Category: special relationships

heywoood, always up to no goood

There’s a bit more on the war of Coulson’s Clearance here, from Robert Peston, who I seem to remember attracted attention back in 2011 as being oddly pro-Murdoch.

I know the answer to why Coulson was not given top level security vetting in 2010.

What happened was that Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood had decided that too many special advisers had access to the highest level of security clearance and wanted to reduce their number.

So he made a policy decision, without pressure from David Cameron, not to get Coulson cleared for access to such material. At the same time, Mr Cameron’s chief of staff Ed Llewellyn was given the most vigorous degree of vetting, because of his foreign policy role.

Sir Jeremy simply felt it was inappropriate for large numbers of SPADs – as special advisers are known at Westminster – to have access to this material.

He subsequently decided Coulson was a good egg and could have access to this top secret sensitive material, even though he had not been cleared. So if anyone is going to be embarrassed by the failure to vet Coulson, and Labour’s investigation into this, it will be Britain’s top civil servant, Sir Jeremy Heywood

We already knew, since July 2011, that there was a degree of pushback on vetting Coulson and others, supposedly for cost reasons. But I think the first 3 paragraphs here are probably accurate, although the tone Peston gives them is tendentious. I know the reason – closing out the story much?

Taken literally, Heywood didn’t think Coulson should have access to anything sensitive. Neither did he think other special advisers should have such access. This doesn’t, of course, reflect positively on Coulson.

Also, it sounds as if the civil service as personified by Heywood wanted to roll back the integration of the No.10 press operation with the political/operational staff. No.10 is where the wiring for the intelligence community, the civil service policy machinery, certain bits of MOD, and the prime minister’s media support come together. Revoking the spin doctors’ access to secrets would dramatically reduce their power, and increase that of the institutions.

The last paragraph must be read in parallel with the rest of the news. We know that Coulson was eventually put forward for his clearance, and we can reason that it happened in the autumn of 2010. Clearly, Heywood didn’t somehow neglect to have him investigated, because after all it happened. We also know that Coulson did indeed get access to high-level secrets – whether from the possibly accidental “strap one” mention or his own words.

So an exception was made for him. Some media actors will want to blame Heywood for granting it. Others will ask who requested it. The process requires that the department that employs you acts as “sponsor” and presumably pays the bill. Coulson’s sponsoring department would be…you guessed it. The Prime Minister’s Office is a thing these days, with a domain name and all. It sits in the Cabinet Office administratively, Francis Maude’s ministry.

Since the Tories’ re-org of the civil service, the roles of cabinet secretary and head of the civil service have been split up, and the new one of the No.10 permanent secretary added. Heywood has emerged as first among equals from this position. Therefore, I give you three options – Heywood, Cameron, or Maude. But Cameron is the customer for the communications director. It’s his interests that are served.

Interestingly, we learn from this that it wasn’t only Blair who gave such access to his press secretary; counting back from Coulson, doesn’t the statement that the last four No.10 press secretaries had it take us into the Major years?

Satellites to new heights

I’ve recently seen someone from the Satellite Applications Catapult come up on the UKNOF mailing list, asking about how best to get dark fibre from their Harwell offices into London with a view to distributing lots of satellite imagery. Obviously a CDN is the way to go, but the first thing that came to mind is whether they’ve got a new satellite. I mean, it’s vaguely surprising that an organisation that runs its own cloud platform would be asking for fairly simple networking advice, and even more so one that owns this.

Context, and more, plus much more in this category.

Kim Philby and a web of trust

Show me your Kim Philby and I’ll show you your concerns. Ever since his defection, British writing on the iconic spy has always reflected the anxieties of society at the time of writing, modulated by the latest lot of declassified documents. What else could it do, faced with such a character, a man who couldn’t have been more protean or more expert at letting his interlocutor project their own thinking on to him? In the 1960s, his role as the ultimate Etonian predominated. In the 1970s, sexuality took over. In the 1980s, to go with the revival of the cold war, it was the communism again. But what would it be now?

