Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

Radio may soon be Nobody’s Bomb (bumped)

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

Beside the promise of extra channels (meaning more adverts), there is a dark and sinister side to the switch to digital radio and TV broadcasting.

Analogue radio, and even analogue colour TV, were much closer to Universal Comprehensibility than their digital equivalents.

Building a MW / LW radio receiver is not hard — years ago, nearly every schoolboy did it. Building one that works well under all circumstances is tricky, but amplitude modulation — which is used on the medium and long wave bands — is basically easy. You have a high-frequency carrier signal, which you make get weaker and stronger in time with the audio signal getting weaker and stronger. You feed this into an aerial system, and invisible electromagnetic waves travel away from it in all directions. The person listening has a tuned circuit, which lets through just the frequency of your carrier signal; a rectifier, which converts the high-frequency alternating current into direct current (which is still rising and falling in time with the audio signal); and an amplifier, which boosts the signal enough to move a loudspeaker cone. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but I don’t want to lose my audience.

Frequency modulation is a little bit harder. This time, instead of varying the strength of the carrier signal, you vary the frequency Where your oscilloscope trace is above the zero line, you move the peaks closer together; where it goes below the line, further apart. So the frequency of your carrier signal is changing. This isn’t as big a problem as it sounds, because most tuned circuits aren’t perfect; so the one in the receiver will let through frequencies that are within a certain tolerance anyway. You also need a different kind of detector, which responds to changes in frequency as opposed to amplitude; but once you have built that, you can make use of the same power supply, amplifier and loudspeaker as before.

Doing it with pictures involves another layer of complication since there is no single, universally-accepted way of representing a picture as an electrical signal. And that’s just in mono — don’t get me started on the various ways people have actually transmitted colour pictures. In practice, though, agreements were thrashed out between governments, broadcasters and setmakers on a country-by-country basis, so all the TV sets in any given country worked on the same broadcast standard. And home video equipment works to national broadcast standards precisely so that an ordinary television set can be used to view home recordings.

Still, the fact remains that anyone with the right knowledge can build a radio transmitter. (Actually using it is another matter; if your signal travels far enough to interfere with other users, you can expect to end up in court. Not much is likely to happen if you build a small, low power transmitter and nobody finds out about it. And if the Rule of Law has already broken down …..)

But digital broadcasting is a whole other kettle of fish. Even building a digital receiver requires access to proprietary technologies (and this includes mathematical operations over which some people claim to hold patents!), although they may be available under what appear to be generous licencing terms. This is only because the big corporations are aware that in order to sell transmitters, receivers need to be almost given away. Building a transmitter is what requires access to the seriously expensive stuff, and that’s what they aren’t going to let Our Sort near.

Call it paranoia on my part if you like, but there’s no denying that wholesale adoption of digital broadcasting will end up making it nigh-on impossible to start an underground radio station — and in so doing, will deprive The Population At Large of a potentially extremely useful weapon against a corrupt government.

I was a squatter once …..

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

….. for two nights, at any rate.

How to Subvert an Election

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

While we Britons use universally-comprehensible pencil and paper for our elections, Americans have sacrificed the democratic process to corporate interests. They use machines to record and count their votes; and in deference to the power of the Almighty Corporation, any kind of reverse-engineering against the machines they use is an offence.

Some jaw-droppingly bad blunders have been made with voting machines. One often-proposed idea is to issue voters with a receipt. This is an exceedingly bad idea. There is nothing to stop the machine from accepting your vote for candidate A, issuing you with a receipt for candidate A, and then recording a vote for candidate B. You might be able to work out from examining the hardware and the software that that was what it was doing; but of course, they embody confidential trade secrets of the manufacturers.

Even if the USA were to make it law that voting machine manufacturers must publish their blueprints, schematics and software listings to allow independent scrutiny (by the tiny minority of the population who can make sense of such information), how can you be sure that the machine that accepted your vote on polling day was actually built in accordance with those plans and running that software?

Now Imagine this on a notice board in a workplace:

All workers taking time off to vote will be expected to show their receipt proving that they voted for the factory owner’s brother-in-law under penalty of dismissal.

Voter receipts do nothing to prevent the following scenario:
Suppose Candidate A receives 500 votes, B receives 390 and C receives 110. These are the actual votes, remember. The announced result, however, is A 380, B 500, C 120. (Note that those figures are not so far out as to be utterly implausible. If they wanted to get a candidate elected in the face of very strong opposition, they might have to field a few extra candidates of their own just in order to split the vote.) You voted for A. You go with your receipt to the Town Hall to check how your vote was recorded, and are correctly told you voted for A. And that’s as far as you can take the matter.

