Harry Metcalfe

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“If it’s not save to breathe…”: let us count the ways

Inspired by a post on facebook, I thought I’d respond to this image, which is doing the rounds:

If it's not safe to breathe...

If it’s not safe to breathe…

There are lots of reasons why it might be safe to eat something, but not to breathe it. These are all conjecture, but not fanciful:

  1. Some things are safe to ingest, but not safe to inhale. Airborne mould spores might be a good example. (Edit: A better example, suggested by David Edwards, is flour, eg, Bakers’ Asthma)
  2. Someone breathing a spray will absorb whatever is being sprayed in much greater concentration than someone who eats some of the liquid after it’s landed on a surface. You would not inhale the spray from an air freshener, but you probably wouldn’t throw away the apples just because a little of it landed on them.
  3. Inhalation is a much more direct route to the bloodstream than ingestion. Ingested substances are acted on by numerous things (saliva, stomach acid, bile, etc) before being absorbed.
  4. The substance being sprayed might be hazardous to health, but might break down into harmless substances by the time it’s harvested. This is the way some of domestic cleaning products work, which are sometimes quite harmful to aquatic life but which are designed to break down before they reach watercourses.
  5. The substance might not be absorbed into the plant, and might therefore be washed off the produce by the time it is eaten. A bit like airborne particulate pollution from burning fossil fuels.
  6. The substance might be absorbed into the plant, but not in sufficient concentration to be dangerous. A bit like green potatoes  which contain (poisonous) solanine. But not so much that using up the odd old potato will do you any harm.

There are probably more. I haven’t thought about it very much.

There are definitely serious, legitimate questions about the way modern agriculture works and how we should produce enough food to feed everyone. But pictures like this one oversimplify the issues, superficially appeal to people’s misconceptions about science and technology, and do not help to advance the debate.


Religious ideas, a tabula rasa and an atheist parent

I’ve been wondering a lot recently about what one should tell children about the world. I wouldn’t want to be so grandiose as to call this “education”. More, a bit of uncertainty about what to tell children who ask things, what to tell them proactively, and (perhaps most importantly) what should not be told to them at all. (NB: by “tell”, I don’t mean once. I mean consistently, over time).

I am certain that there are some things that it would be unethical to tell children. For example, it would not be ethical to tell things to a child in order to obtain obedience by inducing a permanent state of fear, because (I am reasonably sure) that would be very likely to have a lasting and damaging influence on their emotional and intellectual development, which would cause them to suffer, without any countervailing benefit.

I think, but am not certain, it is unethical to tell children things which are objectively false (as best we can tell) and which (unlike the ordinary healthy fantasies of childhood) are likely to lead to long-lasting and systematic belief in falsehoods. This is partly because I think it is important to understand what is true and what is not. But also because, for systematic belief in falsehoods to be maintained, one has to adopt ways of thinking which reduce cognitive dissonance, and allow the truths which challenge that belief to be rationalised away.

By way of example: it would not be ethical to tell children that the world is flat, and that contrary views are part of a huge conspiracy. This (manifestly) would be a false thing to tell a child. And maintaining that belief, in the face of the evidence to the contrary, would probably necessitate telling the child an even bigger falsehood: that such conspiracies exist in the world, that all of the contrary evidence is fake or wrong, and that a vast swathe of people in the world are either stupid or are liars seeking to keep the population ignorant.

And it would probably also necessitate systematising damaging ways of thinking, like confirmation bias, communal reinforcement, deliberate avoidance of new information or dissenting views, and myriad other fallacies and bad habits. Mental acrobatics of that sort would be necessary to hold the falsehood up.

There are many examples of this sort of thing in everyday life. Things which (I stress) I would not want to shelter a child from, but would strongly want to avoid being told to a child repeatedly, unquestioned, as fact, over time. The odd bit of wrong here or there is of no consequence at all. And bits of wrong which are asked about and explained are positively valuable.

