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Friday, 29 October 2010

Ungrump: Well done Southern Gas Networks


Credit where credit's due. Station Hill in Farnham was re-opened yesterday afternoon, a full 3 days ahead of schedule. Also traffic disruption during the works was far less than I'd feared, mainly because Approach Road to the north of the railway station was kept open (despite this map indicating it may be closed).

In my defence I did in my original post make heavy use of qualifiers and disclaimers but I'll hold my hands up and say yey! And thank God the disruption wasn't as bad as I'd feared whilst congratulating Southern Gas Networks for finishing ahead of schedule.

@JamesFirth

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Should we be planning now for the immininent arrival of robot slaves?

Hattie Tinfoil reports:

Are we all agreed that the human race will eventually develop robot servants?

Now, we already have robots in factories doing jobs which would in times past have been done by people, we have domestic help in the form of robot vacuum cleaners (I want one of those purely to freak the cats out) and automated control of devices ranging from jet airliners to tunnel boring machines. 

But by “robot servants” I mean something a bit more versatile. Robots which can identify broken equipment in a workplace, diagnose it, grab a tool and fix it.  Or perhaps a robot which can help in the house by doing our laundry from laundry bin, to washing machine, to ironing board, back to cupboard.

Assuming we don’t nuke the place and let the apes take over, such robots are on the way at some point, right? Good. Because I believe in them - they're mankind's hope for a better future. If we have free labour, the possibilities are huge and not just because we won’t have to pick our own socks up any more

The cost of everything will drop through the floor because, for a reasonable one-off cost, any manufacturer will be able to replace their meatbag employees with cost-free, trouble-free, 24-hour labour. Mining and refining materials, assembling the goodies and loading them on a train will all be virtually free - will we be paying for anything other than mineral rights and cool design? Well, yes, we will also still be paying for manufacturers’ advertising budgets.

Of course, employees (aka meatbags) who work in these jobs in today’s world will be less keen on customers’ "savings" - which will of course be their "disappearing income". But let’s not lose sight of the big picture. All through the ages, history is full of jobs becoming, ahem, history, as efficiency improvements reduced human labour. Each time, there’s a short-term cost of lay-offs but in the long term unemployment levels have stayed remarkably reasonable.

And just look how good it’s been to us (in the first world, at least) - even today’s jobless are more comfortable, more healthy, live longer and have fancier toys than the wealthy merchants of 200 years ago. A quick search on eBay shows that, in 2010, £14 can get you a 4GB mp3 player - I bet the Luddites who smashed the machines never saw that one coming.

So, since we’re going to have a robot slave army, let’s plan how to deploy our troops. Since manufacture will be much cheaper than mining rights or land (because they’re limited by nature), solar power will become a financially attractive power source to the great benefit of the environment.

Sunny countries - including most of the developing world - will find they have a natural energy resource. It’s unlikely to become precious like oil or coal, but combined with diminished costs, it should lead to infrastructure (roads, electricity, irrigation, communication networks) in Africa, India and so on blossoming at an impressive rate.

The future’s so bright, I’ve gotta wear shades. Fortunately the shades were made by robots and so are very reasonably priced.

Hattie Tinfoil is a guest writer on slightlyrightofcentre.com

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Scrap the Interception Modernisation Programme? Of course, Minister, but first you really should read this...

Coalition agreement document, page 6, section 10 (bullet 11):
- Ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason
I imagine a scene straight out of Yes Minister as the new Home Secretary Theresa May stretched her legs under her new desk at 2 Marsham Street.
"Of course Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg were very right to include this noble statement in their agreement; but you see, Minister, there is very good reason why we need to store all internet and email records..."
But this isn't a gripe at the traditions and balances of power within the Great Offices of State but at the hoards of consultants advising the civil servants who in turn advise the ministers and secretaries of state about what needs to be done to reign-in control over information in the information age.

And at the naivety of the Liberal Democrats for allowing "without good reason" - what must be the most flexible Get out of Jail Free card since PC Simon Harwood probably quite literally kept out of jail by avoiding criminal charges over the death of Ian Tomlinson.

The IMP is nothing more than a fig leaf - an attempt by those in power to be seen to be doing something to stop the bad guys.

It's kind of like having a life jacket under your aeroplane seat at 38,000 feet yet no parachute.  Yes it could be useful, if we make it down to sea level in one piece.   Except having a life jacket under every seat costs relatively little and harms no-one.  May as well have one there as not.

Anyone who believes that storing petabytes of  data is going to make the country safer and have no tangible impact on civil rights is misguided.  Terrorists and serious criminals will change-up their game.  The early casualties are likely to be innocent net users wrongly accused of serious crimes, the ISPs shouldering the huge technology costs, and households paying far more for their broadband.

Oh, and the taxpayers - with an estimated bill likely to exceed the £2bn already slated.

The only possible winners here are the technology consultants and equipment manufacturers.

I'd like to bet money on four outcomes:
1.) A stable of consultants from the big accountancy and IT firms have already made substantial sums advising various government departments, charging fees reportedly topping £3000 per day for senior partners
2.) The same firms and consultants will continue to rake in huge sums
3.) The IMP plans eventually prove to be infeasible, mainly due to (i) a shift towards encryption as standard for oversees websites outside UK jurisdiction and (ii) the huge cost burden about to be placed on ISPs
4.) The public never gets to hear a compellingly "good reason."

The Consultant's Trap

The biggest problem I have with consultants is the inherent conflict of interest.  They're hired to make the will of department heads and senior policy advisers seem feasible.  A bloody-minded old fool convinces him- or herself that something is a good thing, therefore it must happen. 

Only the greenest of naive (albeit honest) consultants would turn up and explain to said bloody-minded old fool that they can't have what they want, and expect to invoice anything more than half a day's fees.

