The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain come highly recommended. My wife and I saw them last night in Leicester’s De Montfort Hall, and had a wonderful time. They take themselves only semi-seriously, and play a wide range of music; if you’ve never heard Blur’s Song2 played on a bank of eight massed ukuleles, your cultural education is not complete.

They play all around the world, so hopefully there’s a date near you in the next six months.

The Future Path of Censorship

On Saturday, I attended the excellent ORGCon in London, put on by the Open Rights Group. This was a conference with a single track and a full roster of speakers – no breakouts, no seminars. And it was very enjoyable, with interesting contributions from names I hadn’t heard before.

One of those was Jamie Bartlett, who works at the think tank Demos. He gave some very interesting insights into the nature and future of extremism. he talked about the dissolving of the centre-left/centre-right consensus in the UK, and the rise of views further out on the wings of politics. He feels this is a good thing, as this is always the source of political change, but it seems like the ability and scope to express those views is being reduced and suppressed.

He (correctly, in my view) identified the recent raising by Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, of the penalty for looking at extremist content on the web to 15 years as a sign of weakness, because they know they can’t actually stop people looking using censorship so have to scare them instead.

The insight which particularly stuck with me was the following. He suggested that in the next decade in the West, two things will happen to censorship. Firstly, it will get more draconian, as governments try harder to suppress things and pass more laws requiring ISPs to censor people’s feeds. Secondly, it will get less effective, as tools like Tor and VPNs become more mainstream and easier to use. This is a concerning combination for those concerned about freedom of speech.

Accidental Bitcoin Speculation

I had to pay a ransomware bill in February 2015. I bought the right amount of Bitcoin but, like many people, forgot about the transfer fee, so some kind person donated me 0.005 BTC. This means once I was done, my Bitcoin wallet wasn’t totally empty. I have just logged into it again for the first time since, and found that the value of Bitcoin has gone up 28x since then, and so that small amount is now worth… £21.94 (US$28.91). I guess I’m an accidental Bitcoin speculator…

Submitting comments to the UK Algorithms Inquiry

Algorithms, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and other code-driven decision-making are increasingly hot topics for policymakers across the globe. The latest request for information came from the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee of the UK Parliament – a cross party body holding an inquiry into the use of algorithms in public and business decision making. Last week, Mozilla submitted comments, written by me and edited/improved by Heather West, on how we think about the intersection of algorithms and policy.

R.I.P. 1967 – 2017

Unto Us…

Somewhere at some time
They committed themselves to me
And so, I was!
Small, but I WAS!
Tiny, in shape
Lusting to live
I hung in my pulsing cave.
Soon they knew of me
My mother — my father.
I had no say in my being
I lived on trust
And love
Tho' I couldn't think
Each part of me was saying
A silent 'Wait for me
I will bring you love!'
I was taken
Blind, naked, defenseless
By the hand of one
Whose good name
Was graven on a brass plate
in Wimpole Street,
and dropped on the sterile floor
of a foot operated plastic waste
bucket.
There was no Queens Counsel
To take my brief.
The cot I might have warmed
Stood in Harrod's shop window.
When my passing was told
My father smiled.
No grief filled my empty space.
My death was celebrated
With tickets to see Danny la Rue
Who was pretending to be a woman
Like my mother was.

— Spike Milligan

Join OpenStreetMap UK

OpenStreetMap is the world’s premier provider of free-as-in-freedom mapping and routing data, with a data density in many places which far surpasses all proprietary providers. Here, for example, is the centre of Kampala, Uganda, Africa:

They have chapters around the world, and one was recently set up in the home of OSM, the UK. Joining is only £5 a year; please consider joining and supporting them in this way if you use OSM data at all or are interested in the project.

MOSS Conflict of Interest Rules

We decided to implement a lightweight Conflict of Interest policy for the MOSS Committees, not because we have had problems, but because we’d like never to have them :-) They are based loosely on the Wikipedia ones, and are here for anyone to use who wants them (CC-0).

MOSS Conflict of Interest Rules (v1.0)

As a committee member, you must:

1. Disclose actively if you are receiving, will receive, or have received in the past 5 years payment or anything of value from an applicant or their project;

2. Disclose actively if any family member, spouse, partner, business associate, significant other, close friend, or their organizations or employers would benefit from the approval of an application;

3. Answer fully and honestly any relevant and appropriate questions about potential conflicts of interest when discussing an application;

4. Disclose actively if your approval or disapproval of an application could be perceived by others or the public as improper, because even the perception of a conflict or unauthorized personal gain needs to be disclosed;

5. Not approve applications for personal gain.

Under the above rules, a person should “disclose actively” a potential or actual conflict of interest. To “disclose actively” means (1) to report the conflict to the MOSS Administrator; and (2) to do so explicitly and as soon as the conflict is known.

The MOSS Administrator will assess the conflict and, if it is judged to be material, will report it or request that the member report it to the committee.

