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Today’s Guardian carries an article by Charles Arthur entitled ‘Did the Tories and Lib Dems live up to their 2010 tech manifesto pledges?

In usual Guardian preachy style, Arthur offers up a scorecard. At least, he calls it a scorecard but there are no scores on it – merely a commentary. One or two of his observations bear closer scrutiny.

On scrapping ID cards, he offers the following bizarre criticism of the commitment in the Conservative manifesto, failing to even acknowledge that it was also in the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto:

‘There were no ID cards to scrap. No national ID register was set up.’

Oh?

It must be an alternate universe where The Guardian reported on 27 May 2010:

‘The 15,000 identity cards already issued are to be cancelled without any refund of the £30 fee to holders within a month of the legislation reaching the statute book.’

Or where The Guardian on 10 Feb 2011 showed images of Damian Green shredding hard drives with the caption ‘Minister helps destroys the national identity register’.

If he could be arsed to read the Annual Report and Accounts of the Identity and Passport Service 2010-2011, he would see that it cost taxpayers rather a lot of money to scrap a scheme that apparently didn’t exist. (Note 2a on page 41 if you are really interested – which incidentally suggests the figure of cards issued wasn’t 15,000, as reported by The Guardian.)

Arthur makes the following disingenuous statement about the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act:

‘The use of RIPA (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) by councils to spy on people was forestalled to some extent, but the coalition tried to introduce an extensive surveillance act in July 2014 – leaning on RIPA – that outraged privacy campaigners, especially in the light of the Snowden revelations over surveillance by GCHQ and the NSA of internet communications.’

Arthur misrepresents what actually made it to the statute book, using the weaselly form of words ‘tried to introduce’, whilst failing to report any of the safeguards that were secured by the Liberal Democrats and reported in – guess where? – The Guardian on 10 July 2014:

Those measures that could prove crucial in the longer term include:

• The “tip to toe” review of Ripa, the foundation stone of the surveillance state, to be completed by 2016, could prove particularly potent in ensuring that such state snooping in the name of counter-terrorism and serious crime is brought strictly under control. Debate is still going on whether it should be an “expert review” led by David Anderson, the counter-terror law watchdog, or a joint committee of peers and MPs.

It will issue an interim report before the general election on whether there are sufficient privacy safeguards in the post-Snowden age and whether there should be a major shakeup of the oversight regime for the security services.

• The creation of a US-style privacy and civil liberties board to ensure that civil liberties are a foundation stone of counter-terrorism legislation, rather than an afterthought. Bolstered by annual transparency reports from the state agencies, it could be the alarm system that the current oversight regime has failed to provide. It will effectively be a major expansion of the current one-man role of David Anderson.

• The appointment of a senior diplomat to lead discussions with the US government and companies to establish a new international agreement for sharing data across boundaries is also significant. This would smooth the way where US wiretap laws conflict with UK Ripa laws but also could provide a way of expanding the existing mutual legal assistance treaty rather than a “snooper’s charter” that sees British ministers issuing demands that US companies hand over ever more personal data on UK citizens.

This is a major package, albeit rushed, that will shape how we live and work in the digital world. It may just “safeguard the existing position” – these powers have been in use in Britain since 2009 – but it also provides an opportunity to introduce some civil liberties elements that up until now were missing.

Funny how there is no mention of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Board by Arthur, perhaps one of the most significant legislative developments as far as surveillance goes. This is the body that The Guardian itself described on 16 October 2014 as one of ‘several embryonic cautiously hopeful signs’ in the wake of the Snowden affair – and was duly legislated for this year. A more constructive use of column inches might have been to challenge the next government to put those provisions into action.

In specific criticism of the Liberal Democrats Arthur claims there was no Freedoms Bill – omitting entirely to visit the Protection of Freedoms Act from 2010-12. If you care to look at the Act and Arthur’s criticisms, you will see that a substantial number are addressed.

Ros Taylor, former editor of guardian.co.uk/law described the Protection of Freedoms Act as a ‘a small but significant piece of legislation’:

‘This assortment of measures was intended to allay fears about DNA retention, CCTV, police and local authority powers and a number of other infringements of individual liberty (including, and very laudably, the right of men convicted of buggery to have their conviction disregarded).’

Where can you find Taylor’s comments? In The Guardian on 10 May 2012.

