Oblique Strategies

Oblique Strategies iphone app by Viktor Kelemen

Oblique Strategies iphone app

Sometime in the ’80s I remember reading The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart. This was a novel where a man decides to give over all decision making in his life to the roll of a dice. This idea has found adherents and I’ve heard of real people attempting to live their lives in this way. I guess that the impetus is to knock one out of habitual behaviour. I recall going through a phase of carrying dice around though my dice based decision making never went much further than which boozer to drink in or whether to have a pint or a short.

Years later I  learned of similar ideas in psychology where one attempts to resolve problems around decision making by using techniques such as visualisation.

Yesterday I was browsing the web and came across the theme tune to the BBC TV program Arena which was aired in the 70s and 80s. This wonderful piece of music was reminiscent of an old album I have by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno and sure enough the Arena theme was composed by Eno and is entitled Another Green World.

The wikipedia entry states that Eno used his Oblique Strategies instruction cards for guidance during composition.

OBVIOUSLY, the next step was to figure out what Oblique Strategies cards are and, what may have taken me months in the 1980s, was accomplished in seconds. It seems that as long ago as 1975 Eno and Peter Schmidt created a set of cards each containing a “phrase or cryptic remark which can be used to break a deadlock or dilemma situation”. Examples being “Use an old idea”, “State the problem in words as clearly as possible” and “What would your closest friend do?”.

Eno is flogging these cards at £30 a set on his web site. While I would love a real set I found a cheaper and more portable version in the form of a free iPhone app by Viktor Kelemen. Or, if you’d like it on your PC or Mac there is a web based version by a guy named Josh Harrison.

It seems that version 5 of Oblique Strategies is now available and, while I have no evidence of the efficacy of Eno’s idea it should at least be preferable to rolling a dice to decide whether one should “..go downstairs and rape Eileen”.



Infosec / Internet World 2012



I was up at Infosec on Tuesday. This is an Information Security exhibition at Earl’s court exhibition centre in London. The usual stuff. Hundreds of stands with steely eyed salesmen waiting for you to catch their eye so they can start reciting all the words they’ve memorised but do not understand. These days the stands all look pretty much the same as they have very few physical products to sell. Instead they sell “services”. They try to convince you that they’ve been doing this for years and the way they do this is to hire lots of attractive women to hand out leaflets and to dress al their salesmen in black polo shirts. Black, you see, means that they look look like hard core techy gurus….at least in the delusional minds of the sales and marketing staff who apparently run the event. This is the nub of the matter. While it’s true that information risk is evolving along with the systems and processes to control risk, in reality, in 2012 it’s a fairly mature cycle. ISACA were there promoting COBIT 5 and this has been developed so far now that it lists one area as “Ensure benefit delivery”. If we had time to audit that sort of thing then there would be no need for Infosec 2012.

Most of the presentations were packed and there were long queues to enter. I attended a few including quite good one on Spear Phishing. A Phishing attack is where an attacker sends an Email with an attachment or link which, when the user clicks on it, initiates a connection to The Internet and downloads malware to the target computer. These work because they fool a legitimate member of staff to initiate the attack and, as the user is already logged in, the attack bypasses many of the controls normally in place. Spear Phishing appears to mean a targeted phishing attack. This was of interest to me as I consider Phishing and Web Application Vulnerabilities to be high up there on the list of current threats.

Phishing attacks are hard to control as the code tends to be polymorphic but a company named PhishMe, Inc. had something quite clever. For a fee they will carry out a phishing attack on the staff at your company. However, if your user clicks on the attachment or the link then they will be presented with a warning and some training material on why they should be more cautious. The company collects statistics and the names of the people who are fooled. They claim that their service dramatically reduces the number of users who are fooled by phishing attacks.

One impressive innovation I saw was a tall orange stack of mini-safes named Charge Box each containing multiple mobile/smart phone charging connectors. The idea being that anyone low on juice could plug their phone in, close and lock the door, remove the key and wander around for a bit returning later to retrieve their freshly charged phone.

By lunch time the local pubs were heaving with besuited business types escaping Earl’s Court. I enjoyed a reasonable burger and pint in the Prince Of Tek on Earl’s Court Road.

At Earl’s Court 2 another exhibition was under way. This was Internet World and I found this to be more exciting. Less professional salesmen and more enthusiastic start ups, or so it appeared to me. A couple of companies selling their services to develop web apps, one with a starting price of less than a thousand pounds. Another company, named Mode360, were selling a contraption about the size of an old fashioned TV. This included a turntable, some lights and a Digital camera. The idea with this was that you plonk your product on the turntable and switch on. The machine then, rotated the product and photographed it through 360 degrees and the attached computer produces a file which can be embedded in a web page to allow your customers to rotate your product on line to get a better look at it. We’ve seen this with the way many mobile phones are sold online. The guy described this as a “money making machine”. He may have been right.