Even if all 499 of the other people who voted for A go and check, they’ll be told — rightly — that their vote was for A. And because (1) they all go in one at a time to check their vote, and (2) there are also many B- and C-voters in there, not one single one of the A-voters will be the slightest bit the wiser that there are really 500 of them, as opposed to the 380 that was announced!

You could only determine that something was amiss if all those A-voters produced their receipts for Candidate A at the same time. And in reality, the proportion of voters who will actually bother even to check their vote will be minuscule.

Tbe BNP “victory”: It Could Have Been Worse

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

I think we’re all aware that the BNP have managed to score a couple of seats in the recent European Parliament election.

Now, while I’m not defending the BNP in any way, I have to say that I think the alternative would be much, much worse. Any law that managed to ban the BNP would effectively grant a governing party a veto over the election of any opposition party. Which part of that would not be wide open to misuse? If the BNP can be banned because of something objectionable in their manifesto, then why not the LCA? Why not the Greens, or the Lib Dems, or the Tories? Any legislation that had the power to kill the BNP would kill democracy, and such collateral damage is clearly unacceptable.

Better, I think, to sit this one out. One of two things has to happen. Either the BNP will (contrary to their manifesto) behave like human beings, and there will be nothing to worry about; or they will expose their true colours, and the popular support they successfully courted this time around will turn rapidly to resentment.

Most importantly, come the next election, people will be getting out and voting just to make sure that the BNP don’t get a seat anywhere really important.

What Theodore Kaczynski Got Wrong

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

I have read Industrial Society and Its Future, and had to agree with parts of it. One thing I think the author got wrong, though, was Paragraph 208 et seq.

Kaczynski distinguishes between “small-scale technology”, which he considers benign; and “organization-dependent technology”, which he considers toxic. I would argue that the distinction is better drawn between open technology (where users are permitted to inspect, modify and improve it) and proprietary technology (where this is absolutely not the case; inspection, modifications and improvements are reserved privileges, and the full force of the law will be brought upon anyone who dares even to try to usurp them).

Proprietary technology is necessarily organisation-dependent, since for there to be a privilege requires for there to be a privilege-holder. However, mere dependency on the presence of some organisational structure does not necessarily render any technology proprietary. I am taking as a premise that organisation-dependency is not, in and of itself, a bad thing; and if you consider this assertion to be a bold one, consider that humans possess a strong pack instinct, which leads naturally to the formation of organisational structures.

It’s true that open technology tends to be primitive, and proprietary technology tends to be advanced. This is probably because primitive technology is harder to keep proprietary than advanced technology, and also because we tend to regard less-universally-comprehensible technology as more advanced. Furthermore, even the breakdown of the rule of law would not be a sufficient condition to enable “unauthorised” actions in respect of the most egregious examples of proprietary technology: if the inner workings of something are a jealously-guarded secret and not obvious by inspection, adapting it requires access to privileged information — which might conceivably be unavailable altogether.

Anyway, I disagree with Kaczynski’s assertion that “it would be virtually impossible for a handful of local craftsmen to build a refrigerator”. Anyone who knows that P * V = n * R * T and can think laterally could build a refrigerator. It might not look like what we think of today as a refrigerator (Kaczynski correctly identifies some serious difficulties with generating electricity, which might be overcome by using some other energy source to compress the gas), but it would certainly perform the abstract function of a refrigerator: the creation of a localised region of space whose temperature is lower than that of its surroundings.

The biggest obstacle to anyone seeking to build a refrigerator from scratch, armed with naught but the Ideal Gas Equation and a healthy dose of creative problem solving, would not be lack of imagination; but Robert Boyle, standing over them with a big stick, and demanding that nobody else make use of “his” discovery.

Benefitting Nobody

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

Once upon a time, there was such a thing as full employment. And before nearly all the council houses were sold off at stupidly low prices, getting pregnant was not the only way to get one.

Nowadays, people can be better off on benefits than in employment. You see, when you are working, you have to start paying for things which would have been free if you were on the Dole — prescriptions, dental work, and so forth. And the minimum wage is a complete joke. 5.77 an hour would be an insult, even if that was after tax. There is a complicated and confusing system of tax credits for working families, which puts people off applying for them.

