Freesteel Blog » 2009 » March

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009 at 12:52 pm - - Whipping 3 Comments »

Due to the electoral system in the UK (taking account of the long-term political social capital and connections to the press, as well as the technicalities of the system), the only way to get democratic representation is through a political party. And the political parties that are established in Parliament at the moment have an effective lock on the system.

Since practically forever, new political parties with any influence have only emerged as a result of

  • fission – where an established party splits (eg the SDP)
  • fusion – where two political corpses merge and all the experienced people and political capital are able to re-enforce one another (eg UKIP)
  • the entry of an already powerful outside social movement – (eg The Labour Party from the unions).
  • loonies

Political Parties don’t come from a “political movement created with the goal of making politics more accessible, politicians more accountable and political institutions more transparent”, because no such movement exists.

All right, there is a small movement of this kind, which has resulted in websites like PublicWhip being founded, but I can honestly report, on the basis of the total lack of support it has gained from any part of “civil society”, that there is no real social movement whatsoever out there yet. There might be an substantial public disquiet, but it doesn’t amount to anything that threatens to do anything.

To sustain a political movement (before it becomes like some sold-out empty brand like New Labour that can live on for far too long on the unquestioning store of rotting compost it laid down over the last hundred years), you need real tangible grievances, not some kind of list of well-meaning proposals. You need actual anger shown, naming and blaming. Even if it is biased and misinformed, like blaming everything on Europe or blaming everything on foreigners. To prove my point, UKIP and the BNP do provide an endless succession of up-to-date grievances enough to keep the pot boiling. Nothing like that from the Jury Team.

Conventionally, right wing parties (which the BNP supposedly is, though I’m not really sure) are supposed to loath gays. So it’s kind of cool that one of their common complaints against Muslims is that they hate homosexuals. There is no predictability. Policies are driven by political phonomena like Jörg Haider. The BNP has a lot of posts which include the word Israel which provide the evidence that the conventional anti-Jewishness has translated to being anti-Muslim without leaving a trace behind. Whatever works.

According to the Electoral Commission, the Jury Team was founded on 13 March 2009 by the millionaire Sir Paul Judge, husband of the Atomic Kitten.

Judge was high in the Conservative Party during the John Major government and he also founded the gigantic £8million Judge Business School in the middle of Cambridge which is currently training the next batch of financial wizards and appointed business leaders to completely f*** the economy up as a consequence of their criminally inadequate education which misses out every lesson from the long and distinguished history (doomed to repeat itself) of general financial f***-ups that have systematically occurred in the past 400 years.

Judge’s most recent donations to the Conservative Party are a measly £4k on 10 December 2003, £8k on 21 April 2004, £5k on 10 November 2004, £10k on 22 April 2005, and £6k on 10 October 2008.

The official Jury’s Team party descriptions include:

  • Democracy 2.0
  • Democracy, Accountability, Transparency
  • Politics for the People
  • Politics Isn’t Working
  • Politics with Principles
  • Politics without Parties

The registers of donations are recorded per quarter, so there’s no information about a party that was founded only a week ago.

Parties appear and disappear. Here is the final statement of accounts on the Cut Tax on Petrol and Diesel Party which got 118 votes on the Crewe and Nantwich by-election. (For the record, PublicWhip got none by wasting no time with electoral fantasies.)

There’s also Your Party founded in 2004 and deregistered in 2006 which “aimed to give people genuine power in the decision making process by using a form of direct democracy”.

This one pissed me off because it got radio and BBC coverage, when there is still not a single article on the Public Whip — possibly because it’s now old and established and not news, while back in 2003 when it was news we had no media connections to get something as trivial as a new web-page reported on.

These things show up the flaws in the selectivity of the media reporting. I am confident that Public Whip will still be going on long after Jury Team gets deregistered, because it’s essential, sustainable (from my own income), and no one else does what it does. It could do what it does a lot more effectively with more support. But that’s only going to happen once the pointless news media feels it’s time to tell people the who, what, where, when, why and how of what it does. Otherwise people will go on thinking that it’s some kind of Government website.

While at the Green Party conference last weekend, some guy came and gave a fringe talk on his Campaign for Democracy project, which was equally irritating because it’s a guaranteed failure.

I’ve not had that much involvement in the electoral system, but I’ve seen enough to realize that it’s damn hard, requires some serious expertise, and novices need not apply. You will be taken to the cleaners. Never, never go out and form your own political party, unless you have experienced at least one election cycle working in functioning party at the bottom. Even then it can crash like the Socialist Labour Party established by Arthur Scargill in 1996 — a man who ought to know a thing or two about putting up a good fight.


The Jury Team has been getting some coverage on the BBC.