Anyone writing about Philby is standing on the shoulders of giants. The literature is enormous, and has regularly been transformed by the disclosure of more information. However, this viewpoint often mostly serves to show that the giants are skew-whiff on their pedestals.

Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal is the latest to have a go. He decides to frame the book around the notion of friendship and the relationship between Philby and his friend, defender within SIS, boss, agent handler, and interrogator, Nicholas Elliott. As a result, the book is in large measure a group biography, always a neat trick.

I’m not sure how well the friendship element of the book works, except to highlight that Elliott was almost comically decent to Philby and everyone else involved, visiting Aileen Philby daily in the psychiatric hospital while Kim, self-absorbed as always, barely seems to have noticed she was ill. But that’s OK. Macintyre brings up whole chunks of new story.

One especially rich chunk is the women. A Spy among Friends is among other things a succession of incredible women, like the chief of staff in SOE Section D who was also the chief organising officer of the Conservative Party – surely we need a brief life at least – and the Sunday Express war correspondent who recommended Philby to her, or the MI5 investigator Jane Archer whose abilities Philby rated so highly he insisted on getting her transferred to his SIS counterintelligence group to make sure she didn’t by chance get assigned to his case. Marks & Spencer executive Flora Solomon appears at a succession of critical junctures, helping him launch his career, politely declining the opportunity to join him in the KGB, and eventually providing crucial evidence against him – in part, out of anger at his appalling treatment of his wife, a close friend of hers. (She was also furious about his journalism, specifically his criticism of Israel.)

Peter Wright, by contrast, mentioned Litzi Philby/Kohlmann in passing and hardly says anything about any of the other women in the story, not even his colleague Archer. Neither does The Culture of Treason although it’s a long time since I read it. There’s your answer: the highly un-gay Philby was remembered as the Gay Traitor, not out of homophobia, but out of sexism. This shift of focus tends to diminish Philby as a character, to pigeonhole him as a posh chancer who left a trail of broken wives and unpaid bills behind him, dumping his self-inflicted chaos on – who else? – his friends. But this is a welcome cold bucket of realism.

Another important point is the politics of professionalism. The critics of SIS tended to make much of its habit of recruiting through the old-boy network and of operating in a highly informal fashion. They used the words professional and modern a lot and affected classlessness. But even as they were saying their piece, Michael Young was already writing the strongest possible rebuttal, The Rise of the Meritocracy.

In many ways, the post-defector recriminations were a debate about how the access to elite status would be regulated in future. On one side, the traditionalists believed that the best solution was a diffuse network of contacts who themselves could be trusted and a specific culture, as hard to define as it was unmistakable. On the other side, the modernisers (and I use the word deliberately) believed the best solution was a graduate profession with defined career progression, credentials, and tests.

Importantly – and here’s where Michael Young comes in – this doesn’t for a moment mean that the same sort of people wouldn’t be recruited. If the modalities of Nicholas Elliott’s recruitment couldn’t have been more stereotyped (a word put in by his old housemaster, an approach at the races), it was also true that he was an Etonian with a good degree, someone whose chances of passing through a credentials-based, supposedly modern and prejudice-free, system would have been between excellent and certain. The same was of course true of Philby, whose academic qualifications could not have been more stellar.

Another way of looking at this is from an information security perspective. The traditionalists didn’t have the vocabulary, and public-key cryptography hadn’t been invented yet, but they were essentially a web-of-trust. Trusted individuals vouched for others, whose trustworthiness they initially evaluated through diffuse markers of subculture. This had the advantage that it was much, much harder to fake being the right sort of chap than it is to bang on the effort, get the credential, and keep your nose clean. Any fool can fake conformity, but it takes a genius to fake weirdness convincingly. It was even harder again to gain the connections into the web of trust required.

(Macintyre is good on eccentricity as strength; he needs to be, because the book is just full of prize weirdos. Also, there is a hell of a lot of drinking, hardcore, vase full of Martinis, whisky before breakfast, falling out of windows, eight pints and gin chasers the night before a zero-dark-thirty call for a dangerous mission, drinking. Arguably, had anyone worried about the booze and drugs, they might have rumbled the entire spy ring in the early 1940s – but hardly anyone was remotely sober. It’s the 1950s as seen in this classic Jamie Kenny post Oh yes, and did you know Commander “Buster” Crabbe RN was in the habit of wearing his diving suit to make love? Apparently his marriage was falling apart at the time of his sticky end in Portsmouth harbour, and the suit wasn’t helping.)

