Thursday, December 04, 2008

DNA database 'totally dumb' says EU

Hoo-bloom-rah is all I can say. Maybe it's time we had some common sense and philosophical courage bashed into us.

There's not even any discussion to be had here. Just stop doing it.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

ID card details emerge?

The BBC have a sudden amount of detail on how ID cards will be kept up to date.

Curiously, there are a lot of fines if you have a card and fail to change information (names when married, etc), but at the same time:

There will be no penalties, civil or criminal, for not applying for an ID card.

Is that a long term plan? Are they no longer mandatory?

Also, we should note the prison terms for accessing or disclosing information on the database:

Anyone found guilty of unauthorised disclosure of information on the national identity register or an ID card application, would face up to two years in prison, while anyone found guilty of hacking into the ID database could be jailed for up to 10 years.

Not too bad then. Given that British identities are worth about £80 (hey, that's less than a Nintendo DS), crims can do a fairly simple cost-benefit analysis depending on the current state of the economy to work out if it's worth it or not.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Monitoring is crap, for kids/MPs

Resuscitating ITM momentarily to pause and take note of government plans to record the UK's raw net data, via "upstream" "black boxes".

I've decided to keep this one short and simple, so here it is in keyword form.

Constant Monitoring

Nannying Culture

Untrusted/Bored Citizens Subjects Suspects

Detachment &
Desire for own space


Constant Monitoring

So, quite frankly, when Hazel Blear yabbers on about political disengagement, she's only got themselves to blame. Monitoring us makes us want to break free, not wrap ourselves up even tighter in chains.

Friday, July 04, 2008

ITM Admin: Fun with Templates

Hawk-eyed, web-driven readers will notice the site looks completely different. I'm playing with Blogger templates, and hope to re-introduce/sort-through the old content bit by bit over the next few hours days soddit months.

Apologies for any inconvenience caused by ugly templates on fragile eyes in the meantime.

StreetView: Drive-by Terrorism Assistance?

Some privacy kerfuffle over Google's plans to do a UK Street View (i.e. photos of everywhere - and everyone - linked to their street maps). Simon Davis (or Davies - the BBC aren't sure) of Privacy International is leading the offensive defence, threatening to write to the Info Commissioner if Google don't suspend the service. (Although given the willingness of the current government to listen to Richard Thomas, this may prove less effective than "expected".)

As an avid (if amateur) photographer, the question for me is why there's no argument over whether Google is helping out a) terrorists, by offering comprehensive architecture coverage, and b) paedophiles, by.. oh, who knows, any more? Certainly, though, these things are being cracked down on more and more.

Bu then, maybe the key difference is that Google do it drive-by style. A fast getaway is essential when you're not doing anything wrong.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The knives are out for Higher Education

Following recent "revelations", more stories concerning the rapidly-bottoming plight of higher education have been let loose. I like to imagine them as a flock of homing pigeons, all gradually returning home to roost. Do pigeons roost? Well, if they do, that's what I'm imagining them doing.

English no longer needed to get a degree. Cash is the new lingua franca.

Degree grades are "arbitrary". Or not arbitrary, just based on what numbers of each grade the Management want today.

Yup, this is the education system that's going to carry us into the 21st century, and a globalised world of specialised, innovative knowledge working.

Get out now.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Live coverage of 42-day-limit discussion

For those with enough time to keep up with such things, Channel 4 News are doing a great job of covering the 42-day-limit discussion on their Terror Blog Live. If you're more of a BBC-head, head over to their coverage here.

First result expected around 6pm.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

English Schools Still Buggered, Getting Buggerederer

Education targets are in the news again, with the drive towards targets being pushed ever more heavily under the guise of the "National Challenge" rhetoric. (Kind of like challenging a small boy to leap over an arbitrary fence after hiring a company to break his legs. Nobody cares about the goons, or whether the other side of the fence is actually all that good. JUMP THE GODDAMNED FENCE, FUNNY-LEG DWARF.)

In all BBC political articles there is always at least 1 paragraph that mocks the government for being cretins*. Here is this article's:
The plans relate to England, as education is a devolved matter. The concept of setting such targets does not exist in Scotland or in Wales, where there are also no school "league tables".
Note how the paragraph doesn't lead from or into anything related, and comes at a point where most people will have stopped reading, but not all.

Sneering journalists aside (although don't get me wrong, I point it out because I like it), while most people wax lyrical about moving to Oz or Spain or Guatemala, it's looking increasingly like Scotland is the place to be. They speak the language, kind of. They know what alcohol is supposed to be like. They haven't bulldozed down all their hills yet (England has no hills after Tesco got rid of them in the 14th Century). And they seem to have some kind of political sense. All I have to do is buy an umbrella and I'm set.

Failing that, there's a good chance that Cornwall will split off. Here's hoping I'm the right side of the border when they do so.

* True.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Dumb News

Couple of stupidity quickies...

Scandal! Academia is no longer shocking, just flawed

"News" is only really New to those that haven't been following an issue, or been involved in it. Similarly, "Scandal" or "Shock" can be defined as being revelationary only to those who would otherwise assume otherwise, and that are generally somewhat detached from the issue. (This, of course, is what most British newspapers rely on to sell their wares - the fact that most people reading have been "assured" about the state of the world, rather than actually knowing all that much about it.)

So things such as the news that students caught plagiarising are rarely kicked out really can only be said to be "shocking" if you follow the assurances laid out in the story: that "almost all universities [threaten] expulsion as a sanction."

There are two main reasons why you'd see this as "shocking". Firstly, you'd followed those assumptions because, well, you probably don't actually care. And if that's the case, then you probably don't care that things weren't like that at all.

