Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Crowdsourcing civil protest app requirements

I’m building a privacy-based platform for managing access to social networks.  It’s designed from the ground up to put privacy first and to be a platform on top of which privacy-centric applications can be built.

I can’t give away too many details about the platform yet, but I want to start building the first application alongside the platform.  That first application will be a tool for organising and conducting civil protests while protecting the privacy of those involved.  It’s intended particularly for locations where civil protest is especially dangerous, but I want it to be as tweakable as possible for different environments and requirements.  Features will include:

  • Invitation: advertising protests; distributing locations, plans, goals, guidelines, supporting material etc. This might require anonymity, secure access, the laying down of false trails and other means to protect sensitive information and the identity of organisers and participants.  In some environments, it is dangerous to distribute certain materials or to arrange for protestors to congregate.  I want people to be able to get the message out about acts of civil disobedience in as safe a way as possible for all concerned.
  • Meeting and greeting: In environments where civil protest is likely to be dealt with harshly by authorities, it’s difficult to act unless you know that plenty of others are on your side.  If the tool could show those within the planned protest area how many other potential protestors are present, along with an evaluation of the other protestors’ bona fides (perhaps they are all invented by an oppressive regime to bring actual protestors into the open) then individuals could have more confidence that they are acting as a group. Anonymity must be preserved, as must secrecy about each individual’s connection to the protest.  Protestors might not want authorities to know that they are interested in a potentially dangerous act of civil disobedience.
  • Social networking: protestors who meet at an event might wish to share contact information, messages, alerts, materials etc.  In many cases, this must happen anonymously or at least pseudonymously.  Protected forums in which people can receive communications – even personal communications – without any party revealing their identities to the others are essential.  People must be able to reveal as much or as little as they like about themselves, their roles in protests, their beliefs and interests and yet still – if they wish it – be contactable.   Decisions to share contact information might be made on the spur of the moment in a chaotic and potentially dangerous situation.  Protestors must be able to easily and rapidly tailor their profiles in realtime, understand the consequences of their decisions and – as far as possible – retract them if they change their minds later.
  • Coordination: it might be that an act of civil protest requires that a group assemble from different locations or that a crowd not be perceived as a crowd until the protest begins.  With the most careful planning in the world, tactics change as the situation develops and decisions must be made in realtime.  Protestors need to be able to decide whether or not to act on instructions or carry on doing whatever they’re already doing.  This will depend on how much they trust the coordination messages which might well be anonymous.  Mileage – and danger – will vary.

I have some other ideas.  I want to incorporate throwaway wearable technologies such as NFC tags to aid the sharing of anonymous contact details.  I want to think about how information about individuals and events should decay over time.

And above all, I do not advocate and will always strongly resist violence of any kind at any civil protest, no matter how otherwise disobedient.

So here’s the crowdsourcing part. Any ideas will be considered and attributed.  Any technological, practical or legal concerns are especially welcome and will most certainly be noted.  Any offers of help, financially and especially in-kind will be gratefully accepted.  I’m not being paid to develop this application and I can’t see myself making much if any money from it in the future.  Any good programmers, web designers or people with lots of money can and will be put to good use on an interesting project. And anyone with good ideas can contribute at any stage.

If you’d like to be involved somehow, let me know.  At the moment I’m especially interested in requirements.  What would this tool have to do to make your civil protest safer and more effective?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

My autism answer

You scored slightly higher than average on this test, but are still below the threshold of 32 points that would likely indicate an autistic spectrum disorder. Just because you have scored higher than average, it does not mean that you are likely to be autistic - many people who score highly have no problems functioning in their day-to-day lives. This can be because of a good match with their chosen career (anecdotally, mathematicians and computer scientists score higher in this AQ test) or because they have a supportive family/social network that prevents any secondary problems occurring. If you feel that you are not able to function normally in day-to-day life, it may be worth talking to your GP about these test results.

Or perhaps because the test is absolute bullshit.

Autism can be mild, in which case the impact on daily life is minimal - or it can be so severe that sufferers struggle to function in their day-to-day lives, where the world seems a strange and scary place. There is currently no cure for ASD, but there are a range of treatments that can improve/manage the symptoms.

Autistic Spectrum Disorders have a wide range of symptoms, grouped into three broad categories:

  • Problems and difficulties with social interaction, such as a lack of understanding and awareness of other people's emotions/feelings.
  • Difficulty with language and communication skills, such an inability to start conversations or take part in them properly (often resulting in interrupting others inappropriately).
  • Unusual patterns of thought and physical behaviour – such as making repetitive physical

Or perhaps because the test is absolute bullshit.

Fuck it, I’m taking the autism test

The Daily Mail showed the true colours of its journalistic integrity by publishing a test for autism. Check out the URL, by the way, what’s that all about?

The DM summarises the test in its usual one-sentence paragraphs:

Do you struggle in social situations, hate making small talk and changes in routine?

These are all key questions in a quiz designed to identify symptoms autism and its milder form, Asperger syndrome.

Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen and his colleagues at Cambridge's Autism Research Centre created the Autism-Spectrum Quotient as a measure of the extent of autistic traits in adults.

