Francis’s news feed

This combines together some blogs which I like to read. It’s updated once a week.

February 25, 2017

Anatomy of a Hijack by James Smith

This post is a brief diversion from election updates to recount the story of an attempted account hijacking and theft that happened to me on Monday, and what can be learned from it. This might be quite long, but you never know; might be interesting to someone.

Unusual activity

So, the first thing I know is when I get a call from my bank, about possible unusual account activity. These happen every now and again - you call back, confirm some transactions, and everything’s fine.

So, I call up, and get put on hold for the fraud dept. Unfortunately I have a meeting and have to hang up. An hour and a half later, I call back, and after some strangeness with my account access PIN not seeming to work, we find one unidentified transaction. So, my card is cancelled, and another will be in the post. This happens sometimes, I guess. End of story.

Where’s my SIM?

An hour after that, I get a text on my phone, thanking me for transferring to my new SIM card, and that the old one will be disconnected. I immediately call my mobile operator to see what’s going on, but my phone dies a couple of minutes later, kicked off the network.

Uh oh.

At this point I’m getting worried about Twitter hijacking, or somesuch. After all, we all have two-factor authentication set up to send SMS codes to our phones these days, right?

So, I borrow a phone from a colleague, and call the operator. Once I get through, they confirm that my number has been transferred to another SIM on my request. I tell them to kill it immediately, because that was NOT ME.

Once that’s done, and we’ve added some new security questions, we look at how this happened. The log shows that the previous caller didn’t know the account PIN, but confirmed ownership of the number by verifying the last direct debit amount taken from my bank account.

Oh, shit. They’re in the bank account.

Calling the bank back

Check the online banking - I can’t get in.

So I call the bank and get immediately routed through to the fraud department and go through an unusually large amount of security. They inform me that yes, something strange is happening, and did I by any chance recently make a large transfer out of my retirement savings?

Er, NO.

That’s OK, they say, we didn’t think so, and we didn’t let it through. The accounts are safe, and everything has been locked down. The attacker isn’t getting any further.

We set a special password that I make up on the spot so that nobody except me can access the account until everything is reset with new information.

Finally, after a fraught hour on the phone, I can relax a bit. We’re safe it seems.

So, what happened?

It seems the fraudster and I were interleaving calls all day.

After my first call, coincidentally, they called the bank and pretended to be me. The number was withheld, but they identified and passed security by giving my name, address, email, mobile number, card number and expiry.

As you might notice, all of that would be available to a store with whom I ordered something online. And that got them all the way into my account, or at least far enough for the next part. So much for security; we know that the security questions that protect the account online weren’t asked.

Anyway, once they where in there, I guess they looked up the most recent direct debits; found my mobile operator, and got the last amount I paid them. They then reset the security PIN (hence my failure to get in on the second call) and called my mobile operator to swap the SIM cards for my number.

They got control of my mobile number pretty much straight away; how do criminals get this level of service? Normally moving a number is a total pain in the arse.

Anyway, once they had that, they called the bank back (I was probably already on the phone to the operator at this point), and with the extra identification of calling on my number, initiated the transfer. The bank were suspicious though; they called my number back, and got them again, but weren’t happy about the response. They locked everything down, and their ride was over.

What went right?

So, the bank spotted the probe, and the hijack in time, so I didn’t lose anything. That’s good.

My mobile operator sent me a text with a reference number before they disconnected the phone. That’s also good.

But…

What went wrong?

This all comes down to companies being willing to work around their own security on the phone. If you act the idiot and claim you don’t have the security information, it doesn’t seem to take a lot to get in at least to the point where you can start to escalate.

The message I left the bank with after our various calls, was that this was all their fault. By allowing callers to work around security, they are exposing my accounts to hijacking. None of this was on me, as far as I can tell. Saying “don’t use online shopping” these days is not an option, because even if you shop offline, all that data is linked to, say, your Tesco clubcard. It’s basically available to anyone.

We all need to get more security conscious, and that doesn’t just mean having passwords; it also means companies asking for them, and denying callers access even if it pisses off a customer or two.

What did we learn?

My digital security is good; unique strong passwords, held in a secure password store behind another strong password. It would be hard to compromise. However, this attacker had only a bunch of data that you could hoover up from any online store order. Nothing specifically about me - they didn’t know who I was, where I went to school, my mothers’ maiden name, nothing. But it was enough to convince the bank that they were me. Social engineering is, as always, the best way to break security.

I guess that the banks and mobile companies have to deal with a lot of people who forget their security details all the time, so they have to subvert their own security in this way. That’s… terrifying.

Don’t use real information in security questions

My security questions weren’t asked, so weren’t compromised, but now I’ve changed them, I’ve decided not to use real information in these ever again. It’s far too easy to find my mother’s maiden name, or where I was born. From now on, this stuff gets made up.

Attacks are more complex than you think

This was a five-stage attack. First the obtaining of the merchant data with my details in. Second, the probe, to see if the card was still active. Then the simple human exploit to get into the bank account in a read-only capacity, followed by the phone hijack and the final transfer attack.

While the later stages can seem more secure, a simple breach earlier on can leak more information that allows the attacker to escalate their privileges.

Also, attackers know which attacks to use for particular services. It seems likely that the first call to the bank was intentionally looking for more information to escalate privileges with. Once they found my mobile operator, they knew that they would take the direct debit details as proof, so off they went.

SMS two-factor security is not good enough

I’m going to switch to authenticator app security codes, I think, where I can. My mobile is too easy to hijack to be a sufficiently good part of the security chain. I was immediately worried that the mobile hijack was a two-factor auth crack attempt. In the meantime, my authenticator app codes remained secure on the physical device, not linked to the number.

Be careful with incoming calls etc

A few times I had calls from the bank during this process, and I always asked them to prove to me who they were first. They didn’t know what to do. In the end I just had to make up my own security, and ask names of people who had dealt with my case previously, as that’s the only information I could think they could confirm. I think I might get a password put on my account for them to tell me in future. Not hard!

They also send special fraud centre phone numbers in emails and texts. I never called them, but instead always called the general customer service number and asked to be put through to the right area. How do I know where the email is really from? Publish a PGP key on your site so I can verify the email, and I’ll call the thing you want me to. Otherwise, no way.

The companies themselves are teaching people security antipatterns by doing this sort of shit.

Will it get fixed?

I suspect that as long as this sort of fraud costs the banks less than the cost of better security, then they won’t fix it. Therefore, I really don’t expect anything to change, unfortunately.

At least all I got was an afternoon of stress, and a few days without a mobile phone and debit card. Nothing was lost in the end, and a few valuable lessons were learned. That’s a win, I guess?


Handing In Nomination Forms by James Smith

I’m currently sitting in the election services office of Horsham District Council, waiting for my nomination forms to be checked, and I’ve learned a couple of new things.

Agent Appointment Form

If you don’t nominate an agent, you act as your own agent. The notes say this happens by default, but you still need to fill in the agent appointment form with your own details.

I left my blank one at home, so I’m waiting for a printout so I can fill it in. Oops!

Subscribers and election officials

One other thing that’s not mentioned on the notes; the people who nominate you can’t be working on the election, (definitely not) in a polling station or (a bit less bad) on the count.

I’ve almost caused myself a bit of a problem, as one of mine has independently volunteered to work on the count. Fortunately for me, Horsham DC covers two constituencies, and so there will be two counts going on at the same time. They will make sure that my nominator works on the count for the other constituency, not mine. Normally you wouldn’t get away with that so easily.

I have offered to redo the forms, but apparently it’ll be OK.

So, to summarise my understanding so far, your nominators must:

  • be on the electoral register in the area for which you are standing (constituency, ward, etc)
  • not be an employee or volunteer staff for the council running the election
  • not have nominated more candidates than the number of available seats in the area (1 for parliament, >1 for many council wards)

Bear all that in mind when you do your forms.

Party description

Last thing - the party description that you write on the form will be the only textual thing that identifies you as a party. You don’t automatically get the party name as well. I didn’t realise this, but fortunately our description includes the party name, and the logo includes the name text, so I’m sticking with what we had.

Description

So, if your description doesn’t include the party name and your logo is a bit more abstract, you might want to think again.


Leaflet Deadlines by James Smith

It’s getting close to the election, and we’re starting our leaflet design process. The Royal Mail send out a free leaflet, as I discovered last year, but now we need to actually get them made.

I called up the Royal Mail candidate mailing department this morning, and spoke to a very helpful chap to confirm all the deadlines, etc. This is my calendar, working backwards:

24 April: Deadline for delivery of unaddressed leaflets to the local Royal Mail dropoff point.

17 April: Allowing a week for printing, we need to have final artwork with the printer by the 17th.

14 April: As the Royal Mail artwork vetting service take 48 hours to verify that the leaflet conforms to the right laws, this is the drop-dead date for getting it to them for checking. They said this things would be quietening down at this point, as most people will have done it already. Once they’ve vetted it, you get a verification number and the details of the local contact to arrange the dropoff appointment.

12 April: My aim for final artwork. I’d rather have a couple of days of contingency.

5 April: My target for a first draft, which we can run by the art department to make sure we’re not doing anything obviously terrible. Oh my god, that’s only 6 days away.

Hopefully, we won’t get it wrong, as the Royal Mail have sent me a very useful guidance document for candidate mailings, which you can also download from their website.

One thing is, don’t assume that the dropoff point is your local sorting office. Mine (for Horsham) is in Crawley, just up the road, but that’s also the dropoff point for Hove, Brighton, and seemingly most of Sussex. You might have a decent distance to travel to your dropoff point, so make sure you check the list!

There are 4 things that must be on the leaflet:

  • It must say “Election Communication” on the front, in at least 10 point text.
  • It must have the name of the candidate or party on the front.
  • It must have the name of the constituency on the front.
  • It must have the imprint (which is the name and address of the promoter, party, and printer) on the front or back.

If we do those, and don’t insult any of the other candidates, I think we’ll be OK.

If you want to help make the best election leaflet you’ve ever seen, get in touch and join our creative team. We’ve got a lot to do in a short time, so all help is appreciated!


Electoral Numbers by James Smith

Last night I went around rounding up signatures for nominations, and checking the signers against the electoral register. This is a short story about consistency of naming and data.

The form has two columns for the “electoral number” for each signer. The headings on mine were “Distinctive letter”, and “Number”.

The register itself has three columnns. The first is called “Elector Number Prefix”; the second “Elector Number”, and then “Elector Number Suffix”.

Nothing I could find explains what the mapping is, or gives an example of the format expected.

After looking at nomination forms I found on the web in other constituencies, I satisfied myself that the prefix and distinctive letter were the same thing; the ward identifier, normally made up of 2-3 letters (not one!).

That just left the number.

In the register, the names are arranged by address, and each is given a consecutive number. So I might be 124, and my wife at the same address might be 123 (as she’s before me in the alphabet). Our next door neighbours might be 125, 126, etc. The suffix for all of these is 0. However, some people have the same number as someone else in the same household, and a suffix of 1 or 2. I assume this is for people who are newly-registered at the address since the register was created.

So, my assumption is that the elector number is the number and the suffix, making my number 124/0, not 124. That way, a new voter in my household could be 124/1, 124/2, etc. It’s like numbering your lines 10, 20, 30, back in the early days of BASIC, so you’ve got somewhere to fit more stuff in.

However, having emailed my completed forms over ahead of my appointment tomorrow for an informal check, I find this is wrong. The suffix is only included in the number if it’s non-zero. So, I’m 124, and the others would be 124/1, 124/2, etc. Fortunately I can just cross off the zeroes and don’t have to get everyone to sign a new form.

Someone here isn’t aware of the difference between zero and null1. This is why computers have a hard time with fluffy human-created data.


  1. The discovery of zero was a major milestone in maths. Is the discovery of null equally so? Hmmm.


Nomination Time by James Smith

Today is the 30th March, and at midnight Parliament was officially dissolved for the election. That means that it’s time for everything to kick off, and the first thing is to get nomination sorted.

A while ago, I got in touch with our local elections officer to let her know that I was intending to stand. She sent the forms a few weeks ago, and on Wednesday I have an appointment at 10am to go and hand them in, which you have to do in person.

I booked in as early as I could so that I’d have time to fix any problems; nominations are only open until 4pm on April 9th, and after that it’s all over. As it’s Easter weekend in between, I thought it best to give myself plenty of contingency time.

Anyway, let’s take a look at the forms themselves. As well as getting the forms from the elections office, you can download standard forms from the Electoral Commission website, which is helpful. However, if you are standing, I’d get them from the local returning officer - they might have done something a bit different, you never know.

Nomination Paper

Section 1a is the nomination paper itself. This is the main thing, where you put down your full name, and (fortunately for me) your given name which will go on the ballot paper.

Then, you need ten people to nominate you, known as subscribers. They are people who are on the electoral register in the constituency in which you’re standing, so you can’t necessarily just get your work colleagues to sign it like some sort of charity sponsorship form.

I’ve not got the signatures yet, and so I’ll be spending this evening driving around and getting friends to sign.

The first wrinkle is that you have to verify each of the subscribers against the electoral register, and enter their electoral number on the form before you go to hand it in. This means you need a copy of the register. As a candidate, you can get a copy, but only once Parliament has dissolved, which was this morning. The Electoral Commission have a standard form to request a copy, which I filled in and emailed over early to my local elections office this morning.

I expected a long wait, but to their credit, the office sent the register over within a couple of hours. So, I now have an excel file with 63,000 names and addresses in it, with elector numbers and everything. The restrictions on what I can do with this are obviously very strict, so no I can’t send you a copy!

The register is only for Horsham district, which is interesting. The Horsham constituency only covers about half the Horsham district, and also includes some of Mid Sussex district as well. If I wanted the complete electoral register for the constituency, I’d need to get both district registers. However, all my subscribers will be in Horsham, so it’ll be fine. I might get the other one later if I need to.

Section 1b is the home address form, which is pretty simple. Interestingly, you can choose to withhold your home address. Instead, your home constituency or country will be printed on the nomination lists.

Section 1c is where you agree to be nominated, and declare that you’re allowed to stand. There are various things that stop you standing, but none of them appy to me, so we’re good to go. This is signed and witnessed, and it’s an offence to make a false declaration on this one, so best get it right!

Party details

If you’re standing for a party, then sections 2 and 3 are used.

Section 2 is a certificate of authorisation signed by your party’s Nominating Officer which says that you’re allowed to stand for the party. Obviously, the party needs to be registered with the Electoral Commission for this to happen. They also confirm the party description they want you to use, and which you also enter in part 1a. Party descriptions are registered just like names with the Electoral Commission, and you can choose one of the registered ones to print on your ballot.

This has to be an original signed document. An emailed version won’t do. Mine is currently in the post from Paul, Something New’s Nominating Officer, after I had a slight panic this morning and forced him to do it immediately and send via special delivery! Moral of the story: read the forms more than 2 days before your appointment. Interestingly, Paul is also standing. What happens if you’re the candidate and the nominating officer? I have no idea, but I expect it’ll be fine.

Section 3 is the other advantage to standing for a party; the logo. Each party registers a logo with the Electoral Commission, just like the descriptions, and you can request that that logo should be printed on the ballot as well.

Basically, if you’re a party, you get your name, party name, description and emblem. If you’re an Independent, it’s just name and “Independent”. That brand recognition at the ballot box is one (rather daft, but real) reason to form a party.

Agents

The last two sections are for nominating agents. An agent is responsible for handling all the official paperwork of the election, observing the counts, and so on. Currently I’m intending to be my own agent, though if anyone local fancies volunteering, do let me know.

If you don’t name an agent, you act as your own by default, so I’m basically not bothering with these forms right now. I think there are a few more days for nominating agents, so I can still add one if I find someone to do it.

Money

And that’s it for the forms; it’s really not very complex, and mostly involves just writing your own name a few times and getting a few signatures. The only bit left is to go and hand it in along with the deposit.

The deposit is £500, and I’ll get it back if I get 5% of the votes. I’ve crowdfunded that money, to show that you don’t have to be able to happily throw 500 of your own pounds in the bin in order to stand (though I have put a chunk of money in myself of course).

The deposit is paid in cash or by a bankers’ draft, which I thought went out with the ark, and I have no idea how I’d even get one (especially as my bank has barely any branches). Some elections offices may take other forms of payment, though it has to be “cleared funds”, so apparently cheques are no good. Mine is OK with doing an online transfer, though I need to get it done before my appointment, so that they can verify it all there and then.

And that’s it

That’s all there is to it. If anything interesting happens during the appointment to hand it all in, I’ll write more, but I hope it will all go fine. Apparently people get them wrong all the time, but to be honest it didn’t seem that complex. As I say, the Electoral Commission’s guidance is as good as always, so that’s well worth a look.

