If you are suspected of social security fraud in the once progressive city of Nijmegen, you might get your very own camera, pointed directly at your front door, so the municipal fraud detection squad can better keep an eye on you. It would appear from these documents that this has already been approved by the city council and the CBP (our data protection authority / Bundesdatenschutzbeauftragter). Who probably feel wonderful about themselves for getting Nijmegen to only use it if they feel it’s really really necessary, and to make sure there’s a “separate decision” made before using the camera at night.

Words fail me. That is: words suitable for this polite blog fail me. I bet this will quickly catch on in other places and for a range of other suspected offences. Now there’s probably still some theoretical way for this all to not end where I think it will end, but you’ll have to excuse me for not seeing it right now. Also do note how it will be some time before this level of privacy intrusion is deemed suitable for people suspected of defrauding society of 10.000 or 100.000 times more while working at a large bank.

Surveillance: NOT a first world problem

I have been to a few meetings and conferences now where people have claimed that the global surveillance state is a First World problem. After all the majority of the people in many developing countries are way to worried about water, food, shelter or other basic needs to worry about something as abstract as government surveillance. The latter is true, of course. But what poor people do not worry about may still be an important factor in maintaining a system that increasingly serves the few and ignores the needs of the many, and that may eventually make the planet uninhabitable for all of us.

Surveillance is a status-quo enabler. It strongly favours those with the money and other resources to listen to everyone else. The global surveillance infrastructure is a huge part of what enables the rich countries to do as they please and get away with it. I happened to be at the COP15 meeting in Copenhagen, at the end of which many people realised our governments were simply not going to deal with climate change in any useful timeframe. I remember talking to the person from the environmental ministry in Bangladesh over lunch and not being hungry anymore.

The story of the US government efforts to listen to everyone at the Copenhagen meeting – so they could be even better at doing nothing about climate change – makes me want to puke.

That could be why U.S. negotiators took the positions they did going into the conference, a Danish official told Information. “They simply sat back, just as we had feared they would if they knew about our document,” the official said. “They made no constructive statements. Obviously, if they had known about our plans since the fall of 2009, it was in their interest to simply wait for our draft proposal to be brought to the table at the summit.”

Members of the Danish delegation indicated in interviews with Information that they thought the American and Chinese negotiators seemed “peculiarly well-informed” about discussions that had taken place behind closed doors. “Particularly the Americans,” said one official. “I was often completely taken aback by what they knew.”


In a world that will need to change the status quo really quickly, surveillance of the poorest by the richest threatens us all.

Eben Moglen

I am in awe. I’ve been working on making sense of “it all” myself recently. But I could not even dream to come close to expressing it remotely as well as Eben does. Free up an undisturbed hour of your life and watch this. Make it today if you can. I would pose that this will become widely recognised to be one of the more important speeches of our time.

( If you happen to subtitle videos for a living, please transcribe and subtitle this one. I do hope the next lecture in this series has slightly better sound and video. But you will see why it is fitting for our present condition that the thoughts we really need to hear are not read off a teleprompter on a well-lit stage and filmed in HD, but presented in a modest classroom and filmed on a handheld telephone. )

Identity Fraud?

It looks like a majority in Dutch parliament is about to adopt a change in the law that would criminalize the use of fake name, address or phone number on the internet. The article (in dutch) goes on to say that perpetrators of fraud can already be convicted of, well, fraud. The point here is that the use of fake credentials in and by itself will become a criminal offense, punishable by 5 years in jail and/or a fine in the tens of thousands of euros.

So who will tell my friends who are not using their real names on Facebook? And what about all the times I’ve entered 020-1234567 as my phone number?

As I read it, this law seems like it can be used to put a sizeable portion of the dutch population in jail. But don’t worry, I’m sure they’ll only use it against the terrorists.

Mediawiki help wanted

Anyone here really good with mediawiki? I recently upgraded two installations to 1.20 from 1.13.4, ran the update.php and all was fine except uploads don’t work anymore. (Could not create directory “mwstore://local-backend/local-public/3/37”). It’s not the owner/permissions on /images or children but something more subtle that seems (seems) to involve the mwstore://local-backend part not being translated into a filesystem path. With my primitive debugging it looks like it’s giving that path straight to mkdir. I’ve done the Google and short of trying to wrap my head around the mediawiki codebase I’m out of ideas, I guess.

Update: Problem solved. Turns out the new database backend thing in mediawiki doesn’t like database names with dots in them, and doesn’t tell you. Thank you Florian Holzhauer for finding it!


Wow. See this video and then show it to your daughter.

I’m beginning to really appreciate the Dove campaigns. This feels genuine and deep, far beyond mere advertising. (I know how icky that sounds, given that in today’s world that merely describes the holy grail of advertising, but so be it..)

(Yes, I know. I’ll blog more often.)

More on Belgian e-Voting

Sigh, it’s all so depressingly predictable. My last post contained some headlines on problems with the new Belgian e-Voting system made by Smartmatic. As it turns out there’s a real problem with quite a few people unknowingly voting a preference for the candidate whose button (on the second screen), happens to be right where the button for his/her party was on the first screen.

