The Samovar

July 26, 2007, 4:07 pm
Filed under: Frivolity, Internet

The news from the BBC (via azahar) that…

A US cat that is reportedly able to sense when a nursing home’s residents are about to die is baffling doctors.

Oscar has a habit of curling up next to patients at the home in Providence, Rhode Island, in their final hours.

According to the author of a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, the two-year-old cat has been observed to be correct in 25 cases so far.

… immediately made me want to fire up my copy of Photoshop and get to work, but I did a quick search and sadly someone else got there first:


Still – I think we can come up with a better caption than that. Any suggestions?

Giddens: more rhetoric
July 21, 2007, 2:14 pm
Filed under: Civil Liberties, Politics, Risk, Security, Surveillance Society, Terrorism

A while ago, Anthony Giddens wrote a piece on terrorism and security that I replied to rather light heartedly. Others wrote more serious replies – see my previous entry for links. Today he wrote a rather odd piece on CiF replying to comments on his last “dozen or so articles”. Obviously since he was replying to so much, his comments were little more than a reaffirmation of what he’d already said, but for what it’s worth, here’s my reply to what he said about terrorism and security.

Whatever some of the bloggers want, Brown won’t commit electoral suicide by lurching towards the traditional left. Moreover, he is correct not to do so.

It’s worth pointing out that terrorism and security is not a left/right political issue. Authoritarians and civil libertarians exist at all points on the left/right spectrum. This is just misdirection – a complete red herring.

For instance, he owes it to citizens to make sure that they are protected against the threat posed by global terrorism. As I said in my article on the subject – written well before the latest attacks…

I love it. As if the fact that some utterly hopeless incompetents entirely failed to carry out what would have been a rare terrorist attack with a fairly small number of casualties (a few days worth of traffic fatalities at most) supported his argument. As if one could draw conclusions about risk and probability from a singular event.

– the debate about security in relation to civil liberties hangs a great deal upon how serious one believes the threat actually is.

At first when reading this I thought it was odd that he understands that the case must be based on the actual threat given that his argument was based on hypothesis and supposition, but then I look a closer look at the words he used. “The debate,” he says, “depends upon on how serious one believes the threat actually is” – not on how serious it actually is, or on the basis of evidence, but on the basis of belief.

It has to be analysed in terms of risk, a subject of some complexity, which I have studied in detail for many years.

Yessss!! I love it when they use appeal to authority. It’s especially delicious when their own argument undermines that authority (“written well before the latest attacks”).

Most of the blogs on this issue were hostile to what I said, but I stand by it. Taking high-consequence risks seriously,

But they’re not high-consequence risks. The largest terrorist attack ever killed under 3000 people. That’s no joke, but as I point out again and again, it’s absolutely tiny in comparison to so many other risks we face.

and mobilising against them, are the conditions of reducing them to manageable proportions, whether they be those associated with global warming, avian flu, world financial meltdown or international terrorism. The more seriously we take each issue, the less chance there is of a destructive outcome; but then those who disagreed with the policy in the first place will always say: “You were scaring us unnecessarily – look, nothing significant has happened.”

It is entirely right that the issue of civil freedoms should continue to be intensely debated. The level of risk should be monitored in a continuing way. One contributor asks, what will happen to freedoms that have been in some part suspended when the threat of terrorism recedes?

I would also add that the threat – such as it is – isn’t going to recede for a very long time, so we should take note that changes to our society based on the threat of terrorism have to be considered semi-permanent.

It is a very necessary question. There must be regular reports made to parliament, which can be scrutinised in detail; an independent role for the judiciary in making judgments has to be sustained; public debate must continue. How far anti-terrorist policies might produce an Orwellian state is itself a matter of risk assessment;

Certainly, if one is going to give the government and police powers which could be abused there should be independent scrutiny to minimise the dangers. The point is that when the state itself is the potential threat, you can’t rely on it to make reports to itself and supervise itself. The effectiveness of an independent method of scrutiny depends very much on the precise details of who exactly is doing it, what their relation to those in power is, what powers they have to investigate and overrule state decisions, etc. Can the judiciary be relied on for this sort of role? I’m not sure one way or the other. Either way, a better way of minimising the risk of abuse of powers is to not grant those powers in the first place, and to put practical obstacles in their way so that future governments cannot give themselves greater powers. Not building a surveillance infrastructure would be a good start.

but such procedures, robustly applied, will keep such an eventuality as the remotest of possibilities.

