Friday, 28 December 2007

HM Nanny Bombs in Nuclear Clean-up

HM Nanny is in fine fettle, commanding the nation's workers to get healthy and demanding that kids must wait until they're 18 before hurtling around the country's roads (which will help the ailing job figures, by the way, to the extent that these unreliable teens might dare to drive to work).

These subtleties are what really count in government. After all, three quarters of the country wants the government to tell us how to live our lives in detail.

So, there was no sense in Gordo galavanting on our behalf at the signing ceremony of the EU Constit... er, sorry, "Reform Treaty", when there was a meeting of the House of Commons "liaison committee" to attend.

And if the government can't control the security of people's personal information, then it can at least have a policy of being transparent when they get it wrong. And keep logs of the problems. And undertake investigations. You never know, people might just get sick of hearing about it all and stop bothering to care about their personal security anyway.

And then there is the distraction of targets. And of reports of performance against targets.

We are blinded by the detail.

But just for a laugh, I looked at the Autumn 2007 Performance Report of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, or "BERR". That's the department charged with promoting enterprise and cutting red tape, I'll have you know.

Footnote 6 on page 5 gives you an idea where the report is headed:

"Factors affecting performance are only discussed for targets from the current spending review [undertaken in 2004]. The performance on targets from previous spending reviews can no longer be influenced since the period covered by them has ended."

In other words, if they miss the targets, the slate gets wiped clean.

And here's what we got for our tax money spent on promoting enterprise and cutting red tape:

"Of the ten PSA targets from SR04 which BERR is responsible for delivering, five are assessed as on course to be delivered, two are assessed as showing slippage, two are split up and assessed in more detail by sub-target (with most of the sub-targets assessed as on course for each) and one further target is yet to be assessed."

5 out of ten.

But what of the targets "showing slippage"?

Pah! They're only concerned with fuel poverty in vulnerable households, reducing EU trade barriers to help developing countries and nuclear clean-up. "Greater choice and commitment in the workplace" hasn't even been assessed.

I'm sorry, did you say, "nuclear clean-up"?

Ah, yes... Target 9, page 7:

"reduce the civil nuclear liability by 10% by 2010, and establish a safe, innovative and dynamic market for nuclear cleanup by delivering annual 2% efficiency gains from 2006-07; and ensuring successful competitions have been completed for the management of at least 50% of UK nuclear sites by end 2008."

I see. The same government that tells us how to live our lives is also dumping our unencrypted personal data in Iowa and failing to clean up its own nuclear waste.

Somehow, I reckon life could get pretty warm around here during '08.

Better make this New Year's Eve party a big one. Enjoy.

Friday, 14 December 2007

TV's Perfect Storm?

While UK television execs are telling themselves what they need to get through the day as viewing figures slump in favour of the internet, the Hollywood writers' strike drags into its second month and sees TV writers exploring their own web options and Murdoch's MySpace giving weight to an online broadcasting trend.

Sport and (un-scripted) reality TV shows (including the "News"?) are about the 'freshest' US TV broadcast content out there, which heralds a giant audience moving online for the latest in entertainment. That migration should include viewers in markets like Australia that screen a high proportion of US television content, as well as viewers in other markets following more selected content. Advertisers will no doubt follow the migration like lions follow wildebeest (although, of course, online nobody knows you are a wildebeest).

All of this suggests that TV execs will have to pay even bigger bucks for good writing and sports rights to keep themselves in a job.

PS: 7 Jan '08, a survey commissioned by MySpace says kids would rather network online than watch TV:
"A group of 18- to 24-year-olds drawn from 1,000 people surveyed by Future
Laboratory said it would rather spend 15 minutes visiting social networking
sites than watching television, reading, playing video games or talking on
mobile phones."

"Distance" selling - secret rules exposed

I've been involved in helping people sell at a distance secretly now since lawyers were first told it was okay in a coded document (97/7/EC) leaked by the European Commission in 1997.

Now I see that two equally shadowy entities, OFT and TSS, are trying to let the cat out of the bag so that virtually anyone could comply.

What a pair of do-gooders.

They say that 66% of people selling remotely have never found the laws that require some bumf on their web sites, which could land them in hot water with local officials.

Well, don't think the official hot tub sessions will stop there, folks. There's a lot of regulation that has been released by the European Commission in code that only lawyers can read. Allegedly, because it helps create confidence in doing business across the length and breadth of the EU.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Join the Quest for the Source of EU Legislation

This is the Last Straw. I've just seen "micro-enterprise" defined in a document called "2005/0245 (COD) LEX 797" as:
"an enterprise, which at the time of conclusion of the payment service contract, is an enterprise as defined in Article 1 and Article 2(1) and (3) [oh, don't forget 2(3)!!] of the Annex to Recommendation 2003/361/EC".
I'm thinking of launching a Quest to find those responsible for this latest gobbledigook and demand to know in plain English what "micro-enterprise" was intended to mean, without referring me anywhere else.

But where to start?

In 2005, the UK's Better Regulation Commission produced a fascinating, literal "map" of what we might really loosely describe as the 'European Union legislative process'. See especially page 14.

I'm not being sarcastic here. The report is a veritable base camp from which to begin the quest for the source and true meaning of EU legislation. It provides a guide, pack animals, tents, rope, torches and other basic tools. The rest of the specific search is down to good eyesight, a laptop or PC, broadband, physical fitness, strength, caffeine, food, and several towels that can be soaked in ice cold mountain springs and wrapped tightly around one's head. Oh, and a journey to Brussels. With a lobbyist.

