Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.

Maybe if the government wants us to share our medical data, they could take care not to spy on our internet traffic. Deal?

The logic of ritual circumcision: you might sprain your ankle, so we’ve chopped your leg off.

Politics doesn't change anything

There’s a lot of geeks I talk to who tell me that politics doesn’t change anything, and that the “disruptive” changes comes from individuals and businesses building things in the marketplace.

When my grandmother was born:

  • The NHS didn’t exist.
  • The BBC didn’t exist.
  • The school leaving age was 14.
  • Britain still ran India, Pakistan, Israel, Iraq and South Africa.
  • There had never been a female judge or female cabinet minister.

When my parents were born:

  • It was legal for women and men to be paid different amounts for the same job.
  • Shillings were a thing.
  • The European Union wasn’t.
  • You needed a passport to go between France and Belgium.
  • The railways were owned by the government.
  • It wasn’t legal for gay people to have sex.
  • There was an official censor for theatrical productions.
  • Capital punishment by hanging was still legal.
  • Teachers could beat children for misbehaving.
  • The age of majority was 21.
  • There hadn’t been a woman Prime Minister and there had never been any female Peers in the House of Lords.
  • Britain still ran Egypt, Malaysia, Ghana, Nigeria, Jamaica, Bangladesh.

When I was born:

  • If a man had sex with his wife without her consent, it wasn’t rape.
  • Women couldn’t be vicars.
  • There hadn’t ever been a woman as a judge in the Court of Appeals or in the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords (now the Supreme Court).
  • Gay people couldn’t get married.
  • You couldn’t go under the English Channel on a train.
  • Shops didn’t open on Sundays.
  • You could be prosecuted for blasphemy.

But apparently politics doesn’t change anything.

I made the fatal mistake of reading Reddit comments about Ellen Page coming out.

Apparently, in the future, coming out won’t be a big deal, and being gay will be as unproblematic as race currently is in post-racial America since the election of Obama.

Yes. Someone actually said that.

I’m just gonna go and pour myself a triple vodka and tonic and roll my eyes quietly for a few hours.

If Martin Luther King or Harvey Milk were still alive, they’d be building iPhone apps. Because politics is a waste of time and you can’t change anything through politics, only through disruptive technology.

Or so says the contemporary neoliberal political power system. They may be biased on this one. The attempt at disempowering smart, informed young people by telling them they can’t change anything through politics is exactly why they can’t change anything through politics.

Hacking isn't always helping

Do you remember the Deepwater Horizon oil spill? For those who don’t remember it, let me remind you of the key facts. On April 20, 2010, Deepwater Horizon, an oil rig 41 miles off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico drilling to a depth of 35,000 feet exploded. The US government estimate the equivalent of 4.9 million barrels of oil leaked into the Gulf, causing damage to 68,000 square miles of ocean.

BP (and TransOcean) did not have the technology necessary to stem the flow of oil from the well. It took until August 4 for an effective solution to the oil leak to appear, in which time thousands of barrels worth of oil were spilling out into the Gulf, harming the ocean habitat as well as the economy of the coastal states. The environmental effects were devastating: dead dolphins turned up on the coasts at a rate ten times higher than usual, and the unique ocean habitat of many endangered species was severely damaged. The economic costs are estimated by BP themselves to be as much as $37.2 billion. Others think the cost is much higher. The explosion itself caused the fatality of eleven people.

A significant failure of environmental regulation was found in the aftermath. The Minerals Management Service was negligent in the duty they owed to the public in ensuring that technical decisions about the “failsafe” mechanisms used on Deepwater Horizon. Investigations into the Minerals Management Service found corruption too: a “revolving door” between the regulator and the very industry they regulate. The Union of Concerned Scientists have also stated that the MMS pressured scientists to “tone down” environmental impact reports submitted to the agency, and had reports rewritten so as to avoid having to do lengthy and expensive investigations into potential environmental harms from deepwater drilling.

Now imagine that in the aftermath of Deepwater Horizon if the US Government and BP had announced that one of the ways they sought to help improve the situation was through… running a hack day.

In London tomorrow, that’s what you can do to help with the floods that are currently destroying thousands of homes. FloodHack allows London hackers to work on hacks “for the greater good” of flooding victims.

Never mind that pumps, sandbags and evacuation from their rapidly flooding houses might be a bit more useful than iPhone apps. For every social problem, there’ll soon be an opportunity for bright young hackers to get together in London and feel good about looking at JSON files.

