Fingerprints, Trust, and Europcar

September 18, 2007

Last week on the way to an AstroGrid meeting in Cambridge I picked up a hire car at Stansted Airport and was asked for my fingerprint. Sorry. Correction. I was told I must give my fingerprint. No choice here. Apparently in an experimental scheme with Essex Police, ALL the hire car companies at Stansted were doing this; and Europcar have now rolled it out across the UK. I am surprised I haven’t heard more fuss. The BBC website discussed this back in November, and there has a small amount of blogging on it, e.g. here.

As usual on this kind of issue, I had two conflicting instincts. Thought-1 was “This is awful. The police state is creeping up on us. The People must rise up !”. Thought-2 was “Lets not be Canute here. Like Scott McNeally said, you have no privacy, get used to it.” Not sure which thought wins.

But internal curiosity welled up. Thought-3 was “Why is this so mentally confusing ? What’s really going on ?”. I suddenly remembered how back in the early 80s a Polish friend would explain that where she came from one person in every five was a policeman or police informer, and how this eroded society from the inside. Its about trust, and its about power. OK, so I am an innocent man, so I have “nothing to fear”. Giving my fingerprint is a good thing. This is clearly true as long as you trust the government. Well right now to be honest, by and large, I do. But if I was in the USA, I would be much more nervous.

But … why should I trust Europcar ??????

When I asked the right questions, they offered me the choice of blacking out my print when I returned the car. So I did. But this choice was not offered until I asked. And the pictures I see on the web suggest that most sites are automatically digitising the print rather than saving it on a piece of card, so this option has no safe meaning.

Maybe I should write to the CEO of Europcar and ask if he would please provide me his fingerprint for my records ? After all he is an innocent man, so he has nothing to fear. And I would promise to not doing anything with this information unless I suspected Europcar of a crime of some kind….


The good ship stiffsea

April 25, 2007

Tuesday night I consumed some more of your tax pounds, nibbling canapes on a boat on the Thames, laughing politely at the Minister’s jokes, and networking like crazy. Yes folks it was the grand launch party of Britain’s newest Research Council, STFC. “Ess Tee wot ?” I hear you say… Thats the Science and Technologies Facilities Council, formed by a grand merger of PPARC and CCLRC. Amongst other things, henceforward this is the feeding trough at which UK astronomers and particle physicists will need to hustle, and as such I feel obliged to point out that they are splendid chaps every man jack of them. (Actually, for the ex-PPARC folk at least this is true … they are certainly more fun to drink to beer with than parti.. no hang on I’ll stop there.)

Wal Sargent apparently once said that the one guaranteed thing about UK astronomy is that once every few years the Government digs it up to have a look at the roots and see if its still healthy.

I was one of the youngest people there. This doesn’t happen often these days. I scanned the room for bloggers of course but the only one I could see was Paul Sutherland from Skymania News. (Paul – got there first !)

For some months the usual joke has been that STFC stands for Swindon Town Football Club, but by last night that had worn off a bit, except that somehow when Science Minister Malcolm Wicks said it, it was still very funny. The man is just an excellent orator. One thing for sure. Nobody knows how to say STFC. Consensus amongst my apparatchik chums is that Stiffsea will do.

If you go to the shiny new STFC web site, the launch party isn’t even a news item. But there is an item labelled “UK comment on discovery of first habitable Earth-like planet“. Thats a bit sad – me me me I was at that party too ! Actually, over at Astronomy Blog, Stuart explains that you may want to take this discovery with a wee grain of salt.

Last snippet. The party finished at 9pm and I went to a Westminster pub with David Saxon, Paul Sutherland, Jim Hough, and Ian Robson. We were supping our pints when suddenly there was this repeated clanging. It was the division bell calling soused MPs into vote .. coo. I didn’t know they really did that.

Anyhoo. The good ship stiffsea is launched. Good luck to all who sail in her.


The Internet and the Persian Wars

April 7, 2007

Information is power they say. I have just been watching the return of the British sailors from Iran on TV, and their stories of blindfolding and isolation. Iran of course denies all this. How does someone in Palestine know who is telling the truth ? It seems scary that the West and Iran are inching towards a crisis just as “300” is hitting our cinema screens … a garish cartoon version of the founding myth of Western Civilisation – the defeat of Persia. But we are the masters of the world .. are we not ?

