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Friday, 8 May 2015

2 things to keep in perspective post election

The electoral system for MPs is not the biggest affront to democracy in the UK

Whilst retaining first past the post (FPTP) voting seems pretty ridiculous, we do at least get a chance to elect our MPs - which isn't true for the Lords, or the head of state.

Any party wanting to include an electoral reform agenda in their next manifesto should perhaps focus first and foremost on bringing democracy to the Lords before attempting to fix a broken electoral system for the Commons.

Whilst FPTP is probably, on paper at least, the worst system imaginable; the concept of having a single elected representative for each constituency is not as balmy as it might seem to Proportional Representation (PR) zealots.

It certainly offers the strongest level of personal accountability to the electorate, which is something I feel is lost in systems with multi-candidate proportional representation.

It is also something our whole political process has evolved to cope with.

Yes it's bonkers that the DUP get 8 seats for 184,200 votes whilst the Lib Dems get 8 for 2.4 million and UKIP get 1 for their 3.8 million.

But seats in Parliament is only one route to getting an agenda noticed. In fact, adversarial models like the UK political system often make it harder for an opposition MP to get legislation onto the government agenda than a non-governmental body like a campaign group or think tank.

The British Parliamentary system has evolved to cope with the polarisation.

Personally I support Alternative Vote (AV) as a step forward that will offer smaller parties a better chance than the current system which dissuades voters from supporting minnows because a vote for anyone who doesn't stand a chance of winning is, effectively, wasted.

AV at least returns a more accurate representation of views from within a constituency that isn't polluted by tactical voting - voting based on who you least want to get elected.

AV provides some improvement without risking upsetting a Parliamentary system that has provided reasonably stable governments for the UK through wars and other challenging times.

David Cameron's outright majority of 12 is too thin to be bold, and that has to be a good thing

The outpouring of woe and grief on Twitter could easily make the most ardent optimist upend their half-full glass and give up on life.

Whatever your political view the result isn't good enough. Moderate Tories fear their agenda will be held to ransom by unruly backbenchers, after all it takes just a handful of rebels to undo a government majority.

The left is concerned that the Conservatives minus the Lib Dems will embark on an austerity agenda causing untold lasting damage to the country. Scottish Nationalists fear their 56 seats will mean nothing as the options open to those MPs pretty much stop at making noise. 

Liberals fear an end to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and a swift return to the stalled surveillance agenda of previous Labour and Conservative governments. And UKIPpers are just disillusioned with the whole stitch-up.

Personally I see things very differently. Any bold move, such as leaving the ECHR, can be blocked by less than a dozen concerned Tories. And yes, I believe the numbers just aren't there for scrapping the Human Rights Act and leaving the ECHR.

Austerity will be tougher than Labour supporters want, but that's against a backdrop of 36.9% of the electorate supporting the Conservative agenda, versus 30.4 supporting Labour. The people voted for it, so who am I to argue.

Pretty much every fear I've seen voiced on Twitter today seems overblown. Will Theresa May's mass internet surveillance plans return? Well it is true that both Labour and the Conservatives have historically been aligned in the need for more surveillance powers. But to say the Lib Dems alone blocked this in the last parliament is naive.

Labour could have supported the plans then, they didn't; so why would they now? Especially as Labour wakes up to the fact it needs to listen to voters to get back into power just as fears over mass surveillance starts to become a more mainstream concern.

With a wafer-thin majority any controversial bill will in all likelihood suffer defeat. In fact the most rational fear I've seen today is that the next government will be paralysed, unable to gain support in the Commons for the agenda it would like to adopt.

This itself can't be good for the UK, can it?

Well, looking at the raft of half-baked legislation enacted in the last quarter of a century I am starting to think that a period of paralysis where only the most pressing bills get passed can't actually be a bad thing for the country right now.

Why the opinion pollsters got it wrong

In the run-up to the 2015 UK election there must have been in the order of 100 opinion polls. Few if any put the gap in the share of the popular vote at over 6%. Nearly all relied mostly on data acquired from sampling voters' opinion over the telephone or the internet.

This morning we know that nearly all national opinion polls conducted recently were way off the mark.

And whilst many will put the discrepancy down to voters lying (no-one admits to voting Tory, right?!) or changing their minds at the last minute (it's a lovely sunny spring day, there's nothing much wrong with the current government!), I put the blame firmly on the pollsters for perpetuating a myth that a hastily polled sample of a thousand or so voters can be corrected to be truly reflective of national opinion.

