This is part of my blog, which I have long since stopped maintaining. The page has been preserved in case its content is of any interest. Please go back to the homepage to see the current contents of this site.
That the car park was eerily futuristic, with automated sensors telling you how many spaces remained in each lane, should have been your first warning. No, yet earlier than that. You should have realised when it took you four attempts to leave the dual carriageway at the right junction. No amount of poor navigation skill could have led you to fail that many times. You should have realised, then, that the place distorted reality around it. Whether it was just unusually massive, or unusually evil, you couldn’t tell from the outside. All you could tell was that it twisted your perceptions, made your mind and your car run in circles. But these circles were concentric, spiralling ever inwards, towards the core. Once you saw the sign and the inviting arrow beside that junction, all hope was already lost. You were caught in its net.
As General Adama would say, “Frak”.
From the moment you step inside the door, pick up your eye-wateringly yellow bag and utterly useless paper tape measure, it has you. You will follow the arrows on the floor, never deviating from the predetermined path that your Swedish overlords have ordained for you. There are shortcuts, sure, but do you really want to try them? The other customers will give you strange looks, they’ll know that you’re not yet truly one of them. And they will report it to a member of staff, as is the duty of a Loyal Customer. Then you will be dealt with. No, no, dear customer, it is better to stay on the path.
Heed the throng of Loyal Customers. Their bellies are full of nourishing meatballs, and they have set off on the Great Pilgrimage with you. Their children scream and wail while they peruse the bland infinity of moderately-priced flat-pack furniture, but to no avail. The adults are consumed, they have become cogs in the machine, and you are elated to be joining them.
The names, the names are what seals it. The twisted, maddening names, the names that perhaps once were Swedish or some other language before the Taint reached them. Now they are trapped in a Limbo between meaning and non-meaning, luring you in, trying to get you to understand them. You look, you try to pronounce them, you curl the sounds around your tongue, probing for meaning, but there is none. They will haunt you for the rest of your days, sitting in the back of your mind, luring you back to this place just in case you can extract some meaning from a second exposure. Behold the names, behold their terrible glory! Behold the creature of madness that spawned them! Chant with me! Ia! Ia! Cthulhu f’thagn!
Behold also the Stack of Identical Grinning Babies!
Beware most of all what seems to be the end of your journey, for there is a terrible choice that awaits you. There are steps up and steps down. Those leading up are warm and inviting, ushering you on with a yellow tone you now find soothing to your soul. But beware it, beware it! It leads back to the entrance again, from where you have no choice but to complete your whole damning journey again, hoping and praying that you will still have enough sanity left to choose differently next time. If not, all hope is lost. You will follow the Path again and again, forevermore walking the spacious showrooms of this cursed place. One day you will awaken from where you had collapsed on a comfortable pine-effect divan and find yourself changed, wearing a yellow polo shirt and with a spacious utility belt for pencils and tape measures. You will have become an employee.
No, such things should not be mentioned. It is too terrible a fate. Take heed of my warning, Loyal Customer, and choose the steps going down. They lead into the belly of the beast, a grey expanse of unending shelves where boxes are born and die. People here have discarded their yellow bags in favour of metal trolleys, all the better to gorge themselves on the wares of this place.
This is the most dangerous place of all, but you must endure it. Your life depends on reaching the end of it. It is guarded by the beeping, clacking checkouts and the fallen employees who feed them, but get up to speed on the trolleys and you just might make it through.
‘Salida’ might be in some kind of crazy Paella-language, but at least it’s a real word.
Take heart, dear Loyal Customer. Escape is possible, but you must persevere. Here I have told you everything I know, everything I have experienced, in the hope that it will aid you. I ask of you, if you should make it out alive with this document, place it as near to the entrance as you dare venture in the hope that some other poor soul will find it and survive just as you have.
Farewell, and good luck.
Yours in faith,
Lord of Mesopotamia
Part-time Viking Hamster
Today, Prime Minister David Cameron launched his ‘Big Society’ initiative, aimed at empowering local communities to fix their own problems. On the surface it sounds to me like a nice idea, getting neighbours to work together to save their post office or whatever.
