Freesteel Blog » 2009 » June

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009 at 11:32 am - - Cory Doctorow, Whipping 5 Comments »

Review written last year. Finally got round to posting it because he’s addressing Europython, which I am missing.

Cory Doctorow’s lack of a good title for his book Little Brother (thought up and written from start to finish in only 8 weeks) seems not to be a drag for any of his admirers, which is strange considering how he says that good titles on the posts are important to the success of his uber-blog BoingBoing.

The book’s subtitle, “How hacker kids declared war on the Department of Homeland Security”, is considerably better and gives something for his fans to think about. But, like the excellent title of his short story Scroogled, it’s a pale wash-out of its promised premise.

Cory Doctorow’s publishers brought forward the UK release of the novel Little Brother from from November to October, putting it ahead of the US election and the anticipated closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.

This is relevant since the Guantanamo Bay one of the themes of the book, and it wouldn’t do for it to be over-taken by events — always the risk for near future SF where the author is not willing to apply any imagination and continues in a state of denial of the dire predictions for the future.

I could go on at length about all the important issues that Cory, with the acquesence of his publishers, left out of this book when they chose to waste a lot of young people’s valuable thought-space with this piece of sloppy ill-thought work, but time is short and there’s money to be made, and I’ve covered this theme in my earlier review of Doctorow’s newspaper columns.

Let’s look at what’s actually in the book.

From a distance, this story is a misguided first draft of a revisionist history of the War on Terror.

On the one hand, all-American white kids have had a small number of their civil liberties ineffectively breached in America regarding surveillance, while on the other hand far away in Pakistan, Iraq and Gaza people die nightly in bombing raids that are planned in America, paid for by American taxes and using American military robot airplanes remote controlled from a base in Nevada.

But Cory doesn’t acknowledge that integral half of the War on Terror at any point in his book. No way. This is about kids.

Remember how, back in the old days, the story was of kids hacking into the Pentagon computers? It doesn’t happen any more, does it? Why? Are Pentagon computers no longer interesting, now that we know that most of those cool state secrets do not exist and the only thing they’re trying to hide are yet more torture photographs from Abu Ghraib? That wouldn’t do. You wouldn’t want your fictional characters to be exposed to anything ugly like that, because then if they didn’t do anything about it (eg reprogrammed bomb targets out into the sea), that would mean they were bad people and that their life challenges were somewhat trivial and irrelevant. So let’s pretend it isn’t there.

Another facet side of the War on Terror is the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. This features in Cory Doctorow’s book, except the prisoners are instead white kids from America — like the main character, who identifies precisely with his target audience.

A recap: Back in 2002 the Guantanamo Bay inmates were swept up in the hundreds as part of a proxy invasion of Afghanistan. They were paraded around a military base in orange jumpsuits, branded as “the worst of the worst”, and kept unidentified for years to provide the politicians the space to lie about their made-up crimes. Their presumed guilt was one element in the raft of propaganda supporting the second rapid invasion in the middle east, this time for the oil which, in no small part, fuels Cory Doctorow’s crazy jet-set lifestyle that keeps him distracted from pondering what the oncoming future means for the next generation, and exercising his influence by publically setting an example.

In Chapter 2 of Little Bother a terrorist group detonates a series of ten charges along the length of the San Francisco Bay Bridge destroying it completely, while simultaneously blowing up the underground train tunnel beneath the bay with enough explosives to break through to sea bed and flood it with water! All in order to cause economic damage to the United States amounting to what will probably be less than a one percent of the damage caused by a proper San Francisco earthquake. In Chapter 9 of the book, we get the rest of the information:

Al Qaeda was definitely responsible for the bombing. Six different terrorist groups had claimed responsibility for the attack, but only Al Qaeda’s Internet video disclosed information that the DHS said they hadn’t disclosed to anyone.

And that’s it!

Friends, this is a work of fiction. Cory Doctorow is free to made up anything here, and make it connect to the plot. The utter carelessness with which he chose this signature event of the book tells you all you need to know about how much thought and interest he put into his research and creativity. This is worse than Hollywood blockbuster movie material.

For a start, what kind of childish imagination makes you think of the tunnel as some kind of thin-walled pipe snaking along the sea floor, rather than, as it is, bored many metres down in the bedrock that not even a freight train of TNT would be able to punch through? This is idiocy on the level of gas limos project.

