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Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Swine flu black humour

Ya gotta laugh. No, really ...

Miss Piggy Dies of Swine Flu

Miss Piggy, actress and star of television, stage, and screen, has become the first celebrity victim of the Swine Flu Epidemic. The 39 year old actress passed away at Hollywood Hills Hospital surrounded by family, friends, and a representative from Peyton's Meat Packing Plant.

Read on ...

What they told us last time ...

'Ole reliable

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Snoutbreak '09 - The Last 100 Days
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic CrisisPolitical Humor

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
The Last 100 Days
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic CrisisPolitical Humor

This is pretty amusing too

Monday, 27 April 2009

Music: A robot plays jazz

Seriously. A robot plays jazz. Improvisational jazz.

It's amazing to hear the two - the human and the machine - learn together.

More about Shimon - the robotic marimba player

Here's two humans plus two machines improvising.

Fear the Google, don't fear the Google

evil google logo
There's been a lot of paranoia around lately about Google. We've had Street View arriving in the UK and provoking posh protests blocking their camera car. Now we've got requests for investigations on the info they hold about their users.

The former seems bizarre to me in the country which has accepted more cameras looking down on us than anywhere else in the world. The latter appears worrying when it's suggested that they might disclose that information to states, but states can get far more from internet service providers (and already trawl our digital use anyway).

What's really exercised some though has been the Google business proposition, which is to use that data to better target ads.

Here's why I find this a bit ridiculous: Google just aren't very good at it.

I have been using Gmail for ages and send and receive heaps of email. Besides each one are text ads targeted at me using all the text in all that email plus the content of the particular email I'm looking at.

They're consistently mistargeted .

gmail text ad showing legal firms

gmail text ad showing lionel ritchie concert and model trains

I swear I don't know why they think I might want Lionel Richie tickets. or have a legal problem.

After hunting I found one which is vaguely near to the content of the email. But only vaguely.

gmail text ad showing training providers

The area where we should be the most concerned is the one which I've yet to see British media really pick up on. And it's actually concerns Google's mission - to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.

Google Books is their project to make available digital copies of out-of-copyright books and make copyright book text searchable.

They've signed up Oxford University amongst other big name partners.

Trouble is there are several rivals to Google and they're open-source, not proprietary. Services like and the Internet Archive.

Recently Google changed it's terms to specifically disallow any of these services from using books they'd digitised - public domain books. There's not been any legal action thus far but why change the terms if they didn't want to challenge others, like the Internet Archive which hosts over half a million public domain books downloaded from Google.

words in google colours drop out of bookGoogle has also 'locked up' some public domain books.

Here's an example of a public domain book on Google that was once 'Full access' and is now 'Snippet only': The American Historical Review, 1920. For the time being, there is a copy on Internet Archive.

The agreements with libraries (which are mainly university libraries), which were only made public by legal action, means that they give Google all of their books for free, and in return they are given scans that they effectively cannot use for anything.

If they want access to the corpus, they have to subscribe just like everyone else. This means that Google is requiring them to buy back their own copyrighted books, if anyone wants to actually use them on or off the campus.

Their recent deal with publishers which includes the setting up of a Books Rights Registry appears to give Google different, more favourable terms to anyone else who enters into agreements with the Registry.

The Open Content Alliance
(OCA) is a consortium with the Internet Archive at its centre which wants to build (a virtual) Alexandria Library II (a physical Bibliotheca Alexandrina exists). The OCA includes the British Library, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and a number of corporations - though neither Google nor Microsoft, who recently left it after funding the scanning of 750,000 books to launch their own book scanning project.

Brewster Kahle, who founded the Internet Archive and heads the Open Content Alliance, warns of "the consequences of the consolidation of information into the hands of a few private organizations".
Google is digitizing some great libraries. But their contracts (which were actually secret contracts with libraries – which is bizarre, but anyway, they were secret until they got sued out of them by some governments) are under such restrictions that they’re pretty useless... the copies that go back to the libraries. Pretty much Google is trying to set themselves up as the only place to get to these materials; the only library; the only access. The idea of having only one company control the library of human knowledge is a nightmare. I mean this is 1984 – a book about how bad the world would be if this really came about, if a few governments’ control and corporations’ control on information goes too far.
There's other issues here too with Google's relationship with libraries:

Some may have second thoughts if Google’s system isn’t set up to recognize some of their digital copies, said Gregory Crane, a Tufts University professor who is currently studying the difficulty accessing some digital content.

For instance, Tufts worries Google’s optical reader won’t recognize some books written in classical Greek. If the same problem were to crop up with a digital book in the Open Content Alliance, Crane thinks it will be more easily addressed because the group is allowing outside access to the material.

The OCA is trying to establish a standard and both Google and now Microsoft have opted out. Not only is there duplication (triplication) of these vital efforts for human knowledge but Google also refuses to even talk to them, it sees them as a rival.

The OCA are building a "permanent, publicly accessible archive" of digitized texts. Both Google and Microsoft are doing it to make money - not that there's anything wrong with that but it is right to fear when such knowledge is only available via coporate, proprietorial means.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Cute animals: Bailey playing dead

LocalGovCamp - 20 June


LocalGovCamp is happening 20 June at the Fazeley Studios in Birmingham. You can get your ticket here.

More here.

NB you do not have to work in local government to attend, just have an interest.

Iranian, Gay & Seeking Asylum

A remarkable insight into the lives of two gay Iranian men living in Leeds. We follow them as they establish their new lives in the UK and the setting up of a new support group by the two who have become friends since arriving in Bradford. They both fled Iran after after their boyfriends were captured by the authorities, one of whom was tragically executed.