But of course, no-one really knows how it’s going to happen yet, or if there’s any money. And money will be needed. No independent community-built schools are going to spring up if the only people who can volunteer their time are housewives and a bunch of unemployed sales executives. People need training, and even after a bit of training, they’ll still not do the job as well as professionals. Apparently the government can’t afford to pay actual builders to build schools, so is this part of the ‘Big Society’ plan doing any more than investing in cheap, shoddy infrastructure that will fall to the community to maintain when it starts falling down?
It all seems based on the idea that no-one’s got much money but we’ve all somehow got a lot of spare time. Which, with unemployment threatening to rise even higher, is pretty much true. Unfortunately, all the people in this situation are spending all their spare time trying to get money again, by means of finding a job that actually pays them. ‘Big Society’ doesn’t dish out feel-good points that can be traded in at the food bank.
In an attempt to find some money for training and so that there is some financial incentive for these volunteers, Cameron also suggests “…announcing plans to use dormant bank accounts to fund projects.” Wait. Are you nationalising our bank accounts? How exactly does he propose to do that, and has anyone else done that in recent history besides Communist dictators? (Or, more likely, am I completely failing to grasp the actual plan here?)
Anyway, I’m feeling pretty good about my contribution to the Big Society. With all the websites asking what we should cut the hardest, with Conservative and Lib Dem manifestos falling by the wayside, and with the government washing their hands of community projects, I think I’ve found myself somewhere to volunteer.
In the deprived central London borough of Westminster, there are plenty of volunteers working in charity shops and soup kitchens – but where we’re really lacking, where we really need to come together and save our community, is in the area of policy-making. Since the government clearly isn’t keen on doing it themselves, I humbly propose myself as a volunteer here. I could spare a few hours after work each night to down a few pints in the Commons bar before heading to the Chamber and being an angry leftie at people until the government realises that we pay tax so that they fund these projects, not us.
Last night I ended up watching the last few episodes of an anime series called Cardcaptor Sakura, which by my reckoning is at least ten years since I watched it all the way through as a kid.
At the time, I suppose the main character’s relentlessly chirpy attitude had quite an effect on me. I watched a lot of similar stuff around that time, and somehow the idea that being somewhat self-sacrificing and being constantly happy at people would Make Everything Okay got stuck in my head.
Actually it seemed to work pretty well when I was that age, but that attitude probably got stuck for rather too long – case in point, here’s me still spaffing Cardcaptor Sakura song lyrics on my LiveJournal at age 19. Of course, approaching life with the attitude of a fictional, supernaturally-chirpy 10-year-old girl didn’t really survive first contact with University life, and certainly not with fatherhood.
But watching the series again still makes me happy, both to see the characters fall in love again, and to remind myself how glad I am that I am no longer that naive.
And kind of confused that, despite the first time I watched Cardcaptor Sakura seeming so recent, it was nearly half my lifetime ago.
For some unimaginable reason, two weeks and counting after the whole Raoul Moat business kicked off, it’s still plastered across the papers. Why? Because someone created a Facebook tribute page. Facebook refused to take it down. Then the owner removed it. Then someone made another one. Then the Prime Minister waded in. And one of Moat’s victims.
My question is, predictably: why the hell is all this Facebook stuff news?
There is one reason and one reason only why these Facebook tribute groups exist: for the lulz.
Have the Prime Minister and the tabloid press not managed to grasp that there’s not really some sinister or deranged bunch of people behind this? People join these groups for the lulz; because it’s funny. Do politicians really live in such a sheltered world that they’ve never seen what’s out there on the internet?
The internet is context-free interaction, a world where you can’t see your friends’ reactions or even know if they’ve seen a notification of you joining a group. It’s a single click to join, whether you’re doing it because you believe in the cause or whether you just found it funny. It’s a world where people try to take down religions just because the idea amuses them. It’s a world where nobody really cares; where “Serious Business” is only ever used sarcastically.
Government, media – getting offended by Raoul Moat’s Facebook fan club just makes you look ridiculous. It’s not just the internet you seem not to understand, it’s a whole aspect of human nature that comes to the fore in that kind of environment. Hell knows, if Cameron hit the roof about a Raoul Moat tribute group, what the hell is he going to do when he finds /b/? They’ll be scraping him off the walls!
