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Despite its sponsorship by a twice-disgraced and unelected politician, despite the fact that it was transparently lobbied for by companies representing the record labels, despite it carrying disproportionate punishments for file-sharers, despite it seeking to undermine the work of content creators, despite a promise to oppose it from the Lib Dems, still the Digital Economy Bill passed through the Houses of Parliament.
In the end it became not even a matter of the content of the bill itself, but of its inclusion of in the outgoing government’s “wash-up” process that would allow it to be passed without proper scrutiny by the House. Surely a bill with so many far-reaching implications should be treated to the proper debate it deserves? But no.
Organisations such as the Open Rights Group and 38degrees have campaigned long and hard. 20,000 people wrote to their MPs asking them to demand that the Digital Economy Bill get proper scrutiny, and hundreds made phone calls. There were protests in the streets in Westminster. 38degrees asked for £10,000 to pay for advertising, so that “on the day of the vote they’ll see our opposition over their cornflakes, on their way into work and over tea in Parliament”. They raised more than double that figure in two days.
How many MPs turned up to the second hearing last night to vote on whether this crucial piece of legislation is allowed to proceed? About thirty. Tonight, for the third hearing? Maybe forty. Uses of #debill on Twitter were running above 1 a second; we were having much more of a debate than the House was.
Some good arguments were put forward by those that did see fit to turn up, raising hopes that the assembled MPs might realise how flawed the bill really is. Tom Watson deserves particular credit, but even John Redwood expressed his reservations about pushing the Digital Economy Bill through.
But in the end, that’s what it came down to. Maybe ten of the 50 clauses in the bill received any kind of debate whatsoever, the rest were blazed through in five minutes by a combination of John Bercow and some doubtless super-strength coffee. Some things went our way – particularly the loss of the controversial ‘orphan works’ clause, clause 43.
The House went off to vote on whether to accept the bill on its third reading, and though the majority of those actually present at the debate seemed in opposition to it, the final tally stood at 189 Ayes, 47 Nays. 189?! Where did they come from? Oh, right, the bar.
Just as we expected and feared, the government waited until the wash-up to put this bill before Parliament so that it would receive as little debate and as few amendments as possible before being pushed through by a horde of MPs who didn’t even care enough to sit in on the debate.
But what more could we have done? I don’t recall as great a public demonstration of opposition to a single bill since fox-hunting, and yet still we have had virtually no impact on its progress. Must we simply accept that, having voted for our MPs in an election, we can have no real effect on them for the next five years; these people who supposedly represent our views? Do they just settle in for five years of representing the views of the party Whips instead?
Well that’s that, I guess. Leave your torrent client at the door, and grab as much of Wikileaks and Rapidshare as you can before the government realises it now has the power to block them. Welcome to Mandelson and Murdoch’s Digital Economy.
At 5pm sharp, my phone dinged to let me know that a new joyous missive had been received unto my inbox, from a doubtless fine fellow by the name of “David Cameron”.
That was… unexpected.
The Tories’ Prospective Parliamentary Candidate and Inevitable Next MP for Bournemouth West, Conor Burns, has my e-mail address – his all-caps subject lines are the price I pay for returning a questionnaire reassuring him that we disagree on virtually everything.
Apparently e-mail addresses harvested this way are passed on to the Conervatives’ central office / PR agency, which seems reasonable enough. But the tone of Cameron’s e-mail seems to suggest they think I’m actually supporting his Party:
Every leaflet you deliver, every pound you donate, every email you send, every friend you speak to - every extra little thing you do can make the decisive difference between winning and losing.
Good point! I’ll get leafleting for the Lib Dems right away.
Also, it doesn’t half exaggerate what’s essentially a non-issue:
After all the dithering, this unelected Prime Minister has been forced by the law of the land to call the election…
Whoa, I didn’t elect our current Prime Minister? That’d be because I don’t live in Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. And the people that live there did vote for him. Just because Tony Blair had a cult of personality that made it feel like we voted for him rather than for Labour candidates doesn’t necessarily make it something that his successor should try to repeat.
The e-mail ends with an inspiring:
So let’s get out there and win it for Britain.
Win it for Britain? Well, I’ll certainly try. But somehow I don’t think my win condition – an abolition of political parties, removing politicians in favour of civil servants executing the will of the nation as established by a radical technology-driven Direct Democracy (pause for breath) – is quite what you had in mind, Mr Web Cameron.
But vote for the Conservatives? Nah, I’ll pass. I’ll vote Tory on the day Maggie Thatcher turns up at my door with the eight gallons of semi-skimmed she owes me. (Note to Tory HQ, just in case Bournemouth West ever becomes that marginal: I really will. That will be sufficiently amusing to swing my vote.)