More On Iran, gay and seeking asylum

Friday, 24 April 2009

Tech lessons from Africa

Ushahidi: Crowdsourcing Crisis Information

Ushahidi, which means ”testimony” in Swahili, is an open source engine. The project was developed in the effort to better map out reports of violence in Kenya. This was after the post-election fallout at the beginning of 2008.

The aim of Ushahidi is to create a platform that any person or organization can use to set up his or her own platform for collecting and visualizing information. They explain that, ‘the core Ushahidi platform allows for a plug-in and extensions that can be customized for different locales and needs. The tool is open source allowing others to download, implement and use the engine so that they can bring awareness to crises in their own region.’

The core engine is built on the premise that gathering crisis information from the general public provides new insights into events happening in ‘near real-time.’

Ushahidi is also being utilised in the Indian election by Vote Report India.

screenshot of Vote Report India

Users contribute direct SMS, email, and web reports on violations of the Indian Election Commission’s Model Code of Conduct (PDF). The platform will then aggregate these direct reports with news reports, blog posts, photos, videos and tweets related to the elections from all relevant sources, in one place, on an interactive map.

Vote Report India aim is to not only increase transparency and accountability in the Indian election process, but also provide the most complete picture of public opinion in India during the elections.

Vote Report India is a non-partisan all-volunteer collaboration between software developers, designers, academics, and other professionals.

Here's Erik Hersman, aka WhiteAfrican, talking to TED about Ushahidi:

Here's a paper on the use of the Ushahidi platform in the Gaza war. Scroll to sec.5 for new media.

Recent research from ResearchICTAfrica reveals that Kenyans are spending incredible amounts on mobile communication as a proportion of income.

Here’s how it breaks down. The average Kenyan spends over 50% of their disposable income on mobile communication. For the bottom 75% of the population, that figure goes up to 63.6%. In terms of total individual income, the average Kenyan spends 16.7% of their income on mobile communication. That figure rises to 26.6% when looking at the bottom 75% of the population.

Africans are paying for mobile communication in spite of how expensive it is, not because of how affordable it is and because access to mobile communication is critical for people. Even if you are digging a ditch by the side of the road, day labour is now organised via SMS.

Nathan Eagle of MIT recently gave a talk to eTech where he explained about the mobile scene in Africa.

Entrepreneurs are constantly finding new uses for the technology.

A Kenyan water pump manufacturer combines an mobile-mPesa-enabled, solar-powered metering system with their water pumps. They give water pumps away for free and then make a profit by selling access to water via Safaricom’s mPesa service. Send the pump 20 Kenyan Shillings and it pumps 20 litres of water for you. This has increased the water pump companies business and made water more accessible to those who need it.

However, as Steve Song points out:
When a single mobile operator is a gatekeeper to water supply, something is wrong. For any village in this situation, [Kenya's largest mobile network]Safaricom can charge whatever they like.

If we accept the premise that, in places like Kenya, no one can afford not to have access to a phone, then one cannot help but feel that something needs to be done. A flour milling company in South Africa was recently fined more than 45 million Rand by the Competition Commission for price fixing and collusion. I think it is time to take a serious look at mobile operators.

Imagine an alternate reality where Africans paid less than 5% percent of their income on mobile communications and all phones operated on an IP-based network so that any new African innovation might be unlimited in terms of scope. Then we would see mobile-enabled social and economic innovation taking off in Africa.

As Nathan explains, African colleges and universities are turning out a lot of entrepreneurial tech talent. Unfortunately, much of this then migrates. Things like his work and the establishment of companies like Google Kenya is helping to stem this flow. Barcamp's have been held in Kenya and are coming up in Nigeria.

London is hosting a chance for sponsors and African innovators to meet up this weekend at Africa Gathering.

WhiteAfrican's blog is full of tales of tech innovation in Africa. Here he talks about the problems facing the next generation of techies in Liberia. Here's his list of African tech events.

Here Jonathan Gosier explains about his work in developing a tech hub in Uganda.

The rest of the world has a lot to learn from Africa, most obviously in developments around mobile phones.

HT: Kenya Pundit, WhiteAfrican

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Economic depression: a silver lining


It's not the grunts, it's the generals who need prosecuting

As the sirens close in on those who designed the torture regime in the Bush administration, this is a quite astonishing interview with one of its key actors.

Janis Karpinski ran Abu Gharib prison in Baghdad, source of those awful photos as well as jail sentences for some of the grunts who worked in it. Karpinski ended up getting demoted.

As the paper trail gets longer she unleashes on those who wouldn't defend those grunts at the time: Rumsfeld's cabal. Those who spoke of 'bad apples'

Here's Karpinski on the Daily Show.

I feel pretty much the same about the police officers who assaulted people at the G20 demos.

Those grunts were allowed to do what they did by both their superiors and by politicians (not just Jacqui Smith but Boris and Ken before him). All in an atmosphere, like that created by Bush and Cheney for US troops and contractors, of free reign for the police created by Blair.

Anyone who exercises the sorts of powers - lethal powers - that soldiers and police officers have needs to be well-managed as it should be obvious from human psychology and several thousand years of experience that they will abuse them if they are not managed. They are ultimately responsible for their actions but, like with a manslaughter charge, their superiors are equally culpable.

Tony Blair said in 2004:
"We asked the police what powers they wanted, and gave them to them."
Not what they 'needed', what they 'wanted'. Very important distinction.

