Freesteel Blog » 2008 » March

Friday, March 21st, 2008 at 5:32 pm - - Cave, UN, Whipping 2 Comments »

I’m late for a machining blog posting about z-slicing, but have put in so much effort into hacking that code around (to be able to use multiple tools) that I don’t have the interest.

Meanwhile I’m being hauled off for a week of caving in northern Spain on Sunday. And the following week I am helping with “delivering the deliverables” web-related in some place in the Lake District, which will be more interesting to talk about when done. Have showed this idea to a lot of people, and I can defend it as not being completely crap.

I went caving a couple of weeks ago down Cripple Creek in Ireby Fell Cavern. Got very bruised. It was too tight and I did most if it with my oversuit off so I didn’t get trapped. All I came back with was that one photo of helictites on the wikipedia page, because my torch for the camera turned out to be flat.

If you want a claustrophobic listening experience, go to In Living Memory in the next 4 days to hear the broadcast about the Mossdale Caverns disaster. Quite a show.


Tuesday, March 18th, 2008 at 11:13 am - - Whipping

We’re beginning to see a slew of Iraq War movies arriving at the local cinema. They’re certainly much less romantic than the Vietnam War movies of the earlier generation where they had jungle landscapes, river boats, peasant villages, napalm explosions and 60s music.

The Iraq War movies are dry, very dusty city-scapes. Cities aren’t alive like the jungle, so when things are reduced to rubble, it stays that way. The main weapons are IEDs and bullets, and the occasional kidnapping. On an artistic level, much less to work with.

The Battle For Haditha is a slice of life, played completely straight. It tries to cover all sides of the story, and pretty much pulls it off. The source of the evil is laid squarely on the commander.

Redacted is a far more compelling film. Its title is not well chosen, but the story sucks on the horrible dregs of war. It’s personal, and the actions are up-front, deliberate, not accidental.

As one character says, “We can torture and kill these people; why is there a problem when we rape the women?” Invading armies have always, always done this, whether you like it or not, and nothing we have seen sets the US army apart. It is utterly predictable that after the first few soldiers have been killed, their comrades no longer see the enemy as human beings. They’re wild dogs that at any time will turn and go for their neck. At this point all things become possible.

So in these narratives of the life of a soldier, you see them get damaged. Over half a million young Americans have gone through this war, and many of them learn to hate the enemy, and they come back and commit suicide, or they beat their wife and family they used to love, or their life falls apart, and so on and so forth. All of these things happen. What they don’t do — not even 0.02% among them — is take on a vendetta against the leaders and commanders who sent them there.

I find this extraordinary and irrational. As in the past, and in this war in particular, there are certain named individuals who have been seen to make it up entirely out of whole cloth. By the back-breaking work and force of will, they have kept it going for all these years.

Take Donald Rumsfeld, for instance. He believes in numbers. Suppose human nature was thus that his adviser said:

Look, Rummy, you’re going to put half a million young men through training, where they’re all going to learn that killing people is a way to solve problems. Out of that number, 10% are going to have a life-changing bad experience. These boys are representative of society at large, so if the polls say that 20% of Americans believe that you are personally responsible for bringing about this war, that figures out at 10,000 young men whom we expect to have an experience that haunts them for the rest of their life, and they will blame you for it. Out of that number, 10% will take out a personal vendetta against you. They will carve your name onto a bullet in the middle of the night and keep it hidden to be used in the event they get the chance. And 1% of these people will be brilliant high-functioning individuals. They will have the skills that will be recognized, and they will be promoted up the ranks close to the level of general. Maybe they will get to be a general’s personal assistant, or the pilot of your plane, or even an adviser like me, and all the time they will have this secret — the burning desire to seek revenge against you personally. It will be what they live and breath for every single day. Ten guys like that which no one can protect you from, because they are completely hidden on our own side and have thought of it independently. Do you feel lucky enough for that?

Back in the good war, the one our politicians keep referring it to but with the roles reversed so that the territorial invaders and occupiers are instead the good guys, there was a assassination attempt on Hitler by his own Generals. This event is celebrated (by at least a dozen films) because it is so exceptional, while at the same time appears utterly rational.