Secondly, those are your assumptions because that's what you want to assume. if you've spent a lot of time and energy, for example, setting up a system of measurement and tracking to ensure the machinery outputs what you want it to output, then maybe going against those assumptions would damage not only your bank account, but also your reputation, and your credibility. Maybe those assumptions keep you looking good in the eyes of the first bunch of people - the people that don't really care what the system does, but do care that you're capable of doing what you say you'll do.

These are the people that the Reality needs to speak to, the people with their heads so far up their clouded arses that they can just fart to ignore the cries of all the people below them bringing them gifts of the Real World. (I dearly wanted to get round to blogging the twisted National Student Survey too, but failed utterly, like the NSS itself.)

And with that, I wanted to leave you with the words of one "Head of Department" that left a great comment on the BBC site. His or her words hit the academic nail on the head in a world where "academic" is fast meaning "for the cash", rather than "unnecessary".
"I regret to say that the attitude amongst staff is now tending towards 'Let them in, give them a degree (any degree), collect payslip, go home.' The solution is threefold - to increase funding for Universities, to pay students a grant (because at the moment they say 'we are customers, we are paying for our degrees'), and, to cut the number of students. Many of our students do not really want to be here and they are not really capable of learning that which we endeavour to teach them. For many students education has become an obligation rather than a right, or, more strictly speaking, a privilege."

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Hicham Yezza: "He looked funny at me"

Wanted to post this the other day, but life, as always, gets in the way.

Anyone that hasn't read the story of Rizwaan Sabir and Hicham Yezza should do so. Now. Right now.

For those to lazy to click... Hicham is being deported to Algeria. On Sunday. The problem? Rizwaa was looking at some al-Qaeda training manual. Now wait, this isn't about guilt-by-association. No, Rizwaa is a Masters student at Nottingham Uni. (Or was - I'd be having second thoughts about staying there if I were him. Or if I were me. Which I am.) Rizwaa coulnd't afford to print the document, so passed it to Hicham, a member of the IT staff, to print it off. Someone found the document on Hicham's computer, informed the Uni. The Uni informed the Police. The Police arrested both Rizwaa and Hicham and detained them for 6 days.

Eventually, they were both released. But then Hicham was immediately re-arrested, "on unrelated immigration charges".

Hicham was originally arrested on May 16th. 2 weeks and 2 days later, he may well be flying back home, after his ten year stint at the Uni. There is a campaign of sorts to have this stopped.

The entire story is preposterous. "Our" approach not just to foreigners, but to education and social understanding too, is equally preposterous. Things are getting worse still, but people get away with it because it only happens to, you know, "the others". The dark-skinned. The funny-accented. The people that look and act a bit suspicious - or "differently", as some might say. Tut.

The government want us to learn, so they deny us knowledge. The government want us to show respect, so they throw dignity in the gutter. The government want us to engage, so they ignore us. The government want us to be safe, so they instill paranoia into our every action.

This government, this attitude, is leading us into a place where only the weak and dirty are "respected". Hurrah.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Tough on Beer, Soft on the Causes of Beer

We're all turning into a bunch of pissheads apparently. The Scribe's theory is that the majority of people drink to convert them from "work" mode into "non-work" mode, which makes this para kind of funny:
"Public Health Minister Dawn Primarolo said the government was working harder than ever to reduce alcohol-related hospital admissions."
Emphasis, and the theory, are all mine I'd like to stress. Now we just need someone to venture into that government department and see if alcoholism levels are going through the pretty roof.

(BTW, does "Primarolo" mean "First Rolo"? Who gets that one?)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Just an expression - Camden De-budgeted

After reading that Camden got hit with a £9m budget reduction following a DCLG "error", I went looking a little more. No details on what the error was yet, but I love what these Camden Council minutes say between-the-lines:

"As this was discovered at a rather late stage in the budget setting process, it would have a knock on effect on other Council resources. The Committee expressed their disappointment and displeasure at the DCLG’s ineptitude in its over estimation of these funds." (emphasis mine)

Ha, yeah, I bet they did. "Expressed" is probably a polite word for it.

Tele-Leaks and Versions of Reality

In a curious story, the telling of which almost overshadows the "real" "news" that it holds, cabinet meeting minute notes were "leaked" yesterdaywhen a photo was taken of Caroline Flint on her way in. If that's not reason to start banging more photographers up as terrorists, I don't know what is.

Anyway, said photo reveals that, despite the government's calm approach to the "cooling" housing market, in reality, they "don’t know how bad it will get".

However, according to another FT article, the most important thing is to appear to be doing the right thing. I'm not sure if the FT added the emphasis, but right at the bottom, in bold, appears:

"But it is vital that we show that at this time of uncertainty we show [sic] that we are on people's side."

Does that sum up politics today?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Education's Future - Mass Production, or Networked Knowledge?

Hurrah for the news that MPs have noticed (finally) that 'teachers spend too much time "teaching to the test"'. And hurrah for them picking up that alternative forms that still involve testing are likely to lead to the same problems - namely, kids being taught only what they need to know, without necessarily being any brighter, more enthused, or ready for the world.

This idea is one that needs embiggening though, throughout the rest of British society. The notion that measuring "things" (generally people, but not always) through "ritual" (generally exams, but not always) leads to those "things" tailoring themselves to the "ritual" is ubiquitous. Meeting targets becomes more important than doing what the targets set out to measure.

