Blog Archive — Page 26

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  • An Experiment in Dynamic Democracy

    Dynamic Democracy

    I’ve been an advocate of opening up our democracy and involving the public in government decision-making for some time, without doing anything particularly concrete about it besides placing my vote. The Digital Economy Bill fiasco showed us that, really, we’re not involved with the day-to-day workings of government at all, and born of that is this experiment.

    I’d like to know what we, the people, think our government should be talking about. I’d like us ordinary people to submit our ideas, vote on other people’s ideas, and come up with some idea of what we really care about. And so here we are:

    Dynamic Democracy

    This is all very experimental at the moment – please sign up, post ideas, vote on other people’s ideas, and if it proves popular I’ll take it on as a permanent project. Let’s do this!

  • St George is Cross

    Tomorrow is St George’s Day, a day of… frankly nothing, in honour of England’s dubious patron saint. Whereas St Andrew’s Day is at least a holiday for the Scots, and the Irish St Patrick’s Day has been exported all over the world as a celebration of stout and silly hats, we’ve kept ours to ourselves, down-played it, almost as if we’re embarrassed by it.

    I can see why, though – celebrating English national identity has a stigma attached to it that few others have.

    I can’t say that I love my country. The food’s tolerable, the weather’s pretty shite, I live here and I pay taxes here and I vote here. I care about its future. But that’s as far as it goes; I can’t say I’m proud of it. To shamelessly wheel out a quote by someone far more eloquent than I:

    “Patriotism is the belief your country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it.” – George Bernard Shaw

    Regardless of my own lack of patriotism and hence how little meaning the St George’s Cross has to me, I feel that it’s drifting in its symbolism toward unpleasantness. It’s starting to mean “football hooligan”, even “skinhead” and “racist”. It seems like it’s becoming something that we ought to be ashamed of.

    Do people of foreign countries see the English flag that way, or is it a uniquely English idea of what our own flag represents? Or, for that matter, am I alone in my negative stereotyping and ought I to correct it immediately?

  • The World's Best Heat-Sink

    The World's Best Heat-Sink

    From the team that brought you AutoMouse comes a revolution in heat-sink technology that you can recreate in your own home!

    You will need:

    • A block of metal with holes in (burring optional but entirely reccommended)
    • About 3 gallons of thermal paste
    • Rubber bands

    Simply affix to your hot components as shown in the figure, and pretend you’re doing Proper Engineering!

  • From Beneath the Ash Cloud's Shadow

    The morning began with a blaze of contrails across the sky, traces of the early flights to far-off lands. With them came a sense that pent-up tension is being slowly released into the atmosphere, this time the tension of humanity and holidays and business, rather than that of rock and magma squeezed upwards by tectonic plates.

    Was the flight ban necessary? Maybe. Will the combined forces of politics and profits drag out the inevitable inquiry more than it ought to be? Very likely. And with more than 150,000 Britons estimated to still be waiting for a flight back home, it will take a Herculean effort by governments and airlines to get this mess sorted out.

    Chantelle is right to bemoan how quickly our polluting ways resumed – here’s the infographic of the moment – but could it have gone any other way? For all the poets’ visions of a future free of air travel, it’s not something we’re ever going to see. Rather, I think it’s a great testament to how well our species is doing that one of nature’s most destructive forces, that in ancient times could have decimated populations and been regarded in fear as the wrath of the gods, is to us a minor inconvenience to fill the news for a few days before being forgotten amidst a cloud of condensing water vapour and normal service resumed.

    EDIT: Did I just unwittingly name _three Final Fantasy characters in the title of this post? Goddamnit, Squeenix._

  • Why is Che Guevara Cool?

    Here’s a question for the interwebs that the combined mental might of our car-pool couldn’t answer this afternoon: Why the heck is Che Guevara cool?

    I get why he’s cool now – his silhouetted face has become a cultural icon, worn on t-shirts of people who don’t even know who he was, and that recognisability creates ‘cool’ just as brand names do.

    But why did it happen in the first place? Who first created that image and sold it, made it popular? It’s pretty much the equivalent of college kids 50 years from now wearing Osama bin Laden t-shirts, and from this decade’s point of view that seems a pretty strange idea.

    Why Guevara specifically? Are Lenin and Trotsky too old, is Franco too right-wing, is Pol Pot too controversial? Why does he get his crimes erased from the public consciousness so much more easily than other revolutionary leaders?