Today's relentless drive for "content" - online publications dragging out news where there is none, competing for website visitor numbers from a readership with the combined attention span of Katie Hopkins on junk - drove the demand for poll after poll after poll.

Consequently opinion polls were pulled together as cheaply as possible in order to meet the demand from publishers.

But there's one huge problem with cheaply-produced surveys - they rely on the lowest-cost methods of gathering data; which today is over the internet or the telephone.

And these methods simply cannot provide a representative picture of voting intent because there is a large demographic who simply can't be reached by one or the other of these methods.

Yes I have a telephone, but I no longer answer it if I don't recognise the number.

The rise in cold calling from marketeers has made it pretty much impossible to contact anyone over the telephone who doesn't want to spend half their life listening to how they could be owed thousands from mis-sold PPI or get a new boiler for pretty much nothing due to some government scheme or other.

As for online surveys, well they typically reach the clued-up generation; the active participants in an interactive medium willing to lodge their closely-held political beliefs with any computer programme that cares to ask.

My point is that neither of the lower-cost sampling methods is particularly representative.

Additionally I don't believe the two most-popular methods, telephone and internet surveys, complement each other particularly well either - that is if you add a telephone poll to an internet poll there is still a sizeable subset of voters whose views are not represented.

Any truly representative survey would need to employ an appropriate mix of polling methods, from doorstep questions to street surveys together with telephone and internet polls.

This itself isn't controversial, but the opinion polling organisations counter this with their mythical Model.  

"Oh, it doesn't matter that our sample isn't representative because we have the data to correct it for all the classes of people our survey didn't reach.  We just plug the data into our Model and we are statistically accurate to within a percent, two at the most."

But building the model involves in-depth sampling and is consequently costly to build.

Costly in an era where publishers are commissioning opinion polls on a shoe string, forcing polling organisations to focus most of their efforts on turning around cheap polls rather than maintaining the model.

We all know that political opinion shifts, but what I believe pollsters have built in their models is a weighting system that can't keep up with the drift and fluctuation in voting intentions.

They end up plugging today's non-representative data into yesterday's weighting model and selling the result as a true reflection of the public mood.

Models based on voter behaviour up to five years ago can never correct for a shift in opinion.

Maybe one year someone will commission one representative survey instead of 2 dozen throw-away polls; only then will we be able to answer the question of whether the weighting model approach is flawed, or maybe the electorate simply can't be relied on to answer a political question honestly?!


Thursday, 24 July 2014

Department of Dirty: is it parody if it's actually true?

As I reported nearly 3 years ago, a side effect of Vodafone UK's efforts to protect children from adult content was to block access to two popular lingerie retailers Bravissimo and Figleaves.

Vodafone customers had to literally contact their ISP, verify their age and tell them "I want access to adult content" before they could shop for bras.

Despite both retailers and Vodafone refusing my requests for comment at the time, Vodafone corrected this particular problem in just over a week.

However many readers contacted me with similar stories: an outdoor web store selling, amongst other things,  hunting knives and hip flasks; a teenage discussion forum; etc, etc.

As the Open Rights Group reports:
... a whole load of sites get blocked by mistake - from churches (they mention wine!) to political blogs that have been miscategorised as hate speech. And a lot of sites that children should have access to - such as sites on sexual health - are also blocked. Once your website is on a blocked list, there’s no easy way to get off it.
With online retailers potentially missing out on revenue (many might be embarrassed or won't find the time to change the default web block - far easier to buy knickers from a different shop) and obvious concerns about censorship it's encouraging to see the Open Rights Group bolster their campaign against "default on" web filtering with the launch of their "Department of Dirty" publicity drive.

Ultimately I'd like to see website owners who find themselves unfairly blocked by such "default on" ISP filters fight back for their lost revenue with legal action against the ISPs blocking them.

When the ISPs who voluntarily kowtow to political demands face the prospect of hefty compensation claims then just maybe they will apply proper scrutiny to the sites they choose to block.


Friday, 18 July 2014

Emergency Data Retention Legislation DRIP v Europe - now this could get interesting..

Quick one (I don't have much time for blogging at the moment). Late last night I received notification from Europe's TRIS system that UK emergency data retention legislation DRIP rushed through parliament this week was notified to the Council of Europe as a technical measure under common market trade and industry rules.

