Monthly Archives: March 2015

Will networking make the world safer?


If you want a more detailed answer:

A long time ago when the web was young, we all hoped networking would make a better world. Everyone would know of all the bad things going on and would all group together and stop them. With nowhere to hide, oppressors would stop oppressing. 25 years on…

Since then, we’ve had spectacularly premature  announcements of how the internet and social networking in particular was responsible for bringing imminent peace in the world as the Arab spring emerged, followed not long after with proof of the naivety of such assumptions.

The pretty good global social networking we already have has also failed to eradicate oppression of women in large swathes of the world, hasn’t solved hunger or ensured universal supply of clean fresh water. It has however allowed ISIS to recruit better and spread their propaganda, and may be responsible for much of the political breakdown we are now seeing, with communities at each others’ throats that used to get along in mutual live-and-let-live.

The nets have so far failed to deliver on their promise, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they never will. On the other hand, the evidence so far suggests that many people simply misunderstood the consequences of letting people communicate better. A very large number of people believe you can solve any problem by talking about it. It clearly isn’t actually true.

The assumption that if only you would take the time to get to know other people and understand their point of view, you would get on well and live peacefully and all problems will somehow evaporate if only you talk, is simply wrong. People on both sides must want to solve the problem to make that work. If only one side wants to solve it, talking about it can actually increase conflict.

Talking helps people understand what they have in common, but it also exposes and potentially reinforces those areas where they differ.  I believe that is why we experience such vicious political debate lately. The people on each side, in each tribe if you like, can find one another, communicate, bond, and identify a common enemy. With lots of new-found allies, they feel more confident to attack, more confident of the size of their tribe, and of their moral superiority, assured via frequent reinforcement of their ideas.

Then as in much tribal warfare over millennia, it is no longer enough to find a peace agreement, the other side must now be belittled, demonized, subjugated and destroyed. That is a very real impact of the net, magnifying the tribal conflicts built into human nature. Talking can be good but it can also become counterproductive, revealing weaknesses, magnifying differences, and fostering hatred when there was once indifference.

Given that increasing communication is very two-sided, making it better and better might not help peace and love to prosper. Think about that a bit more. Suppose ISIS, instead of the basic marketing videos they use today, were to use a fully immersive virtual reality vision of the world they want to create, sanitized to show and enhance those areas of their vision that they want recruits to see. Suppose recruits could see how they might flourish and reign supreme over us infidel enemies, eradicating us while choosing which 72 virgins to have. Is that improving communications likely to help eradicate terrorism, or to increase it?

Sure, we can talk better to our enemies to discuss solutions and understand their ways and cultures so we can empathize better. Will that make peace with ISIS? Of course it won’t. Only the looniest and most naive would think otherwise. 

What about less extreme situations? We have everyday tribalism all around all the time but we now also have social reinforcement via social networks. People who once thought they had minority viewpoints so kept relatively quiet can now find others with similar views, then feel more powerful and become more vocal and even aggressive. If you are the only one in a village with an extreme view, you might have previously self censored to avoid being ostracized. If you become part of a worldwide community of millions of like mind, it is more tempting to air those views and become an activist, knowing you have backup.  With the added potential anonymity conferred by the network and no fear of physical attack, some people become more aggressive.

So social networks have increased the potential for tribal aggression as well as making people more aware of the world around them. On balance, it seems that tribal forces increase more than the forces to reduce oppression. Even those who claim to be defending others often do so more aggressively. Gentle persuasion is frequently replaced by inquisitions, witch hunts, fierce and destructive attacks.

If so, social networking is a bad thing overall in terms of peaceful coexistence. Meeting new people and staying in touch with friends and family still remain strongly beneficial to personal emotional well-being and also to cohesion within tribes. It is the combination of the enhanced personal feeling of security and the consequential bravery to engage in tribal conflict that is dangerous.

We see this new conflict in politics, religion, sexual attitudes, gender relations, racial conflicts, cultural conflicts, age, even in adherence to secular religions such as warmism. But especially in politics now; left and right no longer tolerate each other and the level of aggression between them increases continually.