I know I've mentioned it before, but the latest issue (41) of The Idler is worth picking up. An article in it proposes seeing education as a "web", rather than a stilted, "linear" progression of knowledge. That is to say, learning comes from a social context, and an individual curiosity born from motivated passion. We learn by being interested, or amazed by something, and we remember it by figuring out how to apply that knowledge.

Schools and testing bear very little of this. There is, on the whole, a list of things our children must learn. Then we see how much of that they've remembered. There is little opportunity to explore an area for oneself or to do things that aren't, or can't be, marked easily.

This is not an easy question. Obligatory education for every child demands a certain way of thinking, and often the scale of the challenge threatens (or, indeed, over-rules) the original nature of the mission. Here, equality and efficiency rapidly become the keys to a sustainable system - education for all means a) the same quality of education for all, and b) a system that delivers this equality for as many people, but for as little money as possible.

Still, it's amazing to see that, back in March, Jim Knight suggested class sizes of 70 pupils. (Interestingly just the following day, a study supported smaller class sizes.) Can you imagine a classroom that size? Even with 3 or 4 helpers, the fragmentation occurring and/or the "surveillance" needed to control it would be... 'unhelpful'. One can only assume that economic questions, of overheads and of scaling factors, can lead Jim to such other-wordly conclusions.

The paradox inherent here, of course, is "equality" vs "individualism". Should smaller groups, or one-to-one teaching, be encouraged if it means those more "naturally" suited to learning gain more from it? Or should all children be subjected to the same despotic system in the name of fairness?

But fairness assumes that we all learn in the same way, and that our own priorities are the same as everyone else's. ("You don't like Maths? But Jimmy loves Maths! How can you have any Physics if you don't eat your Maths?!") Or, at least, that we all are capable of learning the same amount in the same way. Maybe that's it - maybe standardised tests aren't built for pushing people at all, but for pulling them back - for making sure they learn in the right way so that equality is maintained. (N.B. Equality is also standardisation, which makes industrial people management planning so much easier, but that's another story.)

In amongst ever-greater amounts of personal-customisation, web2.0 "choose your view of the world" perspectives, and potentially greater interaction with strangers from around the globe, is the era of large-scale education feasible? Or is it likely to be encouraged as a way of keeping the ever-blossoming population under some kind of control until they're old enough to be arrested? Or are we facing an educational fork, where those with the know-how (and the tech to go with it) can "afford" to run their own education systems, while those without are left to the management policies of the state?

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

When CCTV Fails: Swoop on the Swooshes

In a damning endorsement of this blog (well, says me), Detective Chief Inspector Mike Neville has blasted the nation's CCTV systems, claiming they only solve 3% of London street crimes, and just don't live up to the "preventative" effect that ubiquitous surveillance promised all those years ago. Tut.

What's the problem with them then? "Criminals [are] not afraid of cameras", put simply. Oops. Ah yes. Old-time readers will remember this very problem - that surveillance is more likely to worry those already afraid of the law (generally the good, law-abiding folk) while those with something to nick, or something to prove, probably won't be that deterred anyway. Net result? The two-sided CCTV coin is actually a lot bigger on one side.

What's DCI Neville's response to this brilliant insight though? Could it be to re-think the entire CCTV Nation* policy, to re-work the relationship between state watcher and citizen watched?

His logic is, of course, infallible. "If criminals see that CCTV works they are less likely to commit crimes" - ah yes, the fault is with the camera not providing enough feedback, and on criminals having far too much understanding of just how crap the police are at actually using CCTV footage.

And the solution? It would be illogical to suggest anything other than better CCTV then. Which Neville does with aplomb, although one could posit that this is because he's heading up efforts for more image recognition in CCTV. In this case, that recognition stretches to tracking people by identifying brand logos and sporting emblems on persons' attire.

Now that's brilliant thinking. I'm sure I've pointed this out before, but haven't you just given away "the big secret" there, DTI Neville? So after all this investment, what you're basically doing is not preventing criminals from committing a crime, but from wearing Nike swooshes? How long does it take a sub-culture of recklessness to work out that nobody's watching CCTV cameras? How much less time does it take the same sub-culture to, uh, read a BBC News article?

Furthermore, what reason do all those criminals that don't pander to the "latest" fashions have to be afraid of this new technology? In fact, are they even less likely to be caught, once the police are solely focusing on those that can be tracked easily?

Maybe some day we'll invent a camera that identifies just where the polic[e/y] mind goes abnormal and strange. Until that day, I guess we'll have to continue blogging.

* Most excellent Banksy link via Richard V.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Time Management vs Time Value

I was finally tempted into buying issue 41 of the Idler the other day, and am now very glad that I succumbed on this occasion. Page 29 introduces an article titled "The Truth About Time", written by Brian Dean of Anxiety Culture. It does a neat little job of breaking down our (namely the UK, but others are included) approach to time-management, and the rather "odd" manner in which we are very rarely focusing on what we're doing right now, but always looking at some deadline in the (relatively short-term) future.

The alternative pointed out is a slightly more abstract idea of "dancing" with time, where one focuses on the present moment, but in a grounded relationship with both the past and the future - resulting in longer-term plans (Japanese 50-year business "plans", for example) and a more "incremental" approach to achieving them. "Our" approach, on the other hand, dispenses with a step-by-step movement by constantly fixing our sight on the next "hurdle", and so short-term gains end up winning out over both the "present" and the long-term benefits.

IMHO, the same attitude has infiltrated out general lifestyles as well. Our common perspective on happiness, for instance, is to focus on saving up cash to purchase the next "hit". No matter what form it takes - a holiday (sorry, "experience"), a games console, or a late-night beer session - the emphasis is still on getting through the "dull" bits in order to arrive at the next milestone for a "well-earned" spat of enjoyment.

