Monday, December 31, 2007

NHS start work on moutain of gold

Today I read that the NHS (UK National Health Service) have started to build their national database of personal health records. What a tempting target!

Today I also read that data theft is "soaring to an all time high".

Put these two together and you have a happy future for identity thieves and a miserable time for the general public.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Microsoft demonstrate total control over MOO-XML

Microsoft are pushing their latest document format as a "standard" in the form of MOO-XML (Microsoft Office Open - XML).

One of the key things about real standards is that they are formed through a consensus. The mechanism for reaching consensus is defined by a standards body and allows the involvement of any interested party.

Microsoft does not want to play that way:

Slashdot | Microsoft Deprecating Some OOXML Functionality

In this Slashdot article we see Microsoft squirming to quell to the many concerns raised about MOO-XML as it is rammed through the ISO process, and in so doing Microsoft demonstrate that they alone say what this format will look like.

MOO-XML is not a standard (it's not even a specification!) and the format is not being defined in anything like an open fashion. Instead it is a very cynical attempt by Microsoft to derail an existing open standard - ODF (the Open Document Format). In the process of pursuing it's monopolistic goals Microsoft has not only muddied the standards waters, but has harmed the standardisation process itself.

The EU recently compelled Microsoft to behave itself in one sphere of it's operations. Perhaps the EU could step in and help preserve the world of open standards against the anti-competitive onslaught of Microsoft.

One can hope.

Monday, December 24, 2007

NHS dive down the ID card rabbit hole

The NHS have joined in the data loss fun with the rest of the UK government, and this morning the head of the NHS, David Nicholson, was on the BBC Today programme. The presenter asked the head of the NHS: "Can we trust you with our personal medical data?"

Head of the NHS: "Yes, absolutely"

Given the, just admitted, loss of over 160,000 records this response demonstrates astonishing naivety. This same naivety which is holding open the door for the national ID card system is leading the NHS to create a centralised (physically distributed but logically whole) repository of medical records for everyone in the UK.

Mr. Nicholson went on and on about the technical protection measures that would be put in place, but failed to address the greatest current and future problem - people. Almost all of the recent data losses were down to either mistakes, manipulation or malice on the part of individuals.

Of course, blindly trusting in technology is pretty daft too, but I bet the IT companies that stand to make billions from the NHS can give David a nice warm fuzzy feeling about that.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Samba Team Gets Microsoft Protocol Docs

Microsoft preach interoperability but seem to fairly consistently practice just the opposite. It took the might of the EU and many years of effort on the part of many people to force Microsoft to grant (all be it limited) access to the specifications of their resource sharing protocols, but it finally did happen:

Groklaw - Samba Team Receives Microsoft Protocol Documentation

Have a look at the "Settlements" section in the above. Microsoft paid out over 3.5 billion USD to companies that were working with the EU on the case, and those companies duly walked away, seriously weakening the EU position. Thanks to the continued efforts the EU, and with help from the Samba team, the good guys won in the end, but Microsoft very nearly ended up being able to continue abusing the market.

Look again at the amount of money Microsoft paid out: over 3.5 billion USD. This is a huge sum of money. Enough to even sway governments, perhaps?

Now look at the shenanigans within ISO related to the Microsoft Office Open XML (MOO-XML) document format. Do we see another example of an international body being manipulated by the might Microsoft wallet. I think perhaps we do.

Monday, December 17, 2007

ANSI Smalltalk - brief video intro

Here is a video I put together for presentation at the Smalltalks 07 conference which happened in Buenos Aires last week:

YouTube - ANSI Smalltalk Introduction

... I think it covers the essentials of what we are trying to do with the ANSI Smalltalk work.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

BBC's iPlayer - disgusting

The BBC have ignored and are ignoring their responsibility as spelled out in their charter.

BBC's iPlayer launches Christmas Day | The Register

This is one of those cases where a thing is worse than useless. It would be better if iPlayer did not exist at all than in this current form. The iPlayer as proposed will entrench a closed proprietary media format owned and controlled by a single company. The iPlayer project should be halted because to do otherwise is throwing good money after bad.

Microsoft owe the BBC and the British licence paying public a billion pound thank you for this mess. Ka-ching.



Wednesday, November 28, 2007

UK ID card: it gets worse

Not only are the UK government pressing ahead with their identity card project, despite the recent blunders in which personal identity information for millions of people were lost, but they seem to be planning to share the identity information around:

Tories: Europeans could get access to UK ID database | The Register

A centralised identity card system is a bad idea because:
  • Hugely valuable data (in monetary terms) would be concentrated in one place.
  • Technical failure is inevitable. Such a system will be cracked and/or spoofed.
  • Social failure is inevitable. People granted access to the data as part of their job will either "lose" the data (as happened recently with the HMRC losing 25 million records) or will take the data for personal gain. The Stork system described in the above article makes this risk many times higher.
The only winners in this mess will be those selling the components of the proposed system to the government. They stand to make billions.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

UK ID card data just as safe?

The UK government have "lost in the post" sensitive information about tens of millions of people:

BBC NEWS | UK | UK Politics | Tories tell Darling 'get a grip'

A national ID card system would be worse than useless even if the people safeguarding the data could be trusted, but this most recent cock up is a clear indication that having sensitive personal details for everyone in the UK in the ID card system would be far too risky.

Oh, and now we have an attempt to secure the stable door after the horse has bolted:

BBC NEWS | UK | UK Politics | UK's families put on fraud alert


Monday, November 19, 2007

Slaps talk in Sydney tomorrow

If you are interested in LDAP or in Smalltalk or want to see both in action together with a walk through of ASN.1 and how to monitor TCP/IP traffic using a Smalltalk bridge ...

I will be giving a talk about Slaps for the Australian Computer Society (ACS) tomorrow evening. Details are on the ACS website.

Should be fun :-)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

May I have a patent on top of that copyright please?

Here is an example of why EU legislators need to clearly restate that software ideas may not be patented:

Court date for challenge to 'new' patent rules | The Register

The EU legislators said that software ideas may not be patented, but the EPO blundered and let through (granted a patent on) some firmware a few years ago. This has opened the flood gates to companies like those in the article that want to have patent protection for their software ideas as well as copyright protection for the implementation of those ideas. The EPO blunder is touted as "patent law" (case law) by those who want to be able to patent software ideas, as we see from the lawyer in the article:
"A lot of people think there is no problem here because disks and downloads are protected by copyright," noted Nicholas Fox of Beresford & Co, the lawyer working for the four firms. "That is just not true. Copyright protection only protects code against copying. In contrast, patent protection enables a company to monopolise an invention even if competitors independently come up with the same idea."
Right. "A lot of people" here includes the people who wrote the statute law to exclude software from being patented.

For now I hope that the UK courts are able to stick with the original intent of the legislation and that this challenge is thrown out.

Smalltalk ANSI gets rolling - join in!

Work is now well under way to get the Smalltalk ANSI standardization process restarted. We have a mail list up and running and Paolo Bonzini has set up a wiki for the project.

We already have the Smalltalk vendor companies involved, and that is very important. What we also need are people who use Smalltalk as an application programming language. If you are on a project that uses Smalltalk then I suggest that you have a member of that project sign up to the ANSI Smalltalk list. If you want Smalltalk to do what *you* need in the future then you need to get involved now.

One of the valuable things that ANSI provides is a structured way of forming a consensus. While we can (and do!) have very illuminating discussions on our mailing lists and on comp.lang.smalltalk, it is hard to turn the resulting ideas into something that everyone can use. The ANSI process lets us do that.

It will be free to participate in the debates and in informal voting. Formal voting will require formal membership of the ANSI INCITS project and that is not free. Perhaps your company could support a member of your team on the formal committee?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Australian Elections: Who's who?

I will be voting in the upcoming federal elections in Australia and I would like to know something about the candidates in my Sydney area, but I'm living in London so what can I do?

The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) have a website showing the name, occupation and party allegiance of each candidate, but nothing there helps me to find out what the individual is actually standing for. Not even any contact details.

I wrote to the AEC asking how I could get contact details for the candidates in my division and got the following:
The information you require is available on the AEC website. All contact details of the candidates has been posted on the website.
Really? I wrote back including a link to the page listing the candidates in my state and also cut and pasted the section for my division. Where, I asked, is this contact information? The AEC responded:
Contact details for candidates are not available to the Australian Electoral Office. You will need to contact the party concerned for contact details. sorry for any inconvenience.

But apart from giving me bad information in the first place, just how am I supposed to make an informed choice in this election if the electoral officials can not, or will not, allow voters to know more than the name, job and party of the candidates? What about independent candidates?