If this increasing aggression and intolerance is really due to better social networking, then it is likely to get even worse as more and more people worldwide come online for longer and learn to use social networking tools more effectively.

As activists see more evidence that networking use produces results and reinforces their tribe and their effectiveness, they will do more of it. More activism will produce more extremism, leading to even more activism and more extremism. This circle of reinforcement might be very hard to escape. We may be doomed to more and more extremism, more aggressive relations between groups with different opinions, a society that is highly intolerant, and potentially unstable.

It is very sad that the optimism of the early net has been replaced by the stark reality of human nature. Tribal warfare goes back millennia, but was kept in check by geographic separation. Now that global migration and advanced social networking are mixing the tribes together, the inevitable conflicts are given a new and better equipped battlefield.




The IT dark age – The relapse

I long ago used a slide in my talks about the IT dark age, showing how we’d come through a period (early 90s)where engineers were in charge and it worked, into an era where accountants had got hold of it and were misusing it (mid 90s), followed by a terrible period where administrators discovered it and used it in the worst ways possible (late 90s, early 00s). After that dark age, we started to emerge into an age of IT enlightenment, where the dumbest of behaviors had hopefully been filtered out and we were starting to use it correctly and reap the benefits.

Well, we’ve gone into relapse. We have entered a period of uncertain duration where the hard-won wisdom we’d accumulated and handed down has been thrown in the bin by a new generation of engineers, accountants and administrators and some extraordinarily stupid decisions and system designs are once again being made. The new design process is apparently quite straightforward: What task are we trying to solve? How can we achieve this in the least effective, least secure, most time-consuming, most annoying, most customer loyalty destructive way possible? Now, how fast can we implement that? Get to it!

If aliens landed and looked at some of the recent ways we have started to use IT, they’d conclude that this was all a green conspiracy, designed to make everyone so anti-technology that we’d be happy to throw hundreds of years of progress away and go back to the 16th century. Given that they have been so successful in destroying so much of the environment under the banner of protecting it, there is sufficient evidence that greens really haven’t a clue what they are doing, but worse still, gullible political and business leaders will cheerfully do the exact opposite of what they want as long as the right doublespeak is used when they’re sold the policy.

The main Green laboratory in the UK is the previously nice seaside town of Brighton. Being an extreme socialist party, that one might think would be a binperson’s best friend, the Greens in charge nevertheless managed to force their binpeople to go on strike, making what ought to be an environmental paradise into a stinking litter-strewn cesspit for several weeks. They’ve also managed to create near-permanent traffic gridlock supposedly to maximise the amount of air pollution and CO2 they can get from the traffic.

More recently, they have decided to change their parking meters for the very latest IT. No longer do you have to reach into your pocket and push a few coins into a machine and carry a paper ticket all the way back to your car windscreen. Such a tedious process consumed up to a minute of your day. It simply had to be replaced with proper modern technology. There are loads of IT solutions to pick from, but the Greens apparently decided to go for the worst possible implementation, resulting in numerous press reports about how awful it is. IT should not be awful, it can and should be done in ways that are better in almost every way than old-fashioned systems. I rarely drive anyway and go to Brighton very rarely, but I am still annoyed at incompetent or deliberate misuse of IT.

If I were to go there by car, I’d also have to go via the Dartford Crossing, where again, inappropriate IT has been used incompetently to replace a tollbooth system that makes no economic sense in the first place. The government would be better off if it simply paid for it directly. Instead, each person using it is likely to be fined if they don’t know how it operates, and even if they do, they have to spend a lot more expensive time and effort to pay than before. Again, it is a severe abuse of IT, conferring a tiny benefit on a tiny group of people at the expense of significant extra load on very many people.

