The devil doesn't wear data

July 26th, 2014

Excellent piece from Evgeny Morozov on the downside to governments' infatuation with the notion that they can 'nudge' citizens into doing the right thing (whatever that is) without any of that messy politics getting in the way:

[…] consider a May 2014 report from 2020health, another thinktank, proposing to extend tax rebates to Britons who give up smoking, stay slim or drink less. "We propose 'payment by results', a financial reward for people who become active partners in their health, whereby if you, for example, keep your blood sugar levels down, quit smoking, keep weight off, [or] take on more self-care, there will be a tax rebate or an end-of-year bonus," they state. Smart gadgets are the natural allies of such schemes: they document the results and can even help achieve them – by constantly nagging us to do what's expected.

The unstated assumption of most such reports is that the unhealthy are not only a burden to society but that they deserve to be punished (fiscally for now) for failing to be responsible. For what else could possibly explain their health problems but their personal failings? It's certainly not the power of food companies or class-based differences or various political and economic injustices. One can wear a dozen powerful sensors, own a smart mattress and even do a close daily reading of one's poop – as some self-tracking aficionados are wont to do – but those injustices would still be nowhere to be seen, for they are not the kind of stuff that can be measured with a sensor. The devil doesn't wear data. Social injustices are much harder to track than the everyday lives of the individuals whose lives they affect.

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Yolo Buggies

May 31st, 2014

Geoff Manaugh, on the work of 19th century surveyors in California who set out to map out the borders between counties:

Like a dust-covered Tron of the desert, surrounded by the invisible mathematics of a grid that had yet to be realized, these over-dressed gentlemen of another century helped give rise to an abstract model of the state.

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Life imitates The Onion

July 24th, 2013

The word 'ironic' comes to mind:

The NSA is a "supercomputing powerhouse" with machines so powerful their speed is measured in thousands of trillions of operations per second. The agency turns its giant machine brains to the task of sifting through unimaginably large troves of data its surveillance programs capture.

But ask the NSA, as part of a freedom of information request, to do a seemingly simple search of its own employees' email? The agency says it doesn't have the technology.

"There's no central method to search an email at this time with the way our records are set up, unfortunately," NSA Freedom of Information Act officer Cindy Blacker told me last week.

The system is "a little antiquated and archaic," she added. […]

How suspiciously convenient for them.1

[Via Memex 1.1]

  1. For what it's worth, I'm quite prepared to believe that they don't have all their employee email in a single spool that can easily be searched by or on behalf of their FoIA team. The question is whether that was a desired outcome or just a happy side effect of their last email migration.

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Stop opt-out 'Adult' filtering

September 5th, 2012

(I meant to post about this days ago, but because I'm an idiot I've kept putting off writing about it.)

The UK government is running a consultation on the introduction of a system of requiring Internet Service Providers to block 'Adult' content by default. This is a horrible idea for all sorts of reasons:

  1. As anyone who was ever used a network with a content filtering system in place knows, they're hopelessly unreliable. They either block far too much, or they block so selectively that they're ineffective. So, in short, they don't achieve their stated aim, and they cause all sorts of collateral damage along the way.
  2. If parents want to block their kids' internet access, there's been software available for years to let them do this. It tends not to work very well (see 1 above), or to be hard to install without the help of their tech-savvy kids – hence the request that governments force ISPs to do the job for them. None of which implies that the standards of the most censorious of parents should be applied to everyone: any such system should be offered on an opt-in basis, not as the default.
  3. Even if you completely trust the intentions of the current government and of the people who like this idea, putting a system like this in place gives a future government the tools to block whatever content they like. This is a (small) step towards our one day having the Great Firewall of the United Kingdom.

The consultation can be found here. There's a response form you can download and complete, or you could use the online response system produced by the Open Rights Group which copies your response to your MP.1

The consultation closes on 6 September 2012 (yes, tomorrow), so if you're in the UK and you care about this get thee to one of the links above and let the Department for Education know what you think.

  1. As this is a consultation by a government department individual MPs aren't involved in the process yet – their time will come if this all ends in legislation being put forward to implement whatever proposals follow this consultation exercise – but it does no harm for them to know that some of their constituents have views on this topic.

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July 8th, 2012

The world's biggest corporate fines, visualised in proportion to each company's annual income.

Really puts the Barclays LIBOR-fixing fine into perspective.

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'If you spill the beans you open up a whole can of worms.'

July 4th, 2012

In the wake of what's turned out to be an … interesting … week for the UK banking industry, a reminder from Yes, Prime Minister1 that this is by no means a 21st century phenomenon:

They've broken the rules.

What, you mean the insider trading regulations?


Oh. Well, that's one relief.

I mean of course they've broken those, but they've broken the basic, the basic rule of the City.

I didn't know there were any.