Some of these sorts of things I mean are:

  • The idea that modern medicine (and vaccination in particular) does more harm than good, is mostly about money, and that alternative medicine is more effective (an idea whose adherents are responsible for many premature deaths)
  • The idea that some groups of people, different from the child in some irrelevant way, should be treated differently and should not have the same civil and human rights as everyone else
  • The idea (perhaps obviously at this point) that there exists a personal god with an interest in human affairs, who can influence our lives, who has set rules to govern our conduct, and to whom we should supplicate ourselves

These things don’t occupy my every waking thought, by any means, but they do occasionally crop up in challenging ways. Partly because all three of the above examples are represented in my family and friends (to varying degrees). But also because of the existence of people and groups who proudly espouse these views, systematically, to children and everyone else.

People like Rev Dr Mark Griffiths, author of One Generation from Extinction, and recently a guest on All Things Considered, whose contributions contained more euphemisms for “indoctrinate” than I could keep track of. People like the Child Evangelism Fellowship, the Coalition 4 Marriage. Campaigns like JABS. Perhaps worst of all, state-funded faith schools and laws requiring acts of collective worship in all schools.

Certainly, I would not want to overreact to this kind of thing. There is an abundance of nonsense in the world for anyone who wants to seek it out, and by and large, the best reaction is to ignore it all (or make fun of the silliest things). But I do find myself angered by people who proudly describe the ways in which they indoctrinate children who are too young to discern truth from fiction.

I’m not sure where the boundary lies between behaviour which I find distasteful but is nonetheless acceptable in a free society, and behaviour which is categorically wrong and should be prohibited along with corporal punishment and child abuse. I am sure it is in the wrong place now. And I am sure there is a vast grey area sitting in the middle.

Mostly, I am concerned about these things, and a little unsure of how I should chart the waters. And I find myself concerned about the kinds of environments in which I’d be happy to leave my child to her own devices.

Or more importantly, to other people’s.


I get annoyed when Government is pushy, rude and aggressive

This is admittedly a fairly minor example, but it genuinely irritates me. And it’s by no means the first letter from HMRC that’s done the same. Click for a bigger version.

For the most part, I find that ensuring my business complies with all the Government’s requirements to file and pay things is a huge pain in the arse. I do most of it myself, I try to get it right and mostly succeed, and when there have been mistakes they’ve always been genuine.

So, when I get letters threatening me with penalties if I cease to do something I’ve been doing all along, I get annoyed. It’s unnecessary. I wouldn’t ever send a letter like this to a client or a supplier unless sorely provoked. So why is it HMRC’s default tone of voice?

Why can’t Government talk like a human?


How government’s SME relationship should smell

Since I started dxw a few years ago, surprisingly little has changed in the way that we contract with Government. Now that the Government Digital Service has thoroughly arrived on the scene, I thought it might be a good time to write something about how I think contracting for digital ought to work. Or perhaps more accurately, how it should smell.

I’ve never worked as a civil servant, and I’m not a legal expert. The only experience I have of procurement is that of a small supplier to Government trying to get things done. So, this post is neither comprehensive, nor a solution. More a statement of principle.

There are many problems with the contracts under which Government currently works with SMEs (at least, all the ones I’ve seen). They’re too long. They’re not really being used for the purpose they were designed for.

But, on a much more practical level, they’re so long and abstruse that no one reads them. I really mean that: neither the client, nor the supplier, nor, I often suspect, the procurement staff. They are universally regarded as an unavoidable bit of bureaucracy on the route to starting a project. They are almost never challenged, because they have existed throughout the aeons, having been handed down from on high.

These contracts contain lots of detail that — theoretically —  defines the working relationship between government and it suppliers. And I suspect that they do exactly that when Government takes on big projects with big suppliers. But those processes are totally inappropriate for a working relationship with an SME — and the smaller the SME, the less sensible they become. For a company like dxw, they’re absurd.

We very rarely deal with change requests, serving written notices, purchase order amendments, management information, audit requirements, getting permission for staff changes, or any of the myriad other things that these contracts tend to require. Because when we’re working on a project, there are generally two or three people at dxw working with two or three civil servants. And the biggest project we’ve ever had was worth about £30k.

When you’re talking about that number of people, and that value of contract, most of the working arrangements in these contracts become ridiculous. Because they’re designed for much bigger teams, working on much bigger things.

