Boll.ocks.ed up

Hmph. Bloglines and have had a falling out, and now Bloglines isn’t displaying RSS feeds from any of the many many linklogs I read – there’s just a little red ! next to all of them. Which is a bit of a pisser really (and is why my own linklog has been updated so little). I’ve gone over to using’s networking facility to aggregate my linklogs as a temporary measure until Bloglines works out how to read feeds again, but this isn’t really the best of solutions. Anyone else had the same problem? Can anyone else recommend a better web-based feedreader?

The Smithy code

The Smithy Code sounds like a bit of a fun thing; Peter Smith, the judge who pronounced on the Da Vinci Code case has embedded a coded message in his judgement, by setting some of the letters within to be italic. The cyphertext in full is:


(This is what has been on other blogs and forums – I grepped the Google HTML translation of the text to make sure). The capital J almost certainly marks out the beginning of the cyphertext; the letters preceding it are a signifier of the cypher to use, but they could possibly the key. It’s definitely not a shift cypher (I’ve tried all 25 combinations). Justice Smith has dropped several hints – including that methods in the books concerned (The Da Vinci Code and Holy Blood, Holy Grail) have been used – it could be a simple substitution cypher (the phrase is too short for frequency analysis) or a Vigen?re cypher (the fact the pair “mq” appears twice, eight letters apart, is a possible indicator of an eight-letter key? Probably not…). I’ve tried various keywords with a Vigen?re decoder (DAVINCI, LEONARDO etc.) but with little joy. He also mentions “mathematics” – maybe there is a possible link with the Fibonacci sequence here (which features heavily in Brown’s book), but I can’t quite see how.

Not going to spend all night working on this – though as far as I know no-one has cracked it yet (although a Guardian blog commenter claims to have done so, he only gives the plaintext and not the cypher or key, so I’m inclined to believe it’s bollocks). If anyone has any suggestions to make, they’re more than welcome…

Going down

Tony Blair, in today’s Observer:

I would widen the police powers to seize the cash of suspected drug dealers, the cars they drive round in, and require them to prove they came by them, lawfully. I would impose restrictions on those suspected of being involved in organised crime. In fact, I would generally harry, hassle and hound them until they give up or leave the country.

Note the word suspected. Not convicted. So much for innocence. I wonder if the new shiny police powers will be used against, say, this man, who is suspected of money laundering. From what the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman had to say, on March 1, the intention is clear:

Asked repeatedly if the Prime Minister believed Tessa Jowell’s assertion that the money had not come from Prime Minister Berlusconi, the PMOS said that answering the question would mean him getting drawn into the Italian investigation which he was obviously unable to do. He reminded journalists of the importance of keeping the two issues he had outlined earlier separate. He underlined the fact that, in this country, it was important for us to observe the same standards of justice in relation to a foreign case as we would expect in a domestic case. That meant maintaining the tradition that someone was innocent unless proven guilty.

You’re a suspect. My mate is innocent. Remember that difference.

Of course, there’s another case of allegedly nefarious behaviour doing the rounds, but luckily in this case there is no need for the police to seize the funds in question; the creditors are doing that job instead:

Two businessmen have demanded immediate repayment of their secret loans to Labour, threatening financial crisis for the party. The formal demands, for a sum totalling at least ?1.5m, will necessitate a fire sale of the party?s London headquarters to pay the debts.

The more it goes on, the more it seems the Labour Party is like an amalgam of every badly-run football club in history. The story fits so neatly: A long-supported but flagging institution is taken over by a flash individual who promises brighter times ahead for all. Initially, all looks well – though fans have reservations over the change in the team’s colours, there are some new signings, they start winning again. As time creeps by though, the honeymoon fades and the early achievements are soon forgotten in favour of more regrettable ones. The chairman comes to dominate the club, taking personal control of every part of its business. Unpopular decisions alienate the fans; he takes their support for given without ever considering their views; when a few start to protest, he responds by adding electric fences to the stands. With attendances low, he ramps up the prices and tries wooing the rich to use the executive boxes, or by setting up sponsorship deals with anyone, regardless of ethics. More fans desert the club; some even set up their own new clubs in response. Meanwhile, temporarily bolstered by the injection of new cash, the chairman wastes it on ridiculous signings that do nothing to help the club’s long-term future or assuage its now serious debt problem.

Labour have now reached the “mortgaging the club’s ground on future gate receipts, as the creditors start knocking on the door” stage; something which usually coincides with relegation and calling in the administrators, or alternatively, touting the club around wealthy Russian benefactors. Or, in a few heartening circumstances, the club is taken back by its supporters; it realises the dichotomy between success and its principles is a false one, sorts its finances out with a long-term sustainable plan, and starts anew; winning things while regarding its support base as a valuable asset that should be nurtured, not a resource to be plundered. But that depends on the supporters realising that the long-term problems afflicting them will not go away until they form a viable alternative, and them coming to terms with the fact that going along with the current guy in charge is only going to lead to further misery.