The result is the question: “What tiny change in the human mind in the direction of rationality would have caused these assassination attempts against the leadership to occur about once a week, rather than once every ten years?”

Such a notion would have changed everything about society and war. It wouldn’t be the same. It wouldn’t be about the odd inconvenient assassination in the middle of wars. It would be a fundamental alteration in the calculus.

You know, when leaders are planning their next atrocious action, they take a glancing note in history. And they’d take a little more interest on matters that may have some personal bearing. So, if history taught them:

When you do these war things, and a fraction of people whom you harm know that you have played fast and loose with the truth to send them out there, sometimes you get assassinated in circumstances where there is nothing any security apparatus could have done to protect you.

If this was so, they wouldn’t play this game. It would feel too dangerous for them. We know Rumsfeld sleeps well without a conscience for all those people who have died as a result of his hard and diligent work. However, why does he not fear a rogue element seeking rightful revenge?

It’s not a pattern you would predicted of a rational species.

Filed under: “hard-coded parameters of the human mind that will cause our eventual extinction”

Thursday, March 13th, 2008 at 12:23 pm - - UN, Whipping 6 Comments »

Uh-oh. An article in the Guardian showed up today with my name in it.

[Update: The words I misattributed to myself in the article were by Stefan Megdalinski (note spelling). The UN does in fact televize itself, because this is easy to do, but it’s like CCTV footage — needs editing for highlights. Contributions are needed specifically to redo the website (including its features) which I hacked in a hurry. This would give me time and inclination to get back to the parser.]

I completed the “laborious” work of getting the General Assembly meeting 75 and meeting 76 of Session 62 scraped and parsed this morning. Unlike the Security Council reports, which come on-line within hours, the General Assembly transcripts are always months late; these ones represent the afternoon and morning sessions for 17-18 December 2007.

It’s taken an unusual couple of hours to push it through onto the web-page, because I have a very temperamental parser that is able to pick out the most extra-ordinarily obscure and completely invisible problems in this pair of very complicated days involving 34 recorded votes.

Problems included:

Strange characters

For example, the highlight on page 2 of A-62-PV.76 looks like “A/C.2/62/INF/1″, doesn’t it? But go into the third page of the corresponding PDF file and try to copy-and-paste that symbol, and you’ll find it’s not a “C”. In some word-processors it shows up as a slightly different “C”-shaped object, while in others it just gets a “?” or nothing. A unicode detective could track down this blemish about where it has come from. Maybe it’s a symbol available on the Khmer version of Word which, idiotically, inserted itself into a word-completion, and then the symbol was copy-and-pasted from one email to the next by secretaries in an unbroken chain until it wound up in this document. It is almost certain that I am the only person in the world to find it a problem, because everywhere else this reference is dereferenced it’s done by the human eye.

Now, wouldn’t it be much more convenient if there were hyperlinks within the on-line versions of the documents themselves?

Unexplained misspellings

Right in the middle of this vote, I get “Marwill Islands”. Obviously this is meant to be the “Marshall Islands”. But before you think about how explicable this typo is in relation to the layout on the qwerty keyboard, ask why would these country names be typed in anyway? The whole voting procedure is conducted electronically using buttons and a big board full of lights (see the transcript of a cock-up involving that system from 12 December 1995), so how hard would it be for the system to email an electronic page of the votes all laid out properly in which country names are either never be misspelt, or always misspelt the same way every single time?

Either the procedure in the UN is to retype the entire list of votes for the transcripts — a job which could take days of unnecessary work — or someone has got to explain how mistakes like this can happen?

Indentation problems

It’s important to be strict about where the new paragraph lies because when it says A recorded vote was taken, those are not the final words at the end of the previous person’s speech. It’s a signal to engage the vote parser. In the PDF file you sometimes get an actual line indentation (it starts on pixel 504 rather than 468), or the line starts on pixel 468 and they add 2 spaces to indent it! Looks the same to the eye, but not to the computer.

