Saturday, 18 September 2010

Well at least THEIR bass player is still alive

Anybody else think Lemmy without the 'tache looks like Sean Locke? Have a look about 1:16 into the vid:

Seriously, ever seen these two together in the same room?

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Guardian prints Balls

Being something of a connoisseur of the art of the headline and the utter tosh the Grauniad has been publishing as 'news' since Labour was kicked out, Methuselah was pleasantly surprised at the candour of the front-page headline on Saturday's print edition:

Gove has plans for covert selective education - Balls

I really couldn't have put it any better myself. The ensuing waste of printer's ink was nonsense by any news editor's standards, but for a front-page lead it was pure and unmitigated Betty Swallocks.

The story, as the Guardian presented it, was that a "leaked government document questioned the admissions code that stops schools favouring children they believe are more likely to produce better results".

The inference one was supposed to draw was that Michael Gove, or one of his senior dastardly henchwonks, had authored this "leaked government document", thus implicating themselves in a secret conspiracy at Tory HQ to renege on assurances that plans for academies and free schools would remain committed to a comprehensive admissions policy. (From there it was but a short step to wheel out prospective Labour leader and useful idiot Ed Balls for a rentaquote marathon, and give that heroic sub-editor the opportunity for a subversive headline, not that any of the joyless, lemon-sucking Grolies would have noticed it.)

Except that in the fourth paragraph of this front page news story it turned out that the author was one Clare Simpson, "an education department official" (for which read, "progressive Sir Humphrey-type interfering civil servant unelected nobody") who had been briefing against her political masters to the teaching unions, with a slideshow presentation of her own devising. Had the whim taken Ms Simpson, the "leaked government document" might equally have claimed the moon was made of green cheese, for as much as it purported to represent the views of any elected member of parliament.

The sleight of hand lay in the ambiguity of the term "government". In the story, it meant anybody employed in the public sector, but the Guardian wanted its readers to think it referred to actual policy-makers. This might seem an obvious point, but it is an important one, given the timing, as the Guardians agenda eventually emerges in the seventh and ninth paragraph:

"The academies bill [is] expected to pass its final Commons stage on Monday... The document was leaked to the Guardian as Lib Dem backbenchers indicated they are prepared to rebel against the bill."

So anyway, I digress, all of that is but a sideshow to the main event, which is this: As a blog writer with a readership of about two, Methuselah both considers himself practically a senior cabinet minister, and also demands to be known as "The King of the World".

Grauniad, go do your thing!

Friday, 23 July 2010


German Mods raise their game

"What're you rebelling against, Johnny?" asked Mildred in The Wild One.

"Whaddya got?" replied Johnny, and that's fair enough because, after all, this was the point. Or rather it wasn't. Whichever, had Marlon Brando been playing Johnny's modern-day German counterpart however, the reply might have been very different.

"Well, since you ask Fräulein Mildred, puppy-throwing and comedy getaway routines," may well have been the response in downtown Allershausen, judging from this BBC report:

A German student mooned a group of Hell's Angels and hurled a puppy at them before escaping on a stolen bulldozer, police have said.

The student, known only as 'Jimmy', explained: "I don't wanna be like everybody else, that's why I'm a Mod, see?"

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

I've got a dirty little secret and I need your help!

Well, you see, I’ve got this, um, friend. Not me, you understand, but a friend, a very good friend as a matter of fact. Known him a long time. All my life actually, he’s like a brother, except, well, he’s not. And, er, he’s done something, something that perhaps he doesn’t feel too proud of, but he doesn’t know why. It felt right at the time. God knows, he’s been feeling that way for a long time, visited by thoughts and feelings which perhaps he couldn’t explain to himself, but it certainly didn’t feel exactly wrong as such (in fact, after such a long time of denial, it felt positively good!). And still he doesn’t know why what he did was so wrong, he doesn’t think it was wrong, but everyone that knows about it seems to think it was. Society has weighed him and measured him, and society has found him wanting.

So what did my friend do? He voted Tory at the general election, which for some reason is about as socially acceptable as cracking a paedo joke on a council estate.

Now let me get to the point. I want your opinion for an article I’m writing about the stigma of voting Tory. Why should this be? Why is it that voting Labour or Liberal Democrat is something people can do freely and admit to without a second thought – indeed some will boast of as a badge of honour - but voting Conservative is something dreadfully furtive, to be conducted in shameful, self-conscious secrecy, rather like that thing the French do when they stuff tiny songbirds in their mouths whole, bones, beaks and all the filthy buggers, with a teatowel over their head?

And let us make no bones about this. It could be that because of his job and background, my friend, ahem, naturally knows people who are generally more left-leaning than the average, but there most definitely does exist a taint to being a Conservative supporter.

Consider the election of 1992: while returning the Conservative government with a clear overall majority, many thousands of Tory voters couldn’t bring themselves to tell the truth to a complete stranger, according to exit polls.

Or indeed, consider the most recent election: In my constituency, the Liberal Democrat and the Conservative vote were for the second time very close, yet to judge from the front-garden billboards in the area – a sea of orange, interspersed only very occasionally with a speck of blue – the Liberal Democrat candidate should have swept in on a surge of support with an utter drubbing for the Tories.

So come on people, what’s the problem with voting Tory? Is there some residual inherent mark of Cain left over from a more class-stricken age, when grotesque privilege equated to outright exploitation? Or is there perhaps a natural bias in the protestant work ethic? Is it Thatcher? Or do we just dislike Tories as a group, on general principles, rather as my grandparents distrusted anyone who wasn’t white, British and working-class?