The remotest of possibilities? How remote is this possibility compared to say, the threat of an effective nuclear, biological or chemical weapons based terrorist attack upon which he based the entirety of his original argument? Presumably he thinks it’s much more remote, but what is the basis of this claim? While there have been no examples of successful such attacks despite much will to use them, there have been plenty of examples of governments that have turned bad based on manipulating the fears of the governed.

That some contributors talk as though such a state is already here, while dismissing new-style terrorism as offering no significant threat, strikes me as absurd.

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Function creep: surveillance in London
July 17, 2007, 1:42 pm
Filed under: Civil Liberties, ID Cards, Politics, Security, Surveillance Society, Terrorism

Function creep is a very useful concept for understanding government and surveillance. When a new technology is introduced to do one thing (one function), and is later used for an entirely different thing, that’s function creep. It often seems as though governments plan to bring in potentially unpopular technologies by exploiting function creep. It goes like this: the government wants to do X where X requires some new and expensive technology Y. Unfortunately for them, X is fairly unpopular and if everyone knows that they’re spending money on Y in order to do X then there’ll be a huge fuss about it in the papers. So what they do is invent a new and popular thing Z that also requires the technology Y. When they’re building Y they say it’s for Z, but all the time they have in the back of their mind that they’ll introduce X later on.

Function creep is one reason why civil liberties campaigners are so worried about ID cards. The government plans to introduce them as a non-compulsory thing which will only be used in ways that are useful to most people, or for purposes that are popular (like being nasty to immigrants, or catching terrorists). It won’t actually do those things effectively, but that doesn’t matter because that’s not what they’re really for. It’s really there to build a large database on everyone to make the job of the civil service and police that much easier, and it may also undergo function creep in the future to make it compulsory to have one, and maybe later than that to make it compulsory to always carry it, etc.

Today the BBC reports an interesting example of function creep in London.

Police are to be given live access to London’s congestion charge cameras – allowing them to track all vehicles entering and leaving the zone.

The reason given is terrorism:

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith blamed the “enduring vehicle-borne terrorist threat to London” for the change.

There is function creep going on at many levels here. The first is that an infrastructure of cameras built to help manage congestion in London is now going to be used for routine surveillance by the police. Would we have agreed to a network of cameras being built in order to spy on us all the time? Almost certainly not, but they can just apply function creep to a system that’s already there. In this case, it was almost certainly opportunistic rather than planned function creep.

There’s also a hint as to some planned function creep:

But they will only be able to use the data for national security purposes and not to fight ordinary crime, the Home Office stressed.

In other words: don’t complain about this on civil liberties grounds, we’re only going to use it on terrorists. For the moment.

This is suspect for two reasons. First of all, they might change their minds about it in the future. Alarm bells should be going off when they reassure us it won’t be used to fight ordinary crime, given that the actual dangers associated to ordinary crime are so much larger than the negligible threat of terrorism. Secondly, because they’re already using terrorism laws in ordinary police work:

Since 2001, some 436 people have been charged in relation to terrorism investigations. Almost 200 of these were under standard criminal offences such as conspiracy to murder.

And let’s not forget Walter Wolfgang, the Labour party member who was kicked out of the party conference and detained under anti-terrorism legislation for shouting the word “Nonsense!”.

To finish off with, the article also makes a passing reference to an earlier function creep:

Although charges are only in force at peak times, the system runs 24 hours a day, a TfL spokesman said.

In other words, the system was already being used as a de facto surveillance infrastructure – running when it had absolutely no need to in order to carry out its stated and original function.