In some ways you could say that Ian Tomlinson was a victim of Tony Blair.

Gawd help me, I'm going to quote a Tory, former home secretary Willie Whitelaw from the 1980s.
He boasted how after any security lapse, the police would come to beg for new and draconian powers. He laughed and sent them packing, saying only a bunch of softies would erode British liberty to give themselves an easier job. He said they laughed in return and remarked that "it was worth a try".
This is entirely the right approach - and I just love the reference to 'softies'.

Music: Martin Luther King sings

This actually works.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Iraqi pogrom of LGBT: horrific report upon horrific report

The following is a translation of a story from Alarabiya, a UAE-based media network, which was published on its Arabic website a few hours ago. While International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) has not verified all of the allegations, many are consistent with patterns of human rights violations being reported from within the country. As a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Iraqi government has an obligation to protect the right to life (Article 6) and the right of all its citizens “to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (Article 7).

On Friday April 17, IGLHRC sent a letter to the Iraqi Minister of Human Rights, asking her to take specific measures to protect LGBT Iraqis. On April 8, IGLHRC and Human Rights Watch submitted an urgent appeal to the Special Procedures of the United Nations to ask for an investigation. In 2006, after a wave of violence targeted LGBT Iraqis, IGLHRC sent a letter to then Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, requesting that the U.S. government conduct a thorough investigation of the violations.

IGLHRC will continue to monitor the situation and gather more evidence about the recent wave of violence against Iraqi LGBT people.

Bodies of 7 Gays in Baghdad Morgue

by Hayyan Neyuf -Dubai/ Ali Al-Iraqi - Baghdad

A prominent Iraqi human rights activist says that Iraqi militia have deployed a painful form of torture against homosexuals by closing their anuses using “Iranian gum.” … Yina Mohammad told that, “Iraqi militias have deployed an unprecedented form of torture against homosexuals by using a very strong glue that will close their anus.”

According to her, the new substance “is known as the American hum, which is an Iranian-manufactured glue that if applied to the skin, sticks to it and can only be removed by surgery. After they glue the anuses of homosexuals, they give them a drink that causes diarrhea. Since the anus is closed, the diarrhea causes death. Videos of this form of torture are being distributed on mobile cellphones in Iraq.”

According to this human rights activist, for the past 3 weeks a crackdown on homosexuals has been going on based on a religious decree that demands their death; dozens have been targeted. She says that the persecution of homosexuals is not confined to the Shiite clerics. Some Sunni leaders have also declared the death penalty for sodomy on satellite channels.”

63 People Tortured
According to Hassan from the Iraqi LGBT group in London, attacks against homosexuals have been abundant in Shiite neighborhoods, especially poor regions and remote areas such as the southern provinces and the Hurriya, Sho’la and Sadr neighborhoods in Baghdad. So far, 63 members of the group have been tortured.

Hassan also confirmed the use of “Iranian Gum” in the torture process, adding that, “I talked to many young men who have been tortured by this method. They went to the hospital for treatment and in some cases they were refused treatment.” According to Hassan, “all religious leaders, whether Sunni or Shiite, call for the eradication of homosexuals, but the Shiites are the ones who are most involved in these attacks.”

Vigilante Groups
According to newspaper reports from local news sources in Sadr City in East Baghdad, a previously unknown group “Ahl al-Haq (the followers of Truth) have stepped up the persecution of Iraqi homosexuals after the murder of a number of them in the past few days. The news sources say that, “3 lists, each with the name of 10 gay men were circulated in Sadr City for a few hours.” The lists included a quote saying, “You, prostitutes, we will punish you!”

7 Bodies in Bagdad’s Morgue
The Alarabiya reporter, visited the Baghdad Morgue in Bab-al-Moazaam in central Baghdad, where the Neman Mohsen, the medical examiner, confirmed that they have the bodies of 7 homosexuals in the morgue. He said, “We were not able to identify the culprits who dumped the bodies in front of the morgue and fled, without being seen.”

He explained, “There were bodies with gunshots in the head and chest and the rest of the body without any obvious causes of death.”

Khalaf Abdul Hussein, from the Legal Affairs Office at the Police Station in Sadr City, told Alarabiya: “the extra-judicial killing of any citizen is a crime punishable by law. No one has the right to become a substitute for judicial authorities or executive authorities, and if there are complaints against individuals, there is law and there are police and there are government agencies. No group or class has the authority to punish people instead of the state.”

He said: “We, like everyone else, have heard rumors about these cases, but we can’t comment on something that is not evidence, and there is no evidence for these crimes either in terms of motivation or in terms of the nature of the criminal acts. We do not know the motives of the killers and we do not know the intentions of those killed.”

“Son of a Bitch”
Officials and tribal leaders in Sadr City are reluctant to provide details about the murder of homosexuals. However, Sheikh Hashem Mokhani, one of the tribal elders in the city, said: “The people refer to these sexual perverts as ‘son of a bitch,’ but most of the victims were not residents of Sadr City. They used to hang out in a [gay] cafe, on Palestine Street in Baghdad.”

Sheik Salal Al-kaabi, one of the elders of Sadr City says: “we have heard that the tribes, to whom these perverts belonged, declared their lives worthless and allowed their death, but we have also heard that an organization calling itself the followers of Truth (ahl-al Haq) are reponsible for the murders and have written on the chest of victim a sentence that reads: This is the fate of a son of a bitch.”

Please urge your MP to raise this issue with the Foreign Office

Suggested letter


I write to draw your attention to the pogrom of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people which is currently taking place in Iraq.