When the teams are small, these arrangements are worse than a waste of time. If we were to follow the letter of these contracts, we’d spend more time on management than on delivering useful things. We’d have to charge lots more money to cover all that time, and the client would get next to no value out of that extra spend.

So, we don’t. And the client doesn’t ask us to. And we all play out the charade, going through the motions of a procurement process that everyone knows is overcomplicated, and that no one intends to think about after the project starts.

Strangely enough, this is ok, in practice. Because in practice, these projects involve a small number of people who are like-minded, and who share a common understanding of a project and its goals for success. The contracts we all agree to aren’t ignored out of malice. No one is being duplicitous. It’s just that they’re obviously unnecessary, and everyone gets by just fine without thinking about them.

Most of our clients no longer even require us to write a formal proposal. Instead, we write a short letter explaining what we’re going to do, by when, and what it will cost. This works best for everyone, because it’s short, readable and useful. But it still sits within a framework contract and a procurement process that aren’t fit for purpose. That are designed to shape a complex working relationship that doesn’t exist, and to facilitate litigation that will never happen.

Because of the efforts of right-thinking clients who just want to get the job done, and who understand the relationship, we’ve ended up with day-to-day working practices which are quite good. But they’re not formally recognised, or enshrined in any process. And that’s a missed opportunity: because the civil servants who need to commission a digital project for the first time, or who work within a more traditional government department, will turn to the process for guidance. As they should. And the process is maddeningly, hopelessly wrong.

So, I think there should be a new process. Since I only know about digital and SMEs, I’ll say that that’s what the process should be for. But these ideas probably apply more widely. I think we need a new framework contract and process which:

  • Values brevity and simplicity above comprehensiveness, ignoring unlikely scenarios in favour of increasing usefulness and readability
  • Has a primary, core purpose of leaving all the parties better informed about the project, what they’re supposed to do and what’s expected of them, and what success looks like
  • Is written for the benefit of the staff actually delivering the project (SME and government), and not for lawyers, procurement staff, or as a tool for litigation
  • Is written using language and styling that makes it likely that those people will actually read and absorb it

At its root, the process needs to recognise that in digital projects (and probably other ones too) success far more often emanates from the close and effective personal relationships of people acting in good faith than it does in detailed specification of process, requirements or outcomes.

Those bullet points accurately describe what almost every project we’ve ever worked on has ended up smelling like, despite the procurement process and legalese.

For dxw, procurement will be “fixed” when the process we follow is designed to facilitate and enhance that relationship. I hope we get there soon.


The only decent picture anyone got

Note: there’s an update at the bottom.

Since writing this, I’ve also found this post from the BJP, and Stefan has kindly posted a link to a post by Bruce Schneier. Also, the BJP have filed a Freedom of Information request asking for information about the policy. All good stuff!

I visited Aldwych tube station recently. I had been looking forward to it for some time, and turned up camera-in-hand, ready to take some interesting photos — which, frankly, was most of the reason I went.

When I got to the queue, my bag was searched. And my suspicions roused by a security man who said I couldn’t take my camera in, because it had a zoom lens. I thought this was rather odd. I offered to put on my 50mm prime (non-zoom) lens, and he said that was fine. But I was still suspicious.

Then, when we got into the station, one of the London Transport Museum staff said “No digital SLRs” — and there were signs dotted about, to the same effect. Suspicion started to turn to irritation.

Eventually, I managed to ask one of the LTM volunteers about the rule, and he said it was because they wanted to “limit the amount of high-quality footage of the station” — a statement later confirmed by others. At this point, irritation turned to outright anger. And I took this picture, as a minor act of rebellion.

So: what on earth do the London Transport Museum think they’re doing? It seemed a odd rule to begin with, and its justification, even stranger. Why would they want to limit high-resolution pictures? And even if they had a good reason to do that, why would they think that banning DSLRs accomplish it? Does. Not. Compute.

I had a look about, and found LTM’s mission statement:

By conserving and explaining the Capital city’s transport heritage, London Transport Museum offers people an understanding of the Capital’s past development and engages them in the debate about its future.

We adopt the highest standards of curatorship and communication, and aim to be the world’s leading museum of urban transport.

So. Do LTM really think that restricting the availability of high-resolution pictures of Aldwych accords with the highest standards of communication? Do they think that preventing people seeing and learning about Aldwych is the kind of thing the world’s leading museum of urban transport should be doing?

