Archive for the 'Politics' Category

Keep calm and carry on

There is an awful lot of rather febrile comment and speculation going on on twitter regarding the attempted assassination of Rep. Giffords. In particular the conduct of Sarah Palin’s gun-themed marketing campaigns have come in for heavy criticism.

From over here in the UK lots of what seems to be termed “political speech” in the US seems incomprehensible. Not only would much of it be illegal, but even if legal no mainstream party would countenance it – for it’s lack of taste if nothing else.

This is not to say I think it is all bad. Indeed I find the US laws on freedom of speech to be admirable. I would not want to see these things banned, even when they are tasteless.

I think many of Palin’s critics find it very difficult to separate the gun imagery in these campaigns from actual guns, but the use of this sort of imagery is widespread in all media for many subjects, and is not in itself threatening. Given the appeal of weapons to the target audience (see what I did there?) I think it is reaching to blame Palin for this.

That said, her PR’s hamfisted attempt to deflect blame by claiming the bullseyes were “surveyors symbols” is crass and foolish, attributes that have characterised everything Palin has done.

As with the phone “hacking” at the news of the world, we are behoven to separate the specific from the general in our reasoning. We should defend the general, whilst deploring the specific. The News Of The World would have been justified to use the hacking technique in pursuit of a real story, no matter its legality: but to use it for trivia is unacceptable.

Lots of reasonable, sane Americans like their guns. This is indisputable. Palin may be a foolish idiot, but using this sort of marketing is not prima facie evidence of anything. We should accept the justification of freedom of speech, and contest Palin on matters of real substance.

update: put much better than I have here, thanks @joethedough.

False positives nix face scanners

The Daily Telegraph reports that airport face scanners have to be tuned to a ridiculous level of inaccuracy to prevent massive levels of false positives.

Of course if the airport authorities had read my blog or, alternatively, applied the same level of critical thinking to security technology purchases that they applied to, say, purchasing socks, they’d have known this years ago.

Remixes of the new Met campaign

You may have seen some of the new posters the police are putting up, which has generated some pretty good remixes at Boing Boing.

Well here are my own slightly lazy contributions:

Using something from George Orwells 1984

Using something from George Orwell's 1984

And then a Godwin:

A Godwin

A Godwin

So, now I’ve Godwinned it, can we stop?

Lovelock: lifeboat nations

James Lovelock has obviously been reading my blog.  Just a shame he didn’t link to it really.  Anyway he answers the question I posed in a recent post: in a world where climate change is rapant, where do you go to live?

He suggests either Canada or the UK, or perhaps Siberia.  From Futurismic:

Lovelock’s point seemed to be that we should give up on trying to save the planet and the entirety of the human species by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and focus instead on equipping “lifeboat nations” with the necessary infrastructure (schools, roads, houses) to support swarms of climate refugees.

The UK and Canada are lifeboat nations, in case you’re wondering. Probably Siberia too. Basically, anywhere that will be relatively cool and have water in a world that is on average 5°C warmer than it was 100 years ago.

I have to say, if he thinks the people of Britain are likely to welcome hordes of climate refugees, he’s not met many Brits.  The average Brit’s fellow feeling barely extends to himself, let alone the poor and huddled masses of other countries.

In my mind I can see Sun readers, on the beaches, clubbing parched refugees to death like baby seals whilst humming WWII songs and claiming it’s all just like the blitz.

Anyway, now I know where to build my fortified survivalist camp.  Thanks Mr Lovelock.

Watermelons and Bankers

Something my father once told me came back to me this morning as I read the newspaper reports of the commons hearing yesterday where various top bankers were gently grilled by MPs.

My dad used to work in the fruit and vegetable trade and at one point he was managing a depot for a wholesaler in Alice Springs, right in the middle of the Central Australian desert.

