Month: March 2005


The purpose of Schools

31st March 2005

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“David Copperfield” (a policeman) explains the purpose of Schools in our society.

Womens’ Work

31st March 2005

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I’ve been reading the Equal Opportunities Commission’s report on young people entering jobs.

One finding highlighted in the press release:

67% of women, didn’t know when they chose their career, about the often lower pay for work mostly done by women and of these two thirds of young women said they would have considered a wider range of career options had they known.

In the general spirit of making up “just so stories”, without evidence, to explain why men and women might behave differently (not being an academic, I can participate in this diverting pastime), I have a new one:

Children are generally presented with a mass of propaganda to the effect that making money is nasty, and nice people aren’t concerned about such things. (I still wince at the memory of Roger Hargreaves’ “Roundy and Squarey”). My prejudice leads me to suspect that girls might be slightly more susceptible to this rubbish than boys, and that therefore boys would be more keen to identify and head for well-paid occupations than girls.

Just a thought. It would be interesting if the EOC, or whoever, were to ask a question along these lines in their next survey. My prejudices are all very well, but data would be preferable.

For the record, while I see no need to aim for exact equality of numbers of men and women in every occupation, and am suspicious of quangos like the EOC, they are clearly looking at a real problem. I am sitting here in a room with twenty-six other software developers, twenty-five of which are male, and we’re struggling to fill open positions…

(comments disabled on this post as having “Work” in the title seems to particularly attract spam)

What tops weekly bills?

31st March 2005

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According to page 14 of today’s Metro, transport tops weekly bills, with £60
spent per week on average.

That’s odd. If average income is £570, then on average we spend about £200 per week on government. That’s as much as on Transport, Recreation, Food and Housing put together. Since I suspect the ONS figures quoted actually include the VAT and other taxes on what we buy, the extent to which taxation dominates our household budgets is even more dramatic.

Tax tops weekly bills.

Voting Fraud

30th March 2005

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The Register reports a survey of attitudes to voting fraud.

The good news: a majority express concern about voting by SMS or email. It’s actually worrying that only 66% would be concerned about email-voting, but at least it’s a clear majority.

The bad news: “nearly 60%” believe that identity cards would be a solution for electoral fraud.

Now, it is possible for me to vote fraudulently by turning up at polling station and claiming to be someone else. But for that one fraudulent vote, I’m taking the risk of being noticed by someone who recognises me, or by someone who would recognise the person I’m claiming to be, or that the person I’m claiming to be has already voted, or that the person will try to vote later, which I might get away with, but which would at least raise suspicion. If I’m an eligible voter myself, I would be well advised to make my legitimate vote in a different polling station, which would entail some travelling. That’s a lot of work and risk for one crooked vote. I’m sure it happens, but not on any scale.

In the traditional UK system, every single step of the process is open to the public and visible, except for the voter marking the paper.

That’s actually really surprising. I can watch in my local polling stations as voters ask for ballot papers, are given them, hide in a booth to mark them, come out and put them in a box. I can watch the box all day. I can see the box carried to the counting room, and stand on the balcony as counters take the papers out of the boxes and sort them into piles. I don’t have to trust anyone else to oversee the process, it’s all there for me (or any other voter or candidate) to check.

The manual system is vulnerable to small human errors and small opportunistic fraud. It is totally immune to large systematic fraud, because that is bound to attract attention. In Bruce Schneier’s terminology, the system is resilient, despite being imperfect. The security protecting postal or electronic voting, conversely, is brittle: when it breaks, it breaks badly.

Related Links:

Earlier version
Schneier on voting
Schneier describes resilient and brittle security
No2ID


It’s 13:15

30th March 2005

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GMT. For about the tenth year, I am leaving my clocks well alone this weekend. There are defensible arguments for doing regular activities a bit earlier in summer, but changing the clocks twice a year just isn’t a sensible way of doing it. From an information systems point of view, it’s just bad data modelling. It would be much easier if we could assume that every day has 24 hours (give or take a second), that every day has a 1:30 am (and no day has two), and that clocks will run by themselves.

Most timetables get revised regularly anyway — train timetables, for example, usually change around the time of the clock shifts. Both at school and at one past job, we had summer timetables and winter timetables without causing any problems.

I don’t know what the average number of clocks per person is these days, but I don’t think it’s unusual to have one in every room, plus watches, cars, microwave ovens etc. etc. BST probably costs about 30-60 minutes of leisure time per person per year. Add about one programmer-day per medium sized business unit per year dealing with errors thrown up by the time shift. Add the cost of all the human errors introduced twice every year. Add the costs of those that need their timetables to stay regular, and therefore have to adjust them to compensate. (I wouldn’t like to be running an airline at this time of year). Compare to the benefits for people who would otherwise have to change their schedules to take advantage of the early mornings, but this way don’t.