Another financial example is the migration to self-pay terminals in shops. In Stansted Airport’s W H Smith a couple of days ago, I sat watching a long queue of people taking forever to buy newspapers. Instead of a few seconds handing over a coin and walking out, it was taking a minute or more to read menus, choose which buttons to touch, inspecting papers to find barcodes, fumbling for credit cards, checking some more boxes, checking they hadn’t left their boarding pass or paper behind, and finally leaving. An assistant stood there idle, watching people struggle instead of serving them in a few seconds. I wanted a paper but the long queue was sufficient deterrent and they lost the sale. Who wins in such a situation? The staff who lost their jobs certainly didn’t. I as the customer had no paper to read so I didn’t win. I would be astonished with all the lost sales if W H Smith were better off so they didn’t win. The airport will likely make less from their take too. Even the terminal manufacturing industry only swaps one type of POS terminal for another with marginally different costs. I’m not knocking W H Smith, they are just another of loads of companies doing this now. But it isn’t progress, it is going backwards.

When I arrived at my hotel, another electronic terminal was replacing a check-in assistant with a check-in terminal usage assistant. He was very friendly and helpful, but check-in wasn’t any easier or faster for me, and the terminal design still needed him to be there too because like so many others, it was designed by people who have zero understanding of how other people actually do things.  Just like those ticket machines in rail stations that we all detest.

When I got to my room, the thermostat used a tiny LCD panel, with tiny meaningless symbols, with no backlight, in a dimly lit room, with black text on a dark green background. So even after searching for my reading glasses, since I hadn’t brought a torch with me, I couldn’t see a thing on it so I couldn’t use the air conditioning. An on/off switch and a simple wheel with temperature marked on it used to work perfectly fine. If it ain’t broke, don’t do your very best to totally wreck it.

These are just a few everyday examples, alongside other everyday IT abuses such as minute fonts and frequent use of meaningless icons instead of straightforward text. IT is wonderful. We can make devices with absolutely superb capability for very little cost. We can make lives happier, better, easier, healthier, more prosperous, even more environmentally friendly.

Why then are so many people so intent on using advanced IT to drag us back into another dark age?



Apple’s watch? No thanks

I was busy writing a blog about how technology often barks up the wrong trees, when news appeared on specs for the new Apple watch, which seems to crystallize the problem magnificently. So I got somewhat diverted and the main blog can wait till I have some more free time, which isn’t today

I confess that my comments (this is not a review) are based on the specs I have read about it, I haven’t actually got one to play with, but I assume that the specs listed in the many reviews out there are more or less accurate.

Apple’s new watch barks up a tree we already knew was bare. All through the 1990s Casio launched a series of watches with all kinds of extra functions including pulse monitoring and biorhythms and phone books, calculators and TV remote controls. At least, those are the ones I’ve bought. Now, Casio seem to focus mainly on variations of the triple sensor ones for sports that measure atmospheric pressure, temperature and direction. Those are functions they know are useful and don’t run the battery down too fast. There was even a PC watch, though I don’t think that one was Casio, and a GPS watch, with a battery that lasted less than an hour.

There is even less need now for a watch that does a range of functions that are easily done in a smartphone, and that is the Apple watch’s main claim to existence – it can do the things your phone does but on a smaller screen. Hell, I’m 54, I use my tablet to do the things younger people with better eyesight do on their mobile phone screens, the last thing I want is an even smaller screen. I only use my phone for texts and phone calls, and alarms only if I don’t have my Casio watch with me – they are too hard to set on my Tissot. The main advantage of a watch is its contact with the skin, allowing it to monitor the skin surface and blood passing below, and also pick up electrical activity. However, it is the sensor that does this, and any processing of that sensor data could and should be outsourced to the smartphone. Adding other things to the phone such as playing music is loading far too much demand onto what has to be a tiny energy supply. The Apple watch only manages a few hours of life if used for more than the most basic functions, and then needs 90 minutes on a charger to get 80% charged again. By contrast, last month I spent all of 15 minutes and £0.99 googling the battery specs and replacement process, buying, unpacking and actually changing the batteries on my Casio Protrek after 5 whole years, which means the Casio batteries last 12,500 times as long and the average time I spend on battery replacement is half a second per day. My Tissot Touch batteries also last 5 years, and it does the same things. By contrast, I struggle to remember to charge my iPhone and when I do remember, it is very often just before I need it so I frequently end up making calls with it plugged into the charger. My watch would soon move to a drawer if it needed charged every day and I could only use it sparingly during that day.

