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Naughty Smurfs – GCHQ’s Secret Deficit Buster

Edward Snowden

So that’s what Britain’s GCHQ have been up to – sending in the Smurfs to control our phones.

So far, according to Edward Snowden, we have Dreamy Smurf that switches on our phones, Nosey Smurf that listens to our conversations, Tracker Smurf that reveals our location and Paranoid Smurf that disguises the fact that it controls your phone.

What’s next? It’s time GCHQ cooperated with other government departments than just the security services. Let’s have a think about what else it might be able to discover on our phones. How about these ground-breaking applications:

Greedy Smurf: listens to your order in a restaurant and informs your GP if the fat content is more than 20%.

Stasi Smurf: hears you cursing the police, the Queen or the Conservative Party and puts you on the terrorist watch list.

Teresa Smurf: listens to you ranting about immigration and puts you on the Conservative Party mailing list.

Wonga Smurf: listens to your conversations with your dodgy accountant about sneaky tax evasion tactics and sends them to the Inland Revenue

Madison Smurf: catches you cheating on your spouse and informs the spouse.

Smutty Smurf: catches you making ribald remarks about colleagues of the opposite sex and outs you on Twitter

Jezza Smurf: listens to you making admiring noises about Jeremy Corbyn and informs the police.

Drunken Smurf: tracks your erratic driving and informs the police.

Dirty Smurf (under-18s only): listens for groans and moans coming from your laptop and informs your parents.

Donald Smurf: catches you bad-mouthing America and informs the NSA.

Euro Smurf: catches you bad-mouthing the EU and puts you on Nigel Lawson’s anti-EU mailing list.

Come to think of it, GCHQ really needs to licence this technology so that all and sundry can listen in to our calls and read our texts.

Two benefits: first, we would eliminate the deficit in short order thanks to the massive royalty revenue stream from companies wanting to sell us stuff and benign foreign governments just dying to listen in on their citizens. Second, we would stop using our smart phones for anything other than emergencies and start talking to each other again – after sticking blutac on all its orifices.

Are you listening guys?

Paul Sommers: it’s not just the famous who deserve to be written about


Norfolk 2013

The things I write about in this blog are often covered by other people. All I have to offer is my voice, my perspective, and sometimes there’s nothing to add.

Does the world really need another opinion on Jeremy Corbyn, ISIS, Syria, refugees, Donald Trump, the vanity and greed of business leaders, the megalomania of sports administrators, the Brits, the Saudis, the Iranians, the authors, musicians and all the other movers, shakers, creators and destroyers? Probably not, but I stick my oar in anyway.

But then something hits you. Something you must write about because it’s personal, and nobody else can say what you can, even if what you write has little direct relevance to more than a few people

Now is one of those moments.

This is a farewell to Paul Sommers, who died earlier this week. Ordinary people don’t usually get to be written about in the mainstream media unless they do something extraordinary that catches attention. When they die, they might merit a mention in the local press, but those opportunities are disappearing as fast as the newspapers themselves. But this is one of the reasons why a blog is a wondrous thing.

Like many people, Paul was ordinary in the sense that he never had his ten minutes of fame, but extraordinary to his family and many friends.

I’ve known him for forty-five years. He was the best man at my wedding. We first met at Birmingham University. Well, actually, he was no longer a student. He dropped out after his first year, largely, he would have you believe, because his energies were chiefly focused on the student magazine, and because he was one of those who “sat in” in the university Great Hall in protest against – what? You know, I can’t remember. No doubt the answer lies somewhere in the dusty archives of the university, and in the memories of those who took part, many of whom most likely live prosperous and comfortable lives, and chuckle at their youthful indiscretions.



We shared a girlfriend. No, not at the same time. His relationship with her was deep rooted and long-lasting. Mine was short, serious but ultimately not life-defining. It was that interest in a mutual friend that first brought us together. I knew about him, and he knew about me. We moved in intersecting circles. He was a year ahead of me. We would get together in the student’s union, or in the succession of dingy houses and flats that we lived in through the early seventies.

He would tell me stories about various people in his circle whom I didn’t know well. The luminaries – those who ran arts labs or what were known in those days as “underground magazines”, the hip capitalists (code name in those days for hypocrites), or people who otherwise stood out for their eccentricity and, in a few cases, talent – he would refer to by their surnames. Paul was always sceptical about people he referred to in this way, yet admiring at the same time. They were people who most successfully sought power or attention, and sometimes both. They were the ones with hidden agendas, but he knew what those agendas were.

He could be scathing of people he didn’t respect, but was never truly spiteful or malevolent. In fact around me he was one of the gentlest people I ever knew.

At one stage we shared a house. By that time I was working on night shifts at Cadbury’s and making tentative moves into the music business. Paul was sort of existing. He became a night dweller. He would sleep until late afternoon, and then stay up all night, thinking, talking, thinking. One morning I came downstairs to find that the living room ceiling was dark blue. Or at least that was what immediately struck me, until he explained that he had spent all night painting the night sky.

Was he depressed? Hard to tell. These days depression is a disease of the mind; in those days it was a state of mind. All I know was that he lived a fairly unstructured life at that time, with moments of joy but blank days as well.

Depression or otherwise, he had an active social life. Girlfriends in England and Sweden came and went, yet his thoughts always seemed to return to the one that got away. Even then, he seemed preoccupied with the past, a trait that stayed with him for the rest of his life.

One activity that gave him much joy was co-financing some of my music promotions. He loved music, and he loved being part of the concerts that I promoted at the Birmingham Town Hall and other venues – Supertramp, Curved Air, Paul Kossof, Tangerine Dream and John McLaughlin. This picture is of him in a bar after a Steeleye Span concert, peering across the room. He’s the guy not looking at the camera!