Buy Art Photography by Nigel Chaloner

Buy Art Photography by Nigel Chaloner

Conway’s Game of Life

Back in the year dot I worked on a computer called a PDP11 made by Digital Equipment Corporation. This had 96K (yes K) of RAM and ran an operating system named RSTS/E. I used to do the night shifts working this thing to run batch jobs to spew out mountains of paper and much of the time was spent waiting, reading or exploring how the system worked. Along with the OS came a handful of primitive games. Bull and Cow, Animal, that sort of thing.

Another game, which I didn’t understand at the time, was a one dimensional implementation of Conway’s Game of Life. I say one dimensional as it would push out one row of symbols at a time. Life was not so much a game as a demonstration of how simple mathematical rules can produce spectacularly complex results. To quote Wikipedia: The Game of Life is a cellular automaton devised by the British mathematician John Horton Conway in 1970.

These days the Game of Life is available as a Java app so we can experiment ourselves. Some guy has even written a 3D version though this looks a bit messy.

To really get the feel of how mind blowing the Game of Life is, check out this video. As the maker of the video states, all the patterns created are derived from two simple rules. More facinating still is the the fact that the gap between patterns known as “spaceships” are prime numbers.

If you’re really interested then check out this video where Conway talks about Life.

st malo beach

St Malo Beach

Shut That Door

Alex Salmond

Alex Salmond

So Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, has been feigning outrage at an Economist cover which portrayed Scotland as “Skintland” implying that, if Scotland left the United Kingdom, it would be worse off financially. It seems that Mr. Salmond is just as scheming and manipulative as any other British politicians. He also rejected the idea that, if Scotland did leave, they should accept any of the debt of the banks which were recently bailed out by the British tax payer. A bit rich since much of the bailout money went to Royal Bank of Scotland.

It seems to have been years that the Scots have been threatening to leave. In fact, didn’t they have a referendum a few years ago and decide to stay? I can’t remember. The Québécois carry on in the same manner in Canada. Constantly threatening to go but never quite leaving.

I am reminded of the mother of a friend from years ago. We used to go around his flat and drink beer and talk rubbish. His mother would visit and eventually get up to leave. She would then stand with the door open for hours talking away and saying “I must be off now” but never actually going. I think she really just wanted some attention but we were too young and inconsiderate and would just sit waiting for her to go or stay but please shut the bloody door.

Similarly with the Scots. Personally I think that the UK is better off for all of us if Scotland remains in the Union but if they want to go then they should feel free to leave. But PLEASE! Stop talking about it and go. It’s boring and there’s a draught.

Come to think of it, the Europeans must be sick of the British standing by the door while Eastern Europe is trying to get in.



Titanic – In Her Own Words

Titanic - In Her Own Words

Titanic - In Her Own Words

I hear that a memorial cruise has left from Southampton to follow the course taken by RMS Titanic on her doomed maiden voyage. It’s 100 years since she sank and Britain seems to be in the grip of a morbid Titanic fever. Last night on BBC 2 they had a ludicrous show entitled Titanic: A Commemoration in Music and Film. I watched a bit of it and it seemed to consist of John Humphrys pontificating on the people who died interspersed with a lot of singing. A sort of Titanic themed Royal Variety Performance.

I tweeted on the absurdity of our culture being so desperate for meaning that we are forced to squeeze the emotions out of ancient disasters. Perhaps next year we’ll have a song and dance version of The Katyn Massacre?

However, as cynical as I am, I was very moved by a radio program on BBC World Service on Saturday night entitled Titanic – In Her Own Words. The program was based on transcripts of the morse code messages sent to and from the Titanic as she sank. A narrator explained that a hundreds years ago morse code was used in a similar fashion to the way we use Twitter today. Messages were transmitted by one station but could be heard by many. The messages were short and sharp and jargon was frequently used to save time. The morse code operators developed a sort of slang where they ironically referred to each other as “old man” in the manner of the English aristocracy and this  term was frequently abbreviated to OM.

The program presented an excellent demonstration of the dedication of the radio operator as he stuck with his task to the bitter end notably trying to contact the SS California which lay much nearer than the other ships responding to her distress calls.

Worth a listen!




Tax – What is it good for?

No Taxation

Rock & Roll!!!