Perhaps this explains our cruddy relationship with the elder generation, and our increasing fixation with looking (and acting) ever younger. Age reminds us of time, something we've grown to ignore because the yin-yang ideas of responsibility and now-ness scare us to wittery-buggery. So we spend our days trying desperately to distract ourselves from them, in an endless loop of trying to grab the next small wave, the latest promise of beauty, or glory.

Maybe managing our time is like categorising parts of a river, then. The more fences we put in to work out where we are, the more we end up seeing only fences, and ignoring the fact that the river is stagnating into puddles around us.

Happy thoughts for a bank holiday weekend, then. Go and grab a copy, find that sunny patch, and Idle Away.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A Guide to Understanding the Good Lord(s)

Those with an interest in rhetoric and the art of doublespeak should enjoy Lord Norton's breakdown of rhetoric in the House of Commons, such as:
The noble Lord, for whom I have the greatest respect…’ = 'You’ve lost it this time'

and the classic:
‘My Lords’, if repeated several times within the course of a few sentences = 'Help!'

I remember seeing a similar list for articles in academic journals a while back, maybe Google will help me out on that one. In the meantime, as political correctness becomes just another part of society, do we ever actually say anything on the lines, rather than in-between them any more?

"Oh Gee! See?"

It seems only right to end a bit of a posting drought with some puerile humour courtesy of the Reg. There's probably a whole field dedicated to the Freudian inerpretation of brands and logos, but who cares?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Status Poverty: The Poor get Unhappier

Lots for the machine this morning, so instead of opting for the obvious (though interesting) headline, I've decided to pick up on John Hutton's appeal to celebrate richness. Or, to be precise, "celebrate the fact that people can be enormously wealthy in this country".

Where, or where to begin? Such overtly controversial comments can't be simply a case of getting a little tiddly down the local boozer and then standing on a garden wall shouting whatever John really feels in his heart of hearts. He has something to say, some substance here. Which is probably why the language is so carefully defined in this case, rather than the usual vaguaries of idealist rhetoric:
"It is statistically possible to have a society where no child lives in a family whose income is below the poverty line - 60% of median average income - but where there are also people at the top who are very wealthy."
See that bit in the middle, separated by hyphens that will probably summon hand-wavery when said out loud? That's stats that is. Median average income, meeedian. That is, the average by rank, not your usual mean average which you get by adding everything together and dividing by X.

No, median average is unaffected so long as the order of richness doesn't change. Let's say out of a group of 10 people, you're the 6th richest - a decent number as it matches the 60% quoted above. Now, according to John, statistically speaking, you're still not poor, even if the 5 people above you suddenly all win the lottery together, sharing 50 million Euros between them. In other words, it's not the actual richness which is defining poverty, it's only how many people are richer than you.

Now, to my tiny economist brain (situated just behind my left ear, no bigger than a 5 pence piece), this is a bit odd. This is basically saying that poverty is based on status rather than what you can afford. For status is based on social ranking (which, it turns out, is based on how many limos you can afford a month), while actually buying things is based on how much money is floating around the system. Get that difference? How many people earn more than you, vs how much cash those people are spending. (By way of example - if people are prepared to pay more for houses, that pushes the price up, and I can't afford a house as much without upping my income. It doesn't actually matter if it's 1 person or 10 million that are buying all the houses in the first place though.)

Status poverty. Actual poverty.

Defining Status Poverty

This is good stuff though, from a Machinery POV. Maybe John is right when he says that we need "to recognise that aspiration and ambition are natural human emotions". This is true. Aspiration and ambition are omnipresent*. Look around, and we can see that modern day culture is defined, in many corners, by status rather than the self. By our comparison with others, rather than our own level of self-esteem. Owning things is seen as status - owning hard-to-get things especially. Status and jealousy and ambition and pride.

If we start looking at things from a status perspective, things change. Up til now, we've been talking two different purposes, a (probably deliberate) arena of muddy ideas and cross-wired principles. Poverty is not usually thought of as status, and so the conversation suffers from amibiguity and double-loading of the term.

But when we adopt a status-led stance, all of a sudden we're not talking cross purposes any more, as John does. We can see "status" as a thing, just like money is a thing. We can theorise that "celebritydom" is one form of ultimate status, for example. It doesn't matter that many famous people get screwed over and could probably make much more money than they do. What matters is the image of richness, the big house, the fast car, the all-night narcotic-soaked drunken orgies. This is status, and it's more powerful, more alluring than just cold hard cash. Cash is but a gateway drug to a lifestyle.

But here's the trap. Once we start turning status into a "thing", can we say that a median average is the right way to measure poverty in this thing any more? Or is an ambition for status - the answer for the individual, apparently, to escaping poverty - fueled by the excesses and the luxury that we perceive? Can we actually say that status is relative not to how many people are "better off" than us, but by how much better off they are?

I say yes, we can. I say we must do, because our ambitions are clearly not pumped up and inspired by statistical figures in spreadsheets. Our ambitions and our dreams are inspired by others, by the idea of others and by the illusion of others. In other words, in this age of "equality", what we think we are entitled to is defined by what we see others as having. And it only takes 1 person to have something for us to then want it too.

