Friday, 30 January 2009

Apply to be the Independent Commissioner for the ID Card Scheme

In "Computing" it was reported that Jacqui Smith is planning to advertise for an Independent Commissioner to oversee the ID card scheme.

I have launched a Facebook group to try to get as many people as possible to apply for the post.

£20 piracy licence?

"Lord Carter of Barnes, the Communications Minister, will propose the creation of a quango, paid for by a charge that could amount to £20 a year per broadband connection." This from a report in the Times Online. The report continues:

The agency would act as a broker between music and film companies and internet service providers (ISPs). It would provide data about serial copyright-breakers to music and film companies if they obtained a court order. It would be paid for by a levy on ISPs, who inevitably would pass the cost on to consumers.

I saw the following on the Open Rights Group mailing list and asked permission to reproduce it. It is CC-BY-SA like the rest of this blog, but credit goes to Neil Dunbar (neil.dunbar AT

I'm guessing that GovThink(tm) on this one goes along the lines of:

1) Piracy is bad. Piracy makes the music industry sad. Sad music industry equals sad rock stars. Sad rock stars means no celeb endorsements. This is REALLY BAD.

2) Punishing piracy is hard because they have to go to court. Court is expensive and asks for weird things like "proof" and "evidence". Rock stars are rich and beautiful, so obviously always tell the truth. Court is bad.

3) Proposal: punish pirates when rock stars say they are pirates. And they must be pirates, because otherwise the rock stars wouldn't say so.

4) ISPs and telcos will get sued when rock stars make mistakes. Rock stars don't lie, but sometimes they make boo-boos. ISPs and telcos employ lots of people, who pay taxes. Taxes are good. Proposal (3) is bad.

5) We have to Do Something, because we said we would. Doing Nothing is bad. We can't do proposal 3, so can we say we're doing something like proposal 3, but not actually do it?

6) Proposal: Make ISPs tell pirate customers off, even if they aren't pirates. Make a new agency which will Do Something (To Be Determined). Get the rock stars to pay for it; and this is good, because they will like the agency and what it will do. And they are rich, so can afford it. Over to you, culture czar Feargal.

7) Rock stars are now sad and annoyed. Sigh. You can't please some people.

Well it amused me.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Why do governments believe that the car is a device of the future?

The British government seems set to guarantee £2.3 billions of loans to the motor industry. Meanwhile in Germany, people are being given financial inducements to scrap cars over 9 years old, if they buy a new one. The US and the rest of Europe also seem intent on bailing out their motor industry. This indicates that these governments believe that the car as it has developed over the past century has a future.

If the car does have a future - and I'm not sure that it does - it will be a wildly different device to the one that we see today. I'm not sure what it will look like, but you can be pretty certain it will look like neither a Jaguar or a Range Rover. I'm also pretty certain it will not look like a Toyota Prius - this innovative car has just played around the edges.

So what would a sensible approach have been from the government? Well we need innovation, that seems to be a given. So how does a government encourage this? In this case they have taken the apparently low risk option of guaranteeing large loans to a few manufacturers. We can be pretty certain that a large chunk of those guarantees will be exercised. In other words they are concealing a subsidy - and they should know that these businesses will fail. How long do you think it is likely to be until someone goes out and buys a Jag or Range Rover? Innovation is not something that this government does well.

The Conservative opposition is not making much sense either - except in their recently released briefing document on Open Source software. This document has been a long time coming - contributions were being sought for it early in 2008, and another, very similar but longer, document complete in April 2008.

Amongst other things it says:

  • Smaller IT projects mean less risk of failure, and will cut costs by opening up the procurement system to more companies, increasing competition for IT contracts.
  • These data standards will create a level playing field for open source software.
The document proposes a £100 million limit on IT procurement contracts. Personally I think this is still too high - it still reeks of the think big attitude, that has brought about this boom and crash. I would halve or quarter it. Now apply this thinking to the car industry rescue. Let individuals, SMEs and divisions of the large car firms bid for relatively small amounts of funding. I would like £50,000 to develop and car that Colin Chapman build - plywood and small engined. The design branch of Jaguar might like to bid for a few tens of millions to produce designs for possible new cars. The condition of taking the money would be that you were required to publish all the results of the work.

Why? Well the message is getting through slowly, but the only future of mankind is through co-operation, not vicious competition. Spend the time to read Adam Smith - he did not expect the sort of capitalism we have now, it would have been abhorrent to him. He was thinking of rows of small shops and workshops, not multinationals with apparent balance sheets bigger than most nations.

Excellent suggestion from Richard Smedley:

"How about a £3000 voucher given to every family to spend towards a British-built electric car. Within six months there'd be something on the market, and a support infrastructure on the way. We could always licence the best new design from that Chinese battery manufacturer."

