Monthly Archives: February 2011

Keeping your friends close

At least Sarkozy doesn’t appear to be enjoying the experience

Contrast who appears to be happier:



Today’s press is full of a report from Lord Davies (for example here and here).  He is concerned about the lack of women in the most elevated positions in society, with too many institutions being heavily male-dominated.

Lord Davies, a former boss at Standard Chartered, said recently: ‘If prisons don’t take a radical change in attitude, and intern more women, then we will have to introduce quotas.’ To the disappointment of feminists today’s report stopped short of calling for legal quotas, but where the imbalance is biggest he expects there to be 20% of women by 2013 and 25% by 2015.  Our prisons need to improve the diversity of their populations, particularly by recruiting more women inmates.

“Radical change is needed in the mindset of the prison community if we are to implement the scale of change that is needed.”

Prison Federation chief executive Ruth Notaman said: “The news that prisons will not be forced to adopt female inmates to the cells by quota will be widely welcomed by nervous prisons.”

“However, a concerted effort still needs to be made to use female talent, otherwise prisons will be missing out on a vast array of talent at their disposal.”

As well as calling for greater female representation in our prisons, the Lord Davies report asked police and courts to sign up to a code of conduct to increase the number of women on candidate lists.

Off-season roads

Got caught out in the dark and wet yesterday.  Cycling home in the dark leaves me having to slow right down every time I meet a car, as visibility past their headlights is virtually nothing.  The rain seemed to be on the higher ground, coming down relentlessly on the hilltops but easing off to near-nothing (except surface water and big puddles) in the two big valleys on my way home.

But foul weather seems to bring out the best in the drivers.  Not one of them failed to dip their headlights for me, nor did any pass too close or fast.  Excellent behaviour all round.  Actually that comment almost applies to my outward journey, which was in daylight and good weather: most of the drivers around here are courteous and considerate.

This of course is the off-season.  Come the summer, and particularly the school holidays, and our roads are full of obnoxious idiots.  In my childhood, my mother characterised them as “London Drivers”, and I expect she was pretty-much right.  Nowadays I expect it’s not so much central London as the Extended London that has swallowed up the whole of southeast England.

Guess I should make the most of it, and hope the idiot season brings weather to encourage me off-road, at least for leisure cycling.

Moglen vs History

King Canute famously failed to prevent the tide coming in.  I can’t help wondering if Eben Moglen is setting himself on a similarly futile course, when he calls for decentralisation of our information infrastructure.

The subject of Moglen’s opening keynote at FOSDEM was liberty, and how technology can work for or against it.  He spoke of current and recent topical events, from Wikileaks to the role of the ‘net in Egypt’s (so-far) peaceful revolution.  And of how technology can serve those who might threaten freedom: how much sensitive information could a heavy-handed government pick up from something as simple as a legal action on Facebook.  How Data Protection in Europe has merely served to outsource handling of personal data to countries like the US with no such protection of privacy.

His call to developers was to build decentralised networks, where we can publish, communicate, interact as we do on the ‘net without submitting all our data to any centralised database that might become the focus of malign attention.   Examples of tasks he spoke of ranged from Facebook-style networking to building a citizens cellphone network from $20 base stations in people’s homes.  Tasks which are at least technically feasible to prototype and develop.

Listening to this, my reaction was that he’s battling against history here.  History on the ‘net has shown different media and channels becoming more, not less, centralised.  The once-popular Usenet medium for public discussion has given way to web-based fora: a wholly inferior medium for the task, and one for which I must admit my small measure of guilt (though it seemed like an interesting thing to implement in 1995).  IRC discussion remains popular amongst geeks, but elsewhere there came chatrooms, and now we even have Twitter making a grab for that space.  Every time, the geek medium gives way to an inferior one because the latter gets the mindshare.  Non-technical journalists will routinely invite us to ‘tweet’ them, or mention a web forum relevant to a topic under discussion, so the public learn of these media.  Meanwhile the old, decentralised, shared, and in both these cases altogether superior, media are relegated to enclaves of geekdom (or, in the case of much of usenet, to wastelands of spam and other abuse).  My suggestion to him was, you need to concentrate your efforts not so much on legislators, but on communicators.  Journalists in mainstream media!

