Freesteel Blog » 2008 » July

Thursday, July 24th, 2008 at 7:48 pm - - Whipping 4 Comments »

A post on 4 July on the BBC Open Secrets blog about the Council finances briefly being open referenced the Orchard News Agency, which included on their updated table (without any helpful hyperlinks) of councils whose inspection periods are open.

An FOI request for the advertisement obtained the information.

It said (hyperlinks added):

NOTICE IS HEREBY GIVEN that pursuant to Sections 15 and 16 of the Audit Commission Act, 1998 and regulations13, 14 and 16 of the Accounts and Audit Regulations, 2003

1. From Wednesday 2 July to Tuesday 29 July inclusive, between 8.30am and 4.45pm any persons interested on application to the Assistant Executive Director (Financial Management), Room 14, Municipal Building, Dale Street, Liverpool L2 2DQ may inspect and make copies, at a charge of 20 pence per sheet, of the accounts of the above named Council for the year ended 31st March, 2008 and all appropriate records related thereto;

2.On or after Wednesday 30 July at 10.00am, the District Auditor, Mike Thomas, 3rd Floor, Millennium House, 60 Victoria Street, Liverpool L1 6LD will be available at the request of any local government elector for the area to which the accounts relate or their representative, to be questioned about the accounts and any such elector or their representative, may attend before the Auditor and make objections to the accounts;

3.No objection to the City Council’s accounts may be made under subsections 16 (1-3) of the Audit Commission Act, 1998 by or on behalf of a local government elector, unless the Auditor has previously received written notice of the proposed objection and of the grounds on which it is made. Where an elector sends a notice to the Auditor, the elector must at the same time send a copy of the notice to the City Council at the address below.

Now, this ad was not meant to be followed up, because when I presented myself between 8.30am and 4.45pm at said offices, nothing was prepared. I had an interesting conversation where I was was told that all the council accounts are posted on-line. This almost put me off track, but I persisted, since not all the books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts relating to them were available there. One of the interesting factors about this is the only exemption to this data is:

Nothing in this section entitles a person to inspect so much of any accounts or other document as contains personal information about a member of the staff of the body whose accounts are being audited;

While it is unclear if this exemption applies to staff employed by a contractor (not the Council) who are named in the books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts, it does not allow the usually unjustified blanket exemption of “commercial confidentiality” on the basis that somebody with commercial experience simply says so, and it is not in the public interest for anyone to cry: “bollocks!”

And since this data has been accessible through this mechanism for many years — even to competitors of the contractor in question — it proves that the information is (a) not confidential, and (b) provides no competitive advantage to those competitors or they would be queuing up at the council offices on day one to access everything they could. Therefore nothing which pertains to money regarding the council business can be denied under the Freedom of Information Act on the basis of commercial confidentiality.

Or at least that would be the case if some appeal court judge could be persuaded to say as much in an official ruling. For now, the closest I can find of the system approaching this point is this press report of a case between the guy running Orchard News Agency and Lincolnshire County Council in 2005, and they don’t mention the issue of FOI.

How did a public right like this slip in through in an Act of Parliament in 1998 at the time when corporate interests were running riot?

Answer: It didn’t. No point in searching for the debates on the “Audit Commission Bill” from because it predates their database, which still only goes back to 2001.

So we fall back to the original Hansard search engine to get this written question from 18 February 1998:

Mr. Cohen: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor’s Department if he will introduce a statutory code of practice in respect of the provisions in the Audit Commission Bill [Lords] which permit the Commission to datamatch personal data in the name of economy, effectiveness and efficiency; and if he will make a statement. [29114]

Mr. Hoon: The Audit Commission Bill is a Consolidation Bill, which does no more than restate the existing law in clearer form. It is not possible to amend the Bill by adding a provision for a code of practice.

This tells us that that the Act was just a tidying up and drawing together of a whole bunch of clauses from other Acts to put the duties of the Audit Commission into one place.

The clause detailing the rights of public inspection and the right to make objections known to the visiting auditor regarding actual details within the public finances appear as Section 17 of the Local Government Finance Act 1982, though without our modern Data Protection provisions that you can bet are likely to be used to deny access to entire documents on the frivolous grounds that they contain people’s names on them.

It’s important to retain the right of the Government to keep such records, sell them to supermarkets, lose them on laptops off the back of trains, and generally mishandle and (mis)use it for any purpose falling under the terms of “securing the efficient and effective provision of public services,” whilst at the same time denying a public right to find out anything that goes on in Government or who by.

Back to the point.

