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A Mandate for the Malicious

19 Aug

 The Register are covering the story of John Pinnington, a former headmaster who has lost his job because an enhanced security check revealed unsubstantiated rumours about him.

“A recent landmark ruling by the High Court takes the UK one step closer to becoming an “informant society” along the lines of the former East Germany or Soviet Union.”

I have no idea about the veracity of the allegations against Mr Pinnington, but the idea that someone’s life can be ruined by little more than tittle tattle is not only shocking, but against everything the UK legal system is supposed to stand for. I have children at school so of course I agree with security checks, but I’m more concerned about dedicated and talented teachers leaving the education system only to be replaced by those who are squeaky clean but otherwise second rate.

Teaching is a poorly paid occupation with, in many cases, a high level of stress and responsibility. At the time of writing, the profession finds it hard to recruit graduates with good degrees. Adding yet another disincentive will only serve to further deter the very people who would be of most benefit to young minds. Why on earth would these people want to teach when they can earn considerably more doing a job which does not expose them to the risk of public humiliation and ruin!

What is (or should be) of concern to us all is the idea that an individual is no longer considered innocent unless proven guilty – a system which has served us well for centuries – instead gossip and spite are seen as proof of guilt. In an ideal world, no one would ever make false allegations against another person. However, out here in the real world people do, even children. The law should serve to protect the innocent from such claims, not to give a mandate to the malicious.

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David Davies resigns on point of principle

12 Jun

David Davies, Conservative MP and shadow home secretary has resigned following the government victory in the 42 day detention vote.

“He told reporters outside the Commons: ‘I will argue in this by-election against the slow strangulation of fundamental British freedoms by this government.'”

Read the full story

There is no unlimited

20 May

Lots of UK ISPs offer ADSL (Broadband) packages that have an “unlimited bandwidth” option but this is nowhere near realisticly unlimited. As I have mentioned in “iPlayer and BitTorrent: The truth about so-called unlimited broadband” you are likely to get the same throughput (bandwidth) as a cheaper “limited” package but with a decreased quality to stretch it out over the month. New technologies are exposing this “unlimited” bandwidth and showing us that simply is not there.

“The Ofcom Consumer Panel has called on regulators to pull their fingers out and demand that ISPs are more honest with us about the limitations of broadband.

“The group wants a new mandatory code of practice to force providers to qualify their dodgy ‘up to’ speed claims, which accompany virtually all broadband marketing. The slowdown effects of contention, distance from the exchange, and network status should be made clear, it argues.”

Your “up to” 8 Meg line might run effectively at 4 Meg, or maybe only 64 Kbps and this is within the product description. That “up to” is a way of ISPs promising you everything but then not having to give you anything. If you try to complain that the speed is not as advertised they will tell you that your speed is reliant on the conditions of the cable and your distance from the exchange. What they do not tell you is that if they are unable to provide what they offered you will need a damn good solicitor to sue them for breach of contract because the terms and conditions say that whatever they offer you get whatever you get. Sorry.

The full truth is even more shady. You have no actual way of knowing how fast an effective speed (after network errors, throttles, shaping, resets, delays and network lag are taken into account) you get. Your ISP can choke the effective speed down to save the budgeted bandwidth for business users (who pay better).

In “The truth about so-called unlimited broadband” I examined how the BBC had braught this issue to a head:

If you live in the UK you will be sure to be aware that the BBC (known fondly as Aunty) has launched it’s own peer-to-peer media player. The BBC’s iPlayer uses software called Kontiki (similar to BitTorrent) which also powers “Sky Anytime” and “4od”. This enables the BBC to off set the massive requirements of distributing it’s “free” media by having the consumers take part in providing the stream.

Kontiki is basically a peer-to-peer system and so like BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer programs it sends lots of data accross the network.

Plusnet, according to Bob Pullen from plusnet (see my blog post for more on that), tells me that plusnet do not offer an unlimited package and that they use a “quality of service” system to give priority to things like Aunty’s iPlayer while thier site says peer-to-peer traffic is down at the bottom of the priority list. Take from that what you will.

ISPs have to transmit the packets through their networks and they do not really like it. The issue here is that the previous monopoly (BT) charge ISPs in a bizzar way. When ISPs get connected to the BT network the only cost to BT is the man power and connection equipment. Once it is set up it is effectively cost free but for the ISP the cost is just starting as they are charged for every packet of data that passes through that connection.

This increase in bandwidth usage is not so sudden and should have been easily predictable by the ISPs but they have been caught with their pants down. What they should have been doing is investing heavily in scalable solutions so that as the demand increased so could they. Woops no – they are worried that if you use what you paid for they will go bust.

What ISPs see as an answer is called “traffic shaping” – they throttle the bandwidth so that the connection speed might be 7.5 Mbps but your effective speed is sometimes likely to be more like 0.4 Mbps. When it comes to peer-to-peer they get even more aggressive and attempt to block your use of such services (such as peer-to-peer services iPlayer or BitTorrent) using a range of techniques that can include data fraud and spying. Some ISPs may actually “spy” on every packet of data you transmit through their network and when they see peer-to-peer packets they inject extra data into the steam as it passes through which is a “reset signal” that disconnects you from peers.

This inspection is not so different to automated wiretapping and definitely threatens your privacy. This may or maynot be against the law but this has never been tested. One answer is to use an encrypted connection whenever you can but not all sites have https support and not all peer-to-peer clients support it but as the ISPs get more aggressive in not giving you what they promise so to the users are getting smarter.

This is not an issue that is going to go away and without strong calls for increased transparency over the methods used to “shape traffic” ISPs will do whatever they like. Where does this leave us?