Anyway, the show is now on the road. I still need help raising money for leaflets etc, so if you like what I’m doing, don’t forget to pledge!


Crowdfunding the election campaign by James Smith

After rather a long delay, I’ve finally got my crowdfunding campaign launched for the election. This is a big part of the whole thing, and not just because it raises the money I need to do this right.

  1. It shows that it’s possible to stand without rich donors bankrolling you. Limiting party donations to individuals only (and only up to £5000) is part of our manifesto, so it’s important to show that it can work!

  2. It helps our transparency agenda; we’ll be publishing the details of all our donors (not just those we have to) in our open accounts, so everyone can see who’s backing us.

What’s it for?

I’m raising money for the following:

  • £500 for the election deposit. This is the initial goal set on the campaign, and that means I can stand. We’ve already hit it, so the game is afoot!
  • Around £1500 for leaflets. The Royal Mail will deliver a leaflet to every home for free for each candidate, but we need to print them. This gets us 50,000 leaflets, one for every home in the constituency.
  • Another £500 for fliers to hand out in the high street. This is less essential, but it would be good if we could do it. The figure here is a bit of a guess though, I’ve not got quotes yet.
  • £500 for “other” expenditure. We’ve got various costs for renting rooms, advertising on Facebook (though that’s pretty ineffective), and so on. This is a very vague figure, and if we don’t use it all, money will go to central party funds for other campaign costs.

So, all in all, that’s why the stretch goal on the crowdfunding campaign is £3000. We need £2000 to scrape by as a useful campaign, but the more we have the more we can do!

Bear in mind that all this will be published openly in our accounts, which are 100% transparent, so there’s no danger of your money being funnelled offshore to my swiss bank account, or something.

How to crowdfunding

When I first started looking at crowdfunding last summer, it was all a bit vague. The Electoral Commission weren’t quite sure, and none of the crowdfunding sites had really done it before. Since then, however, as I’ve been busy doing other things, it’s all changed. Crowdfunder have put the work in to supporting political campaigns, and have even written a handy guide on how to do it.

They’ve got a massive number of political campaigns on there now, covering all the main parties, so it was a no-brainer to use their expertise.

What we did

I delayed a long time because I thought I had to have a video to promote it, and that was tough to get together. Eventually time just got so short that I went ahead and launched with the minimum viable campaign. I’ll add a video later to push up donations; we need to record one anyway, so it all helps.

We chose non-physical perks only, due to fulfilment demands which would probably cause a lot of trouble, and because I wasn’t sure of the rules around donations when part of it is a purchase (of a mug, say).

The perk design was tricky - I really wanted to avoid cash-for-access. I’ve seen a whole load of supposedly progressive fundraising campaigns where a reward is to go to the pub with the party leader, or candidate, or something. I’m not 100% sure how this is different from rich Tory donors getting to go shoe shopping with Theresa May, so I really wanted to stay away from it.

Instead, I chose high-level rewards that do involve personal contact, but in a public and open setting; for instance, you can come on our podcast, or have me come and talk about the future of democracy at an event of your choice which we’ll publish online after.

Finally, the target. Crowdfunder recommend having a minimum goal and using stretch goals for the ideal amount. So that I knew I’d be able to stand, I chose the deposit amount, £500, as the initial goal, and have set a stretch goal for the £3k we want to get. I’m not 100% sure that’s the right way to have done it, as now we’ve raised over £600, we look like we’re done, which we’re very much not. I don’t know really.

GIVE US YOUR F**KING MONEY

So, the crowdfunding is now live, and will run for another 3 weeks. If you’re reading these blogs, and finding my journey interesting, I really need your help to make this happen. We’ve got enough to stand; now we need to raise enough to get a leaflet through every letterbox. If we don’t do that, we might as well not bother.

So, please give generously, tell your friends, and spread the word. It’s down to you.


Question Time by James Smith

Last Saturday, we had the first hustings event of 2015 in Horsham. These were a part of the campaign that I was both looking forward to, and nervous of. After all, it’s the first time that I’ve tried to put across my ideas in person, in front of an audience.

The event was held by the CPRE Sussex branch, with 7 candidates. Well, 6 candidates; the Lib Dems have still not nominated their candidate for the seat, so were represented by local councillor Frances Haigh. While a bit strange, that was better than the first option; for a while they were sending the Guildford candidate down, which is just… weird.

We got send details in advance about the format of the event, and a few opening questions which we could prepare answers to before tackling questions live from the floor.

Talk. A lot.

Obviously, I’m an engineer, not a politician, and while I’m happy with public speaking (and actually quite enjoy it), this is another level, and I was determined to do the right preparation to come across well. Talking about your ideas in public is hard, and takes a lot of confidence to say something solid that the person (or people) opposite you might completely disagree with.

I had a reasonably good start though; my friend Charlie and I have been podcasting about the campaign for the last few months. It’s a good way of getting used to talking about the ideas, and dealing with an interview format (though admittedly a friendly one). Listening back to the podcasts, I can hear myself getting more confident with talking about this stuff as time goes on, and getting better at making my point well. There’s really no substitute for practice!

Also, I’ve done a decent number of interviews with journalists over the last few months, and again that’s excellent practice at getting the point across. The public meetings have also been incredibly useful; though they’re always sparsely-attended, they tend to be a great way of having conversations about ideas with members of the public, and seeing which ideas go across best.

It’s surprised me through all this that it’s not our policy as such that’s going over best, but the way we create it; openly, transparently, and collaboratively. There is a hunger for new forms of democracy across the board, it seems.

Final preparation

In the week before the event, there were two bits of targeted preparation. First, a friend of mine who works in communications was generous enough to give me a couple of hours of her time to do some “media training” sessions, which were incredibly useful. We looked at how people go wrong in media situations, and then did some practice interviews. The lessons I took from that were really:

  • Honesty is best: don’t try to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes
  • Answer the questions directly, but try to stick to what’s unique about you.
  • Don’t be afraid to stop talking. Far better to make a short, punchy point and stop, than ramble on.
  • Be prepared. Have the relevant stats in front of you, and a list of talking points on expected questions.

That leads to the last bit of preparation. The night before, I got a few friends over and we sat around with laptops researching bits of data, refining our talking points, and making sure that I knew the issues properly. We continued that over coffee in the morning before the event. This all really helped get my head in the right place.

The Event

So, on the morning of Saturday 21st April, we headed to the Drill Hall in Horsham for the event. My Something New co-founder Paul came along to handle social media during the event, and my sister looked after the kids so my wife could come along too.

The event opened with the CPRE explaining about themselves and their election manifesto; I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by their approach. It was a lot less NIMBY than I had been expecting. I guess I’ve only really come across them as objectors to things like wind turbines, but there’s obviously a lot more to them than that, and they framed the event in that way as well. While it was focused on the countryside, it was more about how we manage changes rather than just stop them outright.

I was the youngest on the panel, and the only one not dressed formally. I intentionally wore my normal clothes, because anything else would be a lie.

Introductions

Anyway, then we did our introductions, and as I’m last in alphabetical order, I was last to speak.

Here I have to just state: I’d love to talk about individual candidates and how they performed, but that would be bad form. The chairman had a horn to blow every time a candidate referred to another party or candidate, which was a great thing, and so I’ll try to do the same. I’ll talk generalities about them, but not name any names. You can see it for yourself when the video is up soon, anyway.

So, back to the introductions, and GOD they were boring. It seemed that almost all the speakers leapt straight into why such-and-such a development was wrong, how planning was broken, and so on. That left me in an amazing position at the end to be the one person who spoke positively and passionately about what I believed in, to set the scene for everything else I was going to say. The firm nod from my wife after I finished was a fantastic confidence boost - it helps to have a known ally in the audience who will reassure you!

A few of the candidates were already going over their allotted time in their intro speech, and were being dinged by a bell at the side of the stage to stop. That started being ignored pretty quickly.

Prepared Questions

Then it was on to the prepared questions. I thought we had a one minute time limit on each question, but as soon as it started it became clear that was wrong. The first few speakers were taking 2 minutes (as for the intros), and of course running over that. My wife confirmed that from the audience with hand signals, and I immediately started thinking about what else I wanted to say to fill the time that I wasn’t going to use.

However, then I remembered the media training sessions, and the power of stopping early. So, I stuck with my 1 minute answers, and while the rest of the panel went on and on, I delivered my answers quickly and positively, and let things move on before the bell was anywhere near. This was exactly the right thing to do.

Subject Matter

It also helped that I was happy making what I thought might be unpopular points. From the very beginning of this, I’ve made sure I don’t care who disagrees with me, and that’s really powerful. I expected the audience to be much less on my side on many things, but in the end it turned out the other way. If I’d tried to adapt my message to what I thought the audience would want, I would have been wrong, and it would have been dull. Better to say the thing you believe, and stick to it. The passion shows.

This post is already long enough to get a film adaptation, so I won’t go into too much more detail about the event itself and what we said. There will be video up later which you can watch, if you want to.

But, I do have to include this bit:

At one point, an obviously very angry man demanded time to ask his question, which he was granted. He then asked about immigration, and how the countryside would be affected by all these people coming over here taking our women, stealing our jobs etc etc.

The chairman dealt with this very well. He immediately shut the guy down, saying that he wouldn’t accept the question. The rationale, which I think is right, is that we’d already spent half the event talking about pressures on the countryside from expanding population and urbanisation. The only thing that talking about immigration would achieve was to bring race into it; the issues are the same, no matter who the people involved are.

The guy did get a round of applause for asking his question, presumably from the substantial UKIP contingent in the room, but the round of applause when he stormed out was much bigger, which I particularly enjoyed.

Bring it on

All in all, I really enjoyed the event. The reviews I heard afterwards were excellent, and put me in with only a couple of others as credible options, which was lovely to hear. We came across really positively, and I think it bodes well for the rest of the campaign.

I’m looking forward to the next one on April 22nd, and I really hope that we can get some more happening. They’re great events, and we need more of them to get people re-engaged with our democracy.


The Web Of Truth by James Smith

Link Your Sources

We’re in an era of lies and propaganda, euphemistically labelled “fake news” and “alternative facts”. Many of the efforts of the alt-right are to muddy the waters of facts, to erode people’s confidence that facts even exist.

As Clay Shirky implied during Trump’s election campaign, facts are not sufficient to win this war:

However, facts are necessary.

More and more we need to be able to rely on the news we read and the posts we share to be factual. We can’t fall into the trap of using propaganda ourselves, or not caring what we say as long as it hurts the other side. By doing that, the confusion rises further and the forces of chaos win.

Fortunately we have technologies to help us. The web is built on links; linking back to primary sources of information is cheap and easy, and in the war on lies we need to do it more.

We’ve asked journalists to link to their source materials in online news articles for years. Now it’s a moral imperative to do so. And if you’re sharing an image online, for god’s sake include a link to the source data or article in the image. Even if it’s a silly meme.

If you make an unsourced statement, it’s indistinguishable from lies.

If we link our sources, then we can build a web of trust that will keep the lies at bay. At the bottom, theirs will have no substance. Ours will. Yes, I know that it means a few readers might click away from your precious content, but guess what; it’s more important than that now.

Link your goddamn sources, for truth and freedom, and then we can get on with the next stage of the fight.


Provision of Service Attack by James Smith

Running for election really does give you a different view on some things.

Until last year, I was pretty opposed to clicktivism; you know, the 38 Degrees style of campaigning where hundreds of people will send an identical email to their candidates or MPs to tell them where they stand on something.

I’d softened a bit after I chaired a Cleanweb London event on online activism, but generally I subscribed to the more traditional view that fewer well-crafted letters were a better way of doing it.

Denial of service

I’ve heard stories of other candidates who were unable to get anything done other than just emailing back to bulk messages, replying to each email individually!

Now, that may still be the case for most people in politics, but for me it’s utterly changed over the last few weeks.

I love 38 Degrees emails and the like. I love days where a campaign obviously kicks in and I get over 100 emails about TTIP, or something like that.

Many candidates will see this as spam, but not me. Why not? Because I know how to handle it. Because I can use it for what it is.

Provision of service

We’re using NationBuilder to run the campaign; it handles the website (though I hate CMSes and would be happier with Jekyll, but whatever), but most importantly it handles our contact database. All the emails we get to official addresses come into the system and get flagged for followup.

On a 38 Degrees day (as I’ve come to call them), this followup list gets pretty big and the load is unmanageable for a human.

But all the emails are useful. They give me an idea of who cares about what, and more specifically, where they live and their email address.

To build my database of potential voters, this is amazing. Suddenly I have 100 more people who I know care about certain things, whom I can email about events, updates, blog posts, etc. People who want to hear back.

Deploy the robots

So I’ve created a script that helps manage this. It’s open source, so if you want to do the same, you can.

Here’s what it does:

  • Looks at all the open followups in NationBuilder, and for each one:
  • Get the email text that need replying to
  • Work out who the email is to, and reassign it to the right person (for campaigns that aren’t using the right addresses).
  • Look for certain consistent text in the email to identify the campaign, and apply a tag.
  • Find the address, and run it through Open AddressesSorting Office app (which I helped write at work) to turn it into structured data. Note we don’t submit the address into Open Addresses, as even though the existence of an address isn’t personal information, it feels like it is, and I don’t want to annoy anyone.
  • Set the address for the sender back into NationBuilder. This also does auto-assignment to wards, constituencies, etc.

This runs every hour using the Heroku scheduler.

There are a couple of gotchas. The NationBuilder API is great, but one thing it can’t do is get followups and email content. That made it a fair bit harder, and I have to actually drive the website (using Capybara and PhantomJS) and pretend to be a real human user in order to read the emails. It works OK, but it’s brittle and very slow.

Also, reliably extracting the address is hard and varies across campaigns. I’m hoping to improve Sorting Office itself to do this job, so I can just drop the entire email into it and get back the address only.

Back to humanity

So now, instead of a ton of emails, I have a load of tagged contacts in NationBuilder. It’s then easy to build a list of people who want to hear back on a particular subject.

At this point, I make sure I read the email properly, look at the links, and write a blog post in response.

I can then, every few hours, send a bulk email back to the senders with a quick answer, a link to detailed the blog post, details of our party and campaign, and links to things like upcoming events. The open and clickthrough rate is surprisingly good.

So, all in all, once this is up and running, handling a high-impact day of emails takes only a few clicks, and each sender gets a well-thought-out response and ways to engage further.

I have to admit, as well, that I get a certain amount of pleasure from imagining the inbox of my opponents on days like these.

Wishlist

If you’re running these bulk email campaigns, here are a few requests:

  • Update your data regularly. YourNextMP is doing a sterling job of maintaining candidate lists, and contact details. Make sure you’re up to date, and make sure your email gets to the right place.
  • Make sure the address is easily-parsed; well-separated from other text in a predictable way, and not shoved together with phone numbers, names etc. You could integrate Sorting Office into your own applications to help with this, if you want to be proper amazing.
  • Add some sort of unique campaign identifier that people can’t change - it’ll help me tag things. Also, maybe a suggested hashtag?
  • Make sure you include the originating campaign link. I get that you want it to look like it’s only written by the constituent, but honestly, on that you’re not fooling anybody. Often I actually want to share it on as well!
  • If you really want to help people like me, then make all the important metadata machine-readable. I’m talking about a JSON attachment or something, containing a structured address, name, other contact details and the unique campaign ID.

If you’re NationBuilder, please let me fetch emails via the API. You don’t really want me scraping your site, after all, the overhead is huge!

And last of all, if you’re a candidate, then you’d better accept it’s time to tool up. Your voters have new opportunities to engage, and you’d better be ready to handle them. The future’s not slowing down just because you’re not ready.


The Poo Button by James Smith

If you’re visiting from the Wired article and want to show your appreciation somehow, you can make a donation to the Cri du Chat Syndrome Support Group to help families affected by the syndrome that meant I did this thing in the first place. Thanks!

The Poo Button

A little while ago, my colleague Stuart hacked a couple of Amazon Dash buttons to create a behaviour scoreboard for his son - an experiment in Internet of Parenting, if you will.

I thought that was pretty cool, so I popped a Dash button onto my Amazon wishlist, but without a clear idea of what to do with it; just for fun. Then though, my wife asked what it was, and a couple of days later came up with an idea. And this time, my hacking around might actually be useful.

The Challenge

My daughter has Cri du Chat Syndrome, a genetic condition that causes global learning delay and a bunch of other things. One side effect of it is that she has always suffered from chronic constipation; she’s been on medication for it for years, and it’s a constant mission getting her to poop regularly - her bowel muscles just aren’t strong enough, or something.

Anyway, we’ve changed her medication and it’s had some effect, but to be sure we need to track when all her bowel movements happen - this stuff doesn’t have an instant effect.