The modernisers wanted something more like a public-key infrastructure. A succession of tests administered by a central source of truth would lead to the issue of credentials, which could of course be revoked.

As it turned out, the Cambridge spies reveal both the strengths and weaknesses of the web of trust. The system was very robust; it took multiple, individually brilliant, persistent, patient, cooperating, already partially trusted attackers to break into it. It was also resilient; it continued functioning despite the massive security breach, and many people in it did in fact detect the attackers. However, it was extremely difficult to restore after the disaster, as the continuing hunt for more spies after Philby demonstrates. Also, its very resilience made it difficult to know that it had been subverted, and easy to take refuge in denial.

The Americans adopted the second approach. Theoretically, a PKI is easier to administer and more scalable, but more brittle. Spies like Aldrich Ames and Jonathan Pollard had to fake it, adopt the conventional signs of conformity, but once they faked it, they were in. (It didn’t help that the Americans were so keen on lie-detectors, an example of security theatre marrying pseudo-science.)

But brittleness can be useful. When, for example, a SSL certificate authority has been compromised, it has (as far as we know) become obvious very quickly, and the problem has (as far as we know) been solved quickly, by revoking and re-issuing the certs. The diversity of CAs, and hence competition between them, is useful here. Even the Heartbleed fiasco is mostly remarkable for the swiftness with which it was fixed. It is often useful for things to break unequivocally and publicly.

And webs of trust have other problems. Any system that intends to determine if some people can be trusted or not is exclusionary; that is sort of the point. As a result, they tend to absorb and harden the prejudices that are ambient in society.

So, I show you my Kim Philby: the key concerns seem to be sexism, disenchantment with graduate career prospects, and the failure modes of distributed cryptosystems. I guess I was right.

Quality comment

A really intelligent blog contribution from someone who is a weird kind of Tory-Lib Dem hybrid as far as I can make out. Here goes:

I was always under the impression the intention of matching 15% of US commitment in order to earn Framework Nation Status with the command input that entails.

If we take Iraq as ‘typical’ example of a US style intervention then they have an average commitment of 140,000 troops through the main sequence of campaign, a period spanning six years. For Britain to justify the command input that comes with the 2IC slot, where we influence operations to reflect our priorities, we would have to sustain 21,000 troops in theatre. In reality this means three combat brigades and an additional brigades worth of supporting HQ, logistics and specialists elements. This is of course a generous calculation because if we wish to vie for Framework Nation Status as the strategic purpose of our expeditionary capability then we have to match our resources to the sum of US commitments. As can be seen in the table below that US commitment includes another 30,000 troops in a separate theatre of war, which means Britain needs to pony up another light-brigade at the very least. And yes, we really would have to consider this additional commitment, command input results from trust earned over time, not merely from meeting some arbitrary figure on only the missions we liked in the pic-n-mix bin.

It basically doesn’t work, and to the limited extent it does work it absorbs the ENTIRETY of our capability, and thus removes Foreign Policy as a competence of HMG.

We maintain force levels and structures defined by framework nation status, and more strategically, by the influence it is meant to bring. As a result, seeking it consumes all the resources we are willing to put in, and therefore eliminates our policy choices. Once the organisations required are set up, they must be used to justify their budgets, hence the hunt for somewhere ARRC HQ could go.

Because the practical aim is to do the least that provides framework status, the influence so gained is minimal going on none. Of course, the whole idea presupposes that our allies don’t go utterly crazy and leave us in the position of trying to avoid being in the same campaign.

Sometimes, you should read the comments.

The threat of preference modification

So YPlan. It’s a neat enough proposition. Basically, it’s a way of getting rid of spare tickets, or if it gets big enough, guaranteeing a minimum sale. It buys up what’s left. It asks new users some questions and runs a weighted Bayesian classifier to guess what they might accept and pushes recommendations to them. Whatever they take permits them to train the classifier further. They run an in-app credits system to make it easier to do giveaways and to let the app store handle payments.

