Wednesday, December 30, 2009

How not to pass a law

Lord Can't-Mind-His-Own-Business-For-Just-Five-Bleeding-Minutes Mandelson is back in the headlines, now proposing a "Digital Economy Bill" that, apparently, must be passed right now, not in five months' time after the election, or else Britain will fall apart. Wales will collapse into the Irish Sea, Scotland will declare independence and form a union with Somalia - or worse, France - while London degenerates into a barren wasteland stalked by gangs of feral children preying on the flesh of tourists. I paraphrase slightly, but it's certainly urgent that Mandy gets his way.

And what he wants from Santa is legislation to, among other things, cut off internet users who download stuff they don't have the right to.

Now, as an aim, I have a deal of sympathy with that. Illegal downloaders are a pain in the itinerant. Not only do they score for free all that content that the rest of us are paying good money for, thus upping the price for we poor saps who pay it; they also clog up the Internet while doing it, thus making my (legal) downloads run like a three-legged donkey. Climbing a stairwell.

And Mandy's proposal - ISPs to write warning letters to alleged offenders - is not unreasonable. Crucially, the letters are to be sent at the complainants' expense. That's a positive step, putting the burden of Being Serious in the right place. It gives "rights holders" (gods, how I hate that phrase) a much-needed incentive to think twice before simply spamming everyone whose IP number shows up in a server log.

Now, naturally enough, the ISPs are kicking up a fuss. It's all very well Big Content paying for the letters (they say), but what you're talking about is putting in place technical measures and procedures that are far from simple, and that's going to cost us real money. Being reasonably savvy in the ways of PR, they don't phrase it quite like that; they say it will cost the consumer money. Specifically, about £25 per broadband connection.

Obviously, the ISPs want money. They don't care who it comes from, and they think they see a chance to grab it from the "content providers" rather than directly from their own customers. (Of course the consumer ends up paying it either way. Just through different channels.)

What bothers me here is the lack of honest debate. The "Digital Britain" report was published six months ago, Mandy's legislative proposals one month ago, and he wants them passed into law in less than six months.

That's just silly. The questions involved here are not questions of dark sorcery or byzantine banking practices; they're simple moral questions, which any reasonable person can understand. Given time, you could come to a consensus that people would accept. You don't have to impose it by fiat from above. Democracy could actually work here, if only you gave it the chance.

I've already outlined my reasons for disliking digital freeloaders. Mandy's proposals for dealing with them answer some of the standard civil-liberties complaints. What's left is, to a large extent, whipped up by the two industries - ISPs and content owners - both of whom stake out ridiculous positions in the hope that the inevitable "compromise" is enough to ensure diamond-encrusted pensions to their great-grandchildren. Given time, we could hear some worthwhile points put to them:
ISP: "Why should we spend money to support someone else's business?"
Me: "Because your business benefits directly from theirs. How many fewer broadband subscriptions would you sell, if people couldn't download copyrighted content?"
Copyright Holders: "Too right! These pirates are costing us billions!"
Me: "And you, just stop it. Stop stealing my culture and trying to sell it back to me. Stop trying to resell the same thing over and over. Stop punishing me for buying your product. Stop lying about piracy. Just sell a decent product at a fair price."
But these things take time. Not to come up with the questions - geeks like me have this set just waiting - but to debate them, make the public aware of them, put together some sort of consensus about what is and isn't "fair".

And time is what Mandy won't allow.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Unsilent night

There's a line in Janet Frame's amazing short story Tiger, Tiger about "the dreadful meaning quiet of Christmas Eve".

Long before I ever thought much about New Zealand, I heard that story on the radio and fell in love with it. I must have read it twenty times since then, and to this day I'm still not sure whether I'm supposed to laugh or cry at the end. I usually end up crying, but smiling as well.

(You can find it in The Lagoon and other stories. I think I've bought six copies of that book so far.)