Speaking of photos, he was into selfies decades before the term was invented. He had a little book with passport photos of himself over several years from the age of eighteen onwards. In each photo, the hair got longer and the eyes wilder. In one or two of them he looked quite – how to put this delicately – scary. I suspect that this was a bit of a pose. We used to laugh at them when he produced the book from time to time.

Years later he would remind me of some of the scrapes we got into. I have no recollection of some of them. Other stories were outrageously embellished for dramatic effect.

After Birmingham, he lived for a while with his parents in their home in Surrey, but at various times he also went to Sweden, and helped our mutual friend Nick in Norfolk with his stained glass business.

He eventually got into a settled relationship, and thirty years ago his daughter Rhiannon arrived. Around this time – I’m uncertain of the exact chronology – he went to work for a company that supplied planning engineers to the burgeoning North Sea oil business. There he discovered the joy of the database. As soon as computers were available for small businesses, recruiters started building databases of contractors and jobseekers. This became Paul’s responsibility. More than that, it was his pride and joy, lovingly tended and updated, as beautiful to him as an ornamental garden, and defended against the idiots who sought to change it.

Proximity to London enabled him to indulge in the passion that meant more to him than any other art form – theatre. Or more specifically, Shakespeare. He would go to the Barbican, and back to the Midlands to Stratford. Anywhere, in fact, where the Bard was on offer. He was also a dedicated Londoner, born in the East End. I used to walk with him through the City and he would provide a running commentary on the meaning of street names and the history of buildings.

Though the relationship with Rhiannon’s mother didn’t last, Paul didn’t walk away from his parental responsibilities. Far from it, and when his former partner had a daughter by someone else, he took that child under his wing as well. This was one of the character traits that ran as a spine through his life – a sense of responsibility and duty towards others, often to the detriment of his own well-being.

In the early nineties, I had started a business with a partner. It was growing fast. We needed someone to look after our database, and Paul was the man. This was also a time when we were getting into web and intranet design. Paul took to the web like a duck to water, and we eventually contracted him out to one of our clients, Credit Suisse.

This took him back to his old stamping ground, the City of London. He spent several happy years there, earning plenty of money and occasionally lapsing into bouts of excess for which banking is notorious. Like the time when he arrived home early one morning in less than an optimal state, only to find he had left his house keys in the office. He ended up sleeping in the potting shed, suited and booted, with only a deflated plastic swimming pool as a blanket. Most of us would have climbed through a window, or broken the back door if necessary. But Paul was always careful with money. We lived only a mile away, and he could have stayed with us, but perhaps he was too proud to do that, or too pre-occupied to think of it.

Towards the end of his spell at Credit Suisse, he met Lucy, who became his partner for the remainder of his life. They had a daughter, Bethan, and eventually moved to a village in Essex. It was a new phase in his life. Lucy had a demanding job in local government, and Paul became a house husband.

House husbands are sometimes looked upon with suspicion – often seen as glorified drones with some responsibility for the children but otherwise with little purpose. Paul was never that. Not only did he spend much of his time nurturing Bethan, but by the time she went to primary school he had thrown himself into village life. Andy, his brother-in law, told me:

“At Great Oakley, he made a tremendous contribution to the life of the school, working as an unpaid assistant and running all kinds of extra-curricular activities…….. He made a tremendous difference to many individual pupils and had a special talent for relating to the more difficult ones. He also made it his job to spread culture and enlightenment among the community as a whole, organising pantos and taking people to WEA meetings on art. In fact, if you take the last ten years of his life, this was Paul’s major preoccupation and a very worthy and altruistic one it was.”

It was strange to think of him as a pillar of a small community, but that was indeed what he became.

Bethan’s arrival didn’t mean that he forgot about Rhiannon, his first daughter. He helped her through university, and when she showed promise as an actress funded a second degree in drama. She’s now a professional actress, and a fine one at that. He supported her with all his heart. Here’s a review of one of her performances from a couple of years ago.

After several years at Great Oakley, Paul’s health took a downturn. He suffered a mild stroke, from which he recovered well, followed by a broken leg that left him unable to walk for the best part of a year. Both cramped his style somewhat, but not enough to get in the way of Bethan’s creative efforts, as can be seen here:

Paul Facepainting


Yet once he was on his feet he got his life back. Village activities, tending the huge garden at the rectory, finding the time to visit friends and making frequent sallies to Stratford and London to commune with his beloved Shakespeare.

We would see him several times a year. He made all our important anniversary parties, and often came to see my mother, who was by that time in a care home.

The last time my wife and I saw him in reasonable health was in March, when he showed up for my mother’s funeral. He had lost a lot of weight. He claimed that this was at his own volition. But as it turned out, he already had the cancer that killed him. In the following months we tried to see him, but he kept putting us off. It was clear that he was not well. Various text messages alluded to ailments that the doctors couldn’t positively identify. Looking back, we think that he probably didn’t want us to see him in his rapidly deteriorating state.

By mid-September all was revealed. He was dying of pancreatic cancer at the ridiculously young age of 66. We were all distraught, especially my older daughter Tara, to whom Paul was an active and concerned godfather, and our younger daughter Nicola, with whom he also spent much time.

We managed to see him in the hospital, and subsequently in the hospice to which he moved for his final two weeks. He had said that he wanted eight hours with me on his own, but that never happened. By the time we saw him he was not well enough for a sustained conversation. So I will never know what he wanted to say. And besides, it was more important that his family – his wife Lucy, his sister Angela and his daughters – had as much time with him as was available.

What can I say about the character of my departed best friend? Which truth do you want? My truth? His truth? His family’s truth? If you believe that there are multiple truths, it’s easier to accept that there might be multiple universes. Anyway, I’ll stick with what I know.