Better take the work whilst you can get it, and start sketching-out the cutting pattern for the Emperor's brand new cloak.

Over the last couple of days I've been too annoyed about this broken promise to write on the IMP - until now.  Expect much more to follow!

@JamesFirth

Monday, 25 October 2010

Spielberg on location, Bourne Woods, Farnham?

There's a different blog post brewing, about how I was unlawfully threatened with arrest, having my camera confiscated and called an "arrogant shite" (all in front of witnesses) by security guards protecting the filming in Bourne Woods, despite being stood on a public bridleway unaffected by a footpath closure order currently in place in the area.

So how good did I feel when I find who I'm fairly sure is Steven Spielberg himself, albeit at the extreme end of the range of my lens.  Take a look:



 

@JamesFirth

Contact: editorial@slightlyrightofcentre.com

Friday, 22 October 2010

The "Britney Spears naked" effect

Looking beyond the CTR

Did I chose the title of this post just to get traffic to my blog?  And when you get here, will you leave within 2 seconds - about the time it takes for your brain to realise there are no naked pictures of Britney Spears?

So the Britney craze is 10 years past its sell-by date,  but that was intentional, since I'm highlighting how the internet marketing and SEO industry has grown up over the last 10 years.

It took advertisers and publishers (together with the heavy hand of Google quashing the value from link farms) quite a while to realise that visitor numbers were only part of the picture.

Advertisers at first focussed on what was easy to measure - clicks - and ignored much of the harder-to-gather data.

It became clear there was no point being number 1 in the most popular search of the day - "Britney Spears naked" - if, as it transpires, 99.7% of your visitors are not actually interested in buying shower attachments. Or a copy of "How I Got Rich From Internet Marketing".  And to think you bought all those extra servers to cope with the load...

Today, some in the social media marketing game are falling into similar traps.  Several papers recently talk about improving click-through rates (CTRs) for links posted on Twitter, Facebook etc.  Many focus on the initial draw, and very few, in fact none, on what people get once they're sucked into the click.

One typical piece of advice: improve CTRs by including an element of mystery.  So you post a teaser:
OMG have you SEEN what Dave's been up to in the office with his pants?! http://bit.ly/9H5vI7
I'd argue these teasers are no better than the "pictures of Britney Spears naked" ruses of the early part of the millennium.

You may convince yourself you're not actually misleading your followers, but, for the most part, you are. What percentage of those drawn in by this really wanted to arrive at an affiliate marketing store for trousers, constructed by Dave? (Or indeed a picture of a horse)

Granted, there's a fine balance. Posting what you're actually saying, "visit my store...", may have got exactly zero hits (beyond the 20-30 automated services that follow ANY link posted on Twitter - yes, unless you're doing some basic filtering you can chop 20-30 visitors from the stats for every link posted on Twitter).

And  you may have drawn someone in who actually bought trousers from your store, FTW!

But the majority of those sucked in clearly wanted a bit of entertainment, and you could be damaging your credibility when they realise - quickly - this was a cheap attempt to make money.  The following you've spent months or years building will surely soon tire of not finding what they expected at the end of your links.

CTRs tell only part of the story.  Traditional internet marketeers have started to measure value beyond CTRs in the form of end-to-end metrics - often the amount of goods sold as a result of the initial click.  And when this is simply not possible, e.g. high value purchases like cars; supplementary metrics such as depth and dwell time - how deep into your site does the visitor go, and how long do they spend reading each page - give a far better indication of  how well your initial advertising has worked.

Social media brings a new dimension in the form of your reputation as an information source.  Factors in the equation include not only the return - end sales - from your investment in blogging and tweeting, but also the maintenance of your reputation as a trusted source, and the associated risk of long term damage from repeatedly misleading folks into clicking.

In terms of reputation it's about offering something - however small - in terms of a psychological reward for clicking-through. There may have been better ways of  word the initial draw, so as to offer a little something to people who click though.  Buy my pants NOW! might have brought just a small ironic smile to many visitors who, after being drawn in, find a shop selling pants.

Even this small smile of recognition may be sufficient reward to keep your followers clicking. 

Alternatively, giving visitors who do click through just a bit of  OMG(!!) mixed into your trouser store.  Okay, maybe not OMG(!!), but a little something that's just enough to convince your followers that the click, although not worth it today, will be worth it one day.


@JamesFirth

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Estimated equivalent APR up to 33% for latest smartphone on contract

We get so used to buying our phones from the network operator, but how many of us stop to consider the hidden cost in doing this?

In fact many phones are advertised as "free", but lock you into a contract typically 18-24 months in duration.  It's from this contract that the network claws back the cost of the phone.

It's no different really to a loan, which is why most phone companies will run a credit reference check on you before letting you walk out of the store with a shiny new phone.

But unlike a loan, mobile phone companies don't show you the cost of borrowing, ie. the Annual Percentage Rate (APR) they add as interest over the lifetime of the contract.

Many would assume the market is competitive: all the phone companies want your custom, and therefore you're bound to get a good deal, right?  Not exactly.  The phone companies are competing against each other, and each offer slightly different deals in terms of free minutes, inclusive data and texts.

But this leads to confusion in the market and consequently it can be hard to compare the value of packages from different operators. Also the varying merits of each network in terms of quality and coverage adds to consumer confusion, before even considering so-called Value Added Services such as music bundles or free cinema tickets, which each network believes adds value to their offering.

The networks don't release a breakdown of their costs, so it's almost impossible to get any idea of how much money the networks are making on the phone hardware itself or the financing via contract.  No-one outside the network knows the base cost of a 100 minutes/month with 500MB of inclusive data and unlimited text messages.

