Friday 27 April 2018

Of foxes, and kings.

Red fox. Photograph: Jonn Leffmann, CC BY 3.0, Link
Does a social system with entrenched privilege systematically breed progressively nastier people? I suspect it does, and I shall argue it.

I used to believe that the reason the British elite are in general such noxious people was because our system of elite education is so bad; but I've begun to doubt that that's the whole story.

Elites tend to breed with elites, in quite narrow parameters: people tend to choose mates from socially similar backgrounds. Historically at least, elites have tended to have greater breeding success; they've had more children who have survived long enough to breed themselves. This is illustrated by programmes like "Who do you think you are": if you examine random people's family trees, royalty crops up surprisingly often.

The social systems we've had in Western Europe since the bronze age - warrior cultures, the feudal system, capitalism - have all tended to entrench privilege. Wealth and, to a degree, social status have been heritable.

And the characteristics required to ascend the ladder in all those systems has included the preparedness to be more ruthless, more ambitious, more bellicose, more vicious. (Obviously other characteristics have also been selected for: intelligence, charisma, physical attractiveness, and, at least until the end of the feudal period, strength).

Are characteristics like ruthlessness and bellicosity genetically heritable? I used to believe not; I used to believe that they were software, engendered by nurture, not hardware, engendered by genetics. The Russian fox domestication experiment persuades me I was wrong. By selectively breeding the tamest individuals, the experiment produced systematically different behaviour in foxes over remarkably few generations.

If characteristics like tameness are heritable, so, too, surely, are characteristics like ruthlessness.

If so, our social systems have since the bronze age systematically bred an elite which is progressively more ruthless over many generations. And worse, because elites have, historically at least, tended to have greater breeding success, we have progressively bred a general population which is more ruthless. (Of course, yes, other more desirable characteristics are also selected for).

If you look at the current Tory front bench, or the upper reaches of the aristocracy, or, indeed, those areas of law, finance and journalism where entry is selected on the basis of elite education, this thesis accounts for what you observe remarkably well.

So, if we have selectively bred a more ruthless, more vicious population than our "savage" ancestors, can we reverse the trend?

Heritable privilege seems to me to be key here. If you break the chains of inherited wealth and privilege, you'll get a sort of reverse eugenics - greater genetic mixing. That doesn't necessarily select for nicer, more cooperative, more sociable people, but at least it would stop us preferentially breeding worse ones.

As Comrade Lucy Broon put it,  'Just scrawl "full communism now" on rahbackuvvah silver rizla'

Thursday 19 April 2018

Mastering Revision Control

This morning, browsing Twitter as one does, I came across this tweet:
I initially assumed that the tweet was meant satirically, but it seems it was not so. After a wee bit of discussion, someone asked me to explain why this is a really bad idea:
So I shall.

Alice and Bob are working together on the same software project. Each makes a copy of the files of the project in their local filestore, which these days tends to be on their own machine. These days, indeed, they tend to make a clone of the repository on their local system, and this is a good thing - but for the present argument it's a detail.

Alice makes changes in two files, foo.src and bar.src; she saves these locally, runs tests locally, checks they pass, and commits her changes to revision control. The continuous integration system pulls the commit, builds it, runs the tests, verifies they pass, and all's good.

Bob makes changes to two files, bar.src and ban.src; he saves locally, runs tests locally, checks they pass, and tries to commit to revision control. And of course he can't immediately because Alice has already changed bar.src, so he has to pull Alice's changes, do a merge, fix the resulting issues and rerun the tests.

Now, that's the game. That's what we all do when working on collaborative teams. We try not to work simultaneously on the same bit of the system; we try not to trample on other people's work; but it happens. So Bob only grumbles a bit.

But it's late in the evening, Bob's tired. It's time to knock off. What to do? Well, in any sane shop, he's working in a feature branch so he pushes his feature branch up to the server, and goes home. But in this shop, management has dictated that they will ignore the last thirty years of software practice and experience and do everything in master. So Bob commits his work in progress to his local clone of the repository, and goes home.