The Guardian opined:

Why start a political movement when you must know you are almost certain to get nowhere, thereby disillusioning any volunteers you attract in the process?

Similar stuff is also happening in Ireland.

How many times to I have to say it:

If you don’t like how politics is run, go join and get involved in the running of a real mainstream political party. They rule the system. There is no other way. If reasonable people don’t start joining and start attempting to affect political parties in greater numbers, then don’t be surprised that they (and consequently the whole political system) remain staffed by weirdos.

Thursday, March 19th, 2009 at 11:52 am - - Whipping 1 Comment »

There is a theory that webpages that serve lots of data (like or the Guardian’s new and totally befuddling Open platform thingy) ought to provide an effective API to access the data (in addition to their own surf-able front-end) for power-users to design different front-ends of their own, and “mash up” the data in ways that the designers of the original website were not clever enough to think of.

An API is basically just a webpage containing the data without any pretty decoration in a form that standard programming functions can easily parse into an internal representation. A popular one is JavaScript Object Notation (JSON).

To facilitate this theory, it is proposed that your standard data serving website ought to be separated into two independent pieces — the first piece is just the API server on the database, and the second piece just queries this API and decorates the data into nice normal looking webpages. Both components can be on the same server, but having them separated out means that the API is proven to be sufficiently well powerful enough to generate the standard webpages.

(Normally if you just threw in some random API functions onto your website without yourself intending to use them for real, there’s no reason to expect it’ll be enough to do anything with.)

The MediaWiki API (for accessing data out of Wikipedia) is not powerful enough to recreate the site. You can obtain just about anything from it (for example the Caves of Yorkshire category), but not the actual text from any page.

This infuriated me for hours as I kept looking everywhere for this obvious function, and they don’t say that it’s deliberately not there. Wikipedia also blocks you from webcrawling their pages because it would “overload their servers”. Instead, you have to do some kind of deeply irritating Wikipedia:Database_download, which I was trying to do one time, before I got too annoyed with the process. It was all part of my effort to make the PublicWhip database of MPs be a direct reflection of a fast and special implementation of DBpedia. It needs to get updated on demand, so that when an MP resigns and the fact gets noted on his Wikipedia page, it appears in the database. Maybe one day. Or someone else can do it. I keep spreading this idea around in the hope that it happens. I mean, if so many people were writing webcrawlers of Wikipedia that they got annoyed enough to block them, why can’t I find one person among their bumbers interested enough to do something this blindingly useful.

Speaking of which, TheyWorkForYou has an API as well, serving 19 functions in 6 different formats.

I’m not sure many people have actually used it productively.

There is no API for PublicWhip— although the webpages themselves are so big and tabular they are practically like API output in raw form. People complain about the PublicWhip interface because it’s so complicated and intimidating. The next time I get lectured about how it would magically all make sense and be accessible to everyone if only it was designed by someone a million times better than me, I’m replacing all the pages with pictures of a kittens. Or maybe we ought to make clear the objective of a website when it’s being criticized. Everyone can understand and appreciate fluffy kittens, can’t they? But then they won’t learn anything about Parliamentary votes, will they? It will never be pretty. Admittedly the website could be a whole lot better, but it will never be as good as pictures of kittens. And I would expect a web designer who is trying to make it better to know as much as he or she can about Parliamentary votes in order that they don’t unintentionally delete all that data and replace it with kittens. Part of the idea of making APIs is it’s a cop-out: “if you can present the data of this website better, here are some tools for it.” You are free to decorate it with kittens.

The policy with PublicWhip is that when anyone asks about an API, they get given login and passwords onto the (still sick) seagrass server (on which it is hosted) so they can write exactly what they want.

Hasn’t worked yet, though. But it does suggest something.

A web API is an Interface.

As with all interfaces, it’s not possible to make it generally suitable for everything. In general in most intensive programming, you design the interface while you are making the application. Like, “I need another function to do this thing”, so I have to go back and put it into the interface. It’ll never be complete; it only has to be powerful enough to get the job done that you’re doing at the time.

Therefore the API will be limited by the jobs you thought it was going to do when it was being designed and implemented.

Hence, if you made something powerful enough to serve data into a google mashup, then it’s probably going to be limited to just that, and you shouldn’t be disappointed when the best that any of your users can build with it is another google mashup.

We yawn at it. But its predetermined, like those scrapheap challenge episodes where happen to find two bits of scrap that somehow have all the right bits to bolt together.

People are not going to make something like a barchart of the Parliamentary data aggregated statistically, or a scatter-plot graph of MPs’ travel expenses against (a) distance from London or (b) cost derived from the isochrome travel map (That would need an iso-cost travel map. Who’s going to make one?). The data is simply not there available through the TheyWorkForYou/API. The API is limited, and so all the results are limited.