The UK government must notify Brussels under the 'Authorisation Directive' (98/34/EC) of upcoming changes to 'technical standards' that might affect cross-border trade, e.g. in the provision of telecommunications services. For more information on EC notification see my blog on the 2 remaining pieces of legislation required for the file sharing clamp-down under the Digital Economy Act.

If you're not quite following I don't blame you; what it does mean is that things could get very interesting. The UK has to ask EC for permission to re-enact an EU law the ECHR struck down as incompatible with our Human Rights.

It also means at least a 90-day window before it can become law.

Interesting times - and also interesting to note the parallel debate from parts of the establishment pushing to distance ourselves from Europe and leave the European Convention on Human Rights.


Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The BBC Worldwide online content that British license payers aren't allowed to see

I imagine it takes a very special type of BBC executive to arrive at a decision like this - you know, the kind of executive raking in a 6-figure salary with a large golden handshake awaiting them when they finally run out of sideways promotions after messing things up just one too many times...
Foreigners Only!

BBC Worldwide content is available free to worldwide audiences, funded by advertising; therefore it follows that BBC license payers back in the UK must not be allowed to access this ad-funded content because they haven't "paid" to see it by being subjected to adverts.

As the BBC help page I was redirected to after being sent this story by a friend overseas states:
"We're sorry but this site is not accessible from the UK as it is part of our international service and is not funded by the licence fee. It is run commercially by BBC Worldwide, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the BBC, the profits made from it go back to BBC programme-makers to help fund great new BBC programmes. "
Yes, it makes perfect sense.  If UK license-fee payers were allowed to see this content for free then Great Programmes wouldn't be made and the world would end.

No mention of the complex cross-funding deals that allow BBC Worldwide to sell license-fee funded programmes whilst returning a meagre 10% of its turnover to the Beeb Proper, or the £687,333 redundancy payment made to a BBC executive leaving the BBC to join... BBC Worldwide, its wholly-owned subsidiary.


Good value? Where's the data behind "the most transparent deal ever made"?

Here's a thing - I'm actually quite good at modelling costs.

So when the Energy Secretary yesterday announced an effective tax on electricity bills to support the building of a £16bn nuclear power station at Hinkley Point I naturally started to pick apart the details of the deal.

But I came unstuck.  Whilst Ed Davey trumpeted the investment in nuclear power as good value for British energy consumers and "the most transparent deal ever made", I struggled to find any substantial data to explain the inflation-linked "Strike Price", a consumer-subsidised rate of £92.50 per megawatt hour that the private consortium building the plant will receive for electricity until 2058.

Yes, the government's website is flush with press releases and infographics trumpeting job creation and low-carbon energy production, but what I really want is the business plan that justifies the public subsidy.

Given such information I will be able to give a better view on whether the deal really does represent a good deal for the taxpayer.

After all, capital costs of £16bn seem rather high, even for a nuclear power station. And given the nature of the deal - what amounts to a Wonga-funded hire purchase with investors expecting a 10% annual return on their investment (FT subscription required), it's all a bit incestuous; the supplier also gains through the provision of finance, tempering the market forces that should otherwise be driving down construction costs.

The government seems to be taking all the risks: fixing prices, providing guarantees against cost overruns; why its even committed to underwriting 65% of the capital costs as public debt - are the investors hoping to make a 10% return on the government's own money, too?!

Yes we know it costs a lot to build a nuclear power station, and its widely accepted that the capital costs are by far the largest contributor to the price of nuclear power, but estimates on the actual operating costs (excluding capital) of a nuclear power station vary widely: from just over a cent per kilowatt hour to 2.6p averaged over the UK fleet in 2009 to many times higher.  For a wider discussion try Wikipedia.

With no solid data in the public domain its impossible to judge whether we're being sold up the river.

And here's a thing. Building a model with the data that is available (an inflation estimate of 2%, a strike price of £92.50, construction costs of £16bn and a best-estimate of operating costs of 2.8p per kWh - adjusting the 2009 UK fleet average data for inflation) the investors won't be getting the equivalent of a 10% average annual return.  It will be more like 9%, after adjusting for the absence of dividends over the construction period.