So, writing it all on paper is a bit useless, when we can do better. And what better than to make a “poo button”. Let’s get a Dash button, stick it on the wall, and use it to log (no pun intended) her logs (OK, pun was intended). I’m not the first to do this of course - one of the first hacks for the Dash was to track nappy changes.

The Button

First thing - set up the Dash button in the normal way using the Amazon app on a phone. When it comes to selecting a product, don’t choose anything, just exit. Then you have a dash button connected to the local network, but that won’t order anything from Amazon.

Intercepting The Presses

Then, we install the node-dash-button library. I’m using a Mac Mini as a home server so it was a matter of installing npm with Homebrew, making sure I had XCode installed, and away we go following the setup in the README. The installation worked better as a global thing rather than just for one user:

npm install -g node-dash-button

We then run sudo /usr/local/lib/node_modules/node-dash-button/bin/findbutton and get something like this:

Watching for arp & udp requests on your local network, please try to press your dash now
Dash buttons should appear as manufactured by 'Amazon Technologies Inc.'
Possible dash hardware address detected: xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx Manufacturer: Microchip Technology Inc. Protocol: arp
Possible dash hardware address detected: xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx Manufacturer: Amazon Technologies Inc. Protocol: udp
Possible dash hardware address detected: xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx Manufacturer: Apple Protocol: arp
Possible dash hardware address detected: xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx Manufacturer: Amazon Technologies Inc. Protocol: arp
Possible dash hardware address detected: xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx Manufacturer: Microchip Technology Inc. Protocol: arp

The Amazon ARP one is the one we want, so we’ll keep the address (just shown as x’s above) for later.

Now we need a bit of code to detect the button press. I’ve shamelessly ripped of the code Stuart created in his post - I won’t repost it here, take a look back at his post for the breakdown.

Storing The Data

To store the data, I could do what Stuart did and use Bothan, but my wife will be happier with a spreadsheet. So, let’s set up one of my favourite tools of the moment, Zapier, to store the data somewhere useful.

I’ve created a Zap with a webhook trigger and a Google spreadsheet output. I really wish Zapier would let me publish zaps publicly so you could see it, but they don’t, so you’ll have to take my word for it that it’s easy.

To test it, we can send a message to the webhook with curl (this project is so pun-rich it’s amazing):

curl -X POST -d '{"when": "2016-01-01T09:00Z"}' https://hooks.zapier.com/hooks/catch/.../.../

Zapier detects the POST, and then sends the when value into my spreadsheet. Easy as pie. Now all we need to do is get the code to send that POST when it detects a button press.

The Code

In the end, the entire code is as simple as:

var dash_button = require('/usr/local/lib/node_modules/node-dash-button');
var request = require('/usr/local/lib/node_modules/request');
var poo_button = 'xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx' // The MAC address for the button goes here
var webhook = 'https://hooks.zapier.com/hooks/catch/xxxxxx/xxxxxx/';

var dash = dash_button([poo_button], null, null, 'all');

dash.on("detected", function (dash_id){
  if (dash_id === poo_button){
    console.log("Parp!");
    requestData = {
      "when": new Date().toISOString()
    };
    request({
      url: webhook,
      method: "POST",
      json: true,
      headers: {
        "content-type": "application/json",
      },
      body: JSON.stringify(requestData)
    });
  }
});

There’s a lot of cleanup to do with that code, like sorting the include paths, package.json file, extracting the secure variables, and so on, and I’ll carry on doing that and post the source on GitHub when it’s OK for public consumption. I know it’s shonky as hell right now, but it works!

I press a button, and the current time is logged in a spreadsheet. Bingo!

Next

So there are a few things that would be good to do next.

  • Somehow enable use of the Bristol Stool Scale to store the type. This is kind of helpful, though not essential. We could have more than one button, or we could somehow detect multiple presses. But I don’t know if it’s necessary.
  • A way of packaging this up so it can be used by non-experts. The Internet of Things is all very well, but too often it’s about $700 juicers, and not about making people’s lives easier. I’d love to know who’s really applying this stuff to making life easier for people with extra needs.
  • The Dash button is really cool, but it’s hard to set up to take control of. An open version that could hook up to an arbitrary URL would be amazing. Maybe that’s something IFTTT should look into - they have a DO button app already; a hardware version would be great.


OSX Security Theatre Part 2 by James Smith

This is part 2 of my security setup. See part 1 for information on password security and encryption topics.

After the 2016 US election, we have an extensive surveillance apparatus in the hands of a man who I definitely don’t trust with it. Given that, it’s time for another security upgrade.

This part focuses on network security hygiene, and the ability to avoid surveillance. As I said in part 1, this isn’t because I’m doing anything illegal, but as I’m politically active, and in declared opposition to many of our current illiberal leaders, it seems only sensible to create a bit of safe space now in case someone decides to make my activities illegal in the future.

First up - time to get a decent Internet Service Provider. The UK is passing law after law allowing logging of connections, mandated filtering of Internet content, and so on. The government is on a path to deciding what you can do online, and being able to check up on you. They will rely on the ISPs to enforce this for them.

However, there is one out there that resists this at every opportunity. Andrews & Arnold is a small ISP designed for technical users, and is explicitly opposed to monitoring and filtering. That page includes a warrant canary for secret monitoring equipment as well, so that’s good.

As a bonus, they PGP sign all their emails, run a support channel on IRC, support the Open Rights Group, and regularly give evidence to MPs about communications policy. Basically, I know they have my back, and they’re now the only people I trust with my uplink.

Browser & web security

HTTP is the normal way to connect to websites; HTTPS is the secure version, and these days there is no reason not to use it. Many sites still don’t send you to an HTTPS version by default, but still allow unencrypted connections. This means your communications can be easily read in transit.

Avoid this by installing HTTPS Everywhere in your browser. It automatically rewrites everything it can to HTTPS, helping you to stay secure.

I’d also recommend Privacy Badger, which is a browser extension that blocks various evil web tracking methods, helping maintain your online privacy. That means it also blocks all the ads that are doing nasty things, leaving only the ones that behave themselves. I like that over blocking all ads, though to be honest web advertising is so sleazy that I basically don’t ever see any - Privacy Badger kills them all.

Which browser though? I use Firefox, personally. It’s open source, free, and well-supported. Chrome (and even the open source version Chromium) sends a bunch of information about you back to Google without telling you, and I’d rather that didn’t happen, so Firefox it is. I also now use Firefox on iOS as well; if you want things like bookmark sharing, you can have them.

One last thing on this - drop Google and change your search provider to DuckDuckGo, a search engine that doesn’t track you. I’ve found the results to be perfectly fine and have been using it well over a year now.

VPN

Next, low-level network security. If I’m sat in a coffee shop, I’m probably on some unencrypted wifi network surrounded by a load of other people. It’s quite simple to read network traffic in that situation, or even provide a honeypot wifi connection that will man-in-the-middle all your network traffic. So, even though we’re as secure as we can be in our browser, let’s be 100% sure and set up a VPN (Virtual Private Network).

A VPN is basically a fully-encrypted “tunnel” from your computer to another one somewhere else. That tunnel can go over unencrypted connections, but nobody will be able to see anything inside it.

I’ve set up a VPN server on a machine in my house, because I want my tunnel to basically allow my communications to be as secure as they are in my home. I’m not worried about anonymity at this point. The VPN will basically route all my network activity through my home, and through my trusted ISP.

So, I’ve got a Mac Mini running OSX El Capitan, with OSX Server (£15), which comes with the ability to run a VPN. Setup is dead simple for this use case. You can pretty much just enable the VPN in the server app, and the defaults will work. I’m using L2TP, which is the best on offer there. OpenVPN is supposed to be a bit better, but the software setup and maintenance looks like a headache I’d rather not have.

You then set up your VPN on your devices. On OSX that’s in the Network preferences window - add a new interface and enter your VPN details. Same on iOS, under General settings.

The main problem is that you need to know where to connect to. Many ISPs don’t provide a static IP, so you end up using Dynamic DNS. Your router may have support for this built in, but mine doesn’t, so I’m using ddclient running on the Mac Mini to automatically update my Cloudflare DNS records. Works like a charm. I’ll probably do a separate post just on that config, because it’s a little involved, but this isn’t the place.

I’ve since found a little OSX menubar app called VPN monitor that for a couple of quid automatically connects to your VPN whenever you connect to a network. You can add safe networks, like home and work, where it won’t bother, but the rest of the time it’ll route your traffic via the VPN automatically. Security by default is always a good thing.

Anonymity

Of course, that only gives me security, not anonymity. All the traffic still flows over my home ISP uplink as if I was in the house. For proper anonymity, we need something more, and that thing is Tor.

Tor works by encrypting your traffic, sending it all over the network through multiple hosts, then having it emerge somewhere else on the network completely unrelated to you. It slows things down a lot, so you wouldn’t use it all the time, but it’s a great option to have available.

I’ve got two Tor options set up. The first is simple - just install Tor Browser. That gives you an anonymised browser session without any further setup. For most people that’s probably fine.

The second is more involved. If I need to cover my tracks with anything that’s not browser based, or I want to hide my machine completely, I can route all my network traffic through a tor proxy running in the background.

Setup isn’t hard. You can install Tor with homebrew (also useful for installing ddclient), and the default installation pretty much sets up the proxy for you.

I then created a new network location in the Network preferences on my laptop, and in the advanced settings for the wifi connection, enabled the SOCKS proxy to localhost port 9050. That means that anything on that network connection should be sent through the proxy first, which will route it through Tor. Then you’ve got two network locations to choose from, which you can switch between in the Apple menu. One-click switch to anonymise all my traffic? Nice.

Now, there are good reasons not to do this if you’re really paranoid. Because your entire network traffic is being routed together, it might be possible to tell who you are from things like background processes checking in with Apple, or similar correlations. It’s not something I would do unless it was really necessary, but it’s nice to have it there ready.

It also still leaks metadata via DNS, because your DNS lookups don’t go via the proxy, but it’s a step in the right direction and should be OK for casual use. If I manage to improve it I’ll update here.

What next?

So I think that’s everything I’ve got set up, security-wise. What should I do next? Suggestions appreciated!


Open is a political statement by James Smith

Also published on Medium and Something New.

Today is a strange day in the UK. We’re divided, confused, and have taken what I think is a self-defeating decision about our place in the world. Our political institutions are in turmoil, and there’s change in the air, though of what sort nobody knows.

In this atmosphere, it’s increasingly obvious that the old politics is broken, and that we need something better for the future. Somewhere where we could have explored the EU question sanely, without the lies, deceit and hate building up and polluting our society.

I think there’s a better way, and it lies in a movement that’s been building with the rise of the Internet and the World Wide Web. Since the dawn of the network revolution, the world is increasingly about sharing, collaboration, and working together. We’re connected peer-to-peer as a species, in a way we haven’t been since we were a single tribe thousands and thousands of years ago. We are building a global mind, and we need to learn how to use it.

This new age for society is about working together and sharing, about being open. We can do amazing things with openness; it gives us the scientific method, open source software that runs the modern world, open exchange of ideas. Openness helps us get better quicker.

I believe that the old political axis of left/right is outdated and irrelevant in the 21st century. Instead we have new axes; open/closed, together/alone, optimistic/fearful, innovative/static.

I think the future is about openness, working together, and being optimistic and innovative. I know there are a great many people I know who feel the same way.

My message to them is this: the things we believe, the future we want, is a political statement.

It is not enough for us to tinker around the edges of an industrial-era system and make a system that is more transparent and accountable, but just as dysfunctional. We need to present our vision of a better open future clearly and loudly, in the arena of public discourse.

This isn’t about Internet freedom, or digital rights, or any of that. It’s about the network-era transformation of society, for a better world for everyone.

I’m working on this by building a startup network-era political party, Something New, here in the UK. There are similar efforts cropping up across the world as well, we’re not alone. If you want to help, please do, we need you. If you want to do it better, please do that too, and we’ll join in. I don’t care who wins, whose name is on the thing; all I know is that it needs to happen, and if we don’t do it ourselves, nobody will.

We all know old institutions have trouble innovating and adapting, and are often outclassed by smaller disruptive companies who can adapt to the new environment they find themselves in. What’s true in startup 101 is also true of our political system. The status quo is ripe for disruption; let’s start working together, in the open, and innovate our country a better future.


Early Warning System by James Smith

I know that I don’t live a healthy lifestyle; I’ve known that for years. But, the consequences have always seemed a long way off.

The other day though, I got a kick up the arse. I went to the doctor about some new depression symptoms, and he did a blood test to check my general health at the same time.

When I called up for the results, the receptionist asked me to schedule another test in six months as I was “glucose intolerant”. This was a surprise to me, and the next day I managed to speak to the doctor for more information.

Basically, I’ve got persistently elevated blood glucose. I’m only just outside the normal range (HbA1c 6.2), which means it’s not type 2 diabetes yet, but I’m heading that way. It puts me in a category of risk much higher than normal; 50% risk of type 2 over the next 10 years, for instance.

Needless to say, I don’t want that to happen.

It was a shock, and made me consider my own mortality for a while, but this is a good thing. I’ve found this out at a point where I can properly do something about it. I know that the consequences are coming if I don’t act.

So, what to do? At this point it’s all lifestyle change, and I already know:

  • I’m vastly overweight
  • I don’t get enough exercise
  • My diet could be better.

Let’s look at those in turn.

Weight

We’ll start with the most obvious. I’m overweight, in fact well into obese. I weigh in the region of 120kg at the moment, with a BMI of 35.4. This is far too much. Apparently to get into a “normal” BMI bracket, I need to lose 35kg, to get down to 85. That’s almost a third of my body weight.

Now, I’m a big chap. I’m 185cm tall, but also I’m pretty broad and have a large ribcage. I know that BMI isn’t a good indicator in these situations, but I’ve not found anything else to give me a target so far. I’m hoping that our local wellbeing scheme can help me work out where I need to get to.

First step to losing this is that a couple of months ago, my wife and I started doing the FAST (or 5:2) diet. I don’t like diet fads, but as this one seems to be based on proper science (and I first heard of it on Horizon), I’m more inclined to have a go. It’s going OK so far, fasting two days a week, and some weight is coming off. We probably need to be stricter though to get the full benefit.

I’m tracking my weight using the Fitbit tools. They’re not great (I’d like a running average), but it does the job of data capture well enough. I really liked True Weight on the iPhone, but it doesn’t really integrate with anything else, which is a pain these days.

I keep considering getting a Fitbit Aria or Withings smart scale to make measurement easier, but putting a number in an app isn’t that hard, so I’ve not done it yet.

Exercise

This is the big one, really. To lose more weight and get my blood sugar down, I need more exercise. I cycle 7 minutes to the station a few times a week, which is better than nothing, but more is necessary.

I keep trying to start the Couch to 5k running scheme, but all the times I’ve done it my schedule has got pre-empted and I’ve never made it out of week 1. I’ve started again though, and this time will do my utmost to make it stick.

I’m using the NHS Choices couch to 5k app, which could be better for music playback, but it’s good at the training prompts, is free, and has no ads.

I’ve started using Strava to log these runs, and will log my station cycling as well, to get a complete picture of my exercise and what I need to add. It’s great that Strava integrates with Fitbit to include the exercise in that system automatically. If I need to double-enter any data, this won’t stick.

The social aspects of Strava are already feeling great. Each time I do a run, my cousin gives me kudos for it (despite my runs being pathetic in comparison to his). It feels like a support network, which is what I need.

Diet

The last aspect is improving my diet. I’d like to track all my calorie intake so I can keep it on track without excessive denial (which will cause failure), but calorie tracking apps are all terrible. How the hell do I know what the calories are in the home-made shepherds pie we had the other night? How do I know how much is one serving of skimmed milk, without measuring everything out with scales and a jug?

There doesn’t seem to be a light-touch calorie counting mechanism that I’ve found yet. This would help with regular diet, but also with tracking the fasting days intake.

Can someone please make something using AI and image recognition to give me a calorie count of a meal if I take a photo of it? That would be fab, thanks.

Genetics

I’ve ben wondering about getting a 23andme kit for years. This news has taken out the last obstacle for me, that of “do I really want to know” for the risk factors.

I now know I have a risk factor for one thing. Knowing more seems only sensible now, if I have to manage that knowledge anyway. I’ll get a kit on order soon after the next payday, I think.

Dashboarding

My plan is to integrate this data into a dashboard that I’ll display in the kitchen at home all the time. Making information visible helps me to manage it, so having a lifestyle dashboard seems sensible.

I’ve not found anything yet that does it yet in a way I like, so I suspect I’ll break out the Fitbit API and starting pulling data into a dashing board or something.

Meditation

I’m also trying to get a hold on stress and tension using meditation. Again, I’ve started these things before but never made them stick. I’m hoping that I can get properly going this time, with a combination of Headspace for regular meditation and Buddhify for more casual hits.