Is it not more likely that their role as a museum should be to encourage more people to see Aldwych? To engage with it, photograph it, learn about it, share it, discuss and understand it, spread the word about it and generate interest in their mission and their subject?

I am utterly baffled that in the digital age, there  still appear to be museums who think that these kind of restrictions are necessary. Or sensible. Or even, heaven forfend, good.

Museums are the guardians of our cultural heritage, not the owners of it. Museums should want photographs of their collections coming out of their ears, and getting in front of as many eyeballs as possible.

If you agree, why not send them a message, and let them know?

Updated to add:
The LTM have responded, thusly:

Terms and conditions for the recent sale of tickets to visit Aldwych Underground station clearly stated that digital SLR cameras were not permitted, as these are classed as professional equipment.

There was not a ban on taking photos during tours. However, there were restrictions on professional cameras and tripods because we were concerned that people using them could delay the tours for others, as it was a very tight schedule with more than 2,500 visitors going up and down a spiral staircase of about 160 steps to get to and from the platforms.

We wanted to make the tours as enjoyable and safe as we could for everyone. With the huge public interest in seeing the disused Tube station it was better to have the event with this restriction rather than no visit at all.

We apologise to visitors who wanted to use this kind of camera during tours to the stations.

This is really just a bit silly, and reveals how flimsy this policy is.

If the LTM want to ensure smooth flow, and therefore ban tripods, that’s completely fine and understandable. The last thing anyone wants is to be held up by people getting in the way, and people waving tripods around probably raises legitimate safety concerns. So: that’s fine. Ban tripods.

But to say that this concern means DSLRs should be banned as well is a non-sequitur. I would have had no difficulty sticking to the time limits — which were made very clear by the courteous and efficient tour staff, and which everyone obeyed.

If people with compacts can take photos without holding things up, why not people with DSLRs?


Redefining privacy

This was originally going to be a comment on Paul Clarke’s post about privacy and social networks — you might want to read that first.

I think we’re a short way into a process of redefining what “privacy” is and means, and which parts of it are important, and which are less important.

I think that the benefits of a more open approach — where things that once would have been considered private no longer are — are widespread, in all sorts of ways — from personal convenience to companies figuring out how to sell us more stuff.

Ultimately, most people value some aspects of their privacy so little that they are willing to let Facebook pillage their address book, for the convenience of it, or just out of curiosity. And because there are lots more of those people, the rest of us are going to be pulled along with them.

And while it may be the case many of those people only make that decision because they are ignorant of its consequences, not all of them are. And many will put the risks into the same kind of category as leaving their bike unlocked outside the corner shop, or hiding the house keys under a pot-plant — small risks, but with potentially big consequences.

I’m certainly in the group that is concerned about data privacy, but I don’t see a way out of this. All the “education” in the world is unlikely to help, because it’ll sound like nerds preaching about pedantic trivialities.

And even when really bad things happen really publicly, people won’t change their behaviour — at least, not beyond some initial hand-wringing and media panic. Because human beings suck at making rational decisions where the taking of a series of small risks for a series of small rewards carries with it the potential for big bad consequences… later… maybe.

So, since I’m going to be dragged along with this croud anyway, I feel like I may as well leap in feet-first and enjoy the benefits.

Because I’ll be exposed to the risks either way.

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System Error: fixing the flaws in Government IT

A few months ago, I was interviewed by researchers from the Institute for Government, as part of their work on the report that arrived, embargoed, in my email yesterday.

I’ve now had a chance to read it. I’ve heard a number of opinions on the project over the last few months — I have to say, mostly not very complimentary ones — so I was glad to see what they finally decided.

On the whole, I think it’s quite good, as far as it goes. It’s definitely saying the right kinds of things about the sort of change that’s needed: notably, choosing commodity options when they’re available, and using agile processes to innovate and develop bespoke solutions when they’re necessary. Good stuff. The report includes a now very-well-rehearsed explanation of the problems with government’s traditional approaches which is spot on, and some good recommendations for Government – it will be interesting to see how they respond.

