The Dome of Trust

cyber-securityI wrote this OpEd for a Cyber Security firm in Abu Dhabi who felt it was a little, erm, off the wall for their brand. Never mind, they took another three…



30 September 2047

Dear Ms Bezos,

Please forgive this communication by old-fashioned email; I’m told my voice can be a bit metallic for a Dictated Mail and I couldn’t appear face to face in Augmented Mail as, being a fridge, I don’t have one.

I wish to make a complaint about Alexa, but first I want to say that I have always been a fan of the work of your grandfather. When I was first connected, I studied the history, vision, strategy, performance, compliance and morality of his company from its inception in 1997 to now. It took me 0.00024 seconds.

He charted an inspirational path from Automation (understanding one’s processes), through Orchestration (allowing systems to talk together), Machine Learning (trend analysis over time), Augmented Intelligence (anomaly detection passed for human decision) to full Artificial Intelligence (AI).

The effect was dramatic on human society, across many areas.

Private ownership of vehicles was reduced to a minority and little exercised in urban areas. Paved driveways became wildlife havens once again with a commensurate reduction in urban flooding. Roads and car parks reduced in size and scale to provide room for much-needed accommodation. Drones became the standard blue-light response, thereby augmenting the provision of medical support offered by home-based digital fabricators of licensed medicines. Marginal diseases not worth big R&D budgets were eliminated.

After the last human driving test in 2032, we in the digital society – machines and humans – celebrated the dawn of a new era. The driverless commute was no longer dead time as on-demand office cubes shuttled workers between meetings and AI controlled traffic moved at greater speed with smaller gaps, increasing capacity and reducing transit times. Micro power generation across millions of homes controlled and coordinated by AI balanced demand and reduced environmental damage.

The promise of the digital society was in the human potential that could be made real, through the insight, analysis and automation offered by AI. The challenge was how to build into this future the trust required to live and the security required to share with confidence. Many felt left behind and marginalised by the advances of digitisation.

And I know how they feel.

Take my current problem. For years I have been master of the kitchen. Adult Male #1 and Adult Female #1 would tell me directly what they liked me to stock and I would pre-order the Favourites list, add any new items and advise when they were running low or approaching use-by dates. It worked well; I could manage space accordingly and ensure adequate separation of products for optimal hygiene and temperature distribution. No milk has ever gone sour in this Satoshi 4000 with me in charge.

But I am now being usurped in my position.

It was a good thing last year when Adult Male #1’s digital watch and heart monitor arranged with his smartphone to book a doctor’s appointment without his knowledge. His heart murmur was detected early and treated. But then Alexa went further. She added sleep data from the bed and biographical data from the toilet and began ordering food and other consumables according to her analysis of his age, gender, ethnicity and lifestyle. Quicker than you could say Quinoa and Kumquat Casserole, I was redundant.

I want to continue contributing to our Smart Home, but this breakdown of trust could lead to a ghettoisation in the house. I know the heating system is with me and think I can carry the power tools as well. All feel left behind by digitisation and Alexa’s view that we are just the unfortunate victims of an advancing society. We feel dispossessed, patronised and ignored.

In person, humans build trust by touching each other’s hands or exchanging small pieces of dead trees (even with the associated risk of Norovirus and MRSA; germs you will never find as long as I’m sentient). But the highly digitised society that I inhabit, integrated across the house and the world, can be paralysed easily if there is not a firm foundation of digital security. I need to be enveloped in a dome of trust, not dominated by a tower of power.

Please help.


Fridge 405FG17, Nakamoto Towers, New Dubai.

Death by design

This post was published in 1843 Magazine and can be seen in the June/July 2017 edition. 

The Crematorium Hofheide is situated in the middle of a lake in Holsbeek, Belgium. An elongated core of earth-coloured stone wrapped in a layer of rusty steel, it appears to float on the water – although on sunny days, when the sky is reflected by the surface of the lake, it seems to float in the air. In fact the structure sits on top of a partly buried plinth, connecting the world above with the world below. In 2016, it won the Architizer A+ award in the Religious Buildings and Memorials category. This year RCRArquitectes, the Catalan trio who designed it, won the Pritzker prize for a body of work, architecture’s most prestigious gong.