Just the one. If you're incompetent you have to be honest, and if you're crooked you have to be clever. See, if you're honest, then when you make a pig's breakfast of things the chaps rally round and help you out.

If you're crooked?

Well, if you're making good profits for them, chaps don't start asking questions; they're not stupid. Well, not that stupid.

So the ideal is a firm which is honest and clever.

Yes. Let me know if you ever come across one, won't you.

[Via Flip Chart Fairy Tales]

  1. Broadcast barely a year after the deregulation of the UK financial services industry that was known at the time as "the Big Bang."

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Real Time, for real.

June 26th, 2012

Displaying real-time road pricing information, Georgia-style.

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Freezing woman

January 30th, 2012

Reflections by danah boyd on her first visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos:

Comparing WEF to any other event is hard, but I cracked a smile when Nick Bilton remarked that WEF is a lot like Burning Man. In so many ways, he's right. A lot of people overwhelm one extreme weather location and battle non-normative conditions (Davos is crowded, covered in ice, and extremely difficult to navigate) to interact with others. In both events, there are so many different kinds of communities colliding – sometimes interacting and sometimes not. And both cost gobs of money to attend, thereby excluding all sorts of people.

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Irrational exuberance

January 23rd, 2012

It turns out that former chairman of the US Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan was laughing all the way to the (run on the) banks:

[Following the release of the minutes of the meetings of the Federal Open Market Committee's meetings for 2001-2006…]

It makes for quite a fun read if you get past all the boring economic analysis parts. In fact, if the stenographer was accurate, the Committee broke into laughter 45 times in just the January meeting! That's at least 45 jokes (some didn't get laughs – if only we knew the quality of each laughter!). I would have guessed that would be a lot relative to other meetings, right? I mean how funny would it be if the top of the housing market was also when the FOMC was telling the most jokes in their meetings?

Well, being a data nerd with nothing better to do on a Thursday night, I looked into it. To be precise, I went back for just the last six years (2001-06) and searched for how many times the stenographer's notation for laughter appeared in the released transcripts of each FOMC meeting.

Suffice it to say the data is funny…

Sadly, the minutes of meetings of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee are written in a rather dry, formal style, so there doesn't seem to be much scope for a similar analysis of economic policymakers' behaviour over here.

[Via The Morning News]

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You say 'China-style internet policy' like it's a bad thing.

December 16th, 2011

Get Your Censor On.

Why shouldn't the US government censon the internet?

[Via jwz]

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Hero and villain

October 26th, 2011

Assange versus Zuckerberg.

[Via Ghost in the Machine]

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Run it up the flagpole…

May 21st, 2011

Daz Wright flies the flag for Eric Pickles:

I, like most people, gave a little patriotic cheer when Eric Pickles announced that the pointlessly bureaucratic rules on flag flying are going to be relaxed. Pickles has always been a man that is willing to confront the issues that others shy away from. […]

[Via We Love Local Government]

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Your secrets are safe with the Met

May 19th, 2011

The Metropolitan Police, on why files relating to the force's investigation of the Whitechapel murders should not be released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request:

Detective Inspector 'D' told the tribunal that unveiling the files could deter informants from coming forward in future, and could even put off members of the public from phoning Crimestoppers or the antiterrorist hotline.

"The interpretation on the street will be that the police have revealed the identity of informants," said 'D'.

"Confidence in the system is maintaining the safety of informants, regardless of age."

Det Insp 'D' said the passage of time did not make publication of informants' identities less sensitive because their descendants could be targeted by criminals with a grudge.

"Look at one of the world's best-known informants, Judas Iscariot. If someone could draw a bloodline from Judas Iscariot to a present day person then that person would face a risk, although I know that seems an extreme example," the officer said.

STOP PRESS: News reports have been received of the murder of a Mr Julian Iscariot of 1 Gethsemane Gardens, Whitechapel, London. Detective Inspector 'D' of Scotland Yard has announced that the Metropolitan Police will be interviewing every Christian in the UK to establish whether they had an alibi for the night in question.

[Via The Morning News]

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May 13th, 2011

John Naughton relates a lovely line from a recent lecture by Peter Hennessy in which he touched upon the issue of how a Prime Minister deals with his or her responsibilities as regards the potential deployment of the UK's nuclear deterrent:

Hennessy was very interesting on this function of the Prime Minister, which he calls "end of the world stuff". The big issue is the instructions that Trident captains are given before embarking on the 90-day patrol during which time they are are largely incommunicado. Each incoming PM is now required to write, on four handwritten sheets of paper, the four options that the commander of the submarine is given. These sheets are then sealed and the envelope lodged in the submarine's safe. Hennessy raised a grim laugh when he claimed that Tony Blair "went white" when this was explained to him, and speculated that one of his concerns was that the trident patrols are not synchronised with the electoral cycle: when Blair arrived in Downing Street, one of the subs was on patrol – with John Major's handwritten instructions in the vessel's safe!