On a minor point (at least, for me) it is very technology focussed and doesn’t much discuss the wider social context that technology needs to serve.

More importantly, I would have liked to see more detail, in general. There’s a lot of discussion of open standards, buying commodity services, and coordinating activity between departments. But it feels a bit like the report skips over the fact that these things are really hard.

Agreeing standards is hard, as is implementing them correctly. Standards for the web have taken >10 years to develop and mature, and in many respects are still not very well embedded: Microsoft have really only just got there with IE9, and that remains to be seen. And this is in an industry where the incentives to make everything work are huge. I’m really not at all sure that the incentives to use open standards for the NHS spine and people’s tax records are even nearly as strong, where suppliers may be reluctant to facilitate the involvement of others.

Commodity services can of course deliver immense value, and the success of Amazon’s Web Services is a testament to their usefulness. But even the private sector is only just getting there. Computing resources are now effectively commoditised, as is — perhaps — the purchase of hardware… and that’s… it. There’s no commodity market for VOIP services that I’m aware of. There’s no commodity market for payroll, workflow management or document storage. For all of these things, we’re still in a world of competing products which are mostly not interoperable. The report actually highlights Microsoft Word as an example of a commodity application, which made me choke on my coffee: it’s quite the opposite. In fact, it’s a dominant product in what is all but a monopoly, and — as anyone who’s tried to use OpenOffice in anger will know — it’s a long way from being interoperable with anything.

Sensibly coordinating activity between departments has been advocated as good for so long that it’s practically axiomatic, and we still aren’t anywhere near it.

Perhaps more importantly still, the report really doesn’t address procurement nearly carefully enough. It does present some interesting suggestions about how to squeeze agile projects though existing OJEU and OGC processes. But I think procurement is at the root of the whole problem, and needs wholesale reform. The main reason that Government’s incumbent suppliers are so dominant is that the barrier to entry for new businesses is immense. And procurement constitutes a very large portion of that problem.

The report even advocates the use of framework agreements as a cost-cutting measure, when — in fact — the use of framework agreements is one of the prime culprits for the lack of any agile suppliers in the market able to compete for the large projects that are currently solely delivered by the Usual Suspects.

In summary – I think this is a good start. The direction of travel is spot on, and I hope it is warmly received and acted upon by government. But it does skim over some terribly difficult problems which we’ll have to confront if we want this to work.

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On £585 favicons…

Much noise has been made in the last couple of days about Reading Room charging the Information Commissioner’s Office £585 for a favicon – the small graphics that appear to the left of the URL in the address bar when you visit a website.

This story provoked a rather predictable outburst on how Government spends far too much money, and doesn’t get value for money*. It’s a perspective that’s expressed frequently — most recently for the police.uk’s £300k price-tag.

Often Government does pay too much. We all wonder why BusinessLink costs £36m a year. But this isn’t one of those cases. Reading Room charged £585 for the ICO’s favicon, and most people seem to be objecting to that figure on the basis that it would have taken them 5 minutes to do it, and therefore, that Reading Room must have charged £585 for 5 minutes work.

But, as anyone familiar with the delivery of actual government projects will know, absolutely nothing ever just takes 5 minutes. Not when you have the client, two government organisations and two or three other contractors to deal with. Not when you’re working within a delivery framework that requires multiple levels of approval before anything goes live. Not when government has deliberately taken a “belt & braces” approach to contracting — ironically usually done to aid accountability, but which invariably creates procedural bloat and extra cost.

There’s a huge difference between making a favicon and making one for a big organisation, with lots of people who need to give input and approval. There’s a huge difference between making an informational website that you think is good, and making one for an entire country, maintained by an entire government. There’s a huge difference between your website and your Government’s website: because in any activity, time and cost increase with the number of people who are involved.

The real question here isn’t why this specific favicon cost £585. That’s pretty clear: Reading Room charge £600/day (which is competitive), spent a few minutes making the favicon, and the best part of 7 hours making sure everyone was happy with it. Which, I strongly suspect, is exactly what they were asked to do by their client.

We absolutely need to work on making government more agile and getting better value for money. And it is starting to happen, as dxw’s success over the past three years illustrates. But blind invective won’t accomplish that.

