Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

You are not just yourself

Thursday, May 11th, 2017

Sometimes people feel powerless, like their individual action does not matter. That is not true, it matters tremendously and it is enormously powerful, I am going to explain one of the reasons why.

When you make a decision it is not just you making that decision, it is also people like you making the same decision for similar reasons. No one exists in isolation or acts alone, every individual is part of many overlapping, interconnected, and interdependent groups, most of which they are not even aware of. When you make a decision you make it based on how you think and what you know (consciously or not). Other people like you will be in similar situations and make the same decision, you make it together.

This means that every action you take does matter because it is not just you, it is people like you doing the same thing. Your individual action might be tiny, but your collective action might be huge. If the only thing stopping you is that you do not think it will make a difference because it is just you, then do it, if you do it then other people will too, if you do not then they will not. You have the responsibility to make the decision and to do the thing, but in doing it, you will not be alone.

There are lots of reasons to vote and this is only one of them, but you should.

There is a dark side to the fact that you are not just yourself, you are a community, and that is that if others control the inputs to your community and target them carefully for every group, then you are not yourself, you are theirs.

Think carefully, think twice, install an ad-blocker and make your decision.


Now that sounds horribly patronising, which it is, and so this academic is going to get off his ivory tower with his simplistic notions and go and do some work.

The pursuit of peace

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

The primary purpose of the EU is peace in Europe (particularly between EU members). War is expensive and so the secondary purpose of economic prosperity is well served by the primary purpose.

The pursuit of peace makes he EU act in strange and seemingly inefficient ways: Parliament gets on a train and travels to a different country. Development teams are split in half with hundreds of miles between them. Research funding is contingent on moving to a different country or collaborations between institutions in multiple countries. All of which seems rather inefficient due to the overheads of travel and communication, at least when considering only the immediate purpose of each activity.

However, considering the pursuit of peace it makes perfect sense and is much more ‘efficient’. By mixing people up and having them experience different countries, barriers are broken down. It is much harder to dehumanise and demonise people you know well and are your friends. The EU tries to tie people from all its nations so tightly together with bonds of love and friendship (and commerce and mutual dependence) that they might never again go to war.

We could learn something from that within our own nation for addressing the deep divisions between our different regions and social groups.

We must also consider how we will actively and systematically pursue peace in Europe and the wider world from outside the EU.

Remaining feelings

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

A substantial factor in my feelings of despair at Brexit is guilt. I could have done more, and, given the result, should have done more. I voted, but more was required.

Anger with those who lied and misled, with those who failed to do enough. That leads however to being angry with myself.

Those who have made this mess have a duty to fix it, but that does not just mean Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. It also means each one of us. While those who behaved badly during the campaign should be held to account, the only people we individually need to hold to account are ourselves. For me at least that is painful.

You might say that no individual insignificant person like me could make a difference. However, in a democracy I am an instance of a group of people. There are other people like me and so we are both individually and collectively responsible for our actions. If I decide individually to act in one way then it is likely that, independently, other people like me will decide to act in the same way.

Hence, even though I voted to remain, I still have to bear some personal culpability for the overall leave vote.


Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

The United Kingdom of England and Wales will not be great in power but it could yet be great in love.

It will not be able to lead as it formerly could when it was a great power, but it could enthusiastically follow when other countries or supranational organisations like the EU lead in good directions.

It will not have the military power to wage war but perhaps it might help maintain peace.


It will be a long road back from fear and division, from racism and xenophobia, to tolerance, peace and love. Let us begin.

MyCloud part 0: Why? It is my data.

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

I am leaving Google and similar companies cloud services and moving to my own infrastructure for my personal data. This process is going to take a while and I am going to document it here to make it easier for others. However the obvious question is why move from free cloud services which already exist and are easy to use to paying for my own infrastructure and configuring it myself? Well partly I do not want to be the product any more which is being sold, I want to be the customer not merely a user who is being sold to advertisers. Since there is no way to pay Google to stop selling me I have to go elsewhere. I could go to someone like MyKolab which claims to care about privacy and do things properly – and people who cannot roll their own probably should think about it – but I get better guarantees from rolling my own and it should be a good learning experience.