As I said, this is something of a crowdsourcing exercise (albeit not exactly scientific, given the sample group) and I really would be interested in getting as many answers as possible. So if you would, leave a comment, send an email, dispatch a courier pigeon etc etc, I would really value your opinion. Please feel free to make it anonymous if you want. Rest assured, I shall treat what opinions are expressed privately in complete confidence.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Cancellor of the Exchequer Osborne drops poker mask with "Public Spectre" Freudian slip

Was it my imagination, or did George the Younger utter something of a Freudian slip in his reference to cutting £6.25bn in wasteful spending on ‘the Public Spectre’?

I think he did! It’s 02:43 into this, see what you think:

In the meantime, I’m just going to lay down a bit of search-engine bait to attract some really disappointed people:

A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.

Now that's what I call key word repetition! Speaking of German spies, that’s another sacrificial lamb shish for me, Dr Papoulias. Sorry, Angela, did you want extra bile with that chilli sauce?

Friday, 21 May 2010

Bend it like Hamid Karzai

Oh for goodness sake. I started this thing just to, I don’t know, shoot my mouth off a bit probably, have a bit of a moan, bit of a laugh. Turns out that real life outflanks me at every turn.

So where Alexander the Great failed, Babur Becks sends in a curved one. Obviously. I mean how could it be otherwise?

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Surely this can only be good news?

Scientists in the US have succeeded in developing the first synthetic living cell.

The researchers constructed a bacterium's "genetic software" and transplanted it into a host cell.

The resulting microbe then looked and behaved like the species "dictated" by the synthetic DNA.

Hurrah! What could possibly go wrong?

Hat-tip to Mr Stangroom

Monday, 17 May 2010

The cordless gravity bungee-jump moonhole perpetual motion machine thing

In anticipation of the commercial age of space travel, when I was at school I came up with the idea of a cordless bungee-jump tourist attraction on the moon. The idea was that, once the early adopters had spent enough money to make holidays to the moon viable, some space-age subsidiary of Chessington World of Adventures or some such would drill a hole straight through the middle of the moon to provide the first complete-recoil, gravity-driven, cordless bungee jump.

The idea was that, in jumping down the hole – drilled in a straight line from a designated zenith point on the surface, right through the exact centre of the moon to the corresponding, polar-opposite nadir point – the subject would, subject to the usual rules of gravity, force and motion, bounce between the poles in a theoretically endless, reciprocal bungee jump, the elastic so beloved by antipodeans replaced by gravity. I anticipated helpful Redcoats handing out sandwiches at either end as the lunar jumper came flying out, only to be snapped back whence he or she came.

Even at the time of its conception, I was pretty sure the theory of a cordless gravity bungee-jump moonhole perpetual motion machine must be a load of nonsense. That intuition has not faded with the years. Unfortunately, such visions (there were many) would normally come to me as a tangent from the main body of discussion during physics lessons. Consequently, in the places of my brain where I should have had a sound grounding in the hard sciences with which to understand why the endless moon bungee is as much pony as it sounds, all I have is memories of gazing out the glazing, imagining Richard Branson in a spacesuit holding out a BLT.

So come on then, astrophysics community, why is the idea of the cordless gravity bungee-jump moonhole perpetual motion machine a load of nonsense? We all know it is, but why? And I don’t need some ass pointing out the marketing difficulties of persuading somebody to jump down a bottomless pit, or some side-show distraction about the logistics of designing an accurate drilling machine to be transported 238,857 miles and recalibrated in an environment one sixth of the gravity to that in which it was designed and built. In the words of my erstwhile mentor, D'uh!

I want the science of the cordless gravity bungee-jump moonhole perpetual motion machine, and I want it with corroborating citations from Wikipedia. If scientists cannot proffer an option, I shall have no option but to embrace religion, with its counter-intuitive, yet all-encompassing, devil-in-the-middle-of-the-moon-with-a-really-sharp-trident explanations.

Shall I start the bidding? Ahem, entropy. (For those who haven’t a clue what the hell I’m talking about, let’s just say you and I could form a club.)

Answers in the comments section please. The winner with the most convincing explanation wins a first-class seat on my very first commercial night flight to Venus. Hurrah!

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

The wisdom of Lamech no.2

Your computer uses a transformer? WOW!

May and Stephens data leak: update

Shortly after the post regarding May and Stephens’ data leak, I received an email from the consultancy’s managing director, Jacky May. Two weeks before, I had attempted to contact her with a number of questions pertinent to the data leak, to no avail. In contrast, the first whiff of adverse publicity brought a fairly swift response:

Dear Jason,

Having been out of the office, I learned only yesterday on reading your email that a member of our response team, David Vincent sent out an email communication without the cover of blind carbon copy. For this, I personally offer you my sincere apologies and on behalf of May & Stephens I cannot express to you how mortified and saddened the whole team feels that this error has occurred.

David Vincent with whom you have emailed regarding this matter realised subsequently his failure to use the bcc protection as would be the normal process. This was an honest mistake on his part for which David is genuinely sorry and distressed about. He fully appreciates that this has created a poor impression for the business. David is undertaking an internship with us as a graduate trainee and unfortunately on this occasion did not follow procedure. His personal attempt to offer you an apology by virtue of the email he composed demonstrates the innocence of his actions.

It is deeply regrettable to think that our reputation and our efforts to provide personal job search support to help people back into work can be potentially jeopardised through genuine human error. This naturally does not excuse us from our obligations under data protection and we have today implemented enhanced precautions to guarantee that this will never be able to reoccur.

We have been proud of maintaining the utmost integrity across our business practice and have an unblemished record for the past 18 years as we have always fulfilled best practice conduct.

This incident is therefore most disappointing.