However should inflation average 2.5% they will see a return of around 9.5%

But as I mentioned I can't find details behind the government debt underwriting 65% of the initial outlay.  If investors are only providing 35% of the funds then either the government stands to make a hidden return on underwriting the deal (UK 30-year gilts currently yield around 3.6% -  far less than the 9% return my model indicates), or the private consortium stands to make a far higher return on their 35% contribution than they have so far admitted.

Of course my calculations all hinge on inflation-linked best-guess operating costs of 2.8p per kWh.  This includes everything from fuel and staff costs to waste processing and storage and setting-aside the required decommissioning costs under a Funded Decommissioning Programme.

It's not inconceivable that EDF believes it can run the plant more cheaply than the average for the UK fleet.  After all this will be a modern high-output plant with associated economies of scale.  Some US studies claim operating costs as low as around one cent per kWh.

If EDF can get the operating costs down to around 1.8p/kWh they should easily make a return of 10% on the £16bn capital outlay, even if inflation hovers around 2%.

But here's the kicker.  If the government actually funded the whole project with public borrowing, assuming it was capable of delivering on time and on budget, the cost of borrowing would fall to around 3.6% - the price the government pays on its long-term debt.

Now with debt at this price and inflation-linked operating costs of 2.8p per kWh the strike price could be as low as £54.00 per megawatt hour - not far off the current wholesale price of electricity.

Additionally if operating costs of a modern plant can fall to around 1.8p/kWh the plant could be undercutting current power generators with a unit price of £48.50 per megawatt hour once capital costs are included. Bearing in mind capital costs and interest in this model are amortised over the first 35 years of the plant's planned 60-year life, costs should fall substantially in the second half of its life.

So has the government got it wrong? In its eagerness to involve private finance it has been forced to rig the market, sacrificing one free market ideal for another.

This market rigging tempers incentives to innovate to reduce construction and operating costs whilst providing a bad deal for customers; driving-up the overall cost of electricity and skewing the wholesale market for all generators.  Britain will be paying twice as much for electricity in real terms by 2050.

Whilst it seems to go against the ideology of a right wing government, a better option may well have been to leave the price to the market and fund the construction as a government project.


PS George Monbiot has a wonderful critique on the "farce" of investing in ageing nuclear technology.

PPS assumptions in my model:  the power station capacity is 3,200 megawatt, reactors are likely to be offline for around 40 days every 18 months for refuelling, electricity will be sold at £92.50 per megawatt hour and government sources are talking a lot about CPI inflation of 2% in relation to this deal, so we can assume that might be the figure EDF used in its own economic modelling. We also know investors expect a return of around 10% and the initial outlay is £16bn.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Will we ever reach peak tolerance of crap software and unfair terms?

If you've ever bothered reading a software license of the sort that comes with everyday software you'd probably struggle to cope with the rage against unfair and restrictive practices.

For example, as a small business owner I often choose to build my own computers; that way I ensure key components like the motherboard allow an upgrade path that will give me reasonable performance over 6 or more years' of life.

However, try and buy an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) copy of Windows 8 Professional for a new home-built PC and you find that whilst your hand-assembled computer does fit all the requirements set down by Microsoft in the OEM license, as a small business owner I'm prohibited by this:
3. Key licensing terms for your use of this product are:
      * As the operating system on a PC you build for personal use 
(my bold)
This is exactly like turning up at a car showroom to buy a brand new car, only to be told the price doubles if I want to use my car to drive to business meetings.

Where is the fairness about being told what I can and cannot do with something I just bought?

The answer is in the question.  I didn't buy anything; at least not according to the software vendor.  The view of the software vendor is that they are only selling you a license to use their software, and that means they can also set down terms over how you use their software.

As it happens the licensing quagmire with Windows 8 with respect to "personal use" gets even more interesting since the license seemingly goes on to contradict itself:
The software package may not be used:
* [...]
* To license more than five copies of the software (in total) for commercial use  
So it's far from clear whether a small business owner with 5 Windows 8 Professional PCs risks death by lawsuit at the hands of Microsoft until such a case hits the courts.

Presumably then one could also test whether the use of the word "Professional" in the title implies commercial use, as I had assumed myself when I bought the software.

Of course all this is moot since I found Windows 8 practically unusable and instead opted to buy a Windows 7 upgrade for an existing copy of Windows Vista and upgrade the hardware rather than struggle on with Windows 8.