I certainly hope it is not true that the "Contact details for candidates are not available to the Australian Electoral Office". I mean, how would they tell a candidate if they happened to win?

This nonsense does rather seem to favour the position that as a voter you are not really voting for an individual representative, rather you are voting for a party. After all, why would you care which party minion gets the seat in your division?

Well I do care, and I think that the AEC are letting the electorate down very badly in this regard.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

More Microsoft "interoperability". Beware.

Having demonstrated over the years their disdain for standards and the standards process, Microsoft are embarking on another "helpful" exercise. This time they want to make ECMAScript (aka JavaScript) work consistently on all browsers:

Microsoft to search browsers for JavaScript compatibility | Reg Developer

And rather than move their product to fit the standard, they want to extend the standard to meet their product.

It's like Deja Vu all over again.

Monday, October 29, 2007

In a hole? Stop digging.

The EC want to tackle problems with "IP", by which I assume they mean copyrights, trademarks, patents etc. Good. There are plenty of problems in this area, not least the fact that the EPO ignores legislation which says that software ideas may not be patented. But anyway, the EU solution is not to fix the problems but rather to create an entirely new layer in which we can have all kinds of new problems:

European Commission asks for new IP protection layer | The Register

Good grief.

Even if it takes longer, and even if it is painful, the correct solution is multilateral agreements through the WTO. Bilateral agreements are a lawyers delight and will just have to be dismantled again (to the further delight of lawyers) when multilateral agreements are finally in place.

Someone take that shovel from the EU before we all get buried.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

How to break a standards process

In their desperation to get their MOO-XML file format approved as a standard, Microsoft loaded various standards committees with people who would vote for it. Microsoft's efforts failed, but at least in the case of the ISO/IEC committee the battle appears to have caused significant longer term harm:

Slashdot | Format Standards Committee "Grinds To a Halt"

Thanks, Microsoft.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

ANSI Smalltalk

In 1998 the first version of the ANSI standard for the Smalltalk programming language was released under the auspices of INCITS. It has the cosy name "ANSI INCITS 319-1998".

Since 1998 Smalltalk has moved on, with more implementations of Smalltalk (dialects) and most dialects trending towards ANSI standard, as well of lots of cool things like Seaside and Croquet. The ANSI process for Smalltalk has not moved on and the committee that put together the standard no longer even exists.

Today, even though much of the ANSI standard is implemented in most dialects, it is hard to write a Smalltalk program that will run unaltered in more than one dialect. This is something that the Sport (Smalltalk Portability) library helps to address, but the very existence of a kludge like Sport points to the need for greater inherent consistency among Smalltalk dialects.

I have been promoting the idea that getting the ASNI process restarted for Smalltalk would be a win for all Smalltalkers; vendors, tool-smiths and application developers alike. In my view the ANSI process should be on-going, producing a new version of the standard regularly (say every 18 months or 2 years) and looking to the community for priorities.

Recently I spoke with INCITS about what it would take to restart the process and it seems fairly straight forward. We need to put together a proposal for starting the project. If the proposal is accepted a committee is formed and the committee gets to work.

I will be posting more details to comp.lang.smalltalk since that is the primary all-dialect discussion forum for Smalltalk.

I think we can get the Smalltalk ANSI standardization process going again and I think we should, and there is no time like the present.

BBC iPlayer - some progress

The BBC iPlayer is still a Microsoft Windows only service that uses a Microsoft protocol to transfer content. Fixing this was left to the BBC Trust who are to review the matter every six months.

But what will the BBC Trust review? What progress has been made towards making BBC content available via open protocols on any platform that supports those protocols? No concrete progress so far it seems, but the BBC are starting to talk about alternatives to the Microsoft only iPlayer program and the Microsoft protocols, all be it wrapped up with an announcement promoting the use of those very same Microsoft programs and protocols:

BBC NEWS | Technology | BBC online to go free over wi-fi

I think we need to see the BBC move from talk to action so that the BBC Trust has something concrete to review at it's first 6 monthly meeting following the launch of the Microsoft only iPlayer. Using the Adobe Flash player and the Adobe protocols is an improvement over the Microsoft-only approach as it does work on many platforms, but it is just locking BBC content into the products of yet another corporation, Adobe this time.

Adopting an open protocol would be an even better fit with the BBC charter and would open the content for use with software written by anyone, even Microsoft or Adobe if they chose to write such software. I hope this very point comes up at the next BBC Trust review.

I hope that the trust of the UK government in the BBC Trust was not misplaced.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Software Idea Patents vs FOSS

Here we go, an example of why Software Idea Patents are bad news for the IT industry but great news for patent lawyers:

Groklaw - Patent Infringement Lawsuit Filed Against Red Hat & Novell - Just Like Ballmer Predicted

... and I'm sure there will be more.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Leopard in October?

There have been a number of articles suggesting that the new version of Apple OS X (10.5Leopard) is due out real soon now, as if they have uncovered some deep secret. Then there are more articles suggesting that it won't be released for ages.

... but I took the easy approach and looked here:

Apple (UK and Ireland) - Mac OS X Leopard

October it is, then :-)

Not that I'll be upgrading for a while. I suspect that there will be some worthwhile patches out in the new year, so perhaps then.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

UK-wide WiFi from FON & BT?

I have run a FON hotspot here in London for a while now. In theory this should mean that I can get WiFi access to the Internet in many places around Europe and a few cities outside Europe too, at no additional cost to me. In practice the FON hotspots have never quite coincided with where I happened to be.

It looks like my chances of getting a connection have just got dramatically better in the UK:

Introducing the BT FON Community, Wi-Fi everywhere in the U.K. | FON Blog

I am still not really clear on how this will work (e.g. will every BT hotspot now also announce itself as a FON hotspot that I can use for no additional cost?), but it sounds like it should be a good thing.

Ah, more news on this from CNN.

... and a site for the project: BT FON

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

MS shoots self in foot. Wins award.

FFII have identified the organisation that has done the most to save the world from being undermined by the MOO-XML (Microsoft Open Office XML) document file format.

It's Microsoft!

Microsoft "Best Campaigner against OOXML Standardization"

By so aggressively destabilising the standards process Microsoft have created a pervasive negative view of MOO-XML.

Well done! Keep up the good work.

Oyster matter rumbles on

The matter of the detention and assault of my wife at the hands of a TfL employee rumbles on with no resolution in sight. The good news is that TfL now say that they are taking this seriously. All we need now are for their actions to start matching their words.

I heard the latest news from London Travel Watch who are taking on TfL on our behalf. Remarkably the TfL response suggested that in order to make any progress they really need more detail, such as the exact time of the incident ... which of course a different part of TfL already know. This after they claimed to be sorry for internal TfL communication inefficiencies which they have now addressed - yeah, right.

At this point we are looking for some fairly simple things from TfL, though I suspect TfL may view these as being very hard ...
  • TfL need to acknowledge that there are systemic problems with the Oyster system and the training of station staff regarding the Oyster system. (Then they need to do something about it!)
  • TfL need to explain what station staff should be expected to do in situations such as the one we suffered. (e.g. perhaps staff should have access to a reader that will let them see activity on an Oyster card).
  • TfL need to explain what passengers should do in situations such as the one we suffered. (e.g. should we have immediately called the police?)
I'm still not holding my breath.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

London Smalltalk gathering goes regular

There was a small gathering of Smalltalkers in London last night and there was much interesting conversation, as usual. One of the things that came up was the gathering itself, and it was proposed that we should meet on a regular basis, so ...

On the first Monday of the month Smalltalkers are invited to the Counting House for a beer, something to eat and some Smalltalk small talk. The next gathering will be on 1st Oct and people tend to start rolling in at about 18:00.

If you want to discuss the gathering, join the uksmalltalk mailing list.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

SCO - Even deader

SCO's last hope in their case against Novell (and therefore, largely, their last hope in the IBM case too) was being able to bamboozle a jury. Now there is no Jury to perform to, only the judge:

Groklaw - Judge Kimball rules: There will be no jury in SCO v. Novell

At last we will have a forum in which SCO must come clean and explain exactly where they stand or, more likely, fall.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

UK PM & the BBC iPlayer

Well, we have a Prime Ministerial response to the iPlayer petition:

iplayer - epetition response

Sadly the biggest issue, that of the use of a proprietary format for encoding the content for the iPlayer, was not addressed in the petition. I doubt the response would have been any different though.

In summary, the PM says "Not my problem. See the BBC trust.". Well, fair enough if the Trust were doing a good job, but in this case, they are not. A review of "supported" platforms in a few months time is a waste of time when the underlying content is encoded using a closed proprietary format and the use of this format is not going to be reviewed at all.

