really? honestly?

When you say “open government”…

If you aren’t clear about what you mean in any discussion you haven’t got much chance of staying on track. Think about the phrase “open government”. Here are seven possible interpretations (there are probably more, do add them) which can all take an “open government” discussion in a different direction:


1. Is it open democracy as process? – being transparent about the progress of legislation and policy as it’s developed. Applies to both ministerial and civil service processes!


2. Is it the promotion of the engagement of people with the democratic process? (without this it’s just the same few commentators talking to each other) – this must be a dynamic feature, not a static one: the business of democracy has to become increasingly attractive in and of itself.


3. Is it openness to scrutiny – MPs expenses and so on? Has some cross-over with 1. but the motivations driving ‘openness’ can be quite different…


4. Is it a style of government? – this one is purely political in nature and tone: being open and honest with the public about what the real issues are, how severe they are, etc. (openness to challenge and ongoing discussion falls within this category).


5. Is it equality of access to suppliers? – as in “open procurement”… some aspects of open source (see below) satisfy this. [The ready confusion between open government, open data and open source still baffles me by the way – some of those doing it should really know better…]


6. Is it openness to collaboration and innovation? – other aspects of open source philosophy fulfil this – work can be shared and reused freely, and ideas taken on way beyond their original starting point or intention.


7. Is it functional accessibility? – are services ‘open’ in the sense of catering to all? Everything from basic provision to service packaging to technical adaptations meeting specific user limitations…


More on this after my piece at http://opengovevent.com today.


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Looking Gift Aid in the mouth

An interesting discussion last week: straying into the moral minefield of charitable giving, the issue of Gift Aid came up. (A small warning here. If you’re the treasurer of a charity, you’re probably not going to like this very much. Sorry.)


“How marvellous is Gift Aid!” my neighbour cried.


“How fraudulent is Gift Aid!”, I replied.


OK, perhaps not actually fraudulent. No one is actually being defrauded in a way that a court would recognise. But it’s not a wholly transparent business.


“Hang on, for every pound I give, the Chancellor adds another 28p. Everybody wins”, intones the fan.


“Well, how very kind of him”, comes my refrain. Reaching into that large piggy bank (or ‘coffer’ – beloved tabloid phrase) under his bed and counting out the extra pennies himself. “What a saintly man!”


Of course he doesn’t. Where do you think that 28p is coming from? Alistair’s little printing press? No: it’s a draw against general taxation in just the same way as education and social services (or indeed nuclear deterrent, aviation fuel tax relief, and lots of other things you might find less palatable).


Is it a good thing in principle to do this? Well, it might be. But only if one is prepared to make a huge, sweeping assumption that giving to any charity does more ‘good’ on average than the alternative of spending it on any other public sector cause.


So what could be improved here? I’m not suggesting it should be scrapped, but at least we could try and get a little more real about Gift Aid. What if the government labelled it more honestly as “a way in which you can add to your contribution by diverting some money that would otherwise prop up the health service, light the streets, build Olympic infrastructure etc. etc. etc.”*


It’s your choice, of course – but your choice should be informed.


Oh, and higher rate taxpayers – what about you? There’s a tiny little issue that no one really likes to talk about. Come tax return time, the penny usually drops. Or indeed, drops, bounces, and flicks back up into your pocket. There’s a nice little kick-back, isn’t there? That difference between higher and standard rate that neatly offsets some of the aforementioned general funding of public services.


Now isn’t that the ultimate win-win? You get to feel worthy, and you get cashback! B-b-b-b-b-but – my neighbour burbles – it’s such a good incentive. It makes people give more.


I agree. It does. So would giving them beer vouchers, or a free MacBook Air, but it doesn’t make it the right thing to do. That transparency point again – how it all works and where the money really flows should be made much more clear.


But ultimately this is all about personal choice.


You could choose to keep it simple. Don’t tick the box. Don’t put charitable giving on your tax return. Let your pound be an honest, real pound. Up it by the extra 28p yourself if the cause is that dear to your heart. Or if you do declare it, factor in that little kick-back in advance when deciding what to give. But of course, you probably do that already, don’t you?  😉


*this is a bit wordy. Ever my weakness. Could you put it more succinctly?

