Stoopid is as Stoopid does…
I’m not the first to observe this by any means - Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert has made a career and damn good living out of it - but if this planet has one inexhausable, infinitely renewable resource then that resource in human stupidity…
… and there’s nothing so certain to bring that fact home to you than a few hours a week spent on the Internet.
The simple fact is that there are still plenty of people out there who are dumb enough to…
- send their bank account details to someone who e-mails them with the opening gambit of
“Good day, My name is Joshua N’Dombo and I am been working for the Nigerian Oil Minister for the last nine years…“
- invest money in what are obviously either pyramid or ponzi schemes
- believe they’ve won the Elbonian Lottery, which they’ve never even heard of let alone entered, just because someone sends them an e-mail telling them they’ve won
Never mind the whole business of believing that your bank/building society/credit card company needs you to remind them what your username, password and pin number is or that you really are going to win the big prize from that scratchcard that arrived through the post and not some crappy faux gold pendant that even Gerald Ratner would have refused to stock, just so long as you phone a premium rate line at £3 a minute - because, of course, your card is going to be the only winner.
Now to that venerable list of human stupidity we can add all those people who blithely handed over their e-mail addresses to the Labour Party through its ‘Big Conversation’ website without ever expecting to hear from them again.
Ok, as might be obvious by now this is a bit of a continuation of something which started with me debunking Guido Fawkes’ ineptly researched innuendos regards the Labour Party’s campaign e-mails during the recent election campaign here and here. - a spat which has brought in nigh on 200 visitors from the BBC in just over 24 hours since being featured on their website.
The difference this time is that, thanks to a comment from Eliot Flack-Hill the so-called ‘concerns’ of ‘privacy campaigners’ become oh very much clearer.
Eliot, to start with, takes issue with my assertion that only Labour Party members and people registering through Labour’s website went on to receive e-mails from the party. Not True, says Eliot, he only added a comment to the ‘Big Conversation’ website.
Mmmm. And just who did you think owned that website, Eliot? After all it was a Labour Party policy initiative which was announced at the Labour Party Conference and was paid for by… you guessed it… the Labour Party.
Eliot then goes on to admit that not only did he blithely hand over his e-mail address when asked by the site but he also ‘can’t recall what that site stipulated re personal data’ which would generally suggest that he didn’t bother to check anyway, making him would generally be known in trade as ’spambait’ as the experienced netizen knows damn well that you never, ever give a proper personal e-mail address to a website you’re not planning to use on a regular basis - that’s what free and eminently disposable webmail accounts at Hotmail and Yahoo are for.
But then none of that matters as he’s sure that if he’d have known that his e-mail address would wind up being used by Labour, at a later date, to send e-mails to him he would not have bothered with the Big Conversation in the first place.
It’s here that we step into the realms of logical inference as follows:
Q - A Labour Party website asks you for your e-mail address. Why?
A - So they can send you emails. Duh!
What we’re people expecting? A personal reply from Tony? A quick note to say sorry for invading Iraq?
Come on folks, it not difficult is it? Yet even with the benefit of hindsight it seems some folks still can;t work it out for themselves.
Ultimately we get to Eliot’s real beef which echo’s Guido’s comments about Tory voters getting e-mails from Labour when he says:
“I feel that Labour’s use of electronic data during the election campaign was exessive [sic], dishonest and underhand - I got more emails from Labour (referring to me as ‘Dear Supporter’ and some of them ludicrously claiming to be from ‘Tony Blair’) than I did from the Lib Dems, of whom I AM a member.”
Leaving aside the obvious questions like…
- Why not just click the unsubscribe link and have yourself removed from the mailing list?
- Have you never come across the concept of spam filtering?
Both of which become rather salient when you find out that Eliot is a software developer for IBM mainframes and can, therefore, hardly claim to be a total novice when it comes to information technology/
It seems the real ‘issue’ here has more to do with Labour having stolen a march on the other parties by taking the time bring in people who understood how to use the available technology to full extent permissable in law. It just happens that one of the people brought in - Zack Exley - has a bit of name recognition value due to his work during the US Elections which allows the likes of Guido Fawkes to feed on the paranoia and ignorance of some of the less net savvy amongst us.
Just to finish the analysis, I’ve now been through several of the Labour Party e-mails to look at exactly what was going on ‘under the hood’.