Voting corrections

Oh, and finally when you have a hard day of voting like this, there are dozens of cock-ups, which manifest as:

[Subsequently, the delegations of Bolivia, Burkina Faso and the Sudan advised the Secretariat that they had intended to vote in favour; the delegation of the United States of America advised the Secretariat that it indented to vote against.]

In spite of dozens of variations of these words, and countries containing several words, (sometimes with an “and” in their name just to ruin the nth version of the software from working), this “advice to the Secretariat” is so common it can’t be done by hand and has needed a special program.


So, what does this mean? Lots of votes means lots of information. What’s happening is that the resolutions discussed in the Special Committees are all coming to the floor of the General Assembly in a stream to receive their general votes.

Session 62 Meeting 75 begins with agreements by consensus on Assistance on mine action, Effects of atomic radiation, and International cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space — these generally schedule what the United Nations is going to do on these topics (usually conduct more studies and write more reports).

That last one was something about the Registration Convention. Where are all the space law nerds when you need them? I had to start that Wikipedia page myself. Don’t you think it’s cool that every space object will now have its own web page?

The next resolution took a vote to extend the mandate of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Nauru, an island state in the Pacific with probably the least interest in this issue of anywhere in the world outside of Antarctica, voted against. Sometimes you wonder whether these smallest states haven’t outsourced their Ambassadorial services to some random New York lawyer firm.

And so it goes on for another dozen votes, with Pacific island states taking a suspicious interest in the Palestinian question. You can look through that yourself.

The meeting for 18 December 2007 does more refugees and tonnes more resolutions about women, all adopted by consensus.

But as usual, when it comes to Children’s Rights, that’s just a step too far for the United States, and they are the only country in the world to vote against. After all, young people are there to be ripped off and forced into debt before they grow old and wise enough to spot this unmitigated, miserable, cruel, mindless trap we, the older generations, lay form them embodied within the entire financial system, because we know that they come into this world penniless and with a naive sense of justice and fair-play that can be abused starting with their first bank-loan.

However, when it comes to the “Use of mercenaries”, everyone in Europe is against restricting that. (Note, the actual text of that resolution can be found here.)

The objectors to a “Moratorium on the use of the death penalty” have a non-European flavour.

“Periodic and geniune elections” has 13 abstainers on the “fifth preambular paragraph”. I think they mean this one.

And so on with a lot of other divided votes on issues throughout the day. But I ran out of time for this today long ago.

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008 at 7:56 pm - - Vero 2 Comments »

You just can’t make this up!

On behalf of Vero Software, I as Chief Executive, make a commitment that we shall:

  • Actively encourage and support our employees to gain the skills and qualifications that will support their future employability and meet the needs of our business/organisation.
  • Actively encourage and support our employees to acquire basic literacy and numeracy skills, and with Government support work towards their first Level 2 qualification in an area that is relevant to our business/organisation.
  • Demonstrably raise our employees’ skills and competencies to improve company/organisation performance through investing.

Don Babbs

Same photo appears at novo executive research consultancy whose mission is “to make a significant commercial contribution to our clients’ successes through delivery of imaginative, creative and effective consultancy solutions.”

Now I’d be surprised if either a CAD/CAM company or a corporate executive recruitment company has managed to hire an employee without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and if they did they’d probably sack them immediately. It’s tough out there in the world of business: no room for dead wood losers or people who won’t contribute all their time to the bottom line.

But this is a Government idea. People obviously get a different perspective from the top of the heap above the sht storm. Weird ideas surface from there. To a Prime Minister or President, all these business leaders seem like jolly good chaps, don’t they? It’s as if they’re quite ignorant of the inherent nature of hierarchies: people in them treat those above with the greatest respect and humility, and those below as scum of the land who must pay back every right to a decent living.

There are transcripts of the Skills Strategy launch in June 2007 on the website of the Department for Children, Schools and Families, rather than where you would expect on, say, the Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills. How this strategy fits in with the third stupidly named Ministry, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the one in charge of selling out to liaising with corporations, I do not know.