But the point is that many such conditions are largely untested in court, and they will probably never get tested because of the huge costs that would be awarded should one lose such a case.

So consumers - small business owners especially - will play it safe, potentially paying over the odds for software because software vendors include increasingly restrictive terms in their licenses in order to milk every last drop from the market.

And such terms aren't the only trick up the software vendors' sleeves. The other big con is built-in obsolescence.

I don't mean to be mean to Microsoft here but they are making it hard for me not to use their strategy to highlight my case.

The main reason I need to upgrade from Vista, apart from it [still] having a few performance snarls, is that I want to upgrade from Office 2007.

Microsoft has in its wisdom decided that Vista users cannot install Office 2013.  They also decided Vista users can't have Internet Explorer 10 either, but that doesn't bother me so much as I only use Internet Explorer for software testing and we have separate machines for that.

Whilst Microsoft officially defend these limitations on technical grounds I strongly suspect otherwise.

Oh, and the main reason I want to upgrade from Office 2007 is that the crappy half-baked ribbon still annoys the hell out of me.   So really I need to upgrade my duff operating system because I want to fix some duff office software.  Thanks guys!

But I am being unfair to Microsoft because they aren't the worse culprits on obsolescence.  No, seriously, I mean that, without even mentioning the Windows XP end-of-life exploit timebomb...

I previously blogged my frustration about VMware releasing a new version of their virtualisation product Workstation every year, effectively leaving those who don't pay to upgrade with no long term support.

And mobile phone and tablet manufacturers could be leaving me open to a greater peril: malware.

My phone, an original Samsung Galaxy S, is 3 years old and the last software upgrade available from Samsung was over a year ago.

Federal authorities in the US estimate millions of Android users are vulnerable to cyber threats and I can only assume my phone, having had no software update in over a year, is one of those.

Buying a new phone so that I can protect myself just reinforces the new norm that a piece of equipment originally costing me £500 has a lifespan of a measly couple of years.

If my washing machine broke after 2 years I would be filling the consumer review websites with my dissatisfaction. TVs, fridges, dishwashers - we expect all these appliances of similar value to last 5 years at least; and hope for 10!

But mobile phones are more like a computer than a fridge freezer so I should scale my expectations accordingly.

However phones generally have one major limitation: the hardware and software is typically locked so that owners can't take matters into their own hands should the operating system provider abruptly end support.

Yes, that old PC running Windows 2000 could still be useful if you can be bothered to install Linux and only want to use it for basic tasks like typing letters.

But when hardware is locked down it is essentially like buying that new car I mentioned earlier, but with the engine compartment padlocked so that only authorised dealers can perform repairs.  Doesn't sound very free market to me; especially since competition authorities around the world have by and large already dealt with the monopolistic threat from requiring drivers to use only "authorised service centres".

How long will consumers continue to lap up the slop that software vendors are forcing us to eat?  Perhaps until something or someone forces their hands.

Maybe if my phone gets a virus because the manufacturer has stopped providing updates I could sue for any material losses suffered?  After all I have no options available to me bar stopping using the phone, and this is by design of the manufacturer, rather than accidentally ending up with a car that no-one is capable of servicing.

The global software giants will continue to focus on profits above software reliability, security and consumer satisfaction until something changes; because, at the moment, there's no downside for an industry simply doing what it pleases to sell more and more stuff to people; people who have a rather narrow range of options available to them.


Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Attacking responsible journalists will only lead to more irresponsible disclosures

It's hard to see the detention of David Miranda and seizure of his data or the arrival of GCHQ spooks at a national newspaper's offices to witness the destruction of hard disks as anything other than a warning shot across the bows of anyone daring enough to handle leaked classified data in future.

Anti-terror laws are broad enough to get anyone or anything we want.  We can and we will get you.

Of course this won't stop the leaks.  History is littered with examples of people willing to put themselves on the line for government transparency.

Pioneers of political journalism such as William Cobbett served a prison term for objecting in print to actions of the government; others risked the Tower for standing up for public scrutiny of Parliament.

What it will do is make responsible journalists wary of dealing with leaked sensitive information, leaving the leakers with few options other than dump the whole lot on the internet; with no opportunity to redact or withhold highly sensitive sections that are not directly relevant to the issue at stake.

Of course the intelligence agencies of Britain and her allies with their tentacles seemingly into every corner of the internet  may well have a plan to wipe any such site off the face of the net.