However a virtual mobile network operator called giffgaff will put a customer's existing mobile phone on the O2 network with a SIM-only deal that includes bundled minutes, unlimited texts and bundled data on a pay-as-you-go basis with no ties.  In terms of performance your phone's on the same network, however sales and customer relations are handled by giffgaff staff instead of O2.

Using the prices charged for equivalent or better giffgaff bundles as an indicator of the base cost of O2 contracts it's possible to estimate the cost of "borrowing" to buy a phone on contract.

The results surprised me, with the worst deal - an 18-month contract with 100 inclusive minutes and 500MB of data - having an estimated equivalent APR of 33%.

Method and calculations

I looked at 4 deals to buy the Samsung Galaxy S I9000 8GB phone from O2, with 2 on an 18-month contract and 2 on 24-months.  I then checked several stores to get a good estimate of the cost of the phone "SIM free" (unlocked).  £429.99 seemed a fair comparison price (including delivery) being the cheapest amongst the mainstream retailers (in this case Play.com) but not the cheapest I saw advertised. It also happens to be the price I paid for my Galaxy S I9000!.

I then deducted the cost of the package (including minutes, texts and internet) using the prices charged for an equivalent giffgaff bundle.  In fact in each case giffgaff offered a better inclusive bundle to the service charge used in my estimation.

The maths is fairly complicated but it's here on a Google Docs spreadsheet if you want to verify my sums.

Results and summary

The best deal I looked at was a 24-month contract with 300 inclusive minutes, where the estimated equivalent APR fell to 8.2% - a fair price in my view.  The 300-minutes deal on an 18-month contract for this handset carried an estimated equivalent APR of 10.8% - not bad - but a 100-minutes deal on a 24-month contract had an estimated APR of 25.0%.  The worst I looked at was the previously mentioned deal at 33% (estimated).

Remember - this is my estimate of the profit O2 make just from lending you the money to buy a handset from them, and is completely separate from any profit made selling the phone itself, since my guide price for the handset was a retail price - not a wholesale price.  It's fair to assume Play.com will make a profit selling the handset at £429.99.

Of course this is just an estimate to highlight a point, O2 might argue that giffgaff don't give value in other areas they do, or are running such bundles as a "loss leader".  I'm happy to publish any rebuttal of my method if O2 provide me with new information.

But it's worth noting that the giffgaff bundles offer a better deal than O2's - with 150 inclusive minutes compared to 100 from O2, and in both cases giffgaff claim to offer "unlimited" data compared to 500MB from O2.

Remember also purchasing the handset up-front removes any ties, leaving you free to move to the best deal available at any point over the period you'd otherwise be locked into a contract.

There's one lesson beyond dispute - a portion of the contract cost is paying for the handset, so it's important to renegotiate your deal the month the contract period ends, otherwise you're paying for a phone you already own!

@JamesFirth

Note: other than using their network and hardware I have no association whatsoever with giffgaff, O2 or Samsung.  This piece is the opinion of the author and all estimates and assumptions are stated or linked from the article.  Any statement from any of the companies listed should be sent to editorial@slightlyrightofcentre.com

DF traffic survey: total domination for Apple in mobile sector

The Dalton Firth traffic survey covers 1.4 million hits from 160,000 IP uniques over a 16-week window

Apple last night unveiled spectacular quarterly results, both in terms of profit and revenue.  Since my company has access to a reasonable sample of traffic data I thought I'd take a look at the proportion of traffic from Apple devices hitting sites we administer, and the results are surprising.

With the disclaimer that I only have access to data from a particular genre of website, namely current affairs and contemporary statistics (noting my traffic is nearly all from UK-based IP addresses) the data shows:
  • 93.7% of mobile and tablet traffic is from an Apple device (iPod, iPad or iPhone) as of late September 2010
  • Android-powered devices are failing to dent the Apple dominance
  • iPad overtakes iPhone in September
The bigger picture

  • Apple also grows desktop share from 7.8% in June to 9% in September
  • Unix and Linux consistently show less than 0.5% of the traffic share
  • Mobile device usage peaked over August, doubling from 1.6% in July to 3.2% in August (down to 2% in September)
Given the relative popularity amongst my friends of Android and the absence of an abundance of iPads in their lives this data is highly surprising.  I'd love to know if this tallies with the wider picture, or whether the Apple Effect is accentuated given the nature of the websites I run.


@JamesFirth

Friday, 15 October 2010

An interview with... Farnham Castle

What links an ancient castle to Greenland, Denmark and Twitter? 

Squatting on a hill to the north of the town centre, Farnham Castle keeps a solemn eye on the folk below.

The history of the building is fascinating, you can read about it on their website, and the historic keep is now free to visit - open 6 months of the year.

But I wanted to know what went on today inside Britain's oldest continuously inhabited building.

Before arriving to talk to Matthew MacLachlan at the castle I had some preconceptions.  The combination of fortifications, albeit ancient, and scant signage bar a simple "International Briefing and Conference Centre" I remember reading many years ago misled me into thinking this was yet another of the area's military nerve centres.

But I was wrong, and once again surprised by the diversity of businesses based in Farnham - seen by many as a sleepy nondescript commuterville where retired stockbrokers sit-out their days raging at any and every plan to drag the town into the 20th (sic) century.

For nearly fifty years the castle has been used as an intercultural training centre, visited by employees from blue chip companies and not, a bit to my disappointment, as a secret military base.

The steady globalisation of business since the advent of affordable air travel has created a market for cultural training.  As preparation for business negotiations or an extended overseas posting the training can pay for itself many times over, and in many cases help with the health and well-being of those posted to countries whose culture differs significantly from ours.

So, what's it like doing business in Farnham

"Well we wouldn't choose to launch our business here if we were starting today," started Matthew, although his smile said this was part of a multi-layered answer.  Which it was. Plus it's a somewhat moot point, given the practicalities of moving a historic building, brick by brick...

