Blind Cyclists Union

The vast influence of the state on the shape and, inevitably, the behaviour of the modern Western economy is thus clear for all to see. It overshadows any single company, indeed any single sector (including banking), like an elephant standing over a flea.

But the sheer folly of describing the economic status quo as anything remotely approaching the neo-liberal, free-market, capitalist ideal is easily demonstrated by a whole host of other things too: the vast network of taxation and regulation, limiting and obstructing business at every turn, first among them.

The CommentatorGuardian columnists are wrong. This is a crisis of social democracy not neo-liberalism.
MechaTreeZilla eats hippies. And haz lazerz.

MechaTreeZilla eats hippies. And haz lazerz.

It’s the time of the season (for random wistfulness)

Unseasonably warm as it is, autumn is very much upon us, and the signs of seasonal change are visible all around.

If your work keeps you predominantly inside during the daytime those signs probably include falling leaves, a slight chill in the air, the slowly SAD inducing drawing in of the evenings and the awful prospect that soon you will be rising and travelling to work in the dark, and the certain knowledge that the public transport infrastructure will soon collapse due to to much or the wrong kind of whatever the prevailing weather conditions turn out to be.

If you’re more of a layabout waster like me who gets out and about in the daytime, there are other signs that you might have missed.

The long summer holiday is over, and the kids back at school or off to college or an apprenticeship somewhere, how the boys strut, in their starchy new coveralls. Except, not all of them.  For the first few weeks, the remaining few are still around. Hanging out in the park or at the bus station, still enjoying their found glut of leisure time.

As the season starts to change, they start to drift away like the leaves, the mums to be, the pushchair club, the pathologically ineducable and the just plain lost, it’s not so much fun to hang around the city when everyone else is gone, when there’s no one’s attention to be enjoyed, certainly not that of the largely uncaring denizens.

They retreat back to the estates and the suburbs, leaving only a hard core of truly lost boys to wander the city centre, their postures slowly clenching, an aura of future shock settling heavily upon them.

It’s generally around this time that the Army recruiters pitch up on the high street, dragging a few trucks and some shiny ordnance into view.  The recruiters know the look, the type, and they understand the timing.  They will have some success here, those who haven’t drifted off by now are the ones who haven’t made their peace with the future currently on offer, consisting as it does largely of boredom, frustration and petty criminality.

They still dare to hope for something better.  The military life is hard and dangerous, but then, so is staying behind.  Some of them will join up, for some of those that don’t, the conversation with the recruiter will be the spur for them to change their minds about going back into education for one more roll of the dice.

And slowly, the last few of the lost will be gone from view, unseen by the office dwellers, and largely unseen by me as I take my daily constitutional, because I have a nice warm overcoat, whereas nylon tracksuits don’t half let the cold in.

This cycle takes place every year, as fixed and predictable as the very changing of the seasons themselves and just as natural, but largely goes unseen. Well, now you know.

And that’s quite enough wisting for one day.

More wibble on those GCSE codemonkeys

Dr Martyn Thomas of the IET has said that the corduroys themselves need more skills if they are to pass them onto the pupils.

Reports El Reg.

Now this is certainly going to be true in some cases, not all ICT teachers are going to haz mad coding skillz. But then, one would hope (stop laughing at the back) that not all centers will offer the course if they have no one able to teach it.  And of course, this would be true for almost any new subject that was introduced to the curriculum.

Unfortunately, while I’m sure Dr Thomas is very eminent and everything, he makes me weep for my profession with this :

Professional software engineering is as big a step up from school programming as civil engineering is from Lego

Which is true as far it goes, but falls flat on its arse for two reasons, the first of which is simply that ‘profesional’ anything is a world away from such fundamentals as would be taught at GCSE level, thus neatly rendering the argument entirely irrelevant.

And the second, the one that jerks those tears of abject shame, is that software engineering is a discipline only tentatively connected with the fundamentals of computer science and computer programming, they really aren’t the same thing. In fact the gap between simply programming and professional software engineering is very roughly similar to that gap between Lego and civil engineering, and for broadly the same reasons.