Last night, regarding the Liberal Democrats’ somewhat negative opinion of the Trident programme, I tweeted:
Goddamnit Lib Dems, I so nearly voted for you. :S http://is.gd/bd7B3
This, and the ensuing debate on Facebook, got me thinking that I should probably elaborate on my point of view.
I work in the defense industry, specifically the naval part of it, and my main interest in a potential refresh of the Trident system is that it means upgrading or replacing our existing fleet of Vanguard-class submarines, and that potentially means more work for me and for my company. That’s the only part that concerns me – I don’t really give a hoot whether they have nukes on them or not.
However, I do believe the nuclear deterrent is important, and if the Lib Dems really are angling to get rid of it, I’m not too impressed. It’s expensive, yes, but in my opinion it’s a regrettable necessity. Disarmament’s a nice goal, but I’m not sure we will or even should get there. If we lose the nuclear deterrent, we must then maintain a large enough conventional force to deter nations from developing nuclear weapons in the first place – and looking at Iran and North Korea today, I don’t think that’s going to work.
It also gives us a guarantee of being taken seriously on the world stage. These days we’re increasingly being seen as America’s lackey, and dismantling our own deterrent would inevitably come with an agreement for the US to ‘cover for us’, which wouldn’t help the situation there at all.
If we are, then, to keep our own nuclear arsenal, submarines are the logical choice simply because we have the infrastructure already. Even if the Vanguard fleet needs to be replaced under the Successor programme, we still have Faslane and Rosyth, we still have all the expertise in submarine building.
A land-based ballistic missile system is something we don’t have the expertise in yet, never having done it before, and there’ll be the additional problem of NIMBY – Not In My Back Yard. Missile silos don’t make great neighbours. And an air-delivered bomb is just not as good a tactical solution as the ballistic options.
So, certainly I think the Trident refresh should be included within the Strategic Defense Review – the Lib Dems are right to suggest that leaving out the country’s biggest defense programme kind of defeats the point. However, I can’t see a way forward that makes more sense than modernising or replacing the current Trident missiles and Vanguard fleet.
Saturday’s launch of the Apple iPad, and the ensuing fanboy circle-jerk, have thrown into the public eye yet another category of device to further muddy the gadget waters. It is by no means the first tablet, nor will it be the last by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s probably the device that’s most widely spread the idea that “hey, tablets exist”.
It’s another category on the increasingly analogue spectrum of communication and computation gadgets. As far as I can tell, we now have:
Dumbphones – phones that just call, text and have a web browser for light mobile site use. Most of Nokia and Sony-Ericsson’s output.
Low-end PMPs – dedicated media players, such as the iPod nano and classic.
High-end PMPs – media players with smartphone OSes, capable of everything a smartphone is except being a phone. iPod Touch, Archos and Cowon players.
Smartphones – phones with good browsers and support for user-installed applications. e.g. iPhones, Android & WinMo-powered phones.
MIDs – a largely unsuccessful category, pretty much large QWERTY smartphones without a phone radio.
Smartbooks – netbooks with less powerful and less battery-hungry processors and smartphone operating systems.
Tablets – handheld touchscreen devices with no keyboard, smartphone or laptop OSes.
Netbooks – laptops scaled down in size, weight and processing power.
Is that too many categories? Probably not, since they all seem to be successful (with the exception of the poor MIDs (Mobile Internet Devices)). But increasingly the job of the gadget-lover is to pick points on this spectrum at which to buy devices.
Too few, and something will have functionality you wish you had. Too many, and you waste money.
I have a smartphone, a netbook and a laptop, and the netbook hardly ever gets used – it’s not fast or comfortable enough for long browsing sessions, and for short ones my phone is always on and much more rarely runs out of battery power.
My first thought is naturally that if my netbook doesn’t get a lot of use, there’s no way a tablet would. But the more I think about it, the more I think one would have a place - if I gave up my smartphone. This is, of course, crazy talk. But I shall explain:
My phone is bad at everything.
Is the answer to replace smartphone and netbook with dumbphone and tablet? That would resolve the main smartphone problem, providing a good internet experience and a good phone experience by separating the devices. This creates one more problem: as most of what I do with my phone is using the internet, I’d have to carry the tablet around with me all the time. How stupid is that going to look? I guess if the iPad is as popular as Apple hopes, we’ll get ample opportunity to find out over the next year or so.
At a loss for other, more pleasant subjects to blog about, I will instead write about my nemesis, that being that has brought naught but pain to my life. I speak, of course, of Microsoft Sharepoint.
To upgrade one’s version of Windows – Vista to 7, say – is by and large a pretty painless experience for the home user. Office, likewise – there’s no dread that your Office 2003 files will be completely unopenable in Office 2007. So why is the poor sysadmin not afforded the same easy upgrade path?
