Data Visualisation Meetups at The Skiff, Brighton

Star Trek

An Anomaly?

I watched an episode of the original Star Trek a few weeks ago. They encounterred an “anomaly” at least I think that’s what it was called. It usually was. The visual effects of this thing were pretty good considering the technology of the day. However, considering the technology of today, they were rubbish.

I’ve been messing around with data visualisation again after attending a Meetup in Brighton. Many years ago I experimented with graphics on old minicomputers and Tektronix graphics terminals. Then sometime in the late 80s bought an Amiga 4000 and some 3D rendering software named Imagine and built clunky 3D environments. I never really took it anywhere. There really wasn’t the time between the corporate day job and getting pissed. A dissolute but lucrative period of time I guess.

I signed up to Meetup.com a few years ago and recently it suggested a Data Visualisation meetup which takes place in The Skiff in Brighton. So I went along.

It’s extremely good! The first one I attended last year sometime, was about techniques for representing data in a fairly business like way as far as I remember. The second was a more artistic affair demonstratng generative art used in the comercial space. It had some fantastic video. The presenter’s name was Mike Brondbjerg and his web site is well worth a look.

Brondbjerg mentioned some software I’ve already used named Processing plus a sort of port of Processing to Java called Java P5. I walked away inspired and, as I left, I chatted to another guy who said that a MOOC named Kadenze was running a free tutorial on Java P5. So I signed up.

Tuesday night I attended the Meetup again and this time there was a guy named Berl Steiner demonstrating some software he’d written to visualise large datasets, not so much to dig out specific detail, but to gain an overall feel for the data and help spot outliers. It was excellent and the audience had many ideas for how it could be used. One guy suggested engineering data and I thought perhaps IT Security where specialist security systems and logging system which produce oodles of data which is often hard to assimilate. Another application which sprung to mind was Management Consultants and Auditors. These two roles entail specialist personnel who need to quickly gain an understanding of the finances of companies without prior knowledge. Steiner’s software might help them enormously and could be a good adjunct to data anlaytics software such as Idea or ACL.

I have to admit my progress through the Kadenza course has been slow. Christmas sort of got in the way. I have produced some micky mouse results but I can see the potential. I hope to get going on it again in the near future and have in mind interfacing it to a Raspberry Pi and use real world input to modulate the visuals.

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Disneyfication of London – Peak Bullshit

Spot the tourist

What they want you to think it’s like

Like any great city London attracts tourists and I’ve enjoyed chatting with them on warm summer evenings over a pint. I recall an American submariner who’s boat had moored up in the South of France and who had hitch hiked his way up to London. Standing outside the Three Greyhounds, a mouse slid off the roof and landed in his pint with a plop.

Back then the south bank was not fully open and, as I cycled the stretch between Tower Bridge and Waterloo, I was often forced to pick up my bike and climb ancient stone steps. As the wealth of London waxed it was tarted up. The South Bank was made more accessible, Tate Modern popped into existence and The Oxo tower morphed from ancient relic to fashionable restaurant.  All this “Urban Regeneration” was funded by development trusts and public money with the best intentions and in many ways it’s fantastic but London’s becomming a bloody theme park! It even has a Big Wheel and a Cable Car!

What it's really like

What it’s really like

Something has been lost. I liked living in a ramshackle and chaotic city where much of the commerce resided at a human level. The Oxo Tower and Bankside Power Station were not “accessible” but they were iconic parts of the landscape along with Battersea Power Station which is now so besieged by luxury apartments that it is near invisible. I loved the way London had not been planned and designed but was a teetering balance between entropy and creativity. I realise that this is not a popular view; the majority of people embrace this new wipe clean world where art is delivered like pizza or football.

Tate Modern has even found a way of ensuring that the dullest and most disinterested are exposed to modern art – and their experiences monetised.

On Saturday the FT reported on the progress of the London Garden Bridge. Some may think that another bridge might help congestion but the Garden Bridge is not for traffic.