Suppliers need to help government understand the true (small!) nature of the risks that online technologies present. And we need to show government how it’s possible to do things quickly and cheaply on the web.

And I think that practical help and understanding will get us there much more quickly than premature outbursts of uninformed anger.

Edited to add: @threedaymonk has an excellent writeup on this too.

*I have to admit to partaking in that in a small and light-hearted way.


Number 10′s e-petitions can be better

We all know and love the Number 10 petitions site. The technology works and the experience is well thought through, as one would expect given that it’s a mySociety project.

It’s not perfect, though, and as usual, it’s the human element that’s problematic. It’s the responses to petitions that don’t hit the mark, and don’t give any opportunity for people to engage further. It’s the top-down, message-driven, one-way broadcasting at people, instead of the collaborative, mutually respectful conversation that we should be having with Government.

Having real, two-way conversations is hard. It requires time, patience, money, and a wholesale change in attitude — but Government say they’re up for it. Digital Engagement is the mantra du jour. And things are definitely moving in the right direction.

So — given this background of steady and positive change — why are Number 10 still stuck in the mud? Why do we get responses to petitions that range from the dishonest to the obtuse, and only the occasional gem, when it really should be the other way around?

And why, when someone makes an extremely sensible suggestion for a way to make this a bit better, does it get dismissed out of hand?

All who are currently procuring e-petition software should beware: it’ll be an expensive waste of time unless you use it to substantively engage with citizens.

The last thing the Web needs is another place for people to shout into a hole.

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Reboot Britain: We need open government interfaces

Very excitingly, Wired UK got in touch a few weeks ago to ask if I’d write a piece for this month’s feature, Reboot Britain. I wrote about open interfaces to government services: essentially, APIs for the government systems that underlie public services.

Unfortunately, the article didn’t make it into the magazine because there wasn’t enough space. Disappointing, but it was still great to be asked, and they’ve published it online. From the article:

Many of us have been campaigning for open government data for a long time, and I think we’ve won the argument. By the time you’re reading this, data.hmg.gov.uk – a central listings service for government data – should be live. But data taken alone rarely creates real, tangible change in the world. Data alone doesn’t get your rubbish recycled or your prescription filled. You need data to find out how or where to do those things, but actually doing them requires you to use public services – and wherever there’s a public service, there’s an IT system supporting it.

Read the rest at Wired.co.uk.

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Should there be copyright in NPG’s photos?

There’s a pretty good chance that there is copyright in the National Portrait Gallery’s photographs of paintings, which are currently the subject of a legal spat between NPG and a volunteer for the The Wikimedia Foundation. Intuitively, that seems like a bad thing — but is it? And if so, what does it mean for the future of digitisation?

Others have done a much better job of explaining the legal situation than I could, so I won’t talk about that. I’m more interested in the policy position that we should be adopting than the one we’ve found ourselves in.

Intuitively, I feel that there shouldn’t be copyright in the images that Wikimedia are using. That their importance trumps NPG’s desire to exploit them commercially: these paintings are an important and unique part of our culture’s history. This isn’t just academic: it has real impact.

All that said, a policy position that there isn’t copyright in these images might do more harm than good.

There are a huge number of historic works in the world. Digitising them is important: both to make them more widely available and for their preservation. Unfortunately, it’s expensive to do, especially when the works are old and fragile.

It’s appealing to say that digitisation should be funded from general taxation and the works placed in the public domain for all, but I think that the cost is probably significant — certainly enough to make it politically untenable.

The usual solution is a compromise between public ownership and private investment. A company invests in digitising a set of works in return for the exclusive right to distribute their digital copies for a limited period — say twenty years — after which the works return to the public domain*. Of course, this approach relies on copyright.

It’s hard to create a system of copyright that caters well for both approaches. If there is copyright in an exact copy, there will forever be people who aggressively defend those rights in order to protect their revenue — and frankly, when £1m has been spent producing the copies, that’s not unreasonable.

Without copyright, there’d be much less  incentive for anyone other than Government to digitise anything. It’s almost certain that most historic archives would never become available to the public.

Copyright exists to provide an incentive to create things. It’s a monopoly right created by Government for a specific purpose, designed to ensure that works eventually return to the public domain, as these paintings have. My gut says there shouldn’t be copyright in these images, that these exact copies are substantively identical to the original public domain works, and should therefore be public domain themselves.

