Blog Archive — Page 24

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.

  • Cherry Blossom and Reminiscence

    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.

  • Raoul Moat and the Facebook of Lulz

    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?

  • The Technology of Westminster Hubble

    For anyone interested (yes this is mostly for you, @HolyHaddock), Westminster Hubble is written in a combination of PHP and JavaScript, with a MySQL database as its backend.

    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…

  • Announcing: Westminster Hubble!

    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.

    Westminster Hubble Logo

    A joint venture between myself and Chris Cox, Westminster Hubble helps you stay in touch with your representatives in Parliament.

    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!

  • The Open Government we Campaigned For?

    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’.

  • Farewell, Dynamic Democracy

    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 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.

  • This is your Brain on Electrodes

    Two interesting articles surfaced on the internet today that have resulted in rampant frothing from my location. The first, linked by @CampaignReboot, is this: “A Pacemaker for your Brain”.

    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.

  • Revenge of the Mosquito

    The “Mosquito” anti-loitering system apparently still exists (shows how much I visit shopping centres), and somehow is still up for discussion in the House of Commons. I don’t believe I’ve publicly vented my spleen on this subject before, so here goes.

    I’ve said before that society isn’t broken, but if you’re looking for an example of how it sometimes gets pretty close, you need look no further than the Mosquito. For the unaware, it’s a device designed to be installed in shopping centres and malls that emits a high-pitched whine supposedly only audible to children. It’s proven quite popular in recent years due to a rise in youth crime, or a rise in middle-class fears of kids in hoodies – one of the two.

    Let me just summarise that for effect: We have created technology specifically to drive away our own children.

    And it’s hardly some device that seeks out kids with ill intentions – its irritating whine is audible to anyone with good hearing. My son is two years old and has caused no public nuisance bar occasional incontinence. He can hear your sodding Mosquito. I am 25 years old, with a job and a family and a mortgage and an interest in politics. I am everything you want the ‘hoodies’ to become, and I can hear your sodding mosquito.

    You’re trying to scare off our children, those same people that in twenty years time will be running your country and paying for your pension. And you don’t even have enough respect to treat them like human beings capable of communication – you drive them out of public spaces with noisemakers like you drive cats off of your lawn.

    Sure, youth crime might be on the rise – I don’t have the figures, so maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. And I don’t claim to have the solution to that. But whatever that solution is, it does not involve the Mosquito.

    Shopping centres are not your garden, kids are not animals, and hanging around in a public area is not the same as shitting on your lawn.

    Aaand we’re done.

  • Preying on the Mantis

    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 (picture from Wikimedia)

    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.)

  • Game Recommendations Please!

    A job for bored lazywebbers:

    What with Saudi Arabia recently having declared software piracy to be a criminal offence punished by imprisonment, there are certain kinds of DS cartridges that I would be unwilling to take into the country! I will however be taking my DS, my 2nd gen iPod Touch, and my HTC Magic (running Android).

    Are there any games for those platforms that offer a shedload of play time per £ – ideally RPGs, strategy games, or the combination thereof?

    I have already played to death: TWEWY, Fire Emblem, Advance Wars and Heroes of Mana on the DS, Plants vs Zombies and Angry Birds on the iTouch, and every damn tower defence game on Android.

    And no, I still don’t have enough spare cash to buy a PSP!

    All suggestions appreciated! :D

    tl;dr: Internet, please recommend time-sink games.