Morning dawns bright and early, and Bob's in work raring to go. He powers up his machine, and... nothing. His local hard disk has died. Doesn't matter, all his work's in... oh.

That's a day's work lost.

Meantime, Clarice is working in another part of the codebase, on a problem where the most efficient implementation isn't obvious. She builds an implementation, and it passes the tests, but she's not convinced it's optimal. So she commits her implementation to revision control. She then starts working on an alternative solution, completes it, and it passes all the tests, too. She wants to commit this to revision control, too, but management have dictated that everything shall be done in master, so she can't. One version or the other can be current.

So what does she do? Overwrite her first solution? Abandon her second solution?

Yes, of course she can commit her second over her first - the point of revision control is that you don't lose stuff - but in practice that means a decision is taken to prefer the second solution, because the nature of the growing edge of a software project is that a commit from several commits back on a branch is not going to be promoted to the head of the branch unless you have very serious breakage.

Any software development which cannot be wholly automated involves design decisions and uncertainty. The cost to the developer of being experimental - of trying one idea, seeing under what circumstances it works well, seeing under what it works poorly, and trying another - needs to be as low as possible. If management puts needless difficulty in the way, that's bad management.

Software development time is expensive. Practices which cause work to be lost are highly undesirable. It needs to be as easy as possible to make sure work is not lost.

Git - and other modern revision control systems - are the product of decades of hard won experience. What we've learned over those decade is that branching is good. Feature branches are especially good. They prevent trampling over other people's changes, and reduce stress and conflict in the team. They make it very easy to track which features are in the build. They make committing and pushing low-stress, low cost activities.

Of course it should be the responsibility of every developer to ensure all tests pass before merging a feature into develop, developers are human and sometimes things go wrong. We always need a branch which we know is production ready code, from which the production system can be rebuilt in case of failure. That's what, conventionally, the master branch is; and the whole point of having a develop branch is to have a branch into which all changes are merged, which can then be tested to demonstrate that it is production ready before merging into master.

Thursday 12 April 2018

Mourning goose

The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs,
illustrated by 
Milo Winter
The last thirty years have seen an extraordinary change in the technical substrate on which our culture is built. The World Wide Web, created in Europe in in 1989, made the Internet usable for non-technical people. Across the Web, the vast majority of servers run on Linux, an operating system written in Europe between 1991 and 1993, as do the vast majority of mobile phones, and many of the Internet's routers. Meantime, most Apple products - computers, phones and tablets - are built on the BSD operating system, as are many other Internet routers.

Facebook, the towering proprietary monolith of social media, was built on PHP, a web scripting language written in Canada by a European (strictly, a Greenlander), as are all Yahoo's and Wikipedia's web services. Twitter was built on Rails, a web framework written by a European working in the US.

What's key about all these critical products is that they are all open source: given away by their authors for free as a public good, a newly created common wealth for the whole human race. These gifts - because they are gifts, and critically valuable ones - have sometimes been made by corporations, and often by universities.

But nevertheless, the most important gifts have been made by individuals: people who have chosen, rather than get personally rich on the basis of their creative work, to make a gift to all of us. And as these gifts have been maintained, developed, improved and repaired over the years, a great deal of that work has itself been done by individual volunteers, seeking no reward but their reputation among their peers.

It is on these acts of unselfish generosity, these gifts, that the whole of the the modern economy is built; and that isn't accidental.

The World Wide Web was by no means the first distributed hypermedia system; it was the first to be widely adopted, precisely because it was the first that individuals and organisations could adopt without onerous costs and licence terms. Linux is now the dominant operating system on the planet not only because it's free, but mainly because the ease with which people can contribute fixes and new functionality allows it to develop, and fix vulnerabilities, faster than commercial alternatives.

Open source not only reduces the cost of business innovation, it also drives up quality and enables business to share the costs of maintaining key software assets. It is the goose that lays the golden eggs on which the modern economy is built.

And the European Commission is proposing to shoot it.

The proposed Copyright Directive - and in particular Article 13 - totally undermines the gift economy; it poses unaffordable costs and liabilities on code sharing repositories like SourceForge, GitHub, GitLab and others. These organisations will be forced to either withdraw or charge for their services. making it impossible for volunteers to freely share - to gift - their own work.