The BBC are handing Microsoft a big slab of lock-on on a silver platter. A higher authority than the BBC needs to point out that this is not in the public interest.

A Sport run-in with Wikipedia

Fresh back from ESUG 2007 in Lugano, I have been working on various Sport related issues. We have new ports of Sport to VisualAge Smalltalk and Visual Smalltalk. At ESUG Sport was often the subject of discussion. The Visual Smalltalk port happened during Camp Smalltalk, a talk on Swazoo covered the use of Sport as did the GemStone Glass people whose port of Seaside to GemStone relies on Sport and of course my Slaps talk referred to Sport too.

Back at home, while updating the Sport wiki page on the OpenSkills wiki, I thought it would make more sense, given the now wider use of Sport, to have the "what is Sport" text be in Wikipedia rather than just in the OpenSkills wiki. So that's what I did. I noted on the Seaside page that some ports of Seaside relied on Sport (I don't know for sure if they all do) and used that link to make a Wikipedia Sport page.

I had barely got started on the page when a box was added to the top saying that the new Sport page infringed copyright. The copyright that was being infringed upon? My own work from the OpenSkills wiki! The box said to post a comment on the discussion page to counter the accusation, so I did, saying what I just said here. Not good enough. I had to add something to the OpenSkills wiki noting that it was OK for my text to be in Wikipedia, so I did. Still not good enough and the page now has a big "Possible Copyright Infringement" in place of the information about Sport. The most amazing thing about this was the speed! The copyright accusation popped up within one hour of my starting work on the page.

Shortly after the copyright thing popped up on the page another box popped up threatening the page with deletion and pointing me to a discussion page on the subject. The Wikipedia people use wiki pages to discuss things rather than any kind of messaging system. If you want to track a conversation you have to keep visiting the page. It's worse than using a bulletin board. Add to that the fact that the messages from the Wikipedia people come over using these pseudo-legalistic terms and I ended up having a hard time keeping up!

Then *another* box popped up on the page. This one said that the page lacked "notability". It makes sense that entries in the Wikipedia are of interest to a reasonable number of people rather than being a individual thing, so in support of "notability" I linked to the ESUG conference and to the Sourceforge project. Then I made my big mistake. In trying to meet this "notability" requirement I asked for help on comp.lang.smalltalk. It seems that asking for help sends the Wikipedia people into a rage. I got a note (on *another* wiki page - this one attached to my account) saying that the use of "meatpuppets" was unacceptable behaviour on my part. Wow. Meatpuppets.

I have tried to respond to this flurry of accusation with English explanations on the deletion discussion page (as opposed to the Sport page talk page or my personal account talk page etc etc.) Other people, sorry "meatpuppets", tried to support the argument. The wikipedia people screeched that this "was not a vote!". Well, I knew that and was trying to have a discussion as were the other Smalltalkers who contributed. But to no avail.

If I had taken the time I used responding to the wikipedia people and used it to update the Sport page I think it would be in a good state now - even the Wikipedia people may have found it acceptable. As it is, I give up. I just don't have the time. I'm sure Sport will end up with an entry in Wikipeda at some point, but I certainly won't be jousting directly with the Wikipeda people again.

Now, lest you think after all this I have a downer on Wikipedia I want you to know that I don't. I think the Wikipedia is a great source of information and I will continue to read it, to link to it and to recommend it to others as about the best source of a first approximation available on the web today. It is a Very Good Thing that the Wikipedia has guardians who care for it and work to make sure that the content is up to scratch and I thank them for their efforts.

In the case of the Sport page, though, I think the Wikipedia police have ended up suppressing useful information by being, ah, overzealous.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

ISO say no to MOO-XML

The Microsoft Office file format which Microsoft fought (in a very dirty fashion) to fast track to ISO standard status has been rejected:

Groklaw - The results of the ISO voting: Office Open XML is Disapproved

... but only for now. It seems Microsoft are confident that they can sufficiently influence the next committee in the chain to give their proprietary format "standard" status.

The standards process has taken an awful toll in all this. I am sure that many national standards bodies will be asking themselves how they can avoid being manipulated by companies like Microsoft in the future.

I hope ISO as a whole are now on guard for more ballot stuffing and other dirty tactics as Microsoft desperately try to keep their office product as the lock-in cash cow it is today. MOO-XML indeed.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

>>flush vs. >>commit

I just learned that, in VisualWorks Smalltalk at least, if you send the message flush to an external stream (file, socket etc) this does not in fact flush unwritten content to the disk/socket. Rather it flushes unwritten content from the image down into the Smalltalk virtual machine.

If you really want to flush unwritten content, use commit instead.


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Yet more MOOXML madness

Slashdot | Microsoft Bought Sweden's ISO Vote on OOXML?

I think the level 5 comments to this Slashdot article hit on all the key points is this sorry saga.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

MOO XML: Even MS don't implement it

The MOO-XML* (Microsoft Open Office XML) definition is not followed even by Microsoft applications:

OOXML is defective by design

One point from the article: Excel crashes when opening well-formed and valid spreadsheet document files. There are many other problems also clearly explained in the article.

If ECMA fast track this half-baked format of Microsoft's after so many serious problems in it have been pointed out, it will seriously damage the reputation of the ECMA standards process. That would be another victory for Microsoft.

* I picked up "MOO-XML" from a post in Slashdot. It is a much better label for the Microsoft document format as it reduces name confusion with the vastly superior Open Document Format (ODF). Also, IMO, the Microsoft document does have a bovine side to it, and the name MOO-XML brings that out too.

Saturday, August 25, 2007


It seems that whenever there is a discussion about using Object databases the debate veers towards whether to use an OODB *or* an RDB.

There are often many factors affecting DBMS choice in specific situations but most OO applications require persistence to disk and good query performance. OODBs minimise the pain of persisting an object model. RDBs tend to be much better at arbitrary querying.

I now tend to suggest the use of both and OODB and an RDB. Object persistence all happens to the OODB and the OODB is the operational repository for the system. The RDB is used to hold a flattened summary of the data in the operational repository. The problem of writing a summary to an RDB is much simpler than the problem of persisting objects with the former being much more like writing a report or producing a web page than saving a complex object structure in a way that can re retrieved and reanimated. The schema of the OODB is simply the object model of the application. The schema of the RDB would include the things that need to be searched upon and no more.

This OODB *and* RDB approach is an idealised model that may not work out in all cases, but I think it could well be a practical solution in many cases.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Slaps at ESUG

I will be attending ESUG next week and giving a talk on Slaps, the Smalltalk LDAP server. The talk will be on Friday 31st Just before lunch.

Slaps is not just an interface to an external LDAP server (such as OpenLDAP), it is a stand alone LDAP server in it's own right completely written in Smalltalk. Slaps might be described as an "Application LDAP server" because it lets an application provide access to it's object model directly through the LDAP protocol, which is quite nifty for all kinds of reasons. Come to the talk to find out why.

See you at ESUG.

BTW, I'll be at the Hotel Zurigo from Friday (24th Aug) evening. If you fancy a beer, let me know :-)

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Hull Trains

My parents live in Hull so I visit the city quite often. Of late I have been taking the train, traveling with Hull Trains.

Hull Trains offer fast comfortable trains, reserved seats with mains power right at the seat and very efficient staff on the phone to take your booking. Great price too if you book a few days in advance.

In my experience so far; brilliant. The best train service I have used in the UK.

Microsoft rejects SVG (and more)

The following paper is another analysis of the Microsoft OOXML format and it asks a valid question:

Microsoft and Open Standards: Can Other Vendors Implement Microsoft's Office Open XML?

I doubt you will be too surprised to hear that the answer is: at best, not without risk.

In this paper I read that OOXML is not only attacking ODF, it is also attacking the SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) standard. I am sure that the standards committee responsible for SVG would welcome the input of Microsoft, if they have anything constructive to say. The same for the ODF committee. As has been reported many times by others, there is no record of any suggestions by Microsoft being rejected by the original Oasis committee (the one that created ODF) while Microsoft were part of that committee (and I rather suspect that Microsoft were only on that committee in the first place to slow it down).

Nobody is saying that ODF is perfect. For example, you can read here that the way that SVG gets used in ODF is not perfect. But at least the ODF people are *trying* to use existing open standards rather than continually inventing new formats. One of the reasons ODF is "only" 760 pages long is that it makes reference to many external standards such as SVG. The Microsoft format is 6000+ pages long because it re-invents so many wheels and because it includes many quirks which accommodate the foibles of legacy Microsoft software (e.g. "lineWrapLikeWord6"). How in any sane world can things like "lineWrapLikeWord6" form part of an open standard?

