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So, the Labour Party has launched its so-called Big Conversation. (As you'd expect, the website is pretty crummy.) It's not really obvious what this thing is about, since, as everyone has pointed out, Blair and colleagues have no intention of changing their policies. He doesn't, after all, have a reverse gear.
What's surprised me most about this is the number of people who have been fooled into describing it as being something to do with the government. A random selection from Google News:
Students say the government's new public consultation exercise, the ``Big Conversation'', is a perfect opportunity to reverse its top-up fees plan.
Liam Fox MP (Conservative co-chairman, in case you've forgotten):
Speaking in response to the Government's launch of the Big Conversation, Co-chairman of the Conservative Party, Dr Liam Fox MP, said:
``... This is another example of the Government trying to detract attention from their failures....''
The culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, was being interviewed about the government's ``Big Conversation'' initiative ...
...the government's forthcoming ``big conversation'' ...
Leader of the House Peter Hain today hailed the Government's `big conversation' campaign as the biggest consultation ``in living memory''....
The `Big Conversation' is nothing to do with the government. It's a Labour Party gimmick alone. (A real government consultation would be more subtly futile.)
Blair himself does his best to confuse the issue, of course, but deeply partisan nature of the survey and other stuff on the Big Conversation site does, at least, make things pretty clear in a way that the media and Labour's political opponents have somehow failed to.
I hope that nobody wastes too much time over it -- having written the above, I feel like I certainly have.
On Sunday we went for a walk along the Regent's Canal in East London. This canal joins the Limehouse Basin -- itself connected by a lock to the tidal Thames -- to the Grand Union Canal at Paddington. Originally the plan was to walk to Paddington via one of Islington's trendy eateries, but a combination of rain and poor restaurant service put paid to that idea. There's actually little of interest to say about this, but here are some more photos in lieu of actual text.
To get to Limehouse, one has to take the Docklands Light Railway. Apart from the conversations of other passengers, little was memorable about this. The only conversations I can remember: (a) the two ladies who, sitting at the front of the train, pondered at length the absence of a driver before naturally concluding that he must be driving the train from the back, at which point they walked to the other end, where they were presumably again disappointed; and (b) the two blokes sitting next to me, clutching a copy of a pamphlet entitled
BUSINESS STARTUP 2003
incorporating Franchise Village
who, despite endless signs at stations explaining how to get to `Excel' (``London's Exhibition Centre'', which it presumably is if you exclude, oh, I don't know, Olympia and countless other venues) were completely unsure of how to get there. So obviously that made me optimistic about our country's economic prospects. Anyway, the DLR is basically boring, so instead here's a picture of the Monument (which commemorates the 1666 Great Fire of London):
I didn't know, or had forgotten about, the anti-Catholic inscription removed from the end of the text at its base, after gracing London for 150 years. (See, e.g., the end of this Wikipedia article describing the fire.)
At Limehouse there is an imposing church by Hawksmoor:
... but being Sunday, this wasn't an appropriate day to actually visit the church. Pressing swiftly on, it rapidly became clear that it was absolutely pissing with rain:
... which sucked pretty badly. Other things that would suck pretty badly include having a go on this slide, which was placed inexplicably at the side of the canal:
-- ``and the next day, everybody sued everybody else''.
No urban landscape would be complete without graffiti of one sort or another and there is a particularly large-scale effort in Dalston, apparently due to Banksy (particularly crap web site, but worth reading through despite the DHTML, pictures-of-text and other designer droppings; see also this more amusing article from BBC news):
Eventually one reaches a pub and comparative dryness, though sadly in this case it was the York in Upper Street, which had unaccountably run out of all forms of beer that one would want to drink.
There is some suggestion that this had something to do with a certain early-morning sporting event the previous day. The pub had also run out of food, or at least staff to prepare it, which rather sucked. That said, it didn't suck anywhere near as much as `Bar Opal', which I had the misfortune to visit on Saturday, and is without doubt the worst bar I have been in in many months.
