Freesteel Blog » 2008 » April

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008 at 4:40 pm - - Whipping 1 Comment »

I’ve spent the past two days leafleting for the Liverpool Green Party, both in the target seat of St Michael’s, and in Princes Park, the ward in which Becka is a paper candidate.

There are three councillors per ward, a term of three years, and an election for one of them each year. (Correction: The term is four years and one year out without an election.) This maintains continuity, as well as maximizing the chance of a hung council as the balance of power shifts from one party to another through a continuum.

While leafleting in St Michael’s ward I got harangued quite loudly in the middle of Lark Lane by a big white guy outside of his pub where he was smoking because I couldn’t be specific about the paragraph in the leaflet:

Greens will demand progress on broken promises to deal with Lark Lane traffic and to create a special planning policy controlling bars and restaurants.

“What are you delivering this sh*t when you don’t even know what it means, you prick!!!”

I sought clarification when I dropped the spare leaflets back at base. The rule is that planning applications have to be considered individually on their own merits, unless an area has been declared special, in which case the fact that there are already 14 noisy bars along a 90metre row of buildings may be taken into consideration when the application for the 15th is considered. Now I know.

The Princes Park ward, in which Becka is a candidate, is not a target seat and there’s no chance of winning (hopefully). But it’s necessary to put someone there or people who would like to vote Green don’t have an option. On looking up the election results in 2006 and 2007 I’d noticed that it came to 9% and 14% respectively. Somewhat surprisingly large, I thought. We wrote up a fairly incomprehensible leaflet last night, put Becka’s photo on it, got 500 copies printed this morning, and spread them about the place. (Okay, in the posh areas that were close to home and not frightening to deliver in.)

Last week the Labour council candidate came canvassing through here at Martin’s house on Cairn’s Street with Louise Ellman MP in tow. Martin sent them packing, but I ran out across the street a few minutes later with a laptop to show them my publicwhip voting quiz in preparation for the next General Election. They’re not going to forget about that.

Louise Ellman, you see, is the inspiration for the whole Publicwhip project with her vote cast in favour of the Iraq war. I wanted to be sure that we could keep history alive, so that as that entire unnecessary debacle sinks deeper into an abject catastrophe, we never forget how we got here: by stupidity, bad judgment, a culture of violence, and a political system that rewards all of the above.

The software behind Publicwhip contributed to the great, and Louise Ellman’s website is probably the only MP’s site that makes no reference to it. Perhaps she thinks it’ll go away if she ignores it.

Anyways, we delivered lots of leaflets, and there was one resident who said she was not going to vote for anyone because last night a young lad was beaten up and hospitalized by a gang of youths when he was minding his own business walking through “their patch”. They’re always intimidating white people there.

Having worked in a house in the street one block away and commuted to and from it twice daily (by bike), I can’t say I’ve noticed the issue. Still, it’s the sort of thing the police are good at dealing with, and they may have a more complete story.

Incidents of assault would be an ideal geo-located data stream to add to the Metroscope. In my life, the only place I have really properly been assaulted is in Cambridge City centre, literally yards away from patrolling police. In my opinion, age, gender, and how pissed someone is are the deciding factors for whether he is likely to beat someone up for no reason. Otherwise the assault is generally about money, debt collection, or the control of a captive market.

I couldn’t find any trace of the incident on the Merseyside Police website. However, under the list of air-support incidents for April 08, I found this case:

30/04/08 01.15 Southport Call from a female stating a male had cut his own foot off Area searched no trace of anyone injured. Call found to be a false call. Female traced and arrested

With data like this, I must make more time for my Metroscope work.

Monday, April 21st, 2008 at 2:16 pm - - Whipping 1 Comment »

Dear Louise Ellman MP,

According to the whip list of Labour MPs obtained by the Sunday Times newspaper on the forthcoming 42 day detention Terrorism vote, your entry is

“Y — Not convinced about Parliamentary involvement”

I have seen you express the view that party MPs are not supposed to rebel even when this goes against the opinion of the people they represent.