As if that weren’t enough wibble

Alan Berry, the Institute’s Policy Advisor for IT & Communications, said … “There are lots of resources freely available that schools just don’t know about. I keep going on about open source but it just needs imagination and ingenuity. They’re all taught in Microsoft and they just need to be told about what else is available.

"For example, all the kids are running around with iPods and iPhones, why don’t they get them to write applications for them? They need to inspire students."

Well, for a start, not all the kids are ‘running around with iPods and iPhones’, at best, only 47% of teenagers even own a smartphone. And according to the full version of the Offcom Communications market report (see graph on page 53), the bulk of those are probably Blackberrys, with only 17% of smartphone toting teens owning an iPhone.

Then there’s the development environment. I get along just fine with Objective C, but it’s really not a first language to learn - or at least, to teach - and especially not on an iOS platform. There’s no ‘print “Hello World!”’, just getting to some rough equivalent of that requires dozens of lines of IDE generated code and much faffing about to get it to run on an actual device - though the simulator is an easier route.

If the intention is simply to teach some programming fundamentals (sequence, selection, iteration, etc) and a bit of comp sci (data structures, algorithms, etc), Java would be entirely appropriate. If there’s some desire to teach what’s going on under the hood, then C/C++ would be a good (if somewhat more difficult) choice.  Heck, there’s even Pascal, a language specifically designed as a teaching aid. Whatever is the appropriate language - and it will certainly depend on what the requirements of the curriculum end up being - it sure as shit isn’t going to be ObjC.

And whatever language, or combination thereof, it ends up being, it would be helpful if it didn’t require access to a Mac - which schools and students may or may not have, and may or may not be able to afford - but was able to be used on a variety of platforms, particularly including Windows, which most schools will be using extensively. ObjC for iOS is only available on OS X.  And while you can get ObjC anywhere you can stuff the gnu compiler, tool support for it is frankly woeful. Oh, and the iOS development tools are no longer free (as in beer), while those for many other languages can be had for free (as in beer) and/or free (as in speech).

All in all, this is a pretty piss poor example of ‘industry’ engaging with education. Then again, I’ve been in this industry for over a decade, and a codemonkey for much longer than that, and I’d never heard of the IET until I read this article. Go figure.

SteveB did one of the smartest things I’ve ever seen him do as CEO today: He delegated responsibility by paying someone else to jump around like an asshole during his entrance instead of doing it all by himself,” said a poster. “Now if only he’d do the same with his regular day job.
We’re pleased to announce that Lockerz, the leader in rewarded social expression, has acquired VodPod from Remixation, Inc
Social media word salad. This turned up in my email, and no, I have no idea WTF it means either
Why we can’t we buy Afghan Opium

A question that often comes up when the evil illegal trade in evil bad drugs is being discussed, and particularly these days, as we continue to send our troops to hassle Afghan farmers who make a living growing opium is : “if we’re so fucking bothered about all that naughty Afghan opium, how come we don’t just buy it as a job lot and use it in the production of nice, fluffy, harmless legal pharmaceutical grade opiates ?”

The short answer, and one you rarely hear, especially from politicians, is that if we did, it would be a UN treaty violation.

The UN Single Convention On Narcotic Drugs requires signatories to establish a state monopoly on the production and cultivation of certain drugs, including opium. And not just a monopoly but a whole apparatus of bureaucracy which must report to the UN.

It also prohibits signatories from importing opiates from countries which do not have such a regime in place. Article 24, Section 4 :

Notwithstanding subparagraph a) of this paragraph, a Party may import opium  produced by any country which produced and exported opium during the ten years prior to 1 January 1961 if such country has established and maintains a national control organ or agency for the purposes set out in article 23 and has in force an effective means of ensuring that the opium it produces is not diverted into the illicit traffic.

 As is usually the case with the prohibitionist stance, this is really weapons grade stupidity.  Even if we take as our starting axiom that ‘illicit traffic is bad, m’kay ?’, surely a better way of stemming such trade would be to allow the purchase of the product by parties not involved in it, rather than insisting that the way to tacke it is to set up a hugely expensive state organ which must then bear the costs not only of ‘legitimate’ production, but also of attempting to stem the ‘illicit’ production, thus making the ‘legitimate’ product much more expensive, and at the same time, the ‘illicit’ production much more lucrative.