Walking plans rather disintegrated at that stage. Probably a good thing, given the weather. Anyway, on the return journey I felt duty-bound to take a photograph of the AMT Coffee stand on King's Cross. AMT Coffee apparently claim that photographing their premises is prohibited, so naturally I urge all members of the public to take pictures of them whenever convenient.
(That said, the AMT people didn't object to me photographing their establishment.)
The NTK Effect, in glorious GNUPLOT:
Not a lot to say, but I thought I'd share this picture with the world:
(The plaque is on the underside of a bridge which carries the A34 Newbury Bypass over the Kennet and Avon Canal. Note also the word `destroyed' at the bottom, which has been mostly expunged. We should probably find this exciting in some kind of postmodern way. And... do we live in a concrete society?)
Far be it from me to just propagate links (again), but two computer games written by people I know: (I don't play computer games much, but both of these are fun)
(Thinks: should write another computer game. I don't think I even own a computer which will run this one any more.)
Lots of things to say about the Political Survey, which seems to have taken off a bit. But that will have to wait for later.
Others may be interested in these two plots of takeup of my Political Survey:
(Note offset vertical axis on the second of those.)
David Blunkett on Today this morning: (emphasis mine)
John Humphrys: And I take it that what you're saying is that the government can move forward towards a solution that is the one you'd like to see, but you're not pretending the fight is over, are you?
David Blunkett: Well, I'm not into a fight. I mean, this... this isn't something I'm gaining political points for at this moment in time. I'm trying to address the issue of modernising, preparing Britain for the rest of this century and what is happening in Europe and North America in terms of the introduction -- not of cards, because the card is a means to an end -- but of the biometric identifiers that make the prevention of the theft of our identity and multiple identities impossible-- not, not nearly impossible but impossible; and it is the database, it is the biometric identifiers, that is the... that is one of the two crucial changes to the debate of the past. The second is the enormous world change, world movement of people and organised crime and terrorism that is materially different to ten years ago.
Charitably, we can assume that Blunkett meant that biometrics will make identity theft impossible (and not just nearly impossible), not `the prevention of [identity theft]', as he actually said. There is only one problem with this.
It is not true.
Never in the history of human endeavour has an unforgeable document been produced. Never in the history of IT has there been produced a perfectly secure database. Current biometric technologies are easy to spoof, with photographs of other people's irises, bits of cellophane with their fingerprints on, and any number of trivial attacks. More sophisticated technology might help a bit, but whatever technology is chosen for ID cards, they will remain in circulation for years. Does Blunkett seriously believe that the Home Office will, in its choice of technology, be able to outwit a decade or more's worth of future criminals?
Blunkett obviously doesn't have any expertise in this field -- which is fine, of course; our governmental system is supposed to promote generalists and give them expert advice to allow them to choose between policies which they may not be qualified to understand on their own. But who is feeding him this crap about biometrics? Where has he acquired this fantasy about unforgeable cards, unspoofable biometrics, and `impossible' identity theft? Why does he think they will prevent identity theft, when in fact they're likely to make it easier, and more damaging? What is going on?
(I wish someone would volunteer to do a good anti-ID-cards leaflet, per previous suggestion.)
There has been some confusion over my statements about Anne Campbell and university tuition fees in a previous piece. I was sloppy with my comments and therefore I shall correct them now.
They [new students] may not know the history of Anne's promise to vote against top-up fees prior to the 1997 election -- a promise which she quickly forgot once the election was won, though oddly one which recurs in her propaganda now the deed is done -- and may not realise that her seat is by no means safe.
I have to hand a letter sent by Anne to every student in Cambridge in 1997. Here is a scan of the letter:
(This copy was kept by a more organised friend. Their identity has been obscured on this scan.)
For our purposes the key claim in this letter is,
Labour will not allow universities to introduce tuition fees. Access to higher education must be based on ability to achieve, not on ability to pay.
