So, we are not protected by the US after all


Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase

Let me start this post – on the PRISM programme – by making a few things clear.

Firstly, I think the jihadist terrorist threat is real and dangerous and even potentially existential in nature: if these people had atomic weapons do you think they would hesitate to use them?

Secondly, I think the police and security services need to be able to do their job to deter and catch these people.

And, thirdly, I believe that all such actions need to be regulated by law and need to reflect the fundamental protections we expect.

What we now know is that a US based internet – which is what we have when we consider Google, Facebook, Twitter and the rest – does not offer those of us who are not US citizens the guarantee that our communications are protected by law. No probable cause is needed to snoop at what we say and do – don’t take my word for it, listen to what the President of the United States has said.

He’s been very clear that the communications of non-US citizens have no legal protection. And I am sure he is right.

Most of us, perhaps until today, sought to resist the efforts to “internationalise” the Internet: why would we want Putin or Assad to have a say on internet regulation? We don’t, and we still don’t.

But equally the current situation is not acceptable either. For Europeans we must now expect and demand that the European Commission intervene swiftly and make it clear to the US internet giants operating on European soil that the current situation is unacceptable and equally make it clear to the US authorities that this is a matter of trade policy: after all communications could be being intercepted to steal trade secrets as much as anything else.

The aim should not be to ban the authorities’ access to communications but to ensure that European citizens who trade with US internet companies are offered the same legal protections as US citizens (and vice versa as far as Europe is concerned).

The coming HTML5 disaster


HTML5 official logo (official since 1 April 20...
HTML5 official logo (official since 1 April 2011, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

About 18 months ago I got my first Android phone. One of the first applications I downloaded on it was for Facebook. It had some quirks but it worked fine.

Not long after I was prompted to ‘upgrade’ to the next version, which I duly did.

The supposed upgrade was (and is) a disaster. Slow, difficult to understand, a mess.

I had always wondered why Facebook had not simply rolled back the upgrade and tried again. But now I know. To cut their costs they had based their iOS and Android applications on a common HTML5 core. A common code base eliminated the need to maintain two separate blocks of complex code, presumably with two sets of developers.

But it didn’t work. By all accounts the iOS version made the Android one look slick and this week it was axed in favour of an Objective C based application. Hopefully a Java based Android replacement is also in the works.

But I suspect sloth will be the least of HTML5’s problems. Turning mark up into executable code just sounds like a recipe for trouble and it’s only just started.

Nasty computer scientists (again)


Autism spectrum
Autism spectrum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My gut feeling is that we are about to see another “internet bubble” burst: money has again flooded in to the development community (partly because in a recessionary environment cash is being hoarded just about everywhere else), skilled staff are in short supply and a massive IPO (Facebook) is about to happen, which will only, if temporarily, increase the frenzy.

With the bubble along come the nasties – or as one of them apparently refers to himself the “No Talent Ass-Clowns”. The person concerned, one Matt Van Horn, has probably taken enough flak for his immature and ridiculous behaviour, so I won’t focus on him, but on the more general issue of why so many poorly adjusted and socialised males are attracted to computing? (It’s for others to judge if I fall into either group here, but I think I can at least be allowed to get away with regarding myself as higher functioning if they do.)

Perhaps it is partly some self-selecting autism spectrum thing (computers do what you tell them without the burden of emotional interaction), but I also have to pin a lot of the blame on the promotion of the “hacker culture” by its high priests – whether in the Orthodox Branch – or the Reformed Wing.

Neither RMS nor ESR are particularly attractive characters, whatever their technical or marketing skills may be, so holding them up as the great paragons of the computer revolution is almost certainly counter-productive.

Woodhouse Memes – the birth of an internet virus


Woodhouse College
Woodhouse College (Photo credit: 2E0MCA)

My eldest daughter is studying for her ‘A’ levels at Woodhouse College, a large sixth form college in North Finchley.

I noticed just now she had posted a meme on her Facebook stream from a page called “Woodhouse Memes“. I went there. There are lots, and some are quite funny…

Woodhouse College raptor memeThe amazing thing is, the page is less than two hours old, has 175 likes already and appears to be growing entirely organically at an exponential rate… we are watching the birth of a meta meme

Richard Stallman plainly lacks any sense of irony


Richard Stallman conference on free software t...
Image via Wikipedia

Richard Stallman (aka “RMS” or the “last of the true hackers” according to Steven Levy’s classic book) is a great, but very difficult, man.

His strops and sulks about Linus Torvalds should not blind us to the fact that he does have a serious and valid point when he insists that what most people call “Linux” should really be called “GNU/Linux”.

But he would also seem to be a man without much of a sense of irony because he has used the propaganda channel funded and founded by the Kremlin, Russia Today (RT), to launch an attack on Facebook as an enemy of Freedom.

RT has marketed itself, in Britain at least, as the channel of choice for conspiracy nuts, the enemies of science and “truthers”. Hardly a surprise when its paymasters in the Kremlin are desperate to hold off any advances towards democracy in Russia and remain the last line of defence of the Syrian and Iranian dictatorships in the international arena.

Shame on you Richard Stallman.

(The interview with RT was conducted over a month ago but as you can guess I am not a regular viewer and it just turned up in the “CodeProject” email this morning.)

Email is ill, but is not dying


Illustration of Facebook mobile interface
Image via Wikipedia

The BBC’s website has an interesting article on the prospects for email, a subject I have written on here a few times.

Email is no longer the killer application of the internet, certainly. Designed by scientists to send messages to other scientists and so built around the notion that all users were acting in good faith, it is weak and that is, no doubt, contributing to the rise of social media as an alternative means of communication.

But there is no reason why we should replace one broken security model – that of email – with another – a reliance on proprietary software (Facebook is proprietary after all).

Email will last because it is open. But maybe someone could and should write a better email.

Email: the first social medium


icon for mailing lists
Image via Wikipedia

I have written about what I see as a crisis of survival of email before – I do so from the heart because email is still my favourite social medium (read John Naughton in A Brief History of the Future to understand why).

Being on holiday with the kids has, though, re-enforced my fears for the future of this communication means – as it meant listening to the repeated ‘pling’ of a Facebook conversation: my daughters both have email addresses but make little use of them. I doubt they have ever rationalised why, though I know my eldest did give up when her first account was overwhelmed with spam (plainly because her address was sold or passed on by ‘legitimate’ mailing lists she signed up to).

So, it is enormously heartening to read that email plays an important part in the internal life of Microsoft. Even if you are not a Microsoft fan read the article, it is full of insights about the company works and thinks.