There have been repeated - and so far unheeded - calls for a proper debate on ‘Drug Policy’ (no one in politics ever dares to frame the debate in terms of prohibition) in this country.  If we ever actually get to have this debate, and I’m not going to hold my breath, it really needs to start with the fact that our hands are tied to some extent by the various UN and EU treaties that we’re bound to.

There’s some wiggle room, as evidenced by Portugal’s highly successful  decriminalisation policy, but before we can have a sensible discussion of policy, it needs to be made clear exactly how, and by whom, the scope of our actions is limited.

Book Review - ‘Ready Player One’ by Ernest Cline

If you are a gamer, a coder, or an IT geek. If any of the following : Gygax, Trash 80,Atari 2600, Tennis for two, Zork, Adventure, Mechagodzilla, G-Force, Space War, Ladyhawke, WarGames, Galaga or Pac Man carry any semantic weight in your memeplex over the purely nominative. If you lived through the eighties - either because you were really there or via the medium of scratchy antique VHS copies of John Hughes films and retro gaming. If you know the phrase “living in the shade of a video arcade”. If you’ve ever trawled the web late at night trying to find a single episode of Whiz Kids, then this book is for you.

Brew up a big pot of something caffeinated, slip into your best Pac Man T-Shirt and pale, faded denims, put on a chunky digital watch, cue up about eight hours of 80s hair rock and movie sound tracks, and prepare to bask in the radiant glory of your adopted culture.

Ready Player One is a superbly executed melding of dystopian cyberpunk noir, high octane space opera, surreal manga adventure, and spellbinding swords and sorcery romp, to name but a few of the genres that it embraces, extends and redefines.

It will tweak your geek, it will nurture your nerd, and it will blow your haptic socks off. So grab a copy and be Ready, Player One.

Ready Player One By Ernest Cline - Random House (2011) - Paperback - 354 pages - ISBN 1846059372

Like Apple, Microsoft also haven’t killed Flash

But they may have put their foot on its throat.  When I first read that the new ‘Metro’ version of IE10 wouldn’t support plugins (I wonder if this will include Silverlight ?), I wondered if this meant that MS had managed to do what apple - despite much hysteria from the internets, and Adobe - hadn’t actually tried to do.  Had they killed Flash ?

Read More

Comp Sci GCSEs : The right thing, for the wrong reasons

Teenagers could be taught to write their own software programs at GCSE as part of a major overhaul of the UK schools’ IT curriculum.

Reports El Reg, and as it happens, I am broadly in favour of this, though not for the reasons given by David Willets, who is clearly a moron.

I want to see the ability to create software, to write programmes, that is one of the key functional skills for the 21st century

No, David, it is not.  For the man on the Clapham omnibus, the ability to write software is no more fundamental than the ability to create omnibuses (omnibii ?).

What is fundamental is the ability to actually operate software, this is becoming almost as fundamental as the ability to read to write, which is why, in fact, we teach precisely those skills in the current ICT curriculum.

Now it’s fair to say that the ICT curriculum has come under some serious criticism from many people over the years, including me.  In fact, including me when I eschewed it as a choice of GCSE subject and instead took an RSA course in touch typing. I could already do all the things the IT GCSE would have taught me and more besides, but an improved typing speed was actually much more useful to me in programming terms.

The IT (I have an irrational and pathological hatred of the public sector’s addition of a third letter to the acronym) curriculum has been fair butchered up over the years, largely as a result of trying to shoehorn more techy stuff into it, which is the wrong approach.

You see, using IT, practicing IT - e.g. as a corporate IT person, network admin, etc - and being a programmer are all vastly different things.  There has, in fact, been something of a spat between the ‘IT industry’ (don’t get me started!) and the many and various institutions that teach the disparate subjects that comprise what a layman would lump together as ‘IT’.  It’s more abstract at this level, with lots of people complaining about the watering down of computer science courses into what are effectively computer programming courses, churning out more Java programmers, and indeed about the choice of Java itself as a teaching language.  You can catch the tip of this iceberg of geek bitchery by looking through back issues of Communications of the Association of Computing Machinery, if you’re so inclined.

