Monthly Archives: November 2007

Is Gordon Brown depressed?

I think he’s depressed. I suspect he’s been depressed for his whole adult life, mind you. But he’s just moved to a big new job and that’s triggered a crisis. Everything about his behaviour shouts depression. He’s turned in on himself. His instinct when things get tough has always been to retreat – hide out, pull the duvet over his head. He hates the aggro and the nasty, rude attention he gets from the opposition and the media.

He doesn’t rise to it. There’s no fight in him. It must be frustrating to work with him when he’s like this. All around him people must be urging him to get a grip, kick some ass, get out into the world and make a difference. But still, nothing.

Where is he this morning, for instance? Has he varied his schedule to sort out the funding mess? Doesn’t look like it. As usual he’s hiding behind a compliant phalanx of cabinet members. He’s in doors, wringing his hands when he ought to be striding the public stage, dishing out the presbyterian tongue-lashings, roasting Humphrys on Today, firing everyone within half a mile of the scandal, reshuffling, rewriting the rules, bringing forward legislation, hosting meetings, taking control!

Why is there still anyone at all at work in the party’s fund-raising bunker? Why aren’t they all licking their wounds in Starbucks, thinking about a change of career? Where’s the evidence that Brown takes this diabolical shambles seriously, either morally or politically? The Blair instinct – to turn a political nightmare into an opportunity to shine as a man, as a leader – is cruelly absent. Brown’s in a funk.

Here’s my conclusion. He fooled us all (well, me anyway). I saw tough, dour, implacable, unruffled. I missed terrified, lost, out-of-his-depth, passive, ineffective. This is a very scary time for Labour and for Britain and the man in charge has lost his grip, his marbles and his balls. Go on Gordon, prove me wrong.

Cynical? Moi?

Parties to the Middle East talks in Annapolis fall into two groups: those who frankly don’t care if the ‘Palestine problem’ is resolved and those whose lives and livelihoods depend on it. Unfortunately the former group includes all the nations with the power to do anything about it and the latter only the utterly powerless.

Of course, I’m being rhetorical. Everybody cares about the miserable Israel/Palestine impasse. It’s just that nobody has any political skin in the game. In fact the most powerful party and the only one with enough real world clout to alter conditions on the ground – The USA – would really be happy if things carried on as they are.

The political cost to the Bush Administration of Palestine’s continued suffering is close to zero and only increases when Hamas and Hizbollah and the other unhelpful nihilists on the Arab side start lobbing missiles and dispatching suicide bombers.

Even then, with lives being lost on both sides, the political dividend from another all-too-predictable outburst of Palestinian violence cancels the cost: “look! They’re out of control! How can we negotiate with these madmen?” For the Americans, Israel/Palestine is a miserable win-win.

Nothing can change until a more principled American regime commits some resource and some political capital.

Data abuse thoughts

The child benefit data cock-up highlights all sorts of public data issues, most of which are missed totally by both participants and observers. Data literacy in Britain is non-existent. Here are a few points that have come to mind over the last couple of days of coverage (please add your own in the comments if you feel like it).

1. Ministers and spokesmen know hardly anything about data. For instance, some of them have obviously been briefed to say that the information in the planned central ID database will be safer because it’s ‘got biometrics’. No one has explained to them that biometric data captured from you and me has nothing to do with access to that data by civil servants: they’ll just use the password on the Post-It note like they always did.

2. No one has bothered to explain to managers and legislators that an individual’s identity could be easily and securely verified without a big, central database. A ‘zero-data’ ID scheme is technically feasible and (literally) infinitely more secure than the big database model (no data to lose, you see). Governments have no interest in such a scheme because it would represent a diminution of their status and influence and that’s anathema. Consequently it doesn’t even come up in the debate.

3. Hysteria about the lost data is practically universal. On the TV last night a ‘computer security expert’ told the world the data would be of use to paedophiles. Paedophiles, you see, will now be able to confirm that there are children all over Britain.

4. The leap from ‘two obscure-looking CDs gone missing in internal post’ to ‘massive fraud and ID crime inevitable’ has been well-and-truly made. The more serious point – that legislators universally (handful of exceptions) want more data held centrally and accessible by more agencies and groups – has been ignored.