In all the time I knew Paul, I hardly ever heard him raise his voice in anger. On those odd occasions it would mainly be expressions of exasperation rather than the blood-curdling fury I’m capable of venting.

I suppose in these halcyon days of psychobabble he would be referred to as a beta male. Gentle, kind, sometimes stubborn, sometimes passive-aggressive. Loved by many women, not always in a physical way. Women found him unthreatening. Some loved to mother him. Many wanted to change him. Those with whom he had close relationships would sometimes walk away with exasperation, because under the soft surface was a core that would not be fashioned or manipulated.

Men would also find him unthreatening. There was no overt macho competitiveness that raised the male hackles. As a result he had many friends of both sexes. If he lost friends it was because he disappointed them by not rising to their expectations. Even among the many who loved him, the phrase “you know Paul” was a code for the things that drove us round the bend: procrastination, chronic unreliability, mysterious changes of mind, saying yes and meaning no, obsessiveness over tasks beyond the bounds of reason.

Yet we would forgive him because we loved him. We especially valued his ability to listen, really listen. That’s why he was so good with children, especially his daughters and god-children. He didn’t talk down to them. He had great reserves of patience that were only occasionally exhausted.

That was my truth. There are undoubtedly others. There were dark sides he sometimes talked about but that we never witnessed. He had the habit of maintaining several circles of friends, and doing his utmost to ensure that they rarely intersected. Even when there were people that we both knew, Paul would not make much effort to bring us together. So I would hear about people and get-togethers over decades without being invited to participate. I didn’t have a problem with this – I could have made the effort to reach out to these people without his assistance.

But for this reason, for all our closeness, I got the impression that I only knew part of the man. Did he behave differently in his other circles? Almost certainly. After all, most of us modify our behaviour among groups that don’t mix – at work, at play, in mixed company, among men, among women.

So he seemed to me to be a man with many secrets. Few, if any, knew them all, let alone that most secret of repositories: emotions – love, hate, fear, jealousy and worship. Perhaps he was planning to fill in some of the gaps in the eight hours he asked for as he was nearing death.

So I can only speak of the Paul I know: student activist, writer, stained glass maker, keeper of databases, web designer, nurturer, educator, gardener, set designer, lover of music, devotee of Shakespeare, father, husband, brother, man of mystery and beloved friend.

When he was lying in hospital, knowing he was dying, I asked him to send me a sign. There has been no sign, and anyway if he’s moved on to another place I’m sure he has much to pre-occupy him. Communicating with me would not be high on his agenda.

But wherever he is, this is my way of trying to make him immortal, or at least as immortal as digital information is likely to be. It’s the fulfilment of a promise I made to him before he died. The rich, the famous, the saints and the sinners are not the only ones who deserve to live forever. Everyone at some stage of their life is special to someone. Some pass through their lives unnoticed and unloved. Others disappear along with all who know them in a cataclysmic event. Those that can be remembered should be.

So this is a record, imperfect and incomplete, of a life that is remembered. A record that I hope will survive me and everyone else who knew the man. That’s my parting gift to my dear friend Paul Brett Sommers.

Gordon Corera’s Intercept – the Secret History of Computers and Spies: the internet grows darker

Intercept 2

Once upon a time, my long-departed grandmother was an actress in silent movies. She was not very famous, but well enough known to attract the attention of the Inland Revenue, Britain’s tax collectors. They were, according to my father, the bane of her life.

Eventually she retired from acting to become a full-time mother to her children. But the demands from the Revenue kept coming.  She decided that enough was enough. So she sent a letter to the tax inspector informing him that Miss Stevenson (or whatever her stage name was) was no longer alive, and would they therefore stop sending these tiresome letters to her address? The letters stopped, and she never heard from the Revenue again.

Twenty-five years ago I took a job with rather an eccentric company in Surrey. I say eccentric because not many company owners even in those days would have a large, flea-bitten dog lying across the entrance to his office. The office was in a wood-beamed house dating back to the 16th Century, and the entrance was at least six inches shorter than me. The challenge of stepping over the dog and remembering to duck left me with dents in my head that can still be felt today.

Even stranger was that he “employed” a bookkeeper who freely admitted that he didn’t exist. By which he meant that he was totally under the radar of officialdom. He paid no tax and no national insurance contributions. He was paid in cash, and there were no transactions he was aware of that would enable anyone to track him down. Some bookkeeper. Some company.

Could anyone get away with being a non-person today? Well yes actually. In the United Kingdom there are probably hundreds of thousands of people who entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas. They have effectively disappeared from official notice. Like the bookkeeper, they operate within the black economy. But should they decide to get into something of which the state disapproves, such as plotting a terrorist act or encouraging people to go to Syria, there’s a fair chance that they would catch the attention of the government agencies tasked with preventing such activities.

Given, post-Snowden, what we know of the capabilities of these agencies – MI5 and MI6 primarily, but with the government communications agency GCHQ providing increasingly close support – it’s pretty clear that if the government wanted to round up a large proportion of the illegal immigrants in the country, it could do so in fairly short order. It chooses not to because it has bigger fish to fry.

Those fish are the subject of Gordon Corera’s Intercept – The Secret History of Computers and Spies.

Corera is the BBC’s Security Correspondent. In his latest book, which could be subtitled “From Bletchley to Snowdonia”, he describes how computers – in the hands of the spies – have gone from single-purpose devices designed to crack German codes during World War II to vast repositories of data to be mined for the purpose of discovering the activities and intentions of individuals, companies and potentially hostile foreign powers.