First thing to note is absence of embedded scripting or IFRAME tags - so nothing was happening unless you actually clicked on a link or image in the e-mail anyway. Sure they knew they’d sent you an e-mail as Guido states - of course they did, they sent the damn thing in the first place - but after that you were only even going to register ‘on the radar’ is you chose to click on a link and make something happen all by yourself.
Second, the only link to have a consistant personal identifier string attached to it was the unsubscribe link and it appears that the only change made to this link after the ‘Clem Atlee’s Battlebus’ e-mail from Matt Carter on 19th April - which was the last to use any ‘hidden’ scripting was that the method of unsubscribing was changed from a website link, which automatically unsubscribed you further e-mails to a mailto link which generated an unsubscribe e-mail you had to send manually.
The only e-mail to use this link other than for the purpose of registering your intent to unsubscribe from Labour’s mailing list was one that was ostensibly from Tony himself, announcing that he’d gone to the Queen to seek the dissolution of Parliament, and which used this identifier on links to volunteer for election duty and to invite recipients to send their questions to Tony via the Labour website.
And just for the ubergeeks out there, this identifier was in the form of four 8 character strings - a total of 32 characters in all - which is also, as it happens, the length of a GUID (global unique identifier) field used in most SQL-based databases, including MySQL on which this very blog runs.
Third, the other identifers in e-mails appear to relate only to specific elements in the email such as a particular image or link, i.e. ‘donate’ or ‘volunteer’. These used indentifiers in the format ‘LNK’ plus a 5 digit serial number - giving too few combinations, in fact, to allow for individual link tracking. These would have given Labour only statistical data on which particular links/images people were more inclined to respond to. Did people respond better to e-mails from Tony or did they prefer to be hearing from John O’Farrell? Did a generic appeal to support Labour work better than one which played on the party’s support for the NHS?
There idenitifiers, likewise, disappeared after April 19th, although whether as result of ‘pressure’ from the likes of Guido or simply becuase they’d already done their job by that point is, at this stage, still unclear. As I mentioned in my original piece, for a legal standpoint Guido was simply blowing smoke and has/had nothing which would stand up in court. However people like Zack Exley have been around long enough to understand how even a wrong-headed and inaccurate analysis like that which Guido finally put forward can easily blow up to the point where issues with the medium overtake the message that being put across to the detriment of the campaign as a whole.
In all, these hidden links undoubtedly provided useful stuff for the marketeers looking to identify which messages worked best and drew the best response but nothing which could be used to track individual behaviour, let alone tie that behaviour back to a specific person and post code.
So what’s all that about? Was it really the Beast of Redmond that was watching all along?
Well not really. This same type of link seems to crop up in many places on the net and on many different and unrelated websites and appears to be nothing more than Microsoft’s own proprietory version of Google Juice - hit the link and your hit on the site/page is first logged by MSN Search and goes some way to bumping your site up its search engine rankings and also, in the new cases, triggering their web crawlers to register and index the site with their own search engine before you are forwarded on the page you actually want - sneaky, yes, in a putting one over the competition (Google, Yahoo) kind of way but hardly a threat to your privacy.
And that’s all folks. That’s the whole shebang laid bare and in detail and nothing, really, to get worked up about at all.
If people want to debate the ethics of Labour’s use of new technology during the election campaign then fine, go ahead, its probably of interest to some - just don’t go wasting your time, effort and especially your money mount fruitless legal challenges because the only thing that’ll get you is a sizable bill…
… and don’t forget, by the time the next major election comes around - probably not next year’s local elections but almost certainly the next round elections in the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament - it won;t just be Labour doing this but the other two major parties as well.
Res Ipsa Loquitur
Clueless in California
Tuesday May 24th 2005, 3:15 pm
Filed under: Media
Bizarre stuff on the Beeb’s website at the moment about ‘Christian Video Games’ which claims that Christian game developers are ‘taking a stand’ against the demonic forces of Doom and Resident Evil.
Even more bizarrely, Rev Ralph Bagley, developer of a game called ‘Catechumen‘ claims that what the market wants is…
“No blood, no guts, no gore,” before adding;
“What we want are emotionally full games that don’t just rely on adreneline.
But hey, lets not stop there ‘cos things are about to get even stranger as after a rambling preamble about early Roman persecution of Christians, the sales pitch for the game goes on to read…
“Catechumen is a first person action/adventure Christian game where your goal is to defeat the forces of evil, descending deeper into the depths of the Earth and rescue your captured brethren.