Fees at universities in the UK are regulated by the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998, which gives the Secretary of State for Education the power to, (26 subsection 4)
require the governing body of any such institution [one which is funded by the Higher Education Funding Councils for England or Wales, or the Teacher Training Agency; that is, a university] to secure that, in respect of the relevant academic year, the fees payable to the institution by any prescribed class of persons in connection with their attending courses of any prescribed description are equal to the prescribed amount.
The Act therefore gives the Secretary of State power to impose fees and regulate their amount. It was used by David Blunkett to impose an annual fee of £1,050 in 1998.
Anne Campbell did not vote against the Teaching and Higher Education Bill when it came before Parliament. (In fact, as you can see from The Public Whip, she was touchingly loyal to the Dear Leader during the 1997--2001 Parliament as a whole.)
Labour has centralised control over fees, so that universities cannot introduce fees of their own choice. (This is what the `top-up fees' controversy is about.)
On this basis, Anne was correct, in a very pedantic sense, to state that `Labour will not allow universities to introduce tuition fees'. Universities were not allowed to introduce tuition fees; instead, the government did it for them.
Labour has introduced a tuition fee.
You can either view this as a promise that Anne was in no position to make; or as a promise which her party has broken. In either case you would be forgiven for any surprise you might feel on learning that she did not vote against the measure when it came before the Commons.
(If you would like a higher-quality copy of the scan of Anne's letter, please email me.)
Excerpt from Tony Blair's Mansion House speech today: (emphasis mine)
What therefore is happening in Iraq? [Cut list of various types of progress, in which Blair repeated his `progress of a sorts' joke about Iraq's 170 new newspapers] Access to the internet is no longer forbidden.
Why would he bother with such a transparent lie? As those who read Salam Pax's web log before the late military unpleasantness will remember, internet access was available -- though censored and monitored -- in Iraq, and had been since 2002. (Naturally, the Americans bombed the ISP.)
Or does nobody in Downing Street bother to fact-check Blair's speeches before he delivers them?
The lunar eclipse was quite pretty, but the take-home message from it is that I need a better camera:
In other news: my latest silly web site. (This is a thing which collects information about planning applications in Cambridge, and allows to search for any which are about to blight your neighbourhood. Shortly I'll add facility to be emailed an alert when a new proposal appears near you.)
Those of you who haven't already should check out mySociety, the Tom Steinberg et al. project to collect ideas for socially useful IT services that won't get built by government or industry.
I have (finally) written the results script for the political survey, so you can now see the results from your answers. Many apologies for the delay in doing this!
I have various ideas for enhancements. One that's fairly easy to do: given the sudden popularity of A Big List Of Web Log Authors' Answers To `The Political Compass', it might be worth allowing respondents to associate a URL with their answers, then show them others in their `political neighbourhood'. (Equally, it might be more socially useful to show them people who are not in their political neighbourhood. Whatever.)
So, Michael Howard has become leader of the Conservative Party, interest rates have gone up by 0.25 points, and the Cabinet has voted in favour of an ID card scheme, (but to be brought in so slowly that maybe nobody will notice; frighteningly enough, this might actually work...).
We haven't had this much bad news in one day in, oh, weeks.
Anyway, an idea which maybe someone wants to kick around:
Somebody should write a simple one-page leaflet about ID cards which explains,
(It might also want to mention
-- but these are subsidiary points.)
The leaflet should be written in the clearest possible language and for a general audience -- that is, it should not assume any knowledge of security engineering or the detailed issues -- and it should use a populist, Daily-Mail-ist tone (e.g. in the language used about `bogus' asylum seekers). It should probably take the position that ID cards are simply not useful, rather than taking any position on civil liberties, which can be conveyed through the design of the leaflet.
It must be sufficiently clear and interesting that it can spread `virally' even among those who would not have thought about the issue before, and persuasive to those who believe the spin about ID cards that is coming out of the government. It should carry URLs of organisations campaigning against ID cards, and also a suggestion that people use faxyourmp.com to contact their Members of Parliament.