Although this appears anti-democratic, we are told that it is not as bad as it looks because MPs express the public opinion behind the closed doors when the party is setting its policy, and then they accept collective responsibility to keep the party politically strong to remain in power.

This is problematic because we have to take you on your word that you are faithfully representing our views at the party level. When evidence leaks out it often suggests a different story.

I have been following the pre-charge detention laws for some time now as the time period first went to 7 days, then to 14, then to 28 — each with an entirely different justification. The 14 day period, for example, according to the Parliamentary debate in 2003, was to give time for certain modern forensic analyses to complete.

The advance to the 90 limit (which was cut by a Labour party rebellion to 28 days) was justified on the basis of the time it would take to analyse the crimes that could be found on encrypted computer disks in the possession of terrorists.

As you know, I am a computer expert, and I — and everyone else in this profession — knows this is baloney. Either the data is generally accessible and floating loose all over the place (like private citizen’s bank details around Whitehall on CDs), or there is only one copy, and standard encryption can’t be cracked in 900 years — and anyway no one who should be encrypting the data (eg terrorists, whitehall civil servants, Labour party whips) does so.

So I am asking you in this letter to please, please, tell me what is your real motivation and explanation for supporting this unprecedented period of detention without charge. I know from this leaked document that you do have an opinion; I don’t want my letter to be forwarded to the minister in charge to obtain their answer as a matter of course. I want to know your, my representative’s, actual opinion on this issue, just so I know and don’t have to guess. I need to know if it’s based on evidence, prejudice, and what it would take to change your mind.


Julian Todd

Friday, April 18th, 2008 at 10:07 am - - Whipping 1 Comment »

The Office of Corrupt Trading has made a press release about its Statement of Objections against 112 construction firms who are suspected of rigging their bids when applying for contracts from the government.

Several key political know-nothing ideologues in the government have had their ignorant intuition of “competition” and “free markets” exploited by rich private sector con-men to set up a bogus template for public sector procurement all over the country.

Step 1 of this confidence trick is to cordon off a section of the public sector economy like, say, supplying computer equipment to schools. This is pushed to the limit of the law by using the EU procurement procedures to exclude competition rather than promote it.

Step 2 is to establish a closed list of qualified suppliers. For computers in schools this has been done with a list of 16 such suppliers. It doesn’t matter who is on the list, as long as it’s closed and no one can come in from the outside once it’s established. It also doesn’t matter that there is no justification whatsoever for establishing such a system; it’s simply the way it’s done everywhere, so don’t question it.

Step 3 is to allow the government body (school, council, whatever) to purchase only from this list on the basis of a “Mini-Competition Evaluation Process” (see page 35 of this Framework Contract). This is where the order is put out by the school or other body, and several contractors from this list supply their quotes, and the cheapest one is chosen.

And that’s where the magic happens.

The genius of this story for brain-dead or conflict-of-interest political operatives is that it contains the key words “competition” and “cheapest”, and allows the power of the market to set the correct price for something quite big and complex that a self-proclaimed “gifted amateur” with a posh college degree doesn’t want to bore himself to tears over.

And it just might work if the following story didn’t obviously happen owing to the closed list system among a bunch of companies known to one another and are probably staffed by the same expert con-sultants.

The OFT formally alleges that the construction companies named in the Statement of Objections have engaged in bid rigging activities, and in particular cover pricing. Cover pricing describes a situation where one or more bidders collude with a competitor during a tender process to obtain a price or prices which are intended to be too high to win the contract. The tendering authority, for example a local council or other customer, is not made aware of the contacts between bidders, leaving it with a false impression of the level of competition and this may result in it paying inflated prices.

Legally, it has been established that once a private company has gained the rights to an unceasing revenue stream of public funds, it cannot be turned off — unless there is an Act of Parliament.