Choose from eight powerful spiritual weapons. Each weapon has its own unique use. Maximize your firepower by learning each weapon’s abilities. Find the lightning sword, the drill sword, the explosive staff and more.
Encounter Satan’s minions and banish them back to their evil realm. Evil lurks everywhere you turn. With your Sword of the Spirit in hand, you must confront the demons head on and show them nothing can overcome the power of the Holy Spirit.
Restore your spiritual health by finding scrolls containing God’s Word. In Catechumen, you survive by faith. When your faith gets too low, pick up the many scrolls scattered across the lands to renew your faith and continue your journey.
Descend deeper and deeper into the depths of the underworld. Your journey will take you into the very heart of evil, through 18 hand-crafted, highly detailed levels. Each level you visit is unique and each has its secrets you must uncover.
N’Lightning Software’s Christian Game: Catechumen
Rescue your captured Christian brethren. Your mentor and some of his flock have been taken hostage by the evil Roman Empire, controlled by Satan himself. The forces of evil and darkness will claim a great victory if he does not survive! Take up this quest and fight for the Lord!”
All of which amounts to -
Hey guys, fancy a game of Doom with the blood turned off? Look, seriously its ok? You’re still fighting demons like the in the real thing but its Christian, you see, ‘cos we’ve given you the Holy Hand-Grenade of Antioch instead of the BFG…
And lets not forget the ‘Evil Roman empire’ - what did they ever do for us?
All right … all right … but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order … what HAVE the Romans done for US? - sorry, couldn’t resist, y’know
This is almost as weird as the idiots digging up fossils and then claiming that the dinosaurs died out in the biblical flood or even that they were taken on to Noah’s Ark - there’s even a ‘feasibility study’ on whether Noah could have accomodated them all - only if they were ‘juveniles’ apparently, which conjures images of Kevin the Teenage T-Rex stomping round the Ark and complaining about having to clean out the Brontosaurus pen - and best of all, a Christian Theme Park which shows dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden.
My favorite bit in all this is this wonderful example of spurious logic:
“Creationist researcher John Woodmorappe has calculated that Noah had on board with him representatives from about 8,000 animal genera (including some now-extinct animals), or around 16,000 individual animals. When you realize that horses, zebras, and donkeys are probably descended from the horse-like ‘kind’, Noah did not have to carry two sets of each such animal. Also, dogs, wolves, and coyotes are probably from a single canine ‘kind’, so hundreds of different dogs were not needed.”
Errr….. right. Yeeeessssss!
So what your actually saying here is that Noah didn’t need to take two actual horses, two zebras and two donkeys, he just took two of their common ancestor…
…and the same goes for dogs as well. Never mind the whole business of wolves, coyotes, dingos, jackals not to mention everything from Irish Wolfhounds to the runty lite rat dogs like Chiahuahuas and Yorkies, Noah just took a couple of ancestral canines from which all these breeds and species are descended.
But hang on a second, here. If all Noah took was a couple of each ancestral species and not the full modern day set then how, exactly, did we get from A to B, so to speak, from a pair of antedeluvian canines to the modern day variety of species in all their glorious diversity?
Has God been popping back from time to time for a little carefully re-modelling? Has he been sitting their in heaven and thinking:
‘I’m fucking bored with having only one species of dog so I think I’ll just have a play around with a few new designs, give one or two of ‘em a bit of make over’
Or could it be, instead, that things have sort of evolved along the way of their own accord - which does tend to fuck up your whole argument just a tad and make you look like a bunch of halfwits, doesn’t it?
Whoops, there I go, blaspheming again… but I’ll get to that shortly.
Campaign for Real Politics
I didn’t get round to watching last night’s Dispatches but even having read Justin’s blistering assault on the alternate reality of Labour’s election campaign over at the excellent The Sharpener - which will be even better when they fix the RSS feed - I still find it difficult to get worked up over the programme’s supposed revelations.
As soon as I started to read Justin’s article synchronicity - and my MP3 player - provided me with the perfect soundtrack to the piece, the unmistakeable sound of David Byrne and the Talking Heads classic ‘Once in a Lifetime’.
Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.
New Labour’s carefully planned
marketing election campaign may have been just that much slicker, that much more better organised, coordinated and managed than ever before. The Emperor may have bought himself a shiny new outfit to dazzle the crowds, he may even have had the crowds hand-picked for him for their slack-jawed adulation and their phocine delight in his every uttered word…
… but none of it could really be considered new or different. A mousetrap is still a mousetrap even if you do manage to build a better one.