One thing that’s confusing we have an Act of Parliament, followed by some Regulations about the implementation of the Act. The Regulations explain how the Act is applied, including minor details about how the public can be ineffectively notified of their rights. Harry Cohen MP above was asking whether the Regulations would be updated with the consolidation act (the Audit Commission Act, which necessitated no debate). Mr Hoon said: No. They were updated five years later by the Accounts and Audit Regulations 2003, Section 16 of which says:

“Not later than 14 days before the commencement of the period during which the accounts and other documents are made available in pursuance of regulation 14, a relevant body to which regulation 11(2) applies, or in the case of a parish meeting, the chairman of the meeting, shall give notice by advertisement of the [date, place, time, etc]

Got that?

Right. Now it is possible to delve into the debates in Parliament around the time of 1982 by searching on millbank systems.

This throws up a very revealing speech on this particular clause by Lord Bruce of Donington. It seems that this is the point where the the Audit Commission was first established:

The Committee will be aware that under the 1972 Act, the approved auditor, which in practice meant a firm of chartered accountants, or a firm of accountants acting on behalf of local authorities, differed considerably from the position of the district auditor…

The position is going to be rather different now… If the Committee will refer to Clause 11 [which] states: “At each audit by an auditor under this Part of this Act any persons interested may inspect the accounts to be audited and all books, deeds contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts relating to them and make copies of all or any part of the accounts and those other documents.”

For reasons that the noble Lord knows quite well, while that is done the auditor or one of his staff has to be in attendance. The examination may be quite lengthy and time-consuming. At Clause 11(2) it says that the auditor is required to give an elector the chance to question him and he is required to answer. This once again is completely outside the normal audit process as is generally understood in the profession itself and may once again be very time-consuming.

In some local authorities the publication in the local newspaper of the fact that the accounts of an authority are available for inspection and the auditors are available to answer questions as from a given date to a given date, may attract no interest whatsoever. There may be other advertisements in the paper, not always on the same page as legal notices, which people find more attractive. Some local authorities may indeed “get away with it” — I do not mean it in that sense — nobody ever questioning the auditor at all.

The Committee might consider the case of other local authorities where sometimes political passions have been known to run high, either one way or the other, and a group — one or many — of local electors get very disgruntled with the way things are running. I can envisage a fairly continuous procession of one aggrieved person after the other — whether politically or actually aggrieved — going to the audit office or other prescribed address that is required in the notice and questioning them.

All good common sense.

In fact, when you get down into the detailed discussions and investigations in Parliament, there’s plenty of common sense in evidence everywhere. The political process then magically cleanses itself of the common sense where it is not beneficial to the powers that be.

To track this further, I’d have to go to the excellent Liverpool Central Library and leaf through the old volumes of Hansard, as well as any copies of the Bills which they retain, in order to determine if 1982 was the source of this public right, or if it was copied from the earlier Local Government Act 1972 (check out that Wikipedia page there).

Meanwhile, after two weeks of emailing back and forth negotiating (people in the Council checking with their lawyers), I got access to some of these here accounts. In particular the Mouchel Parkman 2020 Liverpool partnership transactions and some transactions from IPS Services (note: FOI for contract still overdue), all laid out on paper. I got one electronic spreadsheet of costs from the 2020 Liverpool thing (and learnt about the limited login system that the council officer had into their system, contradicting the “open book” provisions), but the IPS Services details appears to be printed out on paper and mailed to the Council hard-copy.

The chaps gave me plenty of time to discuss with them the whole concept of how it worked and explore the procedures. The summary is that experts with a high degree of business and accountancy training think its great, and other people who only have their common sense to rely on believe it’s nuts. The points seemed to be:

  • Ignore your intuition of flow of work, excess overheads resulting from not hiring staff directly, and other matters; you should focus on the Mouchel (pronounced Mou-shell) brand and how well you can imagine that they manage and motivate people in their organization, than if they were just doing jobs they felt were directly for the public interest.
  • According to the Mouchel Parkman spam on Wikipedia, the company was founded in Liverpool in the 19th century, and this work with the Council, which is done by former Council employees TUPEd across, is a way for it to get back to its roots. Yeah, right.
  • 2020 Liverpool is a partnership company between Liverpool City Council and Mouchel. The Council has an important stake in its success and wants the business to prosper.
  • Oddly, if the Council owned 100% of the Company then the zero-sum nature of the direct correlation of profit of the Company relating exactly to costs on the Council would be clear. But when the figure is only 20% (not even factoring in the undisclosed Mouchel Parkman management fee of a fixed percentage of the turnover), this decouples it completely, even though according to common sense analysis it should make it four times worse!
  • Ah, but 2020 Liverpool can bid for work in other places, not just from Liverpool City Council (from which it gets only 80% of its business).
  • The other 20% seems to involve designing the rebuilding of schools, ultimately funded by the Council (unless you buy into that whole sub-prime-mortgage-like PFI hogwash). It was confirmed to me that Council architects used to do this work before they were transfered to 2020, so pretending it isn’t part of Council business is being economical with the actualit√©. Anyways, if there was anything lucrative going, Mouchel itself go for the contract directly and cut out that oh-so-valuable stake of Liverpool City Council by simply relocating the 2020 staff to that part of the business.
  • Basically, the operation of the business can be finely tuned to meet and never exceed the aspirations of the Council. Losses and financial difficulties, however, commonly find their way back into the public finances, in spite of the fact that it’s never part of the plan — so there is no point in looking at it for predictions.
  • In spite of the Council having to ensure that a steady flow of work goes to 2020 to maintain the success of the business, one of the supposed advantages of procuring it this way is that it gets the staff off the Council’s payroll, so that when business declines they don’t have to keep workers idle or sack them, because Mouchel can relocate them to other parts of their bigger business — for example, to satisfy lucrative contracts it has bid for itself against the fictional interests of the pretend-person legal entity that it has managerial control over known as 2020.
  • Like those suspiciously common Very Bad Deals that occur throughout Government procurement of software, although the Council pays the entire up-front hourly costs of all work done for the design of an item of infrastructure, 2020, and therefore Mouchel, retains absolute copyright for all work done.
  • I was told this was a good thing, because if the 2020 can make more money by selling this same work to other customers, then the Council, which has a stake in the success of the Company, will benefit.
  • For business minds, this is enough to disconnect the fact that the electronic plans for a road traffic island in a junction in Liverpool will probably only ever be bought in the future by Liverpool City Council, and you have now made renationalization of the city planning department in 20 years time when the contract expires subject to a potential utter rip-off should the Council want any of the documentation of the infrastructure it paid for in the first place to design — even should someone who has the sort of common sense that comes from not being business trained has a say in the decision at the time.

I must check that last point out. I wonder if any of those great highly-skilled contract negotiators thought of this.

The habit of claiming that fractional revenues returning from theoretical and dubious business opportunities adequately compensates for delivering intellectual property into the private sector for free is not new.

Back in 2002 the e-Envoy, after selling out the whole of central government and then some to Microsoft, was interviewed:

Geraint Davies MP: Microsoft have been given the responsibility for the construction of the gateway technology, have they not?

Andrew Pinder: Microsoft have been one of a number of partners we have used to build that site although we own the intellectual property rights to that. They are a contractor along with Dell and a number of other contractors.

Geraint Davies MP If they sell it abroad to other governments we get a margin; is that correct?

Andrew Pinder Microsoft have asked us if they can use our intellectual property rights for building products for other governments.

Geraint Davies MP: Exactly how much are we going to get for that?

Andrew Pinder: We take a commission on their gross sales of that product through a contractual arrangement. 24% of their gross sales of the government gateway intellectual property will come to us. They have made two sales so far and have a number of other sales in prospect, so we have got a contract with Microsoft US to get that commissioned. We felt it was right, rather than just hold on to the technology ourselves because there was an opportunity to recoup some of the cost of building that technology through a licensing agreement.

Geraint Davies MP That 22% of the intellectual property must be bringing in money.

Andrew Pinder We rather hope that it will give us quite a lot of money, yes. In this particular respect we wish Microsoft every good wish in their sales efforts.

Ah. Wrong quote. Can’t seem to find documentation of a deal this bad, regarding ownership of IP. I was looking for information about the contract between EDS and the Inland Revenue where EDS owned all the source code, but I can only find this record detailing the suspicious success of that brand to obtain contracts, regardless of its track record.

Brand perception management. Evidence-free planning that can be trusted.

Must move on. Tune in next time. Or to one of these while I’m away.

It’s not enough to make a newspaper story (a limited genre of information presentation), but it is interesting and may lead to something important one day.

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008 at 2:58 pm - - Cory Doctorow, Machining, University, Whipping

While we’re waiting for someone to ask the Question from Hell, Becka has appeared in today’s New York Times.

Evidently this is related to the conference in Hamburg she’s just been to. I can’t give you a link because conference alerts takes things down too quickly, and I can’t even check it up yet on I’ll be able to find out maybe in 5 months time what it was without asking. This is an information black-hole.

A tip for any of you reporters who don’t see your job as sitting back and waiting for the PR industry to spoon-feed you with well-crafted press-releases, she’ll be at the ECVP 2008 in Utrecht showing off her haptic experiments.

Update: Stumbled upon this crude visualization of point-cloud data used to make a music video. For decades CADCAM engineers have been trying to convert this sort of data into usable surface models (eg at the meshing round table). This is one of those insoluble problems, because only when you make a concerted effort to solve it do you realize that what seems to be enough data is in fact insufficient, and everyone who hasn’t gone through that process just thinks it’s because you’re not smart enough.

Anyway, what’s makes this effort cool is they’ve released the point cloud data in downloadable format so people can play with it. Some results, using standard applications, are here. Maybe someone in the wider audience will prove smart enough, having been exposed to some real messy data. Working from clean data at the start seems always to spoil the intuitive understanding of the problem. That’s why I am thankful that my initial CADCAM experience was with the output of NCG Toolmaker, where everything was broken and none of the surfaces connected up, as you get from proper solid modellers these days.