I am fundamentally connected to Bill Gates

Of course, this opens up the "holes" in Hutton's argument. If we have more rich people, more billionaires, then how does that affect the rest of us? Hutton seems to think that these parts of society are at such opposite extremes that this isn't a problem. The idea that there is "freedom to get rich" severs the ties identified above. Hutton wants to sever them in one direction, and let people get richer. But he fails to take into account the converse: that as some people get more rich/famous, those "left behind" will not be blind to this - in terms of both status and actual poverty. The idea that we need people to "be the authors of their own lives" assumes the same fundamental concept - that people are individuals. But who can really look at society and say that we do not compare ourselves to those around us, or to those we see on TV?

Status Poverty is real. It manifests not as being unable to afford things, but as being unable to live your own life. It leads to depression, anger, and a lack of confidence in one's self, because the self becomes constantly defined purely in terms of others. The result is wishing we were someone else, until the day we die. Status and happiness contentment are inherently linked, and John Hutton should be ashamed for trying to fool the rest of us into continuing to fool ourselves otherwise.

* Although, I've noticed, generally more so in insecure men than others, but that's a different tale for a different day.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Smith: Physical Security is Invulnerable

It's a "listen again" kind of Friday. El Reg picks up on Jacqui Smith's claims that the identity system will be "unhackable" because ... ready for this? ... Because it's not connected to the Internet.

I've yet to listen to the audio, so I'm taking this at the Reg's face value here. But if this is the serious level of understanding of security we face in Whitehal(o)l, then someone needs to come up with a proper identity card of their own, stat, and pimp that. Jacqui Smith should ask herself why Location-tracking site Fire Eagle is kind of cool, while identity-tracking schemes are not. A clue: the link to "Purge all my information" in a big blue box instills that thing us hu-mans like to call "trust".

John Humphrys vs Diplomas

Ed Balls has just finished spouting rhetoric of a "once in a lifetime opportunity" in his attempt to explain diplomas to John Humphrys on the Today Programme. Poor old John - he's getting on a bit, and complex bureaucratic educational machines are no match for his greying brain. Truth be told, I was barely keeping up with Mr. Balls, and that was before I was reminded A-Levels existed alongside diplomas. I'm sure complex systems are some proud manifestation of "student choice" in some twisted minister's imagination.

Again - some interesting integration of students, and systems that serve two purposes. It may be a little more justified in this case, but hopefully I'll get back to all this in the near future.

If you want to Listen Again, it's about 8.10-8.15am on Friday morning.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

ID Updates: Kill the Symbol and Go for the Pincer Move

Meanwhile, in the murky and dangerous Identity-Register Realms, Jacqui Smith is announcing some changes to the scheme, namely:

  • Non-EU immigrants will need them to register this year

  • "Sensitive" airport job-workers (that's a sensitive job, not a sensitive worker) will need to register next year

  • Students will be able to opt in to registration in 2010

  • People can choose to register when they get a biometric passport from 2011-12-ish

Kill the Symbol, Kill the Imagination

So the timetable has been pushed back a bit, and there's some "relinquishment" on the enforced nature. The Register, Ideal Government blog and Tomorrow's fish and chip paper (amongst many, I'm sure) have some follow-up, while the latter makes an excellent point about the symbolism of the card.

In my mind, this symbolism is something that the anti-ID lot have failed to really push - but not for lack of trying. People with the details, in the know, understand that the card is just what you carry (just like a bank card is not your bank account). The real danger is the database behind that card. But for many others, it is the card which has been handed down from history. It is the card which is the tangible, touchable, carryable item. In other words, we have no "physical" experience of biometrics or databases - the 2 things that are really important here - on a societal level. Because we lack this experience as a nation, and because both biometrics and "data" is generally "hidden" to us, it's difficult to get our heads around just what they mean when controlled by a centralised actor.

Maybe we need to start thinking about the database in terms of large Stasi-style filing systems. Maybe we need to think of biometrics in terms of something we are permanently attached to - like having our bank card stapled to us for all time. Whatever, we need a new way of relating both to information, and to ourselves. It's no good to think of the card as the system any more, and the government know this.

2 Functions Become 1

There are also many thoughts coming out of what Jacqui Smith says. What defines a "sensitive" job? Is it the work? Or is it the work, the opportunities, and the kind of people being employed to do that job? It's interesting to see who the government "trust" at this point. Why not start off by eating your own dog food, for example - make MPs carry identity cards, have them register first. If you want to prove there's nothing to fear, then go right ahead and engage with that "accountability" thing you know our form of democracy is supposed to run on.

However, what's most interesting to me is the juxtaposition of workers in "sensitive" jobs, and students as "early adopters". The theory is that students will want ID cards because they want access to services most - bank accounts/loans, pubs and clubs (one assumes, although alcohol + judiciously important documents is always good for a not-so-cheap laugh), and so on.

(Now is it just me, or have our students basically become a dumping ground for all the leftover exploitation we need to "run" things? This will be my next post, I think.)

Practicalities of studentships aside (I never had any particular problem getting access to banks' money - they tended to throw it away and wait for it to trickle back in triplefold), it's these 2 areas of focus which show just how "mixed up" government thinking on this scheme is. To get back to the old question of "Well, what the Hell is this for?", the answer it seems is, "Everything!". Security and fun with living! To stop you doing things and to let you do things, all at the same time. (Of course, you don't necessarily get a say in which things you get to do or not do.) If I get one, does that make me privileged? Or suspect?

The answer is both. No, wait. The answer is that "privilege" and "suspicious" are no longer based on what we're used to - on what the individual wants or learns them to be. "Privilege" and "Suspicious" are, under an ID system, completely in the hands of they who control the technology. "Privilege" and "Suspicious" disappear to be defined purely in terms of what the thought of the day is. They could be opposites one day, and identical the next ("Congratulations! You are privileged to be being monitored!"). And yes, theoretically the government answers to the public. But a) answers take up to 4 years to come along, and b) there's only one answer for the entire country.