Clearly, no terrorist group has ever or would ever (a) place ten separate bombs on one target when it could have a far greater effect spread out through the whole city, or (b) not leave trails of real evidence all over the place when doing something of this scale.

By choosing this fictional and wholly unrealistic terrorist action, Cory Doctorow helps to mythologize Al Qaeda terrorism in the West as being well-resourced enough not to require the biggest bang for their meagre bucks. After all don’t forget that 9/11 required no more than ten box cutters, some flying lessons paid for by the state of Georgia, plane tickets purchased with a credit card, and some willing volunteers.

Nor did he pick a terrorist act of the sort which would make it possible to spin his yarn through the neighbourhood of the perpetrators in order to illuminate their side of the story. There are lots of ways to do this that would have been hugely enriching to the novel. For inspiration of just how wacky these connections could be, consider the decision of the McCain/Palin ticket in the 2008 Presidential election to obsess over Bill Ayers the “domestic terrorist”. These are new dimensions that would have appeared in this book had it been written properly by an author who cared.

But we don’t get that richness from Cory Doctorow. He’s not interested. He’s not done a shred of homework nor put in any thought, either about terrorism, or about the about technical requirements for breaking things. He’s intelligent enough to know about the ridiculousness of the airlines removing the possibility of “moisture bombs” from passenger’s toiletries, and would probably laugh at the idea of a terrorist plot involving the destruction of the Brooklyn Bridge by cutting through (how many?) cables with blow torches (assuming he even looked it up), but when it comes to his efforts in his own book, does he show any signs of being bothered to think it through?

But back to the story. In Chapter 3 the team of all-American white kids are picked off the street at random by the Department of Homeland Security and interrogated by idiots for a week for information about their involvement in the bombing of the bridge. They are detained in a secret prison on Treasure Island, which is clever because it’s where one of the main pillars of the Bay Bridge stands, now cut off by Al Qaeda’s act of demolition. According to Wikipedia it’s an artificial island made from spoil produced by drilling the tunnel through thick bedrock.

Why is the prison kept secret? Beats me. Guantanamo Bay was never secret; only the identities of the prisoners were secret in order to hide the lack of evidence against them. Generally, the police always like to announce to everyone in a big press conference that they’ve caught the bad guys. Though sometimes they later have to manufacture evidence and extract confessions to prove it. A bomb has gone off? “Round up twice the usual suspects,” said Captain Renault in Casablanca.

It’s time for another excerpt. Here’s a bit from the end of Chapter 3, which shows off his prize-winning writing:

“I think you should really reconsider your approach to this situation,” Severe Haircut woman said. “I think you should do that right now. We found a number of suspicious devices on your person. We found you and your confederates near the site of the worst terrorist attack this country has ever seen. Put those two facts together and things don’t look very good for you, Marcus. You can cooperate, or you can be very, very sorry. Now, what is this for?”

“You think I’m a terrorist? I’m seventeen years old!”

“Just the right age — Al Qaeda loves recruiting impressionable, idealistic kids. We googled you, you know. You’ve posted a lot of very ugly stuff on the public Internet.”

“I would like to speak to an attorney,” I said.

Severe haircut lady looked at me like I was a bug. “You’re under the mistaken impression that you’ve been picked up by the police for a crime. You need to get past that. You are being detained as a potential enemy combatant by the government of the United States. If I were you, I’d be thinking very hard about how to convince us that you are not an enemy combatant. Very hard. Because there are dark holes that enemy combatants can disappear into, very dark deep holes, holes where you can just vanish. Forever. Are you listening to me young man? I want you to unlock this phone and then decrypt the files in its memory. I want you to account for yourself: why were you out on the street? What do you know about the attack on this city?”

“I’m not going to unlock my phone for you,” I said, indignant. My phone’s memory had all kinds of private stuff on it: photos, emails, little hacks and mods I’d installed. “That’s private stuff.”

“What have you got to hide?”

“I’ve got the right to my privacy,” I said. “And I want to speak to an attorney.”

“This is your last chance, kid. Honest people don’t have anything to hide.”

After getting set free a week later, Marcus doesn’t tell his parents where he’s been.