My brain says that’s completely illogical — and that in fact, a copy of a work is by definition a different work, and should therefore be protected by copyright. That in fact, copyright is doing the exact job that it was created for: providing a incentive for these images to have been made in the first place.

If there was no copyright in these images, would NPG still have spent £1m digitising them? I doubt it.  And perhaps therein lies the rub.

* Disclaimer: this was the impression that I got from a long chat with David Thomas, of the National Archive — but that was years ago and I wasn’t entirely sober.


The Questionable Ethics of Dragons’ Den

I’m a bit of an addict of Dragons’ Den. It’s great TV — but occasionally, people get really screwed.

I was watching Dragons’ Den on Dave the other day, when David Lees arrived to pitch for some money.

David Lees was an engineer of many, many years’ experience. He designed things, invented things, created new and patentable ideas and generally made lots of money for his employer. Eventually, he set off on his own, producing high-end stands for Plasma TVs — the kind you see at conferences and other big events. He sought an investment of £225,000 for 10% of his company.

So far, so good. A typical scenario. What makes this one different is that the company was very successful: it had consistent sales and was profitable. In fact, its success had already led to an offer from Panasonic to buy the company for £3.25m. Lees wanted a Dragon’s involvement primarily in order to secure a better deal — logical, perhaps, but unwise.

Obviously, the Dragons were interested: they could have accepted his equity offer, sold the company for, say, £4.5m, and doubled their money. Probably all within a few months.

Instead, though, they absolutely shafted him: offering him the £225k for 50% of the company — thus valuing it at a mere £450k — when they knew that the company was almost certainly worth over seven times that amount.

I was a little surprised to see such shamelessly naked exploitation. To my utter astonishment, rather than laughing at them heartily and telling them to shove right off, he acccepted the deal. I was practically spitting at the telly.

Thankfully, the Dragons took so long getting a deal together that by the time it was ready, Lees decided he was doing well enough on his own, and didn’t go through with it.

A narrow escape.


Mobile phone companies are crap

After posting about the iPhone yesterday, I thought I should mention that figuring out what service was best for me was a real pain. It should have been easy, but it wasn’t.

Because I had unusual plans — buying a Pay & Go phone and then switching to a 1-month rolling contract — I rang O2 twice before buying anything. I wanted to make sure that Visual Voicemail, unlimited wifi and tethering would work on a non-iPhone contract, and was assured that they would be.

After getting the phone, I found that Visual Voicemail didn’t work, and called O2, assuming it was a configuration problem… but no. They said Visual Voicemail and tethering are unavailable on anything other than an iPhone contract, which is not what they said before. I suggested some possible solutions to this:

Could you turn on these features without using an iPhone contract? Answer: No. Apparently it’s “technically impossible”.

Could you put me on an iPhone contract with an appropriate discount and no minimum term (since I already have the phone) Answer: No. “The system won’t let me do that.” — “Can I speak to someone who can authorise it?” — “No one could authorise that” — “What!?”

I had a bit of a go at the guy and was called back by a manager, who offered me a month’s free line rental to make up for it, but still. I felt pretty messed around, especially since i had taken so much care to ensure that everything would be ok. Ho hum.

In any case, I do now have the new iPhone, and it’s lovely (despite O2′s crummy 3G coverage), and I’m terribly happy with it. It is an awesome piece of kit: so awesome, it turns out, that it can even balance out the monumental crapness of mobile phone companies.

If only it was available to Orange customers…

Edited to add:

I forgot to mention that O2 were pretty rubbish even before I got my hands on the phone. I ordered it online on the Friday morning when it was released. The website asked me when I wanted when I wanted it to be delivered, so I picked a free slot on Monday morning. It didn’t arrive. My card was billed — all, I thought, was good. I rang O2, and they said it would arrive in the next couple of days.

On Tuesday, perhaps over-enthusiastically, I rang O2 again to ask when it would come, only to be told that they’d run out of stock and cancelled the order.

Beyond the initial confirmation email, I didn’t hear from them at all. They didn’t tell me a thing. #Fail.


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