In keeping with our promise to provide ongoing support we email on a quarterly basis to update and offer any additional individual assistance that may be required, as we know this has been a particularly effective aspect of our service, and which has been proved by the positive results we have achieved in getting people back into employment.

I can only reassure you that there was no ill intent or motive for commercial gain as the exercise was purely to offer you our continued support, which is still available to you.

I look forward to receiving your reply.

Kind Regards

Jacky May

Managing Director

Which gave me pause for thought for giving May and Stephens in general, and David Vincent in particular, such a rough time. Yes, the company committed one almighty data-protection howler; yes, of all companies, a recruitment consultancy - whose stock in trade is people’s confidential data – should know better; and yes, the gravity of the leak was exacerbated by the real potential for fraud. But, as I think most of the 700 or so addressees would agree, it certainly looked like an innocent mistake. And if, as Ms May claims, it was committed by an intern (whom I’d imagine has since been introduced to the error of his ways), it is all the more understandable.

However, less than 24 hours later, I received another email, this time from the Information Commissioner's Office, requesting further information regarding May and Stephens’ data leak.

As it says on its website, the Information Commissioner’s Office is the UK’s independent authority set up to uphold information rights in the public interest, promoting openness by public bodies and data privacy for individuals. At a time when public and private sector organizations are spewing personal data left, right and centre, it is of some comfort that there exists an organization – which is slowly but surely acquiring greater powers with which to back up its remit – that is trying to persuade them not to.

But whatever the judgement of the ICO, it can only pursue its aims if these cases are reported, by disclosure either from the organizations responsible (unlikely, if not entirely unknown) or those to whom the data pertains.

So I’m in a bit of a fix as to whether to just accept the whole thing as a fait accompli and forget it, or to respond to the ICO’s request. Compounding my indecision is the fact that I am only one of several hundred people who were affected, so in a way it’s not just my decision to take. (Taken to its natural conclusion, in the age of mass digital connection, privacy issues over data leaks and cybercrime affect an extraordinary amount of people, including anyone reading this.)

So to resolve my indecision, I’ve set up a poll. I’d imagine many people are heartily sick of the whole voting thing by now, but I can at least predict with near-certainty that this ballot will be more decisive than the one last Thursday. I’ve set out what I see as the main points for and against, and would be enormously grateful if you would see fit to state your opinion below as to whether May and Stephens should be referred to the Information Comissioner’s Office.

If there are any angles you think I haven’t addressed and which merit attention, do use the comments section to voice them. While the vote is anonymous, multiple votes bearing the same IP address will be discarded. The deadline for casting votes is 5:00pm Wednesday 19 May 2010.

Should May and Stephens be referred to the ICO?

It was a one-off error, purportedly committed in innocence by an intern who has, in any case, probably learned a valuable lesson. There is no evidence to suggest it is part of a recurring pattern of behaviour. As one commenter pointed out on the original post, nor would it be possible to prove any subsequent attempted phishing scams transpired as a result.

An honest mistake it might have been, just as such cases nearly always are. The absence of malevolent intention, however, does not stop data leaks being used by others for malevolent purpose, and ignorance cannot be regarded as a defence. The very fact that an inexperienced intern was left with the data, without sufficiently rigorous training, to make such an error demonstrates the standing in which May and Stephens holds data security issues. If such organizations are not referred to the ICO, it cannot properly undertake its duties and those who fail to comply with the Data Protection Act will be able to carry on leaking personal confidential data, whether by mistake or not. The gravity of this aspect is made all the more serious by the company’s partnership with the Department for Work and Pensions.

Monday, 10 May 2010

A ransom note to the RHS: clean up your act or Wisley Garden gets it

As sure as policeman are getting younger, old people are getting ruder. And the proof – were it needed – is as abundant as the mobility vehicles at the Royal Horticultural Society’s flagship garden at Wisley.
Wisley Garden is an amazing place. Occupying a site much smaller than Kew, it packs in an astonishing amount of stuff.

There are the trial fields and shrubberies thick with camellias, magnolias and rhododendrons (rhododendra?) astounding in Spring bloom; waterways packed with carp, Alpine slopes over which waterfalls play in the sunlight, Japanese gravel gardens of bonsai, and much more.

But it also boasts an impressive collection of peremptory hubris in its admissions staff.

And if that sounds rude, they started it.

I'd got used to being condescended to by the superannuated cashiers on the gates during many visits beforehand. It was almost one of the highlights of the trip, for me.

Not so much for the missus. She'd mentioned her suspicion of a rather ugly motive behind the reaction of the septuagenarian admission monkeys, but I must admit I'd never taken this as seriously as perhaps I should. Until I took my in-laws as guests to visit the gardens.

This time, there was something of a mix-up over how many guests my wife and I were allowed to take in. Anywhere apart from Wisley, this would have been resolved in seconds.

By contrast, however – this being Wisley – the elderly lady behind the counter told us some of us should go away and come back another day.

As I was trying to straighten things out, our antediluvian gatekeeper broke off mid-sentence in exasperation, to lament to her colleague her Herculean efforts in dealing with these slack-jawed idiots.

We stood in silence as she vented her spleen.

RHS, this will not do.

Of course the sub-retirement group probably doesn’t comprise a large part of the sum of Wisley’s visitors and you might feel you can afford to treat it as you wish.

But consider the plight of the Telegraph: at present it can do little to change its format to attract a younger audience without alienating existing readers. But in ten or twenty years or so, those readers will be in a happier place - no longer reading the front-page news of the drop in home-made jam production - and the Telegraph will be left with no-one.

Is that the future the Royal Horticultural Society wishes for itself?