He goes to his room, retrieves his copy of Paranoid Linux for the X-Box (intended for use by Chinese and Syrian dissidents, but can be used to crack this loss-leading gaming machine), burns it onto a stack of DVDs, and hands it out lots of people in other parts of the city. Pretty soon he’s established a city-wide independent, non-US government sanctioned, encrypted, peer-to-peer wireless internet system and a new identity on it.

Easy, wasn’t it?

A series of juvenile adventures ensues, enabled by unmoderated communication within this network.

In Chapter 12 an improvised rock concert is organized in Dolores Park where our main guy has a great date with his girlfriend, only briefly interrupted by:

The police moved in in lines, carrying plastic shields, wearing Darth Vader helmets that covered their faces. Each one had a black truncheon and infra-red goggles. They looked like soldiers out of some futuristic war movie. They took a step forward in unison and every one of them banged his truncheon on his shield, a cracking noise like the earth splitting. Another step, another crack. They were all around the park and closing in now.

Cory Doctorow does a good dramatic reading of this episode here. It doesn’t seem so good in the text. And anyway, it’s only 9 years behind the curve, following the battle in Seattle in 1999, except without the politics or the excitement of having cornered the masters of the universe in their luxury hotel towers while they drafted the next round of trade agreements designed to require every city to sell their water supplies to transnational corporations.

There was newspaper article about him and his book, titled Cory Doctorow: willing science fiction into fact, but it should have actually been Cory Doctorow: using dated facts to create meaningless fiction. All his talks about writing always begin with the bald statement that:

“All science fiction writers, whether they admit it or not, are writing metaphorically about the present.”

If he was more truthful, he’s say:

“When I write science fiction, I am really writing about my own childhood.”

Among the things that could have appeared in his book, Doctorow could have written about a nimble bit of instant teenage hacking of a careless Microsoft-based government security network, making it possible for the main character to gain some sort of privileged access into the police networks in order to provide a wider perspective of what’s going on.

It’s fiction. And fiction should endeavour to show as much about all sides of the story as possible. These faceless storm trooper cops are people too. They have homes, and families, and beliefs that may or may not come into conflict with the jobs they are paid to do. What do they feel about it all? How do they deal with it?

Unfortunately, any such fictional speculation of this through available devices of, say, the electronic snooping of a private conversation between shifts from one of these police troopers to his girlfriend would interfere with their singularly one-dimensional nature and show up just how very two-dimensional all the main characters are while they fold their way through this uninspiring and predictable plot.

But back to the book.

After finally confessing to his parents about his ordeal in the hands of the Department of Homeland Security in Chapter 16, our kid spills his whole story to a friendly reporter, then gets picked up by his interrogators in Chapter 20 (including “severe haircut woman”) a second time, and, at the point where he is about to be waterboarded, he gets rescued by the California Highway Patrol who arrest all the federal agents, only to clear them all of wrong-doing and send them off to work in Iraq.

Angered by this lack of justice, our hero releases a video podcast about his story in preparation for defeating the state governor’s re-election bid.

Overall. After a very rough beginning, I warmed to the book in the middle chapters in spite of the implausibilities, but then got seriously pissed off towards the end as the lack of content became apparent. Yes I know fiction has to be entertaining and comprehensible, but it should also broaden your perspective and show you feelings you never knew you had so you can become a better more well-rounded person. Otherwise it’s an irresponsible and stupefying waste of time, totally purposeless and more inexcusable than government propaganda.

Reviewing the reviews, I can tell I am mostly alone with regards to my opinions about the worth this book, especially when compared to what it could have been. Even when you discount the conflict-of-interest reviews by other writers who will want Cory to plug their own books in his overblown BoingBoing blog, I am in a minority.

The review on Yehuda however matches my feelings:

I like Cory, and I like Boing Boing, but Cory did not succeed in writing a mediocre science fiction book. Little Brother is a really bad book with some good intentions, bad writing, very poor characterization, and a serviceable but ridiculous plot.

People have to say it. Make it known. Maybe one day when he hosts a week of a Clarion writers class, the students will get organized enough to pull out and exhibit some of the worst written sections from this highly-acclaimed novel and circulate it among the group as an illustration of how writing quality, like the quality of the meat in a burger bar, has little to do with commercial success.

Commercial success and fame are predicated on other factors. We don’t know how much he sells out without informing his readers on his uber-Blog.