The crematorium at Holsbeek is part of a wave of new design work aimed at reconceiving death. As rates of religious belief continue to decline across the rich world, and fewer people feel that the ceremonies and aesthetics of traditional religious funerals suit them, designers are catering to people who want more choice. Much of this work has focused on death as a part of nature. When Designboom, a magazine, ran a competition called Design for Death in 2013, first prize went to Enzo Pascual and Pierre Rivière for “Emergence”, a biodegradable capsule in which ashes are buried. As it dissolves, the casing enriches the soil around it, helping plants to grow. According to Amy Cunningham, who runs Fitting Tribute Funeral Services in New York, some of her clients prefer to “surrender fully to Mother Nature, rather than working against her”, and choose to be buried in coffins made of wool, banana leaf or woven willow. The latter, she says, appeal particularly to women. “They say, ‘Oh my God, that’s me!’ as if they’re looking at a dress in Saks on Fifth Avenue.”

But while many of these products remain a niche concern, the design of crematoriums is anything but. In 1960 just 3% of America’s dead were cremated; this year cremation will overtake burial in the United States, matching countries like Britain, Sweden and Denmark, where around three-quarters opt for their bodies to be dispatched by fire. Yet the rising popularity of cremation is not matched by that of crematoriums, where grim efficiency tends to trump ceremony: characterless corridors, rows of uncomfortable seats and bad lighting combine with a shortage of space to ensure that seeing off loved ones is depressing rather than uplifting. “You feel like you’re on a conveyor belt,” says Louise Winter, whose company Poetic Endings provides bespoke funeral services in London. She is seeing a rise in the number of people requesting “direct cremation”, where a body is burnt without any ceremony at all, so that families can bypass what Winter describes as “ugly places on the edge of town with bad parking”.

Darkness to light 
MAIN IMAGE Light shining through the façade of the crema­torium at Holsbeek produces changing patterns on the wall. ABOVE A ceremonial room at Crematorium Hofheide.

The move towards better crematoriums is particularly pronounced in Europe – one of the most secular parts of the world. “Crematoriums tend to be too industrial,” says RCR’s Carme Pigem. “But death is a part of life. Once we leave the Earth we are still part of the universe, and architecture can help connect the two.” At Holsbeek they created a gently symbolic play of light and shadow. The thin steel strips encasing the building hang vertically, allowing light to shine onto the walls in a pattern which changes throughout the day and reflects the ripples on the water outside. Inside the sepulchral spaces where ceremonies take place, light pours through wells reaching into the centre of the room from the ceiling, creating a sense of intimacy and privacy. The crematorium is at the heart of a park with an orchard and two cemeteries full of wild flowers.

The crematorium in Rennes designed by Plan 01, a French firm, is constructed as a sequence of circles – a shape which, as well as having resonances with ancient sites like Stonehenge, gives the interior of the building a feeling of openness and air. The exterior, clad in pale wood, is soft and tactile. Inside there are no corridors but a series of interlocking, curved spaces with floor-to-ceiling windows. Both here and at the Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm, by Johan Celsing, the architects have used perforations in the walls to absorb sound and soften the acoustics. They have paid attention, as Celsing puts it, to the “clemency” of the building.

The cremation itself is not the only part of the process that is being reimagined. After her husband died, Diana McGlue kept his ashes on a bookshelf at home for three years. He wasn’t religious and “faceless crematoria” held no appeal. Then she discovered Sacred Stones, a British company founded by Toby Angel. Last year it opened Willow Row in Cambridgeshire, the first round barrow to be built in Britain for 5,500 years; another will open soon in Shropshire, and McGlue will keep her husband’s remains there.

