know, this argument was originally aired during the Franks report inquest into the Falklands War. On that occasion, the policy recommendation was “well, sort of vaguely wave our hands, and hope the fascist dictator eats Benny quietly and nobody notices. Let the file mature a bit”. I think it is obvious that this was not the civil service’s finest hour, and the prospect of public scrutiny might have induced someone to come up with a better plan and perhaps be more honest about it.

A further problem is that what the quote is describing is essentially the Noble Lie so dear to Leo Strauss. This is what designers and computer scientists call an anti-pattern – a common example of indefensibly awful practice. It is not actually impossible that the situation above might arise. Perhaps we do need to introduce an alien DNA virus into the school milk to induce immunity against Case NIGHTMARE GREEN. However, it is far more likely that the civil servant involved is actually doing just what it looks like, proposing a horrifically dangerous, stupid, irresponsible, and evil plan that ought never to have been thought for more than seconds. In fact, fundamental cognitive biases mean that someone whose idea is stupid, evil, or impossible and they know it, or whose motives are corrupt, is very likely to make use of such an argument to protect themselves.

I think of this as a She Was Asking For It argument – it isn’t impossible that she was, but it is infinitely more likely that you are just trying to wriggle out of the consequences of your own behaviour, and therefore it is a safe aim-off to treat all such arguments as being dishonest. Once you admit the possibility, you’re going to get a lot of shit in the meat.

Beyond that, we can knock off the other arguments quickly. Civil servants might be afraid of punishment for airing ideas considered weird. Well that’s why we have a professional civil service with independent line management. The problem isn’t the idea, it’s the practice of punishing people for thinking. The public might be alarmed. Bullshit! Blah blah politically embarrassing. Grow up. The register might contain secret information. Well that’s what the complex disclosure machinery in the Freedom of Information Act is for. We already fixed it.

Advice of the form “If I were you, I’d do X. But don’t tell anyone I told you, and I don’t want to take any responsibility for this.” is probably bad advice.

I expect there’s going to be a hell of a lot of ink spilled in the next few months about different schemes for “regulating the press”, how the very idea is an abomination and this has nothing to do with my column in some Murdoch rag, how this outrageous behaviour makes it utterly necessary for journalists to have to justify themselves to some sort of horrible post-Hutton BBC quangocracy, yadda yadda.

My position is this. Press regulatory bodies will probably be very much like “regulators” of all the kinds that have sprung up since the privatisation era. That is to say, they’ll either be impossibly bureaucratic or pathetically complicit or both. The problem with regulators, especially the post-80s, all mates together in an orderly market sort, is that they are a weak-sauce compromise.

Once you create a regulator, you’re doing two things: accepting that the forces of the market aren’t going to fix your problem, and withdrawing the forces of democracy in favour of the forces of bureaucracy. Compare the Home Affairs Committee’s vicious and pointed quizzing of Andy Hayman to, well, anything the IPCC ever gets up to. Nye Bevin’s crack about dropped bedpans echoing through the halls of Westminster was very much to the point. Everyone moans about ministerial line management, but when did you last vote for the OFCOM Director-General?

There’s a coda to this – over time, if you leave it to the departmental government, the temptation to fiddle and to indulge in recreational reorganisation will get progressively stronger. My point, however, is that very often regulatory bodies function either as a veiled form of ministerial control or else as a flak-catcher protecting the powerful from public scrutiny.

In this case, I would argue that any regulatory committee will be either complicit or floppy if it has to face up to something like News International. The problem is not one of processing complaints more efficiency, although that would of course be nice. It is one of power and only changing the realities of power will fix it.

The trust must go. We don’t need more quangology. We need a genuinely competitive and diverse media market. We need to break the bastards up and set the rules to prevent them reforming. And the agency to do this is the Competition Commission, one of the oldest regulators and one of the few that has the taste of saying “No”. But it is absolutely necessary to set its terms of reference so that it will have no choice but to break up the trusts. That means changing the law.

Dick Fedorcio is taking a little trip to Westminster to be quizzed. By Keith Vaz’s committee. How times change – Keith Vaz as the standard bearer of public integrity. It’s got to be more convincing to get your second chance after 10 years in the wilderness though.