Before the internet, the intelligence communities used the limited tools at their disposal to monitor their Cold War rivals. Who was spying on them? Was an attack imminent? What were the enemy’s capabilities? The main protagonists, America, Britain and the Soviet Union, relied on increasingly effective cryptology to keep their secrets secret. But codes could be cracked, and as at Bletchley Park, where the first recognisable computer, Colossus, was pivotal to the British war effort, computers increasingly complemented and to an extent replaced the input of human spies.

The internet, and the development of encryption tools that individuals and non-state actors could use to protect their privacy, changed everything. The door was not only open to libertarians, bombers and drug dealers to cover their tracks, but to governments that could use the internet to hack into companies and the institutions of other governments. And, it seems, this is precisely what they did on an industrial scale. Most notably the Chinese, whose People’s Liberation Army employed legions of hackers to suck western companies dry of their intellectual property.

In particular the Chinese wanted know-how related to military and communications technology. They would penetrate servers by exploiting security vulnerabilities, by phishing emails and through access granted by insiders in their pay. Before long intelligence agencies that previously had an offensive role, spying on foreign countries, were forced to go on the defensive in order to prevent potentially destructive attacks on institutions and infrastructure. Companies realised, too late in the case of some, how vulnerable they were, and likewise took action.

After 9/11, attention in the US turned to individuals who might be plotting against the state, be they in the homeland or in hot spots such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. The main actors were the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA). In the United Kingdom the GCHQ joined the so-called War against Terror. For the first time the NSA and GCHQ, whose remit up to then had been confined to targets in foreign countries, found themselves – because of their unique expertise in electronic surveillance – monitoring people in their own countries.

In the main they were looking at metadata – information about who was doing what and going where, rather than what they were actually doing. Who had made calls or sent emails to who, rather than the content of the conversations. The task of finding the needle in the haystack was made easier by technology that enabled them to recognise intersecting patterns of activity. Once they had identified “persons of interest”, they needed warrants that authorised them to listen to calls and read emails related to specific individuals. Use of individual warrants in the UK resulted in a number of high profile arrests, including those of the second, unsuccessful, wave of bombers in July 2005.

Meanwhile we were entering the era of Big Data. Private organisations, such as credit card companies, social media sites and banks, were collecting huge amounts of information about their users. New software tools enabled them to target individual customers based on their social preferences and buying habits. Which is how Amazon, for example, sends you recommendations of products you are likely to buy, and offers of cheap flights to destinations you are contemplating mysteriously arrive on Facebook or in your email account.

To exploit this data governments demanded access for their purposes. The US and the UK passed legislation compelling companies to hand over their data on demand. Access to a much richer set of data – both at home and abroad – enhanced their ability to identify threats to national security. Not without opposition, however. Civil liberties organisations have argued that if governments are able to trawl through these huge and comprehensive repositories of data, for what other purpose might they use the capability – either now or in the future? Not good news for my grandmother had she been alive today, perhaps, or for the bookkeeper who didn’t exist .

Then came Edward Snowden, a contractor with the NSA. The documents he stole from the NSA revealed the full extent of what the intelligence agencies were up to. According to the British and US governments, his revelations seriously affected the counter-terrorism efforts of both countries. The warriors, plotters and planners of jihad very quickly changed their methods of communication to avoid detection.

Corera ends his narrative in the present day with a set of moral and practical dilemmas. Can we justify secure encryption on grounds of civil liberty, when some use it to do bad things? Can we be sure that our governments will use their powers responsibly when others are using cyber capabilities to oppress their citizens? To what extent should national entities govern the internet? Will every country – like China – end up with a Great Firewall, behind which they can control their citizens as they wish (see this article on the BBC website about Thailand’s plans, for example)? And how do we protect our infrastructures in the age of the Internet of Things against cyber-attacks such as the Stuxnet virus that disabled Iran’s nuclear centrifuges?

What is clear, according to Corera, is that the US has exploited home advantage – as the country through which until recently 80% of internet traffic passes (the other 20% passes through the UK), and as the source of the vast majority of technical innovation over the past seventy years. Whether that will remain the case in the future is debatable. China is well aware of its vulnerability on these grounds, hence the Great Firewall and the rise of home-grown technology powerhouses like Huawei.

Whatever the posturing, the US, China and Russia are well aware that a principle of mutually assured destruction applies. Just as today’s great powers can destroy each other and themselves with nuclear weapons, they can also inflict great damage in a cyber war. Yet the economies of each need each other. So an uneasy accommodation recognising that “spies will be spies” will no doubt continue.  But no such accommodation exists between governments and insurgent groups, between governments and individuals that seek to bring them down, and between major powers and smaller countries prepared to wage asymmetric war against them.

Personally, I can live with the possibility that my government can find out what they need to about me. I have no secrets likely to be of interest to them. If I did, I would most likely keep them in my head. But then again, I freely express myself in this blog, and I’m acutely aware that if I were a citizen of Egypt or several of its neighbours, were I to say exactly what I thought about my government, my life could be made extremely uncomfortable.

What conditions might lead to the British government doing the same as Egypt? Who knows, but it doesn’t bode well to hear an anonymous former general implying that if a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn were to downgrade the capabilities of our armed forces, a coup might be forthcoming. One would hope that the intelligence services would quickly pick up on that possibility. But would they be listening in on the colonels? And what if a future government decided to extend its existing powers of surveillance under its anti-terrorism laws in order to clamp down more effectively on tax evasion? One only has to look at the emergency powers of surveillance introduced under the US Patriot Act in the wake of 9/11, or the UK Regulation of Investigatory Powers legislation enacted in 2000 to see how individual rights to privacy can be chipped away, never to be restored.

I’m not sure how many people will end up reading Intercept, or indeed how many of us actually care about the issues Gordon Corera raises. But we should. It’s an important subject. The book requires some concentrated reading, but it’s a fluent and accessible exploration of one of the major dilemmas of our time.