Since the credit crunch there has been a lot of talk of tax avoidance and recently it was “revealed” that Amazon.co.uk paid no corporation tax on profits from UK sales of more than £3bn. People are outraged and questions are raised in the House. But hang on, we all avoid tax. I do, I avoid it any chance I get. I try to put my savings into an ISA each year, I have given up smoking and I am deterred from driving because the bloody fuel is so expensive and that’s because of tax.

On BBC Radio 4’s New Quiz today, comedian Andrew Maxwell said that, in an effort to avoid tax, Rock and Roll cliches U2 are now all classed as Dutchman and their guitarist (“The Edge” as he ludicrously calls himself) was quoted as saying “Who wouldn’t want to be more tax efficient?” – As Mr. Maxwell commented: “Yeh!! Rock and Roll!!!” – Everybody’s at it. Bankers, corporations, rock stars, me and you. So what is the problem?

There is a problem because if too much tax is avoided then the chancellor wont be able to finance all the spending. Somebody has to pay for the roads, hospitals and the Queen’s corgis.

One aspect of tax avoidance that annoys most of us is when large corporations, which have extensive business in the UK, fail to pay significant tax and I have blogged before about how this is enabled by tax havens such as the Caymen Islands.

But you can’t blame Johnny Foreigner for this sort of thing. The British are not averse to maintaining tax havens in Guernsey and The Isle of Man. In addition a recent article in The Economist made the point that the UK is one of the few countries which still allows “bearer bonds” which differ from normal investments bonds in that they are unregistered and untraceable. This is the toffs equivalent of paying the plumber in cash, only on a massively bigger scale.

Window Tax

Tax Avoidance?

Tax systems vary across the world. Some developing countries do not have a civil service reliable enough to collect tax from individuals and so most tax is derived from large international corporations but this is a practical decision not a moral one. Kings and governments have always based tax policy on what will generate income and on what they think they can get away with. In the 18th and 19th centuries England, France and Scotland taxed the number of windows in a house and in order to avoid this tax some owners bricked-up their windows. This was tax avoidance. Should the government have insisted that individuals maintain a minimum number of windows in their buildings?

Tax law evolves over time. There was no moral reason why a tax should be paid on windows and there is no moral reason why a tax should be paid by corporations. In a democratic country the tax system is a settlement broadly agreed by the people with recourse to their government and electoral system.

The trouble is that the wealthy have the ability to employ lots of clever bastards to avoid the machinations of government. Further, political parties who receive funds from the wealthy will always turn a blind eye to loop holes which allow the rich to avoid tax.

But the apathy and bias of government are not the only reasons why companies like Amazon can perform the corporate gymnastics allowing them to avoid so much tax.

Two other factors are now making tax avoidance a hot topic: Globalisation and technology. Globalisation started centuries ago, perhaps with the silk road, but it began to gain traction in the 19th century enabled by European empires.

Over the past 20 years technology, and specifically computers and The Internet, have turbo charged globalisation. Our governments are constantly banging on about how we, in The West, should do the design and development work and leave the manufacturing to others and this is happening now on a massive scale. Outsourcing is the order of the day. A recent article in The Economist stated that, despite Apple manufacturing iPads in China, 30% of the value was still created in the United States. Apple’s developers sit at their computers in the U.S. and squirt designs and instructions across the world in split seconds. The situation is similar with the British chip maker ARM who make most of the processors in smartphones. The designers sit in the UK but the chips are manufactured abroad. From telephone banking based in Mumbai to British stag weeks in Thailand we can see that the world is integrating.

Yet when Amazon adjust their business model to avoid UK tax we squeal like little piggies.

So what’s to be done?

The solution is not to force corporations to stick to a 20th century tax structure any more than they should be forced to have more windows. Governments have changed the rules on commerce so it is logical that the rules on taxation be adjusted accordingly. This may mean designing rules which ensure that corporations pay more tax but not necessarily.

We should understand that only one group of people in society ever pay tax and that is the general public. You and me. The “consumer”. Joe Blogs. The Man on the Clapham Omnibus.

There IS nobody else.

In theory the super rich pay tax but since they derive their incomes from employing a lot of us and, since they largely set their own salaries, any increase in tax for them will just be compensated by an increase in salary and who pays their salary? We do. Similarly corporations don’t really pay tax as they pass all their costs on to the consumer and their profits to share holders.

The starting point of any taxation system should be: What is the fairest and most efficient way of distributing taxation. To determine this we should ask what are the reasons for taxation. The most obvious reason is to raise funds, but a second reason is to deter the activity which is taxed.

