America · Computers

“It didn’t violate the First Amendment because Americans weren’t among the people targeted”

We’ve recently been told quite a lot about the activities of the US National Security Agency in monitoring internet communications. Much of it could be described as “stuff you might have feared, but that’s a bit depressing to have confirmed”.

For people outside the US, one perhaps surprising thing is that the US government seems happy to say the NSA’s surveillance programmes are OK because they are only aimed at non-Americans.

It involves extensive procedures, specifically approved by the court, to ensure that only non-U.S. persons outside the U.S. are targeted.

— US administration official quoted at

Blanket orders from the secret surveillance court allow these communications to be collected without an individual warrant if the NSA operative has a 51% belief that the target is not a US citizen and is not on US soil at the time.

For people outside the US who have been encouraged over many years to use American internet and cloud-hosting companies, it comes as a bit of a surprise not just that the US government feels this way but that it is so unashamed about it.

Although the details about NSA snooping are new(ish), this principle isn’t a new one. It turns out it’s normal for constitutional safeguards not to apply to non-Americans, even when they are using the services of US companies. A current case:

Chevron… is asking Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, which owns Hotmail, to cough up the email data. When Lewis Kaplan, a federal judge in New York, granted the Microsoft subpoena last month, he ruled it didn’t violate the First Amendment because Americans weren’t among the people targeted.

Now this one has nothing to do with the NSA; it’s about gathering evidence for a court case. The only reason it is considered news is because the opposition argues that the hosting service didn’t know for sure that its users were not Americans.

This is so problematic not because the US necessarily behaves worse than any other country—I suspect it has better oversight in place, for its own citizens, than the UK—but because people like me from outside the US have got used to thinking of US-based hosting, services and companies as the norm in the Internet world.

This attitude long pre-dates pervasive cloud computing. Hotmail, the example above, has been one of the world’s most popular email hosting providers for around 15 years, with (I’m guessing) a couple of hundred million users outside the US.

But it’s quite a problem now that cloud hosting is routinely used to store business data and private documents. And it seems obviously problematic for EU-based businesses, which have a legal obligation to follow data protection rules that presumably don’t include sending their customer data off to a country whose government is unapologetic about taking a copy of it, just in case.


I’ve been a bit prickly about the USA and Americans a few times before on this blog. That prickliness has the same cause: I’m sensitive about having become so dependent on American companies and attitudes myself. I have grown used to engaging with American companies, working methods, and laws, almost more than those of my own country, and certainly more than those of other European countries. That has a lot to do with the USA’s historical reputation as a stable, reliable democracy with visible workings, answerable to a relatively incorruptible legal system.

But this dependency increasingly seems just perverse.

I have become used to giving all my personal and business records to companies that have promised to make it all available to a spy agency run by a foreign government that openly declares it has no interest at all in my rights.

Why would anyone want to do that?


iPads in schools

Fraser Spiers remarks, in a review of the Google Nexus 7 tablet:

My experience with two years of iPad in school is that the iPad can cover 99% of everything we want to do with a computer in school… the iPad can replace the computer suite

I think the radical nature of his observation has to do with the replacement of the desktop computer in dedicated labs—the iPad is already widely proposed and increasingly adopted as an assistance to learning for pupils outside the computer suite.

Viewed close-up, this seems like a good thing. iPads are generally cheaper,  more reliable, and easier to get to grips with than traditional PCs, are portable enough to be used across teaching disciplines, and make a wide range of software very easily available.

But imagine that, ten years ago, someone had proposed:

  • that in future, schools in the UK and elsewhere would buy all of their computer hardware and most of their software from a single American company;
  • that software for these computers could not be used with hardware made by anyone else, never mind with other operating system platforms;
  • that software for these computers could only be obtained through the company that made the computers, and that installing it would require entering a contractual relationship with them;
  • that these computers could not be programmed natively using the computer itself: prospective application programmers would first need to buy another, more expensive computer from the same company, enter another contractual relationship with them, and in most cases also pay them;
  • that GNU-style Free Software would be forbidden from running on them;
  • that the company in question was known to have designed this environment quite deliberately and had a record of squashing attempts to work around its limitations;
  • and that these computers would be used as a standard teaching platform across all disciplines, and would also be the platform on which computing as a subject was taught to children.

How would that have sounded?

Code · Things that Are Gone

Hyvästi, Sibelius

This week saw the sad news that the UK office responsible for development of the music score-writing software Sibelius is to be closed down.

Maintenance of the software will be moved elsewhere, at least according to its owners Avid, the former video-editing software company that expanded madly throughout the professional audio and video world during the 2000s and now seems to be running out of money and ideas. I’m not sure I believe that much maintenance will happen.

Sibelius is a funny one for me.

I feel fond of it, because I remember its origins in the tail-end of the British homebrew software revolution of the 80s. It was developed by British students three or four years older than me for the Archimedes computer, a machine used almost exclusively in schools. Though I had left school for university before Sibelius arrived, I was still in touch with music teachers and I remember their delight with it. It was one of the most exceptional software products ever made.