I have no massive expectation of the most powerful to govern in a way which everyone would recognise as fair and just. But at the very least, can we not expect those in power to understand the people they represent?
Most of the clever work happens in the background, set off by a number of cron jobs with various tasks such as keeping the MP list in sync with TheyWorkForYou, polling our blogs, generating statistics on the contents of the database, and the big one: trawling through all the MPs’ feeds themselves.
The latter is a mammoth job, and trying to keep up has been a constant battle against allowed cron intervals and PHP timeouts as we can as yet only afford shared hosting for the site rather than our own dedicated server. We keep a record of the last time an MP’s feeds were checked, and every five minutes, we pick the 60 oldest ones and check them. 60 is a rough value arrived at through some pretty low-tech testing, and there’s still plenty of work to do to optimise this. With 650 MPs in total, checking 60 every 5 minutes means we cycle through everyone in about an hour, which isn’t too bad, though this will get much worse once we add in MEPs and members of the regional Parliament and Assemblies.
Items that get scraped are added to the cache table in the Westminster Hubble database, from where they’re served at user request without having to re-visit the original feeds. We use SimplePie to find and scrape RSS feeds, after my own attempt proved to be more trouble than it was worth. SimplePie manages its own cache as a flat file structure, and uses its own intelligence to try and detect when feeds are unchanged, lightening our server load when scraping feeds that don’t update very often.
There’s currently no expiry condition for items in our cache. Disk space is not an issue, but load times may prove to be at some point in the future. If and when they do, we will start removing the oldest items from the cache, possibly with some kind of type bias so that blog posts hang around longer than tweets.
On the user experience side, there’s nothing much complicated going on. jQuery is used extensively for pulling in page contents so that we can load pages with feeds on quickly. Likewise, we use jQuery so we can filter feeds, and switch between Search, Map and List on the home page without reloading, and we use the Autocomplete jQuery plugin on our search box.
The Map view is powered by the Google Maps API, and we generate the data for the pins from TheyWorkForYou’s database of constituency locations.
All in all it’s not been a tremendously difficult project - there have been no major hurdles that have caused me to tear clumps of hair out or affected the stocks of coffee producers. Though that said, Westminster Hubble is still in beta, and there could be many more issues ahead…
Ladies and gentlemen of the blogosphere, I am proud to announce the release of a new website. This is what I have been winding up most of my Twitter followers for the last two months by referring to it only as “Super Secret Project #1”. Its name is Westminster Hubble.
Each MP has their own page, which you can navigate to by searching by name, constituency or postcode, or by selecting from a map of the UK or a list of everybody in the database. Here’s an example for one of Westminster’s most tech-savvy, Tom Watson.
On each MP’s page, each item of their online presence is listed: their website, blog, Twitter account, Facebook page, and so on. These are all editable, so that MPs or benevolent users can help keep their page up to date. MP’s profiles on TheyWorkForYou, the UK Parliament website and the Telegraph newspaper are all automatically linked to as well, and if they’re on record, the pages also list MPs’ constituency addresses and phone numbers.
Each of the online items is routinely checked for updates by Westminster Hubble, and from them a feed is created. This feed forms the body of each MP’s page, and is a filterable list of all that MP’s activity on all the websites we know about.
Of course, you can subscribe to an RSS feed for an MP too (or even a single feed for all 650 of them, if you’re that way inclined). Just click the “Subscribe” button at the top of any feed.
So if you want a single feed of your MP’s speeches in Parliament, blog posts, tweets and YouTube videos, Westminster Hubble is a new site that will give you just that. If you want a single page that’ll give you quick access to all their profiles across the internet, we do that too.
Please, spread the word!
This morning, Liberal Democrat supporters and others unfortunate enough to have made it onto Nick Clegg’s mailing list received an e-mail from the Deputy Prime Minister announcing the Your Freedom website. Which is great, although a good 24 hours late.
But later in the e-mail, he says:
This is the open government we have long campaigned for.
Really? Your Freedom is all you’ve campaigned for? Because that’s a long way from my definition of an ‘open government’. Your Freedom is a tiny, tiny step on the road to what I, and half the rest of the internet, think that term means.