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The secret life of libraries

May 3rd, 2011

The secret life of libraries collects a set of anecdotes that serve to remind us of how much more there is to public libraries than mere statistics about the number of books/DVDs sent out on loan each week:

"The council once asked us for an assessment of outcomes, not output," says [retired librarian] Ian Stringer. "Output was how many books we'd stamped out, and outcome was something that had actually resulted from someone borrowing a book. So say someone took out a book on mending cars and then drove the car back, that's an outcome; or made a batch of scones from a recipe book they had borrowed. It lasted until one of the librarians told the council they'd had someone in borrowing a book on suicide, but that they'd never brought it back. The council stopped asking after that."

[Via The Morning News]

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Where's Yorkshire gone?

January 3rd, 2011

Take a chunk of anonymised data from British Telecom's database detailing the origin and destination of phone calls made from UK landlines, take steps to strip out numbers that belong to call centres, plot the calls on a map and you get Redrawing the Map of Great Britain from a Network of Human Interactions. Fascinating stuff.

I was surprised to see how Cumbria fared; it always felt to me as if places like Carlisle, Penrith, Whitehaven and Workington had strong ties to the North East, or certainly to Newcastle, but judging by this data that corner of the country seems to be fairly equally interested in talking to Manchester, Scotland and Tyneside.

[Via The Yorkshire Ranter]

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Wikileaks is "transparent," like a cardboard blast shack full of kitchen-sink nitroglycerine in a vacant lot.

December 27th, 2010

Bruce Sterling on the Wikileaks saga:

Assange didn't liberate the dreadful secrets of North Korea, not because the North Koreans lack computers, but because that isn't a cheap and easy thing that half-a-dozen zealots can do. But the principle of it, the logic of doing it, is the same. Everybody wants everybody else's national government to leak. Every state wants to see the diplomatic cables of every other state. It will bend heaven and earth to get them. It's just, that sacred activity is not supposed to be privatized, or, worse yet, made into the no-profit, shareable, have-at-it fodder for a network society, as if global diplomacy were so many mp3s. Now the US State Department has walked down the thorny road to hell that was first paved by the music industry. Rock and roll, baby.

[Via The Null Device]

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RPS CV-speak

December 12th, 2010

The Redundant Public Servant has been so busy submitting job applications lately that he found himself quite unable to change gear when the time came to draft his family's Christmas round robin letter:

Mrs RPS has had significant experience of leading and change management over the last year should have been Mrs RPS has had to deal with an increasingly grumpy husband who is losing his job.

RPS Daughter 1 has a strong track record of achievement in key aspects of the person specification was where I meant to say RPS Daughter 1 has continued to get great grades at school.

Son of RPS has demonstrated his commitment to personal and professional development through his pursuit of a comprehensive learning plan should really have been Son of RPS appears to have an active university social life so far as we can tell from what he writes on Facebook.

RPS is now looking for a new opportunity in an organisation which shares his commitment to excellence and passion for customer service was a convoluted way of saying His Nibs is being made redundant, any chance of a job?

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Known pasts, known futures and unknown futures

December 9th, 2010

Martin Belam has posted his notes on a talk that he recently attended by John Sheridan in which Sheridan discussed the challenges faced by in turning the text of UK legislation into hypertext:

The task before them therefore was to try and take that written word and turn it into linked data with a clear semantic model. It is a very complex and rich set of information to try and represent as pure data. […] It is common in law for a new Act to insert some text into the body of a previous one. This gives a versioning problem. As John Sheridan put it: "The statute book has known pasts, known futures, and unknown futures. All at the same time"


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December 9th, 2010

Reviewing David Laws's account of the meetings that led to the formation of the coalition government, David Runciman reckons that he's spotted evidence of a new trend in public life.

After observing that many of the Liberal Democrat negotiators adopted the classic Tony Blair strategy of positioning themselves in opposition to the beliefs of the majority of their party's members, Runciman notes:

[…] Laws reconstructs conversations at which he was present, and everyone speaks with Blair's characteristic verbal tic, beginning their sentences 'Look…' 'Look…' says Nick Clegg. 'Look…' says Chris Huhne. 'Look …' says David Laws.

If you listen out for it, this tic has become a new divide in British public life: between the people who say 'Look…' and the people who say 'So…' 'Look…' is a badge of conviction, and it's meant to signal sincerity, respect for the other point of view but a determination to do the right thing. 'So…' is mandarin-speak – it's said to be a characteristic of almost everyone who works at the Bank of England – and it signals a resigned acceptance of the facts, whatever your personal preferences might be. Most academics, in my experience, now begin their seminar answers: 'So…' When my wife and I talk to our children, I notice that we tend to say: 'So…' But Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats are determined to be 'Look…' people. […]

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