It should be illustrated with pictures of, for instance, machine-gun toting French police, lines of people at security checkpoints at airports, CCTV cameras, and other images of the machinery of totalitarianism, but these photos should be reasonably subtle in their message.
Note that because of the intended Daily-Mail-esque tone of the piece, pictures of foreign people doing stupid and offensive things are probably a Good Thing, sadly. However, pictures of second-world-war era German soldiers and other Nazi types would probably make the leaflet look alarmist; pictures of checkpoints in Palestine manned by the IDF will probably convey the wrong message. Pictures of South Africans burning their passes, the Berlin Wall, etc., are probably OK, though.
The thing should be presented as an A4 or A5 PDF file which can be printed anywhere and will survive reproduction on a photocopier, for people to post up in their places of work and wherever else may be appropriate.
-- I don't have time to do this. Hopefully someone else does...?
This piece in Wired about an electronic voting system developed in Australia has attracted a lot of favourable comment, on the basis that this is one of the first such systems whose code is (a) available and (b) has been independently, publicly audited.
This is slightly troubling. Having publicly available, independently-audited source code is necessary but not sufficient, as a mathematician might say. To be usable, electronic voting systems must be transparently correct in the way that our current pencil-and-paper system is.
At present, when you vote, you know who you've voted for -- you know in whose box you wrote your `X' -- that your ballot paper has been put in a ballot box with all the others (in some countries, ballot boxes are made of clear perspex, adding literal to metaphorical transparency), and the observers at the count can ensure that all the votes in the ballot boxes are counted.
The same level of transparency, of obvious correctness, is impossible with an all-electronic system. Discussing digital signatures in his book Secrets and Lies, Bruce Schneier writes,
Can [a digital signature be trusted]? It doesn't depend on the mathematics; it depends on the circumstances.
The fundamental problem is that you have no idea what the computer is actually doing when you tell it to do something. When you tell the computer to save a document, or encrypt a file, or calculate the sum of a column of numbers, you really have no assurance that the computer did it correctly, or even at all. You're making a leap of faith. Just as it is hard to catch a thieving employee, it's hard to catch a malicious computer program. Actually, it's worse. Think of it as a malicious employee who works alone, with no one watching. All of the monitoring equipment you might install to catch the employee -- hidden cameras, hidden microphones -- are controlled by the malicious employee. All you can do is look at what inputs the employee accepts and what outputs he produces. And even then you can't be sure.
The situation with electronic voting is exactly analogous. You go to the polling booth, and you tell the computer (`voting machine') your vote. Inside the computer anything could happen, and if there's no way for its results to be independently verified and the code inside has been tampered with, you're screwed. No amount of auditing can fix this, because the individual voter obviously cannot audit the software inside the polling booth on election day -- even if she had the time and skill.
The solution to this problem is for the voting machine to produce a `voter-verifiable receipt': a piece of paper which says how you voted, and is stored and can be audited later to check the results of the machine count.
Such a voter-verifiable slip is completely analogous to a ballot paper. It is treated in the same way, and, if the results of the computer count are in doubt, it serves the same function as a ballot paper. The new Australian system lacks this feature: (emphasis mine)
The machine does not include a voter-verifiable receipt, something critics of U.S. systems want added to machines and voting machine makers have resisted.
A voter-verifiable receipt is a printout from the machine, allowing the voter to check the vote before depositing the receipt into a secure ballot box at the polling station. It can be used as a paper audit trail in case of a recount.
Green [the electoral commissioner] said the commission rejected the printout feature to keep expenses down. The system cost $125,000 to develop and implement. The printouts would have increased that cost significantly, primarily to pay for personnel to manage and secure the receipts and make sure voters didn't walk off with them.