That's not decentralisation, that's aggregation, normalisation, the middle ground.

The ID system has shifted, like a slippery chimaera changing its nightclothes. It's more dangerous now - the people who care about their privacy are no longer the target, until it's too late. Those who are targeted would be shooting themselves in the foot if they complained. The war is being fought on two fronts, neither of which are the original.

Our move, I guess.

Friday, February 29, 2008

"What could I do? I pulled out my Harry and... BLAM! BLAM!"

To be perfectly honest, I haven't even bothered to RTFA on this one. My RSS reader tells me all there is to know:
"Prince Harry is to be pulled out of Afghanistan after news broke of him serving there, the MoD says." - BBC News.
Leaks are important, because information defines reality - not the other way around. Is it any wonder wikileaks is being censored?

Give it a week or two, and the "official" memo will note that "Harry never was in Afghanistan in the first place". Or if he were, it was on a "training-style holiday experience".

Oh, and WTF are we still doing in Afghanistan anyway? But I guess that's not important right now...

Monday, February 18, 2008

Language and Stats: Trying to Cage the River's Flow?

It's always good to see people cutting to the chase, especially when the chase concerns wild language hunts. Welcome, then, are Richard Pring's calls to quit using Orwellian Language in education (linked via a different Richard). Pring is the lead author on a Nuffield report into educational aims and values, areas which the report notes have come to be "dominated by the language of management". The Beeb article does a good job of facing up to the industrial-scentific-managerialism that currently pervades, well, most places:
The need to measure everything and to find equivalents for different types of education arises from a natural enough desire to achieve value-for-money...

But it can also be a strait-jacket, implying that all types of learning can, and should, be forced into the same model.
There are 2 issues here, both familiar to ITM:

One: Measurements are Not Reality.

This is the same problem faced by any scientist, or by the RAE, or by anyone trying to measure creativity. There is similarly an equally diverse range of analogies to approach this problem: the Hawthorne effect if you're a social scientist, quantum collapse, or a central tenet of taoism. All deal with the difference between what is "real" - or what is really happening - and what happens to that reality when you try to "catch it", try to turn it into a "comprehensible form" such as numbers.

The last of these, tao, provides an interesting link to point 2, though. The tao can be described as a river, and "un-tao" behaviour can be likened to trying to catch the river in a bucket. Yes, you may have the same water, but do you have a river? Measurement can (but not must) suffer from the same problem - generally, when measurement is turned into targets, or used as the sole means of assessing something from "afar".

This divide between "reality" and "representation" (numbers) underlies point two. If numbers are one way of seeing the world, then words are another. Words are flexible. (I could post this in another language, but make the same points.) But they are still just representation. The "tao" called the "tao" ain't the real "tao".

And, as if by magic, language is where we end up next...

Two: Language Reflects Organisation.

To clarify the above, words are flexible, but they are not equally flexible. Some words are designed to mean one thing and one thing only. On the other hand, some words move towards the "tao" end of the range, and are often deliberately constructed to mean nothing-in-particular. Science is often concerned with knowing exactly what someone means when he-or-she uses a particular word. While this is useful when trying to communicate ideas between people, it is less useful when an individual is trying to deal directly with the Fabric of the Universe (or, indeed, the creativity of a pupil).

And this is the mess we're in. Many public institutions (and private, but that's their problem. For now...) have to address these 2 goals: 1. Get things done (i.e. a direct interaction with "reality"), and 2. Organise themselves to get this done (governing), and communicate this to those watching (transparency).

Language is necessary because words act as rallying symbols - focus points upon which efforts are built. But as we move increasingly into a society based on documents, rather than speeches, how can the two ends be reconciled? That is, a government needs to be both able to work without getting bogged down in explanations, but also keep itself open to scrutiny from outside. Personally, I think much of the mess we're comes about from trying to bodge these two concepts together under one "hack" roof.

Schools are thus not the only playground for such a conflict. The Plain English campaign do a good job of trying to cut through the rhetorical crap in all areas of governance. The as-yet-dismissed private sector leads the way in coping strategies, but the infestation continues to creep into the public sector.

Some of the problem comes from Wanting Change. Change, supposedly, requires new effort, and new ideas. But we don't have time to explain these ideas or efforts, so new words take their place. Words symbolise effort in a soundbite society. But they crystallise, and all we're left with is a world of words that don't mean anything any more. We can't go back to words like "teaching", because the very definition of the word is caught up in history, legacy, and "ineffectiveness". Progress - hope - is our saviour now. New language. Newspeak. Brave new linguistic world.

Language is a platform for power. If people understand each other, they can organise themselves. Fuzzy language, then, is fuzzy power. It is "understandable" if (and only if) the background for a term is understood. That is, to understand a word, you must understand the "culture", or section of society that the term has emerged from. Understanding "p < 0.05" (or "significance" if you want a single word), for example, requires understanding probabilistic statistical distributions, not numbers. Thus, explaining things through language alone is shortsighted - gaps in culture must be taken into account too. This is why one should be wary when government insist purely on discussion/consultation alone. Discussion is nothing without background.

Having said that, not all newspeak is inherently bad. Fluffy language (I believe) is a counterpoint to overly-scientific terms. As measurements and benchmarks and indicators are increasingly applied, the only way to give oneself flexibility becomes to fudge the indicators and the words that get used. In other words, a focus on accountability, through "measureability", results in an opposition to this stringency, which manifests itself as nonsense. Nonsense detracts from transparency, yes, but it also permits flexibility, creativity, and the art of personal judgement. An expert cannot necessarily tell you what he or she does.