  • Sizing in Crisis!

    It’s always confused me a little how, in most take-away pizza joints, the smallest size is ‘Medium’. Surely, by definition, it is not? Maybe it’s some sort of cultural adversity to buying a ‘small’ anything, but then surely they would call the smallest one ‘small’ to coerce people into buying larger and more expensive pizzas?

    Anyway, the most impressive taking of the biscuit belongs to Charmin toilet paper – now called Cushelle, presumably as a stealth marketing effort once chavs start naming their daughters after it. The available pack sizes are XL and XXL. Nary a Large in sight. But why, you ask? The reason is obvious, if you merely horrifically misapply mathematics.

    My first assumption is that their pack sizes increase exponentially, as with volume of pizza. So if XXL is 12 rolls, and XL is 8 rolls, L would be… 5.333 – clearly that’s not the way it works.

    So we must assume an arithmetic progression, giving that the missing Large size would be 4 rolls, the Medium 0 rolls, and the Small –4 rolls.

    Suddenly, it all starts to make sense. There is no Small size of Charmin toilet paper packs simply because they can’t afford to pay their staff to come to your house and steal four rolls of toilet paper every time you buy a Small pack.

    The strange thing about all of this is that I’m sober. Perhaps it’s time to rectify this anomaly?

  • Dating the Techno-Thriller

    There’s little greater testament to the incredible pace of technological progress than the rate at which books set in the present day become dated.

    Science Fiction, stories set in the far-flung future of interstellar colonisation, faster-than-light travel and so on, never seem to date unless they dare set themselves a date not far enough away – the events of “2001” clearly haven’t happened, but the technology is still somewhere distant on the roadmap of human achievement. We still feel like we’re going to get there someday.

    Near-future dystopias, cyberpunk, they date much more easily. Maybe, back in the Eighties, it did seem like the future was in virtual reality, cyberspace as an immersive 3D world of glittering corporate data-spires, jacked straight into your central nervous system. But thirty years on, we have the internet and we watched VR be born and die. We know that world is not quite where we ended up.

    But the present-day equivalent stories – I’m told these are “techno-thrillers”, despite my initial impression that that was some kind of Michael Jackson bastardisation – seem to date immeasurably quickly.

    I’m currently reading “Spook Country” by William Gibson. It was written less than three years ago, and heavily involves the technology that was contemporary then. And by god, it feels old now. The first chapter refers to a PowerBook, and immediately the point in history the book occupies is precisely dated. There are clamshell phones with separate GPS receivers wired in; this book hit the shelves scarcely a few months before the iPhone came out, and three years later damn near everyone’s toting a smartphone with a GPS. Overlaying virtual objects on real space is edgy in their world, it’s new, it’s art. In our world, we got bored of Layar months ago. Cell-tower triangulation is advanced tech there. In 2010, I don’t know of a location-aware phone that can’t do that.

    So unrelenting is the pace of technological change that what was cutting-edge three years ago is now jarringly antiquated.


  • Proxies and the Law

    In light of the passing of the Digital Economy Bill, and Ben Bradshaw’s intent to push for government power to force ISPs to block sites that are “likely” to be used for copyright infringement, the government could in a few months’ time demand that ISPs block access to the likes of Wikileaks, The Pirate Bay and Rapidshare, all sites that have perfectly legal uses. And I’m sure it can’t be long before the government and the IWF together have a go at 4chan.

    A few questions for any internet lawyer-types out there:

    1. Is it legal for a UK citizen to set up and maintain a private, secure proxy server in another country?

    2. If ISPs in the UK are instructed to block a site, is it legal or illegal for a UK citizen to access that site via an overseas proxy?

    3. If it is illegal, would the fact that the Briton runs and uses an overseas proxy ‘reasonable cause’ for them to be investigated in any way?

    4. Would the server admin be legally obliged to keep logs for the proxy server in case such an investigation took place? (And does this depend on UK law or the law of the country where the server is located?)

    5. Can a court or police warrant require the server admin to disclose passwords, encryption keys or logs?

    For reference, I’m merely interested in the answers to these questions – I’m not necessarily considering doing this, particularly not if it does turn out to be illegal.

  • Welcome to the New Digital Economy

    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.

    We failed.

    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.

  • Let's Win it for Britain?

    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.)