But with quite a few well-motivated transparency fanatics out there willing to replicate and retransmit leaked data and I wouldn't bet my money on this plan being successful.

Each additional measure security agencies are forced to take to guard against leaks by renegade staff adds to the data handling burden, which in turn makes our security agencies less effective in their primary aim of defending us against truly evil forces.

So it really is in everyone's interests to see the leaks stopped... But not by force!


Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Equip children to deal with the web, threats and all

When a teenager takes their own life it's bloody awful... Noteworthy is that the bullying allegedly happened not on Twitter - a company in the press at the moment for their "lack of action" over abuse - but on ask.fm. 

No sooner is one platform sanitised than the kids move to other places to interact.

Instead of the sole focus being on platforms to deal with abuse we have to do more to equip young people to deal with the web.

That involves prevention, ie avoid getting into all-out flame wars in the first place; handling threats and negative comments; teaching how to hit the off or ignore button and take a break in the real world; and, in the case of substantive threats to life, taking up the issue with police.

It's easy to make a noise and say that social media platforms and web companies "must do more" but it's a rich and complex problem which cuts through the whole of modern society.

There is not one simple solution - like censoring/blocking sites that don't take a duty of care - as others will pop up.

I'm not defending the abusers in any way but part of the solution has to be to help the victims deal with abuse and ignore unsubstantiated threats; this goes against the current noise being made of late in the mainstream press - looking for the platforms, police and censorship to fix the problem - but the web as it is there will always be a way to upset someone online.

If we want to prevent the level of despair that leads to suicide we need to teach young people how to (a) limit their exposure to threats by the platforms they choose to use and the way they interact; and, (b) deal with them when they happen.


Friday, 26 July 2013

The usability recession

Back in the 80's, life for technophiles was pretty frustrating.  Just loading a game on a home computer such as a ZX Spectrum or Commodore 64 would take around 5 minutes.  Games were stored on cassette tapes, and loading would occasionally crash part way through, forcing the frustrated gamer to rewind the cassette and start again.

With the affordability of disks (floppy and hard) things got a lot better in the 90's.  But, as fast as old frustrations disappeared, new ones appeared.

Faster computers, more memory and larger storage meant more complex systems; and more complex a system, more frequently it would crash. 

Word processors would freeze, printers would seize and operating systems core-dump sometimes several times a day.  Still today I save documents through habit learnt in the 90's after every paragraph written - despite my PC or word processor not crashing once in around 2 years.

Things did get better.  Windows 98 fixed many of the bugs in Windows 95, and by the time Windows XP appeared I had a computer that did pretty much everything I wanted it do to.

Over a decade later and technology has got a hell of a lot smarter.  Portable devices, smart TVs, streaming movies. 

We should be basking in mankind's achievements in science, technology and engineering...

Yet today, nothing bloody works any more! 

Well, lots of things do work, but suddenly everything just feels difficult again.

The explosion of devices and operating systems has lead to an implosion of compatibility and a fragmentation of refinement. 

When one manufacturer fixes an Android bug on one model of phone or tablet it's pot luck as to whether they'll apply the same fix to the same bug on other models. 

As different manufacturers deal with a different subset of issues the customer is left running a gauntlet of crashy, bloaty software.  Of particular note is the agonisingly unusable "PC sync/upgrade" software shipped with mobile devices.

I still can't find a decent word processor for my Asus TF300 tablet - like one that allows me to type words that remain in the same order typed, with spelling mistakes underlined and where the save button works 100% of the time it is used; the browser crashes occasionally when typing email - basic stuff.

And service providers are doing their best to stop me wanting to use their service.  Whilst Facebook works fine on my powerful desktop machine, it can crash the browser on some of my computers - as, incidentally, can loading the front page of the Independent.

Whilst mobile Facebook works reasonably well for posting a picture, half the features are missing.

Twitter have done their best to make me never want to tweet again.  They practically killed my interface of choice - TweetDeck. 

TweetDeck used to be a relatively simple app that helped manage multiple streams.  Twitter, after all, is about streams of short bursts of information - too much information to be consumed in the traditional, linear, way.  Instead one dips in and out.  Set a search for my home town to see what people are saying, check for the latest super-injunction scandals, etc.

