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Rotwang's Lair Below are 10 entries, after skipping 10 most recent ones in the "Dave Durant" journal:

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July 12th, 2012
12:08 am


The "Teaching Kids to Code" community desperately needs a curator
I had this grand plan (yes, another one). I was going to write a "Coding for Kids" website. I was going to be epic with links to websites (including thumbnails), tons of resources, how to set up your own coding club, online peer-to-peer mentoring, forums, etc, etc. I just needed to sit down and get it down.

That was about eight months ago.

Of course it doesn't help that I'm not really a website designer. It could probably be done in something like Drupal fairly easily but there's always been more pressing projects to do. In the meantime I've collected my own person list of articles, blogs, blog posts, twitter feeds, website, etc, etc and it's already over a 100 links.

There is another the huge list of links at the Coding for Kids wiki and the already long contacts page there. I'm not sure how often the wiki is updated though (the last entry on the links page appears to be a couple of months old). The Coding for Kids mailing list (something else I never manage to catch up with) not to mention the BCS-driving Computing at School one are thriving. Code Club has come into existence, YRS is going to be huge this year and the list of cool stuff goes on and on.

What seems obvious to me know is that what this community needs is not a leader (heaven forbid) but a really good curator who pledges to keep track of everything that is going on (including submission of interesting links and event from anyone). They would need to organise the information in ways that are useful to kids, teachers, adult mentors / hackers, etc and, possibly most important, keeps an up-to-date directory of people who are active in this area with a view to putting people in touch with each other and maybe organising future in-person gatherings.

Let's be clear - this is not what many people would call a sexy job. This isn't hacking, it's not PR and they won't be spending a lot of fun time exciting the kids about code. It's really a librarian role and is extraordinarily unlikely that they'd get any money for doing it. However I'm coming to the conclusion that this role is vital for our community as it grows exponentially (globally!) not only to avoid duplication but so we can all stand on the shoulders of other folks doing excellent work in this area.

But now comes that hard part. I don't have time to do this. No-one I know has time to do this (and hacker-type folks would much rather be writing code). So - over to everyone else - how do you think we can find someone really motivated to stand up and say "This is for me!"?

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April 21st, 2012
12:22 am


Book review - Songs of Distant Earth

As part of the previously mentioned Day Zero Project alobear and I have been asking people to recommend books and films for us to read/view. Mostly we've piled these up so far but the two books I have read have been an unfortunate disappointment (Jamrac's Menagerie) and now a really pleasant success with Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke.

Skip now if you don't want fairly serious spoliers.

I read this book maybe two decades ago but I count it as a 'new read' as I couldn't remember any of the plot bar the techno-muguffin that makes the plot possible. It's discovered in the early 21st century that the sun is going to turn into a supernova but that it won't happen for over 1,000 years. During that time many 'seedships' are sent to other worlds. There, automated systems create and raise a first generation of humans that then build a new society. Meanwhile, in the final years leading up to the end of Earth humanity discovers zero-point-energy and the ability to drive ships up to virtually light speed. This leads to a ship directly from Earth arriving at a 700 year old self-developed colony.

The book reads very strongly as an allegory for the culture clash between English sailors arriving at Polynesian islands in the 19th century. The step-differences in technology and culture are similar and the
 polyamorous nature of the locals also reflects history.

The Thalassan culture is very interesting as the creators of the original seed ship decided to remove all references to humanitie's obsession with god (including all references to religion) and the militaristic nature of Earth's history. On the one hand this has lead to a highly rational and peaceful society. On the other the majority of the major works of human artistic culture are lost to them. The new arrivals must decide whether to pass on the parts that are missing. This is on top of what the effect of dropping millions (billions?) of new pieces of literature, music and art onto a small slowly developing culture.

The people from Earth do hand over plans for the quantum power system but state that 'only 3 people on the ship understand how it works and they are all in statis'. This leads to a discussion about whether any sufficiently competent engineer with the right tools and design plans can make anything - even if they don't understand what it does. 

There are a number of minor niggles including the lack of AIs and robots. Both are mentioned but very few robots and no AIs appear in the story. There's a one-line mention of 'electronic ghosts' which might be the stored personalities of dead people but, if so, we never get to meet one. There's equally a one-off mention of cybernetic implants when, if this was possible, you'd assume that everyone would have them and use them constantly. There's a scene where a law-enforcement officer uses a machine that can perfectly detect lies. There's no real mention of how such a machine would change a society (a-la James Halperin's Truth Machine). Likewise a one-off mention of a "replicator" but no comments of how the existence of such things would change a society that no longer needs to have people making things.