The Garden Bridge will be yet another vanity project using public money to build tourists attractions causing congestion and generating profit for big-corp.

Using the very space itself as a commodity to be milked for profit degrades the environment for residents and tourists alike. Last December a cheese festival was “brought to a standstill” partly by overcrowding and at Christmas it was impossible to walk on the pavement down Regent Street for the hoards of City-Breakers trudging their way through the freezing cold to tick another item off their fucking “bucket list”.

On Friday I attended The headstrong Club in Lewes which was discussing an Unconditional Basic Income and the subject of the 18th century Enclosures came up. The Enclosures involved the rich enclosing and taking possession of land which was formerly regarded as common land.

In the late 20th century enclosure went further with the commercialisation of public space, first for advertising, then for retail and then to exploit the growing tourist trade.

Vested Interests

Public squares exploited for profit

So whereas before, residents enjoyed shared use of the land they lived in, now Londoners are forced to compete with a transitory population of over 17 million. More than twice the residet population! This month The Economist reported that New Zealanders too are becomming  frustrated that every beauty spot is blighted by a bus load of selfie taking day trippers. The fact that we have all been tourists makes us complicit and prevents us protesting so the gradual degradation of our environment continues without comment. While we claim to respect the environment we only really think about climate change and trendy ethnic disputes. We’ll readily direct our hate online against the Keystone Pipeline as it’s thousands of miles away but the residents of Harlow North can be quietly ignored. It is a culture of double-think. We claim to worship individuality and diversity but in reality we herd together to worship a handful of individuals and opinions. I guess fashion was ever thus but it seems more fine tuned these days.

We live in a culture where legions of “creatives” work to portray herd mentality as individuality.

Lately this is done in such a formulaic and calculated way as to produce grotesque results. Watch any documentary on gardening or antiques and note the caricatures created by the costume department guided by a checklist of over used clichés. This is what happens when we stop thinking and just follow the herd. This is what happens when a twenty something wardrobe assistant with a degree in film making and a hangover gets told to dress an old bald git to look like an antique dealer.

We live in an age of bullshit but the good news is that we may have just passed Peak Bullshit. Last week a billionaire was elected president of the United States on a platform of representing the common people. Surely the tide must soon start to turn!

Peak Bullshit

Peak Bullshit

As usual Science Fiction authors are the only people with the imagination and understanding to get what I’m on about. This time it’s Michael Moorcock from his 2015 novel The Whispering Swarm.

The Whispering Swarm

The Whispering Swarm

Going Green – boundless bean boiling

Infinity Foods

Infinity Foods

Pursuant to a greener lifestyle I visited vegetarian ground zero in Brighton today. Infinity Foods is on the corner of North Road and Garden Street or North and Garden as our American friends would have it.

The staff were fairly chirpy but the customers had a somnambulist gate and I meandered my way around them. Eventually, I bought three 500g bags of Kidney, Butter and Black Turtle beans on advice from a serving operative. I have in mind a dish of pork, leaks, tomatoes, lime juice and chili but with beans instead of pork. I thought that might work.

Infinity

Infinity Foods

On arriving home I discovered that the beans must be soaked overnight in water then boiled for 120 Earth Minutes. This seems absurd! I can whip up a pork version of my chosen dish in 20 minutes. Are my vegetarian endeavors to be rewarded by a life time in the kitchen? Is this why the inhabitants of Infinity Foods seemed so listless? Really, the Red Cross should have someone standing by with oxygen, iron tablets and blood transfusions from healthy meat eaters.

And what about the effects of additional C02 released by incessant bean boiling? And what happens when I arrive home from the pub? After ten minutes watching a bowl of soaking beans I’ll, more than likely, give in and make a sausage sandwich…..mmmm sausage sandwich.

I wonder if these Greens have thought this through.

Ecological Mindfulness

England - Worth saving too

England – Worth saving too

Sunday, morning,
Nothing in my head,
Aint it good to be in bed,
On Sunday morning

So sang somebody in my youth.