This makes no sense. The electronic system is designed to replace a paper system. The electoral authority must already be equipped to handle ballot papers; voter-verifiable receipts should be treated the same way.
Why voters would `walk off with' the receipts is unclear. Presumably they didn't `walk off with' their ballot papers in conventional elections, on the basis that they wanted their votes to be recorded. Why should the new system be any different?
Anyway, the take home message here is that electronic voting is a convenience measure only. It cannot replace paper-based systems; it can only be used to save time when counting votes. Any system which purports completely to replace a paper system is not safe and should be rejected.
To comment on local political propaganda is pretty futile, but I was much amused by this figure from Anne Campbell Reports, the Labour Party's local freesheet, showing how Anne's electoral majority has changed over time:
Ignore for the moment the tragic graphic design and offensive chartjunk for which, no doubt, Microsoft Excel is to blame. Concentrate instead on something which seems, unaccountably, to be missing from this plot. Something quite famous. Something that you might remember. Something that happened in 1997.
Let's see what a more honest version of the plot would look like:
-- spot the difference?
(Obviously presenting the second of the above graphs -- showing support plummeting -- doesn't give the right spin for Labour election literature. Presumably the point here is that this edition of Anne Campbell Reports is the first that will be seen by this year's student intake. They may not know the history of Anne's promise to vote against top-up fees prior to the 1997 election -- a promise which she quickly forgot once the election was won, though oddly one which recurs in her propaganda now the deed is done -- and may not realise that her seat is by no means safe. It's just possible -- this is where somebody who cared more would insert some kind of rant about A-levels -- that the this year's new undergraduates aren't aware that there was an election in 1997, but I'd guess that's pretty unlikely. All told, this is a pretty clueless piece of propaganda.)
Of course, propagating charts like Anne's is just pandering to those who want us to believe that a British election is a process with only one degree of freedom. Here is a plot which shows things properly:
-- the point here being that we can regard the fractions of the vote for Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates as summing to 1 (approximately) so two axes show exactly as much information as is available. It would be useful to show turnout too, but a three-dimensional version of the diagram would be rather harder to draw and more difficult to understand.
(All figures from Colin Rosenstiel's Cambridge City Election Results page.)
A long list of bad news about Michael Howard is circulating. The list is in part dubious; as Anthony points out, one version which accuses him of `spiritual Nazism' is quite bonkers -- and pretty offensive, given that Howard is a practising Jew. (Update: see these comments by Chris Brooke on the `spiritual Nazism' claim.)
Anyway, to bolster my reputation for cheerfulness and optimism, here I present a shorter list with a different spin:
OK, so I was scraping the bottom of the barrel at the end there.
A more serious point is that, although Howard's reputation is terrible -- reading the `bad news' list linked above reminded me that, at least in its early stages, the present government actually was a lot better than the last -- we should accept that people, even senior politicians, can do remarkable about-turns when out of office. Blair converted the Labour party from socialism and pacifism to Thatcherism and belligerence in a few short years; since 1997, Portillo has matured from invoking the SAS in his ghastly 1995 conference speech to becoming a television single parent on the Conservative Party's rapidly dwindling `inoffensive' wing.
In his speech announcing his candidacy, Michael Howard made all the right noises about inclusivity (mixed in, of course, with a noises about cutting taxes) and an appeal to the young which comes as a bit of a surprise from the architect of the 1994 Criminal Justice Act. Since advertising his record in the last government isn't likely to make people vote for him, Howard will, presuambly, have to drift left just like Portillo.
We can but hope.
(Another thought. We're repeatedly reminded that Michael Howard is the son of immigrants -- his mother was a refugee from Hitler -- and is or should therefore be a poster child for Conservative tolerance and multiculturalism. Well, maybe. But that's the same sort of racism which isn't supposed to enter the debate. ``Howard can't be a racist [or anti-immigrant, or whatever euphemism you want to use],'' the argument apparently runs, ``because he's a foreigner.'' Please.)
This is all done with wwwitter.
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