But just in case that isn’t enough to persuade you of the benefits of treating your visitors with good grace, let’s raise the game a little…

Even as I type this, a crack squad of hand-picked saboteurs - organised in small, autonomous cells - is poised to potter off down the A3 in RAC badge bedecked Rovers to Wisley. You will not know who they are – indeed they will not know (or can’t remember) who they are – could one of them be the person wearing sensible shoes and quilted clothing in the queue right now?

All you need know is that each is equipped with a thermos flask containing enough Fallopia japonica to strangle a cat. And each is prepared to release it on the promise of a nice cup of tea.

Yep, you read it right. Japanese knotweed, Britain’s horticultural answer to Australia’s Cane toad.

You want to play dirty? Methuselah can play dirty.

So here’s the deal. The RHS has a month to clean up its act. If, after that time, the cordial staff treatment one would expect of such an august institution is forthcoming, the saboteurs will be stood down, vaccuum flasks withdrawn and Japanese knotweed consigned to the flames.

If not, you have only yourselves to blame for the consequences.

Friday, 7 May 2010

The Simon Hughes rap

Things are going properly
Things are going carefull
I am not going to speculate
You'll just have to wait, man


Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Recruitment consultancy May and Stephens leaks client's confidential personal data

In December last year, like many others in my company and across the world, I was made redundant. It’s quite the thing these days, and the change in lifestyle brings with it a raft of advantages. One such is making new friends and influencing people at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

The last time I signed on the rock’n’roll, the Department of Health and Social Security obliged one to queue for hours at one of its dark, satanic mills every fortnight. This was undertaken under the pernicious gaze of misanthropic civil servants who gave every impression of hankering for unemployment themselves, in preference to dirtying their hands with the hoi polloi.

These days, however, while the bi-weekly signing ritual remains, the offices are pleasantly bright and airy (although the guilty-pleasure letterbox-plop of the subsequent giro has disappeared), and several DWP employees will swoop on the lost-looking first-timer to enquire if they may be of assistance. The spongers and scroungers of yesteryear are now ‘customers’. Customers’ names are called, if not exactly with the deferential warmth of a maître d' greeting a valued customer, then at least with the recognition of one belonging to a common species hailing another. My Customer Services Advisor, a courteous and friendly young lady, greeted me by name, shook my hand and explained how things work at the social these days.

In one of those weird reversals of terms one often stumbles across now the public sector models itself on the private sector, the unemployment game is, thanks to the recession, a massive growth sector. Just as a private company might spend to increase profit during a boom, so the DWP’s budget and remit has been expanded to meet the influx of ‘customers’. (A word of warning: it is to invite a headache to imagine the nightmarish balance sheet on which the decrease in costs to the state incurred by benefit payments can be expressed as a profit to justify this increased spending.)

One of the ways the DWP has diversified its operation is in partnering with private-sector employment consultants. The recession, my Customer Services Advisor told me, had emphatically changed the role of the DWP in ways for which it had not been designed. Before, she explained, when a newly redundant plumber (for example) walked through the door, the jobcentre would give said plumber whatever benefits were deemed necessary until an employer needing a plumber was found, whereupon the DWP would pack him a sandwich and an apple and wave a hanky from the doorway, brushing away a tear as he toddled off to his first day back at work (I paraphrase).

In these post-credit-crunch days it’s all different, said the Customer Services Advisor. People who have spent decades toiling away with job titles requiring a PhD in Applied Cleverness to understand have come a cropper in the recession, and this has presented a whole different ball game. Hence the very sensible decision by the DWP to outsource work dealing with white-collar recruitment to private-sector companies with more experience in the field.

High times

In a momentary lapse of judgement, the Customer Services Advisor asked if I was interested in such a referral. I jumped at the chance. As part of my redundancy package, my former employer had packed me off to an employment agency specialising in ‘career counselling’ - which I had thoroughly enjoyed - and I was eager to repeat the experience.

(The basic deal is this: you potter along, they ask you what your plans are, you tell them and they spend a few hours telling you, in a number of different and ever ego-expanding ways, how brilliant the rest of your life will turn out. There’s a bit more to it than that, but those are the salient points. Seriously, after the first time, I hit the pub feeling a million dollars. It is of course an illusory, fleeting experience, but people pay serious money to achieve that buzz of elation - usually through illicit means - so if the opportunity comes along for free and it’s legal, I say one should grasp it with both hands.)

As it turned out, (as is usually the case), I couldn’t achieve the same high as the first time. Nonetheless, I wouln’t poo-poo it by any means. The agency to which the DWP sent me, May and Stephens, were the epitome of professional courtesy, my consultant an extremely bright and creative person who knew a lot about my field, and I retired to the Fuller’s pub down the road for an ESB if not with the high of before, at least with a sense of quiet confidence and industry. I knew from before that it probably wouldn’t last long, but wallowed without reserve while it lasted.

Phishing scams

However, not long after my visit to the DWP and subsequent excursion to May and Stephens, I found myself the target of emails from shadowy characters who somehow knew I had recently been made unemployed, purporting to represent companies offering me employment on the strength of my CV - the fly in the ointment being that I hadn’t then had the time to send out my CV.

They were, by the standards of other phishing operations I’ve seen, a bit clumsy, but that’s not to understate the seriousness of this kind of cyberfraud. Exact figures are difficult to come by, (cybercrime is under-reported), but it is thought that in 2005, criminals netted £23.2m through phishing scams in the UK alone.

The inscrutable Gary Hall, for example, sent me word that EPS – presumably the courier company, although a quick look at Google also suggests the European Physical Society, Environmental Property Services or possibly (and much, much more enticingly!) the Experimental Psychology Society – had in mind for me a highly desirable, if slightly mysterious career:


Our company EPS is pleased to offer you a well-paid part-time job.