A few days after my last post there’s an article in “Het Laatste Nieuws” in which Hendrik Bogaert, deputy minister for the civil service, afraid of large political risks, would like to see e-Voting scrapped entirely. Geert Bourgeois, the Flemish interior minister, denies the seriousness of the problem:

“What is possible is that the voter touches the screen too long and thus out of lazyness just touches the closest person. Two separate actions are necessary”, Bourgeois underlines. “My agency and the company that sells the computers both contradict that this could happen by pressing too long.” Even 85.000 tests by PriceWaterhouseCoopers have “never shown this problem”.

Guess what. Just a few days later this very same minister is quoted in De Standaard complaining he has been made to look like a complete fool. It turns out PWC (“From the people that certified Diginotar”) did know about these problems after all. You didn’t see that one coming, now did you? He also fears that anyone that did not get a seat because of these problems could go to court, which would cause major problems. (Which seems like a silly fear to mention in an interview, but OK.)

More seriously: how many “incidents” does it take for people to realize that the entire e-Voting industry is corrupt and/or incompetent?

Belgium goes e-Voting

Interesting. During the elections our entire country was up in arms because the election results came in a few hours later than with the (black-box, readily hackable, completely non-transparant) computers we had before. Somehow nobody complains when forming a government takes months, but election results must come in immediately.

But when neighboring Belgium introduces new voting computers, nobody here wonders how they are doing. I collected some headlines, just so the people currently screaming for new voting computers know what to look forward to. It’s an incomplete collection, from Dutch language papers in Belgium. In case you don’t read Dutch: it looks like a LOT more trouble than our current paper-based elections.

RIP Bill (billsf) Squire

Sad news… I got word today that Bill Squire has passed away. The global hacker community lost a legend. In various hackerspaces avant-la-lettre, Bill generously shared his deep knowledge of phones, pranks, electronics and technology in general. In the very early nineties, Bill was the phone phreak and electronics wizard without whom our magazine Hack-Tic would never have been as funny, as rebellious or as well-known.

10-lane facepalm

I need a new country. This one is lost. To illustrate this I’d like to translate an article about a major current political issue in the Netherlands for you. It’s about the maximum speed on a newly upgraded highway.

Speed on widened A2 highway can be raised to 170 km/h

Engineering firm Royal HaskoningDHV says the maximum speed on the widened A2 highway between Amsterdam and Utrecht can be raised further. Only at 170 km/h are the existing noise-limits exceeded. This according to Trouw (longer article in Dutch).

The newspaper had the engineering company research the feasability of minister Melanie Schultz’s plan to raise the maximum speed to 130 km/h during evenings and nights. The raised speed would only apply between Vinkeveen and Maarssen between 19:00 and 06:00. Now the maximum speed for the A2 is 100 km/h.

The 10 lanes of the A2 have so little traffic running over them that raising the speed to anything under 170 km does not get up to the noise limits, according to Royal HaskoningDHV. The road was built for 230.000 vehicles a day in 2020, but there’s only 136.000 now. The expected growth in traffic is lagging, causing the expected number of 230.000 to be reached only in 2065.

In the maximum speed is raised to 130 km/h, noise will increase but only in 2030 do new sound barriers have to be placed, says Royal HaskoningDHV. Air pollution is already combatted by an extra screen at Breukelen, writes Novum press agency.

I’m not sure where to start. Mind you that I don’t need to agree with my government. What I would like is for them to be in the same reality. I guess this is partly about how extrapolation has become a really bad way of predicting the future, given how non-sustainable present trends are. The most misunderstood part of the very common word non-sustainable is that it means “no way this will continue”. Seriously: where do they hire people that predict the number of cars to be almost double that of today in 2065?

Given that the western part of the Netherlands is built on mud and does sometimes get frost in winter, highways like these are very expensive. I’d like to know who thought building this 10-lane highway right at peak-car was a good way to spend our money?

But by far the most depressing thing about this whole story is that nobody in this country seems to read this article the way I do. Everyone else is just bickering over whether or not to allow 130 km/h on this one piece of highway.

Which is, I kid you not, all of thirteen kilometers long.

What I read

People sometimes ask me what I read. I’ve replied to a few e-mails with small selections, but I guess I should write it down a little bit more elaborately and share it. I don’t read much fiction, and not all that many books. I’ve been buying e-books from Amazon recently. I have a Kindle but I’m mostly reading e-books through the Kindle app for my iPhone. I do read loads and loads of long and short articles and blog postings using Google Reader as my interface. The few twitter accounts I follow and Google News alerts I have set are also in my Google Reader feed.


First off, here’s a selection of some of the books I have been reading in the past 6 months or so. (The book title is a link to the Wikipedia article for the book. If the author’s name is a link, it’s a TED talk by the author dealing with the same subject matter.