Also Snowden. My aim is to make it such that if anyone (including state actors) want my data, then the easiest way of gaining access to it is to come and ask me nicely, we can discuss it like civilised people over tea and cake and if you make a sensible argument then you can have it. If not come back with a warrant. I am not a criminal or a terrorist and I do not expect to be treated like one with all my communications being intercepted. My data includes other people’s personally identifying information (PII) and so can only be disclosed to people who they would expect it to be given to for the purpose for which it was provided. That does not include GCHQ etc. and so I am not following the spirit of the Data Protection Act (DPA) if I make it possible for other people to obtain it without asking.

Similarly some of my friends work for Christian, environmental, aid or democracy organisations, sometimes in countries where doing so is dangerous. Information which might compromise their security is carefully never committed to computer systems (such operational security has been common in Christian circles for 2000 years) but sometimes people make mistakes, particularly when communicating internally in ‘safe’ countries like the UK. However no countries have clean records on human rights etc. and data collected by the ‘five eyes’ is shared with others (e.g. unfiltered access is given to Israel) and there are countries who are our allies in the ‘war on terror’ but which also persecute (or have elements of their security forces who persecute) minorities or groups within their country. I might in some sense be willing to trust the NSA and GCHQ etc. (because they have no reason to be interested in me) but I cannot because that means trusting 800,000 people in the US alone, some of whom will be working for bad governments.

Similarly while our present government is mostly trying to be good if frequently foolish. It is very easy for that to change. So we need to ensure that the work required to go from where we are to a police state is huge so that we have enough time to realise and do something about it. Presently the distance to cover in terms of infrastructure is far too small, being almost negligible. It is our duty as citizens to grow that gap and to keep it wide.

So I am going to try and find solutions which follow best practises of current computer security, following the principle of least privilege and using compartmentalisation to limit the damage that the compromise of any one component can cause. I am going to document this so that you can point out the holes in it so that we can learn together how to do this properly.

Maybe some of this might even help towards my PhD…

Filters that work

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

Summary: The architecture for David Cameron’s filtering plans is wrong and has a negative consequences, however there are alternative architectures which might work.

There has been much news coverage about David Cameron’s plans for opt-out filters for all internet users in the UK. With opt-in systems barely anyone will opt-in and with opt-out systems barely anyone will opt-out and so this is a proposal for almost everyone to have a filter on their internet traffic. Enabling households to easily filter out bad content from their internet traffic is useful in that there are many people who do want to do this (such as myself[1]). However the proposed architecture has a number of significant flaws and (hopefully unintended) harmful side effects.

Here I will briefly recap what those flaws and side-effects are and propose an architecture which I claim lacks these flaws and side-effects while providing the desired benefits.

  1. All traffic goes through central servers which have to process it intensively. This makes bad things like analysing this traffic much easier. It also means that traffic cannot be so efficiently routed. It means that there can be no transparency about what is actually going on as no one outside the ISP can see.
  2. There is no transparency or accountability. The lists of things being blocked are not available and even if they were it is hard to verify that those are the ones actually being used. If an address gets added which should not be (say that of a political party or an organisation which someone does not like) then there is no way of knowing that it has been or of removing it from the list. Making such lists available even for illegal content (such as the IWF’s lists) does not make that content any more available but it does make it easier to detect and block it (for example TOR exit nodes could block it). In particular it means having found some bad content it is easier to work out if that content needs to be added to the list or if it is already on it.
  3. Central records must be kept on who is and who is not using such filters, really such information is none of anyone else’s business. They should not know or be able to tell, and they do not need to.

I am not going to discuss whether porn is bad for you though I have heard convincing arguments that it is. Nor will I expect any system to prevent people who really want to access such content from doing so. I also will not use a magic ‘detect if adult’ device to prevent teenagers from changing the settings to turn filters off.

Most home internet systems consist of a number of devices connected to some sort of ISP provided hub which then connects to the ISP’s systems and then to the internet. This hub is my focus as it is provided by the ISP and so can be provisioned with the software they desire and configured by them but is also under the control of the household and provides an opportunity for some transparency. The same architecture can be used with the device itself performing the filtering, for example when using mobile phones on 3G or inside web browsers when using TLS.