It would just be kinder to the world if those whose work was chosen to be widely read by society could be bothered to put in a little more effort and thought into the work.

Even if their fame and unquestioning fan base means they don’t need to.

I blame the publisher for not sending this book back to him immediately with a note that it needs working on for a couple of years to gestate properly. You can’t expect writers to be wholly responsible for their own quality control and to know when it’s blatantly obvious they’re not doing a good job. This book is a disgrace.

Thursday, June 25th, 2009 at 6:17 pm - - Machining 2 Comments »

Yesterday I was called upon to write a response to Celeritive Technologies’ new document circulating among potential customers, entitled “Volumill vs Adaptive Clearing”. This caused me to do a quick browse among the webpages, and I was pleased to see that the plaintiffs in the case Surfware, Inc. v. Celeritive Technologies, Inc. et al have been experimenting with video promotion of their technologies.

This is a good idea, because machining is a fundamentally time-motion affair, and motion pictures are a far better form for showing it off than crappy low-res bits of fuzz like you get on Delcam’s website.

But while video is the answer for conveying the superior programmed motions of a your toolpath algorithms on a machine, it’s not easy to get it right. It’s not like porn, where basically any old footage of the act in motion will be all right. Watching machine tools in action is unbearable after the first 30 seconds. Especially when you have to hear the noise as well.

Surfcam have uploaded some of their experiments onto youtube.

Here’s an example from last month of some perfectly nice music ruined by a continual grinding sawing sound.

This is a long one of theirs uploaded two months ago that ends with a lot of milky fluid being stirred around in a metal pocket underneath a veritable pillow of swarf.

This video, also from two months ago, has a narrator. This is a good idea because talking is an effective way of conveying information and causing the viewer to watch the whole film without dragging the slider and forwarding through it to the end just to check if something interesting actually happens. Unfortunately, the movie ends with a milky swarf explosion and a totally filthy pile of ground up metal. Not beautiful.

But this is most stylish one of them all, uploaded only 4 weeks ago. It’s just 10 seconds long, but that’s not what makes it great. It’s a clean slow motion capture with perfect lighting and no milkshake flying around. Beautiful. More like this please.

Eventually, there will come a day when some proper advertising talent gets involved and proper infomercials are produced, with a storylines, plots, characters and dialog…

The DynAptive TrueVoluCutMill Challenge

The scene opens with two guys, father and son, in their family toolshop.

The father has just got back from a training course on using DynAptive VoluTrueCutMill Technology. They get a job to cut out two bamiweenie bearing cases, one left and one right, for the spronk car that will be used in the new Bruce Lee movie.

Let’s have a race.

Zoom out to see famous TV sports commentator, with headphones a mic, in the foreground.

And they’re off.

“Remember, Mr Smith has only learnt to use this technology yesterday, so he’s a little slow on the uptake. Young Master Smith finishes his NC programming first, because he has been using his old-fashioned CAM system for years and knows how to cut corners. He is onto his machine early. He gets a good head start. Will this be enough to see off the more powerful DynaMill AptiveCutTrueVolu Technology?”

Grunge. Grind. Greech. Ping! goes the machine.

“Oh no, his tool has snapped! He’ll have to get another one for $30 dollars. This race is only about time, but if we counted cost it would make it more complicated. It’s every man for himself.

“Meanwhile, Mr Smith has finally started cutting his part after having to double-check the instructions. Wow! Look at that smooth side-milling motion, cutting the full depth of the cutter on the side.”

“Yes that’s right, the material removal rate is far greater than if it used the tip alone as he would with conventional non-TraAdaptive MillCutVoluDyna toolpaths. Look at that smooth sweep and transition! Can we have a slow-motion replay? Yes we can!

Bish bash, and we’re done.

Dad wins the prize. VolAptive MillTrueDynaCut Technology wins the day. Father and son share a well-earned refreshing banana milkshake.

MillAptive VoluCutDynaTrue Technology will pay back its worth in 6 weeks of daily orders. Buy yours today.

Remember terms and conditions apply. Always RTFM and verify the toolpath. Celery-Potato Systems is not responsible for any crashes, fatalities or gouges encountered in the use of this product.

Thursday, June 25th, 2009 at 1:44 am - - Whipping

What you missed last month was the vote that National Policy Statements (the official instructions given to the new and unaccountable Infrastructure Planning Commission) shall not be subject to Parliamentary debates or votes.