More recently, for me as a developer, the SoundSoftware workshop we organised at work had a presentation from Paul Walmsley of Sibelius which hit very close to home—I wrote about it here—as he contrasted the things he knew now about software engineering with what he knew as a PhD student and earlier work on Sibelius. It’s clear that the current Sibelius team are very effective software engineers, and I would be extremely interested to see Sibelius on a CV if I were hiring developers now.

There are other, minor reasons to think of it warmly. I always liked its squidgy music font with the wide note heads. I liked the way it played a tiny clip from the appropriately-numbered Sibelius symphony on startup. I liked the way Charles Lucy when he accosted us as Linux trade shows used to refer to the Finn brothers as if they were old English eccentrics in his mould that he bumped into every other week. I liked the way seemingly every academic in computer music used to cite “you know, those Sibelius folks in Cambridge” as a possible model for their students’ future livelihood.

On the other hand, Sibelius hasn’t been especially good for me and mine.

When I was working on the notation editor in Rosegarden, one thing that motivated me was that so few people could afford to buy Sibelius. (The full version has always cost around £600; there are cut-down editions now, but there was nothing then unless you were registered as a student, which I haven’t been since 1994.) When Richard and I started a small company to sell products based on Rosegarden, even as I was trying (ultimately unsuccessfully) to turn Rosegarden’s notation editor into a full score editor that magically retained human performance timing, I was unable to compare my work properly against Sibelius because our shoestring company simply couldn’t afford to buy a copy. While it may be good that a potential competitor can’t afford your product, it’s probably not good that individuals with aspirations in general can’t.

Meanwhile, even as Sibelius was too expensive for personal use without piracy, it was cheap and available and competent enough to be totally disruptive in traditional music typesetting livelihoods. My cousin-in-law Michael, typesetter to the ABRSM and Boosey & Hawkes (as Barnes Music Engraving Ltd) whom I interviewed in 2004 as a professional typesetter, was seeing business disappear to bedroom typesetters with Sibelius; he left the business entirely a few years later.

Finally, after it had cut the legs off all its competition, the most frustrating thing about Sibelius is that it ended up being sold to a video production company who never seemed quite sure what to do with it, took half-measures in the new world of trivially-priced but widely-distributed mobile apps, and saw initially absurd upstarts like NoteFlight take a lot of the ground-level enthusiasm from it.

I would probably have done the same, in their position. But just as I find it hard to read poetry or prose that I could imagine having written, and hard to listen to singing that sounds like my own reedy and tentative voice, so I find it difficult to forgive companies making the same mistakes as I would have made.

(I’m afraid the formal-goodbye-in-Finnish in the title is entirely courtesy of Google—I’m sure there’s some grammar missing there, even though it is only two words. If you speak Finnish, let me know what I should have written.)


Journalist’s First-Person Plural

Mark Easton for the BBC:

Do we have a completely mistaken view of what our landscape is like? … The lesson might be that we need to celebrate the truth about our green and pleasant land. Or perhaps it simply tells us we really should get out more.

This is a great example of what I think of as the Journalist’s First-Person Plural, that is, using “we” to mean “I, and the friend I spoke to while writing this”.

The article opens,

What proportion of Britain do you reckon is built on? By that I mean covered by buildings, roads, car parks, railways, paths and so on – what people might call “concreted over”. Go on – have a guess.

My wild guess was about one percent. So the actual figure of 2.27% for England, or 1.48% for the UK as a whole, seems rather worse than I’d hoped. I don’t really understand why we are supposed to find these figures surprisingly low, but then, I’m also only a sample of one.

(The area of the UK is a bit less than 250,000 km², so 2.5 × 105 km² or 2.5 × 1011 m². If 1% of it were built on and half of that was residential, that would be about 1.2 × 109 m² for 6 × 107 inhabitants, which is about 20 square metres each. My family of four lives in a flat of about 120 square metres which is one of six stacked on a single plot of land, so my instinct is to find that pretty believable. I didn’t do those sums until afterwards, though.)

Still, the rhetorical trick clearly worked on me—it’s got me reading the article and downloading the paper it describes, and I’m really keen to find out what else is in it. So perhaps it’s all for the good.

Academics · Code

Software Carpentry

Elsewhere on my tour of the north-east, I’ve been helping out this week at the Software Carpentry boot camp at Newcastle university.

These events are aimed mostly at postgraduate research students who need to write software for research. They try to provide just enough training in real-world software development techniques to get people started with writing reliable, testable code and managing it properly.

The idea is not so much how to program, as how to program efficiently—choosing and using sensible tools, and applying coding techniques that have been shown to improve productivity. It’s absolutely not a software engineering course, but rather a course on applying a few software engineering techniques to make for better scientific work.

Although the course is only two days long, it gets through an introduction to shell scripting, version control, Python programming, test-driven development, pair programming, and databases with SQL, as well as a certain quantity of philosophical material. Everything is hands-on, with attendees “coding along” with the presenter. So it goes along at a fair pace, and although no particular experience at programming is necessary, an analytical mind and a lot of attentiveness are.