Meanwhile, has anyone else noticed that the “#AskEdM” hashtag is a shamelessly obvious exercise in trolling? Think about it – how many people who aren’t either political obsessives following up a story or just looking for a fight, or else full-time rightwing howler monkeys, ever hang out in Paul Staines’s comments threads with all the coup fantasies and racebaiting and ZaNuLiebour and EUSSR? Nobody. Really.

So why not lure the torysphere out in the open, somewhere the majority can actually see them behaving in this horrible way? Like Twitter.

And if they notice it, they’ll get angry and look an even more repellent herd of shit-smeared zombies. It’s brilliant. As a side benefit, if Edelmans have managed to rig some network of semiautomated talking-points distribution bots, they’re bound to show up there so they can be identified. And if you were looking for a list of horrible spamming arsewits, Mike Gigglers trying to be hipsters but stuck at the brown-dwarf stage, ZaNuLiebour dittoheads, and other membrane fauna…well, here’s your chance to populate your blacklist. I added dozens. It was a lot of fun.

The only annoying thing is that as far as I know, although Twitter has “lists” that let you group other users and subscribe to their collected output (yeah, like XMPP Collection Nodes) it doesn’t have the inverse operation. So you can’t easily replicate the Team Cymru Bogons BGP feed and automate the process, even if we’ve already got a serviceable darknet.

Elsewhere, I put together a quick network diagram of the top Met-NI interactions. Nothing very surprising except that the commissioner is always sought after, and that John Yates appears to have an independent following with them (surprise!). Of course, your man Dick was probably at all the meetings in this chart.

[hey wordpress! what is your problem with ManyEyes?]

Met commissioners - close to Murdoch Many Eyes

Finally, some music.


More progress from here. In comments, we have an explanation of the PoCA 1906 vs. BA 2010 issue. It’s actually much simpler than I imagined. Basically, the old Act was in force at the time of the crime, and it’s not clear whether the new one is operational yet in the absence of the Ministry of Justice’s guidance.


I went with the ThinkPad option in the end – the wily denizens of the computer souk managed to upsell me from the ThinkPad Edge 11 to a fully fledged X200S that looks like you have to wear a tie to start it up. Next step, clear up my data enough to look at moving my non-Windows activities over to the new ‘pooter. I’m assuming I’ll run OpenSUSE Linux on the new machine again, unless anyone has a good reason not to.

I noticed at OpenTech that not only did something like half the presenters bring a Mac (and as someone on twitter observed, forget the VGA adaptor for the overhead projector), but at least half of the Mac users were running Ubuntu on them. Everyone else seemed to be Ubuntu-ing as well except for one Fedora and one Debian (I think) user. Nobody, but nobody, ran Windows. (Actually I think I caught sight of a netbook running XP at some point but the owner covered it up sharpish.)

Also, this looks handy. No more £1 Webcheck lookups!

(Alt. title: Look, it’s like a society but smaller!)

OK, so you may remember the case of, a well-publicised eye-catching initiative that turned out to be little better than spam paid for with a government grant to some whose-kid-are-you types. It seems that the whole pointless wankabout was kicked off when one of the WKAYers cornered poisonous old Thatcherite gargoyle Lord Young and pitched his eye out.

Ah well, the Big Society was always going to be a happy hunting ground for grantsmanship, wanktanking, and various other kinds of ligging and general availability entrepreneurship. Small business grant programs – which it essentially is – are notoriously vulnerable to fraud and general dodgy dealing.

And then it came to the MySociety listserv. So this message plunked into the trap last Monday. In it, a thing called “Sidekick Studios” offers to hire some software developers. Note – because this will be important later on – that they didn’t make any bones at all that they were making an offer of employment. (A shorter version of this post is in the list archive.)

“*We’re Sidekick – And We’re looking to hire 3 Developers…We’re a social innovation organisation – we develop web and mobile tools to tackle social issues and public services in a different way. We have 3 different jobs – please take a read and get in touch if the roles spark interest

Fair enough. The first one is for a Ruby on Rails developer with 3-5 years’ experience, for an 8 week consultancy gig at their headquarters in London Bridge, working alongside a mobile developer and a user-interface designer on a project for an unnamed client. Nothing to see here.