Sunday morning I slept late then arose and drank tea. After a decent interval I grilled some bacon, fried some eggs and sat down to Desert Island Discs. Sunday’s guest was Wayne McGreggor and his selection inappropriate so I switched it off. After pouring liberal doses of ketchup, Worcester and chilli sauce I munched my bacon in silence. My mind began the familiar trudge down well-trodden neural pathways. Why had I had that last glass of wine? Why had I not finished that book? Should I take that job if it’s offered? I pulled myself up – MINDFULNESS!

I attended a mindfulness class last year and still keep it up in fits and starts. It occurred to me that one could be mindful while eating. So I tried. Off went my mind like a greyhound with me hanging on for dear life….I am the inventor of a lucrative gastronomic fashion, plaudits abound, interviewed on the telly I say “Well, I got the idea when….” – I pulled myself up – MINDFULLESS! – Bacon and chilli on the tongue……mmmm…..sweet ketchup……Surely somebody’s done it already, that’s the thing with our over commercialised society, ideas are monetised in weeks not years – MINDFULNESS! – Tangy Worcester sauce and chewy granary bread….mmmmm. Eating must surely be one of the best times to practice mindfulness as taste and smell are such potent senses.

mindfull-dog

mindfull-dog

Individually we, in the West, live in a semi-permanent state of distraction. A dog and a child see the world as it is but we adults, we worry about the past and plan for the future and constantly struggle to make congruent the disparity between perception and the fantasy sold us by the commercial/political complex.

Collectively too, we ignore our surroundings and obsess over the abstract and the remote. We ignore the flowers in the park but sit in dark rooms watching wild life programs. We engage with national politics but have not a clue what’s going on locally. We jet off to the other side of the world to marvel at the wonders of nature while ignoring the decimation of British wild life and cheering increasing populations and expanding urbanisation believing that it somehow brings “diversity”.

Painted Lady

Painted Lady

A recent BBC Four program on butterfly migration from the Atlas Mountains to Great Britain was as wondrous as anything on colourful fish off the Barrier reef but a third of Britain’s butterfly species are under threat of extinction or have already vanished.

Whenever I pass St. George’s Place in Brighton I like to visit ONCA, a charity which promotes conservation and the arts and often has thoughtful and interesting exhibits. Last year I had some time on my hands and thought I’d like to get involved. They were running a project to sail a yacht around the Caribbean promoting ecological ideas. For around £3,000 I could take part. I’m a competent sailor. I had the time, the money and the inclination. What’s not to like?

The pitfalls of this plan are obvious: The Caribbean is nearly 5,000 miles away and, though ONCA encouraged people not to fly, alternatives are mostly impractical. The idea of a bunch of amateur English ecologists bobbing around in a boat telling local people what to do is a great theme for the next Carry On film but will do nothing to save the planet.

If you drink 2 bottles of wine per week then one economy return flight from London to Puerto España will wipe out the gains from recycling 159 year’s worth of wine bottles*.

A blind spot has emerged in modern green activism as marketing has replaced action. We’re exhorted to  run a marathon or repost on Facebook as if this constitutes action. It does not. At best it promotes green awareness, at worst it is self-indulgent displacement activity.

It’s not just well meaning amateurs who miss the point. Around 40,000 people took part in the Paris climate change conference in 2015 flying in from all over the globe. Surely the majority of these must have been professional policy makers, lobbyists and journalists. How smug they must have felt and the great thing is, there’s a conference every year!

Paris Climate Change Confernece

One Paris Climate Change Conference  > 6 million years of recycling my wine bottles

Ecology is not just about sea level rise and shutdown of the Gulf Stream. A major United Nations assessment of human impact on the environment released in 2005 highlighted a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth, with some 10-30% of the mammal, bird and amphibian species threatened with extinction, due to human actions and much of this “action” is just expansion and industrialisation.

