Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Climate Change - a world for my grand children.

I'm completely unimpressed with the political response to the clear dangers represented by climate change. So what can we do?

We need a mass movement to make our elected leaders act sensibly. Here is a list:
  • Personally, I'm with James Lovelock on this - we need nuclear power - lots of it and soon.
  • We need to tax car fuel very heavily - a pound a litre is nothing, it needs to be at least 5 times that, maybe 10 times.
  • Motorways have to be used as efficient mass-transport system. Every motorway should have a dedicated coach lane, and we need transport hubs at junctions near all major cities.
  • Planning consent needs to be relaxed for external insulation and solar heating.
  • All spare land needs to be used for firewood and vegetables - we need to dig for victory.
  • All shops and services need to be made as local as possible - with home delivery being available.
  • Plane travel needs to be slashed - heavy taxes and restrictions are the obvious methods.
  • Work patterns need to be changed - we need to work less, do more of it remotely and make long distance commuting socially unacceptable.
  • Buying new must be discouraged - repairing and renovating encouraged.
All of these would lead to a reduction in the amount of carbon that we pumped into the atmosphere, but more importantly they would create a society that was sustainable.

As yet I have no grand-children, but the changes I've outlined here might give them a chance of living in a sane, comfortable environment. Ah well, off to replace the drain pump on my washing machine...

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Child Benefit leak - technical opinion

Having a bit of time on my hands I did the sums on the 2 CDs that went missing between the Child Benefit and National Audit offices. There are supposedly details of 7.5 million families - including names of parents, children, dates of birth, NI numbers and bank details, where people have the benefit paid into an account.

Two CDs can contain about 1.3 Gigabytes of data, if it is stored uncompressed, and maybe 2.5 GB with compression. Dividing one by the other gives us about 180 bytes uncompressed or 345 bytes compressed per record - assuming the data is compressed. Using my family as examples I come up with the data occupying at least 200 bytes. This leads me to guess that the data has been compressed. The other reason for this assumption is that the data dump was probably done as a single text file.

Again, I guess that the employee required to burn the data onto CD would have used a simple tool, like Winzip, to compress and split the file into CD sized chunks - and of course Winzip offers 'encryption'. If this is the case, then anyone who gets hold of these disks will only need to spend £49 to extract the data.

I thought for quite a while before blogging this, but it only draws on the published information. It will inform the debate, and to be honest anyone with a small amount of technical knowledge would be able to work this out for themselves.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Brown's catalogue of disasters

I usually avoid writing direct political statements, but feel this is unavoidable. Someone needs to list and point out the disasters the our current Prime Minister has wrought. Before launching into the full rant, I ought to point out that I consider the alternatives to be little, if no, better.

The British Prime Ministers started his catalogue of failure soon after he became Chancellor. He made one smart decision - to move the setting of interest rates out of his command. He then plundered the pension funds, by breaching the concept that pensions were taxed on withdrawal, so money going in, and interest earned on this was tax free. This effectively bankrupted a large number of private pension funds. The consequences of this are still with us, and will be for years - as we can be sure that no new government will reverse this decision.

The comes the Child Tax Credit debacle. Billions of pounds have been lost and overpaid in this absurdly complex scheme. Many people are still being pursued for money that was overpaid. The bizarre logic of the Revenue goes as follows. Yes, you told us the correct figures, and we miscalculated your payments. That is your fault and we should be able to claim back the money. Now if you live in the real world, you tend to spend your income. If the government, or your employer, gives you more money, you spend it. To be asked two or three years later for money back is absurd.

Then we come to the merger of tax and revenue. Why was this necessary? It seems to have been forgotten that this happened because Customs and Excise was a disaster area. Operation Venison showed that they were misleading the courts. Carousel fraud had gone completely undetected and more billions had been lost.

Since then, the new merged department has gone from one disaster to another. The latest cock-up is of momumental proportions, but try regisitering your company for VAT and you will have to wait for months. The previously effective on-line self-assessment systems have collapsed and there is no-one to sue - as tax payers would only be sueing themselves.