But here’s the problem.

*2 x Creative technical leads / senior developers *
Project – “SS3”
*Key info: *
· 3 month contract – maybe more
· Social innovation projects
a) Social Care Swap “wife swap for your gran”
b) Youth Justice Game Project “4 square for criminals”
· Experienced and creative developer to build proof of concept for an
innovative social project
· Start up experience preferred
· No language preference – but solid front and back end web-dev skills
required – whatever environment you’re used to
· Work in small dynamic team
· Based at Sidekick studios, London Bridge
· Read more hear

To be honest, it was the peerlessly idiotic “concepts” that caught my eye. “Wife Swap for your gran”. Had Nathan Barley been contracted to write the requirements statement? Or was the whole thing a reality-TV show? Had I stumbled upon a new Chris Morris project? We could read more “hear”, and some of us did.

SS3 is an experimental technology and design incubator to create new types of public services. We’ve assembled a team of 10 people, with diverse skills across research, design, technology, social venturing and commerce. Over 3 months, the team will work together out of a studio in London Bridge to launch 3 social businesses, each with the potential to deliver sustainable, social impact. And rock the world.

OK…well, it would appear from the next paragraph that the team is us. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that part of the team is us – the 10 ground crew have apparently been recruited already. It just remains to find Laika and Strelka the space dogs.

We’re offering 3 people the chance to become the resident entrepreneur for each venture. And have their salary paid for 3 months. And have the opportunity to become the full-time Managing Director of the venture at the end of the SS3 experience.

Note that the software jobs are additional to this. So you’re being offered the chance to implement…”Wife Swap for your gran”…over three months, and if you succeed you get to keep it. And they’ll pay your salary. Or maybe not – let’s skip ahead here…

How much will I get paid? Good question. And we’re going to duck it. Sort of. We are not saying exactly because we might pay people differently depending on their level of experience. We can say the salary will be more than enough to live off in London, pay exorbitant rent, travel to and from work, and have money left over each month. The value of SS3 is the awesome and talented people who’ll help build the venture. If you can’t see that, then we’re not for you.

Note that they have no interest in any ideas you may have:

I have my own idea / startup / service – will you help me with that? No. The startpoint is the ideas that we’ve already developed with partners, providers and people in the sector and which we know have some potential.

and reserve the right to terminate you at any moment:

What happens at the end of 3 months? We don’t know! The venture could be up and running, with money coming in. In which case, you’ll be in the box seat to be the person to get the job on a permanent basis. That might be paid at a higher salary, at a lower salary, or no salary at all. If the venture has limited chance of getting to market, we’re going to just kill it and you’ll be left with a whole load of training and skills, and some happy memories we hope. If the venture has a chance of going somewhere, but we’re not right for each other, we move on and find someone else. Sounds risky, huh? That’s the point.

So even if the project is a success, in fact, there’s no guarantee of getting the job, contrary to prior statements, and no guarantee of any pay even if you get it. And there is a lot of horrible macho Alan Sugar rhetoric and passive-aggressive expectations-wank.

But if you don’t do a good job, or your venture isn’t going anywhere fast, we replace you…Or we kill it…No remorse…We’ll try not to come to blows and then move on…Sounds risky, huh? That’s the point…Entrepreneurial..Committed. Passionate..Not an idiot…If you want exits / earnouts / options, we’re not for you…No…you have to be in the office in London Bridge…Or out telling people how great this is / learning / selling…If you can’t see that, then we’re not for you….It’s all about the team….If you’re afraid of sales, we’re not for you…Definitely not. Full-time. 100 MPH. Absolutely committed. As if your life depended on this. Well at least, your financial security. Because it does.

Indeed it does, but not so much that they’re willing to offer anything lame like a job. As previously noted, they’re not actually promising any money or any commitment of any kind, but they do keep using the word job:

If you do well, and the venture is doing well, you’ll get a job. A good job.

Ahem? What was that again?