Sunday, July 20th, 2008 at 5:59 pm - - Machining 3 Comments »

This is the result of a rapid “old feature” -> “idea” -> “new idea” -> “experiment” cycle of about a week. The Danes said they needed the feature to measure how long the toolshaft should be for a given toolholder and surface model.

holder height map

In Machining Strategist/Depocam, this feature is implemented by analysing all the positions of a theoretical tool holder at every point of a given toolpath and comparing its interference with all the triangles in the model in a potentially n3 algorithm. This produces a monotonic graph of height above tooltip against maximum diameter the toolholder could be at that level and not collide with the part. You can use this to instantly predict the length the tool shaft needs to be (the stem between the cutting tip part of the tool and the chuck) given different shapes for the holder or chuck.

This is nice in theory, but in practice chuck shapes don’t change, so you might as well start with a single holder or chuck shape and calculate how high it has to be from the tool tip along every part of a given toolpath. The calculation gets faster and faster as you sample along the path, because you need the global maximum value, and with every increment of the running maximum there are fewer triangles to test the toolholder against. Add to this the fact that the operation is trivially parallelizable, and that my 3-axis holder location function is surprisingly fast (designed without compromising on memory), and the result is responsive without this intermediate data.

However, the Danes want something even more user-friendly. They wanted the tool holder length for the job without giving it a toolpath to begin with.

I couldn’t see the point in this, because the only way to implement it would be to produce a dense toolpath across the part, call the previous function, and then discard this useless toolpath. Now you’ve got a single number for the length of tool shaft, and you calculate the toolpath you wanted to anyway. Then you’d have to verify the shaft length against it just to be sure. And really you should just have the patience to wait to get this number at the right time in the course of the calculations, so you don’t waste duplication of so much cutter locationing on the surface. Unlike the tool shaft height algorithm, it doesn’t get faster the more you sample. You’ve got to scan everywhere densely because there might be just one deep narrow slot into which the tool falls, necessitating a very long tool shaft.

(Thinking about it now — and perhaps the Danes knew this and forgot to tell me during the ensuing argument over the pointlessness of this feature request — this feature does have an application for 3+2 machining when you want to to access the model from different directions in order to get away with a shorter tool.)

So, anyway, leaving it for a couple of days, coming back to it, and thinking some more, I realized the bit I didn’t like was the huge calculation resulting in one lone floating point number. What if I produced a height field where at each XY point on the drive plane it gave you the minimum length of the tool shaft? You could colour shade the surface instead of producing a height map if you had to. But still you need the numbers. I realized I could build it into my under-used stock model algorithm (it’s used to produce the fillet surfaces, but it doesn’t do animations, so no one wants it when they can bring in MachineWorks, which already works for everything, like 5-axis, which this one doesn’t). The other advantage of the stock model algorithm is it’s the same one that runs all the other algorithms (scallop, zslice, pencil, area detect) and so is already parallelized. So there.

Probably going to run out of memory, but who knows. It makes the right picture. As you can see, the high points correspond close to the steep walls. And if it was ridiculously fast, (which is isn’t going to be) you could use the mouse to vary the tool-axis in real time and see the heights changing as you maneuvered towards a more optimum position.

We’ll shelve it for another couple of weeks and come back to it. I’m minded of the fact that users normally have to type in their “desired” 3+2 style tool axis in a dialog box, usually by guesswork or using their favourite default number (eg 45degrees from vertical). It is possible that this will work will move towards the computer discovering the optimal tooling angle on its own. Or at least shifting it slightly to a better position (such as 39degrees from vertical) in a way that suddenly allows you to use a shorter tool from your stock list. The truth is, in any user interface dialog box which allows the user to set it to “any number they like” (as if this is an advantage), the option should be to type in: “The best one”.

Meanwhile, we’ll just check out check out a number of very uninspiring websites, declare it forevermore now unpatentable, and move on.