So apparently, someone somewhere in the bowels of the state education machinery has recognised that the subjects are fundamentally different and decided to provide the option to learn about software creation separately from software use.  This is A Good Thing.

There’s some slightly more in depth info over at silicon.com, here.

That those in the education hot seat are prepared to experiment with the curriculum, rather than regarding it as some monolithic sacred cow, is also very welcome.

Jeremy Hunt: “I will force firms to volunteer”

He didn’t actually say that of course

Voluntary agreements could be set up to help provide solutions to online copyright infringement, but if they cannot be established the Government will propose new measures under law, Hunt said.

This is practically standard for governments when dealing with the telecoms industry, particularly when it comes to issues that heave perilously close to censorship.

This is, for instance, how we ended up with the UK’s child porn blocking system.

Government comes to telcos with a shopping list of “voluntary” agreements they’d like to see and says “hey, why don’t you all volunteer to do these things, and if you don’t, we’ll legislate them into law and force you to do them.”

This, of course, is simply coercion.  I have always presumed that successive governments have done this because it saves them from ending up with legislation that could possibly be described as draconian.  That’s certainly the case nowadays, where anything that even smells of ‘censoring the internet’ draws screams of horror from all quarters. Something which truly gladdens my heart.

And government can then point at the telcos and say “it was them, they did it, it’s an industry thing, nothing to do with us.”  And pretend their hands are clean.

The telcos bend over for it of course.  Because the only thing worse than a voluntary framework forced upon you by the government is ending up with some half baked piece of poorly framed legislation hanging around your neck and a bunch of government regulators crawling up your arse.

Ah yes, but caning whose children ?

Some 49 per cent of mothers and fathers are in favour of corporal punishment to crack down on the worst offenders, it was revealed.

So says the Telegraph, quoting a survey apparently commissioned by the Times Educational Supplement.  Since this is an educational story, I will get the red pen out and give a stern ticking off to almost everyone who covered this story for not linking the study, to TES for not publishing it anywhere I can find it, and to the NASUWT for providing the following quote

In fact, evidence suggests that behaviour has improved significantly since corporal punishment was abolished.

Without proper referencing. Bad form, see me after.  The biggest red cross goes to the BBC, who chose to expend most of their article listing a detailed breakdown of the ideal celebrity teachers, which is clearly the most important part of the research. Idiots.

NASUWT get a big red tick, however, for pointing out the very same question that immediately occurred to me

However, no one appears to have asked those who have called for the return of corporal punishment whether they would be happy for their child to be caned.

Well, quite.  Since the survey doesn’t appear to have been published or linked to from anywhere, and since the journos from the MSM, with the execrable exception of the BBC,  haven’t bothered to quote anything but the headline stats from the press release (which TES don’t seem to have on their website), we don’t know if that question was indeed asked, or much else about the survey.

From personal experience (yes, I am that old, just), I believe that disciplining children with sticks in the classroom will teach them one very important lesson. That those placed in authority over others can be arbitrary, capricious and violent.

It’s a great life lesson, for sure, but I reckon there are probably ways to demonstrate this to children without brutalising them. And, again from personal experience, the moment you do this to a child, you may as well take out the big red ink pad and stamp “PROBLEMS WITH AUTHORITY” on their file.

Only the marks you leave on the outside will heal.

Twitter, Facebook politely tell Home Affairs Select Committee to get stuffed

The Register notes

Policy wonks from Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry faced MPs on the Home Affairs committee today who were carrying out a postmortem of the disorder across England last month.

Because, of course, social networks are the new rock’n’roll, i.e. the evil influence that will corrupt your children and harm society, and so Something Must Be Done.

People have been banging on for years about the internet and it’s ability to ‘democratise’ all sorts of things, and to some extent this has always been true. However, now that internet based communication tools have started to impact upon actual democracy and the political sphere in particular, The Powers That Be are absolutely shitting themselves.