Nuffield and the Plain English campaign are clearly right to address the eel-like nature of modern rhetoric. Having people who don't know what they're doing being unable to tell you what they're not doing is no way to run anything. But rather than hammer out terms even more, or even return to "old" terms, what we really need are those people able to act with exeprience, with judgement, with skill, but who can also explain what they're doing in readily-understandable terms.

Ultimately, this is not hard. But to achieve it, we must first understand that just because someone makes something look or sound simple doesn't necessarily mean that the job itself is simple.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ideas For Our Time: Sell Booze to the Old and Deaf

Idea #715: Use age-discriminatory noise devices, which don't work on people-in-their-20s, to find out if people are permitted to buy alcohol or not.

This would reduce the need for:

a) Patronising notices/supervisors saying that I'm "lucky enough to look young" - too young for booze.

b) Ever-increasing age levels for ID. Look under 18? ID please. Look under 21 and so maybe under 18? ID please. Look under 25, and therefore under 21, and therefore under 18? ID please. Look dead, and therefore maybe alive, and therefore under 40, and therefore under 18? ID please.

c) Babies in supermarkets.

Hell, you could probably automate this somehow, and have drink-dispensing vending machines on the streets.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Secrets and Lies: Robot Sheep Don't Have No Money

Here's a story for you. A herd of robot sheep saw the Sun going down on an otherwise dull day. A few of the sheep, having not seen the Sun go down (because robot-sheep days are long and robot-sheep memories are short) were afraid and ran in the opposite direction fearing a Nuclear Blast. The other robot sheep were a little confused by this, but having very bad memories, thought it safer to follow the sheep who were, supposedly "cautiously", making their unnecessary escape. And so it came to pass that the Sun could no longer shine on the happy robot sheep, and almost killed itself in a fit of Sunset-brilliant despair and bewilderment.

Fortunately, the Moon looked on, and saw it all from afar, from high above. From there, he decided the best thing to do was not to explain to the sheep anything about how the Sun works, but rather to construct a Fake Sun, and embellish the still-brightening sky with it. This way, the sheep would never need even know that the Sun really set, and could spend their days in blissful ignorance, eating grass and telling stories about iPods. (Or their day, at least - there were no days or nights any more. Until the Fake Sun exploded.)

The moral of the story is nothing. The moral of the story is that ignorance is everywhere and nowhere. The moral of the story is to never look directly at the Sun. Choose your own moral.

In the meantime, and completely unrelated, it's good to see Alistair Darling wants to avoid bank runs by handling emergencies in secret.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Up a Panic Gear: "Get Out Now"

The rock is picking up speed... Moving firmly away from FT territory, economy musings get picked up by the local rag today. The headline in the Real World reads "GET OUT NOW". The text goes like this:
Experts are warning homeowners to get out of the property market before a massive crash wipes more than £100 million off the value of Sussex homes.
The record-number of comments include a fair mix of "scaremongering!" vs "ha-ha" and "good", but that's not the point here. The point is that the bursting of the bubble is reaching down, out of the FTSE sky, and into the lives of "real" people like a Monty Python foot.

Don't forget: This bubble came about not from managers over-spending, but from people at the bottom of the pyramid* not being able to pay money back. There are plenty of people down there who aren't quite in the same position, but aren't FT readers. Panic depends on an information gap. That gap's now being filled with fear. And when people are scared, people hang on to cash. (On the bright side, inflation should fall of its own accord...)

* Pyramid, yes, even though the argument goes cyclically: "consumption -> demand -> supply -> production -> jobs!". It's a "pyramid-cycle" because money comes out of the system at each level. There is no such thing as Perpetual Motion.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Split-Personality Institutions

Universities are facing a tough time. Are they for extending knowledge? Or for training people up so that they can get jobs in an "advanced" economy? The former harks back to the original definition of "academic", while the latter juggles with the idea of "practicality". But there are compromises to be made, especially when a sense of economic efficiency watches over the two of them. Computer "Science" is no exception, as has been seen/highlighted in recent discussion over the suitability of teaching Java to students.

But I think this tug-of-war goes a lot further than education. The Ideal Government blog has a snippet concerning the IPS's indecision over what the National Identity Register should, in fact, be.

This "split-personality" for such services is interesting. Does it come from an agglomeration of functions? (Evolution = economy of scope in an increasingly genericised world?) How about a re-definition of the role a particular institution now finds itself in? (Research now becomes more practical than academic, as progress becomes more and more important?)

Or are we reaching a "critical mass", a tearing between scales? Is the system more important than the user? Can a user exist without the system? And what, after all this, is the correct course of action?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Hamster Wheel(s) of Capitalism

Is there a difference between "selfish" and "unselfish" capitalism? Is materialism making us Crazy In The Head? This BBC article looks at Oliver James' new book, "The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza.

Whether the book is any good and/or useful or not is a question I'm not going to go into, but it's good to see the argument being raised. (And depressing, at the same time, that it's not thought of as Obvious Knowledge.) But there are some interesting points made in the article. The main point, namely, that we have a form of capitalism in the UK which is different that to on the continent, and which brings us more mental illness, such as depression.

There are three threads to this, which are somewhat picked out in the article...

1. Capitalism and the Individual: That is, Capitalism taps into an "inherent" desire by the individual - a desire for "Stuff". Stuff helps us do things, helps us to live, distracts us from other things. For instance, I like my teddy bear - it gives me emotional satisfaction even if "rationally" it is nothing but Stuffed Stuff. This is the individualistic level of capitalism, and is possibly why "retail therapy" is addictive, in the same way that drugs and drink are addictive. ("Some people say alcohol is a drug. It's not, it's a drink.")