SVG is not standing alone in the cross-hairs of OOXML. Another example is the ISO 8601 standard for dates, which Microsoft actually used for a while (Office 2000) and then moved away from (to enhance interoperability perhaps?). The Microsoft OOXML format looks like an attempt to smother lots of open standards in one go. If the Microsoft format is fast tracked, so are the Microsoft devised component formats.

If only Microsoft put this much energy into writing good standards-compliant software.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Microsoft: our way or no way

More stories are coming out about the heavy handed tactics being used by Microsoft to ram their document file format through the ISO fast track process to adoption as a standard.

You can feel the frustration from this member of the Netherlands committee: regrets absence of Netherlands decision on OOXML

The whole committee agreed on a position which Microsoft effectively vetoed. This is quite disgusting behavior, especially when Microsoft claim to be a champion of interoperability.

And have a look at what is happening on the Swiss committee. The complaint from FSFE spells out the issues very clearly:

FSFE, SIUG File Official Objections to Switzerland's Vote on MS-OOXML

In short, Microsoft got control of the chair of the meeting and shut down all argument against their format being fast tracked.

The idea that standards committees work to establish a common position based upon multiple viewpoints is being brushed aside. If Microsoft don't get their way, they break the system.

The gall of Microsoft in this matter is just breathtaking.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

SkillsBase: going places

With it's latest version, the OpenSkills SkillsBase has a location tree. The new location tree is a folksonomy like the existing skills tree, so OpenSkills members can add skills and now locations as they need them.

People with resumes in the SkillsBase can indicate where they have worked, where they are working now, where they may work (visas etc.) and where they would like to work.

Searching the SkillsBase is still free, and searchers can now narrow a search by location. Searches can be narrowed even further by requesting only resumes for people who may work in the specified location. For example, one could search for people who are willing to work in the City of London.

Not many people have updated their resumes with location information yet, so narrowing by location at the moment many not yield any resumes, but this is changing even as I type.

The new schema allows for more than we have made available through the UI today. One feature that will be released soon will be a link to either a map (e.g. Google Maps) or the Wikipedia page for the location. I'm thinking that a Wikipedia link would be more useful.

Monday, August 13, 2007

SCO Squirms

SCO have issued a press release in response to the collapse of their legal position, as reported by Groklaw:

Groklaw - SCO speaks

In it they say:
...the court clearly determined that SCO owns the copyrights to the technology developed or derived by SCO after Novell transferred the assets to SCO ...
One of the aguments SCO has used in it's various cases is that the owner of an original work also owns the derivations. We saw this in particular in the SCO case against IBM where SCO claimed to own software IBM had written because it was derived from original Unix works.

This was great while the myth that SCO owned the original Unix works held up. Now that the bubble has burst we see SCO very happy with a position pointing in the opposite direction: derivative works are *not* owned by the owner of the original work - and the gauling thing is they make it sound like this is what the intended all along.

A 180 degree squirm.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Rolling FUD

SCO no longer presents a copyright threat to the Linux kernel. Phew!

But it took over 3 years to go from the vague unspecified threats put about by SCO to getting everything cleared up. The effect of this drawn out process was to place a significant drag on the adoption of FOSS in general. Classic (and very successful in this case) FUD.

We still can't breath easily it seems:

24/7 Wall St.: The Future Of Linux Still Dark (NOVL)(IBM))(MSFT)(RHT)

Notice the negative FUDish tone. The key bit is here:
In May of this year, Microsoft said that Linux violated 235 Microsoft patents. Redmond has not done anything about those alleged infringements, but, it may have hoped that the SCO/IBM litigation would take care of some of that.
So even with SCO behind us it seems that we must still worry about vague unspecified threats, this time direct from Microsoft. More FUD and the same formula as SCO, except we get software idea patents instead of copyrights.

The actions of SCO were so blatant that I feel a thorough investigation is called for. Many people have suggested that Microsoft were behind the actions taken by SCO, and given the huge benefits to Microsoft plus their historical willingness to break the law, this does not seem to be too much of a stretch, especially now that they have picked up and are now running with the SCO flame.

Copyrights and patents were never supposed to be about uncertainty, much less doubt and fear. In Microsoft's hands they seem to be about all three.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Vendor-Led "Standards"?

I find myself agreeing that the pragmatic development of specifications where no standards exist is a good thing:

Microsoft defends vendor standards lead | The Register

But undermining existing standards is certainly not a good thing, and Microsoft does rather more of the embrace, extend, extinguish than it does of the producing genuinely creative solutions to previously unsolved problems.

Also, the word "standard" is misleading when used for specifications which are not in fact standards. And while I'm at it, I think "vendor-led" is not a useful term in this context either. Just because you flog something does not qualify you to produce specifications.

Microsoft pretty consistently adopts one of two strategies when it comes to standards: Reluctantly adopt them where the market makes a stand (e.g. IP vs. NetBouy) or undermine them by any means possible where the market does not have a clear and firm view (e.g. ODF vs the Microsoft office format or Kerberos etc.).

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Polluter Pays * -1

I am a pretty big fan of the principle that the polluter pays. In the US it seems that an inverse principle is currently in action as the wealthy, and dirty, oil industry is subsidised the the tune of $16bn USD per year:

BBC NEWS | World | Americas | US House passes clean energy bill

Is this kind of subsidy limited to the US? I hope so. I also hope that US legislators do indeed end this madness.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Wow - it worked

I shouldn't be surprised, but I am. In a nice way.

Having done all the heavy development work (coding, refactoring, unit testing etc.) for the new SkillsBase version in the superb VisualWorks Smalltalk environment, I reached the point today where I needed to move the code over to the runtime environment which is GemStone.

I have a small set of tools to help me, the main one being the Sport portability library. Lesser tools include utilities for compiling all the code from VisualWorks into GemStone. So, with one button press all the code flies into GemStone. Then comes the testing.

This is the surprising bit. It all worked right away :-) I know this is how things ought to be in theory, but it's nice to work with tools that mean that that this can happen in practice.

Time for a beer .

If you build it ...

When I previously worked in London, about 15 years ago now, I once hopped onto the train back to Reading only to find a brochure on my seat that appeared to be advertising an express train route that would go from Reading, under London and direct to the City. I was so happy! ... until I realised that this was a cruel tease. The line did not exist. The brochure was a marketing survey. The rats.

15 years later and "Cross Rail" as it was called then, and is still called today (even the logo is the same), is no further forward:

BBC NEWS | Business | Mind the Crossrail funding gap

This would be a hugely popular route. The people who currently travel from the west of London (e.g. Reading and Heathrow) to the City pay a hefty fee for the privilege so there would be lots of custom for a Cross Rail service. And yet the government are fretting over the funding of construction.

Yes, this Cross Rail will be expensive to build, but it would be a significant boon to the City of London and thus to the country as a whole. So just build the darned thing out of public funds and then get the money back over the following decades through licensing and taxes etc.

If only construction had started 15 years ago ....

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

None so deaf

There are none so deaf as those who will not hear.

Acer may have ears in the UK but it puts fingers in them and shouts LA LA LA very loudly when anyone mentions Linux, which leads us to:

Acer: 'No UK demand' for Linux laptops - ZDNet UK

No demand? Don't be silly.

Monday, July 30, 2007

BBC spins iPlayer

Here we go. The BBC is starting to spin the iPlayer stories and give itself a big pat on the back:

BBC NEWS | Technology | Cautious welcome for BBC iPlayer

"Cautious welcome"? Well perhaps from those who are able to use it and know no better. It's a rather self-selecting population, though.

Back in the real world, one still has to wonder what on earth the BBC were thinking. Perhaps a number of high ranking BBC (ex-Microsoft) executives might just have something to do with it?

Let's stop this nonsense before more people are harmed through lock-in. If you have not already done so, please sign the petition on the PMs web site here.

Friday, July 27, 2007

BBC distorts the IT market

The BBC requires that people give Microsoft money in order to use their new iPlayer:

BBC NEWS | Technology | BBC online video service launches

I am staggered that a UK funded public entity is making content available exclusively on a Microsoft platform using a Microsoft file format.

The influence of the BBC is huge. The worst part of this iPlayer mess is the distorting effect it will have on the market. People who want to be able to watch their favourite BBC show will get a Windows box rather than a Mac or a Linux machine.

Microsoft are laughing all the way to the bank with this one.