5. The inescapable logic of deep reform for government data policy was seen to go ‘whoosh’ right over the heads of media and pols alike. Ignorance and political contingency leave them arguing only for ‘more security’ or ‘better protocols’ and not for ‘less invasive policies’ or ‘a reassessment of data ownership’.

6. Web 2.0 insights into data capture, storage and management have clearly made no impact on these data dinosaurs at all. OpenID, Attention Trust, Vidoop and the generalised 2.0 attitude that user data belongs to the user haven’t made it onto the news agenda at all. Good data and security practice exists right now in dozens of geek-run web 2.0 businesses. Will they be consulted? Fat chance.

I’ve got a Child Benefit question

Update: it turns out the answer to my question (‘why does the National Audit Office need my National Insurance number?’ below) is ‘they don’t’.

I feel like a bit of a jerk climbing onto the lost Child Benefit data bandwagon but I do want to ask a little question: one I haven’t seen answered anywhere else yet.

Why, I wonder, does the National Audit Office need my National Insurance number? I think this is more important than the loss of the data itself, which can be put down to human error (and is actually quite funny). The fact that anyone felt it appropriate (or necessary) to send my NI number (plus all that other personal data) to a government department that doesn’t actually need it is telling. It’s slapdash really. And it’s another nail in the coffin of the ID card, of course.

While we’re at it, allow me to remind you that the whole ID card edifice is based on the same kind of casual attitude to personal data. A perfectly serviceable ID card scheme – one that allows anyone to prove they are who they’re going around saying they are – could be built on a database containing no personal data at all (ask me how).

The fact that this hasn’t occurred to anyone in Government is dispiriting. The relevant civil servants and consultants haven’t seen fit to present such a ‘zero data’ ID scheme to Ministers because there’ll all working on the same ‘we might as well have it’ attitude to our data. Governments everywhere (name an exception) seem to instinctively desire inappropriate access to information about their citizens. And it’s this attitude, of course, that produced the latest cock-up.

“My wife wants a Kindle. She’s dead to me now…”

I’m feeling a bit guilty about yesterday’s Kindle post, which was sarcastic. But since then I’ve been tracking ‘Kindle’ on twitter and I’ve seen no more than two or three positive opinions of the gadget amongst hundreds and hundreds of Kindle-related tweets (my favourite: “my wife wants a Kindle. She’s dead to me now”). And opinions are like arseholes, aren’t they?

Anyway, thinking about it, I’m still full of reservations and questions: why not pre-load it with loads of great books from happy publishers? Why the frankly clumsy pay-to-read model for blogs and newspapers: wouldn’t publishers have jumped at the potential for a really big audience and a rev share on advertising? Why not aim for ubiquity by allowing the thing to read the millions of PDF eBooks that are already out there? Why no social features: share this book, message my friends… Why no special Harry Potter or Dan Brown launch editions? Why nothing to really get your teeth into?

The Kindle – which I really wanted to be a thing of beauty, a lovely package – has made it into the world loaded with compromises and hard-to-grasp niggly bits instead of mind-blowing content and really persuasive ideas.

Its reception – at least from the vocal geeks I’ve been reading – has been almost universally negative and, returning just for a second to my Segway comparison from yesterday, Bezos has some experience of a brand that never recovered from the kicking it got from the early adopters who should have loved it but laughed instead.

McDonalds and virtual coffee bars

McDonalds are going to roll out a big coffee chain. Good timing. Coffee’s mainstream now. Intra-day refreshment used to be divided sharply down the middle with tea in a styrene cup on one side and a decaf skinny latte in a paper cup with an elaborate lid on the other. Now I stand in the queue at Caffe Nero in the morning behind window cleaners and yummy mummies in equal numbers.

Working people now drink posh coffee drinks and McDonalds can probably already claim most of the credit for this: they’ve been moving millions of reasonable cappos and lattes in their restaurants for several years now, shifting tastes as they do so.

What I’ve been wondering, though, is less to do with the High Street coffee chains than with the interesting new class of virtual coffee bars that sits on top of them. You’re probably already a member of at least one group that regularly meets in a coffee bar to a) shoot the breeze, b) earnestly network or c) knit. Some of them are quite well known, Geeks and marketing types like them a lot. They have names like Open Coffee, Edinburgh Coffee Morning and Geek Coffee.