The only solution is less government. Much less government. The latest Queen's Speech listed over 20 items of legislation. All this will do is give them more things to cock-up. Stop them now! We need to move to a more logical system. Oh, and please don't trust them with all of our personal data in an ID card. There are at least two commercial companies who could do this, then at least we would have someone to sue.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Green Rural Idyll - Urban Realiity

Listening to the Today programme this morning I heard about a competition for designing a sustainable community. What worried me was that the main strand was for a rural image. Now the majority of the UK population lives in towns and cities.

I live in a former industrial part of the Black Country - and where I live is relatively green (thanks Google Maps). I can walk to shops and train stations, and overall it should be possible to live a low impact life style here. What we need are schemes to make it easier - or cheaper - to live these life styles. Here are a few suggestions:
  • Encourage small markets in urban areas - with greengrocers and the like - and not overpriced 'farmers markets'.
  • Relax planning consents to allow people to add things like passive solar heating - I'd love to add a two floor glazed porch to my house.
  • Relaunch something like the 'Dig for Britain' campaign - say with reduced council tax if you have a productive vegetable patch.
  • Encourage car sharing schemes and cycling - the best way is to get rid of the Tax Disc and make fuel more expensive.
  • Relax the Clean Air Act to allow people to burn wood - and encourage coppicing in Urban Green space.
  • Sort out the behaviour on busses - this probably only requires a little bit more enforcement.
  • Convert larger redundant buildings into small business centres - with lots of smaller units to start-ups and shared workspeces, so people can walk to work.
Spending time discussing how we can build new, green villages on green field sites will only offer a small scale solution in even the medium term - we need to change our towns and cities, and do it now.

Friday, October 26, 2007

France and Linux

I've just got back from a three day break in Lille. Lovely city, good food and friendly people. Anyway, on my way back by Eurostar I stopped at the railway station newsagents. I counted nine - yes nine - Linux magazines on their shelves - compared to maybe 20 MS Windows (tm) based magazines. This is in comparison to the average UK railways station where you will be lucky to find one.

Spain has been using Linux widely for a while, the Extremadura project for example. So why are these countries apparently so far ahead of the UK in behaving sensibly and using Free Software? I can think of a few possible reasons...
  • Language - the regionalisation of Linux may be one reason - it is easier to customise a Free Software solution for your needs;
  • Anti-Americanism - are there countries naturally more suspicious of US products?
  • Money - are there more people looking for low cost effective solutions in these countries?
  • Common sense - are we just slow on the uptake in the UK?
  • Risk aversion - is there something in the UK psyche that makes us more risk averse than others in Europe?
Well, thoughts please!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Becta - unfit for purpose

(the British Educational Communication and Technology Agency)
I was thoroughly amused to observe that Becta decided to report Microsoft to the Office of Fair Trading for anti-competitive trading in schools. The centre of the complaint is that the deal that Microsoft are offering schools is not good enough.
Back in January Dr Stephen Lucey, Executive Director of Becta negotiated an extension to the previous, anti-competitive deal saying:
"Becta welcomes this extension and the considerable savings already accrued under the MoU, estimated at around £47 million over the last three years. This extension will ensure that schools can continue to benefit from the discounts set out in the original MoU for a further 12 months. We work on behalf of schools to make sure that if they choose to purchase Microsoft products, they can get the best value from those licensing agreements."
This Memorandum of Understanding was originally reported to the Office of Fair Trading by members of the Free Software community some four years ago. Becta were dealing with a convicted monopolist - both in the USA and Europe. They were dealing with an organisation which is only interested in making money from its products. Becta may be ridiculously over funded for what they do, but they are as nothing compared to their adversary. Is anyone surprised that they ended up with a bad deal last time - what does surprise me is that they noticed this time!
If this was Becta's only failing then one might be prepared to forgive them. I have spent quite a bit of time working with them over the years, and have found them to be completely out of touch with reality. Here are a few examples...
  • Becta don't recommend products, they 'approve' firms. How stupid is that? So an approved company only produces good products?
  • Becta have no contact with real schools. I work in real schools - and have done for many years. Every contact I have had with Becta leads me to believe that their employees just never go to real schools.
  • Teachers don't use email. There is a clear failure of Government - and Becta their agents - to get teachers to use email. I know, I'm offering families free computers, and can't liaise with my teacher contacts because a good half of the senior staff I'm trying to contact do not use their email.
  • Failure to appreciate Free Software. Becta's misunderstanding of Free Software has been made clear over the past few years, and is possibly most obvious in its failure to appreciate the potential of Moodle.
There are some good people working for Becta, but they seem to me to be so tied down with procedures and bureaucracy that they cannot function effectively. The organisation has clearly run its course. They are followers not leaders - and educational ICT in the UK needs leadership.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