We have become so preoccupied by “climate change”  that we ignore the massive ecological damage that humanity is doing irrespective of whether the Earth warms up, cools down or stays the same.

This gradual destruction of global ecology is not just something that happens on TV; and it’s not just C02 emissions. It’s here and now. It’s the marketing of further expansion of Harlow New Town as “Garden Villages”; it’s the skyscrapers going up all around Vauxhall; it’s Heathrow expansion; it’s global corporations and urban MPs addicted to mass immigration and clever economists deciding that London no longer needs a green belt.

“Think Global, Act Local” is a common slogan for the environmentalist movement. We’ve become expert at thinking globally but the problems then appear so insurmountable that we’re stunned into inaction. Not only do we fail to act locally, we’re not even mindful of the effect of human activity on the local environment.

It is hypocritical to whine about the rain forest if you accept the continued urbanisation of rural England.

We all want change but nobody wants to change. We delude ourselves that some fantastic technology is just around the corner which will fix everything. It is not. Oil and coal are extremely efficient stores of energy. Diesel has an energy density more than 54 times that of a lithium Ion battery! The recently announced tidal lagoons will cause havoc for local marine life. A few wind farms are very pretty but sufficient wind farms to make a difference would ruin the countryside.

At some stage we have to decide just how far we want to go with the commercialisation and industrialisation of planet Earth. The future currently in mind by all sides of the climate change debate is a planet made up of enormous mega-cities and the rest of the land area given over to either industry or intensive farming.

This is a dystopian vision.

Population Matters. It’s time to start talking about it.

* Assumptions for claim that C02 emissions of economy return flight London to Trinidad and Tobago greater than saved by recylcing 2 bottles of wine / week for for more than 159 years:

Diversity, Tradition and the British pint

Ephemera

Ephemera

A couple of years ago I noticed that the average pint in a British boozer was being served in a 500ml glass. I was surprised but, after doing the maths, I realised that 500ml is equal to a pint – near as damn it. A Euro directive means that a CE has to be stamped on pint glasses and the old Crown stamp seems to have disappeared though its use is not precluded.

Now it seems that British UKIP MEP, Bill Etheridge, wants to bring back the traditional crown stamp on pint glasses. The wave of globalisation over the past couple of decades brought with it many welcome trends, usually around liberalism of trade and efficiency but it also swept away much diversity which is ironic since diversity is key to the liberal lexicon.

I admit to liking diversity. The tradition of the English Inn was built upon travellers mingling with people they might not otherwise meet, having words with them, and being obliged to take stock of their opinions.

When in Cologne I drink the local Kölsch beer served nice and cold in tiny little 200ml glasses with a fresh one placed before you before you can say Alle Lander gute Menschen tragen. In Thailand I used to like that they serve me Coca-Cola poured over ice in a plastic bag with a straw and in Nigeria I chose the local Star lager despite the mind numbing headaches. In English boozers I used to like a pint of bitter served in a straight glass with a crown on the side and the eternal debate over whether the beer was off or not.

I also like tradition and convention. I like old red letter boxes. I like the midday quiet and slightly dank air of a pub as it opens before the mob arrive. I like the hanging baskets of flowers in summer and, after returning from the optimism and literalism of the United States, it’s nice to have an offhand and cynical allusion understood by people who share a common culture. I also used to like the pint of bitter served in a straight glass with a crown on the side and the eternal debate over whether the beer was off or not.

The imperial measure on the side of a glass is an odd symbol both of conformity and difference. It signifies very clearly that this is a standard glass conforming to norms but it also signifies difference from all those foreign standards.

We grow accustomed to necessities and regulations and they become part of our culture. Remember the hullabaloo around metrication in the UK? Nobody noticed but UK metrication ran out of steam some time in the 80s and we’re now stuck with petrol in litres and speed in miles per hour.

Of course none of this matters. Originally people thought that humanity needed to change to accommodate machines but modern computers can accept and present information in any damn fool system we devise so there is often no need to do enforce conformity in the name of efficiency.