Better tools

I’m also thinking now about better tools; I mentioned the scales already. I have a Fitbit One, which is fine (and better now I’ve got a watch strap for it), but would I find this easier with something more recent? Would it help to get an Apple Watch, for instance? I’m quite interested in measuring my heart rate on a regular basis, for stress management if nothing else.

I want to find a nice open ecosystem for this stuff, but it doesn’t seem to exist. Hopefully I can forge my own using the APIs and my own code.

Schedule

One thing that will cause failure (and always has in the past) is fitting this into my life. Having kids, something always comes along that disrupts something. Even sticking to regular fast days is proving tricky. For that though, I’ve just got to sort it out; I can’t stop this time.

Suggestions

I need help here from anyone who’s been down this path before. There’s so much out there, but recommendations are always helpful. I ideally want an open, interoperating ecosystem of tools and devices to help me manage this lifestyle transition. It has to work easily and integrate with my already busy life in the simplest way possible. Bad UX will cause failure as well.

If you have anything to suggest, add in the comments below. I’m all ears.


OSX Security Theatre by James Smith

I’ve now written a followup post to this one. See part 2 for information on my ISP, Tor, and VPN setup. For password security and encryption, read on.

I’ve always been vaguely dissatisfied with my personal security setup. I’ve been happy it’s pretty secure and safe, but the software hasn’t been great. However, that’s changed recently with a few new releases, so I thought it might be worth sharing my setup with the world. I’m on OSX, so this is specific to that platform, but most things are open source and cross-platform, so there might be something to learn anyway. Also, some of you might tell me how I can improve it even further.

Passwords

Basic security hygiene means having strong unique passwords on every different site, but obviously that’s very difficult. Enter the password manager app, which can generate secure unique passwords and store them in a single place, behind a strong master password.

Obviously make sure the master password is strong; however, it still can be memorable and easy to type. Use Correct Horse Battery Staple to generate a good one. I’d recommend going over the top on this; make it at least 6 words long.

KeePass database

I’ve used the KeePass format for many many years, because the format is an open standard, there are many cross-platform apps, and it can be verified as secure by looking at the design. Also, as it’s a single file that stores all passwords, there’s no cloud storage, and I know that my passwords are not being shared with anyone else. I just don’t trust things like LastPass or 1Password, because giving away your passwords is inherently defeating the point. So, KeePass avoids that by giving me complete control over access to the file.

But, because cloud synchronisation (and backup) is useful, I store the file in Dropbox. It’s encrypted securely on my machine before uploading, so I don’t really care whether Dropbox is secure or not (as far as that file’s concerned anyway). We do the same with a shared password file for work stored in Google Drive.

KeePass clients

For a long time I was using KeePassX, which worked, but didn’t have some of the nice features like browser plugins to auto-fill password forms, so there was lots of copying and pasting, and I tended to let the browser store the passwords as well (again defeating the point of a secure store, especially in Chrome).

However, last week I found MacPass. This is a native OSX client, which works nicely and is under active development. Even better, there is a proposed patch that adds KeePassHTTP support, and someone’s prebuilt the app with that built in; that’s the version I’m using.

KeePassHTTP is a little server in your KeePass app that lets other apps access the database locally, and that means browser integration finally.

UPDATE: KeePassHTTP is now supported directly in MacPass using a plugin, so no patch required. Download the standard install of MacPass, then follow the “Using precompiled version” instructions for MacPassHTTP. Works a treat.

Browser integration

Browser plugins were the thing that made me jealous of LastPass and 1Password users; yeah, they were potentially giving their passwords away, but it was so easy. Now I have MacPass+KeePassHTTP, that’s changed.

I’m using Firefox (because Chrome just gets more evil over time and has been purged from my machine), and I’m using a plugin called PassIFox. That’s really simple to link up to MacPass, and then you can just right-click in forms and tell it to fill in password fields.

I’ve since turned off all the built-in browser password storage and syncing, and am much more pleased with the system than I’ve ever been. I’m not sure if it can generate passwords from within Firefox yet, I’ve not tried it, but I don’t mind generating in MacPass; it’s not exactly hard.

iOS app

What about on my phone? Well, that’s why the database is stored in Dropbox. I use an app called iKeePass which can read the file directly from Dropbox and open it. Then it’s a simple click to copy passwords into the iOS browser app. It’s not massively trivial, but it’s not too hard for the rare times when I need to use it.

UPDATE: I’ve changed to using Keepass Touch instead, which streamlines the process a bit. It still syncs from dropbox, but allows you to unlock the database with Touch ID, which makes everything quicker. It also supports editing the database and creating passwords on iOS, which is great.

Encryption

I’ve also used PGP since around 1998, and I’m really please to see that it’s basically the only encryption system that’s not known or suspected to be compromised by our security agencies. If it’s still good enough for Edward Snowden, it’s good enough for me.

GPG Suite

On OSX, if you want to use PGP, you install GPG Suite. It’s a nice set of tools and integrations which make using PGP reasonably simple (though it’s still not a trivial process to get set up).

Again, pick a good long and memorable passphrase for your PGP key. You’ll be typing this one a lot, so make sure it’s easy to get right. Also make sure it’s different from the KeePass one above! You’ve still only got two to remember :)

Once you’ve generated a key pair (one private, one public) using GPG Suite then you will want to back up the private key somewhere nice and secure. I currently have mine in a Truecrypt volume, which is again backed up in my Dropbox account, though Truecrypt seems to be dead, and not GCHQ-proof any more, so that will change soon.

UPDATE: I’ve binned TrueCrypt as it was seemingly compromised. Instead I just keep my exported keys inside KeePass instead.

Mail integration

For a long while I was using Apple’s built-in Mail app as GPGTools integrated nicely with it. However, recently, I’ve found that Airmail 2 has a PGP plugin, and it works almost perfectly. That means I have a decent mail client with encryption support finally.

Keybase

Of course, if you want to encrypt email, you need other people’s keys. You can share in a number of ways through GPGTools, but one of the easiest is to use Keybase. It’s invite-only (shout on Twitter if you want one, plenty of people have spares, including me), and it’s basically a way of linking your PGP key to your social network accounts, and letting people get hold of your key easily.

The one big thing I’d change about Keybase is that they should just get rid of the ability to generate and store a private key on their site. I know they’re trying to make it easy, but it’s a massive security antipattern and even people who I know have decent technical knowledge have used it; it’s just too temptingly simple.

Instead, generate your key with GPGTools locally, and upload just the public key to Keybase. That has the advantage that you can pop the right email addresses on it as well.

iOS mail encryption

Forget it :)

Seriously, this isn’t a thing. If you’re dealing with encrypted mail, or want to make sure yours is signed, don’t bother trying to do it on a phone.

Miscellanea

I’ve enabled full-disk encryption (FileVault) on my Mac. There’s just no reason not to.

Obviously all remote logins and file transfers are done via SSH as well. My SSH key has a similar master password to the ones above on it to unlock it, and all remote servers I use are set up to only accept login with the right keyfile.

Every website I use that supports it has two-factor authentication turned on. If it supports the Authenticator app then I use that for the second factor, otherwise I fall back to SMS verification, though I consider that insufficient for decent security after my phone was hijacked a few months ago. So, I’m looking at you Twitter; authenticator app support please.

What next?

I’m interested in these FIDO U2F keys; it would be good to have the OSX encryption linked to a hardware token like that, so my machine can only be used with it plugged in. Also that can be used with some two-factor auth systems. This needs to be looked into.

However for something physical that can be lost, I’d want to be sure there was a way of having at least two keys that can unlock things, and obviously it would be hard to use with anything that needs unlocking on iOS.

I also need to work on my network security and privacy. I want to get a VPN routed via my home connection for use while out and about, and some way of easily swapping onto the Tor network that’s got decent usability for when I want to be anonymous (or look like I’m in a different country). I’ll follow up with a further post if I get any of that sorted.

UPDATE: I’ve now written part 2, with information on my ISP, Tor, and VPN setup.

Summary

Security is complex, but the software tools are finally getting good now that it’s not hard.

Everything I use that’s involved in dealing with secure information above is open source, which means I can be more confident that there aren’t hidden backdoors (though of course you can never be 100% sure). There are equivalent apps for every platform, so I hope this sort of setup is something that anyone could use and be reasonably safe.

I’ve mentioned the security services above, but I want to finish by saying that I’m not trying to avoid the law. I’m not doing anything illegal, but we’re now in a world where strong security hygiene is a necessary skill online. Not just because your emails are routinely tracked by our own (and therefore many other) security services, but because the weaknesses they’ve introduced into online security make it easier for everyone to access your communications. By irresponsibly weakening our security standards and introducing backdoors into common security-related code, you have to assume that everything is visible to everyone.

That means compartmentalising your security with unique passwords, and using strong non-compromised encryption wherever possible.

Remember, it’s not paranoia if they’re really watching you.


The Trials of Forming a Party by James Smith

Fair warning; this is probably going to be another very long post. It’s all about the long and complex story of our party registration for Something New. I’ve not really told this story before; when I finally could, it was too close to the election to relate, but now there is time.

TL;DR: Something New formed in September 2014, the Electoral Commission objected, and we only got finally registered on 6th March, 8 weeks before the election, only 3 weeks before nominations opened, and after a lot of stress. Want to know why? Read on…

Do we need a party?

In late June 2014, I announced that I’d be standing for election in the 2015 general election, using the OpenPolitics Manifesto as my platform. It was an experiment in seeing how accessible democratic participation was, and in taking an Open Source approach to politics.

I initially announced as an Independent, but I was never really happy with that. We’d had a few discussions within the manifesto project about forming a party, about what we could be called, and so on, but nothing serious had surfaced. However, I firmly believed (and still do) that in our current system, you have to have a party to build a serious movement. If I stood as an Independent, there wouldn’t be anything to build on afterwards.

As for joining other parties, that’s an option, and something that people should do more, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. The entire approach of the open source manifesto was important, and joining any existing party would have meant dropping that. This was a truly new way of doing things, and it deserved its own identity.

Something New?

Over the next few weeks, I had a lot of coffee with a lot of people, and eventually met up with a guy called Alex Hilton for a beer one evening, after being put in touch by a colleague. Alex was a long-time political animal, but was disillusioned with the current state of affairs. I went along, expecting an interesting chat and an hour of political advice, perhaps.

As it turned out, we got on pretty well, and agreed on a lot of things, including the need for new choices in our electoral system.

Halfway through the evening, Alex said that he thought British politics needed a new fresh brand, without the baggage of the past. And he said he had it. He said it was something new.

I waited for him to say what it was.

Something New

“No, that’s it. Something New”

I went through the initial stages that many people do when they hear the name. “That’s daft, you can’t… wait, that’s not bad… no, that’s awesome”. It worked on so many levels, and before too long it was clear that it was a brand that reflected what we were actually working for.

We decided to form the party soon after that, based around a core set of values, and using the manifesto for the details.

Registering the Party

So, we started the paperwork. A political party is a bit like a company, in that you need at least three named positions, but two of them can be held by the same person. However, I roped in Paul, my brother in law, and we got started. Alex was Treasurer, I was Party Leader, and Paul was Nominating Officer. All three of those are required by the commission. No anarchist collectives here.

After doing a simple constitution and financial scheme (basically how we would handle the money), we paid the £150 registration and sent in the forms. Easy!

As it turned out, Something New had been registered before, by Alex. He’d never done much with it though, and had let the registration lapse by not filling in the returns a few months earlier. This may have worked against us later, though we’ll never really know.

First Refusal

Stop

On the 27th October, we got a really annoying email from the Electoral Commission.

I am writing to let you know that the Commission has considered your application and is unable to register your proposed party name.

Er, this was registered before. What gives?

Under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA), when considering an application to register a political party, we must ensure that the proposed name is not the same as, or would not be likely to result in electors confusing it with another registered party. Upon consideration of your application, we have reached the view that the proposed name is confusingly similar to an existing party description registered by the Democratic Republican Party ‘For a new beginning’, such that a voter would be likely to be confused between the parties if the proposed party name were approved for registration.

Wait, what? “For a new beginning”? Really?

Naming Conflicts

It turns out that under PPERA, the commission does have to check new registrations against others to avoid confusion. This comes from instances where someone registered the “Literal Democrats”, and the more recent example of “An Independence from Europe” in the 2014 EU elections. It seemed the Commission were getting a lot more careful.

Still, ours seemed pretty different. “Something New” vs “For a new beginning”. And the second one was a description, not a name! (It wasn’t until a lot later that I realised that only name or description is shown on the ballot, so the DRP could stand with just “For a new beginning” on the ballot paper.)

There was also the fact that the last time Something New had been registered, the DRP had already been registered and had the same description. The same process a year previously had gone exactly the opposite way. Something had obviously changed.

Appeal

OK, well, let’s just talk to them. Let’s work out how to appeal the decision. Turns out this was really hard.

We had a look at the EC complaints page, which said:

Complaints about decisions made as part of our statutory enforcement work, or other statutory regulatory decisions taken by the Commission (for example registration of party names, descriptions and emblems) are dealt with under our regulatory policies and enforcement policy and/or case management procedures. Depending on the nature of the matter case there may be further rights of challenge by way of statutory appeals or judicial review.

Talking to the Electoral Commission, we were told:

You can complain about a decision on your application to register the party if you believe we have not adhered to proper processes in making the decision on your application. Your concerns will be independently investigated under the Commission’s complaints procedure. The information about how to lodge a complaint is contained in our guidance. As the guidance states, the complaints procedure will look at the process that led to the decision and not the decision itself. Appeals against the outcome of the decision will not be considered. You may have rights of challenge by way of judicial review to pursue this.

So we can appeal the procedure but not the decision? We can’t just talk to someone? Judicial review involves taking them to court, that’s ludicrous! There must be a better way!

But no. No luck in all our attempts to discuss with them.

Because the only thing we could do was appeal the procedure, we started trying to find out what the procedure was via FOI. I could tell already, this problem was going to be a massive waste of time and energy, but the name was too good to let go.

At this point, we were also trying to get in touch with the Democratic Republican Party to see if they themselves objected to the name, and if they’d help us out with the EC. No luck yet though.

Pre-action letter

Bob Loblaw

Nothing was helping, so in early November we took the first step towards judicial review. We knew that we couldn’t actually take them to court, but the first step was to write a pre-action letter outlining our case and intention. If that didn’t work, then we’d have to drop it.

We opened the letter with a request for a simpler process, and that we didn’t want to do it this way, but it was the only way open to us. We were trying to keep them onside as much as we could, and not annoy them. After all, they held the power.

The letter outlined that eleven different parties use the word “New”, the only shared word causing the objection; many more share other words. The only other shared part was the suffix ‘-ing’, used by 107 parties. Also, we pointed out that we were being stopped due to a conflict with another micro-party, and confusion was very unlikely.

The whole thing felt pretty stupid to write. A four page letter about basics of the English language. Still, we had to, so we did.

Talking to the DRP

About a week after this, in mid November, the Democratic Republican Party got in touch in response to our emails. While I was in a pub being filmed with the Whigs and Populace for a Daily Politics report, Alex was having a Skype conversation in the corner with Peter Kellow, party leader of the DRP.

Turns out Peter had a pretty low opinion of the EC, but agreed with us on a lot of things politically, so was willing to help. Unfortunately he wanted to wait and see, and make something of it if the EC didn’t make the decision we wanted. He was looking for a fight. We, however, were looking to move on.

Anyway, after a couple more conversations, he agreed to remove the description from their party registration, and tell the EC he didn’t agree with the exclusion. Looked like we were sorted!

Headdesk

Another week after, we got a response from the Commission’s lawyer. It was very long and detailed, but consisted basically of a very long “we get to decide and we disagree with you”, finishing with something along the lines of “you could have just talked to us instead of threatening court”.

AAARGH.

As we wrote back:

I would like to contest that I did raise my concerns in detail with your colleague, and I was told that judicial review was my only recourse as I have no reason to believe you have made an error of procedure. I was not made aware of any informal process for raising this with you.

What a mess.

However, by now DRP had agreed to remove the strapline, so we asked the Electoral Commission to look at it again based on that new situation.

Some FOI fun

We’d started looking into the law, and into PPERA itself. The act says, in section 28.4.a.ii:

Where a party sends an application to the Commission … , the Commission shall grant the application unless in their opinion the party proposes a registered name which would be likely to result in electors confusing that party with a party which is already registered in respect of the relevant part of the United Kingdom.

What does “be likely” mean in the eyes of the law? It seems completely undefined. So, let’s find out what the EC’s internal guidance on this is. They must have a policy that defines what’s “likely”.