  • Anatomy of an EpidemicMagic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America – Robert Whitaker – (amazon)
  • Griftopia – Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids and the Long Con That Is Breaking America – Matt Taibbi – (amazon)
  • Vultures Picnic – In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates and High-Finance Carnivores – Greg Palast – (amazon)
  • The Big ShortInside the doomsday machine – Michael Lewis – (amazon)
  • Drift The Unmooring of American Military Power – Rachel Maddow – (amazon)
  • Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air – David MacKay FRS – (free PDF)
  •  Limits to GrowthThe 30-Year Update – Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers – (amazon)
  • The Great DisruptionWhy the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the birth of a New WorldPaul Gilding – (amazon)
  • The Long EmergencySurviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophies of the Twenty-first Century – James Howard Kunstler – (amazon)
  • The Rational OptimistHow prosperity evolvesMatt Ridley – (amazon)

The first book, Anatomy of an Epidemic, I read after I wrote my keynote for the 2010 CCC Congress in which I worried, among many other things, about the extent to which our society is medicating unhappiness and the political impact thereof. But this is not an activist book as much as it is a work of science journalism, thoroughly investigating the scientific basis for various classes of psychiatric medications. The picture that emerges however is quite a bit more sobering than even I had expected.

The next books are about the economic situation we’re in. Griftopia is by Matt Taibbi, a writer for Rolling Stone Magazine, who is both hilarious and quite talented in explaining many of the extremely complex issues in laymen’s terms. Vultures Picnic is by Greg Palast, the ‘Lonely George’ of a particular type of investigative journalism. His is the story of tracking down some of the worst global economic offenders and sometimes suffering as a consequence. (If you like him, also check out “Armed Madhouse” about the Bush era White House.) The Big Short is the story of a handful of people in the financial world that saw the sub-prime crisis coming and how they made a handsome profit from it, all the while trying to tell the world this was all just so crazy.

Drift by MSNBC host Rachel Maddow (who is as smart and hilarious as Jon Stewart) is a careful study on how over the past 50 years US military power has become gradually immune to outside influences such as democracy. Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air is highly recommended for the geeks amongst my readership because it teaches you to think quantitatively about various sources of sustainable energy without falling for the huge amounts of bullshit that are flying about.

The next books deal with various aspects of the more general mess we’re in. Limits To Growth, the original is from 1972, hardly needs an introduction. If only the world had understood the central message 3 or 4 decades ago. The Great Disruption describes the situation we’re in and the immediate future and manages to end with an only slightly contrived message of hope. The Long Emergency is a more distinctly American perspective on the same circumstances, but Kunstler has clearly thought through a rather dystopian future. I’m planning to read his book “Too Much Magic” next, so I can’t tell you yet what that’s like.

As much as I believe our civilisation is facing its most existential problems to date, I do try to read as much as I can from the opposite point of view as well. In The Rational Optimist author Matt Ridley tries to debunk all the current doomsday theories by arguing the world is only getting better day by day. He does make some excellent points, and the narrative on Ideas Having Sex which is part of the book is well thought out and not something I would argue with. He does succeed in making one think twice about raising the alarm. Ultimately his line of reasoning fails to convince me though. I feel he systematically ignores or belittles a lot of the fundamental problems we’re facing by pointing to upward curves and essentially making the argument that a curve that has always been going up must forever go up. His proof seems to mostly consist of pointing to previous theories of doom that failed to materialize. Which is all too bad, because I really liked some of his previous work. His 1994 popular science book “The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature” taught me a lot of what I know about humans, sex and evolution.

As you probably know by now I believe human civilisation is headed for serious trouble at the “Fall of the Roman Empire except global and made much worse by climate change” end of the scale. But I’m honest enough to admit that confirmation bias and the composition of my daily information diet are causing me to be in my very own filter bubble. I am therefore very grateful for any suggestions for thoughtful papers, articles and (popular-)scientific works that argue that, maybe barring a few hiccups here and there, we’re basically going to be fine. Please use the comments for this, so other people can join in.

Blogs etcetera

Below is a long lost of some of the things I read. Some have many posts a day, others barely post anything. The list is in no particular order, contains all sorts of things and finding out what these are about is part of the fun of clicking around. I think. Or maybe I am too lazy to write descriptions. Although I like most of these, please note that I do not necessarily agree with or endorse any of these sources beyond admitting that I look at at least some of the stuff that is posted there.


As an example, here are two excellent articles that appeared in my feed today:

Two Minutes Hate: Black Ops 2

The upcoming blockbuster military realistic first person shooter Black Ops 2 features, I kid you not, a main villain that appears modelled after Julian Assange:

The game’s main villain is Raul Menendez, described as the “idolized Messiah of the 99%”—a Julian Assange-like character who’s old, experienced, and hell bent on starting a global insurrection against the status quo. 

From the trailer:

“He’s like … a celebrity now. People – in America – idolize him. They’ll wake up tomorrow and realize that their hero … has wiped them out. We have the most advanced technology tracking him, and he’s just … DISAPPEARED! Where .. the .. hell .. is .. he?”

This is bizarre on so many levels I’m not even sure where to start…. Come next year, the most powerful military on the planet will likely use this new video game in its high tech recruitment centers to lure young people trained to track and kill someone modeled after Julian Assange.

When it comes to the state of the world I can be somewhat of a pessimist – I guess – but I would have laughed if anyone had made this up.