Not sure how that would sit with EU rules, but it's an interesting idea.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Microsoft's Live Search - inept or evil?

It has been widely reported that Microsoft's Live Search is not working effectively for search terms such as "open office". I read someone ask if it was a conspiracy - and you can probably guess my answer. It has been suggested that this was due to the planned merger of MS Live with MS Live office.

On reflection the following struck me - if Microsoft were doing it on purpose, this would suit the conspiracy theorist, and it would be another example of Microsoft abusing its position. If, on the other hand, it was just another piece of bad coding, no-one would be surprised.

So we are left with a decision - is Microsoft inept or evil - or, I suppose, both!

Friday, 23 January 2009

Liberty - the conflict of the year?

I have the feeling that things are heating up. The government is under considerable pressure due to the global economy - and are looking to increase their control in any way they can.

The liberties we all take for granted are under threat, and all we hear are stupid party politics from the opposition. Hope is being placed in Obama, when our country is disintegrating into farce. Laws are being passed with no-one really understanding what they will mean. From "Form 696" to e-mail snooping, from massive databases in the hands of the private sector to ID cards.

Mass action will be required. Personally, I'm amused by the "cc all your emails to Jacqui Smith" Day group on Facebook - 3,614 members and counting. Mind you, if it works the founder will probably end up in court for a supposed cyber-crime. However, if you think about this concept for a moment, you will realise that it is a spectacular Distributed Denial of Service attack (DDOS).

Watch this space, maybe we can make our politicians honest after all.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Government climb down - the rebirth of democracy?

I reported the Government plans to sidestep the FOI legislation a couple of days ago. Since then there has been a mass popular campaign and a Government climb down - though they have only put their anti-democratic plans on hold, so we cannot rest on this.

The BBC report mentions the campaign, that I am proud to have been a small part of, saying:

An internet campaign by MySociety urging MPs to vote against the change attracted more than 6,000 supporters on the Facebook website.

Peter Facey, of pressure group Unlock Democracy, warned if the vote had gone ahead it would have had "a catastrophic impact on the reputation of Parliament." He urged the Commons to publish all expenses details "at the earliest opportunity".

The report on Radio 4's PM program astonishingly failed to mention the mySociety campaign. These are the statistics from TheyWorkForYou:

  • over 7,000 members on the Facebook group
  • 4,000 messages sent to MPs
  • a mass Twitter campaign in help from help from Stephen Fry

If we are to maintain a hopeful view of the world then we might be seeing the start of a real e-democracy. As I said in my New Year predictions, "E-democracy will show signs of coming of age". The situation will become clearer with the next mass campaign. In the mean time, I'm off to email Radio 4 to tell them that it was not the politicians that stopped this idea, it was the people.

BacAtU has written another good blog on this is topic.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Obama compared to Brown

Having just listened to Obama's inauguration speech I feel bound to compare the insight and decisive nature of this man with the bumbling off-the-cuff reactions of Brown. Shame on Brown. He is a bright man and yet he is leading a failing regime around in pathetic circles.

I hope Brown has listened to Obama and realised that he also has the chance to lead us - with "eyes fixed on the horizon". But I doubt it. It seems more likely that the opposition will have listened - and maybe learnt.

"We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do."

As I read his speech I am moved by almost every passage. This man has made an old cynic dare to hope. Let me not be disappointed.

Update: 23:30 20th Jan 2009

These links are worth following:

"did they expect us to treat them with any respect"

The High Court ruled last year that MPs’ expenses must be published under the Freedom of Information Act. That was because parliament had passed the FOI.

These are meant to be published soon, so on Thursday MPs are voting to change the law to keep this information secret after all. Oh, and the cost of assembling the the data has been around a million pounds...

TheyWorkForYou has a special page with more information, barely surprising given this behaviour of our politicians. I'm expecting that everyone involved with The Convention on Modern Liberty and any other similar campaign is blogging on this as well.


  • Email your MP - you can go through TheyWorkForYou.
  • Tell your friends.
  • Sign up to the Facebook group.
  • Blog about it.
  • Sign up for The Convention on Modern Liberty.
  • Join in the campaign to reign in our elected representatives.
The title for the post comes from The Fletcher Memorial Home by Pink Floyd.

Update: 23:00 20th Jan 2009

Much discussion on various lists and the Facebook group, and this website is worth visiting:

Monday, 19 January 2009

Microsoft - the price crash

It would seem to be a simple question - just how much does MS charge for XP? I've commented before on the close relationship between Microsoft and the UK government. It would seem that they have failed to get the best price possible for licences for this over-bloated mixed GUI and operating system.

How do I know this?

