Cosmography Technology

The Database Is Your Enemy


Nothing to do with the tale, I’m just a complete sucker for this sort of whimsical craziness. Click for more.

It has been an eventful week, but finally I’m registered for college! I know I announced it yesterday, but there was in fact a small hitch. I applied through the Postgraduate Applications Centre, which creates a student ID for you. However, I’m a graduate of the college I’m applying to – albeit more than twenty years ago – and so have an ID from then. Somehow it seems the two met head-on, creating a database SNAFU. I was two people at once, so therefore I was neither.

An ironic introduction, you may agree, to a course in Information Systems Management.

This wasn’t the only database buggery that happened to me either. As you may recall, I crashed a car this week too. On the day it happened I called my insurance’s breakdown recovery service. They explained to me that a collision with a tree is no longer a breakdown, even if it was caused by one, but they could send a recovery truck anyway and take it to a place of safety where damage could be assessed. As I was at my mother’s house at this point, and the wreck was off the public road, I had the truck pick me up so I could show him where to go.

The next day though when I phoned the insurance they said the vehicle had been removed by someone else. Apparently I’d cancelled it. I assured them that was wrong and they said they’d look into it.

I wouldn’t have worried at all about that, except for a strange coincidence. When the breakdown truck had pulled in to pick me up, there had been another one right behind it.

So there are rogue breakdown trucks listening in on the radio frequencies, patrolling the roads for accidents  and stealing wrecked cars? It’s a nightmare vision. Nothing to do with reality of course, but a nightmare vision. Turned out it was just a cock-up of course. Maybe my car has two IDs as well.



Our Special, Dysfunctional Relationship With China

We send them money, they send us more or less everything. Simple.

Actually there’s a lot more to it than that. It may seem that our money is going there never to return (except in the form of loans and – perhaps – investments), but China’s increasing wealth is little more than a side-effect of the highly integrated role that it now plays in the world economy. China is a machine for transferring wealth all right, but while some of it goes to the rich in China and some even goes to the poor there, most of it flows from our poor to our rich, here in the West. It’s the great money pump. As such it plays a very useful role in the destruction of democracy, by democracy.

Think back to those far-gone days when Capitalism seemed to actually work. Owners of businesses would employ people who would then be able to buy things from businesses. It was a two-way street and it worked well enough. The owners arguably got more than their fair share and working conditions were downright dangerous in the early days, but overall it was a benign circle where people saw their incomes rise.

It began to fail only when everyone, more or less, had a job. This meant that the labour supply was no longer an endless resource, and that very much strengthened the position of the “working class” in their campaign for a bigger share. Labour was still a renewable resource though, so at this point things might conceivably have reached an equilibrium. But capitalism is driven not by profit, as you might assume, but by increasing profit. Its most powerful members after all are not those who create wealth, but those who have it already. Investment will go not to what might make a sustainable economy or society, but to whatever can return the biggest immediate margin.

And one of those things was China, where labour seems again to be in infinite supply and working conditions can be just as dangerous as the good old days. Now instead of paying people in their own countries, businesses can pay people in China to make things to sell to the people of their countries. As owners of the patents, the brand names, the “intellectual property”, they still get the lion’s share of the profit from these Chinese-made goods. The transfer of wealth thus becomes a one-way street, from the poorer to the richer in our society, with China merely taking a commission as agent.

Most people in the West are still employed of course, but more and more they’re employed in secondary jobs that have little control over the production of actual saleable goods. I don’t think government is ever going to be brought to its knees by a mass stoppage of supermarket managers or Web designers. Robbed of this bargaining chip, people’s incomes are falling in real terms. It’s just that we don’t notice because the cost of many goods is rapidly falling too – thanks to them being made in China. It’s the tasks we cannot effectively outsource – health and education for example – that show how the real wealth of our society is decreasing.

Thanks to China. the rich no longer really need the rest of us as much as they once did. Which explains why the wealth gap is rapidly increasing. So China does turn out to be a threat to democracy, if not in a way that anyone expected back in the Red-Scare 50s. My question is this: If we encourage Chinese investment here, will it help us focus on finding solutions to this very dysfunctional relationship – or will it simply buy our silence?

Politics Technology

Don’t Trust The Data Protection Commission

A printed circuit board inside a mobile phone
Can't find any messages here

It’s extremely worrying when the national Data Protection Commission doesn’t seem to understand the basics of phone security. Moving swiftly to unbolt a horse, they have found a way to protect us against the News Of The World: Asking phone networks to turn off remote access to voice messages.

But remote access itself was never the problem, it was access using a default PIN such as 1234. The existence of this useless PIN gave an impression of security, while providing absolutely none – surely the worst possible combination.

And the misunderstanding goes even deeper than that. To quote from the above article:

Deputy Commissioner Gary Davis confirmed his office had been in touch with the providers since the details emerged last week.

“Who does it serve to be able to access the messages left on your mobile phone?” he asked.

The messages are not on your phone. They are held by the network. So this service is useful when your phone is lost, stolen, left behind or simply turned off. You can use another phone to access the messages left by people trying to call you. It’s the kind of service that will not come in useful very often, but once in a while could be a complete life-saver.

The obvious solution, and the one the Data Protection Commission possibly should consider, is to not allow remote access unless a real PIN has been set, so that strangers can’t access it but you can. That would be all you needed to do to allow us to enjoy the service while protecting everyone against the predations of tabloid journalists.

But that’s the thing. Do we all need protection against the predations of tabloid journalists? I don’t really think we want to start living our lives as if we do. I haven’t set a PIN on my voicemail. You can access my voice messages any time you like. You will find that they are so boring that, frankly, I never listen to them myself. (Really, it’s much better to call me back.)

Don’t turn remote access off by default. I am never going to think to turn it on just in case. So when the day comes that I do need it urgently, I’ll have to call up the phone company to request the service using someone else’s number, and they’ll have to establish my identity over the phone, which will mean they’ll have to ask me for another PIN, which I also haven’t set up…

And all this to prevent papers doing something that’s illegal anyway? Fine them, jail them. Don’t protect me with bars.