One stop short of Barking

As if the BNP weren’t notorious enough, they’ve been given a thorough parading over the Easter break. First Margaret Hodge claims that Labour has failed the white working class, and then a couple of days later a report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said that 24% of Londoners have considered voting BNP.

Contrary to what some have said, this isn’t scaremongering, although the press did blow it out of proportion. Yes, 24% considered voting BNP, but as this analysis of the Rowntree report says, the corresponding figure for Labour, Conservative and Lib Dems are near 50% for each. It’s just consideration, not action at the ballot box; there is as much chance of 24% of Londoners voting BNP as there are of any of the big three parties getting 50%.

However, results averaged over all of London can mask problems in certain areas. 17% of voters in Hodge’s seat of Barking & Dagenham (down the road from where I live) actually chose BNP at the last general election, and Labour have done nothing (up until a week ago) to stop the rot; I fully expect the BNP to make gains this time round. To say it is just scaremongering is to further ignore a long-ignored malaise; a significant minority of those who will turn up to vote will be dissatisfied enough to vote BNP this election.

Hodge does, to be fair to her, make at least some headway. She isn’t, as some have unfairly labelled, just saying “a vote against Labour is a vote for fascism” but does try at least to appreciate that Labour has failed its core vote, the very people the party was meant to represent and help. Unfortunately, having done that, she goes on to make a complete hash of it.

How so? Firstly, because she plays right into the hands of the BNP by saying the issue is all about race. When it isn’t. Race is a factor (and not to be confused with immigration, another mistake she makes, particularly as much recent immigration into East London has been that of white Europeans) but it is not the only one. Labour have not just let down the white working class, but the working class as a whole. It wasn’t just white workers who got fired from the Ford Dagenham plant (the biggest but by no means the only industrial employer in the region), but black and Asian workers as well. It wasn’t just local white people who have been denied the opportunity to fully benefit from the enormous investment in Docklands while local industry was decimated, but all of them; sure, “trickle down” economics have helped keep the local construction and support service sectors going, but without local people themselves being able to work in the best-paid and most rewarding jobs in Docklands, all they see is middle-class people from elsewhere moving in and driving property prices up. True, the redevelopment of Docklands was a Conservative measure, but now Labour are set to repeat the same mistake again with the 2012 Olympics – lots of infrastructure and capital investment but strangely silent on human investment.

Toss that in with the usual problems – Labour’s muddling reforms of schools and hospitals which have produced few tangible benefits and the eternal spectre of crime and social deprivation, and you have considerable resentment. The BNP aren’t the only party out there who know how to exploit this; RESPECT have done the same for the Muslim communities in inner East London. Sure enough, the party was founded on opposition to the Iraq war and other foreign misadventures but they know that to gain local sympathy they have to exploit residents’ dissent about local issues and the inequality gap as much as possible (for example, their opposition to Crossrail, opposed not just because of the disruption but the disproportionate benefit to non-locals). As I noted after the general election last year, the whole region is now becoming caught between smaller parties at each end of the spectrum, whose roots lie in extremism and reactionary opposition to the government of the day.

Which leads onto Hodge’s second mistake. Namely, that people are necessarily going to express this anger at the ballot box. When in actual case many will just stay away; with a choice between a Labour party that doesn’t care and swivel-eyed extremists, I find it hard to drag myself to the ballot box. The turnout for the Borough of Barking & Dagenham in the 1998 local elections was 25.4% and in 2002 dropped to 22.76%; at the 2005 general elections turnout in Barking was 50.1% (which made it 606th out of 646 constituencies) and 51.3% in Dagenham (591st). Local people may be angry but by and large they are not stupid. The most natural consequence of cynicism and weariness is not retribution and adopting extremists, but sheer apathy.

The third, and biggest, mistake is only raising and recognising the issue at election time. The problems that afflict the local area have been going on for years. It’s not just restricted to Barking & Dagenham either; plenty of seats in the capital and in the North suffer the same problem, though few are occupied by a current government minister and so don’t garner the same attention. If Margaret Hodge (and Labour) really cared about the situation or the people they represent, they’d realise that it doesn’t begin and end with the ballot box; the vote is a mere symptom of a failure, both of the Labour party and more generally, of the highly centralised government they have created.

But they don’t realise this, and as a result a great deal of people will be shafted. The extremists at both ends will gain votes and council seats at the local elections, skewing the community into ethnic/religious subdivisions that they define, deigning to speak on behalf on the rest of us. In reality, turnout will be abysmally low yet again; a silent majority who oppose Labour but do not wish to be associated with either the BNP or RESPECT will find themselves caught in the void between the two. With their voice unheard, the Labour leadership (and that of the other two major parties – they’ve deserted the inner-urban vote too) will spend literally minutes wallowing in self-introspection and “isn’t it terrible?”, while tacitly breathing a sigh of relief that the low turnout and lack of credible opposition saved them from a bigger hiding. They’ll soon forget it ever happened and stop worrying about the relevant problems, until another round of elections arrives in a year’s time and forces them to pay brief attention again. Meanwhile, the people of East London (and many other poor areas in the country) will still be left in the same state they were before May 4th: uncared-for as well as unrepresented.