Update (18 July 2007): And for anyone who thought I was being paranoid, only one day later plans to extend this scheme nationwide for use in fighting ordinary crime were leaked to the Guardian. SpyBlog has more in depth coverage.

Courgette risotto
July 14, 2007, 9:03 pm
Filed under: Consumption, Cooking, Food, Recipes

I asked for suggestions on courgette risotto a while ago, and tonight I finally got round to making it – delicious!


In the end, I stuck to the basic plan I already made, cut off the skins, put the flesh in the risotto early so that it partially dissolves, and cook the chopped skins separately. I cooked the skins until they were quite brown although I didn’t bother to get out my griddle pan in the end. I also toasted some pinenuts, and put in some chopped herbs (oregano and parsley) and a tiny squeeze of lemon. I served it with some homemade pesto.


I think there are a few things I would do differently if I was doing it again, so here is my recommended recipe (not quite how I did it):

Ingredients (for 2)

  • 2 courgettes, skins taken off and roughly chopped, flesh finely chopped (I only roughly chopped it, and I think it would have been better done fine)
  • Handful of pinenuts, toasted
  • Herbs, chopped (some combination of parsley, oregano, marjoram, basil, mint probably)
  • Lemon juice to taste (probably about 1/3 of a lemon’s worth)
  • Pesto (optional, it was quite nice but fine without)
  • Onion, risotto rice, parmesan, stock, wine, butter, oil, salt, pepper

Soften onions in olive oil, add risotto rice and toast for a minute or so. Pour in some wine or dry vermouth and boil until dry. Put in the finely chopped courgette flesh, some stock and half the herbs. Cook as a normal risotto.

Meanwhile, saute the courgette skins in butter on a high heat so they soften a bit (but not mushy) and brown. Add the lemon juice and herbs to this. Toast the pinenuts.

When the risotto is ready, stir in the pinenuts, parmesan, butter, salt and pepper and test for seasoning. Finally, lightly fold in the skins, herbs and lemon mixture.

Serve with the pesto on the side.

The great scrabble contest begins
July 12, 2007, 8:03 pm
Filed under: Frivolity, Games, Scrabble

So azahar introduced me to Scrabulous. The first match was a win for her, but a double rematch is happening now.

The game started well for az with rootier (hah!). Nice to get a blank tile on your first go. I fought back valiantly to gain a 10 point lead when suddenly – whammo! – I was hit with quin for 70 points. I knew az had the Q, but I was holding the last U. Rather foolishly, I forgot about the second blank that was still unplayed. Fiat, jib and upo (wtf?) weren’t enough to get me close especially with hied on a triple word score and I ended 41 points down, 400 to 359. Not even a creaming!


July 11, 2007, 3:31 am
Filed under: Civil Liberties, Politics

We’ve had Brown as PM for a bit now, what do we think so far? What can we expect? My impressions so far are mostly bad but not all bad. On the good side, he seems more intelligent than Blair for one thing, and he’s at least making some good noises on constitutional reform and civil liberties (amongst some bad ones too). On the bad side, he’s still a right-winger and a technocrat.

In more detail.

I never really believed that Blair was intelligent. I know he went to Oxford and all that, but I’m sure plenty of dim people found their way there. I don’t really believe it, but he came across as sufficiently dim that it was almost possible he really thought he was doing the right thing in Iraq. Brown surely knew it wasn’t and supported it anyway. That makes him possibly an even more frightening prospect. On the other hand, all things being equal I’d probably prefer someone competent in charge than an idiot. (Is that true if their ideology is basically wrong I wonder?)

Brown’s decision to reconsider the ban on protest outside parliament has led Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty and Henry Porter both to say some good things about Brown on civil liberties. They both also have some bad things to say on the same subject. SpyBlog isn’t convinced and nor is Chris Marsden, and both for good reasons. My feeling is we’re going to have more of the same, possibly not with quite the intensity of the Blair years, and some gestures towards liberty. We’ll have to see though.