If I were to pluck a figure out of the air, I’d say this insanity costs the country about a billion pounds a year. It’s going to get worse, not better. I don’t know how many people routinely have to know the time in more than one timezone, but it makes that much more difficult. Even if we bully the whole world to do the shift at the same date, half the world is still doing it the other way.

My refusal to change my clocks is a token resistance. What’s most frustrating is that most people agree it’s silly to do this, but nobody cares much. I try to keep the issue visible, to remind people what they’re losing.

All of the arguments in defense of the nonsense assume that people are totally incapable of noticing or adapting to the change of the seasons without the government tricking them into it. I have a higher opinion of my countrymen than that.

Update: via Stumbling and Mumbling, a study estimating the effect of clock changes on the equities market. I’m not really sure what to make of that — the author’s explanations are in terms of subjective effects on traders rather than effects on the actual companies being traded, so I wouldn’t count the devaluation detected as a “loss” per se. The author also mentions in passing increased accident rates following clock changes, which I hadn’t taken into consideration.

Speaking of subjective effects, I think that my habit of adjusting my timetable rather than my clocks helps me to adjust as regards sleep and so on. There’s no logical reason for that, but who knows what effect our belief as to what time it is affects our minds?

Also cited, an earlier item from Village Hampden. I’d meant to refer to that, but I couldn’t find it today. I see BST more as a symbol of government’s inflated self-importance than its tyranny — after all, legally everyone could do as I do and leave their clocks alone. It is worthwhile to demonstrate that the state doesn’t control the stars and the planets…

Update 2: Via the Risks Digest (in full, the Association for Computing Machinery Forum on Risks to the Public in Computers and Related Systems), Barclays’ cash machine network brought down for a day by the time change. Every spring and autumn brings similar news stories.

Two Years on

28th March 2005

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Two years ago yesterday, I posted the following as my view of the Iraq war. I’d like to revisit it.

Why the UN is to blame for the 2003 Iraq War

Responsibility for this war lies squarely with the UN, despite the last-minute chickening-out. If the UN Security Council had wanted to establish peaceful relations between Saddam Hussein and the rest of the world (which would have been a Good Thing), it wouldn’t have set up the stupid “safe havens”. You can’t make peace with a government while you’re protecting a rebel army inside that government’s own territory. The only options are

1. Leave things as they were and wait for Saddam Hussein to find some way of getting revenge on us.
2. Pull right out and let Saddam Hussein take control of the Kurdish areas, thereby showing up the half-hearted assertiveness of 1991 for what it was.
3. End the whole mess by changing the government of Iraq by military means.

The UN Security Council plumped for option 1. I favour option 2, but I can see that politicians might see it as politically impossible to watch the Kurds get cut to ribbons again as a result of international dithering. Bush went for 3, which would be my second choice.

Read the rest of this post…


Complex fraud trials

27th March 2005

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I admit I don’t understand what’s so complex about fraud trials.

As I roughly understand the law, in order to prove someone guilty of fraud, you have to show:

  • They said or wrote something that wasn’t true
  • They knew it wasn’t true
  • They gained money or goods as a result.

The problem seems not to be “complexity”, but rather a very large quantity of evidence intended to prove or cast doubt on each assertion. In the Jubilee Line case, the jury seems to have had all this evidence lumped on them over a period of getting on for two years, with the idea they would eventually be left to decide on it all.

The idea that generally crops up at this stage is to do away with juries, or, as suggested here, to change the composition of juries.

To my mind, a less drastic response would be to change the programme of a trial.

I, like many others, have been following the progress of SCO v IBM, via the Groklaw blog. Now that’s happening in the USA, but the main difference is that it’s a civil matter, and so far no jury has been involved.

As you follow the development of this genuinely complex case, what happens is that questions are answered one at a time. One side raises something they want to be decided, the other side submits arguments against, and the judge rules one way or the other.

I don’t see why this can’t be done in a criminal trial with a jury. The jury is there to determine the facts, why can’t it be done one at a time? The prosecution allege that some detail is true, the defence deny it, both sides present evidence on that one point, and the jury decides. The prosecution, having got rulings on all their facts, make the case based on proved facts. The defence declares that there are other relevant facts that have not been covered, and those are decided in the same way. Finally, arguments are made, again based on facts that have already been considered to have been proved.

This has two advantages: First, the job is made simpler for the jury. Second, the same jury need not handle the entire case, if it takes four years or something.