Isn’t it sweet how they care so much about us? All those junior ministers and corporate executives appearing in videos on the website Skill Stories, which has some very skillful graphics. I’ve surfed it for an hour and could find no substance in any form I could recognize. There is one dodgy statistic about functional illiteracy repeated ad nauseum by the likes of The Right Honourable Lord Jones of isoft Birmingham (Digby Jones) at the skills strategy launch event:

What I do is not on behalf of the government. I’m not the government skills envoy, I’m the UK skills envoy. I don’t do this for the government, I do this for the country because this is so important. But we do need a government representation to do this and there is a new commission, as you know. The new chairman is being announced today and he’ll be coming in with Gordon and Alan. More of that anon.

As you know, there are 7 million adults in this country today who are functionally illiterate. There are more than 11 million adults – some say it’s up as much as 17 million – who cannot add up two three figure numbers. That statistic has probably got better over the last few years, not worse. But of course, in the past, we used to put them down the pit, we used to put them in the fields, we used to put them in lime and oil and car factories, we used to put them in shipyards and woollen mills, cotton mills and steel mills, and those jobs have all gone. If we don’t do something about this, if we the employers in the public sector, in the private sector, in the third sector – the voluntary sector – if we don’t do something about this, this country is going to have a very, very nasty century.

Now I agree that it is going to be a very, very nasty century, and it is something to do with the lack of political literacy of the working class who would have strung up this bunch of clowns in jail a decade ago if they had any sense. Extraordinary rendition is good enough for any politician who is willing to lie that it isn’t happening.

In the first seven years of this century, the self-proclaimed literate ruling elite has — all by itself — sunk the world into a 6 trillion dollar war, presided over an utterly unnecessary financial crisis, and have participated in a morally unforgivable delay and denial about the need for action on climate change. This century is not going to end well. How nice of them to be concerned about whether we have enough skills to be put to use on their thoroughly evil schemes.

I have programming skills by the bucket-load, and so do many of my friends. But the standard business logic and employment contract law under which most people work forbids them to discuss or transfer those skills to other people. It’s commercially confidential, you see. Those skills are for them. They’re not for you and your friends. Even if it was your friends who taught you to program.

Monday, March 10th, 2008 at 4:38 pm - - UN, Whipping 2 Comments »

I’ve got a lot of emails from people telling me about this new United Nations Data site. Unfortunately, the same people don’t seem to have actually looked at the site before declaring that it’s interesting and sending the top level link to me.

I’m not saying that the site isn’t interesting (it’s a repackaging of the UN Common Database whose current interface will discontinue in July), but you would think that if anyone had actually found it interesting, they’d have found some statistics in it that were interesting, and sent me a note about that.

Otherwise it’s like a friend passing you a book that they say is interesting, but you can tell they haven’t even opened. In other words, they think you might find it interesting, even though it is not even slightly interesting to them.

Anyway, the undata website itself is much better done than it used to be. The way to get into it (ie surf around on it without getting bored within the first five seconds) is to search for the page on your own country (in my case they united kingdom), and then apply one of the filters on the left.

I chose “Energy”, and then looked at the decline in the UK of all its fossil fuel production since 1996.

Oddly, our production of keyboards has gone up about 2-fold in 10 years, and there’s a very low point in in 1997. Also, you can see which countries are manufacturing revolvers and pistols.

While this is all very interesting, it is, sadly, not easy to go any deeper. What I’d really like are links from each of the statistical references to their precise source. Stats are aggregations, and you really want to be able to drill down into them as far as possible. This requires you to know where they came from.

The industrial commodity production statistics appear to come from a questionnaire sent in by each government. The rest of the statistics come from a list of 15 other sources.

Many of the monetary statistics are quoted in US Dollars, which isn’t so good, given the recent fluctuation in that currency. Maybe there should be an option to normalize the figures into another currency of choice. Would it depend on whether the accounts that are summed were in the first part of the year or the last if there has been a drastic shift in its value?

Aggregate stats are a real problem, and there’s no excuse for it when there’s easily enough room on the database to have it at a much lower level of granularity, for example by month.