So how would such a system work? Well these hubs are basically just a very small Linux machine, like a Raspberry Pi and it is already handling the networking for the devices in the house, probably running a NAT[0] and doing DHCP, it should probably also be running a DNS server and using DNSSEC. It already has a little web server to display its management pages and so could trivially display web pages saying “this content blocked for you because of $reason, if this is wrong do $thing”. Then when it makes DNS requests for domains to the ISP’s servers then they can reply with additional information about whether this domain is known to have bad content and where to find additional information on that which the hub can then look up and use to as input to apply local policy.
Then the household can configure to hub that applies the policy they want and it can be shipped with a sensible default and no one knows what policy they chose unless they snoop their traffic (which should require a warrant).
Now there might want to be a couple of extra tweaks in here, for example there is some content which people really do not want to see but find very difficult not to seek out, for example I have friends who have struggled for a long time to recover from a pornography addiction. Hence providing the functionality whereby filter settings can be made read only such that a user can choose to make ‘impossible’ to turn off can be useful as in a stronger moment they can make a decision that prevents them being able to do something they do not want to in a weaker moment. Obviously any censorship system can be circumvented by a sufficiently determined person but self blocking things is an effective strategy to help people break addictions, whether to facebook in the run up to exams or to more addictive websites.

So would such a system actually work? I think that it is technically feasible and would achieve the purposes it is intended to and not have the same problems that the current proposed architecture has. However it might not work with currently deployed hardware as that might not have quite enough processing power (though not by much). However an open, well specified system would allow incremental roll out and independent implementation and verification. Additionally it does not provide the services for which David Cameron’s system is actually being built which is to make it easier to snoop on all internet users web traffic. This is just the Digital Economy bill all over again but with ‘think of the children’ rather than ‘think of the terrorists’ as its sales pitch. There is little point blocking access to illegal content as that can always be circumvented, much better to take the content down[2] and lock up the people who produced it, failing that, detect it as the traffic leaves the ISP’s network towards bad places and send round a police van to lock up the people accessing it. Then everything has to go through the proper legal process in plain sight.

[0]: in the case of Virgin Media’s ‘Super Hub’ doing so incredibly badly such that everything needs tunnelling out to a sane network.
[1]: Though currently I do not beyond using Google’s strict safe search because there is no easy mechanism for doing so, the only source of objectionable content that actually ends up on web pages I see is adverts, on which more later.
[2]: If this is difficult then make it easier, it is far too hard to take down criminal website such as phishing scams at the moment and improvements in international cooperation on this would be of great benefit.

Surveillance consequences

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

Mass surveillance of the citizens of a country allows intelligence services to use ‘big data’ techniques to find suspicious things which they would not otherwise have found. They can analyse the graph structure of communications to look for suspicious patterns or suspicious keywords. However as a long term strategy it is fundamentally flawed. The problem is the effect of surveillance on those being watched. Being watched means not being trusted, being outside and other, separate from those who know best and under suspicion. It makes you foreign, alien and apart, it causes fear and apprehension, it reduces integration. It makes communities which feel that they are being picked on, distressed and splits them apart from those around them. This causes a feeling of oppression and unfairness, of injustice. This results in anger, which grows in the darkness and leads to death.

That is not the way to deal with ‘terrorism’. Come, let us build our lives together as one community, not set apart and divided. Let us come together and talk of how we can build a better world for us and for our children. Inside we are all the same, it does not matter where we came from, only where we are going to and how we get there.
Come, let us put on love rather than fear, let us welcome rather than reject, let us build a country where freedom reigns and peace flows like a river through happy tree lined streets where children play.

I may be an idealist but that does not make this impossible, only really hard, and massively worth it. The place to begin is as always in my own heart for I am not yet ready to live in the country I want us to be. There is a long way to go, and so my friends: let us begin.

Defence of the Union: Britain is better together

Saturday, January 5th, 2013

In 2014 there will be a referendum in Scotland on whether Scotland should be an independent state and leave the Union. Frankly I find it ridiculous that the question is even being asked as the answer is so clearly no. Essentially nothing is gained that could not be gained by internal reorganisation within the UK and much is lost.