At the very least we should have the right to know about it. Unfortunately, the companies, the civil servants, and the politicians all know that there would be a situation if taxpayers — some of whom know a lot more about the costs of materials than our official officials — were permitted to inspect the books and compare the services supplied against the money paid, so we can’t have that. The private bidding process, which was rigged, set the appropriate price by definition, and don’t you go doubting that. The people who have the power over whether the public gets to see the details of the contracts are the same ones whose jobs depend on the contracts being good.

It’ll take years to get anything out using the Freedom of Information Act.

And don’t you go thinking that Parliament is going to do anything about it. When the Government Spending (Website) Bill was brought to the floor last summer only 18 MPs turned up to vote, falling well short of Quorum.

A month earlier, also on a Friday afternoon, 121 MPs including dozens of ministers found the time to show up for a vote to change the Freedom of Information Act so that it did not apply to Parliament.

Reform does not depend on elections. It does not depend on power. It does not depend on integrity. It does not even depend on external consultants. It depends on outrage that is sustained and does not get misdirected by some piece of PR manipulation.

We should have the right to see every penny of our money that is spent, and every contract that is signed in our name — especially as we have absolutely no statutory powers to affect it. If they have nothing to hide they have nothing to fear.

Wednesday, April 9th, 2008 at 10:19 am - - Machining, Whipping 4 Comments »

I’d recently read the following paragraph in the glossy accounts of VI Group plc:

The Department of Trade & Industry awarded a grant of £81,000 for the development of modelling technologies particularly applicable to areas of mould design that are not easily accessible to users of current precise modelling techniques. It is anticipated that this project will come to fruition in late 2006.[1]

when a friend of mine was building a Freedom of Information webpage and needed some examples to test it with. After a bit of messing around with the fact that the DTI has been replaced by the BERR,[2] and anyway it wasn’t awarded by them in the first place, we received the following reply about the grant from the Southwest Regional Development Agency:

I can confirm that Vero International Software were awarded a SMART award on 7 May 2003 for the development of modelling technologies particularly applicable to areas of mould design that are not easily accessible to users of current precise modelling techniques. In total they received £143,805.35 between 7 May 2003 and 8 Feb 2005. The South West Regional Development Agency holds a project file concerning this SMART award.

SMART (now re-branded as Grant for Research and Development) was a national Department of Trade and Industry product to help individuals starting up businesses and small and medium sized enterprises already based in England carry out research and development work on technologically innovative products and processes. By offering a grant towards the costs of carrying out the research and development work, the scheme encouraged businesses to carry out projects that they would not necessarily undertake without the grant.

The work carried out in SMART projects is often genuinely confidential and may lead to patentable ideas. In other cases the know-how developed is a trade secret. Following your request, Vero Software were contacted to see if they would agree to the release of any of the project information that we hold. They considered all the information to be commercially confidential. Our Freedom of Information (FOI) Decisions & Appeals Board then met to consider whether or not an exemption applied to this information… [and] decided that it is not in the public interest to release the information we hold about this project.[3]

So where did the £81k number originate? Now nothing in the Vero accounts has ever made any sense to me,[4] but I am starting to notice the liberty with which the money men are willing throw around totally meaningless figures like confetti. For example, in the preliminary results released last week:

Net debt increased to £2.7 million from £2.3 million. £2.6m of this relates to term loans from UK and Italian Banks repayable over 5 years. The company has total short term borrowing facilities of £1.4m in Italy and the UK to cover its working capital requirements. Interest payments during the year were £211,000 (2006: £81,000) and were covered 6 times (2006: 13 times) by profits.[5]

That’s a lot of increase in interest for a small increase in debt, don’t you think? The good news about debt levels that were touted six months ago totally vanished:

Net debt has reduced since the year end to £1.7m (31 December 2006: £2.3m).[6]

Whatever. The debt may have something to do with random acts of acquisition.[7] Just imagine the difference I could make to the world with that kind of money.

As far as I can see, all this gibberish is for one purpose and one purpose only– to persuade investors to buy shares in their company. That is, if they aren’t mind-bogglingly bored by the whole exercise first. For a software company in this day and age, they’ve managed to make their business appear exceptionally dull.