Although this has yet to draw much mainstream media attention the reports are truly horrifying and escalating. They have draw the attention of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and US Representatives.

However the UK Foreign Office does not appear to be taking any action.

I refer you to the statement of Bill Rammell [].

The following are reports concerning the pogrom:


I would urge you to ask the Foreign Office why they are not taking stronger action in this matter.



The breathing earth

Watch in real time the earth's CO2 emissions, birth and death rates by country at this fantastic website.

This website was captured using screentoaster.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Crime in the UK: new perspectives is hosting a great series of short videos about crime in the UK.

This is one more outlet which can host your point of view. There is life beyond YouTube.

Can't also resist posting this one which appears on the thread (and is related) about an hilarious spambusting exercise:

Local hubs for local people

Leo Zogmayer, Change, No Change

Sorry, but here we go again. New Minister equals new pet projects. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose?

Hazel Blear's Department for Communities and Local Government has just announced a series of 'pilot projects' which are supposed to connect up councils with local people.

The national egov strategy over the past decade has been nothing but an endless series of 'pilot projects'. Most of which have ended up in a drawer somewhere. Vast sums have been spent and what has been the ROI? Is anyone calculating it? Certainly not HM's Opposition.

Here they all are:

  • London Borough of Barnet - will create an online consultation tool showing information on planning applications in a more useful format. It will allow users to track applications, comment on decisions and communicate with other users
  • Birmingham City Council - will develop an online community that will enable local people to influence the planning and delivery of services
  • Cambridgeshire County Council - will develop a one stop shop website for use by parents and carers of disabled children that will include specialist information from third sector organisations
  • Gloucestershire County Council - will create 18 online community notice boards for neighbourhoods that will provide information on local services and allow people to contact service providers. There will also be dedicated space on notice boards for partners such as police who will provide crime maps for the area
  • Kent County Council - will provide online information on local services in a way that allows people to choose which areas of information they use to provide a customised online service
  • Lancashire County Council - will provide tailored information on support to citizens affected by the downturn such as advice about debt, jobs and training
  • Leeds City Council - will create an interactive information site for older and disabled users of adult social care that will enable users to find out about different options for services near where they live and see the reviews of services by other older and disabled people in their area
  • Liverpool City Council - will develop the 'My Neighbourhood' portal that will allow people to request services, report problems in their neighbourhood and track how they are being dealt with
  • Norfolk County Council - will create community websites to provide up-to-date local information and support local campaigns
  • Wigan Council - will provide an interactive database to help people find opportunities for local volunteering and participation.
All very 'worthy' but all either directly or indirectly related to either existing work by other areas in egov or, more importantly, other work elsewhere on the web.

Fact is that all localities already have a number of blogs and forums which discuss local topics. As well, people who mainly talk online about other things than local issues or politics occasionally dip in.

So why not do the job of supporting (funding) the less-enfranchised to contribute to this - existing - debate? Why not facilitate engagement between this existing local debate infrastructure?

Why not support local hubs for local people?

In my city one local activist has a blog which reports in details on what local bodies are doing. His extremely dedicated and detailed work is undoubtedly pooh-poohed by authorities but he's managed to grab the attention of at least one council leader and I suspect many saw the worth when he exposed that local police were planning on doing away with pensions for police officers injured in the course of their duties when they turned 65. Something which the local paper managed to miss.

We also have an extremely busy former usenet group (now Google Group) and a busy youth-orientated bulletin board which sometimes covers local issues (as well as dozens of local blogs).

An example elsewhere which has built a lively community - but which fails to draw in the wider local online debate - is Haringay Online.

What I'm envisaging is a hub which contains what's going on in these sorts of communities alongside council input, gardened links, gardened local content from elsewhere (such as local newspaper reports), services pages, campaign pages, groups pages, blogs, (tagged?) blog content, local tweets, local pix, audio and video and more (the merrier).

I can think of two big things which might stop council's supporting this idea of local hubs in its tracks:
  1. the political implications of being associated with potentially politically disagreeable viewpoints or people
  2. resistance from local newspapers
The first can be dealt with by developing robust, transparent terms and protocols which work in the real (political) world. It's not like there aren't plenty of examples of people in the wider web having to sort out how to deal with nutters, racists and the rest. Think of CIF or the BBC, for starters. Or in another way Indymedia and the growing citizen journalism base of best practice.

The second is more difficult, as Mirror Head Sly Bailey highlighted in her threatening comments in her keynote speech to the Digital Britain summit last Friday. She (presumably) thought local council magazines undermined local newspaper ad revenues.

The way to get around that is to encourage local newspaper involvement. If you are driving traffic their way and highlighting the sort of local journalism with "deep and intrinsic value" which she spoke of there is a business case for them here.

It's also a two-way street. I wrote last year about how a Swedish newspaper was getting free hyper-local journalism from citizen reporters in villages. Local newspapers gain not only from that but from being seen to be connected into what's actually happening locally. And if they can't figure out how to monetise that it's their own silly fault. Old models are plainly doomed.

Richmond council has done some work here which is worth a look.

Another problem might be resistance from other sorts of commercialised walled gardens. There are stacks of national websites which pretend to be localised.

Again, some of this needs to be negotiated or co-opted, some needs to be ignored. Think of whose interests are being served.

Of course there's other issues too. Anything which is seen to be controlled by a council won't work. It has to be independent yet still representative. But here again there are existing models such as relationships with housing associations or town centre management which bring in other groups as well as interested citizens. A local council's role should be catalyst or enabler, not big momma.