Tony Benn and Henry Porter have both written cautiously optimistic things about Brown’s statements on constitutional reform. On the other hand, I find myself somewhat agreeing with Julie Hyland’s view that these amount to “largely cosmetic changes”. Despite that, there are some potentially good and democratic things in there: giving power back to parliament; the possibility of lowering the voting age, and of participatory budgeting.

Democracy is a tricky point for Brown though, because he is clearly a technocrat, and technocracy is at odds with democracy. He believes that in politics there is a correct thing to do, and that good politics is about finding out what that is and doing it. This is the New Labour “what works” concept, the idea that there is no ideological component to politics, just the correct management of affairs. The problem is that this is just wrong. There is an ideological component, and pretending there isn’t is just a cover for your ideology.

Take the PFI/PPP schemes for example. These were sold as doing “what works” because companies are more efficient than the state. The problem with this is that the mechanism which makes companies efficient is the free market and the fact that companies that aren’t efficient go out of business, and not something intrinsic about organisations that aren’t run by the state. Most PFI/PPP schemes didn’t involve a market, the risks were underwritten by the state and the profits were given to the companies. What was sold as “what works” was actually an ideological commitment to private enterprise that amounted to a transfer of wealth to the private sector, and in many cases ended up costing considerably more and working less well than when it was in the public sector.

Technocracy is anti-democratic because it pretends that there are no specifically political problems, that is, that there are no conflicts of interest. People can plainly see this isn’t the case, and it makes participating in the democratic process seem rather worthless. This must in part account for the fact that between 1997 and 2005, New Labour lost 3.9m votes. In contrast, between the 1974 and 1979 elections, the Labour party actually gained votes (albeit much less than the Tories). In the 2005 elections, New Labour got less votes than the Tories did in 1997 (but obviously still more than they did in 2005).

The biggest cover-up of New Labour though is very much to do with Brown, that the party is now a right wing party. Lenin’s Tomb explains with precision:

Brown brought Digby fucking Jones into the government to be a trade minister. That’s right, the union-bashing, war-supporting, pensions-busting, right-wing former tub-thumping tub of lard for the CBI. He isn’t a member of the Labour Party, doesn’t support it, and has often led the charge against it from the right.

As far as I can see, on the basis of the last 10 years of government, there’s no reason to expect Brown to cease being a right-winger, nor to give up his technocratic tendencies. This weakens any claims he might make about democratic reforms, and should make us wary. It’s not impossible though that he might be better than Blair.

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Countdown letters game
July 10, 2007, 1:33 am
Filed under: Frivolity, Games, Java, Programming | Tags: ,

I’ve been quite impressed by the abilities of my shiny new phone, especially the sort of games and programs you can run on it. I downloaded software to calculate poker odds, translate words between 15 different languages, connect to Google maps, and tell me all sorts of political statistics from the CIA World Factbook (which surprisingly I’ve already used in one argument I got into with someone!).

So I wondered if I too could write some fantastic software for my phone. What I really wanted to do was to write a program to crack the Enigma code on my phone, thus proving the claim that is sometimes made that modern phones have as much computing power as the whole computing effort of WW2. That seemed too much like hard work though. So instead, I set myself the more modest task of beating Dictionary Corner in Countdown.

For those who don’t know, Countdown is a gameshow in the UK. One of the games is to find the best word you can make with 9 randomly chosen letters in 30 seconds. After the contestants have said what their best words are, Dictionary Corner tell them what they could have got. Obviously they use a computer to do it, but until now we the viewers have been at a disadvantage unless we were willing to have our laptops out while we watched the show. No longer!

I present the mobile phone Countdown letters game solver (click to go to the download page, for Java enabled phones). It will find the five best words you can make in only 10 seconds (or less on a newer phone than mine).  Here it is in action on a Countdown conundrum:


Sadly, even the awesome power of the mobile phone is not enough to beat Countdown legend Conor Travers (14) who managed to get this one in under two seconds.

Do please download it and have a go with it. It works on my phone but I’d like to have feedback to find out if it works for other people’s phones. For the technically minded, it requires J2ME, including MIDP2.0 and CLDC1.0,  or better.