Meantime, Article 11 seeks to undermine another critical substrate of a free society, the free and voluntary sharing of ideas. The civil society discourse on public policy requires citizens to be able to freely access and reference the ideas of others in their own works, and to make their own works freely available to others to reference, comment upon and critique.

Of course, the European Commission isn't setting out to shoot the golden goose. It's setting out to protect the interests of the film, television, and fiction publishing industries. But seriously, is it better in the modern age to have films and no internet, or internet and no films? If our present copyright provisions meant the total elimination of Europe's cinema and television production sectors, would the total destruction of the infrastructure of the Internet be a price worth paying to save them? If our present copyright protections meant the elimination of journalism, would the destruction of civil society be a price worth paying to save it?

No, obviously not.

And cinema and television production are not greatly challenged; they're thriving and immensely profitable. Journalism is challenged, and is still adjusting to the Internet. But nevertheless, the solution to that is not - cannot be - to destroy either the Internet or civil society.

This is a directive that should not merely be reconsidered; it should be abandoned entirely.

The discussion we should be having, in an age in which the cost of reproduction of digital goods is essentially nil, is whether the copyright model which served reasonably well through the era of print serves any sort of public interest in the digital age.

Of course the creators of cultural artefacts deserve to be rewarded; of course journalism is necessary to a free society and must be supported. But copyright does not serve either purpose well. For every J K Rowling, there are a thousand authors of fiction who make at most a pittance; for every Paul McCartney, a thousand songwriters struggling to put petrol into the car to go to their next gig.

In journalism, the Daily Mail, a purveyor of gossip, malice and deceit, profits more from copyright than the Guardian, which supports serious political discussion and commentary, and funds critical investigative journalism such as the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal.

In the Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams wrote a little parable for our times. The first settlers of Earth, he wrote, adopted the leaf as currency. But leaves were too plentiful; so in order to prop up the value of the leaf, they decided to burn down all the forests.

What the European Commission is proposing is to burn down the forest: to save the profits of the media industry by destroying the infrastructure of the Internet and of civil society. They must not be allowed to do this. Copyright is a tool of society, not its master; and if the tool has been made obsolete by more modern technology, it is time to discard it.

Tuesday 10 April 2018

Yet another bid to centralise power

A bunch of unbelievable dunderheids calling themselves the 'Constitutional Reform Group' are proposing a new Act of Union. You can read it here. The group are remarkably coy about their membership, but rumour has it that they are, at least primarily, members of the House of Lords - which comes as no surprise to me (indeed, I'd hazard I could correctly guess the names of several members).

Long time readers of my blog will recall that I've written on the UK constitution, rather often:

  1. The West Lothian question, take two
  2. Parliamentary Questions
  3. Submission to the Smith Commission
  4. Scottish devolution, and socialism in one nation
  5. A breakfast any self-respecting dog would reject

Fortunately the committee have provided a feedback form through which you can give your opinion of their turgid bucket of foetid dingoes' kidneys, here. I strongly commend the idea you do so. For inspiration, my own contribution is below; do not copy it, as that is bad form, but feel free to riff melodically on some of these points.

I have very rarely read a more foolish or more incendiary document - this ranks surely alongside Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal for offensiveness, but lacks the wit.

It is not possible to have a federal state in which one confederate can always outvote all others. If the United Kingdom is to become a federal state, then either England must be split into at least five separate units (Wessex, Sussex, Essex, Mercia, Northumbria, perhaps) or Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, put together, must be able to outvote England. Otherwise it isn't a confederation, it's an empire (which, under your committee's proposal, of course, it is).

It is not possible to have a democracy with appointed legislators. Not any appointed legislators at all. The United Kingdom, of course, never has been a democracy, but it is about time it became one.

It is not tolerable that a broad range of taxes be retained by the federal administration. The centre can have few functions and therefore has little expenditure; the overwhelming majority of revenue must be generated where it is needed - in the nations. It would be better to put all taxation powers with the nations and fund the federal government with subventions from them.

