Friday, July 07, 2006

Top 50 science blogs

Nature's Declan Butler has done a list of top 50 science blogs.

NHS IT vacination failure

Glyn Moody thinks the vacination chaos following the intallation of a new NHS IT system could have been avoided if open source systems had been used.

"The UK's shiny new IT system for the National Health Service (NHS) is fast becoming the biggest disaster in the history of computing. The latest area to suffer is that of childhood vaccinations:

Child vaccination rates may be falling to risky levels after a new IT system was installed, a health watchdog says.

Ten out of London's 31 primary care trusts have installed new software to manage the vaccine programme as part of a £6.8bn overhaul of NHS computers

And why is this all happening?

A spokesman for NHS Connecting for Health said the new system was implemented at short notice because the previous supplier "withdrew support for its ageing system from the market".

Had this "ageing system" been open source, the NHS could simply have called in another third-party contractor and given them the code. Since it was closed source, it was doomed when the supplier abandoned it, leaving the health system up to its neck in the proverbial."

Can't argue with that.

Orwellian future for children

The Telegraph's John Clare expresses concern about the UK government's common assessments proposals in response to the question of a special needs teacher.

As a special needs teacher, I'm worried about the Government's plans for a "common assessment framework" and "information sharing index". Could you explain which children will be affected and how much information on them will be shared by whom?

"The answer comes straight out of Orwell. Any child up to the age of 19 who is thought by someone in the public, private or voluntary sectors not to be meeting Government targets in respect of education, health or "lifestyle" is liable to find himself/herself the subject of a "common assessment".

The computerised form, which may be filled in by anyone working with children, young people and families ("You do not have to be an expert"), asks more than 150 questions covering such matters as educational achievement, behaviour in class, access to books, quality of parenting, diet, obesity, sexual activity, excessive use of expletives, personal and dental hygiene, the interior and exterior of the home, how the family's income is used - and so on, and on.

All this is to be elicited by "informal, non-threatening discussion" ("It does not have to be presented as a 'big event' "), with the agreement of either the parent or the child (aged 12 or over). The data need not be confined to facts, but opinions should be recorded: "For example: 'Michael said he thinks his dad is an alcoholic'."

Access to the information will be available via the index to every official agency and more than four million individuals. So much for article 8.1 of the European Convention on Human Rights: "Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life."

Anyone nervous of the implications is assured that "the Data Protection Act is not a barrier to sharing information". The justification for this wholesale intrusion: it will "help the workforce deliver joined-up services" - the excuse of every overbearing state, as Orwell knew."

For more detailed information on the common assessment framework and other UK children's databases see ARCH's excellent Database Masterclass.

Update: SpyBlog says "Some details about the massive Children Index centralised database of 12 million children and their parents and guardians has emerged via a Parliamentary Written Answer Commons Hansard 6 July 2006 : Column 1384W"

Thought for the day

Thought for the day.

"You assist an evil system most effectively by obeying its orders and decrees. An evil system never deserves such allegiance. Allegiance to it means partaking of the evil. A good person will resist an evil system with his or her whole soul." Mahatma Gandhi

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Home educators getting fired up about the Children's index

Some home educating parents are getting fired up about the government's plans for a Children's Index.

"A group of us HE parents met last night with a representative from the local Children Information Service in order that the ptb may be seen to have consulted with us when they come to implement the "Every Child Matters" agenda. I don't think any of us had any illusions. We understood that this consultation process is all window-dressing, but we will most certainly revel in it once they get their universal database up and running and we can expose this self-described caring, listening government for the fraudulent big brother that it really is.

So we did explain ourselves as clearly and as pointedly as we possibly could. The poor intermediary couldn't fail to get the various messages we put over"

Drowning in data - complexity's threat to terror investigations

John Lettice is right on the money again with his latest piece in The Rgister, Drowning in data - complexity's threat to terror investigations

"The core calculation is essentially the one put forward by the police and accepted by the Government - technology has been an enabler for international terrorism, with email, the Internet and mobile telephony producing wide, diffuse, international networks. The data on hard drives and mobile phones needs to be examined, contacts need to be investigated and their data examined, and in the case of an incident, vast amounts of CCTV records need to be gone through. As more and more of this needs to be done, the time taken to do it will obviously climb, and as it's 'necessary' to detain the new breed of terrorist early in the investigation before he can strike, more time will be needed between arrest and charge in order to build a case.