The DMQ of Christmas Eve is a time of waiting. Nothing more is going to happen before the big day. If you're a kid it means you go to bed and, depending on temperament, try to either go to sleep to make the morning come faster, or stay awake to see it early. If you're an adult, it means your deadline is here - all your preparations are made, for better or worse, and there's nothing more you can do before the big day. "Alea jacta est", as Julius Caesar doubtless said the night before Saturnalia.

This is the time - one of the very few times - when I actually like to hear Christmas carols.

Christmas music on the whole is a pain in the ears. When played in shops, malls and other public places it just makes me feel harrassed, like I'm being nagged. (In fact I'm starting to come down against all playing of recorded music in public places, thanks perhaps to my mother's influence. But that's a separate rant.) When played in someone's home at this time of year, it becomes a thoughtless, pointless noise: it makes me think that the person doesn't really care much about music, but just plays it for its associations.

There are three occasions when I'm open to Christmas music.

One is at any Christmas party where there are strangers and colleagues and other people you wouldn't normally mix with from choice. In those cases it's a social lubricant, like alcohol but cheaper.

One is when it's being sung, live, by people - preferably children - with good voices who have put some thought and practice into what they're doing. Carol concerts - lovely. Carol singers performing in public - heartwarming. Decrepit glam rockers performing their own hit from 30 years ago - exhilarating. Any of the above recorded and replayed the next day - soulless and flat.

And the third is in the DMQ of CE. At that point I don't mind being nagged. For a few hours, although I might roll my eyes and mutter darkly about crimes against music, nothing can really dent my calm.

Although I'd rather hear silence.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Mistrust, mistakes and misdirection

Remember Britain's "War Crimes Act"? Passed in 1991, amid a faint public hysteria at the thought that if foreign bad guys took refuge in the UK, we couldn't prosecute them. The headline baddies at the time were aging Nazis who may or may not have been living in Britain for years, but there was always an assumption that the long arm would also scoop up truant Serbs, Russians, Chechens, miscellaneous Africans, and others who might be prone to attract adverse media coverage to their atrocities. Basically, the law allows certain categories of criminals to be tried in British courts if they are foolish enough to come within their reach, even if what they did was legal in their own country, and even if it happened long before the law was passed.

I know, I know. A lot of us said so at the time. But you can't argue with Nuremberg, and that's the precedent. A perfect illustration of hard cases making bad law.

In the news today, that law has come back to bite Britain in the proverbial. Hearing the news that Tzipi Livni, a former Israeli government minister, was due to visit London, some enterprising Palestinian activists went to a magistrate and got a warrant issued for her arrest. Ms Livni promptly cancelled her visit.

(I did always like to dream of doing that to George W Bush, but it was hard to find anything concrete to pin on him. "Starting a war on false pretexts" is not considered a crime nowadays, even though it was in 1945. Plus, he never visited.)

Anyways, the British ambassador in Tel Aviv was hauled before the Israeli foreign minister and given a stern lecture about what would follow if Israeli government officials decided they could no longer visit the UK. Normally these affairs are couched in diplomatic language, but based on the British government's reaction ("This can never ever happen again"), I can only imagine this one was pretty brutal. The Israeli government waxes indignant still. Deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon splutters that the whole thing "makes a mockery of universal jurisdiction".

I've always thought that "universal jurisdiction" was a silly idea. (Something I have in common with Henry Kissinger, apparently.) Although let's not forget it was originally an Israeli idea in the first place.

But never mind the hypocrisy of all parties concerned here. Frankly, between Palestinian terrorists, Israeli politicians and the British foreign office, this looks to me like a perfect opportunity to reintroduce trial by combat. What really bothers me about this story is what the British government is promising to do next.

Foreign secretary David Miliband says: "The procedure by which arrest warrants can be sought and issued without any prior knowledge or advice by a prosecutor is an unusual feature of the system in England and Wales. The Government is looking urgently at ways in which the UK system might be changed in order to avoid this sort of situation arising again."

It's not about making sure Israeli ministers can visit safely. If that was all they wanted, they could just give the woman diplomatic immunity. What Mr Miliband is talking about, here, is establishing political control of an inconveniently-independent judiciary. No warrants to be issued unless a prosecutor - a political appointee - says so.