Instead, the new rules (voted through on 20 May 2009) are to set up new Select Committees for each Statement for the purpose of wasting everyone’s time writing a report that will be ignored if it fails to serve the purpose of selling the policy to the public.

There will be about a dozen National Policy Statements.[1] The duration of draft form before going into force is about six months.[2]

John McDonnell sponsored an amendment suggesting that after one of these reports was produced, there should be a debate and potential vote in Parliament on it. (See Division 138.) If the report was bad, the debate would last 3 hours. If it was positive, it would be 90 minutes.

This amendment was, as usual, voted down because the majority of MPs want Parliament to be utterly irrelevant.

John McDonnell in his speech explained:

I have attended planning inquiry after planning inquiry for years and I do not want to relive my experiences at the terminal 4 inquiry, the terminal 5 inquiry and all the rest. We know how evidence can be presented and shaped effectively by those who are well resourced. Those who may not have the ability to commission a bit of extra research—on respiratory conditions in their area, for example—are swamped by the heavy investment of those promoting a particular project or approach.

… I was offered a place on the Northern Ireland Committee on the basis that I dropped my opposition to the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill. I reported that to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards for investigation because I thought it was a bribe.

…The amendment suggests that when the Select Committee process has ended, a report is provided to the House. If it is uncontentious and the Select Committee recommends approval, we have a debate for a maximum of one and a half hours, the Question is put and the statement is agreed or not. If it is contentious, and there are recommendations from the Select Committee not to approve the national policy statement, a debate of up to three hours is held, and then we vote on the matter.

One and a half hours or three hours is not an undue delay in the planning process. It will add legitimacy to any decision on a national policy statement that will influence the IPC’s decision, which will have consequences for decisions on major infrastructure projects affecting our constituents, many of them significantly. If we are not allowed a vote on those matters, that will undermine the legitimacy of the decisions that will eventually arise as a result of IPC considerations and IPC inquiries into individual matters.

Let me give the example of Heathrow in the context of my amendment. Like every hon. Member, I stood for election, knocked on every door in my constituency over the years, and explained my views on particular issues. People voted and I had the honour of being elected to become the voice of my constituents in the House. As a result of a potential planning decision that will come through this process, a number of my constituents will lose their homes. We have debated the matter at length in the House—700 homes could be lost at Sipson, and 2,000 residents could lose their homes. We have another meeting tomorrow night with BAA, and we think the figure is now 4,000 homes, as the Government predicted in the early 1990s, so perhaps 10,000 people will be affected, as well as their homes, schools, churches, the gurdwara and even a road through our cemetery. Those people want to know that they elected an MP not just to go to the House to talk on their behalf, but to participate in this country’s democratic decision-making process that will determine the policy that eventually influences the final decision on whether they lose their homes and communities. That is all my amendment would do. It simply says, “Allow Members to express their views, but then allow them to make the decision.” That is democracy, is it not? Is that not what Parliament is for? Is that not what we all stood for election for?

The technical bits at the end of these standing orders for setting up the Select Committee to report and then do nothing else, are as follows:[3]

  • The Liaison Committee shall have power to appoint a National Policy Statements sub-committee.
  • The National Policy Statements sub-committee shall be composed of members of the Liason Committee who are also members of the Communities and Local Government, Energy and Climate Change, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Transport and Welsh Affairs Committees; and up to two other members of the committee, one of whom shall be appointed chairman of the sub-committee.
  • The National Policy Statements sub-committee shall report to the Liason Committee on the appointment of a National Policy Statement Committee and shall have a quorum of three.

So, to be clear, there are committees of MPs who are originally appointed by the Government who appoint sub-committees from their ranks which then appoint another committee from members of other committees.

That’s probably enough layers of filtering to keep anyone awkward out of the running, and ensure that these National Policy Statements receive the full Parliamentary salespitch that is their due.

Our fake scientists say that eight out of ten cats who expressed a preference chose this dogfood as their favourite.

Where are these National Policy Statements going to come from? Who is going to write them, and to what end? No one ever bothers to ask. Are they going to be written by corporate interests, with their expert legal advice, to appear superficially reasonable, but actually intended to let through a fourth Heathrow runway or a new nuclear weapons dump?