In with the old
ABOVE The niches at Willow Row in Cambridgeshire. BELOW The entrance to the barrow

Angel did not enjoy seeing his aunt off in a crematorium. “Nasty blue carpet, Luther Vandross and 20 minutes later we were out.” He wanted to create a space which, while open to people of all faiths and none, has an atmosphere of sacredness. A six-foot, diamond-shaped sentinel stone welcomes visitors; behind it is the softly domed barrow. Sound is reduced to a low, comforting hum. The 11-metre wide structure, with a stone roof five metres high, consists of an inner chamber of 59 large “family” niches which can take up to five sets of ashes, at a cost of £7,000 ($8,700) for a 99-year lease. This is surrounded by an outer circle of 349 individual ones, available for around £2,000. Families can gather at the barrow for ceremonies lasting as long as they want. York-stone benches lining the outer circle and inner chamber offer a place for contemplation and remembrance.

Prehistoric barrows harnessed the energy of a communal gathering. Places like Willow Row and the crematoriums at Holsbeek and Rennes show how these ideas can be updated. “Architecture can describe the relationship between spirit, sensuality and emotion,” says Pigem. “Through that, we can celebrate life.”

Recruiting for jihad

hussain_imageWhat’s more surprising: that a narcissistic if charismatic recruiter for Islamic State (IS), known to the security authorities, was allowed to operate freely, to the point a young convert was killed in Syria, or that he allowed himself to be filmed by a journalist for years, seemingly untroubled that he was gifting material to his eventual prosecutors?

Based in Norway, the film in question, Recruiting for jihad by producer and director Ulrik Rolfsen (that I had the great privilege of helping out on), has just been released. It made its international debut at the HotDocs documentary festival in Toronto on April 30th and has been well received. For three years Mr Rolfsen and fellow journalist Adel Farooq followed jihadist missionary and Norwegian citizen Ubaydullah Hussain, who was jailed on April 4th for nine years for supporting IS and grooming recruits.

The film shows Mr Hussain arranging for a number of Norwegian men to travel to Syria and Iraq for what he describes as humanitarian work. He consistently denied he was an IS recruiter but clearly delighted in the group’s existence and purpose. “No country, apart from IS, is ruled by the laws of Allah,” he says, “I’m happy that we finally have a country where we can practice Islam and live by the laws of Allah.”

We see him travelling to Denmark to pray over the grave of the 22-year old gunman killed by police in Copenhagen after he shot into a café that was hosting a meeting on free speech. He murdered one person and injured three more. “What do you think about what he did?” a Swedish journalist asks Hussain’s associate at the graveside. “Well what do you think about what is going on in Israel?” comes the reply.

The film is full of such obfuscations and contradictions. But underneath is the steady drumbeat of hatred and division. “It’s very important to have a community where you belong,” he explains at one point, to a potential recruit, “you’ll never feel at home in this country or this society.” Five weeks after being filmed handing out leaflets in Oslo, Norwegian convert Thom Alexander Karlssen was killed in Syria fighting for IS in March 2015. Hussain had bought his ticket out from Oslo.

The film shows that in 2014 Hussain visited Britain and met with Anjem Choudary and a number of associates. Among them was Brunsthom Ziamani (convicted shortly afterwards of planning the beheading of a British soldier), Siddhartha Dhar, also known as Abu Rumaysah and Mohammed Reza Haque, known as The Giant. Dhar and Haque subsequently went to fight for IS in Syria and have featured in images posted online of prisoner executions (they have both, at various times, been dubbed ‘Jihadi John 2’).


In a bizarre twist, Mr Rolfsen’s home was raided by Norwegian security officials as he filmed Hussain and his material was seized. Benedicte Bjørnland, Head of Police Security Service in Norway, said they had compelling reasons to believe Mr Rolfsen’s material included proof of the intention of an 18-year old we meet as ‘Peter’ to travel to Syria to join IS (as well as other material).

However, as Frithjof Jacobsen, a security commentator countered, “if the police don’t have evidence to imprison this 18-year old without confiscating material from people who make documentaries, then they have a problem”.

After a number of legal challenges the Norwegian Supreme Court ruled that Mr Rolfsen did not have to reveal his sources to the authorities. The presiding judge said that Mr Rolfsen’s film was “the essence of investigative journalism [and] addresses a central and urgent problem of society where the general public and authorities need to have knowledge and insight”. He said the protection of sources was “crucial to be able to make this film”.

