Archive for the 'current events' Category

On sex education for 7 year olds in UK schools

The BBC reports that Sex education should start at seven, Lib Dems say.

Of course 7 year old kids should get sex education at school; puberty is from 8 years old for girls, 9 for boys.

The whole point of education is to prepare kids for life, so you have to tell them about stuff first (hint: that’s what “prepare” means.)

Sex education results in fewer sexually transmitted diseases and fewer unwanted pregnancies. This is not only good for the people involved, but is better for the whole nation – which makes it excellent public policy.

However, “parents will retain the right to pull children under 15 out of sex education lessons” according to the Daily Mail. Why? Do we let them take kids out of Maths or Geography classes?

There should be no opt-out from parents trying to foist their religion or sexual hangups onto their children. Education > indoctrination.

On violence

I want to get the men who shot down MH17, and the leaders of Hamas and Israel, and repeatedly punch them in their faces until their noses are smashed. I would enjoy it.

The horrible, bitter irony of this is not lost on me.

Two cheers for the economic recovery

As we approach a council and European election in UK, and are a year away from the General Election, the government is crowing that its years of austerity politics have put Britain right again. House prices are booming (in the South East) etc. 1.2 million new jobs are (apparently) created (but what kind of jobs?). “Welfare has been capped and immigration controlled, so our economy works for those who play by the rules”, say the Conservatives.

It doesn’t feel like a Golden Age of prosperity here in my past-its-heydey suburb of South Birmingham. Our high street supports two family butchers, and a greengrocer. But there are also two slot machine shops, several discount shoes and cheap clothing shops, as well as a slew of charity shops and places to sell gadgets/ jewellry for cash.

Here are some photos of my local high street; it takes 10 minutes to amble along this route – approximately 400m to walk up, cross the road, and walk down again.

There’s an Oxfam charity shop:

Oxfam charity shop

A shop selling plastic stuff and canned food for a pound:

Poundbase pound shop

A PDSA charity shop:

PDSA charity shop

A cheque centre (for cashing cheques at a commission) next to an “Entertainment centre” (where people can buy sell phones, games consoles, DVDs etc):

Cheque cashing payday loan place, next to "cash converters" type shop

A British Heart Foundation furniture and electrical store, where people on low incomes can buy cheap used furniture:

Furniture/ Electrical charity shop

A branch of Pound Stretchers:

Pound Stretcher

“Money for Gold Rope” where you can sell your jewelry:

Money 4 Gold pawn shop

Debra charity shop for cheap used furniture:

Debra charity shop

Cash converters, where you can sell your TV, DVD player. There’s always a queue to sell at weekends:

Cash converter pawn shop

A Marie Curie cancer hospice charity shop next to a British Red Cross charity shop:

Marie Curie Hospice Charity shop next to British Red Cross charity shop

Acorns Children’s Hospice charity shop:

Acorns hospice charity shop

BetFred bookmakers, next to Scope charity shop:

Betfred bookmakers next to Scope charity shop

Albemarle Bond pawn shop:

Pawnbroker shop

Bright House, a shop that provides “high-quality, branded products to credit-constrained customers, through affordable weekly payments. Our bespoke credit management processes enable our customers to get the goods they need, in a way they can afford”. It’s basically a high-interest hire purchase shop; the front page of their website today advertises a “representative APR of 64.7%”:

Bright House high-interest hire purchase

British Heart Foundation charity shop:

British Heart Foundation charity shop

Charity shops do great work, and I love poking around them for CDs and books. But when most of your high street is charity shops, it’s difficult to believe the triumphant cries of “recovery!” from the millionaires in government.

Birmingham’s “garden tax” Nazi binmen furore: solved

Here in Birmingham (UK, not Al’A-Bama), tensions run high as Blighty gears up to a general election. Our City Council has long been profligate with cash and recently starved of money by the central government’s austerity policy, so has stopped collecting garden waste for free, and started charging £35 a year for fortnightly collections.

The problem

Thanks to advances in our understanding of quantum physics from the Large Hadron Collider, scientists have discovered that grass cuttings, plant prunings and vegetable matter will, when left in a pile and thereafter ignored, naturally decompose and add what boffins call “nutrients” into the soil. This process, known to Nobel-prizewinners as “composting”, is cheaper and easier than going out in a car and buying big plastic bags full of compost to spread on your garden.