This fills me with a sort of cybernetic horror. Recall this post from July and especially this quote:

maybe we could get the interface down to an iPhone app that would superimpose a bright white line over the camera’s view of the surrounding street just telling us where to walk and what to do and buy all day long. Wouldn’t that be a bit of a relief?

So that’s what they did. A magenta line running out of the office, with BUY popups. You might say this is a kind of hipster Luddism. All those years of self-fashioning and bedroom posters and obscure blogs and your girlfriend doing haughty walkouts from here and there, and these scum have an app. But this would be wrong. Ludd had a point, and the point was nothing to do with despising progress as such.

This is an example of a future beyond advertising. Advertising aims to influence you before you come to the point of needing to buy something. A different future tries to influence you at that point – my favourite example is a paint manufacturer whose mobile app matches the colour you point the camera at to the right paint and tells you where the nearest stockist is. This future, though, aims at something else.

The more college-smarty kind of economists like to talk about “desire modification”. If I could choose to like cheaper stuff I’d be richer! This is of course yet another failing of US education, with the homecoming jocks and nerd sessions and bull diamonds and whatnot, but that’s beside the point. A version of desire modification that might actually exist is preference automation, and here it is.

Rather than even having preferences that are influenced by advertising, why not hand them over entirely? Confirmation bias, the availability heuristic, and social proof will make sure you’re convinced pretty soon that whatever gets recommended is actually what you like. This means, of course, that preferences increasingly carry no information whatsoever, a serious blow for the entire notion of a market economy.

Whatever one says about “emotional labour”, it is difficult or perhaps impossible to deliver good service without taking the initiative, by definition unscriptable. Industry has long grasped this with regard to quality, as in Toyota production, or gone bust. Finance? Well, their managers either have no idea what they’re doing because they don’t or else they’re faking it.

In the future, at least in the UK, it’s even possible that we might end up enjoying more actual freedom at work than we do outside it. The consumer economy might be dominated by preference automation and spam that knows where your dog goes to school. The public sphere might be reduced to Tory badgering as replacement for public services or post-Blairite policing of social norms against talking in the street.

Get involved.

So, the Sun is on the move. This was a bit of a surprise to me, what with News reorganising to separate the UK papers from Sky. You might think the papers look like a cost centre without the TV assets, or that the division is intended for sale as a package. But they’re up to something interesting.

The headline is that the Sun website is going behind a paywall, but this is really beside the point. The core of the offering is a mobile app that provides football highlights and daily deals – the details are at the link – but the really interesting bit is that you have to buy the paper to activate the app. The website is here or there; it’s about the mobile app, the paper, and (as always with Murdoch) the crosspromotion.

The other really interesting thing here is that News knows in some detail who sells copies of the paper, how many, and where. In the UK, newspapers are distributed on a sale-or-return basis. The retailer orders as many papers as they think they need, and bundles up the unsold copies for collection with the morning’s delivery. These are counted, and deducted from the retailer’s bill. If you’ve ever been in a corner shop late at night, you’ll have seen the shopkeeper bundle up, count, and label the returns with the preprinted barcode supplied by the wholesaler.

The point of the exercise is that the newspaper, not the newsagent, takes the risk. This is important because, obviously, the paper cannot sell if it is not on the shelves. If the newsagent gets stuck with unsold copies, they will order fewer papers and take the chance of running out. Alone among British newspapers, The Guardian is distributed on cash terms, which is why it’s so often sold out. I think they consider it unsportsmanlike or something.

So, to shorterise: the sale-and-return distribution model requires the publisher to know all the points of sale. Another feature is that it is a great way to measure the newspaper’s effective circulation in detail, and as the papers are being accounted for, this is subject to the paper’s auditors. You can see why advertisers might like this.

