Tumbled Logic

A ragtag blog filled with random technical nuggets, rants, raves, occasional pretty pictures, and links to things.

Mar 31

To all whom these presents shall come, greeting!

Reminder: this is my personal blog, conveying my personal opinions

When John Reith lobbied the government of the day for the creation of the British Broadcasting Corporation (having served as the British Broadcasting Company’s general manager for a year), it was in recognition of the fact that spectrum was a limited resource, and so broadcasting was too important to be left solely in the hands of those who would provide anything less than universal service. The result was a corporation was publicly-funded, but independent of both the government’s editorial agenda and the finer detail of who paid the bills; the BBC was conceived as being truly universal.

In 2015, this structure remains at the heart of the constitutional make-up of the corporation, and despite the protestation of some commercially-interested critics, is far from an anachronism. Indeed, the BBC is a uniquely good force in providing services for nearly everyone, while being simultaneously funded by nearly everyone (in terms of coverage, the household-level Licence Fee has a greater level of universality than Income Tax). Nowhere is this made clearer than in the definition of “licence fee payer” in the current Charter:

In this Charter, a reference to a “licence fee payer” is not to be taken literally but includes […] any other person in the UK who watches, listens to or uses any BBC service, or may do so or wish to do so in the future.

Side-note: If you ignore the “Elizabeth the Second by Grace of God of the United Kingdom…” stuff, the Charter is intended to be read by the likes of you and me, rather than just politicians and civil servants. Don’t forget the agreement, too, which goes into a bit more of the nitty-gritty about it all.

Given the impending Charter renewal, and the increasing ubiquity of the Internet, it is crucial that the BBC continues to reflect its public service credentials upon new media as they emerge. The BBC’s Public Purposes are intended to codify this, albeit in not the most accessible of language—each one of the six embodies an ideal of building upon independence and universality to do something only the BBC can, across citizenship, education, culture, inclusivity, the global community, and crucially in this case, the benefits of communications technologies.

The mistake that everyone makes with the idea of “digital public space” that’s been kicked around for some time now is to assume the interventions need to happen at the upper layers of the Internet. “The Web’s not at all broken beyond repair!”, people shout. They are right. In fact, I count myself amongst them.

Most of the principles which underpin digital public space can be implemented, using existing commodity technologies, on the Internet today: HTTP gives us the ability to serve rich descriptive machine-to-machine metadata alongside the pages we browse, to assign persistent resolveable identifiers for things, and be explicit about how and where things can be reused, remixed and redistributed; assymmetric cryptography gives us the ability to put people at the heart of digital identity, to stop building gigantic federated systems (where somebody other than you or I is ultimately in control of our own identity), and to stop treating “assurance” as a simplistic monolithic creature, inexorably linked to identification online, and bearing no relation to the processes and constraints of the real world.

We can do all of those things on the Internet now, in principle. The problems aren’t technical in nature, but the vision is in conflict with some of the commercial imperatives of the more influential corporations inhabiting this world. Large companies want to be in control of everyone’s identity, because it puts them at the centre of the value exchange and allows them to collect more data that they can use for commercial gain later on—even if you don’t actually know this, you can deduce it: logically, why would they bother with all of the significant effort of building, securing and maintaining federated login systems that any site can buy into, with no money changing hands, unless there was something in it for them?

And so many of those institutions who have been working together to shape this vision have done so in partial recognition that publicly-funded bodies are in unique position: while they do need to spend money responsibly, there’s little in it for them to behave quite as a Silicon Valley tech start-up would; they exist to serve the public, en masse, rather than the advertisers whose collectively deep pockets make shareholders’ eyes light up.

By my reading, DOT EVERYONE seeks to encapsulate these parts of the vision: putting control back into the hands of the public, being altruistic in nature, and a recognition that the public sector has different imperatives than the private sector. Is it a good thing? On balance, quite probably. Does it need a new quango? Quite possibly not. Let’s try to make it a good thing, though, rather than assuming that it will or won’t be.

There is one area where the digital public space vision diverges from the Internet as we know it, and it’s an area of potentially great importance to the BBC (but not by any means only the BBC), and was the thrust of Tony’s Royal Holloway speech. Of all the fantastic, amazing things the Internet is and has made possible, a true provision of universal service which is comparable to broadcasting is not amongst them.

