Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Thoughts on our response to terrorism

Earlier today I posted a collection of thoughts on Twitter in response to the tragic bombing attack in Manchester last night. My friend, Tony Hirst, pointed out I had neglected to link them through threading. They are, therefore, reproduced in order below. If we are angry, fearful, sad, vengeful or harboring all of these emotions and more, we should try to focus them on a renewed determination to value our shared humanity and open society based on fundamental rights and the rule of law.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Hugenholtz on the proposed EU publisher's intellectual property right

Professor Bernt Hugenholtz's 15 minute contribution (starting 3:03:40 into the morning session) at European Copyright - Quo Vadis event at the European University Institute, pointing out the proposed new EU publishing right intended protect news organisations is a fake solution to a very real problem, is well worth viewing.

Prof Hugenholtz recommends his colleague Prof. dr. Mireille M.M. van Eechoud's extremely balanced 65 page report on the issue, A publisher’s intellectual property right: Implications for freedom of expression, authors and open content policies.

Prof van Eechoud has been running a project at IViR, the Institute for Information Law at Amsterdam University, taking a critical look at the proposed introduction of a new intellectual property right for publishers of press publications.

Prof Hugenholtz opens by highlighting the avalanche of negative academic responses to the proposal for the publishing right. It fails the test of being good or making existing regulation better on every count. But he does have some sympathy with the EU officials lumbered with drafting this proposal, most likely under orders from their previous boss, Commissioner Oettinger.

The underlying rationale of finding a way to protect or sustain the news publishing industry which is facing serious decline is a worthy one. That decline constitutes a severe social democratic and economic problem - just witness Trump and fake news amongst the consequences - that academics and others should be investing time and energy in. What truly effective and proportionate means could we come up with to enable sustainable, independent news organisations that challenge and speak truth to power?

Thursday, April 27, 2017

To the Open University Foxcombe Hall-ers who cared, thank you

Tomorrow, Friday, 28 April, 2017, just another day in the calendar for many, is when the Oxford regional centre of the Open University closes down, permanently.

That arrow near the red brick chimney is pointing at the window of my, now largely bare, office where I'm typing these words.

After 41 years - we moved in in 1976 - the biggest university in the UK is withdrawing from one of the geographic educational heartlands of the globe. The main mansion house on the site was built in the 1880s by the Rev Henry Woods, Bursar and subsequently President of Trinity College Oxford and his wife, Margaret, a highly distinguished literary scholar. The site was sold to Lord Berkeley in 1893 and was a theological college from 1934 to the mid 1970s. Couple of pictures of the inside of the hall from the 1900s -

Because of the OU's funding arrangements the purchase of the site needed high level approval in the department for education and the treasury at the time.

Since then this beautiful setting -

- has been filled with amazing, inspirational, dedicated, deeply caring & knowledgeable people, who transformed the lives of thousands of Open University students. Often at significant personal cost.

The secret of the OU’s success, for most of the past half century or so, has been the goodwill of the staff and the students. This institution has simply been about putting people in touch with people, people who care; and creating, enabling and nurturing the materials, support and conditions for learning, personal development and growth.

The people in Foxcombe Hall, on a daily basis, have engaged in nothing short of societal magic and it has been my real privilege to work with you, know you and call you friends, for the past 22 years. The Open University will be a desperately poorer place without you and this enchanting setting, now to be transformed to no more than a cash asset on a balance sheet.

The regional centre in Leeds is also closing tomorrow. East Grinstead, London, Birmingham and Newcastle have already closed. Bristol and Cambridge will follow shortly. Open University Magic flowed from all those places too.

Whatever you all do in the future - and I can only wish you all the very best of good fortune with it - and no matter how unwise you understand the decision to shut down our regional infrastructure was, no one can ever take away the difference you made, here at the OU.

Thank you for caring.

Note: All colour photos in this post © Peter Thompson, our resident photographer and IT specialist.

Now, somewhat appropriately perhaps, as I consider shutting down this computer and carrying the remainder of my belongings to the car, the heavens outside have opened in something of a deluge...

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Investigatory Powers Act codes consultation

The Home Office consultation on the Investigatory Powers Act codes of practice is due to close this week at 11.45am on 6 April.

The codes run to 400+ pages of provisions with a number of changes from previous versions and don't exactly constitute the most accessible form of prose you're likely to come across this week (or month or year).

I was planning to contribute to the consultation but the consultation period has been very short (23 Feb to 6 April) and I haven't had the capacity or the time to do so.