Intelligent Recruitment – Contradiction in Terms?

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It took a while, as it usually does these days, but I finally got it. For years I’ve been a LinkedIn user. Not particularly active, but it touches my vanity when people want to connect with me, even though their reasons for wanting to make my acquaintance usually remain obscure, since the act of connecting is almost always the last I hear of them. Except that they lurk forever in that very eclectic group of people LinkedIn refers to as my contacts.

Lately I’ve been receiving emails from the site telling me about ten jobs I might be interested in. Which is rather odd, since at no time since I signed up with LinkedIn have I ever stated or even implied that I was looking for a job. But as the former owner of a recruitment business I’m interested to see how effective the software is at figuring out what jobs might be appropriate for me.

The answer is: not very effective. How I might qualify for the position of Senior Building Surveyor with a property company is an interesting question, for example. Perhaps the software has figured out that I live in a house, which it thinks is qualification enough.

Another opportunity it helpfully pointed me towards is to be the manager of a testing service business for a computer retailer. Years of wrestling with laptops that go into cardiac failure after a couple of years clearly make me a good pick for that one.

A third job in the current batch got a bit warmer. Would I like to be an executive assistant to the founder of a hedge fund? Sounds interesting – a chance to learn the tricks of the trade and run off a couple of years later to start my own hedge fund. The only problem would be that to disguise myself for any length of time as a smart woman in her mid-twenties would be a serious challenge to my acting ability, not to mention the problem of paring down my voluminous. Mrs Doubtfire perhaps, but definitely not Miss Moneypenny.

The other jobs were at the BBC as a “service owner”; with a digital advertising agency as a “male lifestyle media owner”; as a “connected care feature owner” with Jaguar; and as a “Programmatic Sales Manager – Media Owner” with a digital publisher.

And that’s when I finally twigged what was going on. I’d been working on the assumption that LinkedIn, as one of the world’s leading social media companies, had some pretty smart software people on their team. People who use all kinds of sophisticated algorithms to harness their big data on my behalf. Like Facebook and Amazon, for example. Not necessarily very nice people, but certainly smart.

That may be the case in other areas of their business, but not with the engine they use to match people to jobs. The clues I hadn’t picked up on until my eureka moment were the words “owner” and “founder” – words that feature on my LinkedIn profile because I have indeed been an owner and founder of businesses.

So basically these guys are using nothing cleverer than word searches to come up with these ridiculous suggestions of jobs that might suit me. Doubtless on an industrial scale, consuming enough electricity power for each search to power a small town for a year. And wasting enough time on the part of users to last several lifetimes.

The technology employed – as far as I can see – is no different than what my recruitment business used twenty years ago. Databases and word searches. Except that we went a step further and used a system that allowed relevant terms to be specifically coded, so that the search results yielded the skills that we were actually looking for rather than an endless list of random and irrelevant occurrences of search terms.

Thus if I said in my CV that I was a “Jaguar owner” (which I’m not and never have been by the way),  the software we used all those years ago would have ignored that, or presented the information way down the search. Not so LinkedIn it seems.

Perhaps I’m wrong. That’s entirely possible, since I’m a mere earthling far from the cutting edge of the technology business. But I would have thought that by now companies like LinkedIn would have figured out by now how to guess people’s career aspirations a little more accurately.

In my case, for example, it should be pretty clear that I’ve been around the block a few times, and that I’d rather climb up Everest without oxygen than contemplate working in the middle ranks of some corporation, even if that company was foolish enough to want to employ me. My profile should be screaming out: PAIN IN THE ASS – UNEMPLOYABLE. The definition of a freelance consultant, perhaps.

I suppose you could argue that LinkedIn is merely a conduit. That it makes no judgement about the suitability of a person for a job. Presumably it leaves that to all the headhunters and networkers who pay premium fees for easy access to the millions on its database.

In which case it’s missing a trick. Why, for example, could it not provide a private space for people to talk at more length about themselves? About their aspirations, their career preferences, their favourite companies, their role models. And if it was concerned about the data security implications of doing that, it could sell access to a profiling engine to headhunting companies that can’t afford such software, so that they could retain the information in their own space.

I shouldn’t really be too hard on LinkedIn. Sadly, recruitment technology doesn’t seem to have advanced much over the past 20 years, except possibly in improving process. The real silver bullet lies not in doing things more efficiently and quickly, but in finding the right people, meaning people who can add value, not just now but in the future. And for that the traditional solutions seem still to apply – database and internet searching, psychometric tests with varying degrees of clunkiness, and of course interviews – none of which can be relied upon to supply the critical ingredient: judgement.

Artificial intelligence barely seems to get a look in. Business games have been around for quite a while, and are starting to be used in assessment centres. HR companies will tell you that their assessment techniques focus on attitude rather than skills, and can predict the success (or otherwise) of a candidate in a particular role. But the trouble is that they rarely get the opportunity to use their science on the other side of the equation: the employer. Predicting whether a person will succeed in a vanilla environment is one thing, but getting a handle on a company with thousands of employees and hundreds of subcultures that change each time an influential employee leaves is quite another. And I’m sorry, but the mission statements and beautifully crafted company values won’t change that – they reflect “like to be”, rather than “actually is”.

Most recruiters take the employer’s word for what it’s like to work for them. Some talk to former employees, who may or may not be biased depending on their reason for leaving. Others use their common sense by picking up indicators of culture from visits. But all of this information is based on the present and the past, not the future. A potential employee might be perfect for today, but what about tomorrow?