Mr. Etheridge claims. that bringing back the old imperial mark will revive Britain’s glass making industry but I’m doubtfu. Glasses have been stamped with various symbols for decades. Over twenty years ago collected pint glasses from Cambridge Folk festival. In these days of globalisation and specialisation I imagine that manufacturers will engrave or stamp the glass with anything you ask for if they think it will get them a sale. Surely the French have some mammoth glassware factory in Paris equipped with a German programmable stamping machine churning out glasses for numerous nations, brands and events. 20,000 glasses stamped Munich Beer festival, 10,000 glasses stamped Property of London Transport, 5,000 glasses stamped USS Nimitz.

I miss the old crown like I miss open back buses and letters at a post restante but government should not legislate merely to reintroduce the ephemera of past legislation. If the British want crowns on their glasses then I’m sure suppliers will be pleased to oblige but Mr. Etheridge’s campaign is mere nostalgia and nationalism.

Population Matters

Population Matters

Population Matters

In between international holidays and shopping we expend a lot of hot air on the Kyoto targets for CO2 emissions but so far it has been politically incorrect to talk about the bleeding obvious corollary: Population.

The UK is overpopulated. The only mammals more prevalent than humans in the UK are rats and mice! The UK population has grown from about 41 million in 1900 to around 62 million today yet, despite BREXIT, many of our leaders think the UK needs continued mass immigration to please business and to increase diversity. Diversity? Pah! We are building congested homogeneous urban environments dominated by a selfish consumerist group-think where the only diversity is that the residents just happen to come from all over the world. Think I’m exagerating? The organiser of London’s New Year Day parade claims he got the idea when he planned kids fun day out in London on 1st January only to find, museums, theatres, cinemas, restaurants and most of the shops closed – He couldn’t live for one day without retail!

House prices are sky high, transport is congested and the health service under strain yet still many urban politicians are obsessed with their false version of “diversity” over all other considerations.

Today we heard that 14 new “garden villages” are to be built to provide 200,000 homes. They building over the fields and country lanes of my childhood but even this is not enough! If each home housed 4 people that will still only cater for under 2 and a half year’s worth of immigration to the UK!

Over population is not just a British problem. Population is ballooning all over the world and people are flocking to super-cities. Shanghai 24 billion, Karachi 23 million, Lagos 16 million. As much as I love cities I prize REAL DIVERSITY. Urban and rural. Town and country. An urban environment where one can get away to the country. A modern vibrant multicultural city and a traditional slower quieter countryside. I don’t want London to balloon to 24 million people just because Emily Thornberry fancies a different Pizza topping or Sadiq Khan is planning another “festival of culture” with “ethnic” food supplied by the same corporate caterers and events coordinators as did the American Football festival in Regent Street.

Population Matters

Population Matters

Globally humans now outnumber other primates by 2238 to 1 and the world wildlife populations has halved in the past 40 years. It seems to me that if the world’s population had not ballooned from around 1.6 billion to 7 billion over the past 100 years we wouldn’t need to worry about which side of the escalator we stand on and we wouldn’t live in tiny apartments; we wouldn’t have to give up our cars for driverless plastic robo-pods or give up meat for insect farming or drink recycled sewage water or any of the other efficiency “improvements” being planned by our leaders (Just read The Economist). And we wouldn’t be about to bulldoze more British wildlife to build dormitory accommodation for cheap labour demanded by big corporations. Further, would not be forced to consider ourselves massive hypocrites for wiping out any gains we make from recycling by holidaying in Bhutan because Thailand is “too touristy”.

On a recent ramble in the South Downs I heard of a charity called Population Matters which addresses population size and environmental sustainability. They believe population growth contributes to environmental degradation, resource depletion and other problems. They conduct research, inform the public and advocate improved family planning and sex education, women’s empowerment, smaller families and moderate consumption. They were founded in 1991 and Sir David Attenborough is one of their patrons.