It is not possible to have a UK wide court system, because there is not a UK wide system of law. Nor is it desirable that there should be, unless, of course, England wishes to submit to the jurisdiction of Scots law. No? Didn't thinks so. Similarly, a UK wide civil service makes no sense.

If you want to cause civil war in these islands, I commend your proposed bill as a most excellent way to proceed. Otherwise, I suggest you bury it in the deepest cesspit you can find, and pray it never resurfaces.

Friday 6 April 2018

Response to consultation on a new enterprise agency for the South of Scotland

1 Do you agree with our ambition outlined?


2 What would you like to see for the South of Scotland?

Locally owned businesses, rather than inward investment. The current problems at Pinney's just reprise the history of firms like Stelrads; investors from outside the region are attracted in with generous grants, stay for the good times, and pull out suddenly when times are tough. That isn't what we need.

What we need is to develop and grow a vibrant entrepreneurial culture locally. That means training in entrepreneurship, mentoring networks, and, ideally, if they can be found, local angels. It also means facilitating local business and tech meetups.

I'd personally like to see more high skill high wage businesses, like software and engineering, and less emphasis on low wage, insecure businesses like hospitality and tourism. As agriculture adapts to a low carbon economy, there are huge opportunities for disruptive new engineering products.

3 What are your ambitions for the future economic success of the South of Scotland?

Innovative engineering, especially around reducing fossil fuel use in agriculture and forestry.

A broad entrepreneurial culture, with school leavers and university graduates equipped with the skills and confidence to start their own businesses; supported by
  1. a mentoring network.
  2. A local angels/venture capital network, and a local business focussed bank after the German model.
  3. The ability to develop businesses where people want them, not where it's convenient to central planning.
In particular we need employment in villages, and employment flexible enough for people supplementing reduced agricultural incomes.

4 What are the strengths you would like to see the Agency build on?

As outlined, we're a dispersed region with significant opportunities in renewable energy, a highly educated workforce, and, in places, considerable self reliance.We also have land, although it is concentrated in few hands. Land-based businesses over the 20th century became heavily dependent on fossil fuels and that now has to change rapidly. That's a challenge, but it's also an opportunity. Southern Scotland has a history of agricultural innovation - for example, the milking machine was invented in Castle Douglas. We can respond to this challenge.

We lack confidence, finance, and entrepreneurial skills. We need to make up these deficits, and that's something an agency would be well placed to do. We also, relative to urban areas, lack informal opportunities for entrepreneurs to network, and that also needs to be addressed,

A local business bank would be a great asset, either as a strictly commercial business or as a mutual.

5 What are the economic challenges you would like to see the Agency address?

  1. Infrastructure, especially communications.
  2. Finance.
  3. Entrepreneurship training and mentoring.Research and development support.
  4. Networking, meetups, matchmaking.
  5. There is a problem with affordable housing for young people. If people are borrowed up to the hilt for housing, or paying a burdensome rent, the amount of risk they can afford to take on in business is sharply limited.
  6. Universal Basic Income would considerably de-risk business startup.

6 What currently works well in the South of Scotland?

Not a lot.

7 What would you add or take away from the potential activities that the Agency could carry out across the three areas:
a) drive forward the economy?:

While opportunities are great, we need to be aware of risks and challenges. Scottish agriculture is not equipped to compete at world market prices, and Brexit will mean widespread farm bankruptcies across the region with consequential bankruptcies among farm supply businesses and more widely.

The challenge for the rural economy over the next decade is to maintain people in their homes in the face of rapid change and stress. Challenges are opportunities, and there are considerable opportunities in the current situation. But we need to be clear that the requirement, before seeking to drive the economy forward, is to prevent its utter collapse.

b) sustain communities?:

The costs and models of rural transport are going to change considerably over the next decade, and the prospects are not easy to predict. Because the rural economy is relatively depressed and electric vehicles are new and expensive, it's unlikely that they will naturally propagate into the rural economy first; rather, they're likely to be in the towns.

There's a related issue that most remote rural areas have great opportunities for renewable electricity generation, but lack the grid connections to carry that power away. If it could be used locally to power transport and farm machinery, that's a triple benefit to the rural economy.

