Red Teams at the Ready

Math Blackboard Education Classroom

Quite a few people over the past three years have admitted to me that the only reason they voted remain in the referendum was that they felt that those in Westminster and Whitehall were too useless to actually be able to carry a leave vote out.

I always felt this was a slightly pessimistic view of life in SW1, but after reading Dominic Cummings’ latest magnum opus of a blog post, you have to wonder if they didn’t have a point.

Dominic’s post is in equal measure inspiring, irritating and downright jaw-dropping (and for varying reasons, as well). His essential argument is that the Civil Service is so far behind the curve in terms of the latest ideas in analysis and prediction, and that the cabinet are so woefully under informed, that they might as well just plunge billions of pounds straight down the plughole and go home.

He goes into enormous, but very interesting detail, about the latest movements in data modelling and analysis and how it can be used well to drive the country forward with top-class decision making. It’s long (his argument for being so open and giving the ‘competition’ too much information is that they wouldn’t possibly read a 10,000 word blog post to find out anyway), but it’s worth a read if you are at all interested in just how poor the government processes are, and how good they could be if anyone there could be bothered.

What’s most fascinating, I find, is that ultimately what Dominic is advocating is looking for ways to map parts, if not all, of the extended order in unique an interesting ways. It would probably be meaningless to try to create a wholistic view of everything, even the summary would be incomprehensibly complex, but if we could focus on certain areas that are still vast (economics, climate change etc.) and try to tame those in a sensible way, we could make some amazing advances.

I’m still not entirely convinced this isn’t a fools errand, but it’s certainly fascinating, and it’s not like we don’t have the computational power to start breaking into these things and making them comprehensible enough to base decisions on. It’s an area that I will be looking into quite closely in the next few weeks and months. Funnily enough, I might know a fair few people who could help Dominic out, but more on that later.

Wrong again

London City Westminster Palace

Well blow me, those wiley foxes in Westminster suffered an outbreak of common sense yesterday and voted against Labour’s patently absurd plans to stop No Deal. I was almost as surprised as on Brexit day, and possibly a lot more pleased (my main reaction on June 23rd 2016 was ‘faaaaaaaaaaaaaackin’ ‘ell, what have we gone and done?’ – I honestly felt my vote was somewhat wasted, but the whole sovereignty issue was too important to not vote to leave).

I do like being proved wrong in these situations. Yesterday I was being, despite protestations to everyone not to be, a pessimist, so fed up am I with the incumbent set of MPs and their undemocratic, remainer bent, and Labour’s apparent intent to just vote for anything that might get them into power, no matter how silly or contradictory.

One thing I learned early in life is that there’s no point getting het up about having to be right. I spent my formative years as a vaguely evangelical christian, before I went to Uni and had that nonsense kicked out of me (in a positive, scholarly way). I’m still embarrassed about some of the stupid thing I said in those naive days. But since then I’ve learned to respect other people’s opinions (something I was also severely lacking), and allow apparent contradictions in life to just be.

We don’t know everything, we never will, and this is the beauty of life; it will always surprise us. It’s how we react to that surprise that counts. Too many people, dare I say of an intelligent, if left-leaning persuasion, get hung up on being right. They will keep coming back with arguments well after the conversation should have moved on.

I always find this a little depressing. I guess we all to it to a degree, the trick is to smile, accept that you disagree, and move on.

Keep it simple

Hacking Security Cyber Privacy

With our penchant for maximising complexity, sometimes when someone truly cuts through the crap and comes up with something stunningly simple, it really makes you see the world in a completely different way.

I had such a moment this afternoon in, of all places on the day the Prime Minister announced her resignation, the Houses of Parliament. As a guest of cybersecurity experts, CNS, we enjoyed drinks and nibbles on the terrace overlooking the Thames, along with some short but interesting presentations from various clever people.

One that stood out for me was from Deep Secure, a company that has turned the whole idea of virus checking on it’s head. Rather than playing constant game of keeping up with all the clever types out there intent on causing tech trouble and making money from inflicting malware-related woes on people and businesses, Deep Secure have done something of a volte-face and gone in a completely different direction.

They realised that more often than not, the payloads for malware are Word/Excel files and PDFs. Rather than wait for people to be infected by a new piece of malware, have it reported and then some clever person work out how to detect it and deactivate it, they thought, well, the original content itself of the file is usually OK, so why not find a way to extract the bit that the person was expecting to receive, the content of the file, and create a clean file on the fly, stripping any nastiness that may be residing there.

Sounds simple, but it’s taken them 14 years to perfect the technology to the stage where it can take files and make clean files that match the original in terms of content in a quick and efficient way. Now they’ve done it, it seems the boffins at GCHQ and the NSA are very, very impressed.

I must admit, once the presentation had ended, my brain was whirring and I spent the next hour trying to reframe the my digital world into this new way of thinking. I didn’t draw any definite conclusions, but I had a good chat with Dan Turner, the CEO of Deep Secure afterwards. He was, quite understandably, very happy with the way things were going for the company. I think they have a very bright future.