The New Year resolution for Population Matters is to shatter the silence around discussing population. Please help them by speaking out!

social media – virtual telepathy

Analog

Analog

Remember Science Fiction? No not that stuff with leather suits and spaceships that go whoosh. I mean stories about the future written in the past. The sort of Science Fiction that sparks your imagination not dulls your intellect.

Back in the ‘80s I subscribed to two magazines; Analog and Omni. Analog had been going since the 1930s and was a slim novel size magazine printed on pulp paper. Omni was the young upstart. A full colour glossy launched in 1978. Between them they presented ideas from science and technology. Many of the ideas are now mainstream but Analog and Omni got there first. Remember fractal images on old PCs? Omni ran articles about fractals before home PCs existed. The concept of memes has now been so debased as to mean a trending tweet but Omni covered memes years ago. Mars landings? Analog covered that in June 1981.

In my late teens and early twenties I read this stuff and regurgitated it down the pub. The reaction of my friends was mixed; the usual talk was of motorcycles and drinking. The potential for secret messages embedded in the waffle blurted out by talk radio hosts was not something they normally considerred.

Ben Bova, Orson Scott Card, Freeman Dyson, Alvin Toffler, William Gibson, William Boroughs. The magazines were not short of quality contributors. Some of those old stories stuck with me because they were based on thoughtful insights regarding the nature of humanity in a changing technological world. Regular readers may recall references to The Marching Morons.

Today, memories of another story arose through the cobwebs of decades though I can’t recall the title. It was about a group of astronauts who returned to Earth after many years in space. As they surveyed the earth they realized that a great catastrophe had taken place. The cities lay in ruins. The people were all dead. Wild animals roamed freely. After some observations they noticed that something else was going on. Tigers roamed the world and now hunted in packs.

I’ll cut to the chase. The people of Earth had figured out how to become telepathic and decided to make everyone on Earth telepathic by means of a kind of massive irradiation of the planet as far as I can remember. Suddenly everyone knew exactly what everyone else was thinking and the results were predictable. Pandemonium ensued, along with rioting and massive blood letting. Mix in the fact that all the animals also had became telepathic and you have packs of tigers working together to become formidable hunters.

In short, if we all knew what everyone else was thinking then civilization would collapse.

So what brought this to mind? Why am I reminded of this today? Because we all now know what everybody else is thinking. A brief glance at social media reveals the uninformed blinkered prejudice. The hate and the bile. The ranting self riotous bigotry. From all areas of the spectrum. All of us. All we need is to see something with which we disagree and we feel the need to sound off like Adolf fucking Hitler safe in the spurious certainty of our own morality. Digital media seems to have enabled a very general form of telepathy. The mass expression of our collective unconscious is now visible to everyone and it’s not pretty.

Saturn Devouring His Son

Saturn Devouring His Son

All of our dark demons and paranoid fears are expressed online. It’s popular today to dismiss the teaching of the Classics but I wonder if their emphasis on primal fears and almost Jungian archetypes may have been good lessons in the risk of unrestrained negative emotions which social media lies bare.we are all susceptible.

Every politician who’s views contradict our own becomes a Nazi, every actor who stumbles over some politically correct phraseology becomes a racist. Every Muslim becomes a terrorist. Every American an imperialist. Every union leader a Trotskyist, every discussion of World War 2 liable to allegations of anti-Semitism. Every motive assumed to be malicious. The online world seems now like an ancient Greek epic poem with evil tyrants, traitors and conspiracies.

These days the leading experts in Artificial Intelligence (AI) are the social media companies like Google and Facebook. Their algorithms absorb everything we write. Every time we rant our abuse that sentiment is noted.

When scientists go on telly and bang on about their AI systems assimilating knowledge they mean all the good stuff but they ignore the vast quantities of drivel that their systems are accumulating. The current obsession with screen controlled apps may soon give way to voice control apps. Microsoft have a voice controlled version of Outlook. Other companies make voice controlled computers for accessing the web. I can already yell commands at my smartphone. All this means that “the system” will be listening to us ALL THE TIME.