Oh, but the BBC will review this every 6 months. That's all right then.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Shock! Copyrights do expire

The UK government has quite rightly, IMO, refused to extend the copyright term for recorded performances. The reaction from the recording artists is predictable:

BBC NEWS | Entertainment | Copyright ruling angers artists

I agree completely with Mr. Daltrey that people should be rewarded for their creative work, and indeed people like Mr. Daltrey have been rewarded. What Mr. Daltrey et al want is more money ... but in return for what? More creativity? Nope, just more money for what was done over 50 years ago.

Copyrights do expire, but there is no limit at all on creating new works.

The UK stops digging

It seems that the copyright hole is not getting bigger in the UK, for now anyway:

Slashdot | UK Rejects Extending Music Copyright

Resisting demands to continue the extension of copyright terms is a good start. The next step should be to review why we have copyrights in the first place because while I think copyrights are useful it seems to me that the legislators have lost sight of why we need them and what benefits they offer to society and it follows that the law makers have not been able to introduce useful legislation in this space.

So, good that the UK has stopped digging. Now to start filling in the hole.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

BBC iPlayer - letting the side down

The BBC have developed a media viewer called iPlayer that will only run on Microsoft Windows. What were they thinking?

This petition on the Prime Ministers web site is proposing that the BBC should be required to hold off on releasing iPlayer until they can get it to work on all platforms.

I would like to suggest that you sign the petition if you are a UK citizen or UK resident.

In their usual schizophrenic style in matters such as this, the BBC have an article about the iPlayer and the petition:

BBC NEWS | Technology | iPlayer faces petition pressure

I confess that apart from the platform support issue I am very disappointed with the BBC for having selected a closed, Microsoft controlled, media file format. The BBC claim that this is because of Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) issues, but that seems a very weak argument for giving such a boon to Microsoft Inc. and in so doing putting in place non-trivial barriers for legitimate access to BBC content.

Not cricket, BBC. You are letting the side down rather badly here. Please think again.

Just give me IP

Are there any pure-play IP providers out there?

I don't want any add-ons with my IP service. No disk space. No email. No DNS. No content. No filtering. No phone. No games. No address book. No calendar. No SMS. No free modem. No free computer. Just IP. I just want the IP packets that I create to be sent to the right place and I'd like to have all packets addressed to my IP address sent to me. That's all.

When choosing an IP service I want to know what bandwidth and latency combinations are on offer, and I would like to know if any limits, ceilings, profiling or filtering could be applied. And I want to know the price.

I don't mind what the physical infrastructure is as long as it follows an open standard I can buy the hardware from any one of a number of vendors.

I would like there to be some competition.

Is there any?

Monday, July 23, 2007

Location Tree: crud OK, now for search

The SkillsBase location tree work is coming along nicely. We have the crud part going so that the location tree can be maintained and people can attach locations to their resume in the various ways I discussed before.

It has been quite good fun because the location tree needs to be handled in much the same way as the skills tree already is, so a great deal of use was made of the mighty refactoring browser to create abstract tree and node classes that both the skill and location classes could hang off. With a sprinkling of new code to give skills and locations unique character, away we go.

Anyway, I "just" need to modify the SkillsBase search facility to be location tree aware and we should be able to get this new version out there.

What fun :-)

Friday, July 20, 2007

PostgreSQL: Fast enough?

The message I get from the recent benchmark tests pitting PostgreSQL against Oracle ...

Open Source PostgreSQL Trails Oracle In Benchmark, But Not By Much

... is that PostgreSQL is quite fast enough for any application except in the most extreme situations. So, design your schema and build your system and deploy it on PostgreSQL. If your application turns out to have one of the less than 1% of all databases that need the kind of performance provided by an Oracle (or a DB2) you can take your SQL and run it on Oracle instead, once you have parted with a large wad of cash that is.

I reckon paying for a DBMS license is one of the most common and expensive forms of premature optimisation in the IT industry today.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Oyster says "talk to the hand"

The Oyster saga continues.

TfL (Transport for London) run the Oyster card system. They also run the London Underground system. In march this year, the Oyster card system failed which led to my wife being detained (physically) and assaulted (verbally) by TfL a staff member.

After months of interacting with Oyster "Help" (ha ha) we have been refunded the money that was taken from us in error. We were overcharged by £10 and the TfL cheque was for £40 and I thanked them for the £30 gesture. But the money was the smaller part of this incident. The larger part was the actions of the TfL staff member at the time of the incident.

Having issued the cheque (drawn on a TfL account, of course), the Oyster "Help" people now tell me that to deal with the detainment and assault part I will need to write a letter to ... TfL. But a different department, of course.

I wrote back saying that this was not acceptable. The response I got from them was essentially 'talk to the hand'. The other hand. The left hand of TfL that clearly does not know what the right hand is doing.

TfL has known of this incident since March in all it's sordid detail. To suggest that we have to start a new process from scratch is, to say the least, frustrating.

In my initial post about this saga I wondered how the matter would be handled. The answer is not well. Not well at all.

Microsoft devalues standards process

More on Microsoft's maneuvers to get their own document specification adopted as a standard ...

It would be good if Microsoft would compete in the market place on the merit of their products. Instead we see the company rely more on marketing and politics. Microsoft have completely devalued the word "innovation", they have devalued individual standards through "embrace, extend and extinguish" and now they are devaluing the standards process itself:

Groklaw - Notes from Portugal on the July 16th Meeting on Ecma-376

With behavior like this Microsoft should be limited to making written submissions to standards meetings.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

OOXML is not even a specification!

Sorry to bang on the Microsoft OOXML but the idea of this document being adopted as a standard is so bizarre that it's kind of morbidly fascinating. It is also scary because Microsoft may have the power to make it happen.

This post highlights a number of things that should get OOXML swept off the standards table:

TalkBack: Um... | reader response on| CNET

... and from that the thing that strikes me as the most obvious reason why OOXML can not be a standard is that it is not even a complete specification!

Here are two quotes from OOXML:

" autoSpaceLikeWord95 (Emulate Word 95 Full-Width Character Spacing)

This element specifies that applications shall emulate the behavior of a previously existing word processing application (Microsoft Word 95) when determining the spacing between full-width East Asian characters in a document?s content."

" footnoteLayoutLikeWW8 (Emulate Word 6.x/95/97 Footnote Placement)

This element specifies that applications shall emulate the behavior of a previously existing word processing application (Microsoft Word 6.x/95/97) when determining the placement of the contents of footnotes relative to the page on which the footnote reference occurs. This emulation typically involves some and/or all of the footnote being inappropriately placed on the page following the footnote reference."

By referring to an external reference, i.e. the implementation of various versions of Word, the specification becomes un-implementable. What are the chances of Microsoft giving the world access the the source code of their Word program? Right. And even if they did, a pile of source code does not constitute a specification.

Buy your standards here

Microsoft desperately want their proprietary document file format to be adopted as a "standard". Here we read that Microsoft have been buying seats on a decision making panel in the US:

An Antic Disposition: OOXML Fails to Gain Approval in US

I hope the executive review mentioned in this piece will view the remarkable boost in the popularity of the Microsoft format with suspicion.

I also hope that the decision making bodies in the UK and the rest of the EU can resist Microsoft's money plays, and can keep the interests of the market and the public in mind.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Software Idea Patents: only the lawyers win

The following article supports the view that the only people to benefit from software idea patents are lawyers:

A Patent Is Worth Having, Right? Well, Maybe Not - New York Times

It seems from the article that large companies make a significant loss on software idea patent administration and litigation. The money ends up in the lawyers pockets.

I don't agree with the suggestion in the article that small companies and individuals are helped by these patents. Rather I believe that individuals and small companies who can't afford to pay the lawyers, or can't pay them enough, have their creativity stifled.

Patents on software ideas serve no public good at all. Software ideas simply should not be patentable ... unless the aim really is to generate revenue for lawyers.

Friday, July 13, 2007

EU Patents - the tide turns?

It looks like the people who love software idea patents are now viewing the status quo as their best bet in Europe:

Slashdot | Software Patent Debate Over in Europe For Now?

Fairly recently the fans of software idea patents were trying to revise EU statute law to include some case law which resulted from blunders made by the European Patent Office that let some software idea patents slip through. The argument then was that the law (statute + case) already supported software idea patents. This met some stiff opposition and thankfully the good guys won and the broken case law from the EPO was left flapping in the wind. Still dangerous, but not rolled into statute law.

Now the tide seems to have turned. The pro software idea patent people are now worried that if the issues are debated again the blunders of the EPO will be reversed and we will be left with statue law that clearly states that software is not patentable (i.e. back where we were several years ago). The result of their fear is a new found love for the status quo and a desire to suppress any further legislative moves.