This is the sort of thing that’s often hilarious to watch, right up to the point where the legislation starts being drafted, at which point it equally often becomes a painfully tragic display of authoritarian stupidity.

You may recall, in fact, that there was a brief outburst of such stupidity that had Theresa May as it’s epicenter, during which the horrible fuckers at the Home Office mooted shutting bits of the internet during ‘unrest’.  Their swift u-turn on this may not - I’m sure you will be surprised to hear - have represented an outbreak of common sense or decency.

But according to Yale scholar Navid Hassanpour, the apparent positive role the internet played in the revolution has been misrepresented.

In a widely circulated American Political Science Association conference paper, he argues that shutting down the internet did make things difficult for sustaining a centralised revolutionary movement in Egypt.

But, he adds, the shutdown actually encouraged the development of smaller revolutionary uprisings at local levels where the face-to-face interaction between activists was more intense and the mobilisation of inactive lukewarm dissidents was easier.

In other words, closing down the internet made the revolution more diffuse and more difficult for the authorities to contain.

But I digress. 

Twitter general counsel Alexander Macgillivray dismissed the idea that the micro-blogging service was good for organising criminal activity, and claimed the company had no evidence to show it was used for that purpose during the recent disorder in England.

He said that the idea of shutting down networks during social unrest, as recently mulled over and almost immediately rejected by Home Secretary Theresa May, “would be an absolutely horrible idea”.

Very polite, but very much ‘fuck off’

Facebook’s Director of Policy, Richard Allan was still more scathing

Allan said that politicos needed to work with a society that was “permanently connected” to the online world.

"We should assume this is going to be a reality henceforth".

Deal with it, in other words.

Good for them. 


Drug Hysteria, doncha just love it ?

Police believe illegal drugs may have caused the death of one man and left a second man seriously ill in hospital.

Oh well, if the police believe it, it must be true.

Emergency services were called to a house in the Raigmore area of Inverness at about 18:25 on Thursday.

Northern Constabulary said an investigation was continuing and a possible line of enquiry was that the man’s death was drugs related.

Police warned the drug potentially involved may have been a type of ecstasy tablet known as Einsteins.

The blue-green tablets have the letters E=MC2 inscribed on them.

The man died in hospital while the second man remains in a serious condition, officers said.

Note that there’s no information on what killed the poor dead chap, or what’s actually wrong with the second man. None at all.

Most likely they have been poisoned, though of course I stand to be corrected if it turns out not to be the case. 

I have, on occasion, stuffed Ecstasy into my face like it was sweeties, as do many millions of people around the UK each and every weekend, and I am noticeably not dead. By itself, as a rule, Ecstasy will not kill you.  Even the “Ecstasy will kill you!” poster child Leah Betts didn’t die as a direct result of it, but because she drank seven litres of water in an hour and half. That will kill you. With or without Ecstasy.

Usually in cases like this - and as I say, I stand to be corrected if any actual information emerges - the harm to the individual arises due to contamination, either accidentally or purposely introduced.  Particularly unscrupulous criminals have been known to cut stuff with such pleasantries as cement dust and rat poison.  I’ve also known stuff sold as E to turn out to be ketamine, which most certainly can kill you.

While it is right that the fact these poor guys were harmed is trumpeted far and wide as a warning to others that something may be hinky with the supply chain, and what has happened is certainly a horrific tragedy, it is wrong to suggest that they were harmed by illegal drugs. They were most likely harmed because drugs are illegal, and as such are generally produced by unscrupulous and incompetent bastards in unsanitary conditions.

Criminals don’t do QA testing.

Shitting on dead hedgehogs, could it be the next internet ‘thing’ ?

Of all the things on the long, long, list of ‘stuff that I would never have imagined people doing, that, well, you couldn’t make it up!’ this has to be fairly high up :

A Lincolnshire man who decided to take a dump on a dead hedgehog on a roadside verge in broad daylight has been fined £100 for the cable-laying outrage.

Yes, you read that right.  Well worth reading the whole piece on The Register, the comments are fantastic.