CADCAM employees, respecting the irrational demands of their companies, are normally astoundingly reticent about any kinds of innovations and ideas that might be going on. The official reason for this habit is that the atmosphere in their office is so bubbling with heaps of potently good CADCAM innovations that if one such idea leaked out, someone who heard it would be able to apply it, win the entire market share, and put them out of business. Another explanation, probably closer to the mark, is it’s like the secret conclusive evidence for weapons of mass destruction. The secret was there wasn’t any. The commercially confidential information is that all the programmers in the office are bored out of their tiny minds, don’t want to have any ideas that just cause more work and absolutely advantage or glory coming back to them owing to the anonymized force of the corporation, and can’t even be bothered to surf around the internet for places where some sort of half-formed ideas might be disclosed by some nitwit who’s out of control of his employer and doesn’t understand the protocol of silence and the jealous protection of technological stagnation that allows clanky old ancient first-draft CADCAM kernels to continue to compete in the market like they were fresh out of Stanford, and be bothered to leave an anonymous comment at the bottom of their blog to encourage them to continue this nutty practice of giving away important secrets that harm his own business and helps everyone else’s to get better. It’s not like ideas only develop without sharing and testing and discussions and different implementations to get towards something that might eventually be half good, like the sales-theory that it will all come out straight and perfectly formed in the next release and take the market by storm. People are not that excited by things any more. And those developers who do still have some life left in them to offer need to understand this so they can move their work forwards and faster and eventually leave this tranche of ossified kernels behind, because at the moment it takes more than a decade for the market to notice that the programmers have, like Elvis, left the building and that ten years of uninvested consumer profits have been frittered away like a sour bet on the stock market and a yard deep stack of pointless legal paperwork. It’s amazing any progress gets made in spite of this sickening business cultural attitude. And that’s exactly how long your shaft needs to be.

Friday, July 18th, 2008 at 9:26 am - - Cave 1 Comment »

Rather than take still photos, here’s a camera video of the ingenious pump sump down in Ireby Fell Cavern at the weekend of 12 July 2008.

I’ve been helping out with drawing the map (and updating the special software to help with drawing it), written in Java — a language which someone has called “the COBOL of the 21st Century”. Ouch!

Here’s a sample of the map at that section, which I don’t have time to do my XML sit-ups necessary to put in the colour.

Ireby II sump detail below Cripple Creek

Key: The Crossed region is the sump (a water filled passage you normally need to cave dive to enter. The squiggly passage at the top is at least 50metres higher in a dreadful area called Cripple Creak. Gotta go.

Thursday, July 17th, 2008 at 9:53 pm - - Machining 1 Comment »

Still surfing around looking for that elusive Python command-line driven CNC tool which I believe would be a mega-educational resource for our time — and if no funding for such devices can be found, then the education system really is screwed, if it’s not too busy being defrauded [and I had to write that whole article myself] for hundreds of millions of pounds on account of massively incompetent and stupendously overpaid contractors.

Anyway, in the process, I discovered this remarkably charming video of someone assembling what appears to be a machine tool :

Further details are on a site called Instructables, which also has make your own CNC controller and How to make a CNC machine cheaply and easily (out of what looks like wood).

Also, I found a nice little CAM system called cambam, free to download in Windows. Clearly, the machining community (such as it is) has yet to get the idea of free open source software, because such niches would have been prime candidates in any other programming sector. I’m still eager to offer some low-level (but very hard) calculations and algorithms to an open source CAM community, but there’s yet to be anywhere that takes it. Maybe in another twenty years if there’s enough fall out from the free software movement into this sector, which would be likely if there ever was an educational device based on CNC technology, directly accessibly programmed (ie not by G-codes — which are very simple, but don’t appear so at first glance).

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008 at 8:45 pm - - UN, Whipping

As a result of someone adding the offensive {{tone}} and {{unreferenced}} tags to my important United Nations Document Codes page, I reviewed the information carefully and discovered the UN’s official extremely crappy (and I say that without prejudice) 71 page scanned pamphlet printed in 1994, which is their most recent review of the document coding system. I think my wikipedia page is a worthy contribution.

Then I had a stroll over to the Committee on Information website, which oversees the strategy of the entire Organization, and discovered that every single link from it to an official document was broken.

The documents are there, there’s just a session-based page system which is blocking the links, which is something my scraper has to tunnel through by relaying the randomized cookies back and forwards each time it downloads a document.

I got paranoid to think they’d started blocking my IP address because I’ve been scraping too much of their web-pages. But it hadn’t happened. I discovered the trove of Committee on Information documents are all to be found under the code A/AC.198/YYYY/N, where YYYY=year and N=1-9. I spent the entire day pulling each one down and skimming them for clues.

The only clue I found was a single sentence from 2008 here:

The General Assembly website was revamped for the sixty-second session, making it easier to find documents, resolutions and the work programmes of the respective committees. The new site, available in all six official languages and fully accessible to persons with disabilities, is now more General Assembly-focused. However, access through a session-based page has been retained.

Interestingly, things were different way back in 2001, when it was promised:

Once the above policy decision is implemented and the ODS (Official Document System) infrastructure is proven capable of providing unrestricted access, the United Nations web site could be modified to provide direct hyperlinks to the parliamentary documents on ODS, instead of copying the documents to the United Nations web site, which is the current practice. In this manner, documents seen on the United Nations web site will be available simultaneously in the six official languages.

In addition, administrative instruction ST/AI/2001/5 of 22 August 2001 on United Nations Internet publishing, which promulgates guidelines for the presentation of United Nations materials and documents, conditions of use and disclaimers for reproduction of official documents, would need to be amended to require all content-providing offices to remove any versions that may have been posted and instead provide hyperlinks to the actual document on ODS. This will further ensure the accuracy and consistency of the parliamentary documents on the United Nations web site, in relation to the official version of the documents on ODS.