All of which is, as far as it goes, logical. But take it a little further and the inherent futility of the route becomes apparent - ultimately, probably quite soon, the volume of data overwhelms the investigators and infinite time is needed to analyse all of it. And the less developed the plot is at the time the suspects are pulled in, the greater the number of possible outcomes (things they 'might' be planning) that will need to be chased-up. Short of the tech industry making the breakthrough into machine intelligence that will effectively do the analysis for them (which is a breakthrough the snake-oil salesmen suggest, and dopes in Government believe, has been achieved already), the approach itself is doomed. Essentially, as far as data is concerned police try to 'collar the lot' and then through analysis, attempt to build the most complete picture of a case that is possible. Use of initiative, experience and acting on probabilities will tend to be pressured out of such systems, and as the data volumes grow the result will tend to be teams of disempowered machine minders chained to a system that has ground to a halt. This effect is manifesting itself visibly across UK Government systems in general, we humbly submit. But how long will it take them to figure this out...

The question of whether or not an action is illegal is however important. A legal but suspicious action requires investigation of context in order to determine intent, and to identify the actual crime, whereas an illegal action (which nevertheless might have a perfectly innocent explanation) allows prosecution without reference to or investigation of context.

And the wrong people sometimes get sent down. That however is not the immediate problem from the point of view of the system. Widespread prosecution for trivial and low-level offences will tend to overload the system and reduce focus on potentially more serious offences, while choking processes with low-level and irrelevant data, and directing resources down blind alleys. Police will frequently find themselves failing to find the conspiracy in cases where there really wasn't one...

There is clearly a major problem for the security services in distinguishing disaffected talk from serious planning, and in deciding when an identified group constitutes a real threat. But the current technology-heavy approach to the threat doesn't make a great deal of sense, because it produces very large numbers of suspects who are not and never will be a serious threat... Mischaracterising the threat by inflating early, inexpert efforts as 'major plots' meanwhile fosters a climate of fear and ultimately undermines public confidence in the security services...

we need a long-term survival/endurance strategy that doesn't drown the security services in a swamp of data, doesn't turn us into a police state, but does whatever is feasible to minimise risk."

iCommons Declarations on DRM and open access

The recent iCommons summit in Rio came up with a declaration on DRM and one on open access and one on the broadcast treaty. The open access declaration:

"WE BELIEVE THAT the scholarly literature – the professional research literature in all the fields of the sciences and humanities – should be available to the world under “open access” conditions.

WE BELIEVE THAT “open access” means:

(1) Scholarly literature that is free of charge for the reader.
(2) Scholarly literature that is free of unnecessary licensing resgtrictions, with explicit consent in advance to unrestricted reading, downloading, copying, sharing, storing, printing, searching, linking and crawling.
(3) Scholarly literature that is free from filters, digital rights management and censors.
(4) Scholarly literature that is available on the public internet in a form in which users can read, copy, redistribute, link, print, crawl, download, store, and search the full text."

Thought for the day

Thought for the day, from a simultaneously funny and depressing new blog I found today, Mr Chalk:

No suggestion is so ridiculous that it will not be taken seriously, written down and earnestly debated.

If it is any consolation, Mr Chalk, that is not just restricted to the education sector. According to a trusted colleague and friend the world of work has two important types of people - complicators and simplifiers. He would point to the former as the enthusiastic practioners of taking ridiculous ideas seriously.

Sophos tell home users to switch to Macs

Anti virus company Sophos has recommended that home computer users get rid of their old PCs and buy Apple Macs for better security, following their latest report on the last six months of computer security threats.

Information Commissioner issues first website enforcement order

From Outlaw, Information Commissioner issues first website enforcement order

"The ICO says that B4U, a Birmingham company which performs searches for information on individuals at, is in breach of the Data Protection Act (DPA). B4U says that it has not received any notification of an order.