Personally I was born in Scotland and have lived slightly less than half my life there, the rest being spent in England and some of my great grandparents were Scottish. However I have always lived in Britain and always been British. I am one of the significant number of people who would need dual nationality if Scotland were to become independent because we simply do not fit into the ‘English’, ‘Welsh’ or ‘Scottish’ categories, only in ‘British’.

All the arguments I have heard in favour of independence which are valid such as those which have convinced a slim majority of Scottish Green Party members are not in fact relevant to the question of independence. Rather they relate to the debate on the localisation of different powers at different scales from national to local. Obviously the positioning of park benches should not be done by act of the UK parliament and NHS policy should not be determined individually on a ward level – there is an appropriate scale for different decisions to be made at. There is a very interesting debate on what should be decided at what scale and I think a great deal of room for improvement on this. However none of that is relevant to the question of Scottish independence – or if it is it is just as relevant to the question of independence for the Highlands.

The only issues relevant to the decision on whether Scotland should break the Union are ones which must be decided at the national level and could not be devolved to Scotland. Fundamentally the only issues which then apply are international ones, all domestic issues can be reorganised as we like and the rest of the world does not need to know or care but the interface we provide to the world is that of the nation.

So only international issues matter to the debate on independence, and an independent Scotland would leave both Scotland and the rest of the UK worse off in many different ways and not make things better in any way. Currently the UK punches above its weight in international affairs, Scotland would not gain that and the rest of the UK would lose it. For example the UK has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. This is justifiable for more than just historical reasons (Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Lybia) but only tenuously and without Scotland it would be hard to justify it continuing to have a seat. Currently the UK is big enough that when it is necessary for something to be done on the world stage (take action on climate change, stop genocide etc.) then the UK can go ‘Well we are going to do this, who is with us?’ we don’t have to persuade a whole bunch of countries to act in lockstep with us, we can lead[0]. Obviously we then need to persuade other countries to follow us but it is possible to try to lead. I think it is easier to persuade people to follow if they can see that you mean it by your actions than when it can only be words because action is impossible without their help.

Similarly within the EU the UK has a fair bit of influence (for all that David Cameron tries to throw that away). We will not gain any more by being two countries rather than one, Scotland will probably need to reapply for membership post-independence and that might take a few years of sitting out in the cold. Currently when a country needs to take a lead on an issue the UK can do that. It would be hard to see Scotland doing so to the same extent and the rest of the UK’s hand would also be weakened.

A Union was made and formed Great Britain, whatever the perceived legitimacy by current standards of the people involved in making that Union the fact remains that it was made. That was not a temporary treaty or a fair weather thing. That was and is a permanent covenant thing. A sickness and in health, in good economic times and in bad, in peace and war for all time and without end thing. As such it should not be lightly broken. I fail to see what the pressing issue is as to why Britain cannot continue as it is. Some bad things happened in the past long before I was born, why does that even matter? The future is ours to decide and the past remains unchanging whatever revenge is taken for past evil actions they are not undone.

The breaking of a Union would also be a permanent and unalterable thing, not a decision to revisit in 10, 50 or 100 years if it does not work out but one made with finality for all time. While right now the world is a fairly safe place to be as a rich nation [1] that might not always be the case, it certainly has not always been the case. There are many reasons to be uncertain of where the world as a whole will be in 50, 100 or 300 years, let alone thousands of years. This is a decision which needs to be made considering such time-scales rather than just temporary political circumstances.

There have been times when we have stood together when we would not have been able to stand alone. There was a time, still just in living memory when the UK stood alone in Europe, a light against the darkness. Stood and lasted until others came to our aid but only by a very thin margin. Perhaps as allies we could have stood together and lasted, but perhaps disagreements and infighting would have weakened us and a darkness might have fallen across the world. For 300 years we have stood together, one nation against all adversities. Our soldiers have fought together against various foes, bled and died for us, for Britain as much for the mountains of Scotland and Wales as for the hills of England. Should we betray them?

This Union has been sealed with blood in more than one way, in those years people have moved freely between the two and married in each place, there is no real division by race any more. Not that divisions by race really have any meaning any more. What does the colour of the skin matter or where your great great grandparents came from. You are still human.