Well, I suppose you could work around it by polling the API repeatedly in order to recreate the data in your own database and then query it. But do you know how much quicker+easier (= much more likely someone will do it) it would be to simply access the database from within the webserver?

The proposal is that tools should be made available to Roll Your Own API.

Specifically, if the website is built within a framework, such as Django, then the basic components are the views (small functions that assemble lists of data from the database) and templates (concise systems for transforming lists and items of data into a nice looking webpage).

What you need is to put one views function and one template file into a wiki system, so that people can use all the power of the database queries and function writing, and all the power of the template to write it out in whatever format they want (JSON, XML, CSV, RDF, whatever, a new one every year) for their downstream application they are building.

That way, we won’t wind up writing a whole bunch of API functions that can only run google maps (if that) with a proliferation of output formats that tick the boxes, yet don’t actually seem to lead to any wider use.

Clearly, for fastest work, the same programmer has got have developmental access to both sides of the interface– not as it is now where some guy who doesn’t know the eventual uses the data writes some boring API functions in one year, and three years later someone else tries to use it in spite of all the gaps.

My proposal could, of course, be done as an API where the URL takes two parameters:”someverylongstringofpythoncode”&template=”anotherverylongstringoftemplatecode”

but that would be cheating.

In the future, all such innovative websites that are interested in feeding data into other modules are going to use one of these many Javascript-based source code editors which will allow you to deposit fragments of code on the server such that the right stuff is served up on a webpage.

The best codewiki I’ve found so far is this demo of the orc programming language. Lovely work.

With this technology, these fruitless APIs are going to be dead in the water (they were never alive in the first place).

Just another fine theory that didn’t really work because no one thought it out for long enough.

Of course, I’m almost certainly entirely wrong as usual. For proof, go see all the activity going on at the Apps for America competition.

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009 at 6:45 pm - - Machining

Here a snapshot of current development, showing two ways of machining fillets: For roughly horizontal fillets we machine “along” the valley following a spiral, for roughly vertical fillets we machine “across” the valley of the fillet, from side to side.

Friday, March 6th, 2009 at 8:33 am - - Cave 1 Comment »

My attempt last weekend to complete a bit of cave surveying and have it uploaded onto an overlay of googlemaps was thwarted by lazy university students who were meant to come with us, and (following our actually doing the survey of part of the sump canal in IrebyFell Cavern) an interruption for beer.

The latter is always going to happen on a caving weekend. I don’t know what we can do about it. Our work (the squiggly white passage) showed up three days late.

Then on Monday we went digging with the Misty Mountain Mud Miners in the Easgill System.

Here’s a little video to prove that it was indeed misty and we were mining mud. The scones we ate for tea were pretty horrible, being the cheapest kind that could be bought at the supermarket. The day ended sooner than expected because we hit a rock. They’re going to have to come back next week with some capping equipment.

Friday, March 6th, 2009 at 5:07 am - - Whipping 2 Comments »

Just showed up at Cambridge to find Francis all het up about the Political Parties and Elections Bill, having read this posting on the Your Right to Know blog about how MPs had just summarily voted to make yet more information about themselves secret.

This connects to the MPs’ expenses debate which I posted about earlier in the year, drawing attention to the paranoid Julian Lewis MP and his concerns over disclosing MPs’ addresses in case some “self-taught follower of al-Qaeda… goes on the internet, conveniently finds 646 addresses and sends 646 packages containing something explosive, horrible or, at the very least, abusive to 646 unprotected mail boxes.”

What an amazingly vivid and childish imagination.

But then you would expect it of a guy who writes prize-winning essays (prize awarded by the, never-seen-a-war-they-didn’t-like, Gentleman’s Club, RUSI) such as “Nuclear disarmament vs. peace in the 21st century”, in which he presents his cockeyed bogus case for nuclear weapons, including the usual lowlights:

  • Only atomic weapons brought Japanese surrender in the Second World War
  • Mutually assured destruction is a safe guarantor of peace
  • There is a propensity for dictatorships to go to war with dictatorships, and for democracies and dictatorships to clash, whilst few – if any – examples exist of liberal democracies attacking each other.
  • If we relied on the protection of American nuclear weapons, then an aggressor is likely miscalculate their commitment to us and annihilate our cities
  • The Non Proloferation Treaty does not commit the United Kingdom to nuclear disarmament
  • The purpose of the British nuclear deterrent is to minimize the prospect of the United Kingdom being attacked by mass-destruction weapons.