But maybe that sounds like too much hard, patient work when you can just fiddle around with 'consultation' on a sexy site ready to be launched via a photo-op for the local paper? Which then fails to report on low usage six months or a year later?

We just had one local exception which proves the rule where a council housing 'consultation' had been costed at £2700 per response. This made the local paper.

The tools by which such local hubs could be built exist and there's stacks of rich content and debate already out there waiting to be tapped into and joined-up. What there isn't is a need for local councils and the rest of egov to built its own (expensive) spaces, within its own walled garden, and then expect the citizens to flock towards their good works. That's simply wasting money.
The true definition of madness is repeating the same action, over and over, hoping for a different result.
Albert Einstein

Cute animals: Younger cat gets telling off

Somehow I'm reminded of Ginger Spice ...

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Too many old guys in suits and ties (plus Sly Bailey)

I tuned into the afternoon of the Digital Britain event on Friday. (I really don't need to hear Brown, Burnham and Mandelson's reading out the pat words written for them from the morning session - just any resulting talking points).

The online presence for the event was good. Live video and live blogging by the stunning Mr Briggs. But the real action was on Twitter where #digitalbritain managed to hit no.5 trending hashtag on all of Twitter as the afternoon ploughed on.

There has been very little blogging about the Digital Britain event (which really says something) but Donald Clark has the goods here. He's responsible for the "too many old guys in suits and ties" line I've pinched and his point that "the debate has been hijacked by the BBC, BT, Virgin, Universal, Mirror Group and some irrelevant London web companies, who are really TV production companies in disguise" was correct too. The panelists really were almost exclusively a bunch of badly briefed no-nothing's with the odd scary one (the head of Universal music, who actually said "we're at the beginning of cultural and creative global warming" and, urgh, Sly Bailey spring to mind) and some shockingly ignorant lines from other panellists.

Apart from one guy who co-wrote the Digital Britain report, Andrew Chitty, the most origial and useful stuff came from the audience such as this great line "the #1 threat to creatives is not piracy but obscurity" or about how the UK digitech industry grew from the "unintended consequences" of BBC Micro.

The event reached it's significant low point right at the end when a very bored looking Stephen Fry finally got to speak and blew open the whole event by slamming the idea of 'digital skills'. Finally some smartness, finally some original thought, finally some wit. The Twittosphere lit up.

And then it was over. Thanks to the BBC's Nick Higham, Fry got to add one more point in but was otherwise unable to speak. Their loss. Our loss as well I guess but the quality of 'debate' was shown by just how many panelists played the man (Fry was 'out of touch' by being smart, by being a geek) or the analogy he used rather than addressing his actual point.

Fry was right. We have always had the need for 'media literacy', to be able to read-between-the-lines of TV reporting and newspapers to get to the truth. This is as true online as off. This isn't new.

The constantly restated 'need' to train people in this 'digital literacy', with 'digital skills', to feel the need to constantly restate a policy fear of the net as being a (unique) source of untruths, misses the point and is disconnected because, as usual, the people pushing it laregly exist within a back patting egov walled garden. (There's also an unmentionable self-interest at work.)

Digital development for all, for the great unwashed, is about easier to use tech Fry said. About meeting the problem of finding stuff through better designed search. Yes you can train people on mouse use but development will have to (does) address those barriers otherwise its shit won't sell.

Most stuff still isn't that easy to use (cf Nielsen), but it is getting better: there's another Moore's law here maybe? Fry's analogy related to learning to drive - these days it's much easier. I've pointed before to the now 40-year old and still going development of ATM usability.

Breaching the digital divide is about content people want and stuff they can use: we're getting towards a true tipping point where people will both want and need.

In Africa a majority now use mobile phones - because they need to. If you want a day job in Kenya you can only find them through notification on a mobile. UK industry hasn't thought that far yet! That's not government's fault but it is government's fault if it thinks the 'digital divide' (or 'accessibility') for that matter is simply about better access to public services!

The lowest point of the event and the one which stopped me in my tracks ('wtf?') was the keynote by Sly Bailey, who runs the Mirror Group (and Donald reminds me is "a non-exec at EMI, known for its inept response to the digital music revolution"). Introduced like she was going to focus intelligently on the demise of local newspapers, she provoked a flurry of tweets from me as I have seen her in action.

During the dotcom boom she headed magazine behemoth IPC Media whose 'digital investments' as they now would be called crashed losing at least £35m. So many of them were oversold propositions along the lines of the infamous, the unusable, trendy clothes retailer who burnt £125m of investor money before going - entirely predictably - tits-up.

I sat in countless meetings where she listened wide-eyed as sales people sold her something (always looking - literally - just gorgeous on - literal - paper) so obviously overworked and useless I wanted to scream. But she wasn't interested in the thoughts of little people, her own paid staff, these sales guys knew exactly how to press her buttons (beggar the thought) and so ridiculous site after expensive ridiculous site was built.

A quater of a million was blown on the (god preserve us) Flash driven (because flash designers were expensive I ended up concluding) corporate site - this was 2000 remember. After it's 'launch' the mega-design firm responsible took staff to one of London's most expensive restaurants, I thought of that as getting some of the massive, innapropriate overspend back.

Notably, the big survivor from this mess was NME's website. They had resisted the Group's digital interference and the site was driven by passionate musos.

After Bailey was poached by Mirror Group she presided over Fleet Street's worst newspaper web site for years before giving it a far too late overhaul last year.