This quiz below contains 50 simple multiple choice questions about your outlook on life - judged by how much you agree with certain statements.

The Daily Mail certainly has its eye on the ball.  Baron-Cohen proposed his ideas (and the quiz) in 2001 so there has been ample time for criticism of the test and some of Baron-Cohen’s later work, which the DM seems to have ignored.  One criticism of the test is from Neroacientist Francesca HappĂ©, who doubts that self-evaluation via questionnaire is a sound basis for diagnosis [1]. This seems rather like asking putative psychopaths to fill in a questionnaire based on Bob Hare’s psychopath test.  The outcome would rather depend on the intent and potential consequences of the test, wouldn’t it?  It’s also been argued that “rigorous studies are still missing.” [1]

I’m not qualified to judge but my arsehole-sense is tingling.  A 50 question test for a complex, dynamic, highly varying condition of unknown cause is automatically dubious and sure as shit better be backed by high quality evidence.  As far as I can tell, this test isn’t.  Nobody takes it seriously as a diagnostic test.  Perhaps it was never intended as a diagnostic test.

But the DM seems to think it’s important, so who am I to argue?  Ima take the test:

Time required: 7 minutes(!)

First, I’m supposed to tell the quiz things about my location, age, gender and occupation.  This has nothing to do with the quiz, I’m told.  It’s to calculate ‘national totals’.  O….kay…. National totals of what?  For whom?  How else is this data going to be used?  Is paranoia like this going to be the subject of one of the questions on the quiz?  Either way, I’m going with ‘prefer not to say’.

Question 1: Do you believe that Autism is more common now than in previous generations?

  • I do think it’s more common
  • I believe it’s more well known rather than more common
  • I think it’s about the same as in the past
  • Prefer not to answer

I’m already suspicious.  Unless this test is a lot more subtle than I’d expect from 50 questions (which can be answered in 7 minutes) then I’m not sure what this has to do with my being diagnosed as autistic.

My actual answer is that I don’t know.  There isn’t a box for that.  On balance, I think I have to go with option 2, even though that doesn’t accurately express my views.  I’m already wondering whether agonising about such apparently banal questions is itself a marker for autism.


Oh wait… Apparently that wasn’t question 1.  It was question zero. Designed to harvest information for reasons we’re not told by people we do not know.  Good job I lied about all the personal information. All they know is that someone 984 years old chose option 2.


Actual question 1: I prefer to do things with others rather than on my own.

  • Definitely agree
  • Slightly agree
  • Slightly disagree
  • Definitely disagree

I’m stuck again.  I prefer reading and thinking by myself but prefer having sex with other people present.  I prefer telling people off on the Internet, but praising people in person. I understand that I’m supposed to somehow pick my typical response to varied situations, but there isn’t one.  As much as I love reading alone, I’d usually rather be having sex with someone else. Unless I’m tired or really interested in what I’m reading.  Depends.

I’ll go with option 2.  I enjoy being alone for longish periods of time.  But none of the responses accurately describe my answer to the question.

Question 2: I prefer to do things the same way over and over again.

I prefer to do things the same way if that way works.  I tend to leave my house by the door rather than tunnelling out under next door’s garden with a spoon.  I tend to stop stroking my cat when she starts twitching her tail in that particular way. But I change my definition of what ‘works’ means according to the situation.  There’s a particular parking spot in our local supermarket. It is the ideal distance between the supermarket door and the trolley park and nobody ever parks in it or the adjacent space because there’s a lamp post between the two. But if someone were parked in ‘my’ spot I’d park somewhere else without worry or complaint.

I suspect the question is poorly phrased.  I’m going to assume it means “I prefer to do things the same way over and over again regardless of evidence that there’s a better way or that my way is shit.”  Or perhaps “I suffer fairly severe anxiety when I’m prevented from doing things the same way.”

In which case I’m going to answer Definitely Disagree,

Question 3: If I try to imagine something, I find it very easy to create a picture in my mind.

Definitely agree although the answer is again inaccurate.  I don’t feel like I choose to make the picture, the picture is part of the way that I understand.,,whatever apparently vague hypothetical thing the question is asking. While someone is asking me a question, my mind is building a representation of it, often somewhat or highly visual.  Sometimes it’s a collection of different visual images with more or less fuzzy connections between them, which are themselves sometimes but not always visual.

I suppose I have to go with Definitely Agree,

Question 4: I frequently get so strongly absorbed in one thing that I lose sight of other things.

I think I do the opposite. I try to understand everything in a wider context, sometimes including occasions where there is none. 

So I’m going to answer the question literally and say defo disagree even though it seems to me that absorption in a wider context sounds similar to that in detail.  Also, I’m obsessed with detail.  Not in particular details, but in the concept of detail,  People should care about details!  So… 4 then. Definitely disagree, I guess,]

Question 5: I often notice small sounds when others do not.

I have no idea.  I neither agree nor disagree.  How would I know?  But I need to put an answer so Slightly Disagree it is.

Question 6: I usually notice car number plates or similar strings of information.