The ICO says that B4U has breached the Act by using electoral roll data from before 2002. After 2002, people filling in an electoral roll form could choose to be excluded from the public register. The ICO also says that the company ignored requests from individuals for their details to be removed, which is in contravention of the Act."

Agents of distrust

Jonathan Rowe has been thinking about the corrosive nature of distrust engendered by corporate economies.

"The intelligence agencies of the former Soviet Bloc were more than means of acquiring information. Equally important, they were agencies of distrust. When people didn’t know who was an informant, their inclination to confide was to that extent diminished. The risk of challenging authority was multiplied many times. When the friend to whom you might entrust an anti-regime manuscript, or even just a thought, might be in the secret employ of that same regime, you would think many times before doing it.

Distrust causes people to retreat into cocoons of self-interest and survival; and self interest ultimately is the friend of the powers that be. The corporate economies of the West have produced their own version of this socially corrosive function...

Buzz Marketing, as it is called in the trade, has become big business. Proctor and Gamble alone has enlisted over 600,000 mothers to surreptitiously push products among their friends and peers. Through an affiliated company called Tremor, it has over 225,000 teenagers who do the same...

Suspicion is viral. Once it starts it doesn’t stop. We are less inclined to join our neighbors in civic causes and the like, because…well, who knows what their motives are, really? And when selling spills out of the traditional channels of commerce, and into our personal relationships, then the capacity to have those diminishes as well.

All that’s left is me. It is the ultimate triumph of the commercial values of the corporate state, because there is no refuge from them. Steve Knox, who heads the buzz marketing affiliates of Proctor and Gamble, put it this way. “Word of mouth is among the very few techniques to infiltrate the no-marketing zones people build around their lives,” he said.

Infiltrate. Didn’t the KGB and STASI use words like that?"

The Commons Rising

Peter Barnes, Jonathan Rowe and David Bollier have published a new 24 page report, The Commons Rising (pdf, 2.9M). David Bollier says:

"The Commons Rising is about the profusion of commons initiatives that are defending and invigorating the commons in all sorts of arenas -- the Internet, natural resources, public spaces, information and culture. We can see the "commons rising" in collaborativge websites and ecosystem trusts; in innovative legal tools such as conservation easements and Creative Commons licenses; in new types of social networks such as community gardens and time banks; and in new online communities such as Wikipedia, free and open source software, Craigslist and open science initiatives.

The report celebrates these efforts and calls upon Americans to scale them up. "We must nail down what's in the commons now, and steadily add to the commons from this day forward," the report urges."

You wouldn't

You wouldn't start a war is very smart parody of the latest MPAA anti piracy video, which comes absolutely free now on many DVDs, without the option of fast forwarding past it. (Click on the image below to run the movie)

France v Italy Final

I guess there is some justice in football after all with the French snatching victory in a terrible world cup semi-final against Portugal last night on a dodgy penalty. Congratulations to France and Italy and let's hope the final on Sunday is more like the semi-final classic between Germany and Italy on Tuesday than the drudge served up last night.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Time for Coders to Get Political?

Glyn Moody wonders if it is Time for Coders to Get Political?

Apparently Richard Stallman has been making friends with a possible candidate for the French presidency.

Thanks to Glyn on the ORG list for the link.Support the Open Rights Group

USA Today retract part of NSA and telcos report

From the Washington Post USA Today Takes Back Some of NSA Phone-Record Report

MySpace, a place without MyParents

Scott Granneman had a terrific article at SecurityFocus on Monday about the current hysteria surrounding MySpace.

" Like, ohmigod! Have you heard? About MySpace? LOL

MySpace is the second most popular web property in the world...

But, like, have you heard? There are sexual predators, pedophiles, murderers, bullies, tramps, sharpies, and frauds on MySpace! The children are at risk! Just visit MyCrimeSpace or The Dead Kids Of MySpace and you'll find a bellyful of stories that will scare the willies out of you...

Folks, we are in the midst of a mass hysteria. The media has found the latest way to drive readers and ratings: the good ol' fashioned gumbo stew of children and teens, sexuality, murder and death, new technology, and fear. Lots and lots of fear. Fear that freaks out parents and those in authority and leads to bad decisions made in the name of security.