Like most newspaper bosses she's laid off countless actual journalists, including lots in local papers. Now she comes as someone someone thinks knows what they're talking about to Digital Britain to state a line undoubtedly pinched from the likes of Jeff Jarvis that newspapers will only survive on their own unique content - their own journalism with its "deep and intrinsic value". Not the recycled PR and celebrity news done better by the TMZs etc. Which she like most newspaper bosses have staked their paper's current 'business model' on.

Well, doh!

Her business model solution to save newspaper corps? Allow mergers.

So, not only did the event organisers keynote invite to her sum up all that was wrong and patronising with this 'summit' but her inclusion I suspect as a woman when someone realised practically all the speakers were male made it even more patronising.

As I tweeted, I recommend watching the debate between the head of Associated Press and Arianna Huffington on American public TV's Charlie Rose rather than listening to a dinosaur like Bailey for a real thoughtful contribution on the future of news organisations and of journalism. I've embedded the show below, the debate starts at 15 minutes in.

Someone tweeted the (missed) need for an 'unconference' paralleling this sort of doggedly 'top down' dinosaur event. Ab-sa-bloody-lutely. The 'fake' Digital Britain report wiki, which some of the people who should on panels at any future Digital Britain event have set up, is a good start.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Our answer to Maher, Colbert and Stewart?

I just love David Mitchell. Not only is he a brilliant comedian who can do slapstick as well as satire but he's a great writer whose columns never fail to hit the spot. He's smart, witty and not shy of being political. He hosts The Unbelievable Truth on Radio Four expertly. His appearance on Question Time saw him displaying all these talents with no script writer.

I'd vote for him.

I've discovered he has a YouTube channel where he delivers some excellent monologues like this one on TV rudeness:

I've never understood the appeal of shows like Dragon's Den either. I guess I like my wit more on the Gore Vidal level than the Ballantyne.

All his skills make him, IMO, just about the only candidate to do a UK version of the Daily Show or, even better, Real Time with Bill Maher. That is, world class political satire.

Maher just had Gore Vidal on his show
and, rare for Vidal, more than held his own with him. Similarly ranty Marcus Brigstock once tried the Daily Show format and failed miserably.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Let amazonfail be a warning

The casual dropping of LGBT titles from Amazon's rankings, sales charts and hence search (and hence visibility) was explicity done to make it more 'family friendly'.

This is clear from their customer services department's initial response:
"In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude 'adult' material from appearing in some searches and bestseller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature," explained "Ashlyn D" from Amazon's member services department.
The politics of this are a bit mad. Amazon has to appeal across the board or it loses a huge customer base. It's also a global company and 'family friendly' does not mean the same here as it does to certain sections of the USA.

They've obviously realised the mistake but the response is telling:
When contacted by the Guardian, an Amazon spokeswoman said that there was "a glitch in our systems and it's being fixed". However, the company refused to elaborate on why that move was made, or how the filter to choose which books were excluded was applied.
The problem is both the filter and the secrecy behind it.

In the Guardian's story one author reports how his memoir was called 'adult' in February; this attitude isn't a new one for Amazon. In a comment on Zoe Margolis' piece an academic author says that her book was listed by Google with another name attached. Google promised to remove it a year ago and it hasn't happened.

Filters will always have 'glitches' but they are almost universally privatised. There's no law or licensing body or any democratic control over them.

As I've written about, this means that, with filters in place, access to knowledge - most concernedly for children - is often barred thanks to both 'glitches' and privatisation rather than public decided morality.

As a knowledgeable adult, I can still find my way around online barriers (though this might change and could change so we end up with a 'national filter' like the Australian government wants, whose breach means breaking the law), but for the less knowledgeable they won't know and for children it takes some guts to stand up and ask 'why is this blocked?'

We need much more debate about who manges filters and why and how the heck we've ended up with a (largely) American bunch of companies deciding what we and especially our kids can and cannot see.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Milliband's FCO joins Smith's Home Office in denial over pogram of Iraqi LGBT

Pink Paper reports that the Foreign Office says it is looking into the reports which emerged last week of gays in Iraq on deathrow for being gay.

The Iraqi LGBT group has since stated that five of their members in Iraq are on deathrow for being members of their organisation.

In responding to these reports, Bill Rammell, minister of state, said:
“The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has received some reports of violence committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation. But these allegations have so far been uncorroborated and we have consequently been unable to raise them with the government of Iraq.

There does not however appear to be any systemic or institutionalised abuse of the homosexual community in Iraq. FCO officials remain in contact with vulnerable groups and organisations such as the UK-based Iraqi Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans-Gender Group, and are looking into their most recent reports. The UK condemns the persecution of any individual because of their sexual orientation.”
This is absolutely outrageous. There is a thick file of media reports, including one of deaths in Baghdad this week, carried out by death squads, as well as UN, Human Rights Watch and IGLHRC reports of "systemic or institutionalised abuse".

Rammell should be ashamed of himself. Following the State Department denials it looks like the invading alliance is engaged in nothing but "systemic or institutionalised abuse" of Iraqi LGBT.

Bill Rammell MP
Minister of State
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
King Charles Street

Tel: 020 7008 2090


Tuesday, 7 April 2009

G20 death: witness statements

An innocent bystander, Ian Tomlinson, died at the G20 protests and today's release of damming video in The Guardian has the police banged to rights.

Another angle from Channel Four:

These eyewitness statements make the point that the protester who provided the medical aid to Tomlinson which was lacking from his 'protectors' was "very brave" in the face of police charges.