Using WhatDoTheyKnow, I wrote a Freedom of Information request, asking for the guidance, and whether it had changed recently. I eventually got a response; the internal guidance is here, and really is just as vague:

31.4 It is necessary for the purposes of section 28(4)(a)(ii) that the elector’s confusion with another party is ‘likely’ and as such it will not be sufficient if confusion is a mere possibility.

Nothing in there more specific at all, and no change. So the written guidance was the same as in 2013 when the party name was accepted, and yet this time it was refused.

How can you appeal against the procedure when the procedure is basically “whatever we reckon”? Utterly useless, but a dead end it seemed. All down to human judgement.

Incidentally, at this point, we’re almost into campaign season proper, and we can’t open a bank account, can’t fundraise, etc. This is getting annoying. We’re getting worried, and start thinking about new names just in case.

Christmas Present

Eyebrows

On Christmas Eve, another month later, I got an email from the EC saying that until the DRP remove the description, our application cannot proceed.

I thought they’d done that. Turns out they’d told the EC they wanted to, but not done all the paperwork

After the Christmas break, I wrote a very nice email to Peter asking him to follow through and basically set us free. This is getting really tight now, and we’re worrying a lot.

Text Comparison

Peter agreed to sort that out, helpfully, and also during our conversation shared a list he obtained under FOI about other rejections that had happened over the previous few months; they were having their own issues with the EC at the time, amid concerns that the Commission might make them change their name.

Anyway, this unleashed the data nerd in me; I had a list of all the rejections, and the text which they were rejected for. Now I could find out what the commission considered “likely” to confuse.

Hackerman

I put all the names in a CSV file and wrote a bit of code to run them through some text similarity algorithms. I started with the Levenshtein distance, though that’s not great for different-length phrases, so moved to the Ruby similar_text gem.

The results are in a CSV on GitHub, and it was pretty clear straight away that we were an outlier. Every other rejection had a similarity score of over 50%, most over 60%. We were at 31% similar.

It didn’t really matter at this point, but it was interesting to see, and have some hard evidence to back up our view that the rejection was unjustified. I ran the same algorithm against the full list of parties for a laugh, and needless to say there were plenty that were more similar than ours that weren’t having trouble.

Should the Electoral Commission have an internal similarity test based on a particular algorithm? I think perhaps they should, otherwise the whole system seems very arbitrary. At least as a mathematical check, if not for the final decision.

Breakthrough

In mid-January, we get confirmation from the Electoral Commission that the DRP description has been removed, and that we’re back in the queue for review.

I start to feel hopeful. I don’t believe that the EC are being awkward on purpose, and now that the blocker is cleared, we should be good to go. I just have to hope that’s true.

Others are less sure, and the conversations about whether we need to get a new name rumble on.

The Long Wait

My confidence starts to fade over the next 6 weeks as we wait to hear; I keep calling, keep offering help and information, but we’re just in the queue for review and need to wait.

I can’t find out how long this will take, at all. In late February, only a month away from nomination time, I’m getting really nervous. This might all be too late. I might have to be an Independent after all.

The Electoral Commission are SLOW.

Then, at the end of February, I finally get an email saying that we should be reviewed on Thursday. The committee apparently meet once a week(!) to review cases, and we should be up this week. As far as I can tell we’ve literally just been sitting in a pile for a month and a half.

I call back on the Monday after. Nope. Probably this week instead.

Success!

Yes!

It seems like I called a thousand times, though I think it was only another week’s delay before, finally, we got it!

I am pleased to inform you that we have approved your application to register Something New and the party is now on the Great Britain register of political parties.

They objected to a couple of our descriptions, and had left them off, but who cares! We’re in!

We were registered as PP2486, just two and a bit weeks before nominations for the election opened. After 6 months of the process, that was far too close for comfort.

What a pain

This was probably the biggest hurdle we had to get over in the whole election process. It wasted a lot of time, energy, and caused a lot of stress that was (in my view) completely unnecessary. Everything else went smoothly.

I don’t believe, unlike some, that the Commission were being obstructive intentionally. I do think though that their combination of vague internal guidance, unhelpful appeal procedures, inconsistent account management, and an extremely slow bureaucracy can make it look that way, sometimes.


What did we spend? by James Smith

So, the spending returns are done, and officially, we raised £1620 in Horsham, but only spent £1195, leaving me with a profit of over £400! That is obvious bullshit, as you can see from our open accounts, so this post is all about what we actually spent over the last year. Also, I’ll look at what was useful, and what wasn’t.

Horsham Spending

When Total
Pre-campaign £244.06
Long campaign £603.72
Short campaign £1189.43
Everything £2037.21

The main difference here from the return is that the return doesn’t include:

  • Spending before 19th December 2014 (listed above as pre-campaign)
  • Election deposit of £500 (during the long campaign)
  • Crowdfunder fees of £97.20 (during the short campaign)

So, we actually spend nearly double what was officially counted on the Horsham campaign itself.

South West Surrey Spending

When Total
Long campaign £500
Short campaign £1087.73
Total £1587.73

We didn’t spend as much in the early days in South West Surrey, so it was all in the short campaign. Again though, the official return didn’t include deposit or crowdfunding fees. Here, we raised £750 against that spend from crowdfunding.

National spending

When Total
Sep 2014 to May 2015 £548.96 (roughly)

As well as spending on the local campaigns, there was some money spent on national-level stuff. This includes the party registration fee (£150), domain names, etc, but mostly is went on our NationBuilder subscription, which runs the website and manages our voter database. For a while we had multiple subdomains running for each local area, which bumped up the price a bit unnecessarily.

This stuff gets reported separately, sometime in the next month or so.

Everything

So, all in all, for the party bootstrapping and 2015 election campaign across two constituencies:

What Total
Raised £2370.00
Spent £4173.90

So, we’re a bit out of pocket, but a lot less than we would have been without our generous donors!

Just for fun; we got 695 votes, so we spent just over £6 per vote. Probably not massively efficient, but we were learning :)

Where did it go?

So most of the money went on the essentials; leaflets, deposits, fundraising fees. However, in Horsham there is about £400 that went elsewhere, which I probably could have used better.

Facebook ads

Over the year, I dropped £73.93 on Facebook advertising, and I’m pretty sure that was basically like throwing it into a black hole. The first campaign, 20 quid or so to get some likes on the page when we started out, seemed fairly successful, but after that, it really wasn’t. I would advertise the meetups we were holding (more on that in a minute), and near the end was trying to push 30-second pitch videos etc.

Without exception, the engagement rate on those ads was really really low. Each time I decided it wasn’t worth it, then a month later would get suckered in again, thinking that perhaps this time the content would work better.

Social media advertising is a black art, and Facebook make you spend a lot of money to reach anyone these days. Organic reach is dead unless you’re very lucky, and unless you have a massive budget, Facebook’s not going to help.

I’ll probably fall for it again though; please remind me of this when I do.

Face to face meetups

Through the campaign, I really wanted to be visible to voters, to be somewhere accessible to them. I ran meetups around the constituency, every week for about 6 months.

Admission time; that was a real slog, because a lot of the time they were empty. Sometimes I’d have one or two people come along, and the conversations we had were great and useful, but in general this wasn’t an effective use of time or money.

I started by booking meeting rooms in local halls, etc, but then changed to mostly meeting in pubs once it became clear that was just throwing money down the drain. All in all, £282.70 went on hiring meeting rooms, which was in all honesty probably just wasted.

I think there were two main problems here. First, telling people about them was hard; I could have done better with newspaper ads, local newsletters, etc, but that would have cost more, and I don’t know it would have worked anyway. Facebook advertising, even when specifically targeted, didn’t help either.

That comes down to the second reason, which is that perhaps people don’t really want to engage in that way. Who wants to go to the pub and talk to a politician? Really? I wish they did; I wish we had the town-hall meetings that we used to have, and that still seem to happen in the US, but it’s not where we are now. It will take time to rebuild that type of engagement.

Still, I’m glad I tried. I’m glad I can look back and say that I was available to people (even if they didn’t know it or want it).

Thankyou

So, there you go - that’s where your (and a decent chunk of my) money went! The crowdfunding money paid for the important bits; the leaflets, the deposits, etc. The rest was out of my own pocket, so I don’t feel too guilty that some of it wasn’t very effective.

There are definitely lessons to learn for next time; the main one is to get some social media expertise involved, because although I basically live online, using it effectively to get a message out is a completely different thing!

Thanks to everyone who supported us with their donations; it wouldn’t have been possible without you. We love you all :)


Election Returns by James Smith

I’ve put it off for too long, and so for the last couple of evenings I’ve been completing the election spending and donation returns for the Horsham campaign. I was warned that this was an awkward process, but it’s been basically fine (though we’ve not had to do any of the complex stuff).

The Electoral Commission, as always, provide a whole load of documentation and help with filling in the data, which you can download from their website (see the resources in Part 3).

The return has to be in within 35 days of the election, so we have around another 10 days to finish it.

Short and long

There are two returns to fill in; one for the long campaign (19th December to 29th March) and one for the short campaign (30th March to 7th May). You need to account for spending and donations during these periods separately.

Worksheets

The commission provide two versions of the returns; PDF and Excel. I decided to fill it all out using Excel (well, LibreOffice), which would have been much quicker if they’d actually included formulae in the template sheets. As it was, I spent half the time putting in all the SUMs, cross-references, and so on that meant that it all added up correctly.

And of course, I had to do it twice, once for long and once for short, because there are two different sheets, even though they are basically identical except for the title.

Suggestions for the EC:

  • Make one sheet and have an option for short and long campaign. Less for you to maintain.
  • Include the formulae so that using the sheet is harder to get wrong.
  • Make a nice simple webapp for the form instead. Probably not high up the list, but it’s a really easy problem; you could have one in a couple of weeks of developer work.

The data

We’ve been keeping our books openly all along, so we had everything we needed all ready to go. We have even been assigning things to the return spending categories as we go so as to be ready to fill this in.

It’s hosted on github in CSV files, and uses Jekyll to render the HTML views of each file. I started working on a Jekyll view to generate the actual return content as well, though there was so little to fill in that in the end I did it manually. I’d like to come back to that though, and make it so that our open data finances can automatically create the return numbers, not least so we can publish them ourselves.

I won’t publish the filled-in return we send in, as it includes donor addresses, which I would consider personal information. We already publish names, but I don’t think I should publish addresses for large donors, not without more thought anyway. Also, the commission will report the summary anyway, and you can see all the detail for yourself already.

Points of Interest

There are a few little points I learned along the way that are worth nothing down:

Verifying donors

You have to verify that all donors over £50 (not £50 and over) are registered voters. This, for me, involved calling up their local council’s election office and just asking. Given the name and address, they will just tell you if that’s right.

I suppose that’s fine, though it seemed a bit… easy. I didn’t have to prove anything about who I was, do anything in writing, or whatever. I guess it would be hard to abuse though; someone would notice if you were attempting to find someone by calling up 50 times with different addresses. Still, seems… leaky.

Overseas donors

Our largest donor (thanks Phil!) is overseas, though is still a registered voter here, so can legally donate. The form has a space for the donor’s address, which I suppose means they can double check the donors with the councils. However, his is abroad, so wouldn’t identify the council. In the end, I just wrote in the space after his address “Overseas voter, registered with Brighton council”. Hopefully that will work.

Small donations

The way the form is laid out, you only have to declare details of large donations over £50, but there is a box for “total donations” as well. If you’re filling it in with a formula, then you need somewhere to add in the small donation total, which isn’t there otherwise. I just added another row in the declared donations tab marked <=£50, with the total. Obviously all those are shown in our open finances as well, split out properly.

Sidenote: I want to see UKIP do that, and prove just how much of their finance comes from small donors, as they love to say, and how much comes from the owner of the Daily Express.

Crowdfunding

As we were crowdfunding during both the long and short campaigns, I’ve split the funds raised across the two returns based on when people pledged, rather than when the money was taken (which would all be in the short campaign). That’s based on the fact that you report spending based on when an invoiced spend was used, instead of just the date on the invoice. Seems like the right thing to do.

Fees

I had to call up the commission to ask about crowdfunding fees. Around £95 of the £1620 we raised ended up going to Crowdfunder.co.uk (quite rightly), but it was unclear how this should be counted, and where.

The Electoral Commission are still getting to grips with crowdfunding, even though a huge number of candidates did it this time. They had to go off and check the answer to the question, and still didn’t actually completely answer it.

The answer (so far) is that the donations should be listed as donated, not with the fee removed. So, if you gave 100 quid to Crowdfunder for the campaign, it’s declared as £100, not £95. If you paid with PayPal, you also paid their small fee on top, though it was itemised separately. As it wasn’t reported to you as being part of your donation, I’m not considering it part of the donation.

The fee will be listed somewhere, though they’ve yet to get back to me on that. I’m guessing (and will update here when I know) that it will go in as an administration expense under section F.

UPDATE: The commission got back to me, and said that the fees shouldn’t be included in the spending return at all. That means it’s in the donation figure but not the spending, and so it looks like I’ve stashed some of the money away! Ah well.

I’m surprised the Commission are still so unprepared for this; wasn’t it obvious that it would be a thing this time? Why isn’t it explicitly mentioned in the guidance?

Deposit

One last note. You don’t declare the deposit as spending, and in fact you don’t have to declare money raised to cover the deposit as a campaign donation. We didn’t split it out that way, so I’m just declaring the lot. That’s why it might look like we raised more than we spent; I assure you that wasn’t the case!

Party spending

We also have to declare any spending done by the party as a whole. This will include things like NationBuilder and Soundcloud fees, which were non-constituency specific. We have 3 months to fill in that return though, so I’ll come back to that another time.

Summary

All in all, pretty simple, though a little time-consuming. We didn’t have to deal with unpaid invoices, rejected donations, or anything complex, so I guess that made it easier.

So, this has been about the form-filling really (always a good topic for a blog post). I’ll follow up soon with a post that actually goes into the spending data, and talk about what we spent, why, and whether it was worth it!


What's Next For Something New? by James Smith

Context for new readers: I formed a party called Something New and stood in the 2015 general election in Horsham. We're a party based on open source principles, and do all our policymaking openly online through the OpenPolitics Manifesto.

The general election is over, and I have to say I really enjoyed the experience. It was hard work, but it felt so good to be putting across something positive rather than just complaining about the various options. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a campaign indulge in such negativity and fearmongering as this one did, so it was a real pleasure to be able to rise above it!

The results

Our full results are on the Something New site, but in the General Election, we got 375 votes in Horsham, and 320 in South West Surrey. That’s 0.66% and 0.56% respectively.

That may not sound like a lot, but when compared to other small parties and independents, we did great! We’ve tallied a list of other candidates standing on future-democracy type platforms, and both our results come right up near the top. Doing that in our first election, in very (small c and big C) conservative areas, is something to be proud of.

I think that shows that we have something here worth building on, and so I’d like to answer the one question that everyone asks:

What’s next?

We’re starting to think about the 2016 round of elections, and we have a by-election in Stepney Green in a few weeks, but as leader, I’m thinking mostly about how the party evolves.

The party exists because in the current political climate, names are important, and a strong name and brand can help cement your values in the minds of voters. I was originally going to stand as an independent, but always wanted it to be a party, because that means we can build something up into a movement. I love independent candidates; I wish every MP was an independent, but I don’t think our system is ready to accept that yet. I think we have to work within the system to change it. Ideally I’d like parties not to exist either, which I think makes Something New the only party that wants to deprecate itself.

The same goes for small parties. The job of changing the country is huge, much too big for any of us alone. We have to work together.

After the industrial revolution, the labour movement came together to find its political voice, which has dominated British politics ever since. The network revolution will be the same. Our generation, which is more interconnected than humanity has ever been, will find its political movement. People are calling for it all over the place. The politics of the network is rising.

Let’s work together

Now I’m talking directly to the Pirate Party, the Internet Democrats, Rebooting Democracy, Digital Democracy, the Whig Party, MyMP, Populace Party, Vox Pop, Democratic Reform, a whole load of Independents, and everyone else interested in this movement.

My message for you is simple.

Let’s join together to build a single movement, a broad 21st century progressive political party with the network at its heart, that can push for a better future. Let’s merge our communities to build something big enough to change the UK for the better.

Let me be clear; I don’t care what that party is called (as long as it resonates with voters). I don’t care who is in charge. This is not a power grab. It’s an honest attempt to build something that can have an impact.

We can talk about names, logos, technology, all that, later. But if we agree on our values and what we want to build, let’s join together and get to work.

What about Something New?

That said, I do have something to humbly add.

I believe that Something New’s results show that the message we have put across is worth pursuing..

We tested our message and brand in a very non-progressive area, with almost no money, minimal help, and no major media exposure, and it worked. We got better results than almost all of our allied candidates and friends. I don’t say this to boast, or try to score points. I say this because I think it might help.