Well… it leaves us asking more questions and seeing few answers. I’m going to quiz Bob as he has stepped up to join in so keep an eye on me here and else where as the answers start to arrive (or fail to).

Sheer Incompetence

20 Nov

The personal details of 25 million people have been lost by the Revenue and Customs department. Those numbers include almost every child in the country, along with the bank details and national insurance numbers of their parents. And this government seriously expect us to trust them with our data when they launch their id card scheme!

Prostitution: Is legalisation the answer?

4 Feb

The media coverage of the terrible murders of young women who worked as prostitutes in Ipswich has brought the issue of how to deal with prostitution back into the public arena. Not surprisingly, calls for it’s legalisation* have been made, or alternatively, tolerance zones, in which women (or men) could work with some degree of protection both from prosecution and the threat of assault or worse. While I can understand why these ideas seem to have some merit, I think those who support them are missing a very important point. If we legalise, or turn a blind eye to prostitution, we are in effect, legitimising the exploitation of vulnerable people, and effectively locking them into a cycle which, in all too many cases, will lead to them suffering an early death along with a great deal of misery on the way.

There is a widely believed myth that women who work in the so called ‘sex industry’ are either hard up mums who need to earn enough to feed their families, or do so because they are sexually liberated and enjoy their work. Neither of these stereotypes is true. Between 95 and 97% of prostitutes are working to support a drug habit. Of the remaining 3 – 5% many are women who have been illegally trafficked into this country and forced to sell their bodies. Others are the victims of violent partners who pimp them to the highest bidder. By lending an air of legitimacy to the trade we would not be helping it’s victims at all. We would simply be making it easier for men (and it usually is men who are the pimps regardless of the gender of the prostitute) to exploit them.

Tolerance zones and legalised brothels are not the answer. In order to work in such a place a woman/man would need to be both over the age of legal consent, and healthy. Many prostitutes would fail in one or both categories. Sadly, there is a market for under-age girls and boys, and legalisation would do nothing to protect young runaways who find themselves first addicted to drugs, and then forced out onto the streets by older people who initially claimed they wished to help them. The same is true of those who are HIV+, they would end up on the fringes, with even less protection than they now have, selling themselves even more cheaply because they are proven to be ‘damaged goods’.

Prostitution may be the oldest profession, but that does not mean it is an acceptable one. Not because of any kind of morality, but because it is something people only do out of sheer desperation. If the only people who did this kind of work did so through choice and a desire to provide a service, then it would be perfectly acceptable – it is not up to me to tell anyone how they should earn a living – however, those people are very, very few, and far between. Lets face it, ask any ten year what they want to be when they grow up, and I’m pretty sure a drug addict and prostitute won’t be responses you will hear.

Most prostitutes are in that situation because they feel they have no other choice, and if we really wish to help them we need to give them an alternative. Drug treatment programmes, safe havens for those fearing violence, education and training would be of far more use, especially when coupled with much tougher treatment of the real problem – those who choose to exploit others. We no longer allow small children to work 12 hour days in factories, and anyone found to be administering such a practice would, rightly, be imprisoned and become a social pariah. Yet, we have a situation where vulnerable young people are being exploited for profit, ruining both their own lives and those of their families, and some people say we should legalise this.

* Technically, prostitution is legal, it is soliciting which is against the law.

Age Discrimination – Financial Insanity

18 Aug

Earlier this week The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) warned that a shortfall in the numbers of graduates with science and technology qualifications was creating a skills shortage and forcing employers to look overseas for suitable candidates. At the same time a growing number of older people are complaining that they have suffered the effects of age discrimination. It doesn’t take a genius to see the first problem could be solved by the employment of people suffering from the second.

Age discrimination is still rife, and unregulated against. However, a new law is set to be introduced in October, which may at least begin to tackle the problem. Although, older workers are those most commonly discriminated against, under 25s can also be affected, and it is not unusual for a recent school leaver or graduate to be told that whilst they may have relevant qualifications they lack experience and are therefore not worthy of employment. Older people who have both qualifications and experience are often turned down for different reasons. The more qualified and experienced a worker is, the more they can reasonably expect to be paid, business owners want to keep costs down, so prefer to employ someone less costly. I believe that this is partly the reason for the skills shortage the CBI have highlighted.

There may be fewer people studying science and technology subjects, but, there are still plenty of people with relevant skills who would be happy to make up any shortfall while a new generation can be trained. However, these people have years of experience, are often highly professional and respected, and are therefore worthy of a salary to match their experience and professional standing. It is cheaper to import people. If you are watching a profit margin, the choice is pretty simple, but it is a short-sighted one.

Cheaper overseas workers may fill a temporary gap, but this can’t be a long term solution. At a time when we are being told that we must work for longer, the idea that anyone over 45 is going to become steadily less and less employable is worrying. As a population we are living longer, we have children (who need supporting) later, it does not make economic sense to throw a whole generation on the scrap heap when they are still valuable and productive. These people will need to have some kind of financial support, many won’t have been working long enough to have built up a pension that is capable of providing for them adequately. So, they will turn to the benefits system, this will in turn lead to a rise in taxes which will cost business owners more.

Anti-age discrimination legislation is not going to change perceptions, or bring about any kind of improvement overnight but, hopefully it will have a positive effect over time, in the same way that laws to prohibit race and gender discrimination did not really achieve much in the short term, but did create a long term sea change in attitudes. This long overdue measure is both necessary and hugely important to us all. We will all get older, and like it or not, we are going to have to work for longer than our parents and grand-parents did. Unless we want to spend several decades of our lives living in relative poverty, we need to be confident that the judgements about our suitability to do our job are based on ability not the date on our birth certificate.

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