Once again, I am extending my professional techniques beyond their normal scope: Earlier today I described BST as bad data modelling, now I am suggesting that the court system employ modularity. Every beginning programmer is taught that complex tasks are made simpler by separating any subtasks that can be handled independently.

It could be argued that this system would reduce the independence of juries, and would compromise our traditional liberties. Maybe so: it certainly would need very thorough study. But, as in the case of the anti-terrorist control orders, people are talking about abolishing traditional liberties, without really looking at less drastic ways they could be tweaked to achieve the same ends.


Organisational Dynamics


The blog Cabalamat Journal agrees with my take on public-sector waste.

It’s important to emphasise the dynamic aspect of this. When the state sets up an organisation, it can be very efficient. The NHS probably worked very well in the ’40s and ’50s. Stalin industrialised Russia into a superpower with efficiency equal to his ruthlessness, and indeed wartime Britain’s state-controlled economy was equally effective. As late as 1960, even Western politicians of both left and right believed that the communist system was more efficient than the market.

The problem with state control is not that it makes organisations inefficient. Organisations become inefficient naturally. The problem is that under state control there is no way to reverse that. If the NHS or the Inland Revenue could be made as efficient as they were fifty years ago, the 1980s USSR could have been made as efficient as it had been fifty years previously. There’s no mechanism to do the job, in either case. Unfortunately, most of the electorate believes that the clock can be turned back, to the relatively well-functioning public services of the 1960s. That model just wasn’t sustainable. It can work for a time in a crisis, such as 1940-45, but in the long run it is doomed. The efficient NHS is gone forever, and cannot be recovered. This is what Howard is too chicken to tell the electorate.

Here’s hoping for the next leader of the Conservative Party.

I would recommend Robert Skidelsky, The World After Communism, but it seems to be out of print.

Public Service Efficiency

26th March 2005

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Is the public sector hugely inefficient? Yes, the public sector is hugely inefficient. Why is it hugely inefficient? Because it is very large, and has been very large for a long time, which means the organisation has its own inertia beyond the control of those whose money it wastes. But what about large private-sector organisations, why don’t they get inefficient? They do, but once they get inefficient, they either subsidise their inefficiency from state support or monopoly rents, or else some asset stripper buys in and chops huge chunks off them until they’re small enough to be made efficient, or a “new broom” manager does the same thing to pre-empt the private-equity artists from doing the same thing.

Can taxpayer money be saved by cutting out waste? Yes, it can. Without cutting services? No, it can’t. The only way to cut out the waste is to cut whole organisations down to a size that can be controlled and made efficient.

Does that mean that every discussion of economic policy in the media is about as relevant to real life as Celebrity Strictly Come Dancing? Yes, it does.

Today’s statement of the bleeding obvious, brought to you by Anomaly UK.

Cyber-environment

23rd March 2005

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Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace is a book by Lawrence Lessig, published in 1999. The revisions for the forthcoming second edition are being done publicly online at codebook.jot.com, with the enjoyable byproduct that I can read it for free.

It is one of those books which is superb despite being wrong. (Roger Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind is another). I will come back to it later, but there is one amusing metaphor, where the “Year 2000 problem” is described (in 1999, remember) as a code-based environmental disaster.

It’s not clear, with hindsight, whether the “Y2K Problem” was (a) an over-hyped prophecy of doom, in response to which much money and effort was wasted, or (b) a genuine threat that was averted at the last moment at great cost.

My own professional experience, before Y2K and since, has been on systems that went wrong fairly frequently for all sorts of reasons, and were always fixed quickly, often by me. Of the dozens of production fixes I performed in the year 2000, only one of them was the result of a “Y2K” problem. The main (telecoms billing) system I worked on at the time was supposed to be replaced by a “Y2K compliant” one, but that project failed and the non-compliant system carried on without problems. I shouldn’t really generalise from my experience to the whole industry, however, and I leave the question open.

The parallels with, say, Global Warming are numerous. It may well turn out to be a lot of fuss about nothing. Even if it’s real, it might be most efficient to deal with the problems as they occur, rather than invest trillions in trying to prevent them in advance. A whole industry has emerged just to talk about it, and no organisation is allowed to omit paying lip-service, with varying degrees of insincerity, to the need to act.

Of course, analogies never prove anything. All this does is demonstrate a certain pattern of behaviour, which comes naturally to a human race raised on flood myths and the like. It doesn’t mean the doom-mongers must be wrong, but at least it goes some way to refuting the “10,000 lemmings can’t be wrong” part of the argument.






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