"The traffic can be terrible, the train connection is okay for London, if a bit slow, but near-impossible for anywhere else, particularly Dorset and the West Country; plus in our industry there's often a preconception that London-based training centres are of a higher calibre - which of course is a view we take serious issue with."

"But our clients love the setting.  The combination of the castle's historic buildings dating back to the 15th century, the picturesque town centre and Farnham Park create a break from everyday business life and contribute to a great atmosphere for learning."



What one thing, given the chance, would you change about the town?

"It would be a straight choice between fixing the traffic, finally getting something under way on the East Street development, or improving the rail links."

Has the internet or modern technology changed your business?

"Yes, and we're adapting all the time to new developments.  For example three years ago the top three referrers for visitors to our website was Google, Wikipedia and then direct from mailings etc.  Now it's still Google at number one, but with a much smaller proportion, then Twitter.

"Twitter has helped us directly win clients and find trainers.  We provided the venue for Farnham Twestival last year simply from a reply to a tweet.

"When we needed an expert on Greenland last year we were led from the website of the Greenland Chamber of Commerce to the Danish Chamber of Commerce in London."

Danish? I didn't know Greenland was part of Denmark.

"Neither did I, and neither did the lady from the Danish Chamber of Commerce in London...

"So I tried Twitter - and we found a fantastic expert, calling himself an Eskimologist, it was a remarkable find for a country with a population of under 60,000 - the majority living a traditional innuit life.

"But social media does take time and effort to make it work.  Some days it can take time to think of interesting and relevant things to post.

"To get the most out of Twitter I think there needs to be a level of interaction, and with that there's a balance to find between inter-cultural topics and general conversation.  We need to sell what we offer but need to keep our followers interested.  It's a fascinating tool."

Many thanks to Matthew MacLachlan of Farnham Castle

@JamesFirth

Farnham Castle is available for training and events.  The beautiful Great Hall can take up to 120 guests, and I'm told their pastry chef is excellent and their prices mid-range!

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Google's Fleet Of Self-Driving Cars

Hattie Tinfoil reports:

Google has been developing self-driving cars. Bonus point for anyone who saw that one coming - it wasn’t a natural progression from being good at search engines the last time I checked. I amuse myself by imagining the reception to the news in the Altavista offices: “they’ve done WHAT, now?!”.

As a tech blogger, I say search moguls should spend more millions off-piste to make grist for my mill. But until such time Yahoo! open a string of vodka bars and the Bing boys inaugurate their first school of modern dance, I’d better get musing on Google’s fleet of inorganic chauffeurs.

Obviously, obtaining the legislation to allow your Hyundai to mooch down the high street as it sees fit is going to be really, really hard. But the first question which first popped into my head was “who wants it?”. Well, if you’re as fond of the Cabernet Sauvignon as I am, being able to drive somewhere and have the car drive you back is the first smile raised. But there are far more interesting benefits than that in store. 

Fact is, computers don’t make mistakes. Once the software is perfected, a computer can drive faster than a human, closer to the vehicle in front and with far fewer accidents. This is huge. If you can drive closer to the car in front, congestion - on the open road, at least - becomes a lot less of a problem. Motorway gridlock should be a thing of the past, as phantom traffic jams (popular on the M25) disappear with the human error. The aerodynamic benefits of being safe in another’s slipstream could easily reduce motorway fuel consumption by 30% or more. At quieter periods, speed limits would become redundant and journey times would tumble.

The biggest gain, though, would be safety. Google are saying that road deaths could be cut by half, but once everybody has a self-driving car and there’s no such thing as driver error, road safety would be near-total. And the cost of retail items would fall as driverless lorries slashed labour and fuel bills.

There are two problems. The first is that teaching a car to drive, in traffic, is really, really difficult. But while we’ve been mildly impressed by Chryslers line-astern in an empty banked oval and Volkswagens trundling round an almost-deserted car park, Google have taken off the lab coat and kid gloves and done it for real, in the real world. Their fleet have driven 140,000 miles around the San Francisco Bay area, plus a jaunt in to Hollywood Bvd in the middle of Los Angeles.

They trusted the tech among the taxi drivers, the cyclists and those funny everyone-give-way-at-once junctions the Americans seem to like. If there’d been an accident, Google would have been in a lot of trouble. They’re really sure that this stuff really works. In fact, they’ve surely gone public now to start work on that legislation I mentioned.

Ah yes, legislation. That leads me directly to the second problem - public acceptance. As I waxed on the subject of computers’ infallibility and safety gains, how many of you were spluttering and warming up your keyboards to tell me how wrong I was? How many of you are about to tell me how often your PC crashes and that you’re glad your car crashes less often? Well, you’re wrong. Computers don’t make mistakes. Software developers do and they lead to bugs and bugs lead to computers doing things we don’t want.

And, yes, if the computer which is driving your car has a bug in it, it “something you don’t want it to do” might involve accelerating directly through a school playground. Or reversing off a cliff. Or releasing its handbrake overnight and rolling gently over your cat.

But anyone selling a self-driving car will know that any and all accidents which could possibly happen would be not just a moral disaster but a financial one, too, as sales disappear but the lawsuits pile up. It could be the end of any company and they won’t risk that. 

Safety-critical software already exists and people know how to make it bombproof (sometimes literally).

Software controls aeroplanes, life-support machines, nuclear reactors, early warning systems, missile guidance. If you have a modern luxury car, it probably has a drive-by-wire throttle and a software bug already has the potential to accelerate you as long and as hard as the fuel lasts, after which you’d be in a state referred-to by doctors as “dead”.

We already live in a world where we trust software with our lives; robbing ourselves of such a great good as the self-driving car would have no basis in reason.

Hattie Tinfoil is a guest writer on Slightly Right of Centre

Social Not-working?