Location : United Kingdom

If you are interested, please reply to : with your short resume.

Best regards,

EPS Team

Mr Willie Jones, purporting to represent container logistics company Tarros, was more effusive, while getting to the point straight away:


We have found and reviewed your CV and decided to offer this job to you.

Supply Department Agent.

Job Responsibilities:

Receiving, checking quality of the packages, sorting packages according to zip code and/or town name, shipping out packages to our clients with your local postal service (working with shipping labels).

For candidates interested in reviewing our current opportunities, the following are the basic requirements:

- UK Citizens.

- Should not be below 21 years of age.

- Ability to receive day time mail and packages.

- Can dedicate at least 2-3 work hours/day.

- With a working e-mail address and a telephone access.

If you are interested, please reply to : with your short resume.

Sincerely yours,

Willie Jones.

Tarros Europe Group

A shame, then, that a quick Google search showed this also to be a scam.


So how could these people know that I had recently been made redundant, and where had they got my email address from? The two obvious suspects were the DWP and May and Stephens, given they were both directly involved with my recent change in employment circumstances, and both had just received personal data relating to this, including my email address.

At first, and without a scrap of evidence, I cast the gaze of suspicion towards the DWP. Given the string of public-sector data security breaches in recent years, it is perhaps natural – if unfair – to suspect first the people whose salaries depend not on competence and performance, but continued support from the public purse. However, a recent incident gave me leave to reconsider who might be playing fast and loose with my personal data, when I received a round-robin email from May and Stephens, displaying to each of about seven hundred or so recipients everyone else’s email address.

With the near-universality of phishing activity, (I don’t know one person with an email account who hasn’t received some sort of cybercrime bait), this is serious enough in itself. But there is a broader principle which is of greater concern: If such organisations - which, by dint of the nature of their business, hold large amounts of confidential, personal data - do not see the need to train staff adequately in the most basic of office IT applications, such as email, to protect this data, what reason can there be to presume they take any more rigorous and technical measures to observe the requirements of the Data Protection Act, such as shoring up security on their servers where wider-reaching and more sensitive confidential personal information is held? How is data transferred, and using what encryption methods?

Here is the ‘reply all’ I sent to May and Stephens, as well as the other addressees (whose details, incidentally, I have deleted from my system):

Dear Mr Vincent.

Thank you for your recent email, thanks to which I now have the email addresses of around seven hundred of your clients. To someone less principled, an extensive list of the confirmed personal email addresses of six or seven hundred white-collar workers, who have recently sought the services of an agency offering job search consultations, could offer all sorts of lucrative avenues.

Not least of which might be phishing scams purporting to originate from legitimate companies offering employment possibilities. Funnily enough, I myself have been on the receiving end of such phishing attempts, shortly after handing my personal data to May and Stephens.

However, just in case one of your clients does take exception (I have blind-copied all 700 or so of them in on this email, as well as several other agencies who might take an interest), in your place I would take pre-emptive action. This might, for example, include alerting your company lawyer (assuming you have one) that there has been a significant data breach.

You might also care to peruse the Data Protection Act 1998 at your leisure ( and consider whether, besides the legal issues, protecting clients' personal data might or might not constitute one of the most basic requirements of professionalism in a recruitment company - which necessarily holds much confidential personal data about its clients - such as May and Stephens.

I would be most interested to hear your thoughts on the matter. Indeed, if any of the other recipients of this email would care to comment, I have posted the whole story on a blog,, feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section, I’m sure we’d all be most interested!

On a brighter note, isn't this delightful weather we've been enjoying recently?

I remain your obedient servant,

Right of reply

Long before sending that, I did approach the managing director of May and Stephens, Jackie May, by phone and by email, to allow her to give her side of the story. I asked her a number of specific questions:

1. How important does May and Stephens regard the protection of the confidential data it holds about clients and partners?

2. Has May and Stephens' attitude toward data protection evolved in recent years?

3. Did the public sector data protection scandals in 2008 and 2009 cause May and Stephens to revisit its data security policies?

4. Is data security an IT issue or an HR issue?

5. Does May and Stephens hold any data security training for staff?

All of which, I thought, were fairly pertinent to May and Stephens’ data breach and its implications.

Alas, no reply was forthcoming (I took care to hold back from posting this to give Ms. May a reasonable amount of time in which to reply). What did come, however - the very next day - was another email from the hapless Mr Vincent:


Thank you for all your replies.

Please accept our deepest apologies for the mistake made in the previous email. I can assure you that it won't happen again. Thank you for your cooperation.

Kind Regards

David Vincent

Now I’m guessing that the phrase ‘thank you for all your replies’ has a story of its own to tell (‘it won't happen again’), and I might not have been the only one with a grumble. I’d be delighted to see your opinions in the comments box, whether it be from fellow breachees, or from a representative of May and Stephens (come on Jackie!) who might like to share with us their thoughts on ‘the mistake’ or just from anyone with a view on data protection.

I would like to assure everyone that after I sent those emails, I completely deleted all traces of your digital data, including email addresses, from my system. If you are worried about having been made vulnerable to phishing attacks, there are a number of online resources:

Information Commissioner’s Office

Anti-Phishing Working Group

Microsoft Online Safety

Bank Safe Online

Phishing attack: how to avoid becoming a victim

National Consumer League’s Internet Fraud Watch

How Phishing Scams Work
What is phishing?

FAQ: Recognising phishing emails

There is also a wide range of commercial identity protection software products available.