In which case, you’ll be in the box seat to be the person to get the job on a permanent basis. That might be paid at a higher salary, at a lower salary, or no salary at all.

Now, I mentioned that the projects are non-profit and are to stay that way. Fine. This doesn’t, however, mean that Sidekick itself is non-profit. In fact it’s a commercial company, registration no. 6707987, and its customer in this project is, well, us. Specifically, they’ve scored a grant from the UK Technology Strategy Board.

So, to summarise: You get to work your arse off trying to make some daft idea like “Wife Swap for grans” fly. For this you get a suspiciously unspecified sum of money. You may be terminated without cause at any moment. After three months, you may get a job, you may get the same job but without the money, or you may get “no tea and walk home”, depending on no conditions that anyone is willing to state at the outset. You may not profit from the business, no matter how well it may do, but Sidekick’s directors get theirs whatever happens. And we’re all paying for this exploitative, cynical, spammy, hilariously ill-thought out shite.

Further, and just in case anyone thinks I’m biased in any way, does anyone else think The Guardian could perhaps make its pay-for-play Guardian Professional advertorial and events operation look and feel distinct from the actual newspaper’s website?

Why am I talking about this?

Well, Sidekick also recommended “a Guardian article” to us – this one. Now, unless you follow Fleet Street politics closely you’d probably think that’s just another Guardian URI. But the key bit is that it’s in their “Social Enterprise Network”, one of their “Professional Networks”. Guardian Professional’s front page is here. It’s possible that there is some difference between Guardian Professional Networks and Guardian Professional, in which case it might be more professional to make this obvious. But I suspect that this piece is advertorial.

It is, however, informative.

Over the past year, in the face of chaotic reorganisations and relentless manager bashing from politicians, we’ve seen many of them decide to take up generous redundancy packages, in some cases over a year of full pay…

Those civil servants who have been made redundant – they collected their redundancy money! The bastards.

Aside from the huge drop in productivity during the prolonged reorganisation, this mass firing and re-hiring carries huge risks for costs going forward. The same manager is thinking of moving on to work for an international research agency. If the GP consortia wants her unique skills and community relationships in twelve months time, they’ll find her charged out to clients at £1000 a day….

Indeed, just like last time. Perhaps it would be better not to do the privatisation and mass sackings in the first place?

If all this sounds a bit gloomy, social enterprises could offer a way to stem the flow of this talent and make use of the experience and knowledge that the taxpayer has invested in…the fear is the shadow of large private sector companies coming in and cleaning up….At Sidekick Studios, we’re going t try to grab some of this talent first. Our reasons are pretty selfish – if public services don’t want these people, and their knowledge, and their skills, and their networks, then we sure do….From May 1st, we’re starting SS3…

I think this might have been improved by an admission that Sidekick Studios is in fact a private sector, for profit, company. What offends me about this is that they are quite openly trying to help push public servants out of real jobs with pensions and union recognition and that stuff and into the hyper-precarious code-for-pizza status we just outlined. Come to think of it, if you can’t get hipster interns living off the Bank of Mum & Dad you might as well try sacked civil servants living off the redundancy money.

But then, what else would you expect from people who want to replace the poor sods working in local authority social care with “Wife Swap for your gran” and the police with “Foursquare for criminals”, all held together with sales-training day bullshit and shameless volunteer-mining?

Well, if you’re the prime minister, you’re not allowed to fight back against your enemies in case you win because Gus O’Donnell says so, as long as the enemies aren’t the right kind of enemies like Coronation Street editors and UNISON hospital porters. All clear so far? When are the Tory apologies to O’Donnell going to show up – they thought he was biased against them….

Further, interesting subplot – Brown told Peter Mandelson his phone might have been compromised. Mandelson asked the Information Commissioner, who had nothing to say. Of course he didn’t – as far as I know he had nothing to do with the case. If Mandelson had wanted to know, he needed to ask the police. Was Mandelson trying not to find out, so as not to burn his bridges with the Murdochs? Or was he just ill-informed?

Also, did the central government have any communications security at all? Did CESG or MI5 not have anything at all to say about this? Didn’t any of them just change their damn password, or even change their damn number?