Alice Springs only exists because it sits on top of some large natural fresh water springs, so although it’s in the middle of the desert it’s possible to irrigate farmland and grow fruit and vegetables. This was before the widespread use of refrigerated road transport and Alice Springs is thousands of miles from anywhere, so although a certain amount of fruit and veg could come in by rail, it was largely a closed market.

My dad said that every year the same thing would happen.  The previous year a certain product, maybe cabbages, had been in short supply, so they’d been very expensive.  This year all the local farmers would grow loads of cabbages, hoping to make lots of money.  Instead of course there would be a huge glut and cabbages would be worthless.  Instead something else, perhaps watermelons, would be in short supply.  So then everyone would grow watermelons the next year and once more they would be worthless, and everyone would be sick of them and would wonder why on earth everyone could have been so dumb as to have grown watermelons.

Even in a small quite predictable economy where you would hope the free market would lead everyone to diversify and find an appropriate niche, instead everyone did the same thing, to the detriment of the entire economy.

It struck me that this is, in the small, what really seems to have gone so horribly wrong with our economy.  The problem was not individual people buying houses, or individual people taking out lots of loans – the problem was everyone doing it together.

The tendency of the herd instinct to engender a sense of safety was very much in evidence yesterday, where the heads of various bankers gave evidence in front of a commons committee.  One after the other they basically said that “yes we have made some bad decisions but everyone else did it too so I’m not responsible”.  The idea that somehow because the whole bloody lot of them ran off a cliff all at once like a load of lemmings means that none of them are individually responsible shows just how crap they were psychologically when they were supposed to be making rational decisions.

It is perhaps acceptable for the man on the Clapham omnibus to use this excuse, but these guys are supposedly at the top of their game.  The fact that everyone else was doing it should not have made them feel safe if should have scared the hell out of them.

It’s a bit like that asinine argument against doing anything “but what if everyone did that?”, as if somehow one’s actions were being closely observed by all six billion inhabitants of earth merely so they can copy you.  The correct answer is obviously to not bloody do it, since if everyone is doing it, it’s bound to go horribly, horribly wrong.

Increasingly pessimistic

Over on the Long Now blog a few weeks ago Stewart Brand posted some climate change calculations taken from a talk by Saul Griffith.

The aim of the calculations is to work out what needs to be done about climate change:

What would it take to level off the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at 450 parts per million (ppm)? That level supposedly would keep global warming just barely manageable at an increase of 2 degrees Celsius. There still would be massive loss of species, 100 million climate refugees, and other major stresses. The carbon dioxide level right now is 385 ppm, rising fast. Before industrialization it was 296 ppm. America’s leading climatologist, James Hanson, says we must lower the carbon dioxide level to 350 ppm if we want to keep the world we evolved in.

The conclusions are in line with my understanding of the current best guesses of climatology in general:

The world currently runs on about 16 terawatts (trillion watts) of energy, most of it burning fossil fuels. To level off at 450 ppm of carbon dioxide, we will have to reduce the fossil fuel burning to 3 terawatts and produce all the rest with renewable energy, and we have to do it in 25 years or it’s too late. Currently about half a terrawatt comes from clean hydropower and one terrawatt from clean nuclear. That leaves 11.5 terawatts to generate from new clean sources.

He calculates the level of new power plant production using mixed technologies to replace those 11.5 terawatts of power:

  • 2tw Photovoltaic: 1200 square miles of solar cells per year.
  • 2tw Solar thermal: 600 square miles a year.
  • ½tw Biofuels: 15,250 square miles of algae a year.
  • 2tw Wind: 105,000 turbines a year.
  • 2tw Geothermal: 1,095 steam turbines a year.
  • 3tw Nuclear: A 156 nuclear power plants a year.

And we’d have to do all of these together every year for the next 25 years.  And this only gets us to the 450ppm value, where there’s still a lot of stress, massive movements of climate refugees etc.  The land area of all of these measures together is around the size of Australia, devoted entirely to renewable energy.  If we did it all with nuclear, which is right now the most plausible option, we’d need to build around 600 nuclear power plants per year, and we’d end up with 15,000 plants.