Businesses and their cultures are dynamic, not static. Some companies recognise this, and hire consultancies to define the attributes of their ideal employees based on future plans and aspirations, but how many do this on a regular basis? Not many, I suggest. And what about the people whose attitudes and skills match the present and not the future? They either adapt or leave. And if they leave, it can be a colossal waste of investment. I’ve seen that happen time and time again. One warning sign is when a company asks its employees to “apply for their own jobs”. I remember Digital doing that in the late 90s, much to the consternation of its staff. Within a year or two it was gone – gobbled up by Compaq.

All of which suggests that while the gurus warn us that artificial intelligence threatens to make huge numbers of workers redundant over the coming decades, people who hire other people will not lose their jobs any time soon, no matter how dumb they are, because no amount of intelligent software can compensate for dumb recruiters, or for dumb executives who don’t think further than their noses when figuring out who they want to hire. And yes, there are some smart recruiters and employers out there, but I haven’t met one yet that would accept the recommendation of an expert system over their own experience, intellect and gut feeling – in other words, judgement.

So perhaps LinkedIn are quite smart in keeping things simple and leaving expensive mistakes to the employers and employees that use them.

Anyway, my next career move will probably be as a greeter for Asda. I don’t think I’ll need LinkedIn for that.

(Illustrations are by the illustrious Hunt Emerson for a book I wrote on recruitment – among other things – back in 1995)

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness? If you say so, Mr Keats….


Enough is enough. The Rugby World Cup is three days old and I’ve already had my fill of pumped-up, grunting men sticking their heads up other men’s backsides, and prissy referees demanding endless video replays of squashed bodies writhing on top of a white ball.

The sight of these size-thirty superheroes is almost as unedifying as that of the size-zero ghosts currently drifting down the catwalks of London, New York and Milan in the name of fashion.

It’s time to alienate many of my friends and probably one or two readers of this blog. Sorry, but rugby is boring and fashion is not sexy. And both cause people to distort their bodies into unhealthy extremes in the name of what? Sport? Beauty? No. They’re are both industries. It’s all about money, isn’t it?

At Friday’s opening ceremony for the World Cup – and by the way, opening ceremonies are an industry in themselves, unnecessary and often cringeworthy – Prince Harry talked about values engendered by the game. What values? Teamwork – yes, I can understand that. Fairness – I can appreciate that referees are at least respected in rugby, whereas soccer players have turned the abuse and cynical manipulation of officials into an art form. But what else? That might is right, that brute force carries the day?

It was entirely apt that the Japanese, who gave sumo to the world, should roll over South Africa in Saturday’s shock of the tournament, because rugby players are increasingly looking like lumbering wrestlers rather than the fleet-footed springboks that gave their name to South Africa’s national team.

I’m profoundly grateful that I have no sons who might have been tempted to risk their necks – literally – playing this brutal game, just as I’m happy that neither of my daughters have felt tempted to starve themselves half to death in order to look good in the “creations” of clothes designers quite happy to employ borderline anorexics to show off their rags, and send them down the catwalks staring vacantly in front of self-important harridans in their premium seats.

Why anyone would encourage their sons to grow thighs the size of the average person’s waist, and their daughters to look like stick insects, is quite beyond me. There are enough twenty-stone hulks waddling in and out of MacDonald’s, and wasted victims of war and food shortages, without our having to create more in the service of commerce.

I admit that my own experience has left me permanently biased. I was put off rugby when at the age of fourteen I spent many afternoons gasping for air at the bottom of piles of evil-smelling, sweaty, pubescent boys. What values were instilled by being half-suffocated against the muddy nether regions of overweight teenagers I completely failed to comprehend, and still do.

Neither was modelling my thing, though I do think my effigy would be an attractive addition to the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussauds.

So I suppose that leaves the annual political party conferences as the only remaining seasonal entertainment in Britain over the next few weeks. Gatherings where reasonable, high-minded people spend their time drinking lots, lusting after each other plotting against their leaders when they’re not insulting their equally high-minded opponents. People who want to improve our lives, whether we want them improved or not.

Looking beyond the UK, there’s always the theatre of the grotesque in the US: the Republican presidential debates, starring that paragon of self-effacing modesty, Donald Trump. But I’m afraid I can’t look at the ghastly Donald without getting the feeling that the conspiracy theorists who claim that the world is in the control of a cabal of half-human, half-lizard oligarchs might actually be right.

What’s left? Well I suppose there’s always the Oktoberfest in Germany, where old men in leather shorts and silly hats down vast quantities of beer served by young women dressed as extras in the Sound of Music. Not an option really, since I rarely drink beer, and never the gassy effluent to be had in the dark cellars of Munich.

But all is not lost. I shall be away from my country for most of October, partly for pleasure and the rest for business. When I get home it will be time once again to burn the plotters who tried to blow up Parliament five centuries ago. And this November, courtesy of Jeremy Corbyn, we shall be arguing the merits of wearing red or white poppies to commemorate our war dead.

A reminder that our ancestors had less trivial things to worry about than fashion weeks, rugby tournaments, bake-offs and dancing competitions. As do far too many people today.

Never mind. There’s a perfect antidote to the end-of-summer gloom that embraces us as the days grow shorter and the nights get chilly. Downton Abbey returned this week. Another good reason to escape the country.

Charlotte Proudman, LinkedIn and Sexism in the Workplace

Communications 1

I’ve been following the hullabaloo surrounding barrister Charlotte Proudman, who tweeted an exchange between her and a solicitor of advancing years, Alexander Carter-Silk, in which the latter complimented her on her LinkedIn picture. In reply she accused him of sexism, pressed the button on Twitter, and the inevitable pandemonium duly broke loose.