For a guy who’s spent so much of his time embedded in the military thinking establishment, he has practically nothing of any interest to say. It’s basically no better than President Bush’s understanding of history, and it ignores interesting questions like:

  • What about the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, also in August 1945, and the suggestion that the development of atomic weapons delayed the acceptance of a Japanese surrender until the technology could be properly tested on human victims?
  • Why exactly doesn’t the US overthrow of the democratic government in Iran in 1953, or the 16 year Vietnam War count in those figures?
  • If nuclear weapons are supposedly the reason why we don’t get attacked, why is it not obvious to ask why we would get attacked, when we don’t have anything anyone wants, like oil?
  • How much closer would we have had to get to nuclear armageddon during the cuban missile crisis before the policy of mutually assured destruction doesn’t look quite such a safe ticket?
  • Do you think Russia will ever bother to point their military forces at us again, now that they can shut off the gas pipeline and bring us to our knees?
  • If everyone knew we weren’t even slightly going to work towards nuclear disarmament, do you think so many countries would have bothered to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty?

Anyways, wisdom and intellectual honesty were never qualifications for being an MP, not when you’re spreading the sort of message the purveyors of violence want to hear.

As it was.

For many years, ballot papers in the UK have listed the home addresses of the candidates standing for election, as well as their names and political parties, so people knew exactly who they were.

Julian Lewis knows this, and appeared to come to terms with it, because in the same speech last year about the 646 packages containing something horrible mailed to the 646 MPs, he said:

As Simon Hughes pointed out, once every four or five years we have to reveal our constituency address in the process of getting elected. But the fact that we have to do that with some of our addresses, some of the time, is no reason whatever for our having to do it with all our addresses, all the time, in an easily accessible form. Of course, if someone who is targeting a particular MP and means to track him or her down in order to do him or her harm puts in enough effort, it will be possible to do so.

Nevertheless, this tiny loophole must have bugged him enough because this week he sponsored a whole raft of rule changes to the procedures for Parliamentary elections and got them voted into the Political Parties and Elections Bill. There was no debate about his law changes whatsoever, and a lot of MPs considered it highly irregular to the extent that they even argued with the Speaker about it:

David Heath: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. [ Interruption. ] I am sorry to weary the House with this boring bit of procedure, which involves whether we debate a matter before it is added to a Bill, but does not that procedure specify that it relates to all Government amendments and new clauses, and was this not a Back Bencher’s amendment or new clause, which is quite different?

Following this altercation, the slimeball who hates everyone who doesn’t love the bomb shouted:

Is there any way in which, within the rules, I can place on the record the fact that although both the Government and the Opposition treated this free vote as a free vote, the Liberal Democrats whipped all their Members to vote one way!

No doubt irrelevant details, such as the fact that the Liberal Democrats assessed President Bush’s gratuitous plan to invade Iraq far better than he and his party did, will get buried when he pens his next childish essay on the subject.

I can’t find anything useful among any of his writings, and I’ve looked hard. There are the usual empty lies like:

Saddam threw the inspection team out of Iraq in 1998. This gave him more than four years to create stocks of chemical and biological weapons which could be hidden in any cellar or hole under a rock in the desert.

Now why would a war-monger want to forget about an important military action like Operation Desert Fox (also in 1998), unless its particulars happened to conflict with the rational for prosecuting the next unnecessary premeditated act of aggression?

Selectivity and the lack of any the need to make excuses for things present in the record abounds.

Meanwhile, in the land of luminaries like George Shultz, US secretary of state from 1982 to 1989, William Perry, US secretary of defense from 1994 to 1997, Henry Kissinger, nobel peace prize winning war criminal and US secretary of state from 1973 to 1977, and Sam Nunn, former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, comes this article in the Wall Street Journal last year:

Toward a Nuclear-Free World

The accelerating spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear know-how and nuclear material has brought us to a nuclear tipping point. We face a very real possibility that the deadliest weapons ever invented could fall into dangerous hands.

The steps we are taking now to address these threats are not adequate to the danger. With nuclear weapons more widely available, deterrence is decreasingly effective and increasingly hazardous.

One year ago, in an essay in this paper, we called for a global effort to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons, to prevent their spread into potentially dangerous hands, and ultimately to end them as a threat to the world. The interest, momentum and growing political space that has been created to address these issues over the past year has been extraordinary, with strong positive responses from people all over the world.

Agreeing with their analysis, taking account as it does of all sorts of events and opportunities out there in the real world, means I am a pinko lefty commie, no doubt.

But you’re safe as long as no one who has a chance to vote for you gets told where you live. This provision, of course, does not apply to European Parliamentary candidates, Scottish Parliament candidates, or local council candidates, none of whose lives are at risk, or are worth protecting. It also doesn’t apply to directors of registered companies whose addresses are available for as little as one pound from Companies House.

I wonder how long before they start to claim that, as a consequence of their extreme politicial power over the destiny of the nation, it’s important that we don’t get told where they live either.