Now, the Sun is going to be getting its readers to type or scan something in the paper into the app. If, as I pointed out on Twitter, this something is specific to the individual papers, it’s possible to identify where the user buys their newspaper. I had some doubts about practicalities in the printing process, and wondered if they intended to do something clever with the PayPoint API or hand out separate inserts to be added by the newsagents.

But today, the question is answered – I was able to examine a pile of the things, and they indeed carry a 9 12-character unique identifier, printed as part of the newspaper. Keen and agile minds will observe that this provides enough entropy to identify the whole print run uniquely, indeed, a print run substantially bigger than even the Daily Mirror‘s 1960s five-million plus. This might mean that it encodes more information than just a serial number, or alternatively that they’ve left space to do so should they want to in the future. Also, it’s not obviously sequential, so you can’t trivially work out the daily print run, although I haven’t made any serious study of this.

(Update): It’s actually 12 characters, in three alphanumeric groups of 4, and all the issues I’ve seen started SS… today. That might be part of a geographic identifier, but it might also be Sunday Sun. Anyway, that gives quite a bit of scope.)

Why is this useful? Well, this gives them insight into close-up neighbourhood geography across the UK. People are likely to buy their newspaper in the same place as they buy plenty of other things, for one. But it’s also a look into the UK’s cash economy. Newspapers have always been sold mostly for cash, anonymously. And the heavy dose of football in the experience points at other ambitions. After all, they can probably work out which is your local pub, and a lot of them have a WiFi hotspot provided by the Sky (ISP) subsidiary The Cloud.

It is probably telling that this comes just after their new “casual” Sky TV offering, something which seems to exist to satisfy demand generated by advertising in the Sun app. Also, Sky TV has always been very good at last-minute ad insertion.

But there’s also a political element here, especially for those of us who fundamentally wish ill to all Murdoch’s business ventures. When the News of the World was rolled into the sea like a sack of waste, as Hunter Thompson said of Richard Nixon’s mortal remains, I was very impressed by the public response, which was either rejoicing, or else, absolute apathy. None of its millions of readers was moved to protest or even to complain. Surprisingly few of them even bother to buy the Sun on Sunday. As a result, I asked on this blog if Sun readers actually exist, in the sense of people who self-identify as such, rather than being labelled by others, in the way that readers of the Guardian, Telegraph, or Mail do in Jamie Kenny’s sense.

In this sense, I think this project is an effort to make Sun readers out of people who happen to read the Sun in the same way as some people happened to consume the News of the World as a weekly kitschburger, a newspaper-style product. The polite way of saying this is “deepening user relationships”.

The really depressing element of this is probably how much of the ad revenue sounds like it’s going to come from gambling. No, it’s not even that, even if the goal of the week starts coming with an editorial soundbite like page 3 did in the Rebekah Wade years. (That said, the business model may well end up being all about cross-media advertising – the Springer papers in Germany seem to be trying to collect as many classified ad outlets as possible.)

The really, really depressing element of this is the increasing degree to which your local pub is being converted into an integrated Murdoch experience. I already resent this (how could I not?) but it’s only going to get worse. Note that the TV ad strapline for all this is “Get Involved”.

(Note: Le Monde‘s South Kensington correspondent Marc Roche argued a few weeks ago that the Sun‘s problems were down to the “disappearance of the blue collars and their replacement by immigrants who can’t speak English”. The Sun does not appear to be basing its strategy on this, to say the least.)

Hunt, through a non-sexist prism

So, did ya ever want to know social network analysis metrics on the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport’s special advisers during the spring of 2011, as Rupert Murdoch’s interests in the UK feverishly lobbied Jeremy Hunt and his staff and we raced towards the epochal eruption of Hackgate? ‘Course you did.

In June, 2011, Adam Smith, Hunt’s special adviser and the man who took the fall for his boss, attained a gatekeepership score of 1.42 – that is to say, people who lobbied him achieved a 42% greater improvement in their influence as measured by weighted network degree than the average lobby achieved. He did this on a personal weighted network degree of 0.175, which is piss-ant. His score on the West Point GREEDY_FRAGILE metric, which calculates how much more or less centralised the overall network would be without him, is -6.21635100991e-06.