Just a few quick thoughts about many of the local business, community and social networking events springing from online networking.

It amazes me that one notable effect from the advent of the global communications era is the strengthening of local ties.  Whilst I can now talk and share ideas with people worldwide, it's locally where the internet has had the biggest positive effect on my life and business.

"Organic" events like Thames Valley Social Media Cafe, Digital Surrey and our own informal Farnham Tweetups have created a buzz by opening up numerous business opportunities and having a lot of fun in the process.

But it's not all good news.  I talked to several people recently about coming along to one of the local events and was surprised by their response.

A natural order is emerging: evening Tweetups rarely touch on business - they're more about food, drink and conversation.  Some of the events have no organisational structure whatsoever whilst most have only the minimal necessary to function (a website, and with it, a de facto group organiser).

Most of the events I've been to are far more enjoyable and productive than formal networking "clubs", yet none have any membership fee, compared to £1,000 per annum for some clubs.  And devoid of organisational structure (chairman, president, treasurer and committee members) stuffy internal politics has not (yet) become an issue.

Meeting someone just once in person can also greatly improve your online relationship.  Through informal research measuring click-through ratios using my own link shortener (ejf.me) I saw CTR 100% improved for tweets on my own stream than identical tweets on another Twitter account I ran anonymously (normalised for follower numbers).

Having formal scientific training I know there are too many flaws in my approach for this figure to be taken as anything other than a rough estimate, but it highlights the power between relationship and online influence.

But I've started digging into why people who I think would enjoy such events don't come along.

A concern from a couple of people I spoke to arises - in their view - as a consequence of a lack of internal structure.  Newcomers - some who have attended one or two of the above events - have felt unwelcome.

Natural friendships and allegiances formed between existing group members can give newcomers the feeling of being an outsider in an organisation where "everyone" already knows "everyone else".

Of course as an "insider" I explained that was nonsense, I knew only a handful of people, and few of them very well.

But what has this to do with organisational structure?  From a lay perspective (I did take subsidiary studies in psychology whilst studying for my bachelors' in physics) it could be that the formal standing of any organisation which openly states "new members welcome" gives newcomers a mandate to belong.  It could also be that the "stuffy internal politics" I described above does at least ensure that one or two existing members are on hand to welcome new members.

I'd like to see organic networking events grow in strength, they offer an alternative to the franchised networking clubs who send a significant proportion of membership fees on to the franchiser, who's first goal is profit; the franchised approach can lead to a self-serving element, where new members are welcomed more for their subscription fees helping meet club targets than their contribution to the club.

Whilst I see that the franchiser has a role in advertising and promoting the club, in many cases a good club is self-promoting - especially one that uses social media as an organisational tool.

But as with anything there are some positive lessons to be learned from the old world, and even then, our local events still won't be everyone's cup of tea -  I'd love to hear your own views and experiences.

@JamesFirth

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Digital switch-over waste and Lessons not learned

Anyone want a free TV, exactly 5 years old, good working order?

What, Freeview? No, sorry.

Thought not.  It's hard to believe that 5 years ago when this TV was bought it was impossible to buy a reasonably-priced* integrated digital TV, despite the legislative wheels towards digital switch-over set in motion nearly a decade earlier with the Broadcasting Act 1996.

To be fair it wasn't until 1999 that parliament was informed of the Government's intention to switch off the old analogue signal... Still, this was 6 full years before this particular TV was purchased.

Given the original target switch-over date of 2010 one might have thought that manufacturers might by 2005 be offering a future-proof telly?

Without being over-cynical, why should they?  This is their chance to sell two TVs instead of one.

All this is rather ironic as it overlaps with attempts at the European Commission to reduce harmful electronic waste in landfill (WEEE - Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) dating back to 2002.

To add insult to injury the reason we need a new telly is because the Freeview receiver box, purchased at the same time as the TV, fried itself.  Knowing a bit about electronics I dissected the device and found a rather old design dating back to the dinosaurs.

The receiver ran hot, even when on standby, due to reliance on an internal inductive transformer as a power source, rather than the more modern and far more efficient "switched mode" power supplies which have been around for a good few years.  Manufacturers cutting corners. Yet more waste.

And now we're in danger of repeating past mistakes.  Last year two family members bought new cars.  Guess how many have integral DAB radios?  That's right.

Radio and car manufacturers are continuing as the TV manufacturers did.  Not only that, but consumer demand for digital radio is muted by the poor quality of the signal in many areas.  Even when a good signal is available, Hi-Fi enthusiasts argue that regulators went for quantity over quality when deciding on the technology to deliver digital radio.

In fact anyone watching football or any other event where many objects move about the screen simultaneously may see that the technology chosen for digital TV isn't that great from a quality perspective, hence the move towards high definition; further equipment upgrades and more electronic waste.

Yes, HD is better than standard definition, but for me HD solves a fundamental problem with Freeview in that not enough bandwidth was allocated for some types of programming - although broadcasters and notably the BBC have taken steps to solve this through various advancements.

The digital switch-over has been and continues to be a wasteful disaster, damaging to the environment and wallet alike.

@JamesFirth

* - From memory, TV and digi-box combined cost around £110 compared to £240 for cheapest integrated digital TV.

Thoughts on University Funding

The discussion on university funding seems to be less of a debate and more of a shouting match pitting left against right, with arguments focussing on elitism and access for poorer students.

Of course I'm worried that throwing the education system to the mercy of the capitalist market will favour rich students and inhibit social mobility.

But I'm also worried that the current system promotes mediocrity and does little to drive standards in education.  The quality and worthiness of the higher education system needs to be discussed alongside the issue of funding.

Firstly, the current fees cap creates a distorted market for funding.  Students have half of the "value judgement" decided for them, in that the price of the degree course is fixed, no matter where they "choose" to study.  And the other half of the equation - choosing the best quality establishment for their money - is also, to a large extent for many students, fixed due to extreme competition for places.