On the plus side, however, every opinion poll this morning seems to suggest a hung parliament on Friday, meaning we’ve got months, possibly years more of this interminable election stuff banging on and on and on in the papers, on the internet, radio and telly. Hurrah!

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Friday, 30 April 2010

Find out if you are a psychopath with my quick and easy Gordon Brown sympathy test

I never thought I’d hear myself say it, but I feel desperately sorry for Gordon Brown. Not of course that I forgive him for having sold our old age for the betterment of his own big-government ambitions or cashing our gold for a handful of beans shortly before the biggest taxpayer bailout in modern history, again for the advancement of his and his friends’ political careers. For these things, and others, he deserves to be sent packing on polling day. But it would take a very hard heart not to feel a pang of empathy over Bigotgate.

I just know that slow, almost-unbelieving, sinking feeling he must have felt when he first heard he had been caught referring to sixty-five-year-old Gillian Duffy, a former Labour supporter who had button-holed him on the stump in Rochdale, when he thought he had been speaking to his staff off the record. Forget the rights and wrongs (critics will inevitably point out that by his actions Brown has shown himself unworthy of the support for which he is asking Gillian Duffy and millions like her up and down the country). I think you’d have to be devoid of all empathy ever to have experienced the sickening feeling of dread that accompanies the realisation that you’ve seriously and irrevocably put your foot in it and, seeing the same discomfort in a fellow being, remain unmoved. I’m sure everybody has their tale.

My own Gillian Duffy moment was of lesser consequence and it was a long time ago, but the heart-sinking memory of queasy self-consciousness remains as lucid as if it were yesterday. As an adolescent, I was larking around in Brentwood High Street with my friends after bunking off school, doing nothing worse than displaying the gormless ineptitude at which teenage boys excel. Cavorting around the place like an idiot, my friends and I were having a good old hoot at my court jester antics, when I suddenly felt the whole world freeze around me. Where only moments before there had been laughter, abruptly there was silence. Not only had my friends suddenly appeared rooted to the spot, staring at me, so too were other passers-by. In mid-cavort, I had taken the act just a nanosecond too far before realising jollity had inexplicably turned to widespread opprobrium, but it may as well have been a week, for the weight of silent public condemnation heaped upon me.

Baffled by the sudden seachange, I cast around for explanation. Looking behind me, I found it. Standing there, with a look of utter fury and outrage on his face, stood a boy, probably around the same age as me, with extreme Down’s Syndrome. I felt quite sick with the realisation that my actions had been taken as openly mocking him, there on the High Street, for the amusement of my friends and me. Hard on the heels of this awareness, the boy started shouting at me. My shame complete, strangers around me stared for a little longer before putting their heads down and swiftly moving away, perhaps themselves feeling slightly degraded by the episode. I wanted desperately to explain the situation, but the feeling of utter evisceration left me capable of little else than shambling off after my friends back to school. Not one of us spoke as we wandered back, strangers to each other in our own private worlds.

Looking at it dispassionately, one interesting aspect of the feeling of sinking doom with the realisation one has committed a world class gaffe is that it is virulently infectious. While obviously it is felt most acutely by the person at the epicentre, by dint of the human facility for empathy it can spread, virus-like, to those around them. So when I heard Brown’s remarks repeated on the radio yesterday, I might have laughed like a drain at the sheer banana-skin comedy of it, but I was wincing in sympathy as well.

At the paper where I used to work, an incident of adultery and regret was told and retold in the fine oral tradition of jounalists in the pub. At the time of the story, a secretary and a section editor, both married, had been conducting an affair which they wrongly supposed to have gone unsuspected by their colleagues; in fact, everyone knew about it, but all had been too discreet to mention it.

Most of the office had decamped to the pub for lunch, and after a couple of pints, the assembled found themselves in a state of uproar as each egged the others on in an infantile conversation about sex. Hack after hack attempted to raise a bigger laugh than the one before with ever more bawdy remarks, the growing volume of hilarity forcing each to raise their voice incrementally. Just as the uproar reached fever-pitch, the adulterous section editor howled at the top of his lungs, ‘YOU KNOW, I DON’T THINK WOMEN EVEN LIKE SEX!’

You could have heard a pin drop. Driven by an urge as primal as hunger itself and unrestrained by any conscious sense of delicacy, all eyes raced to the secretary, who dropped her head, face flushing the deepest magenta before wailing, ‘Oh it’s no good!’ and, weeping, fled the pub, closely pursued by her feckless beau.

The way the story is retold, those left behind stayed in the pub and had a jolly good laugh about it before returning to the office. But the editor, who had stayed at the office and was still there when they returned, tells a different story; that in fact the journos had returned in a highly sheepish state of apparent sobriety entirely at odds with the accompanying odour of alcohol, barely speaking and unable to make eye contact. This has the ring of truth about it. An almost identical story, writ-large, recounted to me by the woman at the centre of the indiscretion, demonstrates a similar suffering by those at the periphery.

The protagonist was at the time doing shift work at a bakery factory in west London. The bakery itself for the most part comprised a single shop floor spread across several hectares. Overlooking operations was a glass-sided manager’s office on the first floor, from which management oversaw operations and communicated with those below using an intercom tannoy system. My friend had not been working there for very long when she struck up a rapport with the manager, who was about the same age as her. This took the form of an apparently harmless flirtation, either on a face-to-face level when he walked onto the factory floor, or at a distance, as he spent much of his time in the glass-sided office above her work post. Reading between the lines, the (married) manager did not read any more into the situation than a bit of fun, whereas I think my (single) friend may have invested a little more in it.