However, “composting” is a concept so revolutionary that news of it has yet to filter out to the horticulturally-minded public who can’t afford the new £3 per month charge to collect garden waste, so naturally they throw it onto the street to rot.

Rotting matter can attract pests and vermin, and this has led to an epidemic of opportunist parliamentary wannabes berating the council for such eyesores on social media:

Why anyone should want to “put an end to” eccentric middle-aged druids in rainbow clothing kneeling in prayer to grass cuttings is beyond me; each to their own, I say. A more sinister turn of events has occurred with the local newspaper reporting that that the ex-Lord Mayor has likened council binmen to The Gestapo.

It’s getting nasty. People need to chill out.

The solution

I have a solution to the problem. The council should make it legal, or even compulsory, for residents to grow marijuana in their gardens. For the vast majority of people, their ganja harvest would far out-strip their domestic consumption, but instead of dumping the waste for Druid-Lady to mourn, they could sell it to real stoners. I’m pretty sure that a binbag full of homegrown would fetch a lot more than £35, enabling the gardeners to pay the council to take their waste and making them a tidy profit, too.

Truly, the Green Shoots of Economic Recovery™ for Birmingham’s Hard-Working Families™.

Pass the bong, please, Binman Bormann.

Thoughts on monetising user data

Aral Balkan asked me to “cut to the chase, Bruce: do you find anything wrong with the business models of Facebook & Google (monetising data)?”

It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about, but it needs more than 140 characters, so here goes. Note that these are my personal opinions. I work for Opera, which has business relationships with Google, Facebook, and its own advertising arm of the business.

But I also use Google and Facebook services privately so have my own views as a user; again, these are my opinions, not those of my employers.

I work on the web, but at home on my own, so I use Facebook and Twitter a lot. Not only is it useful for discussing work, but it’s my “watercooler”. I don’t mind that the personal stuff I write is publicly available, although I keep my location secret and no longer put the names of my kids online. (Facebook stuff isn’t public. I only really use it as it’s where non-geek real-life friends are.)

I don’t much mind that Google tracks my searching habits around the Web (although I would pay money not to have to watch Treehouse Woman again on YouTube, because she’s too shinyhappy, and puts her coffee down on a wooden surface without using a coaster).

The annoyance I find is offset by the fact that I understand why they do this; it’s how they make money to support the services I use for free, which are primarily Search, Gmail and YouTube. (I get no benefit from Google+.)

In short – I understand that “I am the product being sold”, and am OK with that. Similarly, I’m fine with getting tailored money-off vouchers for products that I use, sent to me by supermarkets who know what I use because they monitor it. I opt in, because I see value in that. You may not; that’s fine.

As long as the companys’ privacy settings are both clear, and honoured by the company, I don’t see this data gathering and data mining as inherently intrusive. I’m not sure that all companies privacy settings are sufficiently clear, however; I read a case study some years ago in which a good-sized sample of people were asked what privacy settings they had on their social networking, and it was compared with the actual setting – very few matched. The Facebook Android app permissions are certainly opaque.

Perhaps companies that do monetize data could make their privacy settings more transparent, and be even more obvious that the price of free is your data. But I think the latter is pretty obvious to those who give it a little thought; we can’t always handhold stupid people. There should certainly be a simple method to delete all one’s data and history from public view, and which will be removed from the company’s server/ archive within a defined period of time.

What annoys me most is when people or organisations use my data without my permission. For example, a few years ago, my wife had a minor car accident. Somewhere in the chain of insurance company, loss adjusters and repairs garage, our phone number was given to an unauthorised third party and occasionally I receive a phone call from a call centre trying to sell me “no win, no fee” ambulance-chasing legal services.

But beyond annoyance, what alarms me is secretive State intrusion into my life through my digital tracks. I assume that all companies – whether a supermarket loyalty scheme or a social network – regularly comply with warrants from law-enforcement agencies going about their legitimate work.

Let’s assume that the social networks and search engines, as they claim, don’t just hand over all their data to the governmental snoops. It then seems to me that, unless they’ve been fantastically lax with their security – which is certainly possible, but unlikely, given that it’s their core cash-generating asset – they can’t be blamed for the actions of the government.