We set out on this path to test if the message would resonate. I think we passed that test.

So, as a starting point, I would like to invite all those parties to merge with us. Again, not so that I can be in charge, or through arrogance, but because someone has to convene this, and I think we are in a good position to do so. As I said, we can talk about names, logos, identity, whatever. I’m open-minded on it, and we know we can’t be “Something New” forever.

Single-issue parties won’t change anything. Small fragmented parties won’t change anything. The old 20th century parties won’t change anything. But together, we just might be able to build a new choice for a society that is demanding change.


The Count by James Smith

00:05

So, this is it. I’m writing this from the coffee shop at the Horsham count, at about midnight. This is my first count, so I’ll try to explain what it’s all about. Obviously I can’t disclose information during the count, so this will be published in the morning once it’s all over.

We’re in a sports hall at Christ’s Hospital School (which fortunately has public gym membership, therefore a decent coffee shop). The room is laid out with a bunch of tables, laid out in a sort of snake. The counters are all one one side, and the candidates and agents are all on the other. They count, and we can watch everything that’s happening from the other side of the tables.

It’s a bit odd just staring at what people are doing like they’re zoo animals, but I guess it goes with the territory. We’re all looking at the ballots anyway. I can’t help feeling that I should help out though!

Whenever a polling station box arrives, it’s dumped out and bundled up into batches of 25 papers. There’s no counting per candidate at this stage, but the agents are watching and keeping their own tallies, trying to get a bit of intelligence before the candidate counting starts in a couple of hours. At this point they’re just checking that there aren’t more votes than voters in each area. I guess also it’ll tell us turnout reasonably early on, though I don’t think we will be told.

As it stands, I’ve seen a few votes for me go by, which is nice. I’ve got no idea how that translates into a percentage, though the agents who are keeping tallies might do. There are lots of agents with clipboards keeping counts, but I’m just wandering around like the aforementioned zoo visitor, gawping.

For now though, it’s quiet and efficient.

02:00

Still going on the preliminary count, but it’s drawing to a close. The counters have checked and bundled the parliamentary votes, and also the local council votes to make sure there aren’t any missed ballots that went into the wrong box. Those will be counted in detail tomorrow.

So we should be seeing the proper count of the parliamentary ballots soon, I think. From looking at the ballots I’ve seen, I’ve certainly got some votes, and I’m probably not last, but I’ve still got no idea whether I’ll hit my own preferred outcome…

There are a lot of party activists hanging around; there are herds of kippers roaming the hall looking grumpy, which makes me happy at least.

Interestingly, the way the ballots are counted, I’m pretty sure that we could get results by ward, and probably by polling station even, which would be really interesting. However, those internal counts aren’t reported publicly. How can we make that happen, I wonder?

03:30

Yeah, the verification step is going on a long time. The 04:30 estimate for the declaration is out of the window. We’ve had three elections (parish, district and parliamentary) in some places, and verifying all of those to make sure there aren’t any votes in the wrong place has taken a long time. We’re just wrapping up the last few outlying wards, and then the next stage will start.

The baskets are out on some of the counting tables for the candidates. The ballots will be separated into the baskets first, then counted. Spoilt or doubtful ballots are separated for inspection as well at this point.

I’m desperate to take a picture of my (empty) ballot basket, but phones are banned in here, and I’m going to play by the rules. Not long though, and we’ll start to get a decent picture of the result and how I’m faring against the other small party candidates.

I’m heading up to the coffee shop to watch the rest of the country’s results coming in every now and again. In general it looks pretty bad for progressives, which is disappointing. There are plenty of morose Lib Dems wandering around here, certainly…

03:45

And we’re off! The ballots are being sorted into candidates. Interestingly, each table has a slightly different method, so in some places you can tell what’s going on, and some you can’t. I can tell straight away though that my target outcome of 5th place is probably not going to happen; the Greens have a good deal stronger showing, by the look of it. Still hoping for 6th though. This is probably going to take a couple of hours yet…

04:00

The coffee shop has closed. FML.

05:30

The basketing and bundling is pretty much done now. We’ve just been round each table and reviewed the doubtful ballots. Lots of “none of the aboves”; we should definitely be counting those properly. Currently they get bunged in with the unmarked and unclear ones, which is a pity. Ideally there should be a box on the form.

Also quite a few voting multiple times, normally with the same number of votes as for the district elections which people did at the same time.

Corrections tend to get accepted and counted for the corrected candidate, BUT in a couple of cases the voter signed their name next to the correction, like you might do with a cheque. Unfortunately that makes it invalid, as the voter can be identified. Even more unfortunately, one of those was mine :(

We’re very nearly there now. The bundles will be tallied up, and we should have an announcement soon, I think. I won’t beat the Green Party, as was my ideal goal, so it’ll be a scrap for the bottom three places. Too soon to tell where we end up. I’m certainly in triple figures rather than quadruple.

07:00

And we’re declared, finally. The candidates and agents get a preview of the final numbers before the announcement, and that’s it. They didn’t get us on stage and do speeches for anyone except the winner (a resounding Conservative victory, obviously). I guess Horsham is too obvious a result to bother with TV coverage.

Anyway, our result. I got 375 votes (0.7%), putting me in sixth place out of eight. Paul also got 320 (0.6%) in South West Surrey. While those might not seem like big numbers, they are probably enough to work with in the next phase of Something New, and to use in whatever comes next. I’ll talk a bit more about what that plan is once I’ve had a sleep.

For now though: thanks to everyone who supported us, with your encouragement, votes, fundraising, and belief. This is only the beginning; a better democracy is coming, and nothing can stop it. It’s just a matter of when.


The Loneliness Of The Long Distance PPC by James Smith

I’ve not been very good at keeping up with the regular blog posts about my election campaign. Partly that’s because there’s not so much learning going on at this point, but partly for other reasons, which this post may go some way to explaining.

I apologise in advance if this feels like a whinge; it’s not supposed to be.

This time, I’m not writing about how to stand, or why you should, but about what the process feels like from the inside. You might expect it to feel good, like you’re making a difference, but in reality (as with most things) it’s tough, relentless, and rather isolating.

The neverending todo list

First off, there’s the sheer amount there is to get done. At the moment I’m in a phase where there are always 20 rather urgent and important things that I really should get done. The unfortunate thing is that even when you do one, the other 19 are still there and the mountain of work is still just as crushing. It’s all I can do to firefight my way through.

As an example, I’ve only just got the full list of upcoming weekly events up on Facebook, Meetup, and our website. So far I’ve been terrible at promoting them because it’s always ended up a last minute thing. This means, of course, that not many people know about them, defeating the object. Hopefully now the list is up, we can get more people along, but still - this has been going on for months.

Finding focus is almost impossible

Because the todo list is so large, I find it really hard to focus on getting one thing done. Always part of your brain is being distracted by the other urgent things, and the dependency graph can end up looking like a spider web in your mind.

Of course, having a job makes it even worse. During the day, when I’m awake and alert, I’m not supposed to be campaigning. However, that’s of course when everything happens, so it’s hard not to. Campaign time comes at the end of the day, after the kids are in bed, dinner is done, and I’m knackered. Even harder to focus at that point.

I’m very jealous of the army of pensioners I see parading UKIP banners around the town centre. Must be easier if you have more time.

Putting off jobs makes them bigger

Because progress is slow, and most jobs are hanging over you so long, they seem huge and insurmountable a lot of the time. Hence not many blog posts. Even though it only takes a few minutes once you start, it seems harder beforehand, and when you’re struggling to focus… forget it.

Getting help is really hard

Everyone I’ve spoken to has been really positive about what we’re doing, with the exception of the two UKIP chaps who came along to one of my meetups. However, because people are busy, translating that into active support and help is really hard.

We have had some volunteers get in touch through the website, and we’ve brought them in to our Slack channel. They’ve done some great stuff, and I appreciate everything they’ve done, I really do. But still we’ve not gained enough momentum for things to happen by themselves. Everything still feels like it routes through me, which is very draining.

I guess it’s that for everyone else so far, this isn’t the single defining feature of their year. It feels like that’s just me, and that’s where the isolation really sets in.

What I really need, I think, is to find a campaign manager. Someone else local who believes in what we’re trying to do, and will take on the project management job of keeping everything moving. That would let me spend my time on essential candidate things like having opinions, talking to people, and spreading the message. If, by any chance, that’s you, please do get in touch!

Keep on grinding

This may all sound rather whiny, but I really don’t mean it that way. Instead, it’s half venting frustrations, and half being open about what this process is like.

I still strongly believe in what I’m doing, and that it’s the right thing to do. Even though I’ll almost certainly lose. Even though seeing more than 3 people at a meetup is a miracle (so far).

I’m doing it because still nobody else is offering what I want to see, and because I believe there is a new democratic movement forming that will bring us a better future.

That’s got to be worth the grind. Nothing comes for free, after all.

If you want to get involved, please fill in the volunteer form here, and thanks!


A List of My Non-Dilbert Books by Scott Adams (Dilbert)

People have been asking me for a list of my non-Dilbert books. 


Snapchat’s Future by Scott Adams (Dilbert)

Note: This is not investment advice. Never take investment advice from cartoonists. 

I have been following the story of Snapchat’s upcoming IPO. Experts say it will be one of the biggest IPOs of all time. But it also might be one of the biggest scams you will ever see in the investment world.

The first thing you need to know is that Instagram recently added a feature called “Stories” that is essentially Snapchat’s entire service in the form of one feature on Instagram. Snapchat’s biggest competitor is eating Snapchat’s lunch as we speak. Snapchat reports slowing growth.

Secondly, I have seen a pair of Snapchat’s new eye-glasses product and it kept me interested for nearly five seconds. I put the odds of success for that product at zero.

If  you read the linked article from above, you can see that the value of the IPO depends on Snapchat inventing new products in the future. And those new products in the future would have to be worth more than what Snapchat has done so far. To me, investing in the Snapchat IPO looks like seed-funding a startup that doesn’t yet have an idea what it wants to do. That’s the sort of thing that experienced investors simply don’t do.

But an IPO is not limited to experienced investors. The ignorant public will have a chance to put money into Snapchat while irrationally believing that its past predicts its future. In other words, Snapchat’s future depends almost entirely on the public being ignorant of the second rule of investing: Past performance does not predict future returns.

As I mentioned at the top, you should never make investment decisions based on what cartoonists say. But if I’m being honest here, the Snapchat IPO doesn’t look like an “investment” at all. To me it looks like a massive scam playing out in public. It’s all completely legal because they disclose everything important. And the IPO will probably work out fine because the stock-buying public has a good feeling about the company and absolutely no understanding of what a good investment looks like.

Again, don’t take investment advice from cartoonists. Let’s call this a prediction, and a new test of what I call the Persuasion Filter. My filter says that Snapchat’s value is supported by nothing but a public illusion that the past predicts the future. If you remove that illusion, I don’t see anything of value. At least not something that an experienced investor would bother with.

I wish Snapchat well. I hope they innovate and succeed. Obviously they have tons of talent. 

And always remember the second rule of investing: Past performance does not predict future returns. You might also want to remember the first rule of investing: Don’t listen to investment advice from cartoonists.

Have you used my startup’s Whenhub app yet for keeping track of the family on vacation? Never lose your kids at the ski resort again.


Scariest Thing You Will See Today by Scott Adams (Dilbert)

I can’t tell if this secret video is real, but it purports to show a scientist proposing to develop a military-grade virus that would eliminate extreme religious thoughts in people as a way to end terrorism.

The scary part is that it would probably work. 

We know which parts of the brain deal with religious thoughts, and apparently we know how to make a virus that would mess with those parts of the brain.

Free will is an illusion, obviously. Otherwise scientists couldn’t change someone’s religion with a virus. But they can.

Science keeps discovering new buttons on the user interface for humans. Many of us are already chemical cyborgs, with personalities that come from big pharma and not our own DNA. 

By the way, what most defines you as an individual? It isn’t your body, because your cells have died and been replaced many times, yet you are the same person. And you aren’t the sum of your knowledge, because that has changed since you were a baby, yet you are the same person. I would argue that the thing that most defines an individual is their preferences. And pharmaceuticals can change your entire set of preferences in a few hours. Just look at someone who is going on Adderall for the first time, and needs it. They have a different personality profile – literally different preferences – on the drug.

If the video I linked to is real, apparently scientists know how to create a virus that will eliminate your religious preferences. If you think the virus would only work on the terrorists, you’re wrong. I’m guessing that the Department of Defense decided against using the virus approach because it might have eliminated Christianity as well as every other religion as a side-effect. It didn’t sound as if they were working on a vaccine for this virus. That means everyone would get it eventually.

For more on the topic of the user interface for human beings, see my book about programming the moist robot that is you.

If you are meeting friends for lunch, know see everyone is along the route with the WhenHub app.


Persuasion Advice for African-Americans by Scott Adams (Dilbert)

President Obama’s presidency did a lot to diminish racial bias simply because he was a black president who – in the opinion of many, including me – did a good job. As a role model, he was exceptional. But all the factors that made him a great role model are the same factors that prevented him from doing much for the African-American community. It would have looked like favoritism if he had focused too much in that area. The resistance from the right would have been ferocious. And it would have ruined Obama’s brand. People loved Obama in part because he didn’t focus on his race. The country needed that.

Now we have President Trump. You might not realize it yet, but this is an extraordinary opportunity for the African-American community to make some gains. In the standard 2D view of the world, Trump is a typical Republican who you expect to do little or nothing for minority interests. But in the 3D world of persuasion, the door of opportunity for African-Americans just swung wide open. If that is still invisible to you, let me draw a picture.

President Obama didn’t need to deliver any special improvements to the African-American community. His existence was the change. But Trump is in a deep “Hitler hole” that his opponents dug for him. He needs a way out.

And that opens the door.

If the African-American community has a specific set of proposals that Trump can sell to Republicans, this is the time to do it. He needs the black community more than they need him. That’s the perfect negotiating situation. 

The African-American community is mostly aligned with the anti-Trumpers of every type. Their interests are getting lost in the noise. What they need is a simple, bold plan that they can sell to the President, and he can sell to the country. Remember, President Trump needs the help. This is the perfect time to negotiate.

I’ll give you an example of what such a plan might look like, just for discussion purposes. This is only an example so you can see what sort of scope I’m talking about.

Suppose some organized group of African-Americans puts together a slavery reparations plan that focuses on free college education as the compensation. The plan would call for universal free college (to get all the liberals onboard) but specify that any such plan has to be phased in over a decade for practical reasons. And that means someone has to go first. Why not start with African-Americans who are also below a certain economic level?

Republicans like the idea of free college too. They just don’t know how the country could pay for it. I think technology will eventually solve the college expense problem by making online schooling more effective. But instead of waiting until something changes, it would be useful to have a phased plan to get us moving in the right direction. You have to start small, and one way to do that is by starting with college-bound African-Americans. 

Keep in mind that we have to start with one group or another. I can’t imagine turning a switch and making college free for everyone at the same time. And if someone has to go first, there is no real way to avoid discrimination. If you limit free college to the poor, the middle-class gets screwed, and so forth.

I think Trump could argue that offering free college to the demographic group with the most social friction is also the best path for long-term economic prosperity. In simple terms, helping one white male make 20% more income might be less valuable to society than putting one black male into the productive workforce. Republicans need to hear an economic argument, and I think there is one in this case.

This hypothetical plan of offering free college for African-Americans would work best if paired with student loan relief of some kind that applies to everyone. That would take some of the sting out of the “fairness” critics. And it also needs to be wrapped in a larger plan to get to free college for all, eventually.

President Obama would have had zero chance of selling a plan like the one I just described. It would have looked super-racist coming from a black president. But if Trump tries to sell this sort of plan, it would solve his biggest brand problem because it wouldn’t look Hitlerish in the least.

The big obstacle with this idea, as you will eagerly tell me, is that even Trump can’t sell the idea of free college for African-Americans. Someone needs to pay for it, and Republicans don’t like that part. But remember, you didn’t think Trump could sell himself into the presidency either. My advice to African-American voters is to challenge the president with a specific plan. See what he can do.

You might be surprised. 

African-Americans have negotiating leverage right now because President Trump needs a win. Bring him a constructive plan and see what happens.

Have you seen my startup, WhenHub? You might like it because it’s the best way to tell stories with time.


De-hypnotizing a Climate Science Zombie by Scott Adams (Dilbert)

I recently stumbled upon a way to nudge anti-Trump zombies off the idea that 97% of climate scientists agree with each other and Trump is on the wrong side. I’m not arguing about the accuracy of the estimate because I have nothing to compare it to. I’m only concerned that people are trusting the fate of the planet to that estimate without knowing how it was derived.