The net result is a disconnect between funding and choice, giving establishments who can fill their courses little incentive to improve and keeping some institutions on life support when they should simply fail.

From personal experience - I was lucky enough to go to one of the top 20 universities - the quality of undergraduate teaching was pitiful.  Lecturers with a very detailed understanding of their subject area do not  necessarily make good teachers.  At least not without support and training.

One example I remember is a physics professor, who'd spent a lifetime building mathematical models for ground-breaking research into understanding the universe, launching straight into the maths on the first lecture on the subject.  I wasn't alone in the students on my course who struggled over the next 4 semesters to learn by rote mathematical equations we didn't understand in order to pass exams.

It wasn't until 10 years after graduation when watching a BBC documentary on Einstein that I finally understood what the mountain of maths meant.  Similarly it wasn't until I stumbled on a website of a Canadian university that I finally understood basic concepts of quantum physics for which I'd spent 3 of the earlier years of my life learning the maths.

Oh, how my life could have been different had my university lecturers captured my imagination in the way a BBC documentary or Canadian website did!! (Yes, this is an irony alert.)

The disconnect between student choice and funding coupled with a lack of competition not only impacts the quality of education at the best universities, who have no direct financial incentive to improve and attract higher fees, but also the institutions at the bottom of the pile, who should by all rights go out of business,  but are kept alive receiving comparable fees per student to other institutions, able to fill their courses by demand driven by a notion that any university degree is better than none.

And it's not just the universities who need a kick.  Yes - students shouldn't be bound into a rigorous life of academic toil. It's great to have time to get involved in clubs, societies and student politics and still have plenty of time for socialising.  But looking back I'm shocked at my own lackadaisical attitude to attending classes - although I partly blame the quality of teaching  (see above!) - and I'm even more shocked by others I met with far less interest in learning than me.

I see the contradictions.  Money must not be a barrier to academic achievement, and saddling graduates with debts for life will be more burdensome on graduates from poorer backgrounds than those from rich.

Clearly there are no easy answers.  I've read a few reviews of the US funding system and heard how new problems are created when fees are left to market forces.  It's not hard to see how such a system is heavily reliant on grant funding and bursaries to give poorer students access to the best learning.

The Browne report and Tory proposals seem riddled with pitfalls.  21,000 per annum is not a high salary, and what if a graduate has a family to feed?  A parent returning to work part time could be better off working fewer hours and keeping under the repayment threshold.

But equally I don't think it's wise to carry on with artificial equality between institutions.  Clearly some universities are better than others and they should receive a premium.

How about a system whereby the government awards a trust fund to every student based on academic performance at school.  Four or five top A-level grades would put £80,000 in this fund, whilst three 'C's only £20,000.  The student could then spend this money throughout their life on any educational "product" they wish...

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

ACS:Law part three - the private data police

[part one] [part two]

It's a recipe for disaster.  The law regulating internet surveillance is a shambles and there's a growing army of unregulated private firms watching our actions and gathering evidence against those who share music and video online.

When Poole borough council stood accused of spying on families to check if school application rules had been broken there was outrage.

The council was using powers originally designed to tackle serious crime in order to investigate minor civil transgressions.  Rights groups and MPs (and not just the Lib Dems) denounced the snooping as disproportionate to the alleged offence and undermining our liberty.

Now similar fears over proportionality are surfacing as firms like ACS:Law use third-party agencies including Swiss copyright enforcement firm Logistep and German-based Digiprotect to watch net activity in order to detect and gather evidence on those who infringe other people's copyright.

Regulation and oversight

At least the more traditional surveillance undertaken by public bodies like Poole borough council is regulated by law under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA).

But RIPA is a law written mostly using pre-internet concepts - fixed line telephony - with language fudged to cover ISPs and data networks as if the internet was just an extension of analogue telephony.

The law covering electronic surveillance and what becomes of the data gathered actually falls between three pieces of legislation and three disparate enforcement bodies.  In addition to RIPA there's the Privacy in Electronic Communications Regulations 2003 (PECR) and the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA).

On the enforcement front there's the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), with powers to fine but not imprison for breaches of the DPA and PECR; the Investigatory Powers Tribunal at the office of the Interception of Communications Commissioner, who oversees RIPA - but only when used by public bodies; and the police, who can investigate criminal breaches of RIPA but to date have proved reluctant to do so.

The analogue-telephony-centric language of RIPA and the overlap between two laws - RIPA and PECR - adds to the confusion, leading for example to the conflicting views on whether listening to a voice mail which has already been heard by the recipient constitutes a breach of RIPA in relation to the ongoing News of the World phone hacking saga.

Not surprisingly the EC is now taking the UK to the European Court of Justice for failure to properly implement European directives protecting consumers from electronic surveillance, brought to light when advertiser Phorm watched thousands of internet connections at ISP BT in order to sell adverts based on the websites people visit.

Also under the spotlight is not just how private data is gathered but how it's stored.  I've already explored the case for better legal protection for sensitive personal data in light of the ACS:Law leak.

Privacy and the surveillance society

The concept of living a life under constant surveillance goes far beyond than the debunked adage "nothing to hide, nothing to fear".

Surprisingly the concept of privacy has very little to do with keeping personal details totally private and far more to do with freedom and choice.

There are some details we are comfortable sharing with our close friends but not wider acquaintances.  There are also facts we share with close friends but not our family.  As as a friend once put it in a now-deleted blog post "It may not be illegal, but I sure don't want my Mum to find out!"

At this point, debate often veers towards the rights and wrongs of secrets and duplicity, especially within relationships.  Of course there's "bad" privacy but there's also a lot of "good" privacy. Just like my views on censorship I believe the good (in opposing censorship) far outweighs the bad.  Incidentally the excellent TV series Lie to Me comes highly recommended for its exploration of deception from both the criminal and personal perspectives.