We know from Edward Snowden that some companies’ data is just wholesale hacked by NSA, GCHQ and other state bodies. The legality of this is being debated in courts at the moment. The morality of this is clear (to me): it’s wrong. “If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear” is the refrain of the KGB, the Gestapo and every despot across the globe.

Government intrusion isn’t new. When I was a teenager, I joined a communist party. My letters from them were always opened (and no others). Presumably, this was done actually by the UK Post Office on police orders – that is, complete collusion, even thought there was no warrant or reason to fear an idealistic but naive 17 year old. It’s also long been rumoured that the voting slips of all UK communist voters were cross-referenced against their counterfoils and the names of communist voters given to Special Branch and MI5.

In short, to answer Aral’s question: I don’t feel that commercial organisations using data that I’ve opted to provide them, for the purposes they said they’ll use if for, is wrong. It’s part of modern capitalism, which contains plenty I have to hold my nose about, but that’s a much longer blog post which I can’t be bothered to write.

The worrisome aspect is states illegally stealing our data from those companies, and putting us under constant surveillance, justified by keeping us safe from this year’s bogeymen.

But those same social networks and web companies allow us to share information on what they’re doing and organise in order to protest against it. The tension between individual liberty (I believe privacy is an integral part of liberty) and state control is not new. The threat may be greater because of technology, but the platform to fight it from is greater, too.

News from a parallel universe

It’s been reported the United States of Yemen has killed 14 unarmed civilians attending a wedding party in America’s rural Al’a-Baama province.

Yemeni officials would not corroborate the reports, but it’s known that they have been using unmanned drones to bomb targets in America, United Kingdom and France, killing many civilians and children.

Yemen, along with Pakistan, Afghanistan and other permanent members of the UN Security Council, accuses America of causing instability in the Middle East and around the world, tolerating extremists who advocate invasion of other nations to export their state religion, “Capitalism”.

America is regarded as a failing state by Yemen. America’s President, Barack Obama, is the first from its sizeable black minority that was, until the 1960s, segregated from its white majority and which still makes up a disproportionate number of its prison population (which is the highest incarceration rate in the world).

A Yemeni government official noted that President Obama is dangerously weak, and unable to control the huge numbers of weapons circulating unchecked inside the country. There are regular reports of massacres in schools in the country but the government is unable or unwilling to intervene.

Analysts report that the growing influence of fundamentalist Christianist preachers – many closely linked to members of the ruling elite – has systemetically eroded the rights of women and gay people. The concentration of the nation’s wealth into the hands of a few oligarchical dynasties has left a large minority without access even to healthcare.

There were furious anti-Yemeni riots in America’s capital, Washington DC. American security experts have argued that drones have on numerous occasions have directly played into the Christianists’ favor, turning peaceful tribal communities into vengeful killers.

Reporter Bruce Lawson is a citizen of the UK, but was born in Yemen.

UK ISPs confirm central database of filter opt-ins

After convincing my Member of Parliament, John Hemming, of the folly of Cameron’s plan to censor the web in the UK (sorry, I mean filter the web), he’s been doing some digging with the ISPs, writing to them to ask whether they plan to store your opt-ins privately on your router, or centrally.

He’s published the answers to his emails to BT, Sky and Virgin. BT were evasive, and TalkTalk didn’t formally respond, but it’s pretty clear they’ll store them in a centralised database. What could possibly go wrong with the government having access to a list of all those who want to see porn or “extremist” sites? It’s not like we live in a surveillance society, is it?

John and I would like to publish a fuller list. If you are a customer of an ISP that’s not on the list, please email them and ask them if they plan to store your opt-ins on a centralised database, what categories they intend to filter (eg, porn, extremism, alcohol, drugs) and how they will categorise them (eg, who will decide whether BNP/ EDL sites are “extremist”?) and paste it into a comment below. Please include the date and time the reply was sent, and who signed it (so we can double-check before publishing on John’s blog).

Thanks!

We need a war on authoritarianism

It was with incredulity that I read the reports of that David Miranda, partner of the Guardian journalist who worked on the Snowden leaks, was detained by UK agents for 9 hours under anti-terrorism legislation. (In what sense is Snowden related to terrorism, anyway?)