The gold standard for this type of data is the US Treasury and their debt to the nearest penny and who holds it webpage.

Got bored yet? Thought so.

Look, I am trying very hard to find things which I both care about and which are also interesting to other people. Most of the time it’s a struggle to find any overlap at all. For example, I don’t care whatsoever about Madeline McCann or Lady Diana, both of whom, if newspaper covers are anything to go by, people find endlessly fascinating.

I do care about the coming space wars — something that has major, lasting consequences to everyone on the planet, yet surprisingly few people seem interested in.

Being sent links to unexplored databases doesn’t seem to help with this quest.

I can see everyone queuing at the movie theatres getting all excited about the next Science Fiction blockbuster at the movies, while their government irresponsibly conducts weapons experiments in orbit and cause Kessler Syndrome to manifest, rendering the use of satellites too prone to loss to be feasible for many generations. Maybe we’ve just gotten bored with our GPS and accurate weather predictions to find it interesting anymore.

Friday, March 7th, 2008 at 6:11 pm - - UN, Whipping 7 Comments »

I received a message through the emailbag:

…I’m interested in learning more and doing what I can to volunteer at

Probably the easiest thing to do is find a wikipedia article that needs some updating with citations to the official documents. For a good simple example, look at UNMIN.

A big project would be to work on AMISOM, because there was a United Nations Security Council Resolution passed that extended its mandate a week ago. (Read the meeting.)

Less challenging projects can be found under Category:United Nations observances to bring them all up to the standard of International Year of the Potato, by locating the meetings and General Assembly Resolutions that authorized them.

Those are just two ideas off the top of my head. It depends on what sort of UN activities are you interested in. I’ve designed it so that Wikipedia is the natural way to index the documents, and that’s where I expect there will eventually be a complete timeline of its interventions and of the documents that support them. This is always going to be better than a search engine for leading people (eg journalists) directly to the sources.

Please post any questions about the useability as you go along to the comments in this blog post. Nothing is too stupid or trivial — especially if it helps lead to some necessary clarification.

Thursday, March 6th, 2008 at 7:07 pm - - UN, Whipping

I hope you are enjoying your little conference in San Diego.

Does anyone else think it’s crazy that a pre-eminent internet/tech gathering has no means of distant on-line participation? Instead, everyone is encouraged to fly their heavy meat bodies halfway round the world to take part.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Maybe when it eventually becomes easier to arrange high quality video conference calls with people at a distance than it is to take hours out of your life flying over to them, we’ll be moving on the right direction.

More specifically, I’d like to talk to people about, because I have quite a lot to say, and some actual software to distribute to enough people so that it makes a difference. Believe it or not, the technology for enabling this has already emerged, so to speak, if it wasn’t for the fact that everyone was too busy flying all over the world going to these conferences all the time.

Here is the 5 minute lightning talk I was able to give at the Chaos Computer Congress (24C3) in Berlin last December. Because it’s too blurry, the slides are available here. (I happened to be in Germany for the month while my partner printed a load of 3D objects to use for her haptic psychology experiments. That’s where I saw a two-way conveyor belt under construction, and completely failed to take a photograph of it.)

I can be contacted at, or through the Skype-id: goatchurch. Please do so if you have any questions. My mailbox is not exactly overwhelmed by messages about this work.

Postscript notes: The 24C3 Day 2 Lightning talks session was the only one that didn’t make it into the official archive. The only copy of the ASF video stream anywhere on the internet appeared in this directory. With the power of VLC and a MacBook, and four hours trying to work out how it was done, this blurry result was eventually obtained.

Thursday, March 6th, 2008 at 3:21 pm - - Weekends

My first ever camera movie and video upload. This is climbing down an excavated entrance into Notts Pot II on Leck Fell with a camera strapped to a large diving light. It is the messiest shaft I have ever seen. It gets worse the deeper you go in. Next time I’ll film it going upwards so my legs don’t get in the way.

I’ve added photo of the shaft looking up on the Wikipedia cave digging page.