Civilization relies on trust. It is nurtured by discretion, politeness and respect. It requires a suppression of our knee jerk reptilian brain responses. Our hate and our fears. But the Internet is ever watchful. It reads our tweets and it sees our microexpressions. As the algorithms observe and learn they embed neurosis and psychosis at the heart of the system. As our subconscious thoughts are revealed what hope is there for trust?

Perhaps I’m too pessimistic. In an article on the BBC web site today, the prescient Charlie Brooker states: “There may be a lot of toxicity online, but I think eventually humans will work out a code of conduct without the need for legislation”. Looking at the candidates for the position of world’s top legislators I’m not encouraged. Many parts of the Clinton / Trump debates seem little more than irate trolling. It’s baffling that a nation as educated and privileged as the United States, with an adult population of nearly 250 million people, has boiled down its leadership prospects to these two…….ahem……people.

Social Network Analysis – Sauce for the Gander

Uber

another pint while you wait

Technology seems to be veering away from its power to liberate and becoming a tool for oppression. The steam engine and the fridge were good ideas but big data and cloud computing endow most of their benefits to the powerful. Sure you can hail a cab without getting up from your pint but you’ve given the state and Big-Corp power to monitor your whole life.

Last week The Independent ran an article decrying the silence of Labour over the proposed Snoopers Charter allowing police to see Internet connection records without a warrant. The bill had previously been thwarted by resistance from the Liberal Democrats. Now it seems the plans have been revived and Labour will be abstaining from the vote. Odd since the former director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, is now shadow Attorney General.

The new bill will allow government to spy on citizens by requiring Internet service providers and mobile phone companies to maintain records of each user’s internet browsing activity (including social media), email correspondence, voice calls, internet gaming, and mobile phone messaging services. The bill also creates arrangements to interrogate and match data from different data sources. We’re talking about Social Network Analysis.

Social Network Analysis is used by Facebook, Google and Linked to analyse who we know and what we like in order to flog us more stuff. Thanks to Edward Snowden, we know that the United States government also takes an interest and developed a clandestine surveillance program ( PRISM ) to collect communications from US internet companies and this includes a facility where associations between individuals can be visualised. The upshot is that spooks can more easily track the relationships between a tiny minority of terrorists amongst a population of millions but the downside is that the authorities have another tool to control the general population.

Not an old boy

Not an old boy

I have been reading “Selfish Whining Monkeys” by Rod Liddle. His expletive laden style may not be everybody’s cup of tea but he makes some bloody good points. One of his hobby horses is nepotism in British public life. John Sentamu, for example, remember him? Archbishop of York? Very well known he was a few years ago. Very up and coming. Very courageous. Very personable. A bishops since 2002 he was on TV all the time. An obvious candidate for Archbishop of Canterbury when Rowan Williams went to make his maker in 2013. But no, not quite. He didn’t quite cut the mustard. Who did get the top job you ask? Justin Welby. He who’d only been a bishop for a year and spent much of his working life in the oil industry. There may be good reasons for appointing Welby but one can’t help wondering if his being an Old Boy from Eaton might have played some part in the decision?

Liddle points out that people from fee paying schools comprise 7% of the UK population yet make up 62% of diplomatic service, 58% of those working in the law, 80% of high court judges, 55% of senior civil servants, 60% of top City wallas, 70% of surgeons and consultants and 55% of journalists rising to 70% for national newspaper columnists and editors.

He goes on to damn the North London elite of “faux lefties” who install each other on numerous quangos and committees and takes a pop at Shami Chakrabati in the process. He invented a game to demonstrate what he’s on about. He calls it The Long March Through the Institutions and it works like this: Think of a quango, public body or charity then Google it to discover who runs it. Then look up the biography of that person and you will find that they are on the board of five or six other organisations. Pick one of these, Google it and find who runs that. Google a name and see which other boards they’re on. And so on….