Two things in particular stand out as being a bit irritating. The first is that a major accident could have been easily prevented by a simple call phone call. The second is not a technical but a story issue of how someone makes a decision that a person who is killed would rather remain dead than be brought back to life in a completely different culture. It made me very angry that they would dare make such a decision on his behalf.

There are some lovely touches though. I particularly liked that if couples marry they keep their original names but if their first child is a boy they all take the man's last name but if it's a girl they all take the woman's.

I really enjoyed the book. It's lightweight, can be read quickly and doesn't contain any really new concepts but it is very well done, is sweet and has a great deal of heart. Certainly recommended.

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March 20th, 2012
10:54 pm


Interesting article about abattoirs in Boing Boing

I found this article particularly interesting. Like things I have read about this before it's not going to stop me eating meat but I find the psychology of the people involved fascinating. In particular the 'myth' of the 'knocker' and the different attitude to the escaped animals 'in the wild' vs those, de-personified, going through the slaughterhouse process.

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February 26th, 2012
05:44 pm


The world of Cyberpunk 2020 - update

Back in June was the last time I posted an update on a running theme of mine that the world is running to catch up in time to be ready to become the universe of the roleplaying game Cyberpunk 2020.

Adding to that we now have...

The increase of tent cities in the US.

Google to release 'net shades.

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05:25 pm


Privacy links

More things I've tagged recently.

Encryption: In the US one prosecutor maintains that a woman must decrypt her data while she claims to not remember the password. The decision of what that means to be decided.  Meanwhile the Supreme Court says that a person cannot be forced to decrypt their HD if the police don't already have strong reasons to believe they know what is on it (no fishing for evidence)

ORG talks about the 'Do Not Track' initiative and most large tech companies sign up to it.

Francis Fukuyama (of 'The End of History' fame) builds his own surveillance drone.

Depressingly spending on CCTV in the UK continues to climb despite no evidence that it's remotely useful in gaining convictions or deterring crime and while the amount of money councils have to spend overall decreases.

Some potentially useful tools: Find out what data your apps are leaking. A Chrome extension of encrypting data on FaceBook (I find it much easier to just not use FB personally).

Lastly, Google asks (and gets) people to record everything they do online for a year for $25.


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05:07 pm


Some civil liberties updates

Some things I've tagged over the past few weeks.

Following my previous post about warrantless GPS tagging of cars in the US (c.f. USA vs Knotts) the Supreme Court has clarified the situation by unambiguously saying that warrants are needed for attaching GPS trackers to vehicles. Apparently this has caused the FBI to switch off 3,000 tracking devices.

I'm very disappointed that the three men convicted of "distributing threatening written material intending to stir up hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation" went down for that rather than encouraging violent behaviour. Yes, people like this need to be stopped from promoting violence but doing by attacking their right to speak out on matters they strongly believe in is the wrong way to do it.

Lastly, I find it deeply ironic that at the same time that the government refuses to offer a posthumous pardon for Alan Turing for being gay they are also working to insert a provision into the upcoming (very late) Protections of Freedoms Bill that will remove existing convictions for consensual gay sex with people over 16 from every still living person previously convicted for that offence.

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January 30th, 2012
04:01 pm



I've been writing letters, faxes and emails on behalf of Amnesty International's Urgent Action network for over ten years.

No-one's ever responded before - never mind the Attorney General of the Republic of Mexico!


Dear David Durant,

I would like to inform you that I have instructed Victoria Pacheco Jimenez, the Assistant Attorney General for Regional Control, Criminal Proceedings and Amparo, to expeditiously respond to the matter in reference. She will be contacting you shortly.

Furthermore, I would also like to inform you that said public official may be located at <snipped>.

I wish to reiterate to you the commitment of this Office of the Attorney General of the Republic to protecting personal rights and to strictly observing the law.


Marisela Morales Ibañez

Attorney General of the Republic

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January 17th, 2012
11:55 pm


Another one
Instead of being sensible and going to sleep I'm going to write about another in the Future of the C onstitution series. This one is Is the Fourth Amendment Relevant in a Technological Age? by Christopher Slobogin.

The essay covers the current mess surrounding the interpretation by the American courts of the 4th Amendment to the American Constitution which says:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The problems here are multiple stemming from obvious "wiggle-words" such as unreasonable but also in straightforward words such as house.