It’s crucial that these National Policy Statement get to the floor of the House, because that’s where law is made.

Once it is there, then any MP can ask the question:

“Minister, does this National Policy Statement permit the location of a wind turbine farm on the Suffolk Downs?”

And if the Minister says: “No,” then that becomes effectively the law, under Pepper v Hart.

Dissent (or spineless lack thereof) must have the opportunity to get on the record.

Not that talking about wind farms is remotely relevant, because the Section 14 of the Planning Act 2008 says:

In this Act “nationally significant infrastructure project” means a project which consists of any of the following-

  • (a) the construction or extension of a generating station;
  • (b) the installation of an electric line above ground;
  • (c) development relating to underground gas storage facilities;
  • (d) the construction or alteration of an LNG facility;
  • (e) the construction or alteration of a gas reception facility;
  • (f) the construction of a pipe-line by a gas transporter;
  • (g) the construction of a pipe-line other than by a gas transporter;
  • (h) highway-related development;
  • (i) airport-related development;
  • (j) the construction or alteration of harbour facilities;
  • (k) the construction or alteration of a railway;
  • (l) the construction or alteration of a rail freight interchange;
  • (m) the construction or alteration of a dam or reservoir;
  • (n) development relating to the transfer of water resources;
  • (o) the construction or alteration of a waste water treatment plant;
  • (p) the construction or alteration of a hazardous waste facility.

I haven’t got time to look for direct questions to the government for whether “generating stations” includes “wind farms” on theyworkforyou, but I think the clue is in the word in that I don’t think you change buses at a farm. There’s a little too much focus on off-shore wind-farms for which, self-evidently, there is relatively little problem.

Last year, of course, when the Planning Act was the Planning Bill, MPs voted against holding votes on National Policy Statements — so at least they’re consistent.

MPs also voted against requiring National Policy Statements to contain “policies that (taken as a whole) contribute to the mitigation of, and adaptation to, climate change”. And so did the Lords.

So you can put that into your nuclear power station and smoke it!

Thursday, June 18th, 2009 at 9:47 am - - Whipping 3 Comments »


Predictably, the information MPs are willing to release is somewhat less politically damaging than what was leaked to the Telegraph.

Politicians have a flair for passing laws that tread the fine line between what they believe are defensible yet entirely fraudulent reasons, that happen to have desirable side-effects. (See their attempts to hide their expenses on the excuse of protecting the privacy of members of public.)

So what’s the official reason for hiding the information?

Setting aside the post-hoc excuses right-thinking members of the public can come up with, based on the mistaken assumption that there was a good legitimate security reason behind it in the first place, let’s check the Parliamentary record.

Here’s the paranoid Julian Lewis gleefully announcing the legislation on 3 July 2008:

A few days ago, after the Leader of the House gave us the good news that she would table a motion to enable the privacy and security of our home addresses to be maintained, an honourable Labour Member approached me and said in all seriousness, “Julian, what do you think about the prospect of establishing a trade union for Members of Parliament?” I think that he had me in mind for the role of shop steward — not quite the climactic outcome that I had in mind after six long years as a shadow Defence Minister. However, he had rather a good point because, as Mr. Jones revealed in a previous debate, no security information was apparently considered by the House authorities or put before the court before the crazy decision was made to release our home addresses en masse in easily accessible form for the benefit of any troublemaker or terrorist at home or abroad.

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. However, that does not cater for a situation in which someone with a grudge, someone with an obsession, a follower of a political cause or a self-taught follower of al-Qaeda, at home or abroad — who will not even have heard of most of the Members of this House — 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. The proposal is absolutely insane.

Later that month they passed the Statutory Instrument to conceal the addresses of MPs, Lords and Welsh Assembly Members from the expenses disclosures. In the 17 July 2008 debate, Julian Lewis concluded:

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman had many important things to do at the time, but if he had attended some of the earlier debates, he would have heard me address those points in detail. It is not fair to the House for me to go over them again now. Let me put it in a nutshell. First, anyone who wishes to disclose a home address and put it in the phone book can do so—it is a matter for him or her. However, if the decision had been implemented, 646 private home addresses would be made available to anybody—including any troublemaker at home or abroad—who wished to send something through the post to 646 unprotected mail boxes. If there is any sense in our having the expensive and complex screening arrangements at the House of Commons to ensure that nothing horrible, explosive or contaminated is sent through the post en masse to Members of Parliament, who are probably being targeted not individually but as a body, it is obvious madness to reveal the 646 home addresses. I could make many other points, but I shall leave it at that and refer the hon. Gentleman to my previous speeches on the subject.