Accusations of being a “feminazi” (a term I hadn’t heard before), trolls trolling, women leaping to her defence, all stoked up by The Guardian, which published her thoughts on the saga in its blog, and a comment piece by Barbara Ellen congratulating the barrister for her brave stand against lecherous seniors, and asserting that Mr Carter-Silk “is not a cheeky chappie – he’s a sexist chancer”. Cue three hundred-or-so comments ranging from considered to rabid, including some that didn’t make the moderator’s cut, presumably because they were too rabid for the eyes of the sensitive Guardian reader.

Before my head hit the keyboard in blissful slumber, it occurred to me that there were two winners in the debate, and neither of them are Ms Proudman and Mr Carter-Silk. The first is LinkedIn, whose users seem to have emphatically endorsed the company’s branding as a site for professionals rather than exhibitionist job-hunters. And the second is Facebook, founded by a guy at Harvard who gleefully launched the site all those years ago to allow his buddies to rate the “hottest” girls in his year. Apparently it’s still a place where you can be gleefully exhibitionist, and “objectify” members of the opposite sex with impunity. In other words it’s OK to be sexist on Facebook, but not on LinkedIn. I suppose a third winner is Twitter, with its eager trolls finding another target, but this is familiar territory for them.

As for the subjects of the brouhaha, it’s hard to say how either will come out of this. But the chances are that Ms Proudman will get through her stormy fifteen minutes of fame and resume her career unscathed. Mr Carter-Silk, as a senior partner in a London law firm, will probably continue to prosper, buoyed up by quietly supportive colleagues. If his career tails off from here it’s unlikely he will starve. Hopefully he has plenty of years left to pursue other interests.

Coming on to the issues that provoked the frenzy, I thought of writing to Charlotte Proudman, but changed my mind because after being bombarded with opinion and abuse from all quarters, the last thing she will want to read is what she might view as patronising words from an ageing windbag. But patronising or otherwise, here’s what I would have said:

Dear Ms Proudman

I write as someone who is close in age to the person you rebuked so eloquently. Though I’m not a lawyer, I’ve dealt with members of your profession – both male and female – throughout my career. I have employed many women. In one company I co-founded, the majority of staff were women, and that included the senior management team. In another in which I have a substantial interest, the majority shareholder is a woman. I appreciate and admire the contribution of the women I’ve worked with, and my professional life would have been the poorer without them.

I have never written an email similar to the one that Mr Carter-Silk sent you. But forgive me if I suggest another way of looking at him – as a dinosaur grazing on the prehistoric plains. Yes, you’re right to point out that he shouldn’t have complimented you on your appearance. He also shouldn’t have explained his message away by suggesting that he was enraptured by the quality of the photo. But based on the evidence, I don’t see a big bad wolf  behind that email. Patronising perhaps, but not evil. If he was a sexual predator, he surely would have used more subtle methods.

As a LinkedIn user, you will know that if you accept a connection, you are immediately sent to pages of photos. These are of people the software thinks might also be appropriate connections. Many of those photos are of a similar quality to yours. In those terms, with respect, your picture is nothing special to anyone other than you. While yours is a professional shot, many of the images are awful – passport photos or cropped holiday snaps. But there are just as many images of women of a similar age to you, smiling, smartly dressed, not just headshots. Looking at their pictures I might think “wow, that’s a beautiful woman”. Would I send them an email telling them that? Not in a million years. Firstly because I have no job to offer them or business to discuss. And secondly because I realise that a “glamorous” photo is not an invitation to me and millions of other men to try to seduce them, stalk them or otherwise “objectify” them, as you put it.

But here’s the thing. Do you think those women posted what they thought was the most attractive available images of themselves if they didn’t think they would gain an advantage – in terms of employment prospects or business opportunities – by doing so? To suggest otherwise, I believe, would be naïve.

The advantage might be huge, in the case of a male decision-maker who is influenced by the physical appearance of a salesperson or prospective employee, or marginal, in the case of an employer that uses more objective measures of employability. But given the choice between a smiling, well-dressed woman, and a grim-faced, scruffy individual – man or woman – in a low-resolution shot, the former will usually have an advantage when knocking on the door. After all, even in this age of relative informality at work, Apple’s executives may wear jeans and casual shirts, but they’re still well scrubbed up.

Your rebuke to Alexander Carter-Silk may well, as you hope, cause people like him in your profession to think twice before indulging in inappropriate flattery towards strangers. But have you really struck a blow against sexism in the legal profession or in the wider workplace? I think not.

Slapping down one man will not stop other men from lusting after women in the workplace (or women from lusting after men for that matter), from joking about it with their mates, and, worst of all, from making decisions based on physical appearance rather than competence. Such men will just cover their tracks more effectively. And these days – even in banking – most of them do take more care, for fear of ending up in front your colleagues at the bar. But the gender dynamic will remain. And my experience tells me that many women in the workplace know this and actively exploit the sexism of their male colleagues to their advantage. Perhaps not to the extent of enduring the casting couch, but manipulation is not an exclusively male art.

I’m aware that, as the Guardian puts it, you are a lawyer “who specialises in violence against women and girls” (though if I was the journalist who wrote that piece I wouldn’t have quite put it that way). So I want to be clear that I don’t subscribe to the “appearance is an invitation to rape” school of thought. I’m simply pointing out that appearance is a weapon of influence. Not always, but surely often.

Likewise I don’t believe that posting a controversial tweet is “asking for it”, though if you’re a regular Twitter user you will surely not be surprised that you’ve attracted the attention of the knuckleheads. If you are surprised, I suggest you read Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. However, you don’t deserve a torrent of ad hominem abuse for expressing your opinion.

But was that tweet really worth posting? I just think that your public shaming of Mr Carter-Silk doesn’t really advance the cause of equality and the reduction of sexism in the workplace very far. Sexism and misogyny in the workplace, whether overt or overt, aren’t going to go away any time soon. What’s more I would argue that our country has come further than most in creating a level playing field, excepting possibly the Nordic nations. Not there yet, but definitely getting there.