OK, ‘net history is short.  Why should a campaigner for freedom not call for trends to be reversed?

A wider perspective tells us that the online centralisation trends of which I have written are merely examples of similar trends backed by far more history.  The most striking parallel in English history is the Enclosure of the Commons.  The absurd valuations given to some websites (headed by Facebook) tell us a new aristocracy is profiting from enclosing an online commons, albeit an ephemeral and transient one.

And I plead guilty to hosting my blog at another aristocrat of web-land, WordPress.  Yep, my rantings are centralised as a matter of simple convenience.


An entertaining talk at FOSDEM was Michael Meeks, on the fork from OpenOffice to LibreOffice[1].   At the same time as delivering the now-popular message of community and open development, he was taking some quite partisan potshots at other FOSS models that unambiguously share those very values.  Hmmm … good entertainment, but perhaps unduly provocative.  Interestingly OpenOffice and LibreOffice both had stalls at FOSDEM, separated by only one independent exhibitor! 😮

From an outsider’s viewpoint[2], there was one thing I found reassuring.  Namely, the tensions that led to the split had existed during Sun’s time, before the Oracle takeover.  Thus whatever mistakes may have happened are not new.  I like to think Oracle is building on what Sun did right and drawing a line under what was wrong.  It would’ve been sad to hear that Oracle had damaged something Sun was doing right, and Meeks’s talk reassures me that hasn’t happened in this case.

The open-source-but-owned-and-controlled development model such as (most famously) that of MySQL can work, but seems to have fallen comprehensively out of favour with FOSS communities.  It’s at its best where third-parties are minor contributors, but is likely to lead to a fork if outside developers are taking a major interest.  And it’s never good to send mixed messages to the community: they’ll remember the big claims when you back-pedal.

[1] How is anyone supposed to promote a program the pronunciation of whose very name is a stumbling-block?  Shot in the foot there, methinks.  Is that the laughter of Redmond I hear?

[2] I’m a user of OpenOffice but have never contributed to its development, nor am I familiar with its community.


I’ve got around to the most tedious post-FOSDEM chore: keysigning.  Last night I signed 89 keys verified at the keysigning, and this morning I imported a bunch of signatures people have mailed me (though I expect the latter may continue arriving for a while).  All great for building a web of trust, especially in terms of bootstrapping the new 4096-bit key.

The FOSDEM keysigning event itself was … different.  It took place outdoors, with a gusting wind that made wielding a wodge of paper quite challenging, let alone writing on it, all the while with an extra hand required to exchange identity documents with everyone.  At least it didn’t rain!

This year’s FOSDEM weekend was quite mild for early February – in contrast to the past two years.  I was fine in just my middling-weight fleece and good layer of natural organic insulation, but then I’m always fine when others are shivering.  It was evidently a bit more of an ordeal for some from warmer climes, leaving one with a hint of a moral dilemma.  Surely as a gentleman I should go to the aid of the (very attractive) spanish girl who was visibly suffering from cold/wind?  But alas, that defeats the purpose of being out there in the first place, not to mention being open to …. interpretation.  Maybe I’ll take Don Quixote to next year’s FOSDEM, to be mentally prepared for chivalrous folly 😉

If anyone thinks I should have signed their key but haven’t, feel free to drop me a line.  If it’s because I didn’t in fact make a note of having verified your identity, then sorry, no deal.  But it could also be that I overlooked someone when reviewing my notes last night, in which case I’ll be happy to re-check the notes for the tick against your key.

Back Home

Back from FOSDEM, much to blog about in due course. Also of course things to catch up on, not least sleep.

So, first things first, having now stayed three consecutive years at the Renaissance Hotel, I shall definitely look elsewhere next time.  I also unreservedly withdraw my past recommendation for it: it’s neither as comfortable nor as quiet as before, there are some minor but shoddy omissions, and what is truly unforgivable: the hotel itself hosted an event on the Friday night that resounded through the rooms like a pile-driver.  So much for a rest after an early start and a long day’s travel, and ahead of another early start and a big conference!

Bah, Humbug.