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Twitter for absolute beginners

I’ve been asked the same few questions by so many friends now, I thought I’d share what worked for me in 10 easy tips:

1. It’s not like Facebook or LinkedIn – there are no easy hooks like old friendship or job networks that give you a quick start – you have to do some work yourself to start things off, but it gets easier once you have some momentum.

2. Your profile: entirely up to you whether you use your real pic or a memorable avatar. Likewise your name or a catchy pseudonym. My network has a complete mixture, and I love them all as they are 😉

3. Start by dedicating a couple of hours to building your first network. Aim to follow around 100-200 people who might be interesting. But how do you find them? Well, find some that you know already using “Find People” (who springs to mind as a likely socially-networked type?), and follow who they follow. If you don’t know anyone, search for topics that interest you: ‘Search’ is hidden way down on the Twitter.com bottom menu bar. Who’s tweeted about it? Follow them.

4. Throw away any preconceptions about ‘following’ being like ‘Add Friend’ on Facebook. Following/unfollowing has less emotional baggage than Facebook friendships – people don’t think it intrusive if you follow, or get too curious as to why; occasionally you’ll get a nice, “@ message me to tell me why you followed me” response, but this is just a low-key way of determining what networking approach is working for them. So follow freely. Sometimes people use Qwitter to report when you stop following them. I don’t. Judge for yourself whether you want to rake over the reasons for every ‘un-follow’ or just let them go.

5. Look for the thought leaders [ghastly phrase, but there it is] in whatever space it is that you’re interested. You might know them already, or find them through searching, but here’s a top tip for expanding your network. Go to tweetstats.com. Put in a Twitter username that seems like a good one you’d follow. After a while (zzzzzz) you’ll get a chart (the bottom left one) of the top 10 people that person regularly corresponds with. So there’s 10 more people for you to follow straight away. Repeat as required.

6. Keep your updates visible to all until you have a reason not to.

7. Do put something in your profile! You’ll probably get a few follows in return for all the following you’ve done under the instructions above – your chances of this will be much greater if you give people a clue who you are and what you’re interested in

8. Follow back those who follow you (when that starts happening) – not just good etiquette, but essential, particularly in your early days. It shows you are interacting, and allows people to DM (direct message) you. Except if they’re spammers (you’ll know when they are – their tweets will be a deluge of links, ‘viral video’ entreaties, and in some cases avatars featuring ladies in unseasonal dress). But don’t block them straight away. Your number of followers will to some extent show the casual observer that you’re actually interacting, so use the unlikely gift the spammers have given you. At first. Once you’re rolling, block them with impunity.

9. Target some of your tweets at specific people. But how do you actually send a message to someone? (How many times have I been asked this one?!) Simple: just include @theirusername anywhere in your tweet. Twitter is a really simple way of gathering lots of 140-character-or-less messages so that clever things can be done to give them a structure to make them collectively useful. The clever bit happens because @xxxxx and #yyyyyy in the tweets can be used by your client (the program to access Twitter on your PC or mobile) to bring together relevant messages: in the former case relating to a particular user; in the latter, to a particular topic. Once people are following you, you can Direct Message them – but only they will see the message. Try that once you have some followers, but remember the real value comes from the open cross-pollination of messages. So @ messages will be much more beneficial to you in your early days.

10. I’ll leave it there. I haven’t covered retweeting (RT), how often you should tweet, what to tweet(!), what #hashtags are in more depth, what client to use, or a bunch of other things. Because if it’s working for you, you’ll work it out for yourself. Do ask me (email p@ulclarke.com – or with a comment here – or by tweeting @paul_clarke) for advice. Or ask the Twitterverse. It’s a pretty friendly place, and you’ll make a lot more connections than you’d imagine. And don’t get hung up if it doesn’t work for you. It’s not for everyone. (It took me 9 months to realise it probably was for me.)