Look, I know there are really bad people using MySpace to do really bad things. If its criminal, they should be caught and punished. But I also know that there are really bad people in the grocery stores, at the movie theaters, in parks, and even on the other end of the phone...

We can sure try to educate kids and parents and schools about MySpace, but I'm just not certain how effective we're ever going to be. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try, but it also means that we can't expect perfect success. Any time you allow humans to come into contact with each other, there's the potential for exploitation. That doesn't mean disaster is guaranteed, however. It just means that we need to try to keep a cool head and not allow blind emotion and fear to cloud our better judgments. "

Update: ARCH has some recommended reading the the subject of child protection and welfare and surveillance. "Of major concern to large numbers of practitioners is that it will become far more difficult to find those children who need to be found if an already understaffed and poorly-resourced system is over-burdened with alarms and excursions about children who are not in any danger. Child protection is a deadly serious business, and is in no way the same as 'child welfare'. It deserves a great deal more than relegation to just one possible category in a large-scale tracking project."

Verizon Warns Financial Sector on Internet Fight

Verizon are warning the finance industry that net neutrality legislation will be BAD for them. Finance people understand finance language (sometimes), so let's put it like this - believe the telcos and you'll get a situation where a small number of large telcos will exert oligopolistic (and in practive monopolistic) control of the pricing of your data flows. Keep the Net neutral and you can stick whatever smart controllers you like at the ends of the network which are controlled by you.

Meanwhile Google are threatening antitrust lawsuits against the telcos if Congress do hand them a law to print money.

Stallholders are fined £80 for offensive Blair T-shirts

Stallholders are fined £80 for offensive Blair T-shirts

National learning 'grid' for schools scrapped

BECTA and the government have finally accepted the reality that online learning is not as simple as they thought it was.

"A core feature of the government's multi-million-pound school computers initiative, the National Grid for Learning, has been scrapped.

Announced by Labour in 1997, it was central to the effort to thrust school technology into the 21st Century.

Government computer agency Becta said it was reducing the online services and brands it provided for schools and was "exiting from the NGfL brand".

The NGfL web "portal" to educational resources is no longer available."

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

NASA to launch shuttle despite crack in foam

NASA to launch shuttle despite crack in foam

It is 20 years since the Challenger and three years since the Columbia space shuttle disasters. Operating the space shuttle programme remains a hugely risky enterprise. Fingers crossed that it goes well for everyone involved, especially the crew.

EU opens public consultation on RFID

From the Register, EU opens public consultation on RFID

Monday, July 03, 2006

The continuing adventures of private infringer

Chapter II in the continuing adventures of private infringer is now available.
“The DVD you bought was released for the European market. Not the North American market. Therefore you purchasing it and importing it here is piracy!”


“That doesn't matter”, countered Major Restrictions. “The disc is yours, but you still have no right to the content. The DMCA says we have the right to limit your rights when we are enforcing our own rights. We have the right to force you to stop what you are doing when you try infringe our rights”

Economics and Information Security

Bruce Schneier has been attending Ross Anderson's fifth Workshop on the Economics of Information Security, or WEIS.

"The idea that economics has anything to do with computer security is relatively new. Ross Anderson and I seem to have stumbled upon the idea independently. He, in his brilliant article from 2001, "Why Information Security Is Hard -- An Economic Perspective" (.pdf), and me in various essays and presentations from that same period.

WEIS began a year later at the University of California at Berkeley and has grown ever since. It's the only workshop where technologists get together with economists and lawyers and try to understand the problems of computer security.

And economics has a lot to teach computer security. We generally think of computer security as a problem of technology, but often systems fail because of misplaced economic incentives: The people who could protect a system are not the ones who suffer the costs of failure."

The failure of special educational needs provision

The Observer reported yesterday on a damning report from the Commons Education and Skills select committee.

"A damning report will raise serious questions this week over the way children with special needs are educated, highlighting 'significant cracks' in an underfunded system that leaves desperate parents without sufficient support."

Hopefully it will get significant publicity but unfortunately those with an interest in special educational needs are a small constituency.