Now, anyone with any internet nous knows that’s completely the correct thing to do, and that somehow things have gone backwards from a position of enlightenment to a position of ignorance.

I can’t find any direct clues, except that the upgrade from optical discs to hard drives and servers was made to Lotus Notes and Microsoft Internet Information Server while budgets were cut resulting in an unaffordability of upgrading everything to Windows 2000 — but they did have UNICODE, which they seemed particularly excited about. Also, it looked like the search facilities were so bad different parts of the Organization were desperately contacting Google to help sort things out. Google joined the list of registered vendors on 4 December 2002 with the vendor-id 20049. Microsoft has the vendor-id 52.

So there’s evidence of a total internal electronic rot of the Organization by an early penetration by Microsoft, just as there has been of the UK government. The signs are always present: when IT strategies go backwards fast and suddenly all the money gets drained out of the coffers. They must have a very good sales force in there, able to butter up highly skilled diplomats who apparently lack the ability to recognize a facade over a tactical lack of technical competence that results in a predictably desperate vendor lock-in, thus resulting in tens of billions of dollars of personal money going to the owner of the company from all corners of the victimized economy to the detriment of a class of people who can actually program stuff and can’t get work, and an almost insignificant fraction of the pocket cash being recycled into the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which then gets lauded in speeches in the General Assembly repeatedly, like it doesn’t matter why the Organisation’s IT strategy is simultaneously going broke. Of course, the guy could have given a discount on his software products (marginal cost: $0.00 — but how would you become a billionaire if you did things like that?), or advised them to go open source. After all, he knows the technical arguments.

In 2007 the Organization recognized the need for a content management system:

The Department has been working closely with the Information Technology Services Division of the Department of Management on the prospect of a web content management system. Such a solution, however, is still long term. In the meantime, a short-term solution, such as the use of open source content management system, is being considered. Such an effort would facilitate institutional branding and easier content management.

Somehow misses the point of open source: that you take it, and its yours forever, not just for the license period. And you can adapt it, and you can bring on board a community of developers who often volunteer their services in return for interesting and worthwhile things to do, of which the United Nations has much to offer.

Do you think the UN will ever find a use for having all their recent parliamentary transcripts in HTML form? Maybe? They could always drop me an email. Or perhaps there’s that pressing engagement with the Microsoft representative in that fancy high-class New York restaurant far away from this boring nitty-gritty of structured HTML code as possible. Who knows? There’s all this talk of supporting this civil society. Maybe it just refers to people who can hold their knife and fork straight.

Thursday, July 10th, 2008 at 2:12 pm - - Whipping

Still spending hours doing my own editing of Public Whip, turning Parliamentary gibberish into stuff that’s more useful with hyperlinks, because nobody else out of the entire establishment — including anyone luxuriating on a civil service pension with time on their hands and a lot of knowledge and skills going to waste — seems to be bothered…

(I got an income tax bill yesterday, which isn’t very convenient since I’d just spent all of my limited income on living. Pension savings can take a hike. Government advise is for programmers like me to piss off and get a proper job at EDS writing the worst computerized tax system in the world. Basically, the national and cultural policy is to starve all software developers who contemplate working in the public interest, because if it isn’t art and doesn’t make anyone rich, it has no right to exist.)

So, anyway, I found a couple of new votes in the division list. I began drafting an email to No2ID about it, but then thought, “Sod It”. In spite of frequent hassling, these useless gets don’t ever take time to maintain the public whip policy on ID cards which can be automatically compared against MPs. They’ve never gone in and edited any of the votes like this one in order that it looked like this one.

Anyways, the biometric ID cards votes in question impose the scheme on visitors to the UK. There’s this one establishing a civil penalty code of practice for those who resist, and this one which links to the full regulations.

Interesting, there was a vote to impose a set of pilot regulations back in April, so you can look at this page to see which MPs switched their votes between then and now. Guess what. It’s members of the DUP, the party who allegedly received some sort of favours to vote through the 42 days detention.

Interestingly, Sammy Wilson MP (East Antrim) didn’t go along with them. Could this provide evidence to the structure of the alleged favour, or does he or his constituents retain some faith in the retention of civil liberties against the basic competence of the government to be trusted with personal data. I don’t know.

What I do know is that the Tories, as is very common, were entirely absent from the vote. They also chose not to vote on a special Lincolnshire police rate-capping order.

Who knows what the game is? Do they even know their own policies? Or is this how seriously they take their badge of Loyal Opposition when confronted with numerous policies, like nuclear power, that they agree with, but can’t bring themselves to vote with the Government.