My right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Ancram typically put his finger on the heart of the problem when he referred to data that are published at election time. We have to include a home address on specific documents every time we stand for election. I have already said in an intervention that, just because we have to reveal some addresses occasionally, it should not be regarded as an excuse for revealing them all, en masse, all the time in a way that makes them accessible at home or abroad at the touch of a button. Nevertheless, that bogus argument—that the cat is already out of the bag—led the judges and the appeal tribunal wrongly to conclude that there was no point in refusing the request for addresses en masse.

It is important to close that loophole and I would welcome a response from Government Front Benchers on that. I believe that the idea that people had to publish a private home address—even if it has not found its way on to the internet—at election time predated the time when one could put the name of one’s party on the ballot paper. The requirement is archaic and an unnecessary infringement of individuals’ rights. If people want to stand for public office, I do not understand why they must disclose their home address. The Information Commissioner has a wise ruling, which is that, in almost all circumstances, he would at most recommend disclosure of only the first three digits or letters of the person’s postcode. The Government should take the opportunity—I am not sure whether the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 is the relevant vehicle—to close the loophole, because it was seized upon. Without that, we would not have to go to such lengths.

I want to consider anonymous registration. In the past, it was possible to give a nom de plume if one felt that one was at risk and wished to be on the electoral register under another name. The rule has changed and someone who wishes to be on the electoral register anonymously must have the signature of a police chief constable, that of a director of the Security Service or that of a director of social services. We need to reconsider that to make it clear to chief constables that, when a Member of Parliament wants to be on that list, that is all that is necessary for anonymous registration.

I will conclude, much to the satisfaction of my Whip, who has been making noises offstage. I hope that anybody present today who believes that I am wrong will divide the House. I do not think that it will happen, but I hope that it will because The Sunday Telegraph, whose reporter was responsible for this mess in the first place, found plenty of space to attack me and suggest that my party opposed what I was doing. However, it found no space other than for two sentences of a letter that I wrote in reply to try to explain that the House had already resolved to take action, without a vote. I wish that there could be a vote so that even the idiot scribblers on The Sunday Telegraph could understand that our action has nothing to do with expenses and everything to do with security.

I can’t find this Sunday Telegraph article, unfortunately. It probably said something like: If they don’t tell anything about their addresses, then they’ll be able to hide their impropriety relating to their expenses and flipping — as they eventually did so.

I just can’t believe they couldn’t come up with a better excuse in the time available. This is simply rubbish. It wouldn’t be good enough in a crappy James Bond novel. In short, it’s bulk mail-shots of something nasty from wanna-be Al-Qaida members that are the problem, because you can’t stop stalkers. Isn’t it handy that the IRA didn’t think of this trick in the 1980s? Also, you do know that addresses of all company directors are available over the internet from companies house? For the record PDF scans are not a convenient form.

Julian Lewis was allowed to close the loophole whereby MPs had to disclose one of their addresses on the ballot sheet at the election in a vote on 2 March 2009

* In Rule 6 (Nomination of candidates), the candidate’s home address shall no longer appear on the nomination paper, but instead on a separate sheet of paper that may also contain a statement that it should not be made public.
* In Rule 11 (Right to attend nomination), the returning officer is no longer allowed to let anyone, except the other candidates, their election agent or their proposers, to see the page containing the home address.
* In Rule 14 (Publication of statement of persons nominated), those candidates who have declared their addresses shall not be made public will only be listed with the constituency in which their home address is located.
* New Rule 53A (Destruction of home address forms): the returning officer shall destroy each candidate’s home address form three weeks after the election

This doesn’t apply to other elected offices. But MPs are special. They’re allowed to lie, cheat and get away with it, because they make the broken rules and can never be found wrong.