I have observed the steady increase in shareholding by a one Peter Gyllenhammar and his Union Discount Company of London Ltd[8] who, according to the 100% PR flim-flam that is the excuse for a business press, is a “Swedish activist investor”

specialis[ing] in companies trading at substantial discounts to net asset value or in need of restructuring, often through his investment vehicles, Erudite, F�rvaltnings AB and Silverslaggen. He often seeks board representation and works closely with management. Gyllenhammar has a background as an analyst and corporate finance advisor to several major Swedish corporations. He has interests in a number of UK public companies, and is chairman of British Mohair Holdings, and a director of Browallia International. Current significant holdings include Densitron Technologies, European Colour, The Jarvis Porter Group, Lonrho Africa and The Sherwood Group.[9]

This has been going on for about a year, and I’m still waiting for something interesting to happen.

Anyways, back to the FOI request. The answer is not good enough because communications between Vero and the Regional Development Agency about the extent of their proof that the money was actually used to carry out a project Vero would not necessarily undertake without a grant must be disclosed. They can give me the documents, but with all the trade secrets blotted out.

Unfortunately, this requires a complaint to be made through a different email address, and the FOI system doesn’t handle that yet. So there will be a delay. Hopefully a short one because my contacts are with the programmers rather than through a no-nothing manager in charge of the project who’s only option is to fob me off.

(Actually, the guy in charge of the FOI project, knows what he is doing. But that’s not my point– or maybe it is… That being if no one with any influence is interested in the software, then the software will probably wind up being uninteresting. See?)

Monday, April 7th, 2008 at 2:54 pm - - Weekends, Whipping

After heaving into Plymouth following an extremely rough crossing from Santander last week (parts of the restaurant area were in freefall on the waves, as was my stomach), I discovered I lacked any alacrity to get back onto the net.

Becka headed off to Cambridge for a conference, and I caught the train and carried most of the smelly caving gear across town, arriving home at around 8pm. As I began clearing out hundreds of emails (mostly error messages from scripts I don’t control), Martin and Aidan hassled me on the Skype video about their woes over the past two days at BBC NW labs in an all expenses paid 4 star hotel on the shore of Lake Windermere six miles north of the nearest train station.

I caught the 6:05am train from Liverpool the following morning with my bike and was told you can’t make bike reservations on Virgin trains on the day. I managed to make one with the more helpful ticket window in Wigan with about 30seconds to spare, and was able to cycle down to the hotel by about 8am.

I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Maybe it was because I’d missed the two days of management exercises by the “facilitators” so the BS was thinning out. But to be honest if you get a comfortable bed and good food, what in the world could possibly matter? Maybe coming to it direct from a caving expedition had something to do with it; two days beforehand Becka and I had visited a newly discovered cave that had been used as a disposal hole for dead cows and household waste, and got scarily lost in a part of the lower streamway aptly named “Squality Street”.

We’ll see if something comes of it. I did nothing over the weekend except clean the garage and scrub the kitchen floor. Then in the afternoon after wasting time on the wikipedia entry about Korean reunification (why?) I discovered that the high tide the following day would possibly precipitate a tidal bore up the Dee.

It’s been a while since I’ve been out on the canoes, so Becka and I paid a visit to the place, paddled, and saw it come and go past, and were completely unable to surf on it. Have placed some details about it on wikipedia. One theory is that the goddamn airplane manufacturer there has dredged the river bed for the benefit of its wing carrying barges and disrupted the flow of the bore. The sooner the aviation industry shuts down for good the better.

While in Spain I made a minor breakthrough in the design of Tunnel (as I was programming half the time instead of caving).

Yesterday I discovered dbpedia (/cave), which is a database generated from the fields in wikipedia infoboxes. I’ve been calling for something like this to be made for some time, so now I am pleased to see it. Soon we’ll be able to list the top ten deepest caves in mendip and make other queries.