Now, Britain's law lords are, as a rule, neither stupid nor shy. I don't imagine that they'll fail to see this move and block it, which shouldn't be too hard. My guess is that by the end of the month, the government's proposals will have quietly morphed into amending the War Crimes Act to raise the bar for issuing a warrant (which is clearly what they should have proposed to begin with). But the whole episode is interesting for the light it casts on the thinking of the current crop of politicians: "If it's going wrong, take it over".

Which goes back to the issue of trust.

Delegation demands trust. As long as you trust your underlings, you can give them jobs to do and then let them get on with it. Modern life teaches us to think of "control" as something absolute, fine-tuned, responsive - the kind of control we have over a car, over our phone's ringtones, over our own webpage. But politics is supposed to be more subtle than that. In politics, no matter how powerful you are, you have to let other people make decisions. That's what politics is.

Because they will make those decisions anyway. You can't stop them. You can lead them, but only if you're willing to treat them as "on your side". And that means identifying your interests as, if not identical, then at least aligned with theirs. The skill of politics is to persuade other people that this is, in fact, the case.

But If you treat your underlings as enemies, they will take on the role. What choice do they have?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


"So how does this Christmas thing work then?" Thus Susan to me this morning. Her family has no Christmas traditions of its own, and she's anxious to help make sure it meets my expectations. Bless her.

"Well, you wake up early. Not too early, but it's still dark. Then you check out the sock you hung up at the foot of your bed, you take out the things one by one. There's nothing very exciting in there, usually, but it's Christmas and you're a kid so everything is good. There's no whistle or anything to make that much noise, because my parents aren't complete idiots, but all the same you try to keep it down. But still you're excited, and you might sneak downstairs to look under the tree and see all the presents there and wonder which ones are yours, even though your parents have absolutely forbidden that.

"Other people get up and you start asking about the other presents, but nobody's going to get those until after everyone is washed, dressed and breakfasted, and that takes a long time because your brothers don't have the same sense of urgency as you do. The eldest, in particular, is a lazy bugger who's also as bloody-minded as Jack the Ripper, and you know if you try to speed him up he'll go slower on purpose.

"About the only thing that ever worked was telling him that Christmas dinner was almost ready. But even that only worked once.

"Eventually you're allowed into the living room, you gather round the tree, and your dad sits at the foot of the tree and reaches for the packages, one by one, and throws or slides or passes them to whoever they're addressed to. Sometimes there's a little show of rattling or weighing or sniffing or some other sort of diagnosis, but not much, because your dad mostly wants to get it over with. You unwrap each present as you get it, and some of them are really cool. Your parents remind you to thank people, and then you're left to your own devices to play until dinner."

"You mean lunch."

"It's called dinner. There's a colossal amount of food, I've told you about it all before, it takes two hours or more to get through it and probably two-thirds of the food is left over. Eventually the table gets cleared, the washing up gets done - you have to help with the drying - and your mother gets out her inevitable 1000-piece Christmas jigsaw and starts sorting out the straight-edge pieces, which means the dining table is now occupied for the next two days, but that's okay because it'll be that long before you're hungry again anyway. Until about nine o'clock at night, when it's time for tea and Christmas cake."

I stopped. I'd got quite caught up in my account, but there's something in Susan's eye that expresses roughly equal parts amusement and frustration.

"I should have asked your mother," she sighs.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Digital pollution

So I'm looking in on niq's blog to see if he's had any more replies to his latest whinge, which is about an unabashedly pro-middle-class tax break in the UK, when I happen to notice the "Possibly related posts" that Wordpress has selected for this one. There are two shown: New Jersey Property Taxes Useful Facts, and Tax Advantages of Live/Work Properties.

The second of these titles promises perhaps the dullest article I've ever read, but the first at least has the appeal of being geekily specialist. And besides, useful facts are always useful, nicht wahr? Lacking anything better to do for the next 30 seconds or so, I click on it.

