Cyberlaw & Lessig in Edinburgh

I can’t believe I didn’t blog about this when I first heard about it last week. Anyway, this weekend, Edinburgh is hosting a talk – Cyberlaw: who controls access to ideas on the net?, as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival – Saturday 2nd, at the Royal Museum at 4pm; tickets should be bought in advance. I’ll be going. So will Lawrence Lessig, though he’s actually speaking, along with Bill Thompson, and Andres Guadamuz, who contributes to Creative Commons Scotland; I had the pleasure of a couple of lectures from him this term as part of my course.

Plenty more interesting-looking talks are on during the festival… annoyingly, things like essays and my birthday are cropping up in the way.

Jamie Oliver to the rescue

The news that Jamie Oliver’s programmes on school dinners have made the government increase funding for school foods is great; ?280m extra will be spent over the next few years, but do note this only brings up the daily budget to 50-60p per pupil for primary schools, which still isn’t that much (the French spend ?1.70 a head, or about ?1.20). And ingredients aren’t just the only thing that need to be changed; the deregulation of school meals provision and the introduction of private contractors means that cooking equipment has been discarded and the de-skilling of schools catering staff. ?60m is earmarked for spending on improving the skills and infrastructure, but that will go pretty thinly when divided over all the schools in England over three years. With admirable gall, the government still insists the suppliers are the best regulators; there is little in the way of actual tougher regulation (merely a “School Food Trust” that would be able to make recommendations). There’s nothing in this plan to stop the outsourcing companies to continue to provide crap food and pocket all the extra money, especially after the media fuss about this subject dies away.

Also, and more importantly, why has it taken a celebrity chef (though no disrespect to Jamie Oliver, who I’ve a lot of admiration for, especially after this project) and a Channel 4 series to get any action to come along? Shitty food in schools has been an acknowledged problem for some time and no-one does anything about it until this series came along. A similar state of affairs often occurs with hospital food – yet the authorities are still obsessed with “choice” rather than nutrition and the quality of food. Alas, no series dedicated to bettering food for our sick and needy has arrived on our screens yet (the singular Dispatches report notwithstanding), and no celebrity chef has yet come to its aid. While Jamie Oliver’s done great things with school food, we can’t expect him to do everything for us.

Making plagiarism public

The story of Laura K. Pahl: A tech-savvy comedy writer, Nate Kushner, gets a strange IM asking him to write an essay for him from an undergraduate, in exchange for money. Comedian agrees, puts together shitty essay cribbed from various sources, sends it on (after putting the victim through various tortures to prove she will pay), then informs the college president, and all and sundry on his blog.

Resulting discussions have managed to paint Kushner as a vigilante, slanderer and possible fraudster – all of which are wrong (exposing someone’s wrongs is not vigilantism, there was nothing false about his allegations (AFAIK), and even if he cashes the cheque I doubt it is really fraud). At worst, he’s a grass, and a smug one at that. The excessive triumphalism of his blog post is inclining me toward the view that Kushner is, well, a bit of a tool in real life, but I am struggling to sympathise with Pahl; she actively asked for someone to write an essay and waved cash at him. Although the widespread publicity about her crime could well ruin her life, that’s tough luck. Don’t fuck about if you can’t live with the possible consequences.

I once got asked to do the same sort of thing. A friend of a friend emailed me asking me whether I could take the mathematical aptitude test for some company’s (I forget which, but it was a banking firm) application process (which was online*). Money wasn’t directly mentioned but it was implicit that some sort of recompense was in the offing. Although the thought of taking up the offer in exchange for him tithing 5% of his future earnings (gross) was tempting, I decided I really wouldn’t live with myself, and declined. Naming and shaming didn’t really cross my mind. Should have I done so? I didn’t, mainly because the wronged party was the bank, and banks rarely deserve any sort of kindness or charity.

In this case though, the wronged party are her fellow honest students. Should he have reported it to the president of her college? Definitely, for the students’ sake the college should informed; the MeFi posters screeching “snitch” should all fuck off. Should he have posted it on his blog and made it known to the public? Despite the breach of privacy, I’m erring on the side of yes. Because although it is a form of public humiliation, it’s only humiliation because she actually did do wrong. This isn’t the mob pursuing and burning an innocent at the stake here; all that was done is that her crime is being made known (although he could have done it a little less snarkily). She deserves all the scorn she gets.

* Which made me think – how well can companies check for that sort of thing? For all I know there could be some digital sweatshop out there where bright but poor students are made to do rich kids’ online aptitude tests.

Warwick Uni goes blogging

As Tom Coates says, the design of the publicity material for Warwick University’s blogging project is really cool and nice looking… “but only if you’re already a blogger” was my initial opinion. The colours and crisp sans serif letters are quite reminiscent of the iPod campaigns, but also predominantly texty (posters excepted), and well, a bit too geeky to be mainstream, I thought.

Still, it looks like I was wrong. The project has had a balanced take-up – the number of sociologists blogging is nearly that of computer scientists, which is encouraging. As for the quality of blogs – they range from the puerile to the informative. So just like the rest of the blogosphere then. :-)

In all the project looks well-thought out and well-planned – it aimed to be as accessible and usable as possible; not just a question of offering the technology and hoping for the best, but also making sure awareness of the project has reached as many potential bloggers as possible. Other institutions (not just universities – how about political or corporate ones?) wishing to exploit blogging could learn a lot from it.

Postal perils

A few days ago I linklogged (a now dead) Indie article on the perils of the postal vote. Now there’s a Guardian article on the same topic. Several criminal investigations have taken place already; with applications to vote by post tripling in some constituencies, there are fears the upcoming election will be subject to widespread rigging.

This is the fault of Labour’s reforms to the electoral system, the Representation of the People Act 2000, extending the right to vote from those simply unable because of mobility or residence, to anyone who wanted to; Labour’s mantra of choice and the citizen as consumer extended to the most precious foundation of democracy, the vote. The vote is now reduced to something to scribble on and give to the postman; as meaningless as another bill or mail order form.

Why should the vote be so easy to get hold of in the first place? In my view, if you can’t find the time to go down the polling station (which is open all day till 10pm, let’s not forget) on polling day when you’re perfectly capable of doing so, you don’t really deserve to cast a vote in the first place. Given the number of people who have fought and died for the vote the world over, sacrificing twenty minutes of your time, on one day every four years, to cast your vote is a small price to pay for continuing to live in a democracy.

Incidentally, there is a hint of racial politics in this; the suggestion is that the heads of Asian families may, through postal voting, control the votes for all the family members. Treading lightly so as not to offend would be a mistake; our duty is to make sure that everyone who is eligible to vote can do so without being coerced by others. Rather than being sensitive to the views of ethnic minorities, ignoring the problem serves only to disenfranchise them.

Postal voting will never be secure; its very nature means derogating the monitoring of the vote away from the polling station to the home; in computing terms, authentication – i.e. that a vote is actually from who it says its from – is given entirely to the owner of the sending domain rather than the receiving one. The lesson from the computing world is that this leads to abuses of the system like spam and phishing. The political world has refused to take lessons from the mistakes of others, alas. Only by removing the postal vote for all but the infirm or absent is going to remove the potential for malice – proponents of the postal vote will moan about low turnout, but I’d take a lower turnout over a fraudulent election any day.