Homophonic spree

There’ve been some radio adverts recently* for need2know.co.uk starring Tom Baker, a website about, er, stuff (despite visiting it I haven’t much idea what it’s meant to be for). As well as noting “that’s ripping off NTK‘s name, surely?”, I’ve also thought “that URL is a bitch to advertise on radio, as you have to tell people it’s a number ‘2’, else they end up here instead”.

Then on further reflection, I realised it was worse than I thought. After all, ‘2’ could not just be misinterpreted as ‘to’, but also ‘too’ and ‘two’. Similarly, ‘need’ could be ‘knead’ and ‘know’ could be ‘no’ as well – so there are 16 different ways of deciphering those words upon hearing them. So, a big ‘well done’ on whoever came up with the idea advertising one of the most homophone-laden URLs possible on the radio.

On a related note – McSweeney’s list of e-mail addresses it would be really annoying to give out over the phone.

* I say ‘recently’, I’ve only started re-listening to radio this week after buying a nice shiny digital radio.


I’ve had a complaint that I don’t blog as much as I used to, and this is true. However, I do still read plenty of the web but don’t have as much time to talk about it as I should.
One of the reasons why I don’t blog so much is the painful redesign that I’m applying to the site, which is taking me longer than I expected, mainly as the more I work on it the more I realise a lot of it needs repairing – not just design but code and structure. Hopefully by this time next week the new site will be actually up and running. :-)

In the meantime, I have started experimenting with del.icio.us, the easy-peasy bookmarks manager, and I’ve already wondered how I’d got along without it before. I post a few links every day, usually with a snarky one-line comment. Hopefully for some of you they’ll work as a replacement for genuine writing in the meantime. The site redesign will properly include the linklog as part of the page, but I can’t be bothered to incorporate them into the current design. Hopefully this’ll do as a stopgap.

The case of the tsunami “hacker”

The case of the tsunami “hacker” is a curious one. According to BoingBoing, he allegedly used a non-standard web browser such as Lynx, to access the DEC tsunami appeal website, and this was flagged as illegal activity (specifically, “unauthorised access”).

This case raises interesting questions on computer crime and accessibility, and I have a number of questions about it, though I’ll leave any discussion till after the case has concluded. The accused entered a plea of ‘not guilty’ last Friday, but still there are no details available, probably not until the actual trial starts in April.

Why tactical voting is rubbish

New Labour has a whopping majority in the House of Commons – despite getting only 40.7% of the national vote in 2001, they got 413 seats (or 62.7% of the House). The disproportionality the first-past-the-post system lends to the resulting balance of power is not exactly news, but until recently the only solution has been to complain and advocate PR – and what Government is going to introduce a system to supplant the one that got them into power in the first place?

So – Internet to the rescue! The 1997 and 2001 elections saw the rise of tactical voting websites. Now, with a sizeable minority of the liberal left dissatisfied with New Labour (and more specifically, Tony Blair), there is extra impetus to giving them a bloody nose at the next election.

The result is a plethora of tactical voting sites – Strategic Voter, So Now Who Do We Vote For?, Backing Blair, all out to register a protest vote against Labour.

The problem with so many sites is that the message differs – for my old hometown of Cambridge (Edinburgh, like the rest of Scotland, has lots of boundary changes so making a call here is nigh-on impossible) – Strategic Voter says it’s a marginal seat so vote Lib Dem, while Backing Blair says its unlikely to make a difference. Both sites suffer the fatal flaw in their databases that the sitting MP, Anne Campbell, opposed the Iraq war and quit herGovernment post, so an anti-war vote to unseat her would be misguided.

At the very least, more complex data are needed for intelligent decisions to be made (none of the sites seem to make use of what’s available elsewhere – marrying their location data with data from publicwhip on issues like Iraq would be a good start).

But merely past performance isn’t really enough. Very little thought has been given on what happens after the election – what will happen to this Labour party after the election, with its reduced majority. The makeup of the parliamentary power has a heavy influence on the leadership election for Blair’s successor, so shouldn’t anti-Blair campaigners focus on voting out Blairite Labour MPs, rather than all Blairites? Of course, whether an MP is Blairite or not is not a simple judgement, you could look at how rebellious or loyal an MP is, perhaps. A decision based purely on that data though would make Gordon Brown one of most Blairite MPs (he has not rebelled in this Parliament at all).

As well as possibly encouraging misinformed or underinformed decisions, the tactical voting sites lack much introspection. How did Labour get such a whopping majority in the first place? Not just because the Tories were hated, but they were so hated that many resorted to tactical voting, and sites like Tactical Vote to kick them out in 1997, and make them stay out in 2001.

I oppose first-past-the-post, with the disproportionate power it hands to the minority of the population who happen to be swing voters in marginal seats and thus, how it focuses the political agenda only on the issues that concern that minority. Tactical voting sites only try to solve the symptoms rather than the cause. In fact, all it does is allow another minority, the tech-savvy, to wield undue influence over the protest. The sites and their campaigns may succeed (on their terms) in the short term, but if you really want to make voting more representative in the long term, then you’re going to have to start thinking about reforming the system, rather than just trying to hack with it.

(Ta to Damian for some interesting chat on the subject earlier in the week, which inspired this post.)

Election Map update

Detail of Election Map appletRight, after the many helpful emails suggesting how to improve it, I made the best of an idle night in and updated the 2001 election map.

For starters, the architecture is more modular (the map data is now separate from the applet, which makes updating it easier). Biggest change of all is that you can now customise the view with the ‘Options’ dialog, so you can see one, two, or all of the big three parties’ share of the vote. Alternatively, there’s an option to view how SNP/Plaid Cymru are doing, and also how voter turnout varies across the country (mostly in inner cities, so it’s best to zoom in when using that option).

Have a play, and I promise that this is all done and I’ll get back to proper blogging soon. :-)

Let them eat Ikea

Jesus. An Ikea store opening in Edmonton leads to rioting and (reportedly) one man getting stabbed in the store’s car park.

Although part of the blame can be put on the store management for poor crowd control, this is not really the whole answer. Rather than fighting over essentials like food or water (or a loved one – to put this into perspective, read the story of Baby 81 in Sri Lanka, a tsunami survivor who is being claimed by several couples as their own child), this was people actively fighting over mere pine furniture and tasteful pastel-coloured upholstery. The rage on this woman’s face as she confronts some hapless Ikea staff is a frightening illustration of the emotion involved.

Depending on which political wing you’re on, this is either the latest illustration of the rise of rampant consumerism and selfish individuality, or a further sign of the steady decline of good manners and traditional British politeness. Taking it a little further though, David Lammy, the local MP, castigated Ikea for provoking people in a relatively poor area of London with the bargain prices. This reasoning makes me uncomfortable, not just for the implication that it is only poor people who will indulge in violent avarice, but also because of the uneasy parallels (or lack of them) with the Tottenham riots of 1985 – then the local people rioted against social exclusion and police persecution – while today they fight for a £45 sofa. While thankful that the riots of twenty years ago are a distant memory and unlikely to repeat themselves, I’d prefer the Daily Mail explanation that it was just sheer thuggishness, than the notion that people think the only thing worth fighting for these days is the acquisition of over-hyped, to the point of fetishised, consumer goods.