Should we really be so surprised to find our political leaders indulging in the art of myth-making and, if so, why?
Why should this come as such a surprise when so much of what the public has come to accept as the ‘truth’ is nothing more propaganda, hypocrisy and carefully contructed works of fiction? When Shakespeare, our greatest playwright, is also our greatest propagandist and and the perpetrator of the single most effective political hatchet job of all time - on Richard III.
Sun Tzu wrote of the use of propaganda to foment division between the leaders and their followers more than 2000 years ago - just as both opposition parties sought to do during the last election campaign, with some success, by targetting Blair’s personal integrity on Iraq.
500 years ago Niccolo Machiavelli wrote of converting the world through propaganda, considered religion to be the ‘most indispensable propaganda device’ and hypocrisy a legitimate tool of statecraft.
A mere 190 years ago, Von Clausewitz identified war as being ‘politics by other means’ - a terms which surely resonates when one considers - again - the question of Iraq which played such a large part in the last election campaign.
And it was around 50 years ago that Phillip K Dick - who gets a name check in Justin’s article - wrote of the subtleties of manipulating public opinion to political ends in a short story called ‘The Mold of Yancy’, a story based on the Eisenhower presidency but which almost perfectly predicts frightening manipulative power of dressing up political agendas in mass-market homespun philosophy and simple truisms to the extent that it could almost be considered a textbook for the current Bush presidency.
Lies, hypocrisy, propaganda and carefully constructed fictions are the stock-in-trade of political culture and hve been for as long as there has been politics itself. The methods may change. They may become more sophisticated and subtle but otherwise its business as usual - the Spectacle goes ever on and on.
The other big match
I’ve been mulling over writing something on the general subject of my frustrations with bureaucrats in general, and particularly the public sector variety who tend to get right up my nose when I came across this from today’s Guardian.
Am I alone here in thinking that there’s something deeply and desperately wrong with a situation where the Chief Exec of a Local Authority feels able to demand the resignation of a democratically elected Leader of a Council and, not only that, put a deadline on the decision - especially when the whole dispute seems to stem from that same unelected officer having a hissy fit over local politicians refusing to play ball with his request that they fast track an extra £200K into his personal pension fund to avoid changes in tax regulations.
In fact should the people of Liverpool not be demanding the Chief Exec’s resignation for having the cheek to ask for that payment in the first place.
Clearly things have a reached an impasse where one of the two will have to go and with the Council Leader, Mike Storey, looking likely to get the full backing of the ruling Lib Dem group is seems that it will be the Chief Exec, Sir David Henshaw, who’ll be picking up his P45 in fairly short order - which, as far as I’m concerned looks to be the right result.
More important, however, are the issues this current spat raises about the current state of the local democracy and our local councils at the heart of which is the question of accountability.
More and more it seems to me that the gradual erosion of the authority of local councillors is damaging not only local democracy itself but also the relationship that local people have with their elected representatives, a relationship which should underpin our whole social concept of citizenship.
To some extent this problem derives from the transfer of much of what were one local authority responsibilities to either central of regional governmental structures although some of the problem also lies in the bureaucratic culture to be found at officer level in most councils and, indeed, across geovernment as a whole at all levels, a culture which seems to do its best to avoid and even, where possible, deny the simple fact these people - these public servants - are supposed to be working for us. Its sad to reflect that as much as I hear local people complaining about council officers who don’t listen to their concerns, who treat them like idiots and who rarely, if ever, can be bothered to get off their collective arses and do something to help, these days I’m just as likely to hear the same things from councillors when talking to them ‘off the record’ and this must be doubly frustrating for our elected representatives as its generally they, not the civil servants and council officers - the bureaucrats - who carry the can when things go wrong and public feels that its not being well served.
There’s far more to democratic accountability than simply the whole business of elections and elected representatives, Changing the present voting system to one based on proportional representation may give a greater veneer of ‘fairness’ - and then again it may not as I’ve not yet seen a wholly convincing argument - but on its own that won’t address the real issue here which are about not only the accountability of our elected representatives but of the whole machinery of state that goes with them.
To my mind the real threat to democracy lies not in the question of whether the present electoral system gives our elected representatives a real mandate to govern but on the seemingly growing inability of those representatives, especially at local level, to hold non-elected officers to account on our behalf, an issue which requires an altogether more fundamental rethink of the nature of the relationship between the people and the state.