There’s a good reason for this: ring-fencing a bunch of stuff on the Internet and saying that anybody will be able to access it, even if they can’t get at anything else, they’ve reached their data cap, or let their account lapse has the effect of violating net neutrality to quite a significant and disastrous extent. The Internet is in a way a perfect free-market—often referred to as “the great leveller”—and that’s what makes it work, so well that it’s changed the world (and to a far greater extent than I came close to realising when I got excited by it in the early 1990s).

So, we can’t do that. I don’t want to do that. Given a choice between “delivering Freeview-style universal service in the UK using new technologies” and “the Internet”, I’d pick the Internet every time, despite believing that the former is going to be pretty crucial to the long-term survival of my employer and an institution I believe it’s incredibly important to maintain.

On the other hand, just as the licence fee funds universal access to television and radio broadcasts, I don’t believe the solution to the problems which come about as a result of people shifting away from them and onto the Internet for media consumption is to rope one broadcaster’s VoD service specifically into the licence fee: that strikes me (although I could be wrong) as being perilously close to the path to a subscription model.

Brief aside: the problem with a subscription model is that it rides roughshod through that universal service provision. It’s quite difficult now not to be a slave to audience figures (across all platforms); it could only be more difficult if the funding model is absolutely tied to them. We can’t deliver a universal service if we need to get as big an audience as possible at every turn to ensure that the bills get paid.

Instead, we need to come up with a model which allows for delivery of public services over IP—which can conceivably extend beyond public service broadcasting, but is not necessarily over the Internet. We can’t not provide universal access to public services as they’re increasingly delivered using Internet technologies, but by the same token we can’t destroy the Internet in the process.

I don’t know what that model looks like, but I’m pretty sure we need one. At the very least, we need to be absolutely sure of that the answer to “how do we ensure everyone gets public services (of all kinds, including public service broadcasting) to their devices in years to come?” really has been thought through properly.


Sep 17

Independence

Although I’m not technically prohibited from expressing my IndyRef preference prior to September 18th, I still don’t intend to — it’s a matter between me and the postal ballot I sent back a while ago (I didn’t know if I’d actually be in Scotland on polling day).

However, I am finding the mechanics and politics of it all rather fascinating. Obviously, there’s the usual stuff: it’s a historic event; being in the thick of it is eerily similar to being in The Thick of It; all of this week, Huw Edwards has been tapping away at his laptop just a few metres behind me when he’s not on air; and on Friday things will start to get really interesting, regardless of the outcome.

Both sides have claimed to have witnessed some degree of unpleasantness from the other (and I don’t doubt the claims, to be clear). I do wonder how much of it is a consequence of having a political event which has got people so engaged that even the, usually apathetic, thugs have joined in the fray—with a predicted record turn-out (my personal reckoning is that it’ll be north of 80%) and the outcome too close to call, ordinary folk are being forced to take more than the usual amount of rough with the smooth.

Meanwhile, there’s a lot which could be said about the “marketing” of it all. I struggle to get away from an awareness that the No Thanks campaign really screwed up from the outset: as was noted to me recently, negative messages peak much more quickly than positive ones, and it’s hard to say “No thanks” without sounding negative, and a little bit defensive.

And that’s without the huge apparent mis-step of taking the “devo max” option off the table in the Edinburgh agreement, in the belief that in its absence, the majority of people in Scotland would rather stick with the status quo than take a leap of faith. Ironically, this was exactly the sort of thing which many dissatisfied with the current state of affairs interpreted as arrogance on the part of Westminster, and it almost certainly helped sway some undecided voters towards the Yes camp.

The approach taken by those voting Yes seem—to my eye—to be a little different to those voting No, too.

Rather than evaluating it as a choice between “remain as we are” or “take a significant risk in separation”, as it is on paper, it seems like a lot of people are subconsciously evaluating the choice as being one at year zero: i.e., one between joining the UK (because they already feel relatively disenfranchised, and a No vote would put pay to any further independence attempts for at least a generation) and the risk of going it alone.

My hunch is, though, that regardless of views of independence, very few people in Scotland are genuinely happy with things just as they are today—so in many respects it’s not an unreasonable way of looking at things.