I presented the version control segment at this and the previous workshop, using Mercurial, EasyMercurial, and Bitbucket. It was a bit seat-of-the-pants the first time around, but had settled in a little the second time. Even so, it’s a very ambitious segment: we have two hours to go through a real, working editing process using the EasyMercurial user interface, Mercurial command-line, and Bitbucket web site, working with others and resolving merge conflicts, for an audience who have largely never encountered version control software before. When it works out, of course, it’s very satisfying and we had generally encouraging feedback from the attendees in Newcastle. (If you were there and have any thoughts on how to do better, please do get in touch.)

The Software Carpentry project, started by Greg Wilson around fifteen years ago, is an open source scheme that anyone can get involved with. The Newcastle workshop was the latest in a long line of presentations of Software Carpentry material around the world, but it was the first in the UK to have been given without having Greg’s experience on hand (he lives in Canada) and thus was something of a learning experience for the presenters as well as the participants.

That’s sort of the idea, though, so if you know your onions and like the idea, you might like to try helping out in a future workshop.

See the brief report from my project, or feedback from attendees.



I’m delighted to be able to say I completed the first Marathon of the North in Sunderland yesterday.

I hinted at this in my previous post, but midweek before the race I was feeling terrible—I’d had colds and aches; my last training run on Thursday was stereotypically awful, with bad cramps and a sore right knee that had me thinking evil thoughts about joint damage; and I spent much of Friday walking a bit like Dad did before his first hip operation.

So it was a great relief to find I felt better on Saturday and quite good on Sunday, to find the running painless once I got started, and actually to be able to finish the thing.

I had to stop and sit down, feeling sick and dizzy, with a few kilometres to go—but I got around in four hours and ten minutes and I’m jolly pleased with that. It seems to be considered a difficult course and my finishing time was only 53% over the winner’s, which I reckon is pretty fine.

Meanwhile, I’ve raised over four hundred quid for Shelter and I’m really pleased with that. Many thanks to everyone who has donated.

Is it good for Sunderland?

I think around 1500 people entered this event, and about 1100 finished it. The first Kielder Marathon, organised by the same people, managed a similar number of entrants despite being miles from the nearest city. The inaugural Brighton Marathon, in 2010, saw over 7000 participants, although that probably included a lot of Londoners who couldn’t get into the London marathon. This one doesn’t seem to have been all that popular.

I’m guessing that a ten-thousand-entrant marathon in your town would be pretty good for business, but one at this scale surely can’t be. There were a lot of complaints locally about road closures, and we heard that many business owners—hotels, taxis, pubs etc—felt there was a lot of local effort going into it in exchange for nothing but a big loss of custom. To put on an event like this for only 1500 runners is asking quite a lot.

But for the runners and spectators, this was a wonderful advertisement for Sunderland.

I grew up in and around Durham, but I haven’t often been to Sunderland and I’ve had an impression of it as a pleasant but rather characterless town on the river mouth. Running the marathon route has completely changed that impression for me. The route missed out most of the very visible modern commercial streets along the south bank of the Wear, instead covering streets with varied, mostly Victorian architecture, several lovely parks, long stretches of sandy coastline both north and south of the city centre—Sunderland comes across as a rather beautiful town, and this is a fantastic route for anyone who likes to look at their surroundings while they run.

For family supporters it was even better.

It’s true that watching a marathon can be pretty dull, and I’m full of gratitude to the people living along the route who had enough patience to keep cheering us on right to the end. (Early on in this event we ran past a couple of kids standing with bikes on a street corner, staring at us and saying “I can’t believe how boring this is”—I laughed at that; they were quite right.)

But for out-of-town supporters, although the sunny weather played a big part, the route here was ideal. It expanded and contracted like flower petals around a few streets in the centre, in a way that looked tricky on the map but that allowed my family to drift around the town centre, see some sights, have a coffee and still wave on their runner four times in different places on the route.

On the train back to London, we asked the kids: so, Sunderland—what did you think? They were both keen to come back. The beaches, the river and sea, the Winter Gardens cafe, the guest house with its excellent breakfast, the Roker amusements with two-penny coin-drops, the pub with the FA cup final, friendly people and nice food, being able to hang around at the Stadium of Light for the start and finish, waving at your dad while he runs: it’s a good deal for a bank holiday weekend.

I felt a bit of an awkward impostor, talking to the owner of our guest house at breakfast, in saying I hoped this event would be a big success in future years. It doesn’t seem to have been very helpful to them or their friends this year: they were right on the route and had just the one marathon-related booking (us) and a weekend of trouble.

But I do hope it’s a success. I’d like other people like me, who should perhaps know this already, to be shown what a fine town this is. I would hope that runners aren’t put off by the difficult course and will want to run it because of the interest and variety along the route. I’d like this to be a ten-thousand-runner marathon in a year or two, and I think it deserves to be.