Update: Apologies, I forgot that although Barking & Dagenham is a single London borough, in Parliament it is represented by the two separate seats of Barking (which Hodge represents) and Dagenham (represented by Jon Cruddas, who co-authored the Joseph Rowntree report).

Further update: My copyediting of this post was abysmal, apologies. I’ve made lots of little tweaks and clarifications here and there which hopefully make the point a bit clearer.

Lies, damned lies and Wikipedia

The story of Alan Mcilwraith is an intriguing one – a call-centre operative from Glasgow who claimed to friends and colleagues that he had served in the SAS, been decorated and, get this, been knighted – all by the age of 29! It’s intriguing for several reasons – quite apart from the reasons of why he lived this intricately constructed fantasy life (I am no psychologist), it was curious to see how easy it was for him to pass it off. Not just that he got the various paraphernalia with great ease (he apparently got his uniform and medals from eBay but they’re also available at surplus stores, antique collectors etc.) but how it took so long for anyone to fully question his facade.

It wasn’t very hard to rumble him – as well as having a surprisingly scrawny physique for an army “hero”, he made a huge number of elementary mistakes and was repeatedly self-contradictory; he said he had gone to university aged 16; he had claimed he had a CBE (which doesn’t mean you can call yourself “Sir”) before switching to KBE. He claimed he had served both in the SAS and the Paratroop Regiment but wore the uniform of a totally different regiment, and said that he had been knighted by Prince Andrew rather than the Queen or Prince Charles. Most of all – just what was a decorated officer and knight of the realm now doing working in a call centre? Apparently he’s been at it for three years, and yet it’s only been now that he was rumbled.

Many of the newspapers make much of the fact he had a Wikipedia entry listing much of these hoax achievements, providing a concession that “his entry on Wikipedia has now been removed”. This is now actually false (the article was resurrected on April 12th following his exposure, and now details the hoax), but in any case was highly misleading; the hoax article had been removed long before the story broke. As this excellent account details, the original article had been added on October 5th 2005, but was flagged as a suspected hoax on the 10th and deleted on the 26th following a vote. It was resurrected a couple of times in the time since but was quickly redeleted both times. So Wikipedia, for all its faults, had managed to work out he was a charlatan a good six months before the rest of the world (and those that had met him) had caught up.

In a similar case about earlier this year, an American man, Joshua Gardner, had adopted the persona of the “Duke of Cleveland”, adding false information to Wikipedia and attempted to join a school in Minnesota. After a bit of online sleuthing (and aided by the fact that he had mistakenly included his real name in his false Wikipedia entry), his fellow students found out that Gardner was actually a registered sex offender. The teachers and principal at the school had quite easily been taken in – had it not been for those pesky kids, he could have well been enrolled fully without any question.

What is it that makes people fall for amazing whoppers? Is the “Big Lie” concept – people thinking “no-one would dare make this kind of shit up”? I’m not sure – it’s too easy an explanation for people’s sense of (in)credulity. There must be more to a lie than it being “Big” for it to be believable. An attention to detail maybe, or a back-story that is hard to check out, but in both cases the details were flawed and simple to check, especially in a Google-enabled age. Maybe it’s the topic – in both cases they had something to do with the British honours system (partly in Mcilraith’s case); if it’s a topic that most people are initially unfamiliar with or indifferent to, they may be unwilling to pursue or check it, even if they have the ability to do so. Or maybe it’s because people want to believe the lie, no matter how outrageous, which raises questions about the motives of Mcilwraith’s acquaintances and Gardner’s schoolteachers.

Oops, I said I wouldn’t start on psychology at the start of this post. So I won’t go any further. As a postscript, these are two examples of when Wikipedia’s own internal processes have worked quite well; there are many cases when it hasn’t. Jason Scott’s “The Great Failure of Wikipedia” highlights some of the cases when it hasn’t, though the arguments around them aren’t satisfying; confused conclusions and ad hominems apart, the central point seems to be that the “wrong” decisions sometimes get made by the “wrong” people. But this could be said of any form of social organisation, to certain degrees, and Scott is too busy in his wiki-bashing to come by any sort of alternative.

Drink, drink, drink, and be ill tonight

A meme from Ben. Take your date of birth from Wikipedia and tell us what happened on that day. So, on my birthday:




The day in question? Why, it’s April 16. Which is today. :-) Although as it’s Easter, I will be spending much of this afternoon waiting around in an airport, as is British tradition for this time of year. No cake and candles for me, alas. To anyone else whose birthday it is today, I wish you a Happy Birthday. For the rest of you, have a Happy Easter.

* You see, I was going to moan about unfortunate my birthday being on Easter Sunday is, as nowhere is open and everyone’s away on holiday. But then I found out it’s the Pope’s birthday, and he has it a lot worse – he’s got to go to work today.