Of course, the bad guys will be looking for any chance to start moving things back their way, so this is no time for complacency on the part of the good guys.

Software idea patents are a really bad idea. Statute law should clearly express that software can not be patented at all. EU law should be revised to make it clear that the EPO blundered in allowing even a whiff of software idea patents.

So, dear MEP, please don't let this matter drop.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Airports: more pain == good security?

It seems that when the UK government looks at border "security" the emphasis is on making it look serious by inflicting misery upon the typical traveler.

It further seems that so much effort has been expended on appearing to be secure that actual security is being ignored:

BBC NEWS | UK | UK defends its border procedures

Note the weasel words from the Home Office: their staff are "aware" of the Interpol list. Clearly they don't actually use it, though, because if they did the Home Office would have been saying that very loudly indeed.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Butrint, Albania

What a coincidence. We have just returned from a trip celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary and one of the place we visited was Butrint in Albania. I could describe it (the word remarkable would come up quite a bit), but I don't have to because just two days after we got home the BBC posted this:

BBC NEWS | Programmes | From Our Own Correspondent | Albania's long-lost Roman city

Butrint is really well worth a visit.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The SkillsBase Location Tree

We are in the process of making the SkillsBase hold location information in a form that can be searched. Currently we just provide a text field in which people can say where they are working and where they want to work. That will be replaced by the Location Tree.

Users of the SkillsBase will be familiar with the Skills Tree. This is a hierarchy of skills which has been built up as required by users of the SkillsBase. If someone needs to say they had a particular skill and it is not in the tree, an OpenSkills member can add it. The SkillsTree is a taxonomy but because it is defined by the OpenSkills community, some people may call it a folksonomy.

The location tree will also be a taxonomy where each entry (formally a "taxon") will represent a location. A location in this case will be a common usage term for a place in the world of work and jobs rather than the names of physical or political geographic entities. For example there may be an entry for "Greater Sydney" within which we might find the "CBD", or in the UK we may have "London" within which we will have "West End" and "City". And so on.

The root of the tree will be taken to be the planet. The next level down may be regions and countries. We must have an entry in the tree for every area which has distinct legislation regarding the right to work, which will mostly mean countries.

People will be able to link themselves to locations in the following ways:
  • A number of places of work can be associated with an engagement. In this way we can record where a person is working now (via engagements that have not ended) and where they have worked in the past (via engagements that have ended).
  • People can list where they have the right to work. Examples of a right to work would be citizenship or some kind of visa.
  • People can list where they would like to or be willing to work.
Now all we have to do is implement this in the SkillsBase, which is underway. Expect to see the first version out in July.

Hateful accounting: could be so much easier

I hate doing my accounts. I loathe doing tax returns. All this entering and re-entering of transaction information is painful. Everyone seems to want information in a different format. Ugh.

We should not have to suffer in this way.

Think about the moment when you pay for something, be it a can of beans or a new camera. At that point all the information about the transaction is available: time, location, price, tax, account being debited etc. ... but from that point the information gets split up. The bank gets a bit, the shop keeps a bit and we get a bit of paper so that we can re-enter all that information into an accounting program at home and later total it up for a tax form etc. etc.

What we need is a file format for a transaction that would capture all the details of the transaction. Everything. The size of the can of beans and how many cans (the makeup of the entire shopping basket!), the serial number of the camera, the tax authorities that took some money and how much. For one transaction this would be a small file, much smaller than, say, a photograph taken by the camera in your mobile phone.

Lets say that the till makes up this file (after all, the till needs all this information to do it's job). We can then save the file to customer media (e.g. your phone via bluetooth) or send it to your bank along with the other transaction details or even just print it out ... or all of the above.

Given one such little file for each transaction which I can add into my accounting system I can now easily search my records to find out when I bought the camera, what the serial number is, how much tax I paid etc. etc. I should be able to complete my tax return without having to re-enter any data. The only data entry point will be that moment at the till when the purchase was made.

There are two big issues:
  • The format of the file and getting banks, retailers, accountants to adopt it
  • Privacy: Who gets to see and/or keep a copy of the file
For the former I think we need to see some activity in a standards body like ISO, and I think we should look to our governments to kick off this process. Once started I think the interested parties will join in if only to avoid having something foisted on them without their having a say.

On the privacy I think we just need to be able to control who keeps the transaction files and how long they may be retained. By default the file is destroyed by the till and we just get a paper receipt, just like today. We should be able to have a copy of the file sent to a device of our choice (e.g. a phone or even the chip on the card we use for payment). For bank or credit card payments it may be useful to let the bank keep a copy of the file on their records (then imagine banks offering gmail-like on-line accounting facilities ... but that's for the future).

Let's get the transaction file format standardised first.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Smokers harm others. Do they care?

Have a look at this article by the BBC:

BBC NEWS | Politics | Smokers in last gasp stand on ban

Note that the smokers focus only on themselves and their own health choices. No mention is made of the the impact smoke has upon people who choose not to smoke.

Smokers have had their chance to behave like adults and to regognise the harm that their habit causes to others, but have largely ignored such issues.

I support the individual right to smoke. Really I do. But with rights come responsibilities, and it is the responsibility of the smoker to ensure that in exercising their right they do not infringe upon the rights of others, for example by imposing their waste (smoke, wrappers, butts etc.) upon others.

I would rather we did not need to have a no smoking law, but it seems that we must. It is the selfishness and failure, on the part of all too many smokers, to balance their rights against the rights of others which unfortunately means that smokers do indeed need to be "nannied".

In the end I reluctantly support the smoking ban.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

MMS: Multi-Currency & Google Checkout

Version 4-007 of the OpenSkills membership management system (MMS) has just been released.

OpenSkills is moving from operating as a public company in Australia to operating as a private company in the UK. OpenSkills will be the same in almost every respect from the point of view of guests, subscribers and members except for two things: There should be more time spent on improving the OpenSkills systems, and the subscription payments will be in British pounds (£, GBP) instead of Australian dollars (AUD). This new version of the MMS addresses the change of currency.

People who already subscribe to OpenSkills will have a payment history in AUD and we don't want to lose that history. All new payments will be in GBP. So, the MMS needs to be able to support both currencies at the same time. Version 4-007 shows amounts postfixing the currency code, for example the current subscription fee is "10.00 GBP" and the previous one was "20.00 AUD". Account balances show the total in each currency - no attempt is made to add sums of one currency to those of another. The implementaion of this in the MMS uses a few modelling tricks I came up with while working with investment banks, so the model is fairly robust.

The second significant change in v4-007 is the ability to pay using Google Checkout. This facility is disabled for now and will be switched on as soon as we get the Australian company finally closed down. When it is switched on uses of the MMS will see a Google Checkout button on their "My Account" page. Clicking that will send them off to Google Checkout where they can make a payment. This mechanism is better than the old ones because the account number is included in the information sent off to Google via the payment button, so no more anonymous payments to try and resolve!

There you go. If you see any problems when using this new version of the MMS please let us know at Thanks.

Friday, June 22, 2007

EU - "non" to open markets?

Recall that an early name for what is now the EU was the "common market". I think one of the key things that the EU can bring to it's citizens is a free, open and transparent market place. The French don't seem to like that, though:

BBC NEWS | Business | EU deal drops 'free competition'

The goals of "social cohesion" and "full employment" are good things to aim for but need to be arrived at by creating the right environment.

Free and open markets create a sound environment within which good things can grow. Forcing the result though market manipulation would be ugly and would end up propping up dying industries. Sarkozy's plan would see us still running steam engine factories just to keep the people who work there in a job, even if it's a dead end horrible job. No thanks. Lets keep the common market and make it even more open and transparent over time.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Parliament vs the EU

Read this with a large pinch of salt:

BBC NEWS | Politics | EC boss argues against referendum

In the above BBC article European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso appealed to Blair to not put the latest EU treaty to a UK referendum. He said:
"Britain is the country that exported Parliamentary democracy to the world. Do the British people consider Parliament the backdoor?"
This jumped out at me because I had just read in Private Eye that the UK government has avoided several attempts by the UK parliament to find out what the government would be trying to actually do at the current treaty summit. One parliamentary committee did manage to corner the foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, and ask her directly what was happening. Here is part of the exchange taken from the "Called to Ordure" column in Private Eye (BTW, it's much better done in the Eye (issue 1187)):
Regarding the treaty summit, Beckett said "This is a frozen debate, there is nothing on the table"

When Beckett is asked what she means when she uses the words 'meaningful negotiations'. Becket replies "If I did use the word 'meaningful' I did not mean it to carry any significance."