In May, 2011, his colleague Sue Beeby achieved an even higher gatekeepership, 1.56, and the month before, she was actually the most powerful gatekeeper in the system after excluding the Scottish and Welsh Offices, at 1.928 on a network degree of 0.0875, and a GF of -7.92399753226e-06.

Who was getting this access? The answer is in Smith’s case, “big sport”, the FA, the ECB, and the RFU, although the Rugby League did manage to see him too. It turns out Beeby is far more interesting. In the first 6 months of 2011, she saw The Times 37 times, the Sunday Times 37 times, and Sky TV 8 times.

She also met “sports journalists”, the Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times, the English Cricket Board, and a PR company called Good Relations which only occurs in the dataset 5 times, all meeting her in March of that year. In the aggregate, the vast majority of influence going in here came from Murdoch.

She moved on with Hunt to the Department of Health, and lists herself on LinkedIn as a Conservative Party press officer. I don’t remember there being anywhere near as much fuss about her, though, as there was about Smith.

(Inspiration, of course, here.)

Public Affairs, the movie: three gang theory in action

Here’s the funny bit in this post:

OK, that done, a senior detective has been found guilty of leaking the phone-hacking investigation to the NoTW. This is the nut of the matter:

Casburn, who was manager of the national financial investigation unit with counterterrorism, claimed she had never asked for money when she telephoned the News of the World on 11 September 2010. She said she made the call because she was concerned that resources from counter-terrorism and her unit were to be diverted into a new phone-hacking investigation.

To put it another way, someone in the counter-terrorism command leaked to (effectively) a suspect, in the hope that the suspect would use their political influence to direct more police resources into the counter-terrorism command and not incidentally, away from an investigation into their own crime. The key evidence is a NoTW reporter’s notes of the conversation, summarised in an e-mail apparently recovered from Data Pool 3:

“PHONE TAPPING. A senior policewoman … who claims to be working on the phone-tapping investigation wants to sell inside info on the police inquiry. She says the investigation was launched yesterday (Fri) by Yates and he is using ‘counter-terrorist assets’, which is highly unusual. An intelligence development team is being used and they are looking at six people. Coulson, Hoare and a woman she cannot remember the name of. The three other people used to work for the News of the World and police do not know where they are now (she did not know their names either). Pressure to conduct the inquiry is coming from Lord Prescott.”

It’s interesting that the conversation was framed specifically in political terms, that she apparently named the individual suspects, and that the names included Sean Hoare’s. It’s also worth looking at this in the light of the timeline – in September 2010, there was a major push on by top management to destroy incriminating e-mail, in a race between their IT outsourcers’ funk at the thought of it and Sienna Miller’s lawyers. Knowing who was targeted meant knowing what to get rid of.

Among much else, deploying three-gang theory, this demonstrates the degree to which the police used the press to manipulate politics, and also the degree of influence the NoTW was thought by policemen to have over the police. It was simultaneously an effort by part of the police to influence their own institution, and by the NoTW to influence the police.

Another way to look at this is that the police side helped the Murdoch side’s effort to keep Andy Coulson in place, in exchange for the NoTW helping keep up the fear-level on terrorism and therefore protect their budget. I have pointed out before that Neil Wallis was recruited by Dick Fedorcio in part to influence the politicians on behalf of the Met.

If anyone still needs convincing of the importance of the whole thing, well, this really ought to do it.

Meanwhile, I saw Chinatown on Thursday night, a great movie to see for the first time, and I note that there is a plot twist that got imitated in reality by the Murdoch gang; Jake Gittis places the head of Water & Power under surveillance, photographs him repeatedly meeting the same woman…but as it turns out, she’s not the one he’s looking for, and in a sense, he’s in the wrong movie. Similarly, Alex Marunchak set Jonathan Rees to follow DCI Dave Cook, and Rebekah Brooks told Andre Baker that he did it to find out who the woman he kept seeing was. She turned out, of course, to be his wife. My reading, at least, is that the same thing happened in Chinatown or is at least planted as a false trail.