This had been carrying on for some months before the unfortunate day in question when my friend and her workmates finished their shift in the middle of the day and, it being payday, decided to go to the local pub and make an afternoon of it. Not a little drink had been taken when my friend made the unwise decision to send a series of ‘playful’ (by which I mean quasi-pornographic) text messages to her manager’s mobile phone.

Little did she suspect that the manager had switched his phone off and set it to redirect all incoming messages and calls to the landline phone in the office. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a text message sent to a landline, but it is quite eerie: Thanks to some technical wizardry at the exchange, the message is read out using the recorded voice of a rather haughty-sounding woman speaking in the tones of received pronunciation popular during the 1950s. As it turned out, there was no-one in the office at the time and the haughty-sounding BBC announcer from 60 years ago relayed her series of steamy payloads to the answering machine.

Now under the circumstances, you might think it was lucky there was nobody in the office. Well, you’d be wrong. For a start, the answering machine was one of those with a speaker which plays the message as it is being left. Had someone been in the office, there is at least the chance that in a knee-jerk reaction of shame they might have switched the answering machine off. Or if no shame were forthcoming, at least they might have switched off the tannoy microphone, which had carelessly been left on. But no.

So it was that, over the next few hours, the workforce on the shop floor were intermittently regaled with the weirdly displaced, female voice of a very well-spoken dalek, claiming to be their colleague, going into nauseating detail regarding the different sexual positions she would like to attempt with their manager. According to my friend, far from the ribaldry and teasing one might expect after so comprehensive a faux pas, her next appearance at work was met with funereal silence, and stayed that way for some time after. Indeed it was several days before anyone would explain to her what had happened. The irony of it was that, after overcoming her initial embarrassment, my friend found herself able to laugh off the episode long before her colleagues were able to overcome their own mortification on her behalf.

In the Wikipedia entry on ‘empathy’, a research paper - Tunstall N., Fahy T. and McGuire P. in Guide to Neuroimaging in Psychiatry, Eds. Fu C. et al., Martin Dunitz: London 2003 – is quoted as saying that, ‘while some psychopaths can detect what others are feeling, they do not experience any reciprocal emotion or sympathy. However, some research indicates that components of neural circuits involved in empathy may also be dysfunctional in psychopathy’. So here’s what I think could be a pretty good test of whether you’re a psycho or not. Very simply, read this short facebook exchange, and see if it causes you any discomfort.

Yes, with all her youthful hubris and contempt for her employer, many would say the young woman deserved pretty much everything she got. But if you can tell me that you could not feel the slightest pang of empathy for the vertiginous sensation of jarring realisation she must have felt when she first read her boss’s comment, then I would respectfully suggest you put all the sharp things in your house far beyond reach. (For those who enjoy a good dose of schadenfreude, there is a similar story here.)

Such are people’s propensity for indiscretion in the digital domain, particularly – as with the woman at the bakery – if drink has been taken, Gmail has a special tool which can be calibrated to deny the user access to their email account if, after a few sherberts, they are likely to make an ass of themselves online. Personally, I think that if someone habitually does this to the extent they consider acquiring such prophylactic measures, there might lie a deeper problem which cannot be addressed with software, and they should perhaps consider drinking less. Whatever, I bet Brown dearly wished for some kind of automatic muzzling, and for this my heart goes out to him.

To those who want an end to Brown’s government, I would say that when it comes, in the words of Colonel Tim Collins, remember to be magnanimous in victory. Whatever ill you wish upon him can not be worse than the evils he will visit upon himself, after ignominiously crashing Labour’s longest-ever term of office into the dirt. As he lays awake at night, it will not be the real issues over which he lost the election – defence, education, the economy, that occupy his thoughts of ‘what if?’ – no, it will be the face of Gillian Duffy and the memory of the first time he heard himself call a lifelong Labour supporter a bigot on the radio, which will return to torment him.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

The wisdom of Lamech no. 1

My 5 year old son claims to have made this joke up:

Q. What do you call a tree that grows hands?

A. A palm tree.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Does Silvio Berlusconi have more class than Gordon Brown?

You’d need a heart of flint to suggest that the recent announcement of Samantha Cameron’s pregnancy were nothing more than a Tory political ruse with which to win voters’ affections. Nonetheless, it must be admitted that family sentiment has served politicians well since it became acceptable to allow them to slobber over our children during election campaigns. That is just a nauseating fact of the modern polity we have to endure, (I bet no-one ever had to pass their kid over for a kiss from Disraeli or Gladstone), and in these post-Diana times there is regretfully little we can do about it.
What is not tolerable, however, is a politician’s use of public money for spending, purportedly in the nation’s interests, when it is to the betterment of a political party facing a serious challenge at the ballot box in a little over one month’s time. The editorial in this week’s Spectator takes issue with Gordon Brown’s use of the public purse, to the tune of £34 million in February alone, in funding ‘public service’ advertising on radio and public transport billboards, covering a bewildering array of government services aimed at helping us ‘lose weight, buy a car, claim more benefits, deal with door-to-door salesmen or stop smoking’.
Of course one might defend the funding of this campaign, extolling the virtues of big government, as comprising the cheapest way of communicating the availability of these public services to potential ‘customers’. However, this merely begs the question at issue, and does nothing to explain why such spending this year is 24% higher than the figure for February last year.
But what must be of greater concern was the top headline in the BBC radio news on Wednesday that the government has controversially awarded a £4 billion defence contract to build a light tank for the British Army in Afghanistan, to an American manufacturer, rather than BAE Systems, which may now have to shed up to 500 jobs.