In response to increasingly frustrated questioners Beckett say that "There is nothing going on"

The civil servants who go in ahead of a summit are called "Sherpas" because they work out the draft wordings and tease out the issues that need to be resolved. When Beckett was asked what the Sherpas were discussing in the lead up to this summit, Becket answered "not much".

In short, parliament was kept in the dark and had absolutely no input into the treaty process at all.

So, Mr. Barroso, it's not so much that the UK parliament is a "backdoor" but rather that is not a door at all in this case.

I think we need that referendum.

NatWest "Don't know"

NatWest bank strikes again.

I received a new cash card from NatWest. The letter that came with the card said that the PIN would be the same as the old card I had.

Well, the old PIN did *not* work with the new card so I called NatWest. I was told that the old PIN should indeed have worked. The person I spoke to thought it was very strange that it did not but said the only thing that she could do was to send out a new PIN which I could use to set the PIN of my choice.

The story of PIN-1: The very next day I got a PIN notification letter from NatWest. This was an all time high in being impressed with the bank. The PIN (I'll call this PIN-1) came in one of those sealed envelopes that you have to rip apart to get at the contents and is thus, in theory, tamper evident. Anyway, PIN-1 worked perfectly and I was able to set my PIN (which I'll call my-PIN). All was well. The card even worked with my-PIN at the cash machine and at our local grocery store. Smashing.

The story of PIN-2: Sadly, PIN-1 is not the end of the story. Yesterday I got a second PIN notification letter from the bank. I was baffled so I took this letter, unopened, to the closest branch and asked why I had been sent it. In short, the answer was "don't know". I tested the card by using an ATM to see the account balance, and my-PIN still worked fine. The PIN (PIN-2) in the envelope did not work at all. The NatWest staff told me to "Just ignore the new PIN". Hmmm. OK.

The Story of PIN-3: Today I received a *third* PIN notification letter. Again I traipsed off to the branch and asked what was going on. After lots of guesses about what might be happening it came down again to "don't know". Once again I tested the card and my-PIN was still working. I decided to try the PIN in the latest (third) notification letter. Imagine my surprise when I see that the "new" PIN (PIN-3) is actually the same as my-PIN, the one I created and have been using over the last week! It will probably not surprise you to lean that the NatWest staff answered "Don't know" when asked what was going on.

Well, that's the story so far. My-PIN appears to still be working, though I'll be changing that after all this weirdness. I asked the bank staff to put a note on my account that all this has happened and ask the powers that be what happened and why. I'm not holding my breath for any answer other than "Don't know".

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

ID cards - Ugh

ID cards are a breathtakingly stupid idea. All the clued in IT people I know view these cards as something that will make identity theft more likely.

But the government only have ears for the companies that want to sell hardware and services (and in the process extract billions from UK tax payers), so we get this nonsense:

BBC NEWS | Politics | ID cards 'to be UK institution'

The sooner this mess gets scrapped the better.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Appointed Lords = No checks and balances

Blair wants to see an all appointed upper house:

BBC NEWS | Politics | Blair still backs appointed Lords

What a terrible idea. The party machine has control over the lower house with most decision making and debating happening behind closed doors among party members. An appointed house would hand the whole legislative engine to said party system.

The Lords is not perfect by any means, but I like the existing Lords because it brings together people, albeit mostly very privileged people, who are largely independent and who bring along their own view of the world, not the cookie-cutter party line.

I'm sure the Lords will change over time but but I do hope it retains it's ability to act as a real check and balance to the lower house. An appointed House of Lords would completely fail to do that.

Microsoft makes law?

I thought the political distortions brought about by corporate lobbying were bad enough, but now we see Microsoft actually writing new laws and then using lobbying to get them passed:

Slashdot | Microsoft Moves To Change NY State Election Law

This is going way too far. Government is supposed to be by the people and for the people but instead is increasingly for the vested interests by the corporations.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Banks vs. Customers

As an indication of the sorry state of UK retail banking we can observe the banks stonewalling not only their own customers but the courts as well:

BBC NEWS | Business | Customers win back bank charges

It's mind boggling, really. Banks should be providing services to customers which customers value. There should be competition between banks to provide the best combination of service and value. But that just not happening.

Banks seem to treat their own customers as an enemy in the war for the customers own money. Such a war mentality might explain the secrecy and open hostility UK banks exhibit.

I'm afraid it looks like we need to have the government step in here to force banks to be more transparent and to get the banking market to start acting like a real fluid market instead of the slightly (but only slightly) tense cartel we seem to have today.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

EU Constitution - Too big. Try again.

I do think that Europe would benefit from a written constitution but the current document on the table should most certainly not be it, even if made "simple":

BBC NEWS | World | Europe | EU constitution 'can be simple'

A constitution needs to set the tone and the intent and should be a fairly short document that can be read and understood by an average 18 year old.

Times will change, fashion will change and even laws will change, but through all that the constitution should remain as a stable foundation. The Giscard d'Estaing document is too big, too detailed and carries far too much baggage of *now* (well, OK, when the ideas were formulated in the late 90's) to be of any long term value.

What to do? Start again from scratch.

NatWest: So what should they do?

I have made some very negative points about NatWest bank of late. Really, the service I have received from them since getting back from Australia is nothing short of awful.

But let's be positive. What can NatWest do to improve their service?
  • Empower the customer facing staff. Staff should be there to help customers get the most out of the services offered by the bank. Instead staff currently seem to focus of forcing customers to follow constantly changing processes no matter whether the process is helpful or even appropriate. Currently it seems that most staff, with a few notable exceptions, treat customers with derision. It does not have to be this way.
  • Empower the "branches". By branch I mean my normal point of contact with the bank. NatWest have taken many functions away from the branches and call centers. The centralised services, which are hidden in back rooms, may be cost effective from an operational point of view (and thus apparently good news for shareholders) but it's lousy for customers since few problems can actually be resolved by the branch or any customer facing member of staff. If a real fluid market develops for retail banking in the UK then the shareholders of NatWest may not be so happy with operational efficiency that drives away customers. Of course, we don't have a fluid retail market for retail banking in the UK today, but that's another story.
  • One stop shop. No matter whether my "branch" is a building or a call center they should be able to handle all my needs. What should not happen is customers being passed back and forth between call centers and physical branches to resolve an issue. I have been in this crazy situation with NatWest and in the end the only solution was to go to the branch and call the call center from there with a member of the branch staff sitting next to me. I can tell you that the dirision directed at me that day was palpable ... until the NatWest staff realised what I was being put thorough and then they went rather quiet.
  • NatWest should actually listen to customers and actively encourage them to give feedback. The attitude among most NatWest staff is that the bank is a static thing that can never change so customers must adapt to the bank. This is backwards and the belief that things can never change leads staff to ignore customer feedback and even to take every customer comment as a criticism (some staff even take presumed criticism personally which creates unnecessary tension) rather than as a constructive suggestion.
  • Respond to customer feedback and make it obvious that you are doing so. The bank must not merely become responsive to customer feedback, it must be obvious that actions are driven by customers.
None of this should be too hard for an organisation as well funded as NatWest bank. All it needs is some genuine commitment from the leaders in the organisation.

NatWest fail again

The latest Nat West blunder is with a new debit card. They sent out the card and gave me the option of activating the card online, which I did. They did not send out a new PIN for the card, instead they said that the PIN I had with the previous card would work with the new one, but it does not. What a surprise.

After a conversation with a bank CSR (which they charge for. nice.) it seems that they just don't know what went wrong. Furthermore, they don't care. They just want to have me wait another 6 working days, which will be about 2 weeks, for their process to work it's way through.

Contrast this with the bank I was with in Australia who could fix a PIN problem in just a few minutes at a branch, and with American Express who can have a completely new working card in my hands within 24 hours.

So why stay with Nat West? Because banking in the UK is set up such that the pain of moving from one bank to another is enormous. The banks love this and do all they can to maintain this customer-hostile status quo.

Transparency 1 : MPs 0

It looks like the Lords have effectively killed an attempt by MPs to exempt themselves from the freedom of information act:

BBC NEWS | Politics | MP secrecy bill without sponsor

Good. The actions of all public officials should be open to public review.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

NatWest - wrong form

Yesterday I received the first piece of correspodence from NatWest bank regarding a new account that has been set up for OpenSkills, but the address it went to was not the best one for me. Inside the letter was a small form that could be used to request a change of address, so I filled it in and took it along to my local branch at St. Pauls.