The reality is that this is a vote between one set of to-be-negotiated changes and another, lesser, set of the same, and neither is what anybody could call an ideal outcome. Do you want known unknowns or unknown unknowns?

Anybody who thinks that a vote either way is clear-cut and absolute almost certainly hasn’t been paying close enough attention: all we really know is that waking up on Friday morning, we’ll find ourselves at the start of either negotiations for self-governance, or negotiations to adjust the dividing line of authority between Westminster and Holyrood, and the political landscape in Scotland will likely change significantly in either case.

And, irrespective of the final outcome, if it is nearly as close as predicted, it’s a huge vote of no-confidence in the coalition Government—what message does “half of the population of Scotland voted in favour of leaving the UK altogether” send?


Mar 21

Criminals

Okay. I’ve sat and thought about it, and here is my conclusion:

The only people that decriminalising the licence fee actually helps is politicians who are voted for by people who will never actually not pay the licence fee.

A civil case is, as most people actually know underneath it all, a grossly inefficient way of dealing with it.

The criminal cases, on the other hand, are heard in batches, usually settled before it ever gets in front of a magistrate (and for those which do, the majority don’t show up anyway), and there’s a certain amount of latitude available in terms of penalty: the maximum fine or imprisonment is generally a last resort applied to those who are defiantly persistent about not paying. If it’s the ‘criminal record’ part of it which is problematic (and I can understand that argument—to an extent, though I don’t see anybody complaining driving an uninsured vehicle being criminal is terribly unfair), then adjust the way that people are deemed to have been rehabilitated from the offence and associated disclosure rules. Good luck with that.

Constitutionally, putting in place a system where an organisation which is exists through royal charter and collects a levy defined in law, but issues civil proceedings for non-payment is even weirder than a system where an organisation which is exists through royal charter and collects a levy defined in law.

But no, this isn’t anything about the fairness of anything. There are already people seizing upon the idea as a stepping stone to simply making the licence fee a subscription. This misses (perhaps wilfully) a really big part of the point of the BBC: the fact that the definition of licence fee payer is deliberately distinct (go and read the Charter if you haven’t already) from “people who pay the licence fee” is the other side of the coin whereby the BBC isn’t a state broadcaster. To put it another way, it’s a very purposeful middle-ground where the BBC is neither directly beholden to the state nor to the people with the money. The BBC provides services, across a variety of platforms, which are for everyone. Those services are funded by the subset of the households who receive broadcast television.

(And yes, I know that the BBC chases ratings, underserves some audiences, and unquestioningly toes the line of the government of the day from time to time. We are not perfect. But the solution is cannot possibly be to remove the very mechanism which makes it possible for the BBC to do any better—do that, and the BBC of today is the best-constructed that it could possibly be, and I don’t buy that for a second).

While, hypothetically, you could make things fairer by rolling it into general taxation, you’d have to both have a parliament who was extremely friendly to the idea, and so many strings attached to prevent future abuse (for example, requiring an absolute majority in both houses to undo it), that it’s so unlikely to happen as to be discountable.

And, of course, we’re far from the exception in the “licence fee nation” stakes. Plenty of other countries have had them. Some of them even struggled for years under voluntary collection schemes as have been proposed by some quarters before switching to the British model.

And certainly, IP distribution presents some challenges to the funding model, but as I’ve noted previously: the TV Licence didn’t begin life as a TV Licence, it began as a Radio Licence. It’s evolved over time and can do so again—we just need to be careful to not tie too closely the media to the output in doing so.


Dec 14

Casualty of the storm

The pink, lifeless frame lay disfigured almost beyond recognition upon the path next to the river; another victim of the mighty, but dispassionate elements.

People glanced nervously downward as they passed, not being able to help themselves but to look. For a brief, fleeting moment, they desperately hoped that the same fate wouldn’t befall them, before self-confidence returned and they hurried away to go about their daily lives.

I did the same, of course, and as I hunched my shoulders and quickened pace, I hoped that my umbrella was made from much sterner stuff.


Nov 17

Modelling activity streams with quads

I’ve been thinking for a while about how one might use a quad-store as a database of activity streams, and consequentially how to model them.