Where’s the guarantee that the government will take any notice of what’s posted on Your Freedom? I want to see a promise that any serious item that gets a thousand comments gets debated in the House.
Where’s the full publication of each and every bill that passes through Parliament, and the wiki for us to carve it up and debate it? Where’s the declarations of who’s had lunch with MPs during the drafting process of these bills? Where’s my searchable database of members’ interests, and the API so we can run stats on it? Where’s the abolition of all meetings ‘behind closed doors’ and the publication of annotated, searchable transcripts?
Where’s the downloadable CSV files of every expense for every MP? Where are the declarations of every use of the party Whips? Why can’t I see the Treasury’s spreadsheets?
Why doesn’t the government run its own website showcasing each and every result of a Freedom of Information request? Why do FoI requests exist at all? A truly open government would publish by default and redact information only when necessary.
If it’s too hard and too expensive to set all this stuff up, just set up an FTP server and dump everything in it – Word docs, database dumps, whatever you’ve got. There are enough journalists and bored web surfers out there that we’ll eventually make sense of it all for you.
We’ll help, Mr Clegg – there’s enough of us out here that want to see a real open government. But if that’s not what you had in mind, please stop pretending that the token gesture of _Your Freedom _is all that’s required to dub yourselves ‘open’.
Back in April, the Digital Economy Bill was rushed through the wash-up procedure of the outgoing government without the due debate and consideration that I and others believe such a far-reaching bill deserved. My disillusionment with the government decision-making process over the following week led me to set up and announce a new site, called “Dynamic Democracy”. It was an experiment to see what would be discussed if everyone was involved – on an anonymous basis – rather than just our elected representatives that often do not do a good job of representing us anyway.
The site allowed all users to create and comment on ‘Bills’, encapsulated ideas or laws that they would be pushing for if they were in power. Registering gave users the ability to vote bills (and comments) up and down, leading to a list of highest-ranked bills that represented the users’ favourite potential policies.
Dynamic Democracy saw little success, possibly because writing a full, well-thought-out bill represented significant effort that a casual browser would be unlikely to commit. ‘Karma’, the point system that aimed to encourage users to submit bills and comments, did not prove to be a good enough incentive as there were so few users to compete with and no direct reward was ever implemented for reaching high karma levels.
What the site did bring, however, was a number of enquiries from like-minded individuals all over the world, keen to discuss the ideas behind the site and whether or not something like Dynamic Democracy could ever be implemented as a real government policy-making tool. One of the more notable contacts, Denny de la Haye, stood as a candidate for Hackney South and Shoreditch in the general election and promised to implement a crowd-sourced voting system similar to Dynamic Democracy for his constituents to voice their opinions in Parliament through him. (Denny, who sadly did not win his seat, now represents the UK arm of political party DemoEx.)
I have decided that today is the day to close the Dynamic Democracy experiment, because today the UK government announced their “Your Freedom” website. While largely focussed on repealing or changing laws rather than the complete freedom to suggest anything you like, Your Freedom is certainly in the same vein as Dynamic Democracy, with the crucial extra feature that is endorsed and used by our government and thus ideas proposed there stand at least some chance of making it into official government policy.
Time will tell whether that really happens, or if like the No. 10 Petitions site, suggestions will be responded to with an e-mail from the Prime Minister’s office explaining why thousands of users are all wrong. But I do still hold out hope.
Did Dynamic Democracy influence the government in their decision to create Your Freedom? Almost certainly not. As my discussions with visitors to the site have shown, I am far from the only person to have come up with this idea, and neither am I the only one to have coded up a website around it. No – this is simply an idea whose time has come. A vast gulf exists between Westminster and the world outside, just as it always has, but these days the public are coming to question why that is and if we can do something to correct it. And nowhere is the desire to bridge that gulf stronger than among the tech-savvy youth that have the drive and the ability to use the internet to that end. Sites like these will come and go a hundred times over the coming years and decades, and slowly but surely we’ll reshape our government into what we want it to be.
So to everyone who contributed to Dynamic Democracy: thank you, and goodbye.