Arthur also states that ‘Fingerprinting of children continues, but parents can opt out of having their children take part.’ Our manifesto commitment – which he quotes just before – said ‘stop children being fingerprinted at school without their parents’ permission’. I struggle to see how what we did is inconsistent with what we committed to.

I am proud of what my own party, which has civil liberties at its core, achieved during five years of government with less than 60 MPs out of 650. Critics should remember: we were in coalition with a party that isn’t known first and foremost for its whole-hearted embrace of civil liberties, following thirteen years of a Labour government that had no regard for personal freedom and made us one of the most surveilled countries in the western world.

I have no problem when someone wishes to challenge the record of parties in government. I have no problem with someone who wishes to challenge me as a Liberal Democrat on my party’s record.

However, when readers rely on ‘quality’ newspapers to be informed, there is no excuse for such shoddy and misleading journalism in a paper that proudly boasts to the world that it won the Pulitzer prize for journalism in 2014.

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Chinese researchers have made a phenomenal breakthrough in stem cell research.

Duanqing Pei and his team from Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health have  found a way to coerce stem cells collected from urine to become induced pluripotent stem cells that can be used to generate other types of cell. They have demonstrated this potential by making teeth, though they could also make cells for other major organs.

The team are quick to point out that this technology is still very experimental, with the teeth produced not yet as hard as the teeth that humans are born with and a success rate currently running at 30%.

Their research is published in the  online open access journal Cell Regeneration.

The potential is incredible, particularly in terms of immune system responses. Just think, in future you might literally pee out the foundation for your new teeth!

It certainly lends a whole new meaning to the phrase “taking the piss”…

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As a kid, I was hooked on computers. (Yeah, okay, I still am.) When I got my third computer, a ZX Spectrum +2, I spent several days programming it to play Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca.

That was pretty much the height of my artistic endeavours. Since then I have toyed with the idea of making music, downloading software for the PC and apps for my phone. I have thought about making films in game (like the superlative Winter, an old favourite of mine from Everquest 2, showing just how powerful these game engines can be). I’ve toyed around with creating pictures, too, or morphing photographs. I don’t have the stick-ability though. Writing, it seems, is where creativity is at for me.

Stickability is not a problem for Hal Lasko.

A 97 year-old WWII veteran from Ohio, Hal’s creative eye saw him drafted in to create specialist maps for bombing raids. After the war he became a typographer, creating fonts for printers from scratch. In retirement, but still needing to scratch that creative itch, his family introduced him to Microsoft Paint. And that is what he uses now to create his pictures.

But it’s not just that Hal is 97. He is also legally blind. Each picture is created pixel by pixel, zooming in to a level he can see. The result is a spectacular mix of pointillism and 8-bit art.

His age, his condition, not to mention a life that has spanned WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf I, Gulf II and Afghanistan, tell me that some of us should learn to make a hell of a lot more of the remarkable opportunities we have. Time, perhaps, to stop looking for reasons why we can’t and time to realise we can. More often than not it’s down to us.

Hal is selling prints of his art online in aid of veterans programmes. Enjoy this small selection below.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

And if you want to find out more about Hal, take a look at this excerpt from a documentary made some years ago by Josh Bogdan.

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There are plenty of ways to get your opinion out there on the ‘net in this day and age. This generally means throwing your opinions out there for the world to see on Twitter, blogs and Facebook. However, some cunning folks have realised the potential for making more targeted, localised statements, by renaming their WiFi.

I am not sure how I missed this phenomena, but it seems there are even sites given over to helping you name your wifi.

Some of the best can be found on WiFi LOL. My favourite is probably this one. Who knew that flamingos could cause such neighbour strife?

For my part, I think my own network, currently – and poetically – named ‘Requiem’ is about to become ‘getyoursoddingkidsoffmylawnok’.

 

 

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saturn

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

On 23rd July, NASA published a picture of Earth taken from the dark side of Saturn by its Cassini spacecraft. It is, apparently, only the third time that Earth has been photographed from the outer reaches of the solar system. The picture was taken in a photo session of Earth that occurred on 19th July between 2:27 to 2:42 pm PDT (9.27 to 9.42 pm in the UK). We have the technology to take that kind of picture from almost 900 million miles away.

Look at that amazing picture and think about it just for a moment.

Where were you and what were you doing between 9.27 and 9.42 pm?

I was eating my tea, having walked home through Gloucester Park after a trip to the cinema and a showing of Pacific Rim. It had been a beautiful evening – I posted a picture on Facebook – and I spoke to Laura on my way.