So here we are at the peak of Western Power. What is our secret ? Capitalism ? Energy ? Technology ? Or Information – knowledge, infrastructure, organisation ? All these things are connected, but you could argue that information is the key. A surplus of energy allows you to organise life – to build roads and hospitals, and to pay people to do things other than fight and farm – e.g. to play with technology, design systems of law, set exams, and so on. Free market Capitalism is just a form of organisation, as is the ideal Socialist State. In one method, a highly structured system is designed and implemented top down; in the other, a network of interacting agents is left to organically evolve under a simple set of rules. In both cases a highly non-random information-rich structure appears.

The easier it is for information to flow, the more quickly a system can restructure. Hence libraries, education, and TV have also been crucial to the dominance of Western societies. Through most of history, the ruling classes have had more access to, and more control of, information than the majority of the population. During the nineteenth century, the mass production of cheap books was starting to change this, and information became very diffuse and democratic – every shopkeeper could read Dickens. The arrival of cinema, radio and TV stopped all this, along with national newspapers. Information flowed outwards from a few central points. It is probably not a coincidence that the golden age of popular revolt was from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth, whereas the rest of the twentieth century was characterised by happy but docile populations. (Lets count the second world war as a horrific gap between these eras ..)

The Internet is all about information transparency. Basic protocols (TCP/IP) allow messages to pass between computers; FTP allows whole files to flow from place to place; the Web (HTML, HTTP) makes documents visible transparently from any location. Web services and associated standards like XML, SOAP and REST are about achieving transparency for data (as opposed to human readable documents). Grid middleware (Condor, GLOBUS, WSRF) is about making processing power transparent, so programmes can run anywhere.

For most people the World Wide Web is the visible surface of the new infrastructure. Sitting here on the sofa, surfing the Web, it feels like all the documents in the world are right here inside my computer. Fifteen years ago this was for a handful of geeks. Now every day my kids show me stuff I didn’t know and my sister shops on the web. The world is transparent and information is flooding to and fro at a fantastic rate. The effects are very hard to predict. Of course .. the thing about the Web is that (a) there is just too much stuff, and (b) nearly all of it is dross. How does that vast turbulence settle into an organised structure ? Web-1 answers : bookmarks; search engines; portals … mostly deliverer centred, like TV. Web-2 answers are famously more diffuse, democratic, and user centred – social networking; tags and social bookmarking; self publication; popular voting (Digg etc). These things produce accelerated spontaneous structuring at the same time as producing more and more utter drivel. Its excitingly powerful and unstable. Who knows where we are going ?

The Internet is a symbol of Western success. The Chinese are frightened of it. If war is coming, we will win for sure, won’t we ? Information is power. So was this true in the ancient Persian wars ?

My Christmas reading left me confused. I got a wonderful book called “Persian Fire” by Tom Holland. Its a popular history, the story of the war between Persia and Greece in the fifth century B.C.E. – Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and all that. Its is a riveting read. Tom Holland is a magician. When most people try to write popular history with a narrative flow, it comes out as patronising and sub-novelistic. Holland does it and its grown-up and gripping. If I can figure out the trick I will bottle and sell it.

One thing that took me by surprise was how bureaucratic the Persian Empire was. Everything was recorded. The Imperial staff knew the whereabouts of every chicken in the empire. This was not the sign of a decadent society past its best; rather, it was precisely the secret of an unstoppable war machine. Cyrus, Darius, and then Xerxes, all knew that information was power. When that vast army set off, they knew who would feed it where and when. They knew the size and strength of every city on the way, the factions it contained, and who to pay off. They captured spies and sent them back with carefully planted disinformation. They knew what was going on and the other guys didn’t.. So there we go .. information produces organisation produces power.

And yet … the Greeks won. They won against much bigger numbers and against a much better machine. So maybe it was the superior moral strength of democracy versus despotism ? Err .. don’t think so. The Athenians were in the middle of their democratic experiment, but none of the other city states were, and the Spartans were completely bizarre weirdos. Greek cunning ? Well, partly. Salamis was the real victory, a beautifully planned strategy. Technology ? Certainly important. The Hoplite Phalanx was the secret weapon – a wall of metal bristling with spears.