Meanwhile we need to stay at 16 terawatts total energy consumption worldwide.  That means that as the poorest parts of the world increase their energy consumption, the rest of us need to reduce ours.  That means pretty much everyone in the rich world needs to stop flying, throw away their car, stop eating meat and stop buying stuff.

Being realistic for a second: what do you think the chances are that this is all going to happen?  As a species do we have the will and the ability to build 600 nuclear plants a year and throw out all our cars and become vegetarians?

Apologies to those who think we’re somehow optimally made in the image of God, but we blatantly are not.  We have proved only just smart enough to master agriculture – and that’s smart enough to have delivered the technological improvements we see around us.  But as a group we’re barely able to cooperate enough to run an economy that functions.

I am becoming increasingly pessimistic about our potential to meet this potential extinction threat as a species, and the more data that comes in about climate change, the scarier it gets.

So, answers on a postcard please, where should I plan to live when in 25 years the world is 4 degrees hotter?

How is all this Stasi stuff supposed to work anyhow?

After the ringing endorsement for more “talking rubbish” from Tom in the comments to my last post, I feel newly inspired to spout off.

So, a couple of news items in recent weeks about our government’s incompetent attempts to turn our generally-mostly-well-behaved-as-long-as-you-are-white police force into some kind of robo-stasi.  The ethics of these things are pretty obvious, but what perplexes me is how some of these powers are supposed to be used.

First, the Computer Misuse Act (1995) allows the police to hack into “compromised” systems without a warrant.  Who knew?  Not me. Anyway, apparently they plan to “step up this activity”.

Now as it happens I have briefly met some of the chaps from SOCA, who presumably would be executing this brief.  I am sure they are fine upstanding members of the constabulary, but leet haxors they are not.  Frankly I think it’s unlikely they could drive a pivot table in Excel, let alone devise a 0-day.  The drafters of this act perhaps envisaged the police employing uber hackers from the underground, which superficially sounds quite exciting, but it’s an ITV plot I’m afraid.  If the Old Bill know of uber hackers in the UK they’re most likely to feel their collars.

Alternatively of course they could employ russian hackers, but the amazingly bad idea of involving anyone associated with the FSB with sensitive police business may be apparent even to the clouded minds of our senior officers.

Security firms, on the whole, will also try their best to keep the police off your network, since they won’t be able to tell if it’s the police or not.  For all the fretting about these powers, in practice it’s only those who take no care at all who need to worry, and their machines are probably infested with viruses already.

Second is the rather more disturbing intention of the Government’s to require ISPs to log every email sent. Again, the ethical problems with this are pretty obvious but the practical implications are bizarre.

When you send an email from your workplace to someone else, it’s very likely that your emails never directly touch one of your ISPs mail servers – your mail goes to your corporate mailserver, then over the internet to your receipient’s mailserver.  That mail does traverse your ISPs network, but not their mailservers.

So to log this activity, your ISP would need to run a filter on all TCP traffic for port 25, decode this traffic and extract the headers.  Although this is onerous for ISPs, it’s possible.  It will inevitably make email less reliable, and slower, but hey who cares, right.

But, and this is a but you could drive a truck through, a whole load of people use opportunistic strong encryption for email. It’s enabled out of the box on all decent mail systems these days, and from watching our own logs I guess well more than half of email is encrypted for transport now.

Cracking this is not only difficult-to-impossible, but illegal in many cases. It certainly is more than onerous.

So, may  I just ask, WTF?  Are they really proposing on making laws to legislate for the impossible just to irritate everyone?



Intelligent Design and the Credit Crunch

At first sight there might not seem to be much connection between the belief in Intelligent Design and the ongoing meltdown of the world’s financial systems. I think there are some interesting parallels to be drawn though, that help explain perhaps some of what went wrong.