I started with a quote from this article by Lawrence Solomon. He says…

“…a much heralded claim that 97 per cent of scientists believed the planet was overheating came from a 2008 master’s thesis by a student at the University of Illinois who obtained her results by conducting a survey of 10,257 earth scientists, then discarding the views of all but 77 of them. Of those 77 scientists, 75 thought humans contributed to climate change.  The ratio 75/77 produced the 97-per-cent figure that global warming activists then touted.”

I assume the student discarded from the study the scientists who were least-involved with climate science. That seems entirely sensible, right? But I don’t know that to be the case.

But then I asked my test subject if it would be important to know the opinions of scientists in general, even if they were not directly involved in climate science. If, for example, 60% of scientists in general were skeptical of climate science, wouldn’t you want to know that? I assume scientists are better-equipped to judge other scientists, even in unrelated fields, at least compared to the public at large.

Next, I asked my test subject if he agreed with the following statement:

"The claim that 97% of scientists agree on climate science MIGHT be true, but I would need to know more about how it was derived to judge its credibility.”

He agreed it was fair.

And keep in mind that the question that generated the 97% figure was limited to whether human activity contributes to warming. Even the critics agree with that statement. Where they differ is on the predictive accuracy of the models.

Summarizing, the problems with the 97% estimate are:

1. Human-caused warming is the part upon which both sides AGREE. Humans “contribute” to warming. The disagreement is on how much, and whether it matters. That wasn’t asked.

2. We don’t know what non-climate-scientists think of the climate models. That would add to our understanding of the topic in a big way.

3. We don’t know how reliable the 97% estimate is because we don’t know enough about the methodology. And it hasn’t been repeated as far as I know.

Try this approach with climate science zombies near you and see if you can nudge them off the 97% figure. Let me know how it goes.

You might enjoy my book because 97% of climate scientists agree that it has nothing to do with climate science.


Trump and Sweden by Scott Adams (Dilbert)

You can see me discussing Trump’s puzzling comments about Sweden in this Youtube video.

I don’t have the technology all worked out yet (it’s a system, not a goal) but you’ll get my point.

This is the direction I’m heading for 2017. Short Youtube videos on recent events.

Twitter shadowbans me so I can’t depend on that platform for the long run. We’ll see how Google and Youtube treat me.

My general YouTube link will be here: bit.ly/2lYiCRo


The Paperwork Mistake That Made My Luxury Car Worthless by Scott Adams (Dilbert)

My BMW X5 SUV is in the shop for its third leak-related problem this year. While it was there, and by coincidence, the dealership’s used car manager called and offered to buy it because there is demand for that model in the used market. I told him it was already at the dealership and he could take a look at it.

The used car manager called me later to tell me my car only has “salvage value.” It turns out that the last two times I took it to Big O for tire repairs they wrote down my mileage incorrectly. One time they recorded it as 30,000 miles. Another time they said 80,000 miles. The actual mileage is around 50,000.

Now here’s the interesting part. That double-paperwork-error by the tire shop made its way to the Internet and the CarFax service that dealers use to know whether cars have had accidents or other issues. The mileage discrepancy automatically puts my car in the “probably turned-back the odometer” category. And that means it has no resale value to dealers or anyone else who checked online.

Apparently I can fix this problem by providing documentation of my correct mileage. I probably don’t have that documentation because the only other people who ever checked my mileage were the dealership that is telling me my car is now officially garbage.

You’ll tell me they just want to buy the car from me for cheap. But they didn’t even offer to buy it. The used car manager just seemed embarrassed by the whole thing. Apparently this isn’t a trick. My car is actually “salvage value” now.

Thanks, Big O Tires. Don’t expect me to come back.


Radar in Earth and Planetary Science: An Intro by The Planetary Society

Heather Hunter explains how radar works and what it's used for on Earth and beyond.


Wonderful potentially habitable worlds around TRAPPIST-1 by The Planetary Society

Scientists have found seven, Earth-size planets orbiting a star just 40 light years away. Three lie in the habitable zone and could have water on their surfaces.


NASA's audacious Europa missions are getting closer to reality by The Planetary Society

Today, NASA announced progress on a spacecraft that would assess whether Jupiter's Moon Europa is habitable, and earlier this month, an agency-sponsored science team released a report on a separate lander mission that would directly search for signs of life.


Did Voyager 1 capture an image of Enceladus' plumes erupting? by The Planetary Society

Amateur image processor Ted Stryk revisited Voyager 1 data of Enceladus and came across a surprise.


Finding spacecraft impacts on the Moon by The Planetary Society

Over nearly 60 years of spacecraft exploration of the Moon, lots of spacecraft have crashed on the lunar surface—some accidental, some intentional. Phil Stooke hunts for their impact sites.


February 24, 2017

I can't keep up by Charlie Stross

I got home from a business trip on Tuesday morning, was a jet-lagged zombie for 24 hours, and between Wednesday morning and now (Friday morning) I have learned:

A new way of exfiltrating data from an air-gapped computer potentially uses malware to modulate the drive activity LED on a PC, which can then be monitored by a drone hovering outside the office window: this is apparently capable of getting up to 6kbps of data off a computer without any physical connection or leaving any signs in device access logs (because it relies on the timing of drive i/o activity).

The North Korean assassins who killed Kim Jong-nam allegedly used VX nerve agent by getting local women who thought they were working for a comedy show to smear it on his face. (Secondary reports say that it was a binary agent, and each woman applied a different precursor: given the nature of VX precursors this seems unlikely, but VX itself could have plausibly been applied by hand. (If confirmed, this falls into the "Polonium 210 is so mundane!" school of baroque state assassination tools.)

Finally, for your delectation, there are people who think this is a good way to deal with Donald Trump (well, if it makes them feel better) ... my only question is, which open source license are they using?

Really, 2017 so far feels like it's fallen out of a novel I wrote in an alternate time line round about 2005, while evidently depressed and suffering from unstabilized hypertension. Or maybe it's just that we swapped out the scriptwriters who showed up in 2001—the ghosts of George Orwell and Philip K. Dick—for a crew led by John Sladek and John Brunner.


February 22, 2017

London Calling:Clocks. by Feeling Listless



Life For the past six months or so I've been travelling to London for one day per month and visiting all the places which I've read about in books, seen in films, simply known about but never seen. As I said in the V&A post about one of these such days, it's because at the age of forty-two I'm not getting any younger and if anything were to happen to me, or lets face it at this point potentially all of us, I don't want it to be without having had these adventures. Plus for years I've complained about how so much of our cultural heritage is concentrated in London and realised that if it wasn't going to visit Liverpool any time soon, I'd best drag myself down there instead. "Down there." Such a Northerner.

One of the elements of these visits has been to purposefully not write them up as blog posts, a rule which I've already broken on a couple of occasions. Much of this had to do with not wanting to make the visit about what I'd subsequently scribble here, wanting to experience everything like someone who doesn't have a blog. But the problem is, this blog does exist and if when I look back at this time in a few years there isn't anything here, that negates the whole point of writing it in the first place. I'm grouping everything under how I'd describe them on a bucket list, which doesn't really exist other than as a set of random ideas for "things I haven't done yet".  Oh and purposefully just a paragraph or so each.  I still don't want to overthink things.

The Docklands Light Railway.

The idea of the DLR has fascinated me since seeing a report about its initial construction on, I think, Tomorrow's World.  On reflection and after having travelled on it, I can see that it's really just a glorified tram, but the idea of a near driverless train seemed entirely space age back in the 1980s.  The real novelty is being able to sit at the front where the cab would be and seeing the railway and oncoming stations from what would be a train driver's point of view.  A guard told me that he'd watched the area build up around the track during his years on the service.  My favourite moment was pulling in to Limehouse which has lost all of the character which would have inspired the Doctor Who story The Talons of Weng Chiang.

On part of the journey, an actual driver was sitting on the passenger seat across the way, controlling the train from a panel, although his entire job seemed to be to press one button on reaching a station to open the doors then another to let the train know that it could leave.  His eyes were permanently fixed to the front, deep in concentration, no sign of boredom or apathy.  Even with my sense of occasion, there's no denying that there's only so much of the same track you can watch.  Thank goodness for the moments when the carriage lurched upwards and sideways rather like a roller coaster to provide some extra excitement as it sped through the landscape between the locations its contrived to visit.

The Prime Meridian.

One of the three key reasons for this London visit was to finally see the Prime Meridian at the Royal Observatory.  Navigating to the line is part of an audio tour; you can't simply see it for free, it's part of an extended narrative about how we measure time and space across the globe.  It's smaller than I expected, at least the visual representation, a short strip of metal about fifty metres long in the courtyard outside one of the observatories.  Along the edge various cities are listed with their relative longitudes and distance from the equator.  For the most part it seems to exist to allow tourists to have a photograph taken with their feet straddling the east-west divide.  The real measurement, check and balance, is a laser projected from the rafters about forty kilometres across London.



Harrison's Longitude Clocks.

These clocks are smaller than I expected.  After having read Sobel's book about their creation and the various documentaries and dramas, these mechanisms had writ large in my imagination, but they're proportionally similar to a small microwave.  Which isn't diminish their beauty, these great technical achievements also translate into kinetic sculptures as the balances and wheels bounce back and forth.  They're presented within a larger display which rather emphasises the astronomical method as well it might and to an extent their total achievement is underplayed as are the reasons why John Harrison wasn't rewarded when he should (of Sobel's version of the narrative is to be believed) because of the sneariness of astronomers.  There also isn't any mention I could see of Rupert Gould's contribution in restoring the clocks to the condition in which they are now.

Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity.

Ever since seeing That Hamilton Woman and Vigee Le Brun's portraits, I've been fascinated by Emma, a figure who began life in poverty, managed to build her reputation to the point of becoming Nelson's mistress then returning once again to penury in her final years, dying at 49.  She was a remarkable woman, constantly re-inventing herself as a performer and somewhat politician turning men's frequently callousness to her advantage, packing so much into her short life.  This exhibition at the National Maritime Museum collects dozens of portraits by Romney as well as some incredible artifacts including the love letters, the antiquities she would have studies and Nelson's own uniform.  There's also a stunning ten minute presentation in which her "attitudes" are recreated by an actress in video on a stage.

The Cutty Sark.

Briefly.  As the posters advertising the friends programme for Greenwich Park explain, it's impossible to see it all in one day.  So I missed most of the National Maratime Museum (apart from Turner's painting of the Battle of Trafalgar), the planetarium and the Queen's Gallery and the interior tour of the ship.  But as I've learnt from previous visits, it's best to make a point of seeing the things I've travelled down to see first and then make everything else secondary.  The Cutty Sark probably does indeed deserves a whole day, but I was happy to walk past its exterior for now.  It's larger than I expected, having only otherwise seen it in helicopter shots during coverage of the London Marathon.  Perhaps once I've completed my personal A-List of London attractions I'll return.

Canary Wharf.

With the Museums closing at five o'clock and a few hours to fill before catching the train home, I decided to visit Torchwood One or as close as possible.  As a receptionist at One Canada Square cautioned, apart from shops and restaurants there isn't much to do but after a visit to Pizza Express, I was quite happy to stroll about the place, looking into the windows across vast brightly lit foyers, usually populated by a solitary security guard behind a giant desk.  Although I've visited La Defance in Paris with its Grand Arch, this is the first time I've stood in front of a skyscraper or any building and not been able to see the top floors.  It's dizzying and claustrophobic.  How must it be to live or work in Manhattan with these edifices permanently obscuring the sky?

Most notably, Canary Wharf doesn't seem to have any litter bins.  After impulse buying a coffee from a cafe bar situated in the base of one of the buildings I eventually found myself with an empty paper cup and nowhere for it to go.  After not seeing anything on my route, I eventually decided enter one of the foyers and ask of they had a bin.  The next building was some kind of medical company.  I tried pushing the door but it was locked so rang the intercom, which was on a post nearby.  The guard walked slowly across the foyer and opened the door.  I asked him if he had a bin.  "No" he said.  "No bin at all?" I ask again.  "No." He repeated then shut the door in the my face.  Fortunately the bank headquarters next door were more accommodating ...


A Muddle of Mind and Matter by The Archdruid Report

The philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, which we’ve been discussing for the last two weeks, has a feature that reliably irritates most people when they encounter it for the first time: it doesn’t divide up the world the way people in modern western societies habitually do. To say, as Schopenhauer does, that the world we experience is a world of subjective representations, and that we encounter the reality behind those representations in will, is to map out the world in a way so unfamiliar that it grates on the nerves. Thus it came as no surprise that last week’s post fielded a flurry of responses trying to push the discussion back onto the more familiar ground of mind and matter.

That was inevitable. Every society has what I suppose could be called its folk metaphysics, a set of beliefs about the basic nature of existence that are taken for granted by most people in that society, and the habit of dividing the world of our experience into mind and matter is among the core elements of the folk metaphysics of the modern western world. Most of us think of it, on those occasions when we think of it at all, as simply the way the world is. It rarely occurs to most of us that there’s any other way to think of things—and when one shows up, a great many of us back away from it as fast as possible.

Yet dividing the world into mind and matter is really rather problematic, all things considered. The most obvious difficulty is the relation between the two sides of the division. This is usually called the mind-body problem, after the place where each of us encounters that difficulty most directly. Grant for the sake of argument that each of us really does consist of a mind contained in a material body, how do these two connect? It’s far from easy to come up with an answer that works.

Several approaches have been tried in the attempt to solve the mind-body problem. There’s dualism, which is the claim that there are two entirely different and independent kinds of things in the world—minds and bodies—and requires proponents to comes up with various ways to justify the connection between them. First place for philosophical brashness in this connection goes to Rene Descartes, who argued that the link was directly and miraculously caused by the will of God. Plenty of less blatant methods of handwaving have been used to accomplish the same trick, but all of them require question-begging maneuvers of various kinds, and none has yet managed to present any kind of convincing evidence for itself.

Then there are the reductionistic monisms, which attempt to account for the relationship of mind and matter by reducing one of them to the other. The most popular reductionistic monism these days is reductionistic materialism, which claims that what we call “mind” is simply the electrochemical activity of those lumps of matter we call human brains. Though it’s a good deal less popular these days, there’s also reductionistic idealism, which claims that what we call “matter” is the brought into being by the activity of minds, or of Mind.

Further out still, you get the eliminative monisms, which deal with the relationship between mind and matter by insisting that one of them doesn’t exist. There are eliminative materialists, for example, who insist that mental experiences don’t exist, and our conviction that we think, feel, experience pain and pleasure, etc. is an “introspective illusion.” (I’ve often thought that one good response to such a claim would be to ask, “Do you really think so?” The consistent eliminative materialist would have to answer “No.”) There are also eliminative idealists, who insist that matter doesn’t exist and that all is mind.

There’s probably been as much effort expended in attempting to solve the mind-body problem as any other single philosophical issue has gotten in modern times, and yet it remains the focus of endless debates even today. That sort of intellectual merry-go-round is usually a pretty good sign that the basic assumptions at the root of the question have some kind of lethal flaw. That’s particularly true when this sort of ongoing donnybrook isn’t the only persistent difficulty surrounding the same set of ideas—and that’s very much the case here.

After all, there’s a far more personal sense in which the phrase “mind-body problem” can be taken. To speak in the terms usual for our culture, this thing we’re calling “mind” includes only a certain portion of what we think of as our inner lives. What, after all, counts as “mind”? In the folk metaphysics of our culture, and in most of the more formal systems of thought based on it, “mind” is consciousness plus the thinking and reasoning functions, perhaps with intuition (however defined) tied on like a squirrel’s  tail to the antenna of an old-fashioned jalopy. The emotions aren’t part of mind, and neither are such very active parts of our lives as sexual desire and the other passions; it sounds absurd, in fact, to talk about “the emotion-body problem” or the “passion-body problem.” Why does it sound absurd? Because, consciously or unconsciously, we assign the emotions and the passions to the category of “body,” along with the senses.

This is where we get the second form of the mind-body problem, which is that we’re taught implicitly and explicitly that the mind governs the body, and yet the functions we label “body” show a distinct lack of interest in obeying the functions we call “mind.” Sexual desire is of course the most obvious example. What people actually desire and what they think they ought to desire are quite often two very different things, and when the “mind” tries to bully the “body” into desiring what the “mind” thinks it ought to desire, the results are predictably bad. Add enough moral panic to the mix, in fact, and you end up with sexual hysteria of the classic Victorian type, in which the body ends up being experienced as a sinister Other responding solely to its own evil propensities, the seductive wiles of other persons, or the machinations of Satan himself despite all the efforts of the mind to rein it in.

Notice the implicit hierarchy woven into the folk metaphysics just sketched out, too. Mind is supposed to rule matter, not the other way around; mind is active, while matter is passive or, at most, subject to purely mechanical pressures that make it lurch around in predictable ways. When things don’t behave that way, you tend to see people melt down in one way or another—and the universe being what it is, things don’t actually behave that way very often, so the meltdowns come at regular intervals.