Or maybe there is no systemic answer. Everything cracks in the end. There are fault lines in History. As Bush lines up the battle ships in the Gulf, take nothing for granted.


Academia, bureaucracy, and the erosion of trust

January 24, 2007

My first job Monday morning was attending a meeting with University Administrators, reviewing the progress of the School of Physics in preparing its submission to the Research Assessment Exercise. As these things go it wasn’t too bad – everybody was positive, organised, not too petty – but this kind of work isn’t exactly what I dreamed I would be doing when I started my PhD two thousand years ago, rolling up my sleeves, ready to push back the Frontiers of Knowledge.

Young scientists love to whinge about the activity they call “admin” in a blurry kind of way, ignoring the crucial distinctions we senior academics make between management, politics, and true administration. Its hard not to think of that episode of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy – the one where the people of a dying planet plan to send three Arks out into space. The A-Ark has the creative types – leaders, poets, scientists, sportsman etc. The C-Ark has the workers – bricklayers, farmers, etc. The B-Ark carries all the middlemen, administrators, telephone sanitation engineers and so on. It turns out that Arks A and C were never launched and it was all a cunning ruse to get rid of the useless bits of society.

Academics are of course often naive – in understanding how much work running things actually takes, and in expecting money for nothing. But there are two real and serious problems : the erosion of trust, and frictional cost.

Aeons ago, academia was of little import and received little money. Now we get loads of public money. Quite right too; we educate half the population, discover cures for disease, travel to Jupiter, invent the web, and so on. We are a significant force in modern society. But you don’t get that kind of money without getting asked hard hard questions. And when you join the Firm you gotta toe the line, capisce ? Hands up all those astronomers who want complete academic freedom but no postdocs, no X-ray telescopes, and no conferences in Brazil. Pause. Thought so.

Asking hard questions is a good thing. But the growing tendency in public life is to want PROOF. Show us the papers, the citations, the gender statistics. Please establish a benchmark study and then maintain a basket of metrics. How can we pay overheads if you can’t prove what fraction of academic time goes on different categories of activity ? This course can’t be approved unless the Learning Objectives are in the correct format. Etc etc etc. Nobody knows when to stop and take a judgement call. The constant message is “we cannot trust you : we require proof”. Over time this inevitably erodes confidence and creativity, which is a bad thing for the Modern Economy.

As well as the psychological damage, the other danger is that the cost per unit achievement increases. Somebody has to work out how to channel money to the right bits of the machine, and we should be accountable. So inevitably administrators and managers poke and fiddle inside the machine. This adds internal friction. Without it, the machine could slither off in some random unwanted direction; but too much internal friction and we grind to a halt. So once again the problem is just knowing when to stop; each new bureaucratic demand is incrementally justified… Its one of those boiling the frog problems, folks.

The Principal of my University once asked me how one could improve staff morale. Simple, I said. Send an all-staff email saying “from now on, you no longer need to do X”. He asked me to instantiate X. I had several suggestions, but apparently they were all either politically unwise or not compliant with emerging legislation…


Big Brother, Princess Diana, Elvis, and the Dinosaurs

January 21, 2007

I have uncovered unsettling evidence that Jade Goody is in fact an MI5 agent, and that the whole Big Brother/racism/media circus thing is in fact a distraction, aimed at leading public attention away from the fact that a disgruntled GCHQ employee has leaked a secret Government Report that Princess Diana was in fact killed by Elvis Presley, because she knew too much about what really killed the dinosaurs. Elvis’ death in 1977 was faked so that he could go back into the army and travel undercover to decode alien signals from Arecibo

Naaah. Only kidding.

But on a more serious note, I just want to state my firm conviction that I am totally against err err the thing that all those people were talking about. But there are no easy solutions.

Somewhere in here I think there is some kind of completely tasteless astro-joke about Chandrasekhar, Oxbridge racism, collapsed objects, and British Imperial History, but I can’t quite crystallise it. A big no-prize for every entry submitted. Nuff Said.