thePILOTS

The last few days have been spent mainly on a new project - thePILOTS.
I'm excited about this project as it is a way to improve the skills of technicians working in schools, SMEs and the third sector. The materials we are working on are designed for delivering with free software, specifically GNU/Linux. The qualification itself is not, however, operating system specific.
The major challenges have been:
  • working out the content; and
  • determining the expected skills of the audience.
If you want to collaborate on this project, just send me an e-mail or sign up at Gna.org.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Bank Guarantees and the Dangerous Dogs Act

Call me a pessimist, but I can foresee the current plans for guaranteeing investors money up to £100k to be about as well planned and executed as the Dangerous Dogs Act.
Why do I expect this? The first reason is that the legislation - well probably executive decision - will be rushed through without proper consideration, scrutiny or debate. The other reason is that the current business ethics are so low that their will be a number of people who look to exploit it.
Time will tell...

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

I have got to stop driving

Given the nature of the business we are running I have to do a lot of driving. I run a twenty year old Volvo estate, converted to LPG. This costs about 10.5p per mile in fuel - but the conversion cost £1,500. Oh, and I love driving.

BUT

This just can't go on. The world cannot support all of these people driving around the country. Maybe in a few decades we'll have worked out how to do it sensibly, but for now it has to stop.

My ambition is that inside 10 years, preferably 5, I reduce my travelling from the approximately 20,000 miles a year* I've been doing for the last 25 years to 5,000 miles. How will I do this? My thoughts are:
  • longer sessions in each place;
  • more telecommuting;
  • less work in general.
Watch this space!

* this is my guess based on car, train and plane miles.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Accosting People on New Street


Well, good to my promise I spent a couple of hours handing out CDs and talking about Free Software in Birmingham.

It was an interesting experience, and might be summarised as:
  • A surprising (worrying?) number of people claimed to never use a computer;
  • Many people were interested in the OpenCD and took copies;
  • Quite a few people know about Linux, though Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt clearly played their parts in stopping some people adopting it.
The image is of Ciaran clearly making some one's day!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Software Freedom Day

Tomorrow I'm going to spend a couple of hours on the streets of Birmingham trying to give away software. I hope that the conversations I will manage with the passers-by will restore my somewhat jaded faith in the common-sense of humanity.

The software I use - free and open for most things I do - is superb. It is reliable, efficient and interesting. Whenever I have to use proprietary software, as I do occasionally for my work, I feels like wading through treacle.

If you haven't tried Free Software, then I invite you to try FireFox or OpenOffice - and if you want to really liberate your computer, try Puppy Linux!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Risk averse - it isn't just the Police force

Listening to the radio, I'm hearing reports about the police becoming increasingly risk averse. Trust me, it's not just the police force. I work with schools, local government officers and voluntary organisations. People from these organisations are just plain scared of anything that hasn't been done 100 times before.

Just look at it - can you really tell any difference between schools - do you know of any that don't use uniforms? The last non-uniform school I worked at was Bedales - a leading fee paying school. How many schools have rethought the timetable? I know of one school in Kent that's looking at it.

We have set up a community interest company for our business, in an attempt to break away from this. We are happy to take the odd risk. So far we're managing to draw a salary from it - which is good.

We try to encourage community and voluntary organisations to use Free Software - with the well documented cost savings (no please don't start that argument here). These people are just plain scared of change or risk.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Free as in thought

Working with organisations and individuals has brought me to realise that 'free' as in beer is sometimes bad news. People seem to make more demands of free ($£) services, that they wouldn't make of charged services.

I know this goes against my normal attitudes, in that free ($%) and free (thought) are both good. Maybe is you go out and seek something that is free (£%) then its different!

If this sounds confused, it's because I am!