If we expand electric vehicle use rapidly and early in remote rural areas, that will cut the costs of rural transport very substantially, leading to much more sustainable communities; driverless, on demand electric taxis following the Google/Waymo model could have a very positive impact.

But without government intervention and considerable subsidy, neither will happen. The richer, urban economy will soak up these new products first, and remote rurals will get them only when that market becomes saturated. Instead it's likely that private rural transport will tend to depend largely on second hand diesel vehicles, because they're cheap to buy and reliable; but they will increasingly be more expensive to run. This further disadvantages rural areas with respect to urban.

Without affordable transport and access to affordable housing and land, the pattern of a populated landscape and vibrant village communities will be very hard to sustain.

c) capitalise on people and resources?:

We don't educate nearly enough in entrepreneurship or in civics. Young people leave education expecting to get a job, not start a business. They lack the skills and they lack the mentoring network.

A related problem is that most of our young people go away to distant universities, and, because of the cost of housing and the few opportunities for employment, few come back. Of those of my generation from Auchencairn who went to university and did not inherit farms, only two - myself and one other - came back.

Full disclosure, I started my first business in Auchencairn at the age of 21; it was a steep learning curve, but was supported by good mentoring from Scottish Enterprise for which I'm still grateful.

So: we need better education in entrepreneurship at all levels, a wide network of good, easily accessible mentoring, and affordable housing and business premises. The second and third of these are things the new agency can contribute greatly to.

With regard to resources, our primary resource after people is land and landscape. Landscape, as a marketable asset, derives from cultural aesthetics which are inevitably somewhat backward looking; people like to see (and to live in) a settled, patchwork landscape of mixed farming, woodlands and hills. They like to see in that landscape a broad diversity of wild flowers, birds, and other wildlife.

This is not from an agricultural point of the most efficient landscape. As pressure grows on farmers, we will see less employment, less varied agriculture, a less settled and less diverse landscape. Beef, lamb and cereal production will cease to be economic as we open up to world markets, increasing the reliance on dairy, and, probably, on cows kept indoors and fed silage.

If we are to protect a settled landscape, we need ways to subsidise small farms. I believe that moving from a per-hectare model of agricultural subsidy to a welfare model - preferably a universal basic income model - together with opportunities for part-time employment, would encourage a settled, more diverse landscape, which would in turn bring benefits to tourism.

8 What would you prioritise as the key areas of activity for the Agency?

  1. Building mentoring networks.Facilitating meetups/informal business networking.
  2. Encouraging entrepreneurship education, including on-going education for existing business owners.
  3. Providing/gatekeeping access to local angels.
  4. Encouraging the establishment of a regional business-oriented bank.
Politicians like inward investment because it provides sudden, relatively large job creation which they can take credit for. This is a snare and a delusion. As the south of Scotland has seen repeatedly over the past century, inward investors become outward divestors at the first sign of trouble. The agency should NOT support inward investment.

9 What specific things could the Agency do to help you, your business, your sector or your community?

  1. My business? Better broadband; business networking.
  2. My sector? Better broadband; business networking.
  3. My community? Affordable housing. The average income is about £21,000, the minimum house price is about £200,000, the two don't meet.

10 What could the Agency do outwith its boundaries working with other local authorities or with agencies like Highlands and Islands Enterprise to support specific projects which benefit the South of Scotland and with national agencies?

East to west travel across southern Scotland is not facilitated by either the road or rail network, and consequently there is not much communication between Dumfries and Galloway in the west, and the Borders in the east; rather, Galloway tends to face Ayrshire and Glasgow, where the Borders tend to face the Lothians and Edinburgh. It does not therefore seem to me that, despite the similar challenges, it will be easy for one agency to service all these regions.

In particular an agency headquartered in the Borders will find it hard to service Galloway, while one based in Dumfries will find it hard to service Berwickshire; sadly, one based in Langholm would find it hard to service anywhere at all.