Lots more stinks about what happened which deserves a bigger inquiry. The beat-up in the media about 'expected violence' in the period before by police PR, the presence of hundreds of media cameras at the exact spot where a window was broken, why one branch of RBS went without being boarded up despite being in a spot protesters were known to be converging on, how the totally peaceful climate camp was violently broken up after media withdrew. The latter has several videos which show peaceful protesters being battoned and beaten.

We know from the policing of the Kent climate camp that police lie. Ordinary Brits need to know that it's not a fringe group which is being assaulted here but their own freedom to speak out against 'the powers that be'. It is quite powerful to see that in the initial reaction to the release of the Tomkinson video in The Guardian that 'middle England', as represented by Daily Mail readers, seems to be quite aware of just whose side the cops are on: not theirs.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Forget Twitter, try nanoblogging

Does Hillary know this man?

Last week the Iraqi LGBT group reported that some of an upcoming batch of executions in Iraq, which had been reported by Amnesty International, were of gay men being executed for homosexuality.

The group has suffered severe persecution in Iraq. It runs safe houses for LGBT fleeing death threats and says that many of its members have been murdered by both death squads and police forces.

Iraqi police have been reported as being infiltrated by both insurgents and religious groups.

Iraqi LGBT claims that the government since mid December 2008 has "a mass campaign to [eliminate] homosexuality". They say they have "many eyewitnesses" and that "members of the police and ministry of interior forces is actually involved on the mass arrest and taking suspects of homosexuality off the streets to unknown destination".

Homosexuality was made a crime by Saddam Hussein in 2001 following pressure by clerics. Repeated convictions carries the death penalty.

In response to the report by Iraqi LGBT the Boston gay newspaper EDGE spoke to the US State Department and in an astonishing rebuttal a spokesperson, John Fleming, who has worked at their Iraqi Desk through the Bush presidency, denied that Iraq's government executed any people since 2007 and that homosexuality is a crime.

He told the EDGE that any criminals now awaiting possible execution are there for crimes such as "terrorism, insurgency and kidnapping." Their sexual identity is irrelevant to the charges, he said.

"None were convicted of the ’crime’ of being homosexual," Fleming said. "In fact, it’s immaterial to Iraqis."

This is the same State Department which in 2006, following horrific reports in US media, the issuing of a fatwa calling for the killing of gays by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, United Nations reports and pressure from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), declared itself ‘troubled’ over anti-gay violence in Iraq.

Fleming asserted that "the average Iraqi" had other issues to concern themselves with and that this issue was "a luxury."

This appears to contradict Hillary Clinton, who told European Parliament last month that the persecution of gays and lesbians is "something that we take very seriously".

She added condemnation of where persecution was "condoned and protected."

Fleming disputes the reports by organisations like the UN and IGLHRC of a 'deathzone' for Iraqi LGBT. In fact he denied that homosexuality was a crime punishable by death.

Despite this, the issue of 'individual rights' was something US forces "frequently raise with Iraqi leaders and officials," he said.

It is unfortunate that due to language issues and bad reporting (such as of all those on death row being gay) that the urgent calls from Iraqi gays for help have been lost in translation. It's essential that other groups like the UN and IGLRC urgently investigate and substantiate Iraqi LGBT's reports.

What is clear is that Iraq's government has form. Plus that homosexuality is not just a cultural but a legal and political issue there. There are grounds to believe Iraqi LGBT reports that there would be a government organised pogram of LGBT.

What Iraqi LGBT are saying is that in Iraq we currently have the world's worst 'deathzone' for LGBT, far worse than Iran.

It may not suit the interests of western governments who support the Iraqi government to say this so it is up to others to hold Hillary Clinton to her words in Brussels as well as the fine words of David Milliband on LGBT rights.

And when she returns to Washington Hillary might want to look at what her spokespeople are saying in her name.

Postscript: Human Rights Watch (HRW) are reportedly trying to obtain corroboration of gay men on death row for homosexuality. HRW's Scott Long in an email circulated to the gayswithoutborders listserv said "we are trying urgently to determine who they are and what has happened."

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Cute animals: RIP Lucky

This cute kid is saying last words to beloved goldfish Lucky. Dad videotapes and Mom cracks up in the background :(

Fools and bullies

On Mark Lawson's excellent interview series on BBC4 he just spoke with the screenwriter GF Newman. Newman made his name with the 70s series Law and Order, which for the first time showed the massive levels of corruption endemic in the police at that time.

He also spoke of his boyhood experience of a local copper stealing from him and hitting him so hard he became deaf in one ear.

Power corrupts was his thesis and experience and Newman's suggestion was that police uniforms become pink and that they're renamed 'public assistance officers'.

Two scenes from yesterday's protest made me think that nothing's really changed in thirty years. Any chance any of this violent bullying lot will be charged with anything? I think not.

Comment from Dave Hill's LiveBlog from the G20 Protests:
I'm a media photographer employed by a large photographic agency. I carry a
press card at all times, which states that I'm recognised by the Assoc of Chief Police Officers as a "bona fide newsgatherer".

After a few hours covering the protest, I needed to exit the area in order to go and wire my pictures back to the agency. Met by a wall of unmoving and seemingly mute police officers, who gruffly refused to respond to any questions, I made my way down to one very small point where it seemed people might be being let out.

I showed my card to one officer who stated (and as a newsgatherer, I Quote...) "I don't care who you are, you shouldn't be here". When I pointed out that he was obstructing a member of the free press from doing their job, he said (without seeing the irony) "I'm just doing my job."