We have four key pieces of information, plus a set of ancillary properties. These are:

  • A unique, generated identifier for the action, so that we can refer to it later
  • The person (or agent) performing the action
  • The action being performed (verb)
  • The thing the action is being performed upon

On top of these, we might have various other pieces of information: the action’s timestamp, the system it was performed upon, a policy associated with it (such as whether it can be shared anonymously), and so on.

The thought occurs that the verb could be easily represented as a predicate (previous approaches that I’ve seen represent the verb as an instance of a class instead, but my gut instinct is that it makes dealing with the data harder than it need to be).

Now, it’s entirely up to you which way around you put the agent or the action: but I’ve opted to use the agent as the subject (although that does affect the way I name my terms — I’ve opted for watched instead of watchedBy, for example).

Finally, the identifier for the action is used as the graph name, but is also annotated with additional properties in a separate graph controlled by the activity store itself. This is, I’ll admit, not the usual way to approach named graphs, but it does mean that when you reduce down to triples, you’re left with a stream of the three most important pieces of information: agent, verb, thing.

Enough waffling. Here’s an example:


@prefix act: <http://example.com/activity/>
@prefix dct: <http://purl.org/dc/terms/> .
@prefix xsd: <http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema#> .
@prefix event: <http://purl.org/NET/c4dm/event.owl#>
@prefix foaf: <http://xmlns.com/foaf/0.1/>
@prefix tl: <http://purl.org/NET/c4dm/timeline.owl#>

</2013/11/17/19/13/38078878b361481a9a05210d6611b89a>
    foaf:PrimaryTopic </2013/11/17/19/13/38078878b361481a9a05210d6611b89a#id> .

</2013/11/17/19/13/38078878b361481a9a05210d6611b89a#id> {
    <http://neva.li/#me> act:watched <http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03hy7hm#programme> .
}

</#id> {
  </2013/11/17/19/13/38078878b361481a9a05210d6611b89a#id>
    a event:Event ;
    event:time [
        a tl:Interval ;
        tl:start "2013-11-17T18:25:33Z"^^xsd:dateTime ;
        tl:duration "PT48M14S"^^xsd:duration
    ] ;
    dct:created "2013-11-17T19:13:47Z"^^xsd:dateTime ;
    dct:source <http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/#id> .
}

You’ll note that my activity identifiers contain a date and time (down to the minute level, at least) and a UUID: this is to allow for both logical navigation patterns to retrieve aggregations (e.g., “return all activity from November 2013”), while not being reliant upon a single naming authority. There are, of course, a whole host of different ways of doing this.

Thoughts?

Update: Ryan Adams points me at Tin Can, which I must have seen when it was announced, but haven’t actually looked at the spec for until after posting this. Interestingly, it looks like it would be fairly straightforward to express Tin Can statements in the form above (and even easier if the experience verbs had an RDF vocab representation).


Sep 11

Ofcom has today published the final findings of a year-long study into how and why internet users access music, films, TV programmes, software, books and video games online – both legally and illegally.

The fourth wave of the Online Copyright Infringement Tracker shows results for the period March – May 2013.

The High Volume Infringers Analysis Report considered the behaviour of the most active copyright infringers over the period May 2012 – May 2013. This report’s findings include:

  • Over the year, 17% of internet users infringed copyright online;
  • 2% of internet users were responsible for 74% all online copyright infringement
  • However, infringers also accounted for 32% by volume, and 40% by spend, of legally consumed digital content, spending more on average than non-infringers on both digital and physical content.

All the research was funded by the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) and carried out by Kantar Media on behalf of Ofcom. The reports contain details about the methodology used.

Source: Ofcom

Aug 12

A short bullet-pointed rant about both Spotify and Skype on the Mac

I use both Spotify and Skype on the Mac. In fact, I pay for both. Here is a short list of the things which irritate me today about both, in no particular order. Given the age of both, I don’t expect either to be occurring by now.