What then divides us? Not race for there has been much movement between the two. Nor language for British English is spoken in both and variation is greater within each than between them. Nor of geography for the border has been drawn at various places at different times. While different parts of the landscape of each are beautiful in different ways there are places in both where it is hard to tell a Scottish hill for an English or Welsh one and more difference between the Highlands and the Central Belt than between the Central Belt and other parts of England. Nor economics for while the statistics might be different for Scotland as a whole from England as a whole, parts of Scotland match closely with parts of England. You will find places where manufacturing died in both, where tourism is the main industry, where there are high-tech companies or a strong service industry. Is then all that divides us old grudges, memories of past wrongs? Then know this: this is a fallen broken world and the mistakes made by countries and people are many and varied and the depth of the evil that is committed knows few bounds. For life it is necessary to forgive, and to ask for forgiveness: To strive once again to build a better future out of the broken fragments of the past. Fundamentally we are better together and long may we be so.

[0]: Iraq was a terrible illegal mistake but that was not our idea, we were following rather than leading. We also lack the courage to lead as we should on issues like Climate Change.

[1]: To a first approximation no one dies from terrorism in rich nations, our security services do a rather good job at stopping that sort of thing. We should try fixing our road collisions problem that kills many more people.

If the economy matters then so do people

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

(This follows on from discussion in Hall earlier (yes Chris this is for you))

It is fairly common and I think reasonable to argue that what is in the best interests of the economy (at least in the long term) is also in the best interests of the people in the long term. (There is much subtly here and I am not saying I agree)
However it is also frequently argued that what is clearly not in the interests of large groups of people is in the best interests of the economy. For example making large numbers of people unemployed overnight so as to slim down the NHS or similar.

I consider the lecture I had from a City investor this morning and the statement he made that essentially the value of the economy of a country is (modulo many other transient factors) the number of working people times the productivity of those people. In the event of making large numbers of people unemployed instantaneously the number of working people is reduced and due to the sudden influx into the jobs market not all those people will get jobs straight away as there won’t be enough available [0]. Then as a person remains unemployed their productivity decreases with time, they become progressively less useful to the economy and less employable so we have a situation where both the number of people working is reduced and where even when we get those people back into work their productivity will be reduced. So negative impact on the economy. Don’t do that. [1]
Yes management and bureaucracy breeds if left to itself and so periodically it is necessary to go around with a sharp knife, a keen eye and a steady hand and remove unnecessary things. However this should be done carefully at a rate such that those being made unemployed can be reabsorbed into working elsewhere doing something more useful.

Personally I would say that people are far more valuable than any physical thing and all structures of countries and economies and physical objects only have value when they are serving people (using a rather wide definition of both serving and people).

Yes I am procrastinating my dissertation. Well spotted.

[0]: Of course if that is not the case then this isn’t so much of a problem.
[1]: It might be possible to argue in certain circumstances that the effect on other factors (debt etc.) is sufficiently large as to outweigh this cost however I think that is likely to be rather rare.

Voting no to AV is just stupid

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

So that might seem a little insulting but it is a statement of fact rather than of opinion. A few days I thought that AV was simply better than FPTP and so “yes” was obviously the right answer. Further discussion and consideration of the issue moved me to the position that since there were no valid arguments at all in favour of FPTP over AV based on methodology (it is simply better in all respects) anyone voting no was either being stupid (believing the deliberate lies being spread by the no campaign) or immoral (voting no in the belief that by supporting an inferior more unfair voting system they were helping to rig elections in favour of their preferred party). Further consideration has led me to believe that even the immoral argument is invalid and so no one who has carefully thought out the issues can vote no.

Before I can explain why you will first need to have any questions you have about methodology addressed. Is AV actually always better than FPTP? Well yes and Tim Gowers (Cambridge maths professor) has written a rather good blog post about AV vs FPTP which has been getting a lot of mileage among the Cambridge students. Having read that and perhaps thought a little about it you will hopefully come to the conclusion that the only reasons you have left for voting no are the ones that I would call immoral – you want to rig the vote in favour of your party because it is easier to rig the vote so that they win with a minority than to actually persuade people that their policies are better than those of the other parties.