Don’t get me wrong. There might be some very positive things that come out of FloodHack, and I am perhaps being excessively cynical here. There are ways technology can help. Crisis mapping is an excellent approach that has had genuine real-world benefits for humanitarian first responders in a variety of crisis situations. In the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, the work of OpenStreetMap volunteers provided high-quality maps to aid agencies providing relief on the ground.

But there’s an important difference between Haiti post-earthquake and Britain post-flood (or, more accurately, mid-flood).

In Haiti, the reason emergency responders aren’t rescuing you is because they didn’t know you were there and didn’t know the roads to take to get to you and didn’t have any communications infrastructure.

In Britain, the reason emergency responders aren’t rescuing you is because politicians have their thumbs up their arses and are arguing about budgets and inter-agency responsibilities, and doing a lot of dick-swinging and blame-gaming to go with it.

In Britain, we have the technology and the capability to solve these problems in a way that other country’s don’t. The reason we don’t seem to be able to fix it is because of failures of governance, failure to invest in public services and emergency services, failure to contemplate the big picture of environmental responsibility, and probably a lot of other things starting with the word “failure”.

You only have to know a few people in the emergency services to see a recurring pattern: politicians and people in power wanting more for less. Budget cuts, “fiscal responsibility”, target culture, more management, less investment. I used to drink with a Met officer and heard unpleasant stories about stabbings and shootings and all sorts of other shit. I certainly wouldn’t want to deal with that kind of crap every day for the amount they were paying him. Outside of the emergency services, we see the cycle of politicians coming up with brilliant new policy wheezes, then not actually subjecting them to an evidence-based process to work out whether they actually work or not.

As I said: I don’t want to be too cynical. It’s certainly preferable to have some developer brains going into trying to fix social problems rather than the problems of trying to get more sticky eyeballs to click punch the monkey adverts and share bullshit on Facebook, or whatever it is that we work on at work so we can pay the bills. But there’s a very dodgy bit of politicking going on here.

When hack days start popping up to try and fix what are essentially political problems, it gives cover to the people who wish to avoid actually fixing the political problems. There’s a lot of things we can do with Python and JavaScript: getting a frightened pensioner out of their flooded home and to a safe place needs people on the ground with local knowledge and resources and the will to solve it, not people with MacBooks and silly facial hair in Shoreditch. Those of us in the hacker camp (although I’m clean shaven and try to stay the fuck away from Shoreditch on principle) shouldn’t allow ourselves to be used as cover for the failure to provide boots on the ground support to people in need.

As with Deepwater Horizon, in the next few months, smart people—not political ideologues—will investigate the response to the flooding and they will very likely find regulatory and operational failure from the Cabinet on down. The only thing I’d find at all surprising is if they didn’t find incompetence, negligence and idiocy. Fixing that requires more than iPhone apps, it requires politics and it requires accountability.

I will repeat again: I don’t want to single out FloodHack, nor do I want to suggest that it is done with anything but the best of intentions on the part of the organisers. But I’m worried that the idealism of well-intentioned hacker types can be so easily co-opted and used as a means of whiz-bang distraction from underlying political failures. Hacks are cool, but finding and fixing the complex bugs in our power and governance machine is just as important important: don’t let one distract you from the other.

“Stickiness”, dwell time, returner rate: fancy marketing speak for “visitor not finding the thing they want”.

When I was out doing late evening shopping, I spotted two men in Sainsbury’s buying flowers for their partners at about 10:30pm. The local florists was also open until late and seemed pretty busy when I passed by.

This all seemed amazingly last minute and rushed and slightly mad. Then I remembered that I’m single and felt sad.

Facebook now let you choose from a wide range of gender options. Of course, your own site has never had any such limitations to start with.

Still, it’s a nice win for my trans friends—especially those who are non-binary, genderqueer etc. Here’s the full list of gender labels Facebook now lets you use.

Also, it currently only works if you have your language set to US English. Again, on the non-siloed web, you can be as publicly non-binary trans as you like and you don’t have to beg Facebook to tell the world.

UKIP douchebag blamed the flooding on God being angry with gays. Perhaps God is angry at rising property prices and is taking steps to rebalance the market in favour of first-time buyers who are okay with a bit of water.

Libertarians: the people who say it’s okay for a restaurant owner to not let black people dine there, but it’s a civil rights violation if Apple remove a Bitcoin app from the iOS App Store.

It is quite astounding how many stupid people there are who wish to praise Putin because of Edward Snowden who are now buying Russian propaganda about how there is no homophobia or anti-gay persecution in Russia.

Putin, you are perfectly welcome to visit London but please leave children alone. Yeah, two can play that game.