Are you in?

It will be very crowded, but ours will be lonely work. Listening amidst the din of countless institutions and committees for the mystical whisper known as the "Social Dialogue". For it is only in that stream of semi-consciousness that we may dare to even hope to find the truth of the coded messages embedded in the "stakeholder input", "advice", "green papers", "proposals", "adoptions of proposals", "opinions", "consultations", "co-decisions", "common positions" and, ultimately the Regulations and Directives that emerge six or seven years later to drive us to distraction.


Yeah, sod it. I'm staying in London to earn a crust.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Two Stones, One Bird?


Because most web sites with anything remotely important on them seem to require log-in codes, I keep many different usernames and passwords in my head. Apparently, the average person uses 12 (Independent Extra, 21.11.07, p.8). That's nothing compared to the many phone numbers that we used to remember before we began relying on the directory in our mobile phones and laptops, or Skype. But it hardly aids freedom of movement around the web.

To ease my passage, so to speak, the (worryingly named) Open ID programme would have me replace all my passcodes with a single ID. It would sit in a database somewhere to be checked when I access each participating web site.

Cue another standards battle, and Round 10 between Google, Microsoft et al.

But the people working on the semantic web would say that I shouldn't have to move around the web at all. Their goal is making information "understandable by computers, so that they can perform more of the tedious work involved in finding, sharing and combining information on the web". As I recall the explanation of Dr Nick Gibbins (School of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton) at the SCL's Law 2.0 event in September, the key issues are trust and provenance in the information which the computers are being made to understand. Both vary according to the source, time and context in which the information is given, as well as the content itself. You trust Prof Lillian Edwards' view of privacy law, but not her tips on car repair. But rather than drawing on a single ID in a single (hackable) repository somewhere, the computers would rely on a whole range of circumstantial evidence to confirm that the data in question is likely to be true and relevant to you - or in a log-in scenario, that the person whose computer is trying to gain access to a database is you.

Cue another massive battle over standards, but also over ontologies, taxonomies and other elements of the semantic web that are worthy of such top-draw words.

I guess that Open ID may be a stepping stone along the way to the semantic web, in which case we should get on with it. But that does seem like two stones for the one bird. Whereas the semantic web promises convenience without humans having to do all the moving around - so two birds with one stone.

I know which sounds better.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

You and Your Lawyer - Law 2.0

I'm enjoying Nick Holmes' digests of Richard Susskind's forthcoming missive on the future of legal services - a plea for innovation amidst the rising tide of super-normal law firm profits. You could be forgiven if images of King Canute wash into your mind at this point, but the nub of the IT aspect of Richard's thesis is that:

"...there is remarkable scope for greater and beneficial deployment of ... disruptive legal technologies [which] do not support or complement current legal practices. They challenge and replace them, in whole or in part... If lawyers are barely conversant with today's technologies, they have even less sense of how much progress in legal technology is likely in the coming 10 years."

Of course, Richard is wasting his time and effort when it comes to the very law firms who need to listen most. Enormous profits provide no incentive to innovate, except perhaps to cut the costs of current processes and figure out new excuses to hike hourly rates. None is really organised to innovate. The trend away from the pretence of partnership and chatter about who will list on the stock exchange reveals that their true intent, ironically, is to mirror the ethos of their best and biggest clients. Economies of scale and profits, not staff or clients, are paramount, the argument being that only huge profits allow adequate investment in staff and various hallmarks of quality. Like extra sculptures for the foyer.

True, clients do get resentful as rates soar, and the big ones bully firms into complex discount arrangements that sub-scale clients ultimately pay for. But that's merely a corporate game of cat-and-mouse, not seismic innovation.

No, the only participants in Law 2.0 are going to be relieved clients, the lawyers who solve their legal issues, and law firms that do no more than what is strictly necessary to facilitate the interaction between the two in order to solve those legal issues. In other words, lean, rather than obese, intermediaries.

I began working through Lawyers Direct two years ago to top-up my salary while working at Zopa, the person to person lending marketplace (in fairness to them, it was perhaps my stints at Reuters, DLA and GE that drove me to become a serial disruptor). Lawyers Direct offers access to more than 60 highly experienced lawyers at half what their City rates would have been. There is a fantastic but small support team in a small office in West London. The lawyers work wherever and whenever they please, linked by email and with the same sort of online tools and intranet that any self-respecting law firm should have. The reduced overhead means that even after the lower charge-out rate, the lawyers still have the opportunity to take home the same salary as some of their City counterparts (the ones who really do the work of solving legal issues).

Vaporised is the monolithic concrete tower with its vast, wasted common areas, sculptures, reception, private dining rooms, gym, library and hordes of support staff. There are neither billing targets nor the anxiety and temptation that goes with them. There are no partners, committees of partners, managing partners or senior partners.

All that's left is a compelling, lean and efficient business model for clients and lawyers alike.

List that, and I'll queue for the stock!

Desperate Politics, Financial Greed and Spin

Quote of the day has to come from the Lex column.

Describing the Northern Rock situation, Lex asserts that "The muddy confluence of desperate politics, financial greed and spin has obliterated transparency."
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