Actually those arguments are just stupid as well, at least in the long term – current MPs can perhaps vote no on the understanding that they are only being immoral and not stupid but for the voter that expects to be around (or care about) elections in 20 or more years time then the short term thinking which results in a no vote being a valid option for immoral reasons is no longer valid.

At this point some people might be thinking “Your a lefty I don’t believe anything you say”[0] to which I will make some Peterhouse specific comments: Nicholas Wilson, Nick Dixon-Clegg, Matthew Wells are Conservatives through and through, and are voting YES to AV because it is fair. Owen Woods is a Socialist and is voting YES to AV because it is better. I as a green/orange lefty kind of person who respects people on the right enough that there are even a couple of people in the Conservative party I would vote for am voting YES to AV because it is fairer and better and there is no other sensible option on the table. This campaign is not a party political one it is a campaign between those who are right and those who are afraid of change even for the better.

Consider the two cases where someone might be intending to vote no based on immoral reasons: they are either a Labour or a Conservative voter and think that AV might harm the chances of their party getting into power so often. Well if you are a Labour voter then as Tim Gowers so eloquently puts it “A LABOUR SUPPORTER VOTING FOR FPTP IS A TURKEY VOTING FOR CHRISTMAS”. However what of the Conservative voter?

Well first I will assume that whichever party you support you think that they are the best party, they have the best policies the best principles and are generally better than all the other choices. (If not why on earth are your supporting them.) Then since they are the best then surely eventually they should win under a fair voting system as it will be clear that their policies and principles are better when discussed rationally, over time historically it will become clear (or be possible to make clear) that if the policies of your favoured party had been adopted on a whole range of issues at a whole range of different points in time then the outcome would have been unequivocally better. What I am saying here is that under a fair system democracy should eventually produce the right result if you are correct in your assertion that your favoured party is the best one. It might take a long time, it won’t be easy and things are dynamic so who the best party is in your eyes might change as its current leadership retire and are replaced – but if you believe in democracy then hopefully you believe that given enough time and effort on the side of the best party then they win. (Perhaps I am assuming more faith in democracy than you have, hopefully you have enough that the rest of the argument follows anyway)

Currently the Conservatives might do better under FPTP than under AV in a (fairly small) number of constituencies because though the majority of people in that constituency don’t want them to win they are split between Labour and Lib Dems as to who they prefer first over the Conservatives though the majority would sill prefer Labour over the Conservatives and Lib Dems over the Conservatives. This is the general problem of split voting and is one of the places that FPTP fails really hard because it does not collect enough information from voters to be able to pick the candidate with the most support since FPTP is designed for and works perfectly fine in situations where there are only 2 candidates and fails utterly when there are more than 2 (and there are always more than 2 candidates in constituency elections – even in the speaker’s seat).
However when picking a voting system we are picking something for the long term, we have had FPTP for over 100 years and Australia has had AV for over 100 years. It is not something that we change all that often and so any time the question does have a chance to be decided it needs to be treated seriously with application of long term thinking.
Currently there is not much of a split on the right while there is a fairly large spit on the left, but who can say for sure that in 20, 50 or 100 years from now the situation might be the other way around. For example UKIP might gain support from Conservative party voters, the Lib Dems might move further right (they are currently in coalition with the Conservatives after all) and so pull voters away from the Conservative party resulting in a split vote on the right while Labour mops up everyone left of centre. Then we could have a situation where Labour gained power and were immovable from it for decades despite having only minority support while parties on the right fought over who was the true party of the right. A Conservative voter might hope that Conservative voters are too sensible to let that happen and perhaps they are right but no one can guarantee that.

So we get to make a choice on the voting system now, and we probably won’t get a chance like this again for a long time. While in the short term it might favour particular parties a little to remain with FPTP, AV is clearly better and no one can know the future well enough to be sure that voting no now won’t result in the party they hate jumping up and down laughing on them for decades with a minority of the vote.

Vote AV unless you are stupid, but then even stupid people should be able to understand simple logical arguments ;-)

[0]: Words to that effect were said to me yesterday fortunately there were some Conservatives around to do the persuading.

P.S. though perhaps you might have found this insulting I don’t make any apologies for that, however it doesn’t mean I don’t still like you as a person, I just think you are provably wrong or a little immoral.