In Scotland we over-centralise everything; Dumfries and Galloway, considered as a unit, is larger both in area and in population than one sixth of the independent nations of the world. On average across Europe, local government units are one twentieth the size they are in Scotland. I do not believe this can continue; I believe the democratic deficit must mean that we will soon see the break up of these monstrous local government divisions.

Nevertheless, there is a clear geographic divide running to the east of Moffat and Langholm, Without major new roads infrastructure, despite the similarities in economic challenge, it is not useful to see the whole of southern Scotland as one unit. While I think Dumfries and Galloway council is an oversized and anti-democratic anachronism, an economic development agency for the south-west would make sense.

11 Which option, either from the list above or your own suggestion, do you think offers the best way to ensure the Agency is accessible to all across the South of Scotland?

Of the options listed I would go with the first: 'the Agency could have minimal physical presence with its services delivered digitally across the area', supplemented by local, probably part time, networking and mentoring staff dispersed across the region.

There is no location which could reasonably serve as a 'headquarters' for the whole of southern Scotland, because there is effectively no transport infrastructure between east and west.

12 Which criteria should be used in reaching a decision about the location of the Agency?

Don't locate it. That is a snare and a delusion. A centre in Dumfries could service the southwest, but not the Borders. One in the Selkirk/Melrose area could service the Borders, but not the southwest.

Obviously in my personal interest it would be better in Dumfries than in Melrose, but that's exactly the point; getting bogged down in squabbles about location doesn't help, and whichever location were chosen, unless the Scottish Government is prepared to invest in a Stranraer to Melrose motorway, the side of the country not chosen will feel discriminated against.

Board meetings and other central functions should rotate across the whole area, rather than being centrally located; staff should be dispersed.

13 If you were to use the services of this Agency, what factors are important to you in terms of reaching it?

Digital delivery is still problematic across much of rural Scotland: broadband speeds are laughably poor - I'm currently seeing 0.9 Mbits/sec download and 0.3 upload, and I run an Internet business!

Without better broadband performance digital delivery alone will not service remote rural areas.
So until we have the broadband we've been promised for the past twenty years, the agency would need to work on an 'account manager' model, with dispersed, locally based, probably part-time account managers regularly visiting their client businesses, probably as part of a mentoring/support scheme.

14 What sort of people should be on the Board of the Agency and what sorts of skills and expertise should they have?

A board widely drawn from experienced local business people - not politicians nor career public servants.

15 We know that young people are less likely to stay in or move to the South of Scotland than they are other parts of the country. Do you have any comments on things the Agency could do to meet the interests of children and young people?

We need homes for them to come back to after university, and opportunities to create their own employment in the form of flexible, low-commitment business premises. Ideally we need either universal basic income or an enhanced enterprise allowance to de-risk at least the initial three years.

We need opportunities for part time employment so that people not able to make a sufficient income from a nascent business can supplement it.

But most of all we need housing. And the housing we need has to be affordable in perpetuity, so either we need sufficient council housing of sufficient quality to be both available and attractive to potential entrepreneurs, or else we need to make the Rural Housing Burden actually work.

19 Do you have any other thoughts on powers that the Agency will need?

There will be a great deal of pressure for the agency to intervene in situations like Pinney's. Pinney's is a tragedy, but it's one that is an inevitable consequence of businesses being owned from outwith the region, and of Brexit. We will see more instances of this over the coming years, and they could easily soak up all the resources of the proposed agency for years to come.

Furthermore, paying bribes to businesses based furth of Scotland to keep open businesses in Scotland, even if it preserves employment in Scotland, is poor use of Scottish government money.

The agency needs to have the independence to be able to resist political pressure to intervene in saving failing businesses. This isn't to say that the agency might not back a management buy-out, or some other scheme which brought ownership of a facility back into the region, provided that the facility was viable as a business or could reasonably be expected to be brought into a condition in which it was.

I don't think the agency should have the power to invest directly in businesses; I think that it should seek to encourage and support a network of angels, or a local venture capital group, and a regional commercial bank.

20 Is there anything else you wish to say about the operation of the Agency?

Keep it lightweight, keep it dispersed, don't spend money on fancy headquarters of large central staff.

Creative Commons Licence
The fool on the hill by Simon Brooke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License