I mean, they should have merged back in 1999, the Tories and the New Labour Party, after New Labour had exhausted its entire list of things important things it had promised to do, like Minimum Wage, Human Rights Act, Electoral Reform, Freedom of Information, and Right to Roam (in Scotland only). It’s not possible to determin any difference in political direction since that time. It’s been a big con, put over on a thoroughly disengaged public who don’t show any interest in knowing the actual ingredients the brands have put into their bitter product.

To see the Conservative Party turnout in all votes since the last election, click here. You can work out for yourself what to click on to sort by turnout, and to see similar no-show votes for the other terms.

Wednesday, July 9th, 2008 at 6:44 pm - - Whipping

I want this type of questioning to happen in the UK regarding our MPs during an election campaign. We need to make them answerable.

Here’s a clip from someone asking the candidate specifically about a vote he made in Congress.

The answer is not interesting, of course. But it gets asked, and asked a second time, until he can’t answer.

Here’s another site (called BushRubberStamp) matching up the votes of a representative in congress and the most unpopular president in the history of America.

This site is interesting because it contains a web-form to help you write letters to various newspapers. Contains a sidebar with guidelines:

1. Be Concise. Keep your letter to under 200 words. If it is too long, your most important point may be cut. Newspapers reserve the right to edit letters before publication. Our LTE form counts the words for you!
2. Make timely comments. If you are responding to an article or opinion piece, submit your letter as soon as possible. What matters to an editor now, may not matter next week.
3. Focus. The first sentence of your letter should explain why you are writing. Make it as easy as possible for the editorial staff and readers to understand the purpose of your letter.
4. State your point. Following your opening sentence, try to summarize your issue/argument, correction, or additional information in the next sentence.
5. Target your audience. Be sure to submit your letter to your local paper. Use local examples where possible.
6. Use plain language. Easy-to-understand language ensures your message will not be misunderstood.
7. Close Strong. Use your last sentence to make a strong statement.
8. Check. Proofread and check your spelling. Also review the guidelines for each newspaper to ensure that your letter conforms.

Oh yeah, here’s the ad, which is part of that same campaign.

I mean, it’s not perfect. The “93.6% of the time” doesn’t have a lot of meaning — the 6.4% left over might really really matter. But these things move towards the business where the actions done with our democratic mandate could begin to count more than the pretty face.

That’s the prima facie flaw with our common implementation of democracy — we can only vote for people, not policies; and those people elected are absolutely unconstrained in every way, and entirely within their rights to sell us out completely during their entire term, without any legal right to prevent it or be compensated.

Tuesday, July 8th, 2008 at 11:30 am - - University, Whipping 1 Comment »

It’s outrageous. A mere five months after his ordinary rendition from Zimbabwe to Equatorial Guinea, Simon Mann suffered an unfair trial that lasted three weeks and found him guilty of something for which he was caught red-handed and has continued to confess to, providing evidence that is consistent with many other facts on the ground.

Clearly, Simon Mann was trying to cause a public emergency threatening the life of the government nation, and in a civilized country like Britain, this would get officially declared so that those guys who were a threat to the nation could be held in captivity indefinitely without taking them to trial or even telling anyone exactly what they had done wrong.

Timelines of this plot have been printed in the press. But this single link gives you a timeline for what’s been happening in the UK Parliament about this important issue of a colleague and friend in need.

Then our man from the Campain for Nuclear Weapons, Julian Lewis, went berserk and had 9 questions answered on 18 February 2008. The issue at hand was the sudden transfer of Simon Mann from Zimbabwe to Equatorial Guinea when the appeals case against extradition had not been fully exhausted in the Zimbabwe courts.

Man, you’ve got problems if you’re fighting to stay within the jurisdiction of the Zimbabwean courts!

One of Lewis’s questions was:

Will the Secretary of State “make representations to the United States Administration requesting it to exert its influence on Equatorial Guinea to secure the safe return of Simon Mann.”

You see, the problem was, Simon Mann wasn’t going to get a fair trial in Equatorial Guinea of the kind that Mark Thatcher got in South Africa, where he was allowed to confess to something no one believed was possible (ie that he gave money away to a humanitarian cause and accidentally bought a tactical weapons system), pay some cash, and run home to mummy.

That’s the issue at stake.

Lewis isn’t concerned about those British citizens who were in Guantanamo Bay. There’s this strange concept that the bad guys are all powerful, and, for example, because al-Zarqawi was not arrested in Iraq 2004, the whole US bombing of Falluja was a response to the havoc this single guy was causing.

I mean, the amount of damage that can plausibly be caused by someone who is being evil must relate to the quantity of resources he has at his disposal. And Mann connects to a lot more resources than al-Zarqawi. Also, Mann’s removal from the field of battle was followed by no coup against the government of Equatorial Guinea. Meanwhile, after the 2006 photo of al-Zarqawi’s mutilated corpse was tastefully framed in gold by the US military, the war in Iraq quickly drew down, didn’t it?