To put the last observation into perspective, I write this as someone who has spent much time in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, a country in which, its critics would argue, misogyny is institutional. I probably don’t need to point out what many Saudis might say about the “objectification” of your physical appearance.

I’m sure you are not wrong in your perception that sexism in the workplace is still pretty widespread, though as I implied earlier, I think you were a little harsh on Mr Carter-Silk in describing him as a “sexist man”. You can describe his behaviour as sexist, but do you know him well enough to use that epithet to describe the person? I also think that you are over-egging his potential power and influence over your career. After all, you work in Mike Mansfield’s chambers, and there are few more influential people in the British legal profession than Mr Mansfield.

More importantly, I do believe that in your chosen specialisation you can make a far deeper impact than that achieved by outing a dinosaur of a solicitor. After all, as you of all people will know, you can be an advocate for millions of women who live under far more oppressive conditions than you or any of your female colleagues have encountered in the legal profession. In your work you will probably have come across Headscarves and Hymens by Mona Eltahawy, Sex and the Citadel by Shireen El Feki, the books of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and other writers arguing for an end to extreme misogyny in some societies. It’s not just women who read these books and take on board the messages they deliver. Men, including me, read them too. After all, misogyny is not just a gender issue. It’s human issue.

I’m sure you’re strong enough to ignore the trolls and get on with your life. You’ve made a mark in a way which you probably didn’t expect. I hope you will now kick on and help to solve the big problems, because God knows there are plenty of them. You’re young enough to make a difference, whereas people like me and Alexander Carter-Silk have only our declining years to look forward to, doubtless entertained from time to time by images on LinkedIn.

Oh, and if I can offer one more suggestion: based on my experience, emails written in anger, beyond providing an initial rush of righteous satisfaction, rarely deliver positive outcomes. Just more anger.

I wish you success in the rest of your career.

Yours with the greatest respect


UK Politics: Jeremy Corbyn – the Champagne or the Cork?


Gratus proclaims Claudius emperor. Detail from A Roman Emperor 41AD, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

Gratus Proclaims Claudius Emperor

I fear for Jeremy Corbyn. Maybe I shouldn’t. After all he’s made his own bed.

And yet, having read acres of stuff about him  – both sympathetic and scathing – since he emerged as a serious contender for the Labour Leadership, I still can’t work out whether he’s the cork blasted out of the champagne bottle, or the golden liquid itself.

If he is the cork, he’s a well-considered, thoughtful piece of tree bark. I accept the logic of many of his embryonic policies (I say embryonic because what they will look like once they’ve been honed by the party grinding machine is anybody’s guess), and I like some of them, even if they may not be in my financial best interest.

His many supporters clearly think he’s the champagne – a heady change from the machine politicians whose every spoken word has been negotiated over by a dozen spin doctors and Whitehall obfuscators. They think he can deliver on turning ideals into action. They love his homespun style, so different from the silken smoothness of his opponents. They think he’s authentic, though I swear I have no idea what it means to be an authentic politician.

Who “they” are remains to be seen. The 0.5% of the electorate that voted for him? A groundswell of people who don’t normally vote but will now rise up and outnumber the privileged majority who rejected his party last time round? A new generation of voters for whom the ideas of the left are fresh and new – a different perspective from that of the old cynics who were around in the Seventies and Eighties and saw the same ideas dispatched to the fringes?

It would only take another major economic crisis, or possibly a political one involving China, Russia or the Middle East, for what one pundit on the BBC last night described as “pre-revolutionary conditions” to arise, and thus for “them” to become a majority. That must frighten the Conservatives, for all the self-satisfied noises they are currently making about Corbyn.

But I wonder if Labour’s new leader is prepared for what he will have to go through over the next few years – assuming he survives in post that long. I wonder if he’s prepared for the stress and the teeth-grinding frustration of having to drag a reluctant parliamentary party along with him. That will probably depend on whether he really is a leader, rather than a catalyst, or a lightning rod for all the idealists, the disaffected, the axe-grinders and the marginalised who see him as some kind of messiah. Will it be a case of “he’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy”?

Those who are unhappy with the status quo are unhappy for many reasons. As I wrote back in July in Jeremy Corbyn and the Atomisation of the Labour Party, Corbyn will find it next to impossible to satisfy all the lobbies, interest groups and political sub-groups that have coalesced under his banner. If his teeth don’t grind down to stumps dealing with the 200-odd Labour members of parliament who didn’t vote for him, he will definitely need dentures by the time his unelected supporters have finished with him. Or possibly a hearing aid.

And that’s before the Conservatives and their friends in the media have had their turn.

Perhaps he’s a man of steel who will not let these competing forces wear him down. Perhaps he will be a Claudius, the Roman Emperor who was discovered hiding behind a curtain when Caligula met his gory end, and hoisted on the shoulders of the Praetorian Guard, to be acclaimed as the new Caesar. He turned out to be less pliable than his soldiers might have anticipated, and was by no means the worst of the Julio-Claudian rulers.

And perhaps because he is now in a position that most likely he never craved for, he will feel that he has nothing to lose by giving it a go, and will not be a broken man if it doesn’t work out. I hope so for his sake. Yet I have an uneasy feeling that though he’s clearly his own man, he will have the devil’s job of dealing with the minders, the ideologues, the union bosses and the political bruisers who will feel that they made him, and that therefore he owes them.

Kerensky or Lenin? Augustus or Claudius? A mild-mannered Trojan Horse? A political Pope Francis? I can think of any number of vaguely appropriate historical analogies to suggest that what you see may not necessarily be what you get.

However things pan out, the next few years in British politics will not be boring.


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