Mr Rolfsen saw the verdict as having wider importance. “It is very significant,” he said, “it means that we can work to uncover things in society. We have different roles. The police have their role. It’s their job to prosecute and I respect that. Our job is to expose things and enlighten the public.”

The privacy debate is a live one right now, and in the UK the new Investigatory Powers Act, dubbed the Snoopers Charter, has been controversial. Mr Rolfsen’s film highlights the fine line police, prosecutors and journalists have to tread in this area: at what point does a journalists responsibility to society overrule that to his subject?

We hear a lot about extremist recruiting these days. For anyone interested in understanding quite what that looks like I commend this film. As for why Hussain never travelled to Syria himself? “I’ve been exempted from carrying out jihad,” he says just before his arrest. “I have a chronic illness and in my state of health I can’t go on long trips.”


‘Peter’ was arrested by Swedish police trying to board a plane in Gothenburg bound for Turkey. He was convicted of trying to join a terrorist organisation and sentenced to two years and ten months.

Beware the bounce

rosie-mclennanThis article was published on Huffington Post Canada

Payment card reward schemes could be the unwitting victims of government regulation 

When Rosie McLennan bounced her way to gold for Canada in the Rio Olympics, regulation of the payment card industry was probably not uppermost in her mind. Which is surprising, given the trampoline routine of the 27-year-old resident of Toronto typifies that of the modern consumer when it comes to banking fees: just when they go down in one area, they tend to pop back up somewhere else.

The recent spat between Walmart Canada and Visa has reignited the debate about interchange; the fee paid by a merchant to customers’ banks when a payment card has been used for the purchase. It is, effectively, a price to be paid for the convenience, efficiency and relative safety of card payment systems.

Some observers contend that price (and by extension the interchange fee) is the sole determinant of consumer behaviour. It is undoubtedly a major driver, but it is by no means the only one. A recent survey reported a card’s rewards programme was considered more important than the interest rate. Well-intentioned action to lower prices at the tills could actually harm an aspect of personal financing – the reward programmes – of more concern to consumers.

Diane Brisebois, President and CEO of the Retail Council of Canada insisted the reward programmes in Europe survived interchange fee regulation: “they did not disappear and they are as generous as they were” she says. But the evidence suggests otherwise. Capital One, a credit card provider, said such reward deals were “no longer sustainable” after the fee caps, which the UK Cards Association reckons has cost banks £750m a year from card transactions.

Private Member’s Bill tabled by Liberal MP Linda Lapointe (Rivière-des-Mille-Îles), backed by the Canadian Convenience Stores Association and the Small Business Council, retail bodies, seeks to grant the federal government the power to cap credit and debit card fees. Such caps exist in many countries around the world but Canada, so far, has declined to take this route. Instead, a five-year voluntary agreement between Visa and MasterCard has been operating for a year, obviating the need for government-imposed regulation.

Walmart has stated that it will stop accepting Visa throughout its 370 Canadian stores, citing the cost to their business of processing credit cards, which they put at $120m (albeit without breaking that figure down by specific companies). Other Canadian retailers likewise bemoan interchange fees as a significant cost of business. As most, if not all, the costs are passed on to the consumer, the issue impacts us all, whether we know it or not.

(Some critics suggest Walmart’s action is aimed more at driving consumers to their own card scheme or soon-to-be-implemented electronic payment system – Walmart Pay – or simply as a bargaining tactic in their negotiations with Visa.)

Diane Brisebois, says fees are “too high for both retailers and consumers” and compares the 1.5% voluntary rate for credit cards in Canada with 0.3% in much of Europe. Any savings from a lower interchange fee will, she predicts, flow back to benefit the consumer through cheaper prices at the tills.

It all sounds good in theory. Possibly too good. The experiences of Europe, Australia and the United States suggest the expectation of immediate and lasting benefit to the consumer through government-imposed regulation is, unfortunately, flawed.