Intelligent Design (ID) is the belief that some or all parts of the universe were designed by something.  At it’s most basic the belief is driven by the idea that some of what we perceive in the world around us is so complex, or well-designed, that it could not possibly have arisen through simple processes driven by the laws of nature.  That it must have been “designed“.

One oft cited example is the human eye.  This, some claim, shows such a marvellous degree of fitness for it’s purpose, such remarkable appositeness, that it could not have arisen through nature.  This is a property known sometimes as irreducible complexity.

This of course leads to a most interesting question – what is the limit of what can be produced by simple laws?  How can we spot something that has been created by “design” and one that has been created systemically.

Well, there is one property that tends to be exhibited by goal-seeking systems,as opposed to designed results.  That is the presence of local maxima.

You can think of goal seeking systems, such as evolution, as systems that attempt to maximise one or more properties.  The example I’ll show below is a very simple one, but imagine it extended to encompass multiple properties in many dimensions.

Imagine we start at a certain time and the thing we’re trying to maximise has a certain value.  We make some modifications to the available “knobs” we can twiddle, and step forward a step in time.  We discover this property is at some new position.  If this position is better than the previous one, then we’re winning.

Systems like that often find local maxima – the highest local point.  Here’s a lovely diagram from Wikipedia that illustrates it.

If we are somewhere in the little hill under “local maximum” then in attempting to find the “best” solution we will fail – but we will find the local maximum. There are algorithms that can improve on this sort of thing, such as Simulated Annealing, however all of them have the same property, ultimately, of  a lack of what we could term “vision”.

So, do we see this in the human eye?  In fact this sort of thing is found throughout the “design” of every life form you can examine – in the case of the eye, it is is built “backwards and upside down”, requiring “photons of light to travel through the cornea, lens, aquaeous fluid, blood vessels, ganglion cells, amacrine cells, horizontal cells, and bipolar cells before they reach the light-sensitive rods and cones that transduce the light signal into neural impulses- which are then sent to the visual cortex at the back of the brain for processing into meaningful patterns.” (Dr. Michael Shermer, as quoted by Christopher Hitchens in his book “God is Not Great”, pg.82).

The human eye is very poorly “designed” in fact.  It contains many local maxima in it’s construction, showing it’s systemic roots.

So, the Credit Crunch.  Here we have another example of a system – one we optimistically call a Free Market.  Here we have another goal-seeking system.  Individual players are supposed to maximise their profits without indulging in coordinated planning.  Such planning is in fact frowned upon – cartels, price fixing and insider trading are illegal.

Again we see in the leaden hand of the market that it finds local maxima, not global ones.

Each individual system’s attempt to find the maximum manages to find at best only local maxima.  Certainly they may do better than the simplistic example above – they may continue past the tiny foothills tomorrow in search of a better hummock next month, however their horizons are relatively short, and they must show progress upwards, at least by the next quarterly statement.

This of course is fine when local maxima are acceptable, but just as the human body would have profited greatly from a designer, so would our financial system, as is now painfully revealed.  You cannot blame the players for following the rules, just as you cannot blame our genes for our rubbish eyes.  They were only following the rules.

Blame must be laid, in the case of this financial disaster, on the regulators and politicians who believed that markets were somehow magically able to find the best of everything.  They just cannot, and to expect them to is the same as expecting evolution to produce perfection.

It is almost amusing to note, of course, that many of those in the US who do not favour intelligent design in markets do believe in it for mammals.  A bizarre confluence of opinion that would be funny if, as Andy said today, we weren’t actually living here.

Even John thinks it’s wrong

John Gruber has become something of an Apple apologist over the last couple of years. His blog used to be pretty interesting, but it kind of morphed over the period of a year into a series of rants about basically how anyone who didn’t like Apple was deluded in one way or another.