They also arrive in an impressive range of contexts, because the way of thinking about things that divides them into mind and matter is remarkably pervasive in western societies, and pops up in the most extraordinary places.  Think of the way that our mainstream religions portray God as the divine Mind ruling omnipotently over a universe of passive matter; that’s the ideal toward which our notions of mind and body strive, and predictably never reach. Think of the way that our entertainment media can always evoke a shudder of horror by imagining something we assign to the category of lifeless matter—a corpse in the case of zombie flicks, a machine in such tales as Stephen King’s Christine, or what have you—suddenly starts acting as though it possesses a mind.

For that matter, listen to the more frantic end of the rhetoric on the American left following the recent presidential election and you’ll hear the same theme echoing off the hills. The left likes to think of itself as the smart people, the educated people, the sensitive and thoughtful and reasonable people—in effect, the people of Mind. The hate speech that many of them direct toward their political opponents leans just as heavily on the notion that these latter are stupid, uneducated, insensitive, irrational, and so on—that is to say, the people of Matter. Part of the hysteria that followed Trump’s election, in turn, might best be described as the political equivalent of the instinctive reaction to a zombie flick: the walking dead have suddenly lurched out of their graves and stalked toward the ballot box, the body politic has rebelled against its self-proclaimed mind!

Let’s go deeper, though. The habit of dividing the universe of human experience into mind and matter isn’t hardwired into the world, or for that matter into human consciousness; there have been, and are still, societies in which people simply don’t experience themselves and the world that way. The mind-body problem and the habits of thought that give rise to it have a history, and it’s by understanding that history that it becomes possible to see past the problem toward a solution.

That history takes its rise from an interesting disparity among the world’s great philosophical traditions. The three that arose independently—the Chinese, the Indian, and the Greek—focused on different aspects of humanity’s existence in the world. Chinese philosophy from earliest times directed its efforts to understanding the relationship between the individual and society; that’s why the Confucian mainstream of Chinese philosophy is resolutely political and social in its focus, exploring ways that the individual can find a viable place within society, and the alternative Taoist tradition in its oldest forms (before it absorbed mysticism from Indian sources) focused on ways that the individual can find a viable place outside society. Indian philosophy, by contrast, directed its efforts to understanding the nature of individual existence itself; that’s why the great Indian philosophical schools all got deeply into epistemology and ended up with a strong mystical bent.

The Greek philosophical tradition, in turn, went to work on a different set of problems. Greek philosophy, once it got past its initial fumblings, fixed its attention on the world of thought. That’s what led Greek thinkers to transform mathematics from a unsorted heap of practical techniques to the kind of ordered system of axioms and theorems best exemplified by Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, and it’s also what led Greek thinkers in the same generation as Euclid to create logic, one of the half dozen or so greatest creations of the human mind. Yet it also led to something considerably more problematic: the breathtaking leap of faith by which some of the greatest intellects of the ancient world convinced themselves that the structure of their thoughts was the true structure of the universe, and that thoughts about things were therefore more real than the things themselves.

The roots of that conviction go back all the way to the beginnings of Greek philosophy, but it really came into its own with Parmenides, an important philosopher of the generation immediately before Plato. Parmenides argued that there were two ways of understanding the world, the way of truth and the way of opinion; the way of opinion consisted of understanding the world as it appears to the senses, which according to Parmenides means it’s false, while the way of truth consisted of understanding the world the way that reason proved it had to be, even when this contradicted the testimony of the senses. To be sure, there are times and places where the testimony of the senses does indeed need to be corrected by logic, but it’s at least questionable whether this should be taken anything like as far as Parmenides took it—he argued, for example, that motion was logically impossible, and so nothing ever actually moves, even though it seems that way to our deceiving senses.

The idea that thoughts about things are more real than things settled into what would be its classic form in the writings of Plato, who took Parmenides’ distinction and set to work to explain the relationship between the worlds of truth and opinion. To Plato, the world of truth became a world of forms or ideas, on which everything in the world of sensory experience is modeled. The chair we see, in other words, is a projection or reflection downwards into the world of matter of the timeless, pure, and perfect form or idea of chair-ness. The senses show us the projections or reflections; the reasoning mind shows us the eternal form from which they descend.

That was the promise of classic Platonism—that the mind could know the truth about the universe directly, without the intervention of the senses, the same way it could know the truth of a mathematical demonstration. The difficulty with this enticing claim, though, was that when people tried to find the truth about the universe by examining their thinking processes, no two of them discovered exactly the same truth, and the wider the cultural and intellectual differences between them, the more different the truths turned out to be. It was for this reason among others that Aristotle, whose life’s work was basically that of cleaning up the mess that Plato and his predecessors left behind, made such a point of claiming that nothing enters the mind except through the medium of the senses. It’s also why the Academy, the school founded by Plato, in the generations immediately after his time took a hard skeptical turn, and focused relentlessly on the limits of human knowledge and reasoning.

Later on, Greek philosophy and its Roman foster-child headed off in other directions—on the one hand, into ethics, and the question of how to live the good life in a world where certainty isn’t available; on the other, into mysticism, and the question of whether the human mind can experience the truth of things directly through religious experience. A great deal of Plato’s thinking, however, got absorbed by the Christian religion after the latter clawed its way to respectability in the fourth century CE.

Augustine of Hippo, the theologian who basically set the tone of Christianity in the west for the next fifteen centuries, had been a Neoplatonist before he returned to his Christian roots, and he was far from the only Christian of that time to drink deeply from Plato's well. In his wake, Platonism became the standard philosophy of the western church until it was displaced by a modified version of Aristotle’s philosophy in the high Middle Ages. Thinkers divided the human organism into two portions, body and soul, and began the process by which such things as sexuality and the less angelic emotions got exiled from the soul into the body.

Even after Thomas Aquinas made Aristotle popular again, the basic Parmenidean-Platonic notion of truth had been so thoroughly bolted into Christian theology that it rode right over any remaining worries about the limitations of human reason. The soul trained in the use of reason could see straight to the core of things, and recognize by its own operations such basic religious doctrines as the existence of God:  that was the faith with which generations of scholars pursued the scholastic philosophy of medieval times, and those who disagreed with them rarely quarreled over their basic conception—rather, the point at issue was whether the Fall had left the human mind so vulnerable to the machinations of Satan that it couldn’t count on its own conclusions, and the extent to which divine grace would override Satan’s malicious tinkerings anywhere this side of heaven.

If you happen to be a devout Christian, such questions make sense, and they matter. It’s harder to see how they still made sense and mattered as the western world began moving into its post-Christian era in the eighteenth century, and yet the Parmenidean-Platonic faith in the omnipotence of reason gained ground as Christianity ebbed among the educated classes. People stopped talking about soul and body and started talking about mind and body instead.

Since mind, mens in Latin, was already in common use as a term for the faculty of the soul that handled its thinking and could be trained to follow the rules of reason, that shift was of vast importance. It marked the point at which the passions and the emotions were shoved out of the basic self-concept of the individual in western culture, and exiled to the body, that unruly and rebellious lump of matter in which the mind is somehow caged.

That’s one of the core things that Schopenhauer rejected. As he saw it, the mind isn’t the be-all and end-all of the self, stuck somehow into the prison house of the body. Rather, the mind is a frail and unstable set of functions that surface now and then on top of other functions that are much older, stronger, and more enduring. What expresses itself through all these functions, in turn, is will:  at the most basic primary level, as the will to exist; on a secondary level, as the will to live, with all the instincts and drives that unfold from that will; on a tertiary level, as the will to experience, with all the sensory and cognitive apparatus that unfolds from that will; and on a quaternary level, as the will to understand, with all the abstract concepts and relationships that unfold from that will.

Notice that from this point of view, the structure of thought isn't the structure of the cosmos, just a set of convenient models, and thoughts about things are emphatically not more real than the things themselves.  The things themselves are wills, expressing themselves through their several modes.  The things as we know them are representations, and our thoughts about the things are abstract patterns we create out of memories of representations, and thus at two removes from reality.

Notice also that from this point of view, the self is simply a representation—the ur-representation, the first representation each of us makes in infancy as it gradually sinks in that there’s a part of the kaleidoscope of our experience that we can move at will, and a lot more that we can’t, but still just a representation, not a reality. Of course that’s what we see when we first try to pay attention to ourselves, just as we see the coffee cup discussed in the first post in this series. It takes exacting logical analysis, scientific experimentation, or prolonged introspection to get past the representation of the self (or the coffee cup), realize that it’s a subjective construct rather than an objective reality, and grasp the way that it’s assembled out of disparate stimuli according to preexisting frameworks that are partly hardwired into our species and partly assembled over the course of our lives.

Notice, finally, that those functions we like to call “mind”—in the folk metaphysics of our culture, again, these are consciousness and the capacity to think, with a few other tag-ends of other functions dangling here and there—aren’t the essence of who we are, the ghost in the machine, the Mini-Me perched inside the skull that pushes and pulls levers to control the passive mass of the body and gets distracted by the jabs and lurches of the emotions and passions. The functions we call “mind,” rather, are a set of delicate, tentative, and fragile functions of will, less robust and stable than most of the others, and with no inherent right to rule the other functions. The Schopenhauerian self is an ecosystem rather than a hierarchy, and if what we call “mind” sits at the top of the food chain like a fox in a meadow, that simply means that the fox has to spend much of its time figuring out where mice like to go, and even more of its time sleeping in its den, while the mice scamper busily about and the grass goes quietly about turning sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into the nutrients that support the whole system.

Accepting this view of the self requires sweeping revisions of the ways we like to think about ourselves and the world, which is an important reason why so many people react with acute discomfort when it’s suggested. Nonetheless those revisions are of crucial importance, and as this discussion continues, we’ll see how they offer crucial insights into the problems we face in this age of the world—and into their potential solutions.


February 21, 2017

Placeholder? Placeholder! by Charlie Stross

Yeah, so I haven't been blogging for more than a week. Sorry 'bout that; I had a guest blogger lined up for while I was traveling, but they turned out to be a no-show and I was too busy to take time out from work.

This week's excuse is that "The Delirium Brief" is being typeset twice—separately for the US and UK releases—and the US page proofs landed in my inbox with a thud and a very short deadline which is going to keep me busy for the rest of this week once I'm over the jetlag.

Note that this isn't a separate edit; the US and UK editions were edited and copy-edited in a common process and share the same spelling, grammar, and word-shaped objects. But the US and UK publishers (who are two different companies who just happened to buy the respective territorial rights to publish the work on their own patch) decided to typeset the copy-edited manuscript independently of one another, which means I need to check a second set of page proofs for errors. It a while to plough through a 400 page book; even if you're just treating it as a reading text and can read at a page a minute, that's nearly seven hours—and checking page proofs for typos and errors is somewhat slower and more laborious. (Normally one publisher takes the lead on production and the others just buy in the typesetting files, but because of [REDACTED] that ain't viable this time round, hence the last-minute round of extra work.)

So normal blogging will probably wait until next week, and I'm going to be scarce in the comments for a bit.

Oh, that reminds me: some of you are wondering if I had any trouble entering the United States, right?

The answer to that is "not really"—the usual questions asked by the Immigration officer at the airport has merely grown by one ("Have you visited any of these countries: Syria, Iraq ..."), and by the time my interrogator got to "Afghanistan" I was visibly finding it so hard not to snigger that he just shrugged and waved me through.

But leaving the United States was a little more troubling.

I always opt out of being scanned by a body scanner on general principle; I think it's an annoying, ineffective, intrusive waste of time and I want to signal my disapproval by not cooperating. The TSA have a set theatrical routine for dealing with opt-outs that requires you to stand in the naughty corner while someone shouts "we've gotta male opt-out!" and some other poor guy has to pull on latex gloves and give you a massage.

It turns out that a couple of weeks ago the TSA rolled out a new pat down process that seems designed to ... well, some folks would pay good money for it, but the main effect seems to be intended to embarrass and deter body-shy people from opting out. I am not body-shy, at least in well-understood/controlled circumstances like a search at a security checkpoint or a naturist club, so the main effect in my case was to embarrass the dude following the orders to pat down my crotch.

But I think it's highly suggestive that this idiotic measure surfaced while everyone was agitated over Trump's ban on people entering the USA from majority-muslim countries that weren't major Trump business partners, and I am now wondering: what other low-key "administrative measures" slid by under the radar while we were all distracted by one act or another in the Washington DC puppet show?


"gut the dog" by Feeling Listless



The Stealth Homophobia That's Slowly Poisoning Us:
"Equality for the LGBT community now faces its greatest but least visible hurdle yet, says The Guyliner."

Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber:
"As most of you know, I left Uber in December and joined Stripe in January. I've gotten a lot of questions over the past couple of months about why I left and what my time at Uber was like. It's a strange, fascinating, and slightly horrifying story that deserves to be told while it is still fresh in my mind, so here we go."

Crowdsourcing for Shakespeare:
"Around 1675, a woman named Margaret Baker wrote out a remedy for aches whose active ingredient was a puppy. “Take a whelpe that sucketh the fatter the better & drowne him in water till he be deade,” she advised. The reader should then gut the dog, fill its belly with black soap, “putt him one a spite & roste him well,” and apply the fat drippings to the patient’s skin, wafting the scent of warmed sage over him at the same time. “It will helpe him by the grace of god,” she concluded.

Oscar’s Siren song 3: A guest post by Jeff Smith:

"Our colleague and Film Art collaborator Jeff Smith is an expert on film sound, particularly music. He’s contributed several items to our site over the years (for example, here and here and here). Today he’s back with his annual survey of Oscar’s musical categories. He offers in-depth analysis of how the films’ scores and songs enhance the movies’ impact."

Why do all the women on Fox News look and dress alike? Republicans prefer blondes:
"From pundits like Ann Coulter to Kellyanne Conway, American rightwingers are a uniform vision of don’t scare-the-horses dressing."


February 19, 2017

My Favourite Film of 1911. by Feeling Listless



Films When Geppeto set about creating his artificial boy (as in Giulio Antamoro's adaptation), little could he comprehend, probably because he’s a fictional character, that centuries later, later craftspeople would be capable of producing near lifelike digital marionettes through photographic technology. But that’s what we witnessed this Christmas, when Grand Admiral Tarkin and other special guests appeared in Rogue One: a Star Wars prequel (story).

Which isn’t to say the results are entirely perfect. Beneath the digital Cushing mask, a real actor with an equally impressive stage and screen career, Guy Henry, provides the voice and motion captured performance providing an underlying sense of humanity, yet the results still tip into the uncanny valley. We’re not completely convinced that Sir Peter is back giving a performance, probably because it’s not easy to forget that someone has died.

Much as has been written about the ethics of this decision, of attempting to make an actor posthumously “live” again and give a new performance and I can understand why some would find it distasteful. My adoration for Audrey Hepburn leads me to conclude that the appropriation of her image for selling chocolate bars is an atrocity as is Gene Kelly’s reanimation for a car commercial (his meticulous choreography replaced with something else entirely).

In Ari Folman’s film The Congress, Robin Wright plays a version of herself in alternative future in which actors are able to sign away the use of their image for film work in perpetuity, even past their death, the version scanned and capture as part of the agreement allowing them never to age on screen. The difference there, I suppose, is that the actor agrees to the procedure, even if they regret it afterwards as they see their image used in projects they fundamentally disagree with.

Back to Star Wars and where I stand. I think it’s fine. But I think the ethical fine line is hair thin. In the case of Star Wars, they’re recreating a character, albeit in a near photo-realistic form, which is no better or worse than when the same being appears in the tv series, in Rebels or The Clone Wars. It’s all animation with someone other than Cushing providing voice work or a performance, fulfilling a particular narrative function.

The other potential approach would have been to have Henry simply playing Tarkin and expect the audience to simply accept that the same character was being played by a different actor, as per Saavik across the Star Trek movies. And although it’s true that digi-Tarkin still pulls the viewer out of the film because he doesn’t feel quite right, it does create a clearer sense of continuity with A New Hope.

But this is one of only a few examples where this would be acceptable. If Hammer suddenly had an uptick in budget and decided to create a new horror film starring Cushing, that would be a more dubious decision. Or if someone decided to create a new romcom with Emma Stone swapping meet cute with a young Cary Grant, or a western with Ryan Gosling sparring with John Wayne.

Not that there would be frankly much point. Film is built on renewal and change, the old guard giving way to the new, for better or worse and I’m not sure there’s even an appetite from the audience for this sort of thing. Given the choice, I’d much rather watch a Monroe romcom within which I can be sure she was creatively invested rather than some contemporary pale imitation. There are enough remakes and sequels which fit that category already.


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Updated using Planet on 25 February 2017, 05:48 AM