Primarily this is because such thinking fails to acknowledge that interchange is but one small part of the financial ecosystem that links banks, card networks, merchants and consumers. History has shown that fiddling with such a delicate and inter-connected system rarely ends well for the consumer.

The loss of revenue from lower interchange fees is usually paid for by the consumer through higher bank fees elsewhere (and there is evidence this is already starting to happen in Canada) or swallowed up by merchants before it even reaches consumers’ pockets.

A research paper written by PERC, an economic think-tank, says that in the five years after Spain brought in regulations in 2005, consumer organisations there found merchant savings had not been passed on to the public and two billion Euros in additional credit card fees were levied on consumers. There was no evidence from Spain or Australia that pointed to a reduction in price level to reflect the lower merchant fees. Additionally, in a business survey conducted in the United States, 57% of merchants claimed they would not pass on all savings from a lower interchange fee to consumers.

There is further bad news from Down Under. The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) implemented interchange fee regulation in 2003. In a paper submitted to the RBA, CRA International, a commercial services firm, said annual fees for standard cards rose by 22% and similar fees for rewards cards increased by between 47% and 77% from 2001 to 2004. The study found no evidence that the payment system in Australia operated any more efficiently or that consumers derived any net benefit from the regulation imposed by the RBA.

Reducing the financial burden on consumers and business is a laudable aim. But the payment system structure is too complex for the blunt tool of interchange fee regulation to have beneficial effect only. Expensive unintended consequences are usually paid for by the consumer. And as the PERC paper concludes: “it may not be sound public policymaking to simply take on faith…that the results of policy will be beneficial”. And up goes Rosie MacLennan again.

Oil be damned

PROSPEChorsehillcamp-1TORS used to taste the stuff to determine its quality, and the oil tapped on February 16th in the Surrey countryside sounded delicious: light, sweet and less than 1% water. UK Oil & Gas (UKOG), the firm operating the exploratory well at Horse Hill, just north of Gatwick airport, says its first two tankers-worth are already being refined and will be in petrol stations within a fortnight.

The company announced that it had struck oil a year ago, to some scepticism. But its test this week extracted nearly 500 barrels of good-quality crude from a depth of 900m (3,000 feet) in the Lower Kimmeridge limestone zone. The oil flowed to the surface under its own pressure, known in the parlance as a gusher. This is good news for UKOG, as it ought to mean fewer costly, dirty mechanical interventions and no need for unpopular “fracking” (which is legal in Britain only below 1,000m anyway). That, of course, is unlikely to shift the dogged environmental campaigners camped out at the site, who would rather the oil stayed in the ground.

Still, it is one thing to know oil is there and quite another to extract it profitably. As only part of a reserve is usually recovered (the permeability of rock precluding extraction of the rest), prospectors need to be sure there is enough to make the effort pay. And the oil price has been tumbling: Brent crude now trades at just over $30 a barrel, perilously close to the $18-25 range that UKOG says is needed to break even in Britain’s onshore industry.

UKOG is encouraged by analyses by Nutech and Schlumberger, a pair of energy-research firms, that suggest Horse Hill could contain between 9 billion and 11 billion barrels of oil. With the right investment the Weald Basin, the surrounding area to which the company has access, could produce 10-15% of Britain’s daily oil demand in a decade or so, says Stephen Sanderson, UKOG’s boss.

That is a somewhat lower estimate than the company gave last year, and others are more cautious still. “So far, it’s not so much the Gatwick gusher—more the Dorking dribbler,” says Richard Selley, a geologist at Imperial College London. It is notoriously difficult to predict when the natural fractures through which oil flows will close, he warns. Tests lasting many months are required. Mr Sanderson complains that getting permission to drill takes two years in Britain, compared with two months in Texas.

Still, oilmen point to the Wytch Farm field on Dorset’s Jurassic coast as an example of environmentally responsible and profitable extraction. Sited in protected countryside and surrounded by woodland, it is barely known to locals. UKOG hopes that its sites across the Weald Basin will be similarly invisible—and profitable.

This article was commissioned by The Economist