If you’d like to contact me about Dynamic Democracy (or anything else), you can still do that via email. If you’d like to help get the Digital Economy Act repealed, please vote up and comment on one of these ideas on Your Freedom. If anyone would like use of dynamicdemocracy.org.uk until my ownership expires in 2012, let me know. Stay tuned for the announcement of another project that bridges politics and the internet in the next few weeks.
The chip referred to in the article is implanted into the patient’s body, with electrodes placed deep within the brain. The algorithms used by the chip monitor the brain’s natural activity, and should that natural activity change or fail, the system can then use the electrodes to stimulate normal brain activity.
If it is effective, this could have massive benefits for those suffering from long-term debilitating brain conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. Great! But when I read the article, I can’t help but parse its content into “this chip has read-write access to your brain”.
Obviously its small size requires it to be a very simple chip, capable of replicating proper neuronal activity to only a very general and non-specific extent – much the same as a pacemaker keeps a heart in rhythm without understanding what it is interacting with. It’s not going to be enough to affect your thoughts or your memories.
But it might be enough for me to fire up my compiler and start coding a drug. Recreational, performance-enhancing, y’know. Whatever sells.
Unfortunately, to produce anything better than these kind of large-scale, insensitive effects on the brain would require much more processing power than a little chip can achieve right now. It would also require a much better understanding of how the brain computes, and to start doing that, we’d have to build a computer that operates like a brain.
Oh. Okay, that seems to be going pretty well too.
So, er… Can we bump up the electrode count on the ReNa, give it and the million-core processor a bit of WiFi, and see if we can make ourselves some Guardian Angels? Because I would be camping outside the lab like an Apple fanboy on NewiPhonemas.
In Douglas Carswell MP’s blog post “Is Mantis going to fly?”, he bemoans the amount of money the Ministry of Defence have spent funding BAE’s Mantis unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), suggesting instead that we should not have invested in it and should instead have bought existing off-the-shelf UAVs, by which he presumably means the MQ-9 Reaper. He goes on to presume that a Mantis procurement contract must no longer be on the cards, based on the response he received to his question to the Secretary of State for Defence.
With all due respect to Mr Carswell, I do believe he’s missed the point here. Not only has the Royal Air Force already bought 13 of the Reaper aircraft, but they have already seen operational use in Iraq and Afghanistan.
BAE’s Mantis vehicle is, as Parliamentary Undersecretary of State Peter Luff says, a technical demonstrator – a one-off prototype built in order to prove the technology behind it. There never was a procurement programme for the Mantis. Sure, BAE received some funding from the Ministry of Defence, though as this DefenseNews article suggests, it may not have been all that much. Mostly it seems like BAE and the other consortium members threw their own money into the Mantis programme, and the MoD put some of their own research budget into it in the hope that the Mantis would suit Britain’s needs better than the Reaper does.
As I write this post, Mr Carswell has updated his own to address the comment of “an angry reader” (not me, by the way) who points out that “Mantis is just a demo project… We’re just seeing if we can do it better”. The MP’s response is to bring up the SA80 rifle and the Future Lynx and Eurofighter programmes. Issues with the SA80 and with the Typhoon have been widely broadcast in the press (though I can’t find anything particularly damning about the Future Lynx from my brief online search). But the fact that the Mantis is a technical demonstrator is still relevant here – the SA80 and the Typhoon are in active production and use by our armed forces, the Mantis is not.
Maybe with our glorious 20/20 hindsight, we should have abandoned the Eurofighter project and bought F35s and F22s. Who knows – it’s not as if those are the epitome of successful programmes. But shying away from technical demonstrators entirely, particularly ones that are largely privately-funded, would result in stagnation. Britain is one of the few countries that maintains a high level of military research of its own, rather than committing to buying all our gear from the Americans or the Russians. While I don’t pretend to have any big numbers to throw around, I would imagine that the defence sector is reasonably important to the British economy, and it would be in poor shape indeed if the Ministry of Defence no longer wished to invest in the kind of technical demonstrator programmes that further our country’s engineering prowess.
(Disclosure: I’m a former employee of QinetiQ, a member of the Mantis consortium, though I’ve had no involvement with Mantis itself.)