According to Liddle, if you do this for long enough the same names will crop up again and again. The people on the boards have no particular expertise but the common thread is that they are paid for by the tax payer.

Ah, ‘twas ever thus, you might think. The powerful entrench their power and the rest of us are treated like mushrooms. Much of this information is a matter of public record but digging through it is a difficult task. It would be like….oh…like …. trying to track the relationships between a tiny minority of terrorists amongst a population of millions.

What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander though Liddle seems unaware of the potential of technology to automate his game. Americans journalists are a little more savvy. Journalists in the United States use social network modelling tools to track the rich and powerful. Muckety is as web site which uses interactive maps powered by Adobe Flash to show relationships between people, businesses and organizations. The Economist described it as an “American site which enriches news stories with interactive maps of the protagonists’ networks of influence“.

Muckety

Muckety

Muckety is fairly limited but gives a flavour of what’s possible. LittleSis is a free database of who-knows-who at the heights of business and government and claims to “bring transparency to influential social networks by tracking the key relationships of politicians, business leaders, lobbyists, financiers, and their affiliated institutions.”

All very nice you may think but aren’t we becoming the thing we despise? Are we not emulating the snoopers charter?

I’d say no. Homo Sapiens have been around for very roughly 80,000 years. We’ve only been mucking about with farming and machines for about 10,000 years. In essence our psychology is no different from the hunter gatherers that roamed the planet thousands of years ago. We are hard coded to exist in groups of around 100 people where the actions of the leadership are known to all. It should not be surprising that we tend toward working with people we know but in the modern world this translates to nepotism.

“Civilisation” and technology have allowed the creation of cities comprising thousands and nations comprising millions of people. Crucially this necessitates massive delegation of power. It enables the joint stock company and limited liability. It allows the rich to diverge from the poor. Technology allows some of us to live segregated and secretive lives of plenty while others are homeless. Some can set up shell companies in tax havens while others live hand to mouth. Some appoint their mates to committees and employ experts to invent ways to evade tax while others stand alone before the automated power of the state unable even to talk their way out of a parking ticket. Technology now makes our social world so vast and complex that only the powerful are capable of fully exploiting the opportunities created.

Littlesis

Littlesis

I’m some kind of liberal. I believe that the antics of others are none of my business but they become my business when they involve public funds or involve the workings of organisations endowed by society with privileged status such as public office, charities, the joint stock company or limited liability. Complexity and technology have rendered the working of such organisations opaque but public access to authoritative Social Network Analysis has the potential to go some way to remove the veil of secrecy to which the powerful have grown accustomed. It will allow us to understand social power structures far more thoroughly and thereby improve democratic accountability. Much of what will be revealed will be obvious. Business and religion are big players. Many of the powerful are alumni of top education institutions. Merely exposing this detail should not necessarily be an argument for erasing it; we all rely on networks and both religion and business have their part to play in society. But power and influence should be visible, proportional and the individuals accountable.

An amalgamation of big corporations and big government now plan to monitor practically everything we do. They will monitor our email, our Facebook, our telephone calls, our car license plate and use of public transport and hence our physical movement. They monitor what we buy and what we sell; who we meet and what we eat. Personally I am against much of this but it is happening anyway, pushed through by greed for efficiency and the fear of terrorism.

We need an equal and opposite force including tools to track and monitor our elite. Along with political sites such as TheyWorkForYou.com, Muckety and LIttlesis are a good start. At the moment specialist skills are still needed to make best use of the technology but this should improve.

It won’t be easy. The elite have grown used to secrecy. Peter Mandelson once said that he was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”. As usual, he was Talking Bollocks! It wasn’t the people who eat in McDonalds and shop at Primark who created the biggest threat to the UK since 1939; it was the rich. So rather than snooping on our telephone calls and Facebook posts attention should be focused on exposing the machinations of those in power. And of course this includes Peter Mandelson relationship with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska while Mandelson was EU Trade Commissioner.