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Archive for May, 2009

Dear Sir Patrick

Posted by Andrew Cooper on May 22, 2009

Dear Sir Patrick,

In the summer of 1973, when I was seventeen years old, I attended a sixth form conference in Oxfordshire (at a school in Banbury, I think).  I only remember two things from that event: dancing to a live band in the evening and listening to you talking to us about the future.

In general my memory of  your talk is rather hazy, but I’m pretty sure that you spoke about the Apollo programme and the future of space exploration. The last humans to walk on the moon – indeed, the last humans to leave Earth orbit – had done so the previous December and we all knew you from the BBC’s coverage of Apollo. 

One point you made stuck in my mind, however.  You said that when we were your age – you were 50 at the time and I am now 53 – there would be computers “no larger than a packet of cigarettes” which would fit in our shirt pockets.  

I wish I could remember what you thought these computers would be able to do.  I expect we imagined that they would be like sophisticated calculators – one of my friends owned an early Hewlett Packard scientific calculator, which seemed pretty astonishing to us the time.  

Now, thirty six years later, I know the answer.  I have just been standing in our garden looking at the night sky with a shirt-pocket sized computer as my guide.  

The computer in question can do many things. I can use it to  read messages from friends and colleagues; it can read any of the billions of pages from something called the World Wide Web; it can take photographs and videos and transmit them to others.  It can also, thanks to someting called “Google Sky Maps” guide me around the night sky.  If I ‘point’ it at the sky it shows me the names of the stars and planets at which I’m looking – just now it picked out Saturn.  It is really quite amazing – a pocket sized planetarium.  I can even point it at the earth below me and it shows me what I could see if was standing on the other side of the planet.  

My pocket sized computer also, incidentally, can be used to make telephone calls.  Quite astonishing.

Very many thanks for talking to us, and inspiring us, way back then.

Best regards
Andrew Cooper


Posted in technology, web | Leave a Comment »

Simon Jenkins on Sir Humphrey

Posted by Andrew Cooper on May 22, 2009

sir humphreyHere is Simon Jenkins suggesting in today’s Guardian that one explanation for the  UK government’s current impersonation of a mammoth sinking into a tar pit is that ministers no longer take advice, at least on matters political, from permanent secretaries.  Instead political advisers rule the roost leaving senior civil servants to manage and administrate.

‘Blair, like Thatcher over the poll tax, replaced Whitehall’s “scepticism first, loyalty afterwards” with loyalty first and then chaos. Brown as chancellor, who rarely consulted even his Treasury officials, endured one fiasco after another, as on tax credits and rail privatisation. At No 10 he conveys the image of a prime minister alone in his office, attended by a small and devoted cabal, unable to handle contradictory advice or exercise judgment based on it. A lost victim of circumstance, he seems to have no traction on the machinery of government.’

Jenkins predicts that Sir Humphrey will return.  I’m not so sure: the Oxbridge classicists who once dominated the ranks of  the senior civil service (Sir Humphrey was undoubtedly one himself) are no longer so sniffy about ‘commerce’ and are happy to head off to the private sector.  Once a tradition has been broken, it’s broken.

I mentioned my encounter with a real Sir Humphrey here, incidentally.

Posted in government, yes minister | 2 Comments »

Power to the people – part 3

Posted by Andrew Cooper on May 17, 2009

John Locke

John Locke

As John Locke pointed out, democracy relies on electors allowing a small group of individuals to have power over the rest of us.  We give them our consent to let them govern us.  Here in the UK the general mood of the public suggests that we have – mentally at least – withdrawn it.

The expenses scandal which is currently, to put it mildly, fuelling much debate here and has led to this state of affairs is pretty small beer compared with the kind of outright corruption I’ve come across in many of the countries I’ve visited (e.g. Ireland).  However it has seriously undermined the public’s trust in those we have put in positions of power.

Writing in today’s Observer newspaper, Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, suggests a range of ideas aimed at restoring that trust.   He argues for proportional representation (something that the Libdems have wanted for many years) and the development of a “short constitution setting out what rights people enjoy and making clear the subservience of Parliament to the people” which would be drawn up by “A constitutional convention, overseen by 100 randomly selected voters”.

I’ve blogged before about the idea of involving randomly selected members of the public in governing the country.  I have never previously thought that the idea would fly – apart from it’s general wackiness, there are far too many vested interests in and around Westminster to allow it to happen.   The 21st century’s version of the establishment – big business – depends on its ability to lobby and exert pressure via networks (all those senior ex-ministers and permanent secretaries who end up on the boards of banks, for example) and they just wouldn’t allow it to happen.

It’s a nice thought, though.  When I’ve mentioned the idea of the self-immolating ‘Systems Party’ (as soon as it it gains power, it introduces legislation replacing voting as a means of selecting members of parliament with random selection) to others, one of the principle objections is that they wouldn’t want most of the people who one sees wandering up and down our local high street to be given power over anything.   I disagree with that view: I think most people, when given actual responsibility, treated like adults and shown the arguments for and against a particular idea or policy are perfectly capable of thinking things through and making good decisions. The fact that the popular press, for example, treats most of the public as if they were idiots doesn’t mean that they actually are.

Clegg says in the Observer item that we need a system of government that’s fit for the 21st Century.  I think that there’s a strong link here to another recurrent theme in this blog – Clay Shirky’s idea of ‘cognitive surplus’.  As you’ll recall (see link to my review of his book in the right hand side bar) Shirky argues that we only needed pyramid shaped, hyerarchical organisations in the past because there was no other way of organising.  However, the ‘social media’ alongside a carefully constituted jury-like system, so that as many people as possible could play an active part in politics, might just work.

Not on this planet, though.

Posted in cognitive surplus, government, innovation, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Meltdown reading

Posted by Andrew Cooper on May 3, 2009

If, like me, you are a bit short of time to read the three books that Will Hutton reviews here, the review itself is worth a look.   We’ve all seen the re-runs of Gordon Brown’s remarkably un-precsient Mansion House speech in 2007, during which he praised the assembled investment bankers for, in what Hutton describes as “language so purple it would make a cardinal blush” creating “an era that history will record as a new golden age for the City of London.”  Perhaps all new Prime Minister’s should be required, by law, to watch a video that speech.  Every day.  Before breakfast.

Here’s about as much of it as you’;

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