At the prompting of the good folks at the Open Rights Group I have therefore written to the Home Office requesting an extension in the consultation period, as below.
I am writing to request an extension in the consultation period and some more detailed explanatory materials for the Investigatory Powers Act Codes of Practice on

·         Interception of communications: draft code of practice
·         National security notices: draft code of practice
·         Bulk acquisition of communications data: draft code of practice
·         Equipment interference: draft code of practice
·         Security and intelligence agencies’ retention and use of bulk personal datasets: draft code of practice

Having followed the passage of the Investigatory Powers Bill through Parliament and contributed to a succession of consultations on it, I continue to hold serious reservations about the powers contained in the Investigatory Powers Act passed last year. Provisions on how the expansive powers contained in the more than 300 pages of the Act are going to work in practice that should have been contained in the text of the Act, have been incorporated, in difficult to interpret language, into the 400 plus pages of the codes of practice.

I would like to make a contribution to this consultation but it will not be possible for me to do so before the closing date of 6 April.

I respectfully request that the consultation period be extended by at least three months and that the Home Office provide some further explanatory information about how it is intended that these codes of practice be interpreted.

Thank you.

Yours sincerely,

Ray Corrigan

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Aircraft windscreens, 3 phase supplies and the power of algebra

Many moons ago I worked on development type testing of aircraft. It meant I got to break bits of airplanes for a living, by building specially tailored flight simulation rigs and testing the parts to destruction. Fun.

One of the components I did a lot of testing on were both military and commercial airliner windscreens and canopies. Before they are allowed anywhere near a flying machine, prototype designs are subject to bird strike, hailstone impact, pressure, lightning strike, thermal shock, chemical resistance and a significant range of other tests to ensure they can comfortably manage operational demands. Typically they will have an operating safety factor of x4. Which means even with the stronger of the two main structural laminates of a windscreen damaged to the point of being completely unable to take any load, the window could still withstand four times standard flight operating pressure.

These things are intentionally vastly over-designed for safety reasons and the testing continues on components passed for flight, to ensure stock rolling off the production line continues to be manufactured to designed and approved standards. Given the broken insecure infrastructure of the internet, the information systems industry has a lot to learn from their counterpart engineers in aerospace.

The average airline passenger would be surprised at both how crude and how complex aircraft windscreens are. They form critical parts of the structure of the plane for a start. Typically they will be laminated, non isotropic, structurally reinforced, electrically heated components, subject to a vast range of three dimensional thermal, structural and corrosive dynamic and shock stress conditions. And they provide an endless stream of challenging, interesting technical problems.

Typically a 3 phase delta connected gold or other metalic thin film is embedded in the window for de-icing purposes. Now being a bit of a techie and fan of maths I occasionally get asked what's the point of algebra, usually off the back of complaints about it being too difficult or useless. Well I do some maths modelling at the Open University summer school structures lab and students click with that because it's done in the context of understanding bridge structures.

The algebra below, though, also had practical application. We had an electrical failure on a windscreen and a critical need to know the actual resistance level of the individual phases of the gold film. Every engineer going through university gets taught the formula for calculating parallel resistances. Unfortunately, we needed to know the resistances of the internal phases of the gold film not the the ones we could read on the meter from the electrical contact points on the exterior of the windscreen. The result was some algebraic manipulation, outlined below, which doesn't appear in the average engineering course to produce the final equations we needed to understand what was going on inside the screen and how far we might push it.

It took a little bit of care and the odd non intuitive jump but it got us out of a hole with the faulty windscreen. I had forgotten the case but came across it again in clearing out my office to move out of Foxcombe Hall which the Open University are sadly closing and have sold to Peking University HSBC Business School.

With luck an engineer or two, stuck on a parallel problem to my compromised windscreen, might trip over this post and save time trying to work out the necessary equations (it took a while) and get to the practical numbers they need to fix their prevailing issue.

Update: The algebra above involved a lot of playing about with letters at the time. The key is getting to equation 10 which is obvious when you see it but the steps to get there, particularly 4,5 and 6 were not initially intuitive to me - I couldn't, at the outset, see where I was going. A friend of mine, Tony Nixon, has developed a terrific game for teaching algebra, using tiddlywinks counters. He teaches people to move the counters around without them realising the rules they are using are those of algebra. The approach is to give people the confidence to mess around with the counters - without the panic induced at the sight of an x or a y (often a result of poor teaching) - whilst knowing that as long as the student follows the rules, each step is legitimate. The trick is then to facilitate the visualisation of the key stages, thereby aiding the process of determining which moves the student is best advised to use to progress towards their solution. In the case of the three phase windscreen problem above, the latter stages probably look more complicated to a student, since they involve keeping track of more letters. Yet all the heavy conceptual lifting is done by the time we reach equations 10 and 11 i.e. the difficult stuff was in determining which moves to make to arrive at a point where the answer essentially falls out.