The ability to tailor our personality to maintain multiple social relationships is in the most part a good thing.  It aids co-operation and cohesion as we focus on shared common ground, putting aside views and behaviour that could offend.

Add to this - as the sayings go - we're only human and none of us are perfect, being forced to live our lives under a microscope knowing every minor transgression is being recorded and could have further consequences I feel is both cruel and dangerous.

Just as Godwin mocked comparisons with the Nazis during online discussion, it's reasonably well established that any blog mentioning surveillance contains an obligatory mention of Orwell, so here comes. 

Constant surveillance inhibits development as pushing at the boundaries and bending the rules is just part of our creative and adventurous nature that advances society.  Of course Orwell illustrates this beautifully in his futurist novel 1984(!).

Quality of evidence

ACS:Law and before them Davenport Lyons have sent thousands of warning letters, most if not all containing an "opportunity" to settle out of court for a mere £500 per infringement.

Yet there's only been one successful court case to date.  Reported at the time as contested (14th paragraph) it now appears as though this was a default judgement as TorrentFreak report one of the many emails leaked from ACS:Law indicates the accused failed to show up in this case.

An ISP account holder accused of copyright infringement may be innocent for one of a number of reasons, including:
  • A computer compromised by a virus, trojan or other malicious programme was under the control of a 3rd party without the knowledge of the account holder.
  • Someone else at the property may have used the net connection.  So long as the account holder was not complicit nor could be expected to anticipate the infringement he would not be liable for the infringement by a third party (although this changes when the Digital Economy Act comes into force).
  • The "infringement" detected could be fair use, or even a licensed use.
  • A mistake could have been made at some point in the evidential chain. The evidence will not be tested until the first contested case hits the court, but the following should be examined:
     - Proof that the IP address specified was actually hosting the infringing material. Is this simply the word of the private copyright enforcement agency against the word of the accused, or can details be independently verified?
     - Verification that the date and *precise* time of infringement is accurate - important because dynamic IP addresses are often redistributed by ISPs
     - Verification that equipment used by the ISP to record IP address allocation can be relied upon to give an accurate and definitive record of which account is using a given IP address at any given time, especially for dynamically allocated IP addresses
Questions about the evidential chain are not helped by secrecy.  The BBC reports that Gallant MacMillan have asked for details to be kept from open court when its case against British Telecom, owners of ISP PlusNet resumes in January.  The case was brought by Gallant MacMillan to request details for account holders where copyright owned by record published Ministry of Sound is alleged to have been infringed.

It won't be until all these issues have been addressed in open court that I'll have any confidence in the assertion that an ISP account holder can be help liable for an alleged infringement "detected" on his or her connection.

@JamesFirth

[part one] [part two] 

Monday, 4 October 2010

ACS:Law part two - mob justice

[part one] [part three]

Secretly happy when an unfortunate something happens to someone bad? If so, I'm glad it's not just me!

I don't like ACS:Law's business model - I think demanding £500 per infringement from ISP account holders to avoid court action for alleged copyright violations on their internet connection is immoral.

Immoral because it appears designed to scare those who may not have a deep understanding of the legal situation into paying.  In many circumstances the account holder has a legal defence (Smith v Littlewoods) for what others do using their ISP connection - at least until the full provisions of the Digital Economy Act come into force.

Not only did the leak of ACS:Law's emails highlight their clear ineptitude in protecting sensitive personal information, it also showed the firm's principle Andrew Crossley was made aware of this potential defence in an email from his own legal advisor.

There are other reasons I question the actions of ACS:Law.  Electronic surveillance by private companies is in my mind disproportionate to the alleged wrongdoing (a minor civil tort). I also believe hunting those who share music and video online is not in anyone's long term interests.

But I came in for some stick in the comments section for my article on the Guardian this weekend for daring to question the actions of cyber-vigilantes (4chan, anonymous) in bringing websites associated with rights protection organisations to their knees.

It's not the DDoS attacks which crippled ACS's systems but the re-hosting of the leaked sensitive personal data in easily accessible format - e.g. searchable by postcode to see what adult movies, if any, your neighbours may have been watching - I find particularly worrying. 

The actions of individuals - eRobin Hoods(?!) - is exacerbating the anguish of those affected, especially given that many who appear on the list will have had nothing to do with the alleged infringement listed.

Does the action of the cyber-vigilantes in republishing the personal data justify the ends?  One commentor drew parallels between the cyber-mob and other non-violent protest. But I reject this argument because the protest though non-violent is affecting ordinary innocent bystanders, who I feel have a right to privacy.

I don't believe the civil and democratic processes have been fully exhausted, as the same commentor clearly insinuated when he went on to say "in the absence of democracy, what exactly do people have left."  ACS:Law was under investigation by the Solicitors Regulation Authority prior to the attacks, and had come under intense pressure from Which? for its tactics.  It's somewhat ironic that the leak showed how pressure from Which? and others was straining ACS:Law's relationships with its clients.

Accepting mob justice sets a dangerous precedent and furthermore threatens to alienate those campaigning for proportionality in dealing with the modern culture of file sharing and calling for better regulation of the growing private army of "data police" I'm going to consider in the final part of this series.

It also gives some ammunition to ACS:Law, who last week argued that their data protection lapse was a result of criminal actions.  On this occasion the Information Commissioner Christopher Graham  (from 1.27 in on this video) said "this kind of excuse [coming under criminal attack] doesn't wash" and went on to say that "controversial" companies in particular should expect to come under attack and must have in place adequate data protection measures.