At the branch things are set up with a receptionist at a desk near the door and then tellers to one side behind glass screens. When I went in the receptionist was helping someone with what seemed to be a very involved problem but one of the tellers was completely free, so I walked over and asked if I could leave the address change form with her, but no, she only did one kind of thing and I must wait in line to see the person at the reception desk to hand over my form. What nonsesne. Clearly NatWest have not asked their staff to help customers but rather to only do very narrowly defined tasks. Staff empowerment? Not at Nat West.

So I went back to the other line and waited for what seemed like ages (other people had joined the queue while I vainly tried to leave my little bit of paper with the teller). When I got to the front I just asked the receptionist if I could leave the form ... but even that would be too easy. My form was not the latest version of the address change form, it seems! Horror! I must go over to the seating area and complete the new kind of form. I pointed out that I had received my form in the post just the previous day ... but the receptionist was not impressed. By this point, neither was I. NatWest have clearly failed to implement the form changeover in a sane way. They failed to get their own systems to send out the new form and they failed to leave a time window during which both versions of the form could be used. Add to that the rigid inflexibility of the staff in such a small matter and you have one very unhappy customer.

I just walked out leaving the form I had already completed and signed. Let's see if NatWest can show some flexibility and try a little bit to actually (gasp) help their customers rather than treat them with derision.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Excellent music & open standards

If you are looking to download excellent recordings in open (non DRM encumbered, non lock-in) formats you may be interested to know that the remarkable Linn HiFi company make music available in the lossless FLAC format:

Linn Records

More power to them.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The EPO blunders because ...

Could self interest and money raising be part of the reason for the EPO blundering and blurring the law about the patentability of software ideas?

Euro patent workers have no faith in their masters | The Register

By not following the letter of the law (which says software patents are *not* allowed) the EPO have increased the number of patents being issued and this means more money for the EPO.

Something stinks here. The EPO should be run for the benefit of the public at large not to make a few Euro.

1998 - When software became patentable in the US

Software is still kind-of non-patentable in the UK and even Europe despite the best efforts of the European patent industry. Since a legal case in 1998, the US is not so lucky:

We've Got Algorithm--Software Patents Boom

The good news is that the UK and Europe can learn. We can see that in the US the only people who win from software idea patents are the people in the patent industry, i.e. the lawyers.

The big software companies now pay vast sums to play this new patent game, with their expensive legal teams building up and maintaining patent portfolios. These legal teams joust with the patent teams from other big companies and with the independent "patent troll"s. (The amazing thing about patent trolls is that they are staffed almost exclusively by patent lawyers and exist purely to exploit current patent law. They create nothing. They gather together a patent pool and wait, very much like a spider on it's web, for a creative individual to actually do something new. And then they strike).

In the US creative individuals are suppressed by these recent patent rule changes. Today, if an individual produces a commercial success they will be descended upon by the patent industry (with the patent trolls in the lead) and will be left with nothing to show for their creative work. In the US it is pretty much impossible to write a substantial software work without infringing on some trivial (but well defended) software idea patent or other.

What do the US public gain from this mess? Nothing. It's worse than useless. Exciting new ideas are held back while the big companies and their expensive legal teams squeeze revenue from their stale old (but patent protected) software ideas. Instead of being an incentive to be creative, patents in the US are now a reason to stand still.

The US is starting to feel sufficient pain from this madness to take a step back and think again (e.g. this article in eeTimes).

I hope that the UK and the rest of Europe are watching and that they can avoid the worst of the pain by making it crystal clear in legislation that software ideas are simply not patentable, as was the case in the US before 1988.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Defend the system, not the person

I think that Downing Street being closed to the public sends entirely the wrong message. It says big brother far more than it says open government.

The argument for the gates, which prevent the public getting near the heart of their government, is that Mr. Blair needs special protection (though the gates were installed by Mrs. Thatcher, before Mr. Blair came to be PM), but I feel that the gates are a massive and inapropriate overeaction.

Just how much of an overreaction? Well, ...

BBC NEWS | UK | Couple breach Downing St security

So two private indivduals, holidaymakers, wander onto Downing Street via an insecure government building are are arrested under the "Serious Organised Crime and Police Act".

How pathetic is that?

The system is valuable and worth protection, but the system is also robust and can survive the loss (in the most extreme and awful case) of an individial. I think the system is much more vulnerable to being undermined by overactions and secrecy and heavy handedness by those in power.

Mr. Blair, tear down those gates.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Oyster finds a new low

At the beginning of May Oyster finally agreed to send out a cheque refunding the >400% overcharge for our trip from Waterloo to Bank in mid March. They made no mention of the abuse Justina received from the TfL staff that day. I think we are supposed to just forget that.

Anyway, at least the cheque was on it's way ... or perhaps not. It turns out that Oyster sent the cheque to some old address they had on file. Our addresses were up to date on our online Oyster accounts so goodness knows where they dug up the old address from. They are refusing to say.

OK, so now they know that a mistake was made and that the cheque should be sent to the correct address, the one in our online Oyster accounts. Easy? Not a chance. Oyster have asked me to send in a paper letter by post asking if they would be kind enough to cancel the check they sent to the wrong address and if they would, please, send a new cheque to the correct address which they knew about all along.

Well, given that I have been exchanging written communication with Oyster for several months now via their (truly awful) issue management system I told them I would not waste the paper of the stamp and that they had all the information they needed to correct the mistake and could they please get on and do so.

So, they sulked and didn't say anything for a week or so. Today they came back with "Oh, we thought this issue was completely resolved".

I'm finding it hard to imagine how this could get any more silly. I fear Oyster/TfL will find a way.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

HSBC: Our customers don't need good security

The BBC reports that customers look to do business online with companies that have good policy for online privacy:

BBC NEWS | Technology | Good privacy pays for web stores

HSBC, though, thinks its customers don't want them to spend too much money on security:

Computing | HSBC questions online security tool

Right, because all HSBC customers put their own privacy and security second to the profits of HSBC.

... or maybe not.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Microsoft starts the embrace of Linux

Following on from the Novell deal (which looks like it will be neutered by GPLv3) Microsoft get into a deal with Xandros, a Linux distro provider:

Microsoft's Protection Racket? -

Are we at the start of the "embrace" phase of Microsoft's oft repeated "embrace, extend and extinguish" strategy? Should we expect Microsoft to announce that it will be extending Linux soon?

The game is afoot.

The rules: The bank always wins

I have just spent a happy hour or so resolving a problem caused because Nat West on line banking has a data error.

It's not a huge deal and I'm sure it was an honest mistake but the effect was that a payment to a utility was sent to the wrong account and I got a red letter from the utility company. There was nothing at all I could have done to prevent this since all the critical information was hidden from me by Nat West, but once the problem came to light a few phone calls to the utility and the bank sorted it out.

The bank said sorry for the inconvenience (kind of, if you tried really hard to interpret it that way).

But it took more than an hour of my time to sort this out. Add to that the the bank chooses to only help customers if they call a number that they get paid for (really, it's profit center).

Now if I had made an honest mistake that had resulted in an account going overdrawn when it should not, or if a cheque had bounced or some other thing had happened, then as sure as eggs are egge the bank would have slapped me with an admin charge to "cover their costs".

What about my costs?

At least they said sorry. Kind of.

Microsoft eat their young

Microsoft boss Steve Ballmer famously shouted that it is the developers that make the difference and that his company would do all it could to attract clever young developers to the proprietary Microsoft development platform.

So one young man heeded the call and not only used the Microsoft tool set but he extended it too! Microsoft initially gave him an award, but then ...

Microsoft threatens its Most Valuable Professional | The Register

This vicious behavior on the part of Microsoft is all about defending their revenue stream at all costs. Even at the cost of eating the very young people that they so desperately need.

Monday, June 04, 2007

OpenSkills - helping with some hard things

Identity and reputation management is hard:

Slashdot | Online Reputation Is Hard To Do

OpenSkills is very interested in this topic because to help people make the most of their skills we need people to have confidence in what they find in the SkillsBase.

We are starting slowly and adding in reputation features as we go. The foundation is the use of OpenPGP keys to help ensure that "people" in OpenSkills really are people.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Patent Game: if you pay, you can play

Here is another example of why software idea patents are so bad. In this case a company called Eolas holds a software idea patent that is blocking Microsoft. Microsoft are directing a swarm of lawyers at the problem and ...

USPTO gives Microsoft chance to overturn Eolas browser plug-in patent

Could I do this? No. Eolas would squash me like a bug.

The software idea patent game is one that you can only play if you have heaps of money. ... or if you are a patent lawyer in which case you get to receive heaps of money.

So, assuming that the purpose of software idea patents is something other than making patent lawyers wealthy, why do we have them?