Accepting Inconsistency

Following my previous post on things I learned at Bible college about how to have a reasonable discussion, here is another: you need to accept that people are inconsistent.

That is to say, it is entirely possible that someone you are debating with will hold two opinions that you believe cannot logically be held at the same time. In a reasonable discussion, you need to accept that this is so without assuming evil intent. One good reason for doing so is that it’s probably true of you also – no-one currently on earth has a worldview and set of opinions which is entirely self-consistent and logically perfect.

What you should not do is claim that one or both of the views “isn’t really their view”, or that they are lying or dissembling when they claim to hold both. You are, of course, entirely entitled to point out the inconsistency as you see it, and ask them how they reconcile the two positions. It may be that they haven’t noticed the conflict, and this will cause them to think. Or it may be that you haven’t understood their position fully, and after discussion, you agree the two views are actually compatible. Or it may be that your worldviews and base assumptions differ to such an extent that what you believe is logically impossible, they think is logically fine.

The clearest examples are also the most controversial, but to try and illustrate: some people I talk to cannot understand how my beliefs about church leadership are consistent with with my view that everyone is created in the image of God and therefore equally valuable and important. But I, of course, think these views are entirely consistent. And I often cannot understand how the views on human rights espoused by some people I talk to are consistent with with their views on abortion. But they, of course, see no conflict. Regardless, in either direction, it’s not OK for either me or them to make bold statements that the other party is a liar, is debating in bad faith, or is in other ways evil just because, in that party’s opinion, the other person’s set of views is not logically coherent.

Mycroft Mark 1 Extendable for sale

I’m selling a Mycroft Mark 1 Extendable. In a fit of enthusiasm back in 2015 I ordered a 3-pack and, now they’ve arrived, I realise that’s rather overkill, and I just need one to start developing. So I’m selling one of my spares. It’s totally as-new, never been opened except to take the listing photos. It’s the Extendable version, so it has all the ports on the back, unlike the Basic.

Please spread the word to anyone you think might have fun with one :-)

Reasonable Discussion

When I went to Bible college, I learned two things about engaging in debate which struck me as very wise, and have stuck with me since. While I learned them in the context of theology, I’d argue that they apply universally.

The first is that you become properly qualified to critique someone’s position only when you can summarize it in a way which would have that person, were they looking over your shoulder as you write, saying “yes, that’s exactly what I was trying to say”. Ideally, you need to understand their position and rationale for holding it as well as, or even better, than they do themselves. Being able to summarize it well before interacting with it is proof that you have done the work to do this. It will not only make your arguments better, but it will make it much more likely that those who disagree with you might consider and even accept them. Anyone can attack a straw man; however, doing so may lead to cheers from your own side, but is unlikely to win any converts. Attacking straw men is always much easier than interacting with people’s actual nuanced positions and therefore might be said to be a form of virtue signalling.

The second is that you should always engage with a person’s strongest arguments and points, not their weakest ones. If someone writes a piece where 50% of the arguments are, in your view, so weak that they barely require refutation, then you can either refute them anyway, or you can engage with their better arguments and points. We were strongly encouraged to do the latter, for much the same reasons. Refuting bad arguments is much easier than refuting better arguments, but is far less likely to convince anyone who holds the opposing view.

In the context of recent Internet debates, this Medium post was recommended to me as “excellent”. However, it is hard to agree with this assessment given that the first paragraph spectacularly fails the first of the two above tests. (I’d argue much of the rest of the post does as well, but the first paragraph is the clearest example.) And I’d say most of the Internet has joined in that failure, including, shamefully, many reporters who should be able to do better. A rather insightful Twitter commenter (yes, I know, wow) noted that the debate around this document had mostly been a complete waste of time as it involved a version of it which existed only in the imagination of the debaters. I’ve certainly seen many instances where people have claimed the document says things it either does not say, or even explicitly denies.

As for the second test, the difficulty is that the Internet hate machine’s lack of nuance means that if you pull out one or two points and say “these are worthy of further discussion”, it is assumed that you are therefore a wholehearted supporter of everything written, and are treated accordingly. This is not how debate works in a sane society. Still, in ever-present hope that this won’t happen, I think the following two parts of the memo deserve careful consideration:

Viewpoint diversity is arguably the most important type of diversity and political orientation is one of the most fundamental and significant ways in which people view things differently. In highly progressive environments, conservatives are a minority that feel like they need to stay in the closet to avoid open hostility. We should empower those with different ideologies to be able to express themselves. Alienating conservatives is … non-inclusive.

Just as some on the Right deny science that runs counter to the “God > humans > environment” hierarchy (e.g., evolution and climate change) the Left tends to deny science concerning biological differences between people.

Note for the hard of thinking: this post in no way endorses any bits of the memo I did not quote, and the bits I did quote I endorse only so far as to say that they deserve careful consideration.