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Imperfect harmony – continued

It’s over a year since I wrote the first part of this. I was trying to show how there was something very strange going on in the way we’re generally told that music works; something that when I found about it became a powerful metaphor for hidden complexity, fakery and the acceptability of approximations.

Where had we got to? That using various perfect mathematical ratios to divide a vibrating string we could build up a series of musical notes. Playing some of these together produces pleasing harmonies, because of the way the waveforms behave together.

Pythagoras got onto this pretty quickly. You can read a thorough account of his theory here. Cutting to the chase, he described a bunch of different notes using nice whole number ratios. We can order these notes into something we’d call a scale. C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C – that sort of thing.

The great thing about an ordering like this is that you can keep on building… Scales can start on different notes, you can introduce half-way steps between the notes to help make it all work out. C# becomes essential to help make the key of A major work properly, and so on.

I used to think it was amazing how this maths all worked out: how there could be 12 perfectly spaced semitones on a piano keyboard that could make up any scale or key you wanted.

And then I realised that it didn’t work out. Almost exactly, but not quite. And the fact that the maths so nearly works out perfectly is, for me, the most fascinating part of all this. It means that music theory can get away with a bit of cheating and approximation.

How so? Well, take the Pythagorean scale at face value. Each time you get to the fifth note in a scale (so that would be G in the scale beginning with C) you have a “perfect fifth” with a harmonic relationship 3:2 times the frequency of the C you started with.

Take the fifth (G), and build another perfect fifth on that (D). Go from D to A, and so on… eventually, after working through all the 12 semitones in an octave (see what I meant in the previous post about “oct-” being a bit of a red herring?) you get back to the C you started with. It all neatly works.

But it doesn’t. And it can’t. Here’s why.

Go up 7 Cs (each an octave higher than its predecessor). You end up with a pretty high note of course, but because you’ve doubled the frequency each time it’s fairly obvious you are 2^7 times higher in frequency than your starting point. That’s 128 times the frequency.

Now, do it the other way – going from perfect fifth to perfect fifth. You have to go through a few more cycles because you’re not jumping as much as an octave each time. In fact, you need to go through 12 cycles, which sort of makes sense as you’ve covered all the 12 semitones in turn as starting points. The eventual frequency you reach is (3/2)^12. Got a calculator? Well, it’s awfully close to 128. In my humble view, weirdly, bizarrely close. It comes out at about 129.746. That’s only 1.36% out from the C you would have arrived at from just doubling each time.

You’ve gone up 7 octaves and you’re only just over 1% out from where those neat harmonic intervals would have taken you? Doesn’t that strike you as rather interesting?

This tiny difference is called the Pythagorean Comma. It has to exist because the Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic says you can only make up a number by multiplying one set of smaller prime numbers together. So you couldn’t get to 128 by multiplying anything other than 2 by itself 7 times… So those neat Pythagorean ratios were always going to run into trouble at some point.

So what? The big ‘what’ is that because the Comma (= ‘gap’) is so small, it only takes a bit of tweaking to the Pythagorean ratios to get 12 intervals that DO fit exactly into a repeating pattern. You just have to make some of the notes very slightly lower, and some slightly higher. But eerily, the adjustments are so small that one hardly ever notices.

That’s how a piano could be built. A modern (post c17th or so) piano usually has these adjustments (called temperament) made to its tuning so that each interval is exactly the same. The same goes for most instruments where the notes are ‘fixed’ in its construction (like a guitar, with fixed frets, but unlike a violin where the player has discretion about where precisely the strings are stopped with the fingers).

Because of this mathematical curiosity – that tiny Pythagorean Comma – a totally flexible muscial system can be built. So we can have jazz, infinitely complex harmony, tunes that modulate smoothly from key to key, and far greater flexibility than if we were stuck with Pythagoras’ precise spaces between the notes.

The trade-off is that most things we hear as harmonies in music actually aren’t. Very, very slightly, the whole structure of music involves ‘cheating’ to make it work.

And I think that’s a fantastic story-behind-a-story. Tiny compromises, and acceptance of approximation, produce a far more beautiful (if slightly ‘wrong’) end product than could rigid adherence to the rules.

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