Obviously if you were to cast Public Affairs (Chinatown‘s working title was supposedly just Water & Power but was changed late in the day in case the public didn’t get the joke), Hugh Grant would play himself, but most of the cast would be wasted on the character of Andy Coulson, and Jack Nicholson as Tom Watson would be silly (although the Brummie accent’s a keeper). That said, Faye Dunaway as Rebekah Brooks would be worth staying up for. Although, who do we cast for the various bloggers? Abby Lee, there’s a role to kill for.

Unfortunately or fortunately, the ending wouldn’t be as unremittingly grim, although the original takes a different complexion when you remember that John Huston’s character has taken a gunshot wound to the stomach in the pre-antibiotic era and is therefore probably going to die horribly in the next few days.

M-Health apps that don’t suck.

Pretty much everyone in the mobile business loves “m-health” these days. There are a couple of reasons for this – they imagine there’s money in it, it’s great CSR/public relations/lobby fodder, and it’s the sort of thing futurists chinstroke about. But I think we’re all barking up the wrong tree.

Here’s the problem. The typical use-case is as follows – it’s something integrated in a special-purpose medical device, that is sold, and whose function is monitoring. What it monitors, in particular, is the patient or as we know her, the user, or indeed you. It is of course telling that you’re not considered the user. Partly, what’s going on here is that we’ve just repackaged 1980s SCADA technology. Here’s a SIM, here’s a cellular radio, and let’s have the flood level gauge text headquarters every five minutes. You’ll also note that there is no user interface.

The stereotype application could be defined as “bugging granny”. We’re going to check some metrics at intervals, stick them into a control chart, and then badger you about it.

Who does this really benefit? Obviously, device vendors, and telcos. It also benefits doctors, both in an absolute sense, and in a relative sense – a lot of this stuff would otherwise have been carried out by nurses, who are icky, girls, and in the union. It also attracts pseudomedical systems like insurance companies.

The underlying mental model here can be characterised as the surveillance-compliance model. The basic idea is that patients’ problems are their own stupid fault, and if they remain ill, it is because they didn’t comply with instructions. Monitoring generates metrics. They can be judged on the metrics and badgered. You get some lip service to patient autonomy, but to some extent all this does is to demand that the user internalises the surveillance. It is very depressing the extent to which doctors talk about “managing” their patients these days.

Now, there is obviously some truth to this. Giving up smoking is a really good idea, as is taking your damn pills. But it is also highly problematic. For one thing, it assumes that the problem is non-compliance. In that sense, it transfers your problem from the domain of reality – a physical problem to be solved – into the domain of morality – a statement about good and bad. Rather than being poor, stressed, addicted, etc, the problem is that you are wrong and a bad person. As a rule, this is normatively evil, and of course it only works if the problem is not actually a real problem.

Another problem is that it assumes that the medics are always right. They aren’t. And replacing the front-line carers with SCADA technology can be see as a way of hiding from criticism. You can shout at the box but it doesn’t record your voice and report that back.

Also, there is the surveillant temptation. If the surveillance itself doesn’t work – and it won’t, for reasons we have seen – the answer is usually to enforce it. Perhaps your sick pay might be cut, or your premiums hiked. I’m sure we can all name politicians who would fucking jump at this.

So, Cap’n Swing he say LUDD SMASH. Or…Stafford Beer, he say redesign system. What would a user-driven m-health app look like? One that was pro-you? One whose design brief began “Don’t be evil”?

Well, I would start by thinking about how to manage your environment in hospital. This is notoriously vital and difficult, and the current staff-solution is to get a really tough, intelligent, and assertive woman to visit every day and whip the piss out of the medics. But having someone like my partner around is a rare privilege and one which is unavoidably class-skewed, because it really helps to be of similar or higher social status than the doctors and also to know their code-words.

At this point you might think we’d stumbled into a TV show called Operationalise This!

But let’s consider this from a systems perspective. Most of the time, what is it that you’re actually doing by monstering the doc? It’s usually either trying to extract information, or else to intervene in the ward’s operational routine on things like hydration, food, sanitation, and nursing care.