Numerous City workers appeared and just by waving their building access cards, were allowed through the cordon (funny kind of proof if you ask me- just cos you work there, you're immediately innocent). Well, not all- at least two were challenged by officers with "You don't look like you work there" (referring to how they were dressed). One quite rightly pointed out that he'd been told by his work to dress down.

One man was allowed through the cordon simply because he waved a foreign passport (Mexican), which I again found odd, as a large number of the masked and dressed-in-black 'anarchists' were French and Spanish (I know because I asked them).

I repeatedly asked a few of the officers why we were being detained, and more specifically, why I was being detained. Of those who even responded (silence seemed to be the order of the day when confronted by this question), most did so in a thoroughly intimidating manner, two even threatening my arrest if i did not move back.

An older journalist appeared beside me- thoroughly middle class and wearing a suit- also producing his card for the police. He too was told that they didnt care if he was a journalist.

Everyone around me was getting very agitated, some people shouting at the police and hurling insults. Apparently, the police tactics were to PREVENT A BREACH OF THE PEACE... which is funny, because it seemed to be pissing people off rather a lot. A hell of a lot in fact. To the point where you might think it was being done deliberately to provoke... call me cynical....

After 45 minutes of waiting at this point, I began to become a little worried by the piles of riot helmets that were being stacked against one wall, while more police vans arrived and the lines were joined by more cops.
For the N'th time I waved my card in the (apparently) senior cop's direction, pointed out I was a member of the Press, and why was I being held? This prompted a great response - "The more times you ask me that, the more I'm going to ignore you."

1.5 hours of waiting, and suddenly the cop goes "OK, you can go through now. See, I told you someone would deal with you in due course," and they parted and off I went. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the hundreds of others stood around me.

While I realise that they're attempting to contain some troublesome elements in a certain place, the police's attitude was thoroughly confrontational, suggesting they WANTED an excuse for violence. Their attitude toward the press was also very dubious- but then we kinda know that anyway.

Frankly, the whole experience just left me with a rather bitter taste in my mouth- why should anyone respect these fools and bullies when their attitude is that a uniform gives them the right to do as they please?

Beforehand I'd have disagreed with the many of the protestors' view of the police.
Now, I kinda agree with many of them- Facists and BullyBoys.

I'm glad my taxes are well spent....
Here they are attacking entirely peaceful people at the climate camp on Bishopsgate - the campers have got their hands UP and are chanting "Peaceful Protest" in a show of non-violence:

Despite assurances made on Tuesday morning by Commander Broadhurst to climate campers in the office of David Howarth MP, at 7pm riot police violently attacked the camp, injuring many peaceful campers and bystanders who were not allowed to leave the area.

Despite this incursion, the atmosphere at the Camp remained calm and happy until around midnight, when riot police again moved in and aggressively dispersed the Camp.
A LibDem blogs here about what happened at the Camp:
This country is founded upon the peaceful right to protest – as I said to one of the riot police who would not let me leave. We are not a police state. Whoever was responsible for the police operation here deserves to be condemned, but then I suppose encouraging violence justifies their ever spiralling security budgets.
Of course all police aren't fools and bullies but the ones who aren't end up covering up for the ones who are.

The hard and long fought for right to protest publicly in this country is, bit-by-bit, slipping away.

  • More footage of the violent police break-up of peaceful climate camp

Expectations of online government

Attribution: Diane Cline

US government web professionals just held a 500 strong 'govcamp' in Washington DC.

The blogged reaction from attendees has been positive and some stuff sounded amazing. Matthew Burton wrote about one session:

Managing Sensitive Data in a Web 2.0 World. Half of the attendees were from the Intelligence Community. The other half were from transparency advocacy groups that fight government secrecy. These groups' interests are seldom aligned, yet it was one of the most lively sessions of the whole weekend: the intelligence geeks were giving the transparency wonks ideas for platforms that can effectively manage the tangle of overclassified (and illegally classified) data that has arisen in recent years.

Lots is online, n'est ce pas, and there's some fascinating stuff.

Here's video of some of the fantastic murals created out of sessions (by a professional artist):

Something which leapt out at me (perhaps because it was at the top!) was the results of a January survey of 385 people done by the American equivalent of directgov,

Although the context was supposed to be 'social media', some results somewhat throw that descriptive term around.

The survey results included:

  • People are interested in interacting with govet through social media
  • Credibility of gov information is critical for respondents
  • Facebook is the preferred social media tool among respondents
  • People interested in having conversations with the government
  • People use search engines to find information more than any other tool

Actually, in the UK that would be search engine as one dominates. But if others drive specialist traffic then they're worth paying attention to.

Top ways citizens want to interact:

  • Emergency alerts
  • Voting and election information
  • Way to contact elected officials
  • Government forms
  • My rights as a citizen
  • 60% interested in government information on non-government sites (e.g. wikipedia)
  • People expressed interest in rating government publications and information

These last two rang bells with me about a couple of ideas I've had.

Interaction with services can (could) take place elsewhere on the web. Things like free content and information pipes as well as widgets can (could) help.

Instead of putting the comment form several clicks away, why not have it on the bottom of every page?

No presentation up on their site about this or much detail on other sessions yet up but good to hear some echo on those ideas!

There's also Picasa tagged photos here and Flickr here (and video here) and I must say that one thing I noticed was just how many men were wearing suits, on a weekend. Quite a contrast with our barcamp ...


A Uk localgovcamp is being organised for Birmingham in June.