I’m on that dot. We are all on that dot. All of us together.

Suddenly, we all seem very insignificant.

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I’m not in the business of promoting random apps or plug-ins. Anyway, I rarely come across anything that warrants sharing with others. This is a bit different.

I often want to make notes on the fly when I am browsing, but I don’t want anything as sophisticated (or fiddly!) as Evernote. I usually just want to put down a word or two (e.g. song titles, books to read or keywords for blogs), have them all in one place and have them accessible whether I am at work or at home or on the move.

Step up Chrome Notepad which does exactly that. It is an extension that gives you a clickable button next to the address bar which opens a very basic text editor.

Definitely worth it for all those who blog, write and use Chrome as their principal browser.

chromenote

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I imagine that many of you are familiar with this one.

The phone line clicks, there is a long pause and then an individual with a very strong accent, usually from the Indian sub-continent, checks your name and then announces that he is called “Frank” and is calling you from Microsoft (!) because their servers (!!) have detected that your computer has a very bad problem (!!!).

A quick scan on the ‘net reveals that it is a tried and tested scam, with commentators as varied as Mumsnet, the Nuisance Call police and the tech geeks of the anti-virus forums at AVG all reporting this particular con.

It basically involves trading on a combination of fear and people’s ignorance about the way the Internet and their computers work. You receive a patient explanation that “they” have detected unusual activity on your computer which is probably a serious virus. They then offer to remove it for a fee and, if you are doubtful and not yet persuaded, they offer to set up remote-control of your machine to show you exactly what they are talking about. All of which  looks mightily impressive if you don’t know what you are being shown, but which is invariably misleading, inaccurate or irrelevant.

I guess their hope is that, by this time, the expectation is that you are suitably terrified that your computer could be remotely hacking the Pentagon or running a zombie network. You will be panicking so much that you will hand over your hard-earned shekels to “Frank”, probably in the form of your credit card details (you numpty!), eternally grateful that at least someone is looking out for you. (And, of course, impressed by Microsoft’s unmatched level of customer engagement.)

I suppose I have received this call on  thirty or so occasions over the years and have had varying amounts of fun responding to it. The other day, however, I received a novel variation which left me unsure whether to be impressed at the sheer chutzpah of our man “Frank”, or in despair at the general level of ignorance that means this scam has any viability whatsoever.

As on previous occasions, there was the familiar pause, the familiar accent (I actually think I might quite like “Frank” in other circumstances and could envisage sitting down to dinner and a cold beverage to discuss life, the universe and the finer points of telephone harassment), the confirmatory introduction and then…

“Mr Williams… I am calling you from the technical department of the World Wide Web.”

Think about that for the moment and the cultural implications of such a statement. It suggests that the World Wide Web, that we all use daily, has taken on a transcendental state of existence as a unified, identifiable entity that we all simply accept (and clearly accept without question in considerable numbers). It conjures a vision of Willy Wonka-esque workers, striving tirelessly to ensure that the World Wide Web is kept running 24/7/365.

It was the strangest experience – a little like being called by the plumbing department of Heaven.

I decided that, as this was a Significant Call, the only thing to do was to explore the issue in tones of grateful incredulity. At last, after a lengthy explanation of what had been detected, I asked “Frank” earnestly for the password. I didn’t explain what the password was for. I had no idea what it was for, either. I simply stated that I could see how serious it was and that as it definitely needed addressing it was now time for him to give me the password.

“Frank” was confused. He was definitely not amused.

I don’t blame him particularly. I don’t suppose I would be too amused if I was working that sort of scam on a phone farm and came up against a smug smart arse who clearly new something about how his computer works and wasn’t going to be taken for a ride. It will not surprise you to learn that we parted on less than happy terms and so I don’t suppose we will be sharing that drink any time soon.

So are we so gullible in our unquestioning embrace of technology that we could believe that we might get a call from the web’s technical department? Or is “Frank” actually a quiet revolutionary, out to subvert this scam by making random calls in such nonsense terms that the whole conceit collapses under the weight of its own absurdity?

Perhaps “Frank” is merely as bored with the script as the rest of us and so tried a little improvisation.

Kudos, “Frank”, if so.

And “Frank”, next time you call, don’t be surprised if you are greeted by a very excitable me:

“Oh, Wow! This is such a coincidence! You’re calling from the technical department of the World Wide Web! And you’ve just called the technical department of the Internet!”

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