The first sentence is quite promising:
You see, we should be very thankful that we are born in this modern generation because of the existence of the Internet.
Indeed, I thank my parents daily for delaying my conception until a mere quarter-century before the invention of the World Wide Web. How farsighted they were! Tell me more...
With the Internet, every information (whether about new jersey property taxes or any other such as raised, pennsylvania property tax, property tax laws or even business property tax) can be found with ease on the Internet, with great articles like this.
Hmm. Actually, I have to say that my interest in all of those subjects was never very high, and is now evaporating with each letter I read.

What follows is, as far as I can tell from about ten seconds of careful scrutiny, a perfectly serious and deathly dull article that looks as if it's been generated by some kind of automated broken-English script generator.

My curiosity piqued, I click on the latest posting for that blog:
I am sure your quest for bexas county property taxes has come to an end as you read this article.
Too right it has.

It looks for all the world as if some wannabe tax advisor has set up a script to produce post after post of bland, tedious waffle, far too vague to be of any real use to anyone, while giving each one a title that they hope will exactly match someone's Google query. Each post is prefaced with a generic statement of how great the Internet is, presumably in the hope that anyone Googling this sort of thing is predisposed to think that way already. And for some reason, the raw phrases and sentences they're using are written by someone who speaks English only brokenly as a second or third language. And they ran this script for one day last November, generating seven posts for a random selection of states, counties and circumstances across the USA.

I know my posts may not be the best-written or most intelligent materials around, but I like to put a little effort into them. I like to think I am contributing something to... something. But these gits... It's as the elitists and purists said all along: blogs have made it too easy to make noise. You don't even need a human being any more.

Does anyone else feel ever so slightly creeped out at the sight of a machine using the pronoun "I"?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Newsprint wrestling

A few months ago I was excited to pick up, in a secondhand bookshop, a copy of John Henry Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua. I'd long been curious about this book, widely admired in its day (the 1860s) and remembered as a highly accessible work of Victorian theology. When I began to read it, I discovered it was in fact a highly charged polemical shot in a bitterly personal ongoing argument between Cardinal Newman and the progressive, yet orthodox, Anglican clergyman Charles Kingsley.

I know, from personal experience, how one's best work can be provoked in the heat of verbal battle, and then sadly loses its pith, point and relevance when taken out of that context. Newman may have had the wisdom of a poet and a prophet, but today, without the context of Kingsley's snide insinuations, he comes across as a petulant teenager.

For this reason alone, I think, Newman should be required reading for anyone who wants to take part in public life. Moral: don't duel in print.

The New Zealand Herald's leading crusty-old-fogey columnist, Garth George, thought almost as poorly of Don Brash's '2025' task force as I did. Granted his reasons are slightly different from mine - he thought it was ideologically motivated, whereas I, I regret to say, thought it driven by the interests of corruption - but all the same I was pleasantly surprised, on the basis that he probably thinks like a significant constituency of Kiwis, to find myself agreeing with GG for a change.

Today, I was - what's a word that means simultaneously incredulous and amused? - slightly flabbergasted, perhaps - to see Dr Brash taking the time to rebut Garth's attack specifically. This abuse of newsprint is remarkable for its amateurishness. Dr Brash makes no attempt to hide his passive-aggressiveness, his theatrical aggrievement at being so misunderstood, for all the world like a sulky pre-teen:
Mr George also suggests that we recommended abolishing subsidised doctor visits, and implies that we are advocating an American approach to healthcare. This is again utter nonsense. We suggested targeting subsidies for doctor's visits at those who need them, either because they have low incomes or have chronic health problems.
I think I'm not the only one to hear this undertone, because the Herald's subeditor has given the piece a title that perfectly sums up the juvenile level of the debate: "Don Brash to Garth George: You're wrong".