In order to move an existing SharePoint Services 2 website to a new network with Microsoft Office Sharepoint Services 2007, one must:
- Learn more than is healthy about the workings of Sharepoint and IIS (2 days, d10 SAN)
- Back up the original site to disk (using
smigrate.exe, as the latter is broken) (5 hours, 13 GB)
- Install Windows Server, IIS, SQL Server and Sharepoint Services 2 on a new machine (1 hour)
- Configure said IIS, SQL and Sharepoint (1 hour)
- Restore the Sharepoint site from disk onto the new machine (>8 hours, >120 GB, d10 SAN, fails unrecoverably when out of disk space)
- Perform an in-place upgrade to Sharepoint Services 3 (Several hours, 40 GB, may fail unrecoverably)
- Back up this site to disk (5 hours, 15 GB)
- Configure MOSS 2007 on the destination server (2 hours, 24 Google searches, d10 SAN)
- Restore the disk backup to the MOSS 2007 server (5 hours, 40 GB, may fail right at the end if previous step performed incorrectly, d100 SAN if this occurs).
- Manually recreate permissions on every Sharepoint site since all the users are now part of a new domain (8 hours, d10 SAN)
- Perform a ritual to offer Great Cthulhu the souls of Microsoft’s Sharepoint development team (d30 SAN, remarkably quick by comparison)
I began this task on Tuesday afternoon as a mildly knowledgeable Sharepoint user with virtually no admin experience. By Thursday afternoon, I may have been our company’s most experienced Sharepoint-wrangler. On Friday morning, I started the above procedure. We are now on Step 5. 200 people are expecting to have Sharepoint access tomorrow. They have not a snowball’s chance in R’yleh.
This is my MP, Sir John Butterfill’s (Conservative, Bournemouth West), response to this e-mail.
Dear Mr Renton,
Thank you for your email about the Digital Economy Bill.
I note the various concerns you have expressed which are shared by the Conservative Party and can assure you that the Conservative spokesman for Culture, Media and Sport has taken them up with the Government. The Government have said that they will bring forward some changes for the Report Stage of the Bill and we shall be examining them closely to ensure that they address these concerns.
My Party and I are keen to move amendments that address the problem of people stripping out identifying information from a digital image. We want to clamp down on this and ensure that the Bill does not encourage such activities. We also want to see in the legislation specific requirements for a search for the rights holder and a system in place if that rights holder comes forward at a later date. In no way should this Bill actually harm content creators.
I am very hopeful that we can get this right, as sorting out the current system will unlock a whole host of content that can be used for the public good. I really believe that the BBC and British Library archives for instance will be much easier to access under these proposals.
This e-mail was sent to Sir John Butterfill MP (Conservative, Bournemouth West) on 17th March 2010. Read his reply here.
Dear Sir John Butterfill,
Since a number of websites have pushed the issue of late, I’m sure I’m not the only constituent writing to you about this, but nevertheless I am writing to you to register my concerns regarding the Digital Economy Bill.
The contents of the bill worry me on many levels, from the possibility of disconnecting innocent users from the Internet without proper investigation, to the technical challenges that will be faced by the ISPs, the cost of which will naturally be passed on to their customers.
But regardless of these issues, I am more alarmed at the possibility that the Government and Lord Mandelson may be attempting to force this bill through before Parliament is dissolved prior to the election, without proper scrutiny and debate by the House.
I would like to know your and your Party’s views on the content of the Digital Economy Bill, but moreover I would ask you to do all you can to ensure that this important and far-reaching bill gets the scrutiny it deserves rather than being forced through by a desperate Government.
Four years ago, what dominated my mind most was that I was running out of time. The end of my time at University loomed large in front of me. I didn’t have a job to go to, my final year project was dead in the water and my relationship was painfully long-distance, but those weren’t the most weighty issues. I was troubled far more by the fact that three months from then, I’d be leaving the city that defined my transition from childhood to adulthood, losing that constant contact with friends that defines University life.
And come June, the inevitable happened, and off we all went.
There’s a lot I don’t miss about that time – the pressure of coursework and exams, the phone calls every night until my head felt ready to burst, the having very little money – but there’s one thing I really, really do.
I miss the drama.
At the time, I was pretty conflicted about the giant morass of drama that got dropped on us in what was my third year – I hated it, but it was almost enjoyable in a weird ironic sort of way. And now I miss it.
I miss the burning feeling and the anguish of developing crushes on completely inappropriate people. I miss all the knowledge of other people’s lives that comes from being so regularly in contact with them. I miss trying to fix other people’s bad situations, I miss succeeding, and I miss failing. I miss having breakfast at KFC, though only two people know why. I miss baring the contents of our hearts until deep into the night. I miss the secrets and the gossip. I miss friends becoming lovers, and I miss friends becoming enemies. I miss finding the right things to say to the right people, and I miss failing at that too. I miss falling in love for the first time.