On the face of it, this might not appear to lend any electoral benefit to Gordon Brown’s government. Why should anyone think the better of it for losing hundreds of British jobs during one of the worst recessions of modern times? But what is a far greater concern for Brown’s government, as it seeks to shore up public support before May, is the frequent, damaging criticisms concerning underequipped British soldiers (‘the borrowers’) since the invasion of Iraq seven years ago. These criticisms over underresourcing have become even more profuse over the campaign in Afghanistan in recent years – specifically over deaths which greater armour could have prevented - from all ranks in the army.

Labour must be sensitive to the effect the weekly drip-feed of news articles ending with the words ‘the relatives have been informed’ has on the collective subconscious. So one can see the logic in turning that on its head and putting the story of greater provision of armour to troops in Afghanistan on the news agenda. So the question is, would the country’s media have felt the same obligation to report Labour’s plans to better equip British troops in Afghanistan, had BAE Systems won the contract and those jobs remained intact? And the answer must be no, given Labour’s pledge in 2008 and 2009 to reflate the economy through ‘fiscal stimulus’ aimed at increased domestic productivity. It was the very loss of those jobs which made this a good news story for Gordon Brown.
There was a very good documentary about Silvio Berlusconi on BBC2 on Wednesday night. Now there’s a man who can ruthlessly exploit the media to his advantage. And, (despite the expenses farce and the ‘cab for hire’ nincompoopery of late), while no-one could say there is a single politician in Westminster who could better Berlusconi for corruption, links with organized crime, abuse of office and general howling-at-the-moon, prostitute-hiring vulgarity, at least he uses his own media channels for political advantage, and at least he pretends to use his own money for political advantage. Neither of which can be said to apply to Gordon Brown.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Enter my competition and win a vote in the 2010 British general election

Many years ago, I was berated by a friend for my plan to abstain from voting in a general election on the grounds that none of the political parties fielding candidates in my constituency held views similar to mine (perhaps of little surprise, given how little sway anarcho-syndicalism held in Tebbitt’s Essex of the 1980s).

My friend told me that if I did not exercise my vote, I had no right to complain about the actions of the elected government. The converse of which was, presumably, if I did vote for a party which represented none of my political views, I had every right to complain if a government formed by that party acted in a way I objected to, even if it were completely in keeping with its pre-election manifesto, which I had previously read, understood and disagreed with.

Well, Nick East, pick the bones out of this. The ‘give your vote’ campaign wants abstainers to donate their vote to those in other countries who have more of a view on British political life than the many jaded, underwhelmed ballot-casters which make up a good part of the British electorate.

The driving concept is that British citizens vote for British governments, which make decisions that affect many people in other parts of the world, who do not have a vote in Britain’s general elections. Which, considering the Iraqi military adventure debacle or the waste-dumping in West Africa super-injunction farce, seems a fair point to raise.

Egality, the activist group driving the campaign (and, I like to imagine, the bitter enemy of thinktanks Liberty and Fraternity), points out that there are many thousands of people who are entitled to vote in British elections who, for one reason or another, do not cast their vote.

Indeed, it is one of the ironies of the modern democratic system in Britain that the right to influence how we are ruled should be treated with as widespread indifference by the many, that the principle of universal franchise is routinely reduced to the diktat of the relative few who can be arsed to generate an opinion and go to a polling station to express it once every five years.

But here comes the crunch: Egality is urging us to give our unused votes to people in other countries – specifically Ghana, Afghanistan or Bangladesh – to use for their own political agenda.

Technology provides the means: Would-be abstainers sign up via the website, and receive a text message on polling day directing them who to vote for. Predictably, there are Twitter and Facebook elements.

(Actually, why leave it there? With the internet, the possibilities are endless: For example, what is there to prevent a vote-exchange system – the Multi-Coloured Swapshop of Suffrage, if you will – where a voter in, say, Sutton Coldfield swaps their May 2010 vote with a freedom-lover from California for a future Presidential contest, with comments moderated by Noel Edmonds? Or a ballot auction clearing house, (a new Ebay category of franchise, for example) where one can sell one’s vote to the highest bidder? Or indeed a combination of the two models, based along similar lines as the carbon credits offsetting scheme?)

When I first heard about the ‘give your vote’ campaign, on the radio in the kitchen, I cheered aloud for the sheer obtuseness of it. It’s not often you get this kind of high-browed imbecility. But when I came to set down exactly what I found so deplorable about it, I could not put my finger on one single reason. So many tried to muscle in at the same time, none could get through the front door.

Even now, after I’ve had a while to think about it, I cannot settle on one of the many reasons why one should object to the prospect of, for example, a Pashtun nationalist in downtown Kandahar casting a vote in, say, my south London constituency, where one of the most pressing political issues in recent months revolved around what should be done with a piece of graffiti (or is it art?) personally spraycanned by Banksy.

Indeed, I find myself in the bizarre position of wondering whether the ‘give your vote’ campaign is a perfectly reasonable idea, and it is merely my knee-jerk, mid-life reaction to it that prevents me from understanding this.

So here’s the deal. I will freely give my vote to the party of choice of the person who gives me the most salient argument as to why the ‘give your vote’ campaign is such an abhorrent betrayal of the principles of democracy, (or, if you’re feeling very persuasive and optimistic, why it is a good idea).

There are absolutely no restrictions and anyone may enter regardless of nationality, political belief or organisational affiliation/membership (although, obviously, I reserve the right to change this at any time, should it turn out I’ve crossed some constitutional line or another and the rozzers pitch up to sling me in the Tower).

The constituency is a former Liberal stronghold, which only held the Tories at bay by 1,000 votes or so last time. Given the neck-and-neck polls between Labour and Conservatives, this could turn out to be decisive.

Answers in the comments section please.