So the Apple watch might appeal briefly to gadget freaks who are desperate to show off, but I certainly won’t be buying one. As a watch, it fails abysmally. As a smartphone substitute, it also fails. As a simple sensor array with the processing and energy drain elsewhere, it fails yet again. As a status symbol, it would show that I am desperate for attention and to show of my wealth, so it also fails. It is an extra nuisance, an extra thing to remember to charge and utterly pointless. If I was given one free, I’d play with it for a few minutes and then put it in a drawer. If I had to pay for one, I’d maybe pay a pound for its novelty value.

No thanks.

Better representational democracy

We’re on the run-up to a general election in the UK. In theory, one person gets one vote, all votes are equal and every person gets equal representation in parliament. In practice it is far from that. Parties win seats in proportions very different from their proportion of the votes. Some parties get ten times more seats per vote than others, and that is far from fair and distorts the democratic working of parliament. The situation is made even worse by the particulars of UK party politics in this next election, where there seems unlikely to be a clear winner and we will probably need to have coalition government. The representational distortion that already exists is amplified even further when a party gets far more seats than it justifies and thereby has far greater power in negotiating a place in coalition.

For decades, the UK electoral system worked fine for the two party system – Labour and Conservative (broadly equivalent to Democrat and Republican in the USA). Labour wins more seats per vote than the Conservatives because of the geographic distribution of their voter base, but the difference has been tolerable. The UK’s third party, the Liberal Democrats, generally won only a few seats even when they won a significant share of the vote, because they were thinly spread across the country, so achieved a local majority in very few places. Conservatives generally had a majority in most southern seats and labour had a majority in most northern seats.

Now we have a very different mixture. Scotland has the SNP, we have the Greens, UKIP, the Libdems, Conservatives and Labour. A geographic party like the SNP will always win far more seats per vote because instead of being spread across the whole country, they are concentrated in a smaller region where they count for a higher average proportion and therefore win more local majorities. By contrast Libdems have their voters spread thinly across the whole country with a few pockets of strong support, and UKIP and the Greens are also pretty uniformly dispersed so reaching a majority anywhere is very difficult. Very few seats are won by parties that don’t have 30% or more of the national vote. For the three bottom parties, that results in gross under-representation in parliament. A party could win 20% of the votes and still get no seats. Or they could have only 2% of the vote but win 10% of the seats if the voters are concentrated in one region.

A Channel 4 blog provides a good analysis of the problem that discusses distortion effects of turnout, constituency size and vote distribution which saves me having to repeat it all:

Looking to the future, I believe an old remedy would help a lot in leveling the playing field:

Firstly, if a party wins more than a certain percentage of votes, say 1%, they should be allocated at least one seat, if necessary a seat without constituency. Secondly, once a party has one or more seats, those seats can have their parliamentary votes scaled according to the number of votes their party has won. The block voting idea has been used by trades unions for decades, it isn’t new. I find it astonishing that it hasn’t already been implemented

So a party with 5 seats that won 15% of the vote would get the same say on a decision as one with 50 seats that also won 15% of the vote, even though they have far fewer seats. In each case, the 15% who voted for them would see the correct representation in decision-making. Parties such as the Greens, Libdems and UKIP would have a say in Parliament representative of their level of support in the electorate. The larger parties Labour and Conservatives would have far less say, but one that is representative of their support. The SNP would have to live with only having as much power as the voter numbers they represent, a fraction of what they will likely achieve under this broken present system.

That would be fair. MPs would still be able to talk, make arguments, win influence and take places on committees. We would still have plenty of diversity to ensure a wide enough range of opinions are aired when debating. But when a decision is made, every voter in the country gets equal representation, and that is how democracy is supposed to be.

Further refinements might let voters split their vote between parties, but let’s concentrate on making the playing field at least a bit level first.

Estimating potential UK Islamist terrorism: IRA x 13

I wrote last June about the potential level for Islamist terrorism in the UK, where I used a comparison with the Northern Ireland troubles. It is a useful comparison because thanks to various polls and surveys, we know the ratio of actual active terrorist numbers there to the size of the supporter community.