Oh, and if you’re thinking of trying to wind Julian Lewis up by publishing one of his addresses on the internet, it’s already been done. He went berzerk for a whole adjournment debate:

After that outrageous episode, I realised that I was dealing with an extremely unscrupulous individual. Some of the publicity surrounding Terry Scriven resulted in my being contacted by people who had previously suffered at his hands. Three were from the military police, but I cannot report what they said in language permissible in this Chamber. It boiled down to the fact that Terry Scriven’s conduct had shown him to be a devious and two-faced bully who operates in the dark and never owns up to what he has done. My experience has confirmed that assessment in every respect.He blatantly refuses to answer any questions put to him about his own conduct, his sole response being to accuse me of trying to “intimidate” him by posing such questions.

Sure. What’s the problem? As you noted, your stalker had already circumvented the procedure that you proposed, so this case does not argue for the laws you’ve put in place, which — but for the Telegraph leak — would have prevented us from proving that many ministers and MPs are corruptible cheats who cannot be trusted at their word.

I don’t have time to document the other worlds of paranoia Julian Lewis lives in, with regards to nuclear weapons (perhaps the Kremlin would have been safe had they not published the GPS coordinates of Moscow on the map), but here’s an earlier blog post about his defence of the international man of mercenary Simon Mann.

Friday, June 12th, 2009 at 11:49 am - - Whipping 1 Comment »

Friday, June 5th, 2009 at 3:03 pm - - Machining 6 Comments »


To prove I can still do work, here’s for the machining category.

There are times when you need to encode the direction of a 2D vector. For example, the sequence of arc segments on the bottom rim of the cutter that are in material for the purposes of running the Adaptive Clearing algorithm.

These vector directions from the centre point to different points on the cutter need to be in angular order and analysed in relation to a reference direction.

Often when programmers see a problem to do with angles they use school mathematics and apply trigonometry and convert the direction into its representation in radians whose values they can then compare:

double RadianAngle(x, y)
    if (y > 0)
        return atan(x / y) + 1.5707963267948966;
    else if (y < 0)
        return atan(x / y) + 4.7123889803846897; 
    else if (x > 0)
        return 0.0;
        return 3.1415926535897931; 

I really hate using radians. How can anyone justify a numbering system that cannot unambiguously represent the important perfect 90 degree right angle in floating point notation without needing to compare to pi/2 to epsilon accuracy all the time? But that’s another story.

The above function, which has the simple inverse (cos(a), sin(a)), has a lot of instability problems for small values of y that can be avoided by introducing more cases:

   if ((y > 0) && (y < x))
      return atan(y / x); 
   else if ((y < 0) && (-y < x))
      return atan(y / x) + 6.2831853071795862; 
   else if ((x < 0) && (x < fabs(y))
      return atan(y / x) + 3.1415926535897931

There is a standard C library function that encapsulates all of this mess into the single function atan2(x, y), which programmers may be happy to use because it hides all this complicated and slow calculation.

But I'm not happy with it because I don't like trigonometry and I need the speed. So I use the following function (subject to the special cases):

double DiamondAngle(x, y)
    if (y >= 0)
        return (x >= 0 ? y/(x+y) : 1-x/(-x+y)); 
        return (x < 0 ? 2-y/(-x-y) : 3+x/(x-y)); 

The result ranges from 0 to 4 with right angles being integers. Note how the calculation requires a single division and some sums, and you get a number you can use to sort a list of vectors by their angles. The inverse function is:

   return P2((a < 2 ? 1-a : a-3), 
               (a < 3 ? ((a > 1) ? 2-a : a) : a-4); 

This doesn't result in a unit vector, so if you need it to be length 1 you need to normalize the result at the cost of 4 multiplications and one square root, which is still a lot better than any sine or cosine combined.

Check the calculation is correct for x,y>0:

    DiamondAngle(x,y) = y/(x+y) 

which is between 0 and 1, so the inverse comes out as:

                = P2(1-y/(x+y), y/(x+y))

which is inline with (x,y) because both coordinates are positive and if we dot it with the perpendicular:

Dot(P2(1-y/(x+y), y/(x+y)), P2(y,-x)) = y - y^2/(x+y) - x y /(x+y) = (x y + y^2 - y^2 - x y) / (x+y)

we get zero.

I guess the reason this way of doing it is unpopular is that it looks more complicated.

But if you think about it as projecting the vector down to the piecewise linear diamond shape and then parametrizing by length, it's easy. There's a bit of mess to compress the calculations down and merge the different cases to shorten the code, but once it's there, you don't need to look at it again.

Next week: Encoding 3D angles using the Octohedron