There is also the issue of probably cause - i.e. that the police must have a 50% of higher probability that potentially intrusive surveillance will lead to uncovering a crime. The huge increase in the number of CCTV cameras covering public areas in the US, UK and elsewhere is one obvious area of contention for this.

While Katz vs United States concluded that the police bugging phone boxes to entrap people was illegal as "the Amendment protects people, not places" increasing use of Deep Packet Inspection tools on the internet make a mockery of that ruling.
In United States vs Knotts the court ruled that it was okay to attach a GPS tracker to a suspect's car without a warrant as "[a] person travelling in an automobile on public thoroughfares has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements from one place to another.” 

Further caselaw states that even a person's garden behind a high fence is fully open to police surveillance as "“[a]ny member of the public flying in navigable airspace could have seen what the police saw."

Over 8,000,000 requests have been made by American police for tracking of mobile phone locations by mobile network operators - often handing over weeks or months of location data. It is unknown how many of these cases lead to a conviction.

United States vs Kyllo states that the police could not use a thermal imaging camera to see what is happening inside a house - bizarrely because such as a device is "not in general public use" (rather than base their decision on a ethical footing). However, they can still be used in an non-home location such as a person's back yard, work or any public area.

Devices "in general public use" such as zoom lenses, night-vision equipment, boom mikes, etc are fair game to look inside people's homes. It's assumed that more technological devices will become "common" over time.

Moving to state acquisition of data United States vs Miller (1976) says that an individual “takes the risk, in revealing his affairs to another, that the information will be conveyed by that person to the government . . . even if the information is revealed on the assumption that it will be used only for a limited purpose and the confidence placed in the third party will not be betrayed.” This text is used in its widest interpretation when "to another" can make a corporation - in Miller this was a Bank. This means that there is no private speech between Americans and American companies unless covered by separate legislation (doctors, lawyers, etc). From Smith vs Maryland this was extended to every number any subscriber had dialed using a named phone company.

The issue with the above, obviously, is whether this can be interpreted, for example, as carte blanch for the state to collect all the phone numbers anyone ever dials "just in case" they need to use them later in a criminal investigation. Various forms of state information aggregation have been created - most infamously Total Information Awareness (with the creepiest logo ever) which was defunded in 2003 but has continued under different, less public, titles ever since. 

This is all outside repeated statements by the Supreme Court that any operation focused on terrorism, such as suspicionless searched on NYC public transport, fall outside the usual jurisdiction of the courts as “in those exceptional circumstances in which special needs, beyond the normal need for law enforcement, make the warrant and probable-cause requirement impracticable.”

The paper continues in it's final 3rd by making recommendations on ways to re-balance the status quo so that there is a more even keel between state's acquisition of information and individual rights. I encourage interested parties to read it.

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January 9th, 2012
11:10 pm


As I've mentioned before I'm a big fan of the Future of the Constitution series from the Brookings Institution. I still have a backlog of their excellent articles to read but tonight I've found time to go through Endowed by Their Creator?: The Future of Constitutional Personhood.

This is an excellent essay covering both the creation of intelligence in machines (via AI) and the reduction of intelligence in humans (via genetics) to present arguments on exactly what makes a "person". Comments comparing AI restriction to abortion mix with warnings about the previous times in history groups of people have decided that some entities are not 'persons'. Statements such as those suggesting that any being that can hold moral values is 'human' is dispatched by pointing out that many animals can be shown to act 'morally'. Further reflection on already existing corporate non-human persons is briefly touched on.

However, perhaps the only solid conclusion is that while liberals struggle with the weighty problems of defining what is a 'person' conservatives and theologians will continue to resist the expansion of fundamental rights to any further group of beings - just as they have for women, gays, 'lesser races' and people with heretical thoughts.

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07:02 pm


More interesting bits about globalisation

Paddy Ashdown has an interesting talk up on TED. However, I'm more impressed that French ex-pats gathered together in significant numbers are now going to have their own MPs. If you happen to have French passport but are allowed to be resident in the UK and are currently based in China but are on a year's work secondment to Brazil how much longer is the nation state going to make sense to you? It doesn't take a genius to see a gap opening up for the creation of the sort of trans-national communities referenced in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars books or Stevenson's Diamond Age.

While I'm here - is it just me or are people posting a lot less on LJ these days? Some of use have moved to Twitter for meme-spreading, which is mostly what I used LJ for anyway, but everyone else just seems to be posting less. *shrug*

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