Well there have been rumours for a while that Microsoft is offering OEM manufacturers very low prices for XP licences. I have seen differences of around £25 for identical systems - except for the addition of the XP operating system. Apparently some manufacturers are being offered XP for £10... I'm afraid I don't have quotable sources for these figures, but then they are rather commercially sensitive. Spend some time looking at the margin charged on netbooks with XP and you'll realise that this is the trend.

What does this mean?

Well, it means that the giant monopolist is scared. Given the economic problems it seems obvious that people will not be buying new computers anytime soon. Orders of consumers goods from China have been falling since the middle of 2008 - long before it was acknowledged in the UK that we were anywhere near a recession. Assuming that the current problems are with us for the next few years, then we can expect many few companies to accept the Wintel forced upgrade cycle for their computers. We know that the take-up of Vista has been poor - and there is no reason (outside of marketing blurb) to belive that Windows 7 will be better received. The problem for businesses is that the growing security problems of XP will mean that the 'stick' option is not practical.

So look at those businesses

  • They can't bear the costs of upgrading their computers.
  • They can' accept the security risks of sticking with XP.
  • They see the availability of low cost netbooks - running XP or Linux.
So maybe they will make the sensible step of looking at the viable alternaitves of Linux or even LTSP.

What about the government?

Governments are essentially less flexible than business. Larger and more averse to the perception of risk. They clearly need to be pressured to be sensible. In the mean time this massive purchaser will be spending between two and ten times as much for their licences as a medium sized manufacturer. Oh well, what exactly did we expect?

Friday, 16 January 2009

Less government = better government

(Lord) Digby Jones reckons that half of the civil service could be axed without anyone really noticing. I guess he is talking about the Whitehall officials rather than the multitude of low-paid workers doing tasks like sorting out driving licences and the like - though Gordon Brown is making smoke about them.

I have spent 40 minutes this morning doing a phone questionnaire about things that impact on the social enterprise I run. As usual the questions didn't suit the answers for me, and when I was asked what one thing would make our organisation more effective I said "Less government legislation". Living with constantly moving targets and rulings, compounded by the inflexibility of their implementation just makes life so damn difficult.

For years I have been hoping for a hung Parliament (or for all parliamentarians to be hung) so that this increasing stream of ill-thought out legislation would be stopped. Please let it happen. Cockspiracy seems to constantly reflect on the knee-jerk production of legislation - and the poor planning and design seen in it.

The next set of legislation we will see will probably be designed to rescue the car manufacturing industry. As I see it:
  • government will get it wrong - they will produce a system that fails to perform as intended and leaks money into the pockets of rich capitalists;
  • were it to succeed it would be bad for the environment - as the production of new cars is far more damaging to the environment than any possible life time 'green' savings;
  • there are just too many cars - road traffic has practically doubled in the past 25 years, we cannot cope with this load - let alone more.
Add that to Gordon Brown's devotion to a third runway at Heathrow and you would have just about the most inappropriate plans for a sustainable future. The cockspiracy analysis allows me to say that this in not Brown acting in the interest of the rich capitalists, that support the current system and his employment after he gets evicted by the electors, but just another of Brown's many cock-ups.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Gaza - when will the Israelis pull out?

Just a short post with a prediction - that I haven't seen written anywhere else. The Israelis will pull out of Gaza before Obama is inaugurated as President of the US. The inauguration is on the 20th January, so we can expect to see the Israelis pull out from the 18th.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Make your placards now.

OK - I've borrowed my title from Mike Butcher's article on Techcrunch. He is proposing a public rally against web censorship and snooping. I plan to be there. I've also booked my place at The Convention on Modern Liberty. The site says it plainly...

“We are entering a dangerous period in our country…”

I can't disagree. Fortunately we have inept government. As Willem Buiter eloquently puts it on his FT blog entry: In praise of government incompetence.

It was breath-taking and depressing to observe the transformation of New Labour after 1997, from the party of open government, human rights and civil liberties into an increasingly paranoid group of power-hogging and repressive political control freaks, who have done more damage to fundamental human rights in the past 11 years than any other (sequence of) government(s) in any comparable-length stretch of time since the Glorious Revolution. Fortunately, despite their worst intentions, they have not been very competent - a more competent government could have done much more damage to our freedom and civil liberties.

Just before the new year I predicted that web censorship would be a major issue this. I'm coming to think that I got it wrong, the issue is liberty. Just think about:
  • the database infatuation,
  • the phone and email snooping,
  • the ID cards,
  • the censorship, and
  • the huge legislative programme.
It is frightening - well I find it frightening. Please don't say "well if you haven't done anything wrong, then you have nothing to fear". I just don't think that is defensible.

My hope is that groups like Liberty, OpenDemocracy, NO2ID and the OpenRightsGroup will have a loud enough voice to reverse the trend, but they probably won't have any major impact before the next election. We need to make sure that there is not too much erosion of liberty in the mean time.

Follow Mike's progress in arranging a public rally and be there.