It felt like when I was back in my teens, when the government attempted to ban books and every CND or anti-fascist march I went on (most weekends) would be surrounded by police photographing all the marchers, and every newsletter I received from the British Communist Party was mysteriously opened in transit.

The Thatcher years were dark times for real liberals – the neocons were economic “liberals” but social authoritarians (see Section 28 as an example), and I hoped that the UK was getting better when Blair came to power. Ha!

I used to switch voting between the Labour and Liberal parties, in order to ensure the Tories stayed out. Eventually, I decided I couldn’t vote Labour again while those who supported introducing ID cards were in its hierarchy. For people my age (who grew up in the 70s, just 20 years after the end of WW2), a representative of the state murmuring “papers, please” in a film was a short-cut for Soviet or Nazi state. I’ve always been proud that in the UK, if I’m lawfully going about my business, no-one has a right to ask me to prove who I am. (Of course, if I had been a young black man, the Sus law would have been my nemesis).

But now we have a government made of a coalition of the Liberal Party and the Conservatives that seems to me even more authoritarian. The Conservatives constantly bang on about “rolling back the state”, but that is a smokescreen for ideological dismantling of state benefits, of planning regulations and of redistribution of wealth. The state increasingly meddles in the lives of people in the UK, even though the government promised

We will implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties and roll back state intrusion. The Coalition: our programme for government (section 3) (PDF, 475K)

Yet they want to censor the Web (probably the UK’s greatest contribution to the modern world) and set up centralised databases of who wishes to view certain types of material with no transparency or accountability, and without a Parliamentary debate. They snoop on us via information provided by the outrageous US PRISM surveillance system. People are hounded for expressing unpleasant views on social networking. They use anti-terrorism legislation to intimidate a journalist. I’m too scared to go on protests because of heavy-handed policing – Ian Tomlinson was killed by the Metropolitan Police.

I used to mock Americans who were programmed to believe their government was corrupt and intrusive. Of course, that can lead to weirdos in the mountains with huge caches of legal guns, or the absurdities of an American friend of mine who told me once that she had no moral obligation to pay any tax while bemoaning the fact that there is no NHS in the USA.

But I’m starting to feel that the Americans who are healthily suspicious of government have a point. Just as any company in a capitalist economy tends to monopoly (the imperative to maximise profit and marketshare inexorably points that way), it seems that, without proper check and balances, all government tends towards authoritarianism.

It’s obvious that in the UK we no longer have the correct checks and balances. “They” do as they please, because we – and “they” – have forgotten that they work for us, and are not our masters. This doesn’t feel as the UK should. We, the people, need to declare a war on authoritarianism.

Letter to my MP about web censorship

This morning I wrote to my MP, John Hemming, via writetothem.com to express my concern about web censorship:

Dear John Hemming,

I noticed you tweeting that your geek rating is 90%, so I guess I don’t need to explain why David Cameron and Claire Perry’s attempts to censor the Web are so dangerous.

I’d like to know your thoughts on why this isn’t being debated in parliament; why it seems to go against their own policy after a consultation on the issue, and whether you (as my representative) agree with Mr Cameron’s ideas?

I’m deeply concerned at the scope-creep of these policies. We all oppose obscene images of children and rape. But those are illegal, and filtered, already. Is it true that we will have to opt-in to “extremist” material, and material on “smoking”? Who decides what is “extremist”?

I urge you to oppose this censorship by the back door, and I hope you’ll raise it in parliament, which is the proper place to debate such matters.

Yours sincerely,

Bruce Lawson.

To Mr Hemming’s credit, his reply came after a couple of hours:

My understanding is that the proposals relate to the default or factory settings of the domestic broadband router. I don’t think anyone has a problem with this.

Why not write to your MP? Hopefully you’ll get a more sympathetic response.

Added 17 August 2013: I’ve just had an hour long meeting with my MP, John Hemming (both of us lying on his floor as his back was gone, and it was weird for me to sit while he lay) about the plans for a UK-wide Web filter. He agrees with me that it’s a civil liberties problem, and we’ll work together to campaign against it. More detail later.