None of that is coming back, and perhaps I should be glad of that. After all, I just confessed to hating it. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, after all (or was it Absinthe?), so it’s probably for the best that it’s all safely confined to the past. But once every so often, just like now, I’ll reminisce about those times long ago.
In his essay “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”, Eric S. Raymond coins the phrase “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” – meaning that with enough testers and enough programmers, it is possible to diagnose and fix any software bug.
So why can’t my computer suspend and resume properly?
The concept of ‘suspend’ – or ‘sleep’, or ‘standby’ – mode, whereby the computer dumps its internal state to RAM then enters a low-power state with its processor and other hardware turned off, is not new. The ACPI standard has been kicking around for 14 years now, a very long time compared to the life cycle of an operating system. These days, with laptop use on the rise, it’s a very common thing for users to want to do. And yet resuming from suspend is still hit-and-miss.
Why do I find it more reliable in Ubuntu than openSUSE for the same base kernel? Why does GNOME fare better than KDE? Why does my WiFi sometimes not come back? Why, with Microsoft’s million- if not billion-dollar operating system budgets, with Intel and AMD and nVidia’s decades’ of driver experience, is suspend and resume still frequently an issue even on Windows?
Only Apple, with its closed hardware / software ecosystem, seems to have cracked it.
I’d hate to think of that as the only way to a bug-free existence – I’m very fond of the idea of an open ecosystem where I can run whatever software I want on whatever hardware I want. But I’m worried. Is the range of (IBM-compatible, ACPI-supporting) hardware out there just too diverse and too widely different in its support for suspend-and-resume? Is it just infeasible for software to perfectly implement it on all devices?
Has hardware created the one software bug that, for any reasonable number of eyeballs, isn’t shallow?
As @aefaradien notes, the web has a syntax problem. It’s this: A user wishes to post something complicated - text with links, formatting, even inline graphics. They go to a website and are faced with a text box and a flashing cursor. What do they type? What syntax will help them achieve their goal?
It depends entirely on which website they’re on and what powers it. With any luck the text box itself might have an area below explaining how to use it, but chances are, the user won’t read it. The knowledgable user has a whole bunch of questions:
- Can I use HTML? The internet is made of HTML (and cats). Once the post is submitted, it’ll be sent to everyone else’s browser as HTML, so can I just write in HTML anyway? But HTML is complex, am I restricted to a certain subset? Do I have to worry about breaking the website’s formatting? Is the site using some weird CSS that’s going to distort my post? Could I introduce security vulnerabilities?
- Is the syntax HTML-like? Am I using a phpBB-powered forum, or others that support its syntax? Something else HTML-like but not true HTML? To make something bold, do I write
- Is the syntax Wiki-like? And what even is Wiki-like? MediaWiki, which powers Wikipedia, probably has the most popular syntax out there, but each wiki is subtly different. If I CamelCase words, will they become links? If I surround a word with asterisks, will it become bold? What about apostrophes? Forward-slashes?
- Is it something much stranger? Could it be something like Markdown, which could interpret some unintentional meaning from my text because I don’t know its syntax?
To my mind, there’s no simple solution to this problem. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and developers of each web platform, blog or forum app have their own preferences. BBcode has some traction, but it’s so close to HTML – why not just use HTML? Wiki markup’s great for linking to internal wiki pages, not so great for anything else. And Markdown and its cohort of technically superior solutions just don’t have any traction in the real (non-geek) world.
I think if this problem were to ever be solved – and I must say I don’t think it’s likely – we have no option but to pick the lowest common denominator, because nothing else will ever have enough traction.
And here’s where I make myself unpopular: the common denominator is HTML. But HTML used with some intelligence:
- Auto-link URLs, but deal with it if users want to use
<a>tags. Nothing’s more annoying than having to copy-paste a URL into your location bar because it’s not actually a hyperlink. Also, it breaks the web.
- Deal gracefully with special characters. If a user doesn’t know HTML, they should be penalised as little as possible for using triangular brackets in their text.
- Limit HTML as little as possible. Sure, don’t allow
<SCRIPT>, but if there’s no way a user’s HTML could be harmful (including to layout and design), let them use it.
- Don’t use weird CSS. If you don’t want users to use
<h3>is 72px high, change your CSS. You design a website for its users, and that includes giving them what they expect when they use their own HTML in their posts.
And that’s that. By auto-linking URLs and gracefully dealing with triangular brackets, we’re giving users that don’t know the syntax what they expect. For users that know HTML, we’re not making them learn some other new syntax that offers a slight improvement. And for users that want to learn the syntax so that they can do more complex things, they’ll be learning HTML, and that opens up far more of the internet to them than knowing BBcode or Markdown syntax.
Thoughts, as always, appreciated!