Now, Simon Mann hasn’t yet been killed and had the photo of his corpse put up on display, but Julian Lewis was sure of the threat:

“My constituent, Mr. Simon Mann, has been illegally handed over by Zimbabwe to a dictator in Equatorial Guinea who has promised to sodomise him, skin him alive and drag him through the streets of the capital city. What steps can the Government take against Zimbabwe for the outrageous breach of my constituent’s human rights when he was handed over before his appeal procedures were completed.”

And it went on.

What more to say?

Well, the fingerprints of a campaign are scattered all across the Official Record, if one cares to look for them. And each incident makes its mark and leaves a permanent blemish on the fool who took part in the process.

Now there’s nothing wrong with standing up for individual and unpopular causes like this one, just as there’s nothing wrong with donating a helicopter air-ambulance to an impoverished African country who may or may not benefit from the generosity.

Mistakes happen.

But form means something, and can be found in the evidence.

If Henry Bellingham’s and Julian Lewis’s concern for due process of the law extends to certain privileged individuals, and not to other more blatant cases which ought to demand their attention, then maybe their cries for human rights are not as helpful as they seem.

There are other cases, someone else can go into. Maybe starting with Natwest Three. Here’s the wikipedia article.

The tools and the techniques are now all here. Essentially it’s about getting a complete assessment of the wider context, and observing which cases are chosen from it for focused attention, and asking why.

It dries down to the single question when you hear of a politician going on about something:

What are they not going on about?

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2008 at 3:26 pm - - Whipping 2 Comments »

Big news!

The Government is beginning to support its unique citizen-grown movement of… making new web-pages of data that they have managed to present so badly that any kid who knows javascript could do better at.

As reported on the BBC (with practically invisible links to the web-page the story is about hidden in the right hand side panel — rather than in the text of the article), Tom Watson, the first government minister to understand what a blog is for, announces a whole ¬£20,000, yes, that’s a

£20,000 prize fund

“to develop the best ideas to the next level”.

Now, I’ve got the sort of track record of winning prizes and influencing people that means my effort is far better spent elsewhere on projects that are already done yet continue to be ignored. Someone who knows he’s cool can use the (can you believe it! Yet another URL domain here — what’s wrong with using the domain for everything, including for that new blog?).

So while I resist the temptation of filling in their entry-form, I can certainly pass comments about the recommended information sources.

The first site is the neighbourhood stats from the Office of National Statistics. Put in your postcode, and see lots of results for various gerrymandered shapes of the districts you are in. This is what I get for where I live:

Explains how I afford it on my small income, doesn’t it?

Apart from that, the website is quite excellent, all things considered. You’re not going to hack something up to better in less than a year. Maybe the team behind it should run a blog documenting the features they are shovelling in, and allow for comments and discussions with them about it. I mean these extra-ordinary communication barriers between the communities (civil servants vs. the public) ought to be broken down. A good place to start is with UI matters relating to these technical web-pages. And that’s my best recommendation for today: the ONS needs to blog about their website features.

Next up: the NHS healthcare data where they keep a lot of information that has had a long history of being absolutely essential for epidemiological studies. Because of the proven high value of this data, the government has already given it all away wholesale along with millions of pounds to Dr Foster Holdings so that some businessmen can get rich by keeping the matter out of public control while obstructing the public interest. Rather like our railway system, isn’t it?

What’s next? The London Gazette (wot’s that?), edubase, the OS, and something about carbon footprint information, which is the most important thing in the world today and in the future — but who cares? Have I told you about my carbon footprint research projects reported here and here?

So Where Is The Money?

Actually, even though the entire country and every single private sector policy decision (such as the no-brainer practice of corporations providing bogus technical advice to the government on how to commission billion pound software projects so that they are guaranteed to fail and create huge profits) is driven by money. This vital fictitious substance doesn’t feature anywhere at all. It’s none of your business. It’s commercially confidential. Because we’re making money out of it, you’re not allowed to know!

In the United States — one of the most insanely corrupt legislatures in the world — the data is not confidential. They put it all on a website.

When the same idea was introduced here by Baroness Noakes, only 20 MPs showed up for the vote. This means it didn’t make quorum. Tom Watson wasn’t there, because he obviously doesn’t think that the government financial expenditures are an important source of data for the public to have access to.

What he did show up to were all seven votes directed towards exempting himself and his fellow MPs from the Freedom of Information Act.

Friends, don’t be distracted. The money is what matters. The pursuit of it by guys who mix socially with the elite, and wannabe up there jet-setting in the stratosphere of the super-rich elite, is at the hollow core of the British state. Greed is as institutionalized as laundering black propaganda from the United States government. And don’t you forget it.

Hang on… I think I’ve got a proposal to Show Them A Better Way. I’ll just put it in and see if it gets on their web-page.