  • Both: either use Sparkle or get distributed through the Mac App Store. Your own updaters are pitiful. I run as a non-admin user, but have admin credentials which I can provide when needed. In the case of Skype this means I can only ever update manually (it actually goes to the trouble of downloading the update, then fails with a cryptic error when it can’t overwrite Skype.app). With Spotify, it’s almost worse: it updates entirely automatically, but when it discovers the install location isn’t writeable, it dumps the updated copy in ~/Applications, cheerfully creating it if it doesn’t exist. Great. Now I have two different copies of Spotify. Both Sparkle and the Mac App Store handle this completely gracefully (i.e., they prompt for elevated credentials when needed). Update: Skype fixes this as of version 6.6.
  • Spotify: Don’t breathlessly tell me a new album is available, and then tell me it’s not available when I hit the “Play” button. Good grief.
  • Spotify: What on earth is with the randomly de-authorising machines for offline use? Urgh. Don’t try to make it automatic and byzantine; either give me a list of devices, or make it work properly.
  • Spotify: Stop spamming syslog with Spotify[21722]: setShowsApplicationBadge: is not yet implemented for the NSApp dockTile.
  • Skype: I don’t know why you think Skype[21446]: WebFlashData cannot find Macrodmedia flash player SharedObjects directory, error Error Domain=NSCocoaErrorDomain Code=260 "The folder “#SharedObjects” doesn’t exist." UserInfo=0x1a2a2c0 {NSUserStringVariant=( Folder ), NSUnderlyingError=0x1a111a0 "The operation couldn’t be completed. (OSStatus error -43.)", NSFilePath=/Users/mo/Library/Preferences/Macromedia/Flash Player/#SharedObjects} appearing in my logs is fine: whether it’s the misspelling of “Macromedia”, the miscapitalisation of “Flash”, or the fact that you’re dicking around in there in the first place. Stop it.
  • Skype: Turning off emoticons (particularly animated emoticons) should not have a measurable effect upon CPU usage in this day and age.
  • Skype: To load more than the last few lines of conversation history should not take multiple seconds. Update: Skype fixes this as of version 6.4.
  • Skype: Sync read status between devices, or don’t let me log into multiple devices simultaneously, for goodness’ sake. I’m bored of missing messages because I forgot to quit Skype at home before heading to work.
  • Skype: Given that Lync for Mac is utterly horrible, when will I be able to log into my corporate Lync server at the same time as logging into my external account? I suppose group conversations or group video/voice calls between corporate Lync and public Skype participants will be out of the question?

There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?

In the interests of fairness I should note that Microsoft may have fixed some of the Skype issues since I last updated. That was a while ago, because updating it is a ball-ache and it doesn’t even tell me that there’s a new version available to manually download and install.


May 31

Abuse

There is some utter twaddle being bandied today around about images of child abuse, and much more besides, on the Web.

First there is clear blue water between perfectly legal (whether you find it savoury or not) pornography and completely illegal images of child abuse (themselves depicting illegal activities). It’s difficult to see the conflation of the two as anything other than a disgusting attempt to further an agenda under the guise of solving a problem.

Second, despite some somewhat ill-informed statements to the contrary, images of child abuse are not a technical problem—they are a three-part problem of entirely human making: (a) abusing children, (b) capturing that abuse on camera, © distributing that abuse. In that order. There are people such as Mark Bridger who will seek out this material, and history has shown that they will almost certainly be successful if it is there.

Blocking it from search engines may help in a small way prevent the cases of “accidentally encountering it online”, but it doesn’t solve the underlying problems of its very existence, nor does it solve the cases which don’t involve “click on a link on Google and are immediately confronted by child abuse” (and I have a very strong suspicion they are very much in the minority). It doesn’t prevent people finding it if they’re sent direct links, find it through some intermediary service created specially to do this, or if the material isn’t itself on the Web in the first place (pro tip: the Web and the Internet are not the same thing).

Politicians, campaign groups and newspapers are very keen to apply pressure. Reportedly only 1% of sites hosting this material are within the UK; is there an international treaty governing the procedures for the removal of child abuse images (and following that, the tracing of the originators and bringing them to trial)? If not, why the fuck not?

People who know absolutely nothing about the way the Internet or the Web work (or, it’d seem, have never thought for more than a fraction of a second about human behaviour), would do well to stop trying to fundamentally redefine it because bad people use it to do bad things.

Instead concentrate on actually reaching consensus on dealing with the things we can all agree on: chiefly, that these images and the actions which precipitate them have no business existing in the first place.


May 29
Henry Wood on Flickr.

Henry Wood on Flickr.


Mar 20

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