A lot of us don’t like Apple’s approach under Steve Jobs. The products are uber shiny, but it’s just the same trap Gates cooked up for us 15 years ago, with a similar pitch. Back then Windows looked pretty good too, remember. It wasn’t brushed aluminium, but it had a whole 16 colours!

The deal is one that short sighted companies supplying almost anything will try and offer – lock-in. Lock-in is a well known issue in the IT industry, and in my day job it’s something we have to address with our customers in every pitch.

Lock-in describes a situation where a customer loses the ability to change supplier, because the supplier has a proprietary hold on them somehow. In my business the risk is generally that we deliver something nobody else can easily understand, but in other businesses it can be introduced in all sorts of ways.

I honestly believe lock-in is bad for both parties to a contract eventually. It is clearly bad for a customer to give up their control over their own property, and for a supplier it encourages lazy, inwardly-directed thinking that ultimately makes their products suck. c.f. Microsoft.

Apple are being creative in their approach to lock-in. Buy an iPod, and you can only really use it with iTunes. Install iTunes, and lo here’s a music store with DRMed music that you will never be able to move to another manufacturers player. Clunk, click, you’re locked-in. You shell out 500 quid on records from the Apple music store, and for the rest of your life you have no choice of music player – pick another supplier and you lose your entire music library.

That’s pretty much par for the course for a lot of companies these days – many of them feel that’s fair business tactics. Apple have gone further with the iPhone though. It’s not just your music that’s locked down, but any applications you can run. If you are happy with Apple becoming your own personal Sky Daddy then that’s fine. But the odd one of us weirdos thinks that maybe at some point in the far distant future we might actually want to be able to control our own property. Just in case, you know?

Apple have almost immediately shown their true colours with their control over the iPhone Appstore with their decision to remove a piece of software because it competes with their own products. And yes, even John thinks it’s wrong. Which shows just how bad it really is.

The nerve Apple have here is far beyond Microsoft’s wildest dreams. For all their unfair business practices and shoddy code, Microsoft have maintained a neutral platform on the whole. Sure they hid some APIs and agressively bought and then killed competitors, but Windows is a thriving ecosystem with real software on it. Just imagine if Microsoft plain denied WordPerfect because they’d decided to release MSWord. Dear me.

So please, dear reader, remember that whilst a benevolent dictatorship might seem very efficient it can turn sour very, very quickly. And if you really want to keep control over your own life, choose Free Software.

Two mentally disabled women have bombs strapped to them in Iraq. My arse.

Remember this story that ran about six weeks ago? The News intro says:

More than 70 people have been killed by two bombs in Baghdad, attached to two mentally disabled women and detonated remotely, says a security official.

I was very suspicious of this at the time, since none of the press printed their source, except for a “security official”.

There is a very long and distinguished history for lying about your enemy. In the middle ages in Europe mostly armies were demonised by “security officials” claiming the armies had raped nuns, and sometimes even eaten babies. The same sort of demonisation is common today, from all sides in any conflict.

You would hope that the press’ first act here should have been maybe to investigate this story before reporting it as fact.

Depressingly none of our much vaunted press (including the BBC and the Guardian) bothered to check anything at all, nor have I seen any follow up. Right now most people probably believe this story.

So is it true? The reason why the women were reported as being mentally disabled appears to be because their heads were deformed after the blast:

It turns out on the following day, that the evidence for the mentally disabled part was that one of the alleged bombers’ head recovered after the blast was deformed, suggesting Down’s syndrome. Now the AP and The New York Times point out that the severed head may have merely been deformed by the blast.

I was pretty sceptical about this too, since it seemed unlikely anyone could be this dumb. However, it’s been six weeks now and the press haven’t turned up any relatives of these women – which they must have tried. “My disabled daughter blown up by evil muslims” has such a lovely ring to it.

I think we can reasonably conclude the disabled part of this story was complete, and transparent, fiction. Which doesn’t speak too well of our press.