2. Capitalism as an Indicator of Position: Power can be compared to a tree falling in the forest. An individual cannot have power in isolation - there must be a subject that this power extends over.

This picks apart the argument between capitalism as a "non-zero-sum" game - in which individuals are better off, even if others have more - and as a "zero-sum" game - in which people effectively have less when others have more, even if their own value has stayed the same. (For a lot more discussion on this, see here.) Retail Therapy and the individualism in point 1 can be considered an effect of a non-zero-sum game. But Power artefacts can be considered a zero-sum game effect. For me, the existence of inflation is a simple pointer to the latter as being more significant though: the more money someone else has, the less mine is worth. We are tied together through the value of our cash, and so it is not enough to simply have "more money". The crux of the matter is that it's important to have "more money than others".

And this is why money is power, is status. And why consumption, and Stuff, is important - because Stuff is a signal for how much money, and hence how much "power" we have over others. For example, if I can afford to buy expensive brand clothing, I can afford to eat more, and live longer.

The conssequences of this are explored below, in point 3. For now, just consider what this means for rising inequality in Britain.

3. Capitalism as a Norm: This is actually a combination, an "evolution" if you like, of themes 1 and 2. The article picks this up quite well. As Simon Wessely says:
"more human experiences" are seen as illnesses nowadays. In my trade, for example, states of sadness are now seen as 'depression', shyness has become 'social phobia', and all sorts of variations in childhood temperament, personality, emotions and behaviour have become characterised as diseases that need treatment
Indeed, maybe this is the bond that ties together the first 2 points - a re-definition of "normality" through a subtle yet significant - ubiquitous - usurping of Old values with New Ones. New Ones that posit twin snakes of "happiness" and "equality" as their foundation. If Capitalism had a motto, it would be "All Can Smile."

But it's this idealist posturing that forces us into a vicious circle. The trap is this: by placing utopia within "reachable grasp", it leaves us in a modern state of distopia at all other times. Throw in the idea of "progress" - technical mainly (moral progress is generally left alone for its sin of being unmeasurable) - and this distopia extends to a dark and continuous eternity. To state this distopia in 2 simple sentences:

1. If you have less Stuff than any other One Person, then you are unhappy.
2. Technological progress creates new Stuff.

Thus, not content with trying to keep up with the single Hamster Wheel of Inequality, we force ourselves to straddle another Wheel, that of progress. If one doesn't get you, the other surely will.

Enough of this for now. Hopefully the next post will look at the effects of networked capitalism on the subject.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Switch to "Viral Economies" (+ tidbits)

(I've got into the habit of posting economy posts like this to my other blog, but thought I'd bring this one over here for various reasons. Mainly because it brings up the psychological side of economics.)

The FT's front page is looking fairly severe today, touting heavier-than-normal phrases such as "plummet"ing, "tumble"-ing and "hammer"ing. Ill omens have been sweeping from the south-west across the front page with various aplomb over the past 12 months, but perhaps the latest battering brings with it more than just a lot of rain. Meanwhile, American consumers are "turning cautious at the very least". It really does seem to be something of a pincer movement by the forces of Balance and Correction.

What's really interesting, from a systemic point of view, is whether - or when - the fears of a housing market collapse will move from a "rational" process, to a "viral" one, in the same way that Northern Rock only really "took off" (in the wrong direction) once it hit the headlines. Or in the way that OPEC hoped to avoid killing the dollar itself.

Monitoring the FT is one thing. The people that read it have a good handle on what's happening already, so surprises are few and "damage" - panic? - is relatively limited. Information is an ally, and so the really interesting stuff only comes once other newspapers, the non-economists, start talking about what's happening, and How It Will Affect You.

Of course, that's where this may differ from the Northern Crock: How-It-Will-Affect-Me is different to How-I-Can-Affect-It. Pulling money out of a bank is a definite choice, like pulling bricks out from under your feet. But an economic squeeze is, one could say, more "deterministic". Sure, one can choose to spend, or not to spend, but it's a lot more likely that how much you spend is directly proportional to how much you're expecting to receive in future. In other words, the current situation is less about losing your cash (as per the Rock), and more about rationing it.

Which, of course, is why people are starting to sell their houses now, rather than later, and why they're not buying quite so much crap. Scarcity begets scarcity. On the plus side, that pound in your pocket should be worth more...

So it hasn't escaped my attention that Richard has been bookmarking panic a lot recently. Sensible forethought. Relying on information - reading the FT - is one thing. But a purely "rational" approach, based on economics, tells you nothing about what happens when economics and hysteria combine: Facebook Banking? About when news spreads like a virus feeding on a monoculture of fear and risk-aversion.

The question is "when", not "whether". And How-Will-It-Affect-YOU?

Meanwhile, some linky tidbits...

Brian Haw violently assaulted then arrested along with other peace protestors. Sousveillance disrupted, although I haven't seen the film put together about it yet - scroll down for links, and for updates to the situation. (See also BBC Coverage.)

"Server in the Sky" programme to share biometrics internationally, in case you missed it.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

We were never at War with Eurasia

Britain Drops 'War on Terror' Label
Sir Ken Macdonald said terrorist fanatics were not soldiers fighting a war but simply members of an aimless "death cult."
So are we safer now? Why was it declared as a "war" in the first place? What rhetoric takes its place?

(Via James and Schneier.)