The purpose of income tax might be purely to provide funds to the government but the tax on cigarettes is meant as a deterrent (although one suspects that it is now just cash cow).

If we believe that taxing cigarettes deters smoking then we should also believe that taxing income deters work – and we do. Consider the Tories reducing the top rate of tax from 50% to 45% to encourage “global talent” to come to the UK and consider people who collect “benefits” but would lose this money if they took paid employment.

Given this, it is astonishing that 48% of taxation in the UK (according got the 2008 budget) was derived from the taxation of work in the form of income tax and National Insurance.



If we want people to work then why the hell are we taxing it?

Our tax system seems antiquated and not fit for purpose. Large parts of it deter desirable activities and other parts, such as corporation tax, are so dysfunctional that corporations are running rings around the HM Revenue & Customs.

The solution is a radical design of the tax system. We need a system which is simple, practical and deters only activities which society deems undesirable.

Ah….but there’s the rub. What does society deem undesirable? Cigarettes? Alcohol? Marijuana? I suggest that the activity which is most undesirable, yet prevalent, is the emission of gases which cause climate change Therefore, our tax system should be adjusted to place the majority burden of taxation on activities which emit CO2.

Commuters will scream: “but I need my car to get to work. How will I manage if my fuel bill is a thousand pounds a month?” – My repost would be: If income tax and National Insurance were abolished then you could afford to pay a thousand pounds for fuel……but you would have huge incentive to DO SOMETHING about climate change rather than talking about it.

Star House

Star House

London from space

The lights of London are captured by ESA astronaut Andre Kuipers

The lights of London are captured by ESA astronaut Andre Kuipers

– Image source: ESA/NASA

André Kuipers aboard the International Space Station has been capturing some fantastic images of the Earth from space.

The Lord’s Terms & Conditions


The New Cathedrals?

It seems that, these days, Easter in New York means a hat parade. People walk around in fancy hats admiring each other. This reminds me of a Science Fiction Trilogy by Michael Moorcock entitled The Dancers At The End Of Time (1974).

The trilogy tells of a bunch of people who live at the “end of time”. They inhabit a world in which they have gained complete material power and they manipulate the world using little rings on their fingers. The technology behind this had long been forgotten having been invented millennia in the past. The people have become decadent and spend their days seeking novelty. One day they spend all their time creating flags as this was the “in thing” for the season and one flag was the size of a continent.

Is this a comment on New Yorkers? Well partly I guess but, by extension, the rest of us too. BBC Radio 4 ran a story in the last few days where they were saying that most kids don’t know what Easter is about. Outrage that they know nothing about Christianity and all the rest of it.

I am usually an agnostic and haven’t seen any reason to know about religion but I am now starting to wonder. Given that, as a species, we seem to like to follow rules and do what everyone else does then maybe indoctrinating the population with a lot of myths on which to base the system and, specifically all the punishments, is a good idea. I suspect that the indoctrination would need to include some thing a bit more spiritual than hat parades though.

It has been suggested that shopping malls are modern day cathedrals. Perhaps it’s possible to create a religion based on capitalism, commercialism and materialism (CCM?) Perhaps we have already done this? If so then it may be a good plan to accept that CCM is the new religion and dress it up in a lot of archaic English to give it a more religious feel?

The Lord’s Terms & Conditions

Lord, thine world is full of marvels and wonders,
And I am free to choose,
Thanks be to choice for choice is the root of all good,
Glory be to Madison Avenue for it exalts thy wonders,
Which I may own through my own labour,
Though I am responsible for my situation just as others are responsible for theirs,
I vow to research my purchases thoroughly on comparison web sites prior to purchase,
And repay my debts,
As others debts are repaid to me with interest,
Thanks be to copyright and patent,
For they enable innovation,
And innovation creates yet more products,
Which I must strive to buy,
Blessed are the payment companies for they enable e-comerse,
Blessed is globalisation as it empowers comparative advantage,
Forgive us our debts,
After due bankruptcy procedures,
And sell us this day our daily bread,
Deliver our goods next day,
For our is the kingdom,
The power and the glory
For ever and ever

I ACCEPT                 I DECLINE

Happy Easter everyone.



Squatters Network Brighton

The Squatters Network of Brighton held a march in Brighton yesterday. They didn’t seem to be demanding rights or protesting injustice. The only placard I saw proclaimed “Kill The Bill”. The Bill seemed unfazed and followed them in a van along Western Road. My hypocrisy sensors buzzing as I note that some Welshy can get jailed for tweeting racist comments yet a bunch of squatters can march through the street threatening to kill policeman without comment.

Squatters Network Brighton

Squatters Network Brighton