Nobody owns them and they’re hardly substantial things – disappearing as quickly as they arrive – but what I’m wondering is how long can it be before the first of these informal entities becomes a real brand? And how long before the real coffee shop brands start to compete for the business of the virtual ones? After all, a weekly coffee morning is like a kind of giant, collective customer and the regular custom of one of these floating gatherings could be worth hundreds of pounds per meeting.

Of course, none of this addresses the more important challenge of finding a more masculine name for a ‘Caffe Latte’…

Kindle. Segway for books?

Jeff Bezos on a Segway. Pic by Esther Dyson

Some people are calling Amazon’s Kindle ‘iTunes for books’. I’m calling it ‘Segway for books’. Not because it’s got two wheels and a giro-stabiliser but because it’s got Jeff Bezos on it. Jeff is a fascinating and clever man (I’d like to meet him one day. I tried to once but a bizarre canapé-related incident caused me to miss him as he went by. Always felt I could have nipped the whole messy Segway episode in the bud if it weren’t for that shrimp on a stick).

Anyway, Segway I mean Kindle. Over-complex (just look at this lot), over-priced and over… er… there. I can’t help thinking there must have been some Segway engineers on the committee that decided you could email documents to Amazon for conversion to Kindle format and then wait while they email them back to you so you can transfer them via USB to the device…

What worries me is that in a year or two we’ll all be sitting round asking: “why didn’t they just do a really simple implementation of the obviously awesome electronic-paper and sell it cheap to seed take-up of the book format?” or “why didn’t they get Apple to do it?”. Having said that, I would like one (Amazon PR people looking for UK bloggers to try it out might be reading this).

And while we’re talking about Amazon and Apple, have you seen this quite brilliant and painstaking bit of brand demolition using an Amazon list? Someone explain to me the peculiar network dynamic that makes an Amazon list the right weapon for this whinge.

Pic from Esther Dyson’s photostream.

Trivial, fabric-of-everyday-life stuff really

Isetta bubble car by www.flickr.com/photos/melkin/

Ordinary-sized people riding around in truck-sized 4X4s now look as silly as the fat blokes in bubble cars we used to laugh at in 70s sketch shows.

AND I think they should put a ‘thank you’ button on those automated check-outs in supermarkets. I miss saying ‘thank you’ (and I guess the machine could be programmed to say ‘you’re welcome’ back).

AND I think we’ve arrived at saturation for TV ads involving groups (sometimes crowds) of ordinary people completing funny/whimsical tasks or assembling funny/whimsical objects (current examples from Orange, Guinness and Sony have pushed me over the edge). Enough (and where are all the bloody photos of fat blokes in bubble cars now that I need one?).

Beating child labour

The Gap (and lots of other Western businesses) have invested a lot of money in systems to monitor supplier labour practices because they don’t like to be thought of as ‘the child labour people’ (at The Gap they employ 90 people for this purpose and fired 23 suppliers last year for failure to comply). It’s not working, though. Child labour is pervasive and resilient: kids are still in the labour market in their millions and many of them serve Western consumers directly.

Some communities are tolerant of child labour and others have had it forced on them by economic collapse and by the pressures of demand from wealthy economies. A long period of prosperity in the Western economies hasn’t helped: that giant sucking sound is ballooning demand for more and cheaper goods from millions of Western consumers. Manufacturing in developing countries will continue to draw children into work in their thousands because the demand for what they make is unending.

The Gap, Nike and the other businesses who’ve invested millions in supply chain monitoring methods should get together and develop a joint public platform for the suppression of labour market nasties. I’d like them to publish the techniques they’ve developed as the equivalent of open source utilities for policing labour markets. Big businesses have invested in techniques, analytical frameworks, surveillance methods, education and empowerment schemes.

They should package these resources in toolsets for use by others. Everything from Powerpoint presentations in local languages to auditing frameworks, model contracts, supplier incentives and specialist databases. Downloadable, shareable and adaptable resources would spread good practice more quickly and get smaller businesses involved earlier.

If the big firms share the results of their huge defensive investment in anti-child labour measures with other businesses in the supply chain, knowledge and ideas will spread more quickly, small firms who couldn’t historically do formal supply chain monitoring will be able to piggyback the big firms’ investment, spreading resistance to child labour more widely. Exemplary, activist businesses will get a chance to sell their methods to less engaged firms, to explain why it’s important to kick child labour into touch. The effect would be an improved reputation for the whole sector and many more kids kept out of the economy for longer.