I… notice information.  Some of the information I notice is similar to car number plates. Experience tells me that I notice more things about visual scenes and displays of behaviour than most but that I’m almost blind in other ways.  My notice is very much guided by experience and training.  I can look at a big piece of code and predict where bugs are likely to be.

So I don’t understand the question. I notice number plates and especially unusual ones. I find them tedious but slightly more interesting than the car they are nailed to, in most cases.

I think I’m going for definitely agree even though the only thing I really agree on is that the question is stupid.

Question 7: Other people frequently tell me that what I've said is impolite, even though I think it is polite.

Definitely agree but ‘other people’ in my case means about two people.  If it were 29 people, the answer would be more significant, wouldn’t it?


Question 8: When I'm reading a story, I can easily imagine what the characters might look like.

I can but I don’t. I couldn’t care less what they look like unless it is relevant to the story.

Definitely agree.

Question 9: I am fascinated by dates.

The fruits are fascinating. The space-time coordinates not at all. Definitely disagree.

Question 10: In a social group, I can easily keep track of several different people's conversations.

Def agree, But I rarely want to.

Question 11: I find social situations easy.

All situations are social.  Some are easier than others. I *hate* going to certain events – regardless of whether I enjoyed them last time,

But I am the life and soul of other events.

I don’t find that easy, so I’m saying def disagree

Question 12; I tend to notice details that others do not.

Yes, but they tend to be things nobody else cares about. Def yes.

Question 13: I would rather go to a library than to a party

Stupid question. I never go anywhere without my library and if I get bored of a party I read.   I’d rather go to the party but I reserve the right to find a place to read. I won’t be alone. Let’s say slightly disagree.

Question 14: I find making up stories easy

Def agree.

Question 15: I find myself drawn more strongly to people than to things.

Drawn? I’m attracted toward things when and because I can DO things with them. I’m attracted to people for completely different reasons. I’m drawn to build things because they might help people.

My immediate interest is in what i can do to help people but my expertise is in things. So lets say slightly agree with the things category.

Question 16: I tend to have very strong interests, which I get upset about if I can't pursue.



Right, I’m done. I’m going to answer the rest of the questions honestly and without comment and post the answer:




[1] Buchen, Lizzie (November 2011). "Scientists and autism: When geeks meet". Nature 479 (7371): 25–7.doi:10.1038/479025a. PMID 22051657.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Looks like a duck

It was a devastating diagnosis. In less than 10 minutes, the Harley Street specialist had taken a pinprick of Wendy Roberts’s blood, examined it under a powerful microscope and concluded that she probably had cancer.

Naturally, she was terrified. And vulnerable.  Vulnerable to exploitation.

Because that’s what this guy – Errol Denton – does.  He uses a technique to diagnose cancer which – needless to say – cannot diagnose cancer, sells them a cue, then announces that they are cured.  Charming.

Miss Roberts, 40, was distraught: she had been feeling unwell and Errol Denton’s apparently expert opinion confirmed her worst fears.

“He told me my blood was dirty; he said it was toxic and said there was mould in it. He said I have markers for diabetes and he had only ever seen blood like mine in a cancer patient,” Miss Roberts said.

“I could hardly breathe. I was shaking all over and I began crying.”

This cost her £195.  Now I’m not a medical man but I’m fairly sure that blood can’t be ‘dirty’, let alone ‘mouldy’.  It looks to me like emotive language designed to make people scared.

Denton was a smooth talker and Miss Roberts did not doubt his credibility. Operating out of No 1 Harley Street, he promised that if she signed up to his treatment plan, he could cure her “toxic” blood.

I wonder how many of his patients he ‘diagnoses’ with cancer.  Denton has been found guilty of breaching ASA rules and (separately) fined £9k with £10k costs over claims that he can cure cancer. But he continues to practice, basically because he’s a quack and therefore not regulated.  This appears to mean that he can;t be shut down.  He hasn’t removed the claims from his various websites.  The plaque on his office door reads “Errol Denton BMC, CNM, Dip LSI, MSHN.”

Dr Archie Prentice, president of the Royal College of Pathologists, said last week that he did not recognise any of Denton’s qualifications.

He also said that there was no evidence at all for the claims Denton makes.

Fortunately, Miss Roberts had already been to a proper doctor and was awaiting the results of a biopsy when she went to see Denton.  She’s fine.

There are some legitimate diagnostic techniques which can be achieved through microscopic analysis of blood.  For example, the blood count House always seems to want is done that way. With a microscope of sufficient quality, doctors can glean a lot of detail about the shape, size and number of blood cells and whether platelets are present in the sample.  This is evidence that can aid diagnosis.  A different variety of microscopy can identify spirochetes. But it cannot be used to diagnose cancer.  If it could, why would doctors use invasive procedures such as biopsy?  

The quack keyterm to look out for is “live blood analysis”.  Practitioners advertising this are quacks offering diagnoses and other services which cannot be achieved in that way.  Needless to say, Denton’s sites are riddled with the term.




.  It’s based on a technique called darkfield microscopy, which is