The original software did 2 things well.  It allowed the user to flick through incoming tweets, and it allowed the user to tweet - with a spell check and everything.  Plus - particularly applicable to mobile - it had a nifty alert feature so you could see from your phone's status bar if someone was tweeting at you.

Now all that is gone.  The surviving desktop app is 3rd rate, can't even get a spell check to work, and the mobile versions have been officially killed - not just discontinued but disconnected at source.

And don't even get me started on mobile phones.  Even the model names are unfathomable: does the HTC One support 4G? Only the HTC One 4G, apparently. What about the HTC One X? Or the One XL?  The HTC One 4G LTE has a full-HD screen (1920x1080 pixels - on a phone!) whilst the HTC One XL 4G has only 720p HD screen.

What is the Google Nexus? Don't even go there if you're looking for clarity..  The "Google Nexus S" could be any one of four phones, of which only the SPH-D720 has 4G capability.

And 4G capability is dependent on the country and the operator.  Whilst the iPhone 5 works on the UK's EE 4G network, it won't work on some 4G networks being launched by rival operators because of the frequency bands being used.

On the subject of phones, bad things happen to my address book each time I change handset. 

Twice I got duplicates of my contacts; now I have four entries for everybody.  And, when I once tried to sync my address book to the NSA's Google's servers, they helpfully added around 350 people I had in various circles to my phone address book.  So now I have Mum, Dad, Wife, plus 350 people I've never met.

Practically everything, from watching Netflix on your smart TV (depending on the manufacturer) to transferring and editing video from your camera, to tweeting or updating your contact list has gotten difficult of late.

Perhaps, with the explosion of data, of devices, of services, and of uses, the focus on usability has been lost. 

Whilst things got better - a lot better - in terms of usefulness and usability each decade for the last 30 years, perhaps we've entered a usability recession.


Thursday, 4 July 2013

Extracting Snowden

A single tweeter is claiming Edward Snowden has left Russia on board a diplomatic jet.
A single claim isn't really worthy of a mention, even on this blog, however there is one detail above worth looking at.  The mention of a Gulf Stream jet.

A Latin American country looks the most likely chance of asylum for Snowden, even more so since yesterday's grounding over Europe of a diplomatic flight carrying president of Bolivia Evo Morales managed to rile a whole continent against the US.

But as we saw yesterday, travelling from Moscow to South America with a contentious cargo isn't that easy since the flight would ordinarily pass through the airspace of quite a few staunch US allies.

Not only that, but the range of many aircraft would necessitate a refuelling stop en route.

Re-routing to avoid such airspace is pretty much an impossible task, and going the long way round, east over Russia then over the Pacific, is even harder.
Click to enlarge. Source/copyright: maps.google.com
The best, if not the only, feasible route would be to head north from Moscow, refuel at Murmansk then skirt the airspace of northern European countries before heading south over the Atlantic.

Such a trip would require an aircraft with a rather long range of around 6,000 nautical miles.  A bit like the Gulf Stream V.


Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Q. Where are we without clear ground rules? A. We are where we are now - and that frightens me.

But where are we heading in a world without clear rules?

In a world where men are detained a decade without trial, tortured, punished by sleep deprivation before a trial has even begun.

Where the people exposing such abuses are jailed.

Where international borders are disrespected, executive assassination orders re-instated, diplomatic protocols disrespected.

Where everyone is a suspect, everyone is watched, and, through the excessive use of secrecy, few are afforded the right to challenge what their governments do in their name.

Yes we have been wronged, and yes we are fighting unsavoury enemies who threaten to use the open nature of our society to attack us.

But without clear rules not only are we endangering the very thing we set out to protect: we give comfort to our enemies.

Humanity is a cornerstone of democracy, once we start acting inhumanely our house comes crashing down.

We demonstrate to those who oppose democracy that even the loudest proponents of democracy can't practice what they preach.

Each line we cross opens hundreds of doors to even more unsavoury outcomes.

What can possibly follow rendition and indefinite detention but death, whether it be at the direct hand of the state, from hunger strike or through a whole life incarcerated.

What can possibly stop states acting on intelligence to further their political goals.

What can possibly prevent state-sanctioned murder when the self-restraint of our leaders evaporates.

What can possibly safeguard against the actions of a few when so many are shackled by over-arching vows of secrecy.

In a world where the rules of normal diplomacy are disobeyed the instruments of peace are blunted.