Whatever the flaws in our legal system and parliamentary democracy, accepting mob justice is a far worse option.  The picture at the top of this article was taken in Uganda in 2004.  It's not actually a mob attack but part of a village ritual, but mob attacks are commonplace and instant justice can sometimes be meted out to innocent parties who are unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This was highlighted when a friend hit a young cyclist whilst driving in Uganda. The accident was unavoidable as the cyclist shot out into a busy road.  A mob formed as the cyclist lay injured and a local policeman wanted a bribe from the driver in order to arrest him and take him away from the mob, which was growing in anger.  Luckily the child was not fatally injured and a compromise was reached with the mob whereby my friend drove the cyclist to hospital and paid for subsequent treatment.

The mob in the heat of the moment believe in their actions.  But with hindsight a different story may emerge, which is a key benefit of the legal system, where facts are examined away from the heat of the situation.

Democratic systems also allow opposing views to be reconciled.  I believe ACS:Law's methods were wrong, both disproportionate to the alleged offence and immoral to capitalise on the fear or naivety of the ISP account holder.

Yet clearly not everyone shares my view. Many in the music and film industry believe they have the moral right to protect their business interests against those who take copyrighted works without payment.

The ancient law of copyright has been under close scrutiny ever since the arrival of photocopiers and home tape machines, in particular video cassettes.  The advent of the internet has pushed the system to breaking point.  Clearly there are those with strong views on both sides of the debate.

But many other groups hold strong moral views, just one example being pro-life campaigners.  Would it be appropriate for pro-life groups to wage a cyber-war against websites set up to offer help and advice to young people on contraception and abortion?

Our democracy and legal system is far from perfect, but the alternative is far worse.  We can't let anarchy prevail online, allowing the strongest groups - those equipped with the skills to inflict damage on the IT systems of others - prevail.

[part one] [part three]

@JamesFirth

Saturday, 2 October 2010

ACS:Law - the case for a UK breach notification law

This is not part two of my series, but the full unabridged version of a piece I was privileged to be asked to write for Comment is Free.

It's probably the largest and most significant personal data leak in UK history, yet it took mainstream media nearly 3 days to report on it and details are still emerging.

Late on Friday evening an archive containing thousands of emails from solicitors ACS:Law appeared on the internet.

Alerted by Twitter I watched the horrific significance of the leak unfold as an army of bloggers and forum users dissected the email archive, highlighting the highly-sensitive nature of the data within.

A handful of credit card details and passwords for some of ACS:Law's own accounts were interesting, but the shock discovery was documents containing names and addresses of ISP account holders alongside titles of pornographic films alleged to have been downloaded - the explicit titles of many belying sexual preferences.

With details still emerging a week later, I fear it may be some time before we understand the full human cost of the leak.

Alexander Hanff of campaign group Privacy International spoke to me earlier this week: 
“This data loss is significant because of the human angle. Besides being the first time I can remember where leaked personal data from the UK has been made so readily available on the internet we must also consider the nature of the data leaked."

"Credit card details are one thing - and there are procedures for limiting financial loss - but some of the strongest human emotions are driven by sexuality and attitudes to porn."

"Marriages can be wrecked through – sometimes wrongful – suggestions that a partner may have viewed pornography.  Beyond the potential for criminals to blackmail workers in sensitive posts is also the human anxiety over being accepted for their sexual orientation in what is still a very judgemental society”
Talking about the significance of this leak and its potential for becoming a watershed event a friend was sceptical:
"If the scandal of 25 million records leaking from HMRC failed to change people's attitudes to private information and data protection I doubt this will."
Yet whilst other leaks potentially affected far more - on paper at least - few (if any) resulted in widespread publication. Andrew Sharpe, a solicitor highly-experienced in data protection issues at law firm Charles Russell told me:
Whilst we've advised clients in the past on dealing with the aftermath of a data loss I can't recall any loss which has actually resulted in personally identifiable information being published online or used in any way. Most loss events I'm aware of are in relation to improper disposal, disappearance or theft of laptops or similar and the data never actually surfaces”
Beyond the nuts and bolts of data protection for firms handling sensitive data are important moral and political questions about the role of private firms in electronic surveillance and the suitability of data protection legislation.

The opportunity for firms to act as a private police force regulating net content is likely to increase, not decrease, when the Digital Economy Act comes into force, yet I don't believe the current data protection laws or penalties are sufficient to act as a deterrent for businesses dealing with sensitive personal information.

The mob actions of cyber-vigilantes in the aftermath of this latest leak, making the sensitive lists readily available and searchable on shady websites hosted overseas must be condemned as strongly as ACS:Law should for their data protection lapse.

Yet there is an interesting moral conundrum in that without the questionable actions of some, lax data protection practices may never have come to light, leaving the data vulnerable.  A worst-case scenario would be criminals quietly capturing the data for a blackmail campaign.  At least the publicity surrounding this leak may deter many from paying.

This year the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) was granted powers to levy fines of up to £500,000 for serious breaches of data protection "principles".  Yet this is a fraction of the entertainment budget for many larger corporations and contrasts with the Financial Services Authority, who this summer levied a £2.27m fine on insurance firm Zurich for its failure to adequately protect customer data.

Consideration should be given to increasing further the ICO's powers to fine companies, or even introducing criminal penalties.  But in light of this leak we must also consider introducing a data breach notification law to protect individuals whose personal details could have fallen into the hands of criminal gangs.

California was the first US state to get such a law, forcing companies who lose personal data to notify everyone potentially affected.  LA-based lawyer Tanya Forsheit of the Info Law Group told me that the law passed in 2002 has forced companies to pay much more attention to data protection issues.

"There's no question - it's totally changed how organisations feel about security"

"Breach notification shines a light on the problem and it forces organisations to take steps to try and avoid those situations."

45 other US states have followed California's lead by enacting their own breach notification laws.

@JamesFirth