The majority of people there didn’t support the violence, but quite a lot did, about 30% of the community. From the nationalist 245,000, the 30% (75,000) who supported violence resulted in only around 300 front line IRA ‘terrorists’ and another 450 in ‘support roles’ at any one time. The terrorist population churned, with people leaving and joining the IRA throughout, but around 1% of 30% of that 245,000 were IRA members at any one time.

We’ve recently had another survey on UK Muslims conducted for the BBC that included attitudes to violence. You can read the figures from the survey here:

The figures they found are a little worse than the estimates I used last year, and we have slightly higher population estimates too, so it is time to do an update. The 30% support for violence attributed to the Northern Ireland nationalist community is very similar to the 32% found for the UK Muslim community. Perhaps 30% violence support is human nature rather than peculiar to a particular community. Perhaps all that is needed is a common grievance.

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, 68% of UK Muslims claimed that they didn’t think violence was justified if someone ‘publishes images of the Prophet Mohammed’. The survey didn’t specify what kind of images of the Prophet were to be hypothetically published, or even that they were insulting, it just said ‘images’. That 68% gives us a first actual figure for what is often referred to as ‘the overwhelming peaceful majority of Muslims in Britain’. 32% either said they supported violence or wouldn’t say.

(The survey also did not ask the non-Muslim population whether they would support violence in particular circumstances, and I haven’t personally found the people I know in Great Britain to be more civilized than those I knew in Northern Ireland. If the same 30% applies when a common grievance exists, then at least we can take some comfort that we are all the same when we are angry over something.)

Some other surveys around the world in the last few years have confirmed that only around 30% of Muslims support violence against those who offend Islam. Just like in Northern Ireland, almost all of those supporters would not get directly involved in violence themselves, but would simply approve of it when it happens.

Let’s translate that into an estimate of potential Islamist terrorism. There are no accurate figures for the UK Muslim population, but it is likely now to be around 3 million. Around 32% of that is around a million; there is no point aiming for higher precision than that since the data just doesn’t exist. So around a million UK Muslims would state some support for violence. From that million, only a tiny number would be potential terrorists. The IRA drew its 750 members from a violence supporter base of 75,000, so about one percent of supporters of violence were prepared to be IRA members and only 40% of those joined the equivalent of ‘active service units’, i.e. the ones that plant bombs or shoot people.

Another similarity to Northern Ireland is that the survey found that 45% of UK Muslims felt that prejudice against them made it difficult to live here, and in Northern Ireland, 45% of nationalists supported the political motives of the IRA even if only 30% condoned its violence, so the level of grievance against the rest of the population seems similar. Given that similarity and that the 32% violence support level is also similar, it is only a small leap of logic to apply the same 1% to terrorist group recruitment might also apply. Taking 1% of 1 million suggests that if Islamist violence were to achieve critical mass, a steady 10,000 UK Muslims might eventually belong to Islamist terrorist groups and 0.4% or 4000 of those in front line roles. By comparison, the IRA at its peak had 750, with 300 on the front line.

So based on this latest BBC survey, if Islamists are allowed to get a grip, the number of Islamist terrorists in the UK could be about 13 times as numerous as the IRA at the height of ‘The Troubles’. There is a further comparison to be had of an ISIS-style terrorist v an IRA-style terrorist but that is too subjective to quantify, except to note that the IRA at least used to give warnings of most of their bombs.

That is only one side of the potential conflict of course, and the figures for far right opposition groups suggest an anti-Islamist terrorist response that might not be much smaller. Around 1.25 million support far right groups, and I would guess that more than 30% of those would support violence and more would be willing to get directly involved, so with a little hand-waving the problem looks symmetrical, just as it was in Northern Ireland.

If the potential level of violence is 13 times worse than the height of the Troubles, it is clearly very important that Islamists are not allowed to get sufficient traction or we will have a large problem. We should also be conscious that violence in one region might spread to others and this could extend to a European problem. On a positive note, if our leaders and security forces do their jobs well, we may see no significant problem at all.