There is another, hidden cost to the benefit culture. I work bloody hard for what I’ve got, and I take bloody good care of it. If I break something, or lose it, nobody’s going to just buy me another one. A kid who gets a 70 pair of Nike trainers out of their mum’s benefit simply isn’t going to be so careful. It’s easy come, easy go. If it took them a full day to earn the price of those trainers, they might appreciate the value of them — and realise that other people also value their possessions. People are not born knowing right from wrong; they have to learn the difference. Not having to work for things means people never learn respect for property.

Unemployment should not be punished, but neither should it be seen as an attractive option.

The Myth of Choice

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

Choice as is presented to working-class consumers these days is an illusion. The capitalists present us with a choice between shit or shite. If we choose shit, they say it’s our fault we ended up with shit — we should have chosen shite instead. And vice versa.

I can buy Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, or any store’s own-brand cola-flavoured beverage-effect substance. They will all rot my teeth and make me fat (OK ….. fatter). Is that really a choice?

If I had a car, I could choose between Shell, Texaco, BP, Esso or a few other bands of petrol; but they’re all made from unsustainable fossil fuels. Is that really a choice?

I can choose where I get my electricity from. In theory. In practice, it’s exactly the same stuff. It comes down the same wires, from the same power stations. All the companies (basically, “middlemen” who buy electricity off the power generating companies — who won’t deal in small amounts, for no better reason than because they just hate counting small change — and then sell it to poor sods like you and me) seem to promise me lower bills than any of the others. But none of them can guarantee me that not one single joule of the electricity they supply to me will be generated by the criminally-insane method of burning natural gas, which is too useful a fuel in its own right to waste on centralised electricity production. Is that really a choice?

(I’m sure that one or more of them may offer an “offsetting programme”, where they charge me more money for electricity generated by gas and pay some sort of guilt-money, which (if it actually gets to its destination) is meant to be spent on planting trees or bribing some third-world peasant to irrigate his fields using a hand pump rather than a diesel pump. Trees may reduce CO2 in the atmosphere, with about a fifth of the efficiency of algae, but they won’t put that gas back under the ground (not for millions of years, at any rate); and I don’t begrudge third-world peasants the use of the machine tools that might actually help the luckiest ones end up as something other than peasants. However you dress it up, it’s Not The Same Thing.)

28 July: Day of Protest against Internet Explorer

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

(originally posted by me at — some changes have been made since then.)

It’s time for everyone who appreciates good web design and open standards to come together, just for one day, and say, once and for all: Enough already!

Enough already with IE riding roughshod over open, published standards because they don’t happen to suit Microsoft.

Enough already with IE and its downright bats#!t insane default behaviour of executing unknown content.

Enough already with pandering to Microsoft’s buggy, broken virus-trap just because it’s “there by default”.

If one person decided that they were going to block IE, to warn users politely but firmly that they were not welcome to use that malware-magnet that can’t render properly, then that person might lose some traffic.

But if enough people decided, all on the same day, that they were all going to f**k off Internet Explorer users until they downloaded a proper browser — Firefox, for instance, or even Opera or Safari; you know how much recommending a closed-source product sticks in my craw, but anything‘s got to be better than IE — then suddenly the users would have no choice but to download a proper browser, if they wanted to see the Internet. The long-term benefits of that would massively outweigh the short-term inconvenience. Microsoft might even write a proper, standards-compliant browser!

Come on, people. Let’s have a worldwide day of protest against Internet Explorer, stick to it; and by doing so, just maybe improve the Internet for everyone. And that day might just as well be 28 July.

A Great Day for Freedom!

Thursday, December 4th, 2008

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that South Yorkshire Police acted illegally in retaining the DNA of two people who were arrested but not charged.

Article Eight of the European Convention on Human Rights , which is written into UK law as the Human Rights Act 1998, clearly states:

Article 8 Right to respect for private and family life

  1. Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.
  2. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

Seventeen senior judges decided unanimously that the retention of this information “could not be regarded as ‘necessary in a democratic society’”.

Smith is not taking this lying down, though. She said “The existing law will remain in place while we carefully consider the judgement.” Whisky Tango Foxtrot? Does this mean any defendant, duly pronounced guilty, may now remain at liberty and continue committing further instances of the offence with which they were charged while they “carefully consider the judgement” ?

Read more here [BBC] and here [The Register].

For once, I agree with the Prime Minister

Monday, July 7th, 2008

Stop the presses! For once in my life, I actually agree with something Gordon Brown has said: we need to reduce the amount of food that goes to waste.

Unfortunately, I can predict exactly the way that his message is going to go down with the public: people are going to talk as though they had some sort of “right” to waste food.