Someone close to me was recently in hospital and needed various post-surgical care, which they were only insufficiently getting because they were in the wrong ward and being taken care of by people outside their specialisation. As a result they were in serious pain, and their recovery was making no noticeable progress. The problem was to find out what instructions had been actually written down and compiled into the ward routine, make the specialist aware of this, and get them to insert correct ones into the system. These are not, in fact, tasks that can’t be operationalised.

This is rather like Doc Searles’ notion of Vendor Relations Management or VRM as the opposite of CRM. The problem is getting a look at the invisible infrastructure of instructions, records, and organisation that defines the hospital environment.

When another relative of mine was seriously ill not so long ago, I got into the habit of photographing all the paper that crossed his bedside, so as to have copies for reference and also so as to distribute them to other members of the family. (At one point, I half-inched the case file and perched on a bed to photograph it page by page, like Olga the beautiful spy with her microfilm camera.)

Medical systems are very papery, and they do have their reasons – if you have to evacuate the flooded building into ambulances with the power out at 3am, you can just take the file along with each patient and you’ll be able to read it at the far end, and a lot of information technology still can’t really say that. However, there’s a lot of interesting stuff you can do with paper and mobile devices.

The really depressing thing here is that had we gone a different way in 2002 we could have had an Open311 or FixMyStreet for hospitals. But we don’t have sensible data exchange formats, privacy/authorisation models, or URIs for any of this stuff because Tony Blair said so, and by the time Gordon Brown was listening to people like Tim Berners-Lee and Tom Watson, the NHS NPfIT (like the National Identity Register) had become a bureaucratic-industrial monster so big it took a government-killing nuclear bomb to stop it. And the Tories…well, you’ve never seen people who are more suspectible to Atos Origin lobbying them to make sick pay conditional on adequate five-a-day performance, have you? Really? No.

Now, the other problem from my point of view is that my customers, over on the other side of the fence, still believe that this time, it’s going to be like they thought it would with ISDN and IMS and so on and so forth. Everything is a network service. Delivered by us. But I don’t think it will happen. As an industry, we have a terrible record of pushing things that make sense from our point of view but just suck, so badly that they never happen.

it began in the time of our grandfathers, but no-one now knows why

Here’s a photo from a MoD-BAE Systems study into future armoured vehicles for the British Army*.

OK, so we’ve got some heavy-to-medium, wheeled armoured vehicles, that are clearly battery-electric drive. They’re recharging from either wind power (on the right) or from some kind of deployable, containerised nuclear reactor (on the left – note the radhaz logo), in a roughly European environment, while two aircraft that might have escaped from this BAE Kingston study scream overhead.

Here’s another.

We appear to be in southern Iraq. Why? We’ve electrified land mobility. Oil is no longer so important.

Back in 1911, Winston Churchill and Jacky Fisher started to move the Navy from coal to oil, invented British Petroleum, and caused both Iran and Iraq. The historical icons are the Queen Elizabeth-class battleships, but by then the flotilla of destroyers, light cruisers, and submarines dedicated to fighting for the torpedo battlespace (Erik Lund’s awesome blog explains!) ahead and to one flank of the fleet was huge and was growing fast. The dissuasion du faible au fort provided by torpedos required speed and submersibility, which required getting rid of coal.

So, you can blame chippy northern techies from the Mechanics’ Institute for the Middle East (and also The Sound of Music), as well as their patrons for the first world war.

Surely, electrifying the army on land would be a technical change of a similar scale, which could be expected to bring about unexpected strategic and political consequences? Would we care as much about the GCC? Although the UK withdrawal from east-of-Suez was finally completed in 1977, the Navy was back in the Gulf in 1980 on the Armilla patrol, and, well, you know the rest. What if it suddenly didn’t matter so much? The presence of 160,000 UK nationals, a town bigger than Oxford or the size of Wigan, has a lot to do with this, but then, it’s the oil that draws them there.

(*Yeah – having spent £192 million on “concept work” without procuring a single vehicle while there were two wars on, and then bought a 40 tonne monster never used in battle as an agile reconnaissance platform, that’s meant to be air portable in the spec but only fits into 5 of the RAF’s transport aircraft, they’ve started another future design study. It’s only money.)