Finally, Brash goes on to admit the central charge of his critics: that he basically cribbed the whole thing from OECD or IMF reports and right-wing 1990s manifestos. Well, that's not quite how he puts it. What he says is:
The recommendations of the 2025 Taskforce are actually totally in line with orthodox thinking in most developed countries, and are almost entirely consistent with the recommendations of the recent OECD report on New Zealand.
In other words, there's not a spark of thought or originality here - his $150,000 report hasn't told us anything we hadn't already been told by other people who mistake us for a wannabe tax haven.

Second memo to Don Brash: This is not an argument that's worth getting into. Arguing in newspaper columns is like mud-wrestling: no matter how well you do, there's no way to come out looking or smelling cleaner than you went in.

It feels odd to be giving this level of unsolicited advice to a supposedly experienced politician and former leader of the opposition. I mean, William Hague may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but even he would never have made himself look quite this dumb.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

No jackboots required

I see the UK is joining the dishonourable roll of countries that fingerprint foreigners on entry. Apparently, this is to confirm that the person entering the country is the same as the person who applied for a visa (or equivalent) to let them in.

If that's the case, then there's no need to store the fingerprints in perpetuity, right? You can just delete the record pretty much immediately after the comparison is made. Also, there's no need to take a full set of prints. One or two fingers should be plenty to tell whether or not someone matches a single, already-known set.

So that's two simple tests to see whether the UK Border Agency is telling the truth here.

Greatly to my surprise, it passes them both:
On arrival in the United Kingdom, trained Officers will scan two fingerprints on an electronic fingerprint reader at border control. In the majority of cases we will use the right hand thumb and first finger.


Passengers will have to provide their fingerprints each time they travel to the United Kingdom [...] Fingerprints will be held for a maximum of 48 hours, after which time they will be destroyed.

So let's hear it for the UK Border Agency, an organisation that may actually be doing its job without unnecessary Stalinism. US DHS, take note.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Bankrupt ideas

The Kiwi dollar dropped slightly last week, and not a minute before time. It seems the financial world is finally starting to notice that our dollar is underpinned by an economy slightly smaller than Kansas, and our high interest rate is not a product of self-confidence, but a bloody liability.

Last week Don Brash, the charisma-less banker turned National politician who in 2005 led his party into its third successive election defeat, released the fruits of the deliberations of a "taskforce" he has chaired on how to catch up with Australia.

(Excuse me: "catch up with Australia"? Why would we want to do that? Given that we have a common labour market, when Kiwis envy the Oz way of life, there's nothing to stop them from moving there. And vice versa. Take away the difference between the countries, and that choice would be meaningless. Seriously, does Kansas spend its time producing reports on how it could "catch up" with, say, Illinois?)

But anyway. It's an article of faith for Mr Brash that the one thing we all want is more money in our pockets, and we will do or support anything to further that goal.

And his prescription for achieving it is all too depressingly familiar.

First, he says, we need to cut the top tax rate. Yeah, like every right-wing politician since Attilla the Hun has promised, just before they funnelled all the cash that should be going to the exchequer into their own pockets. Speaking as a top-rate taxpayer, personally I think it should be higher. 39% is not particularly rapacious by international standards. (It's lower than Australia, for one...)

Second, he wants congestion charging to pay for new roads. As a way of improving the budget, congestion charging remains one of the dumbest ideas ever. Petrol tax is cheap to collect, hard to evade, creates a broader tax base, and encourages exactly what we want to encourage (less pollution). The only downside is that it doesn't create the same scope for outright corruption and government patronage of private contractors...

Third, and my personal favourite, "to remove the temptation for future politicians to use the superannuation fund for political purposes", we should just do it now. Steal the whole bloody thing and use it to reduce taxes, i.e. to increase the amount of money going straight into Mr Brash's own pockets.

Memo to Don Brash: This is why you lost. Most Kiwis don't want their country to be a tax haven for obscenely rich Australians. They'd prefer not to see people, even strangers, starving in the streets. If that means we live slower and have less fancy toys than Australia, that's fine.

And if you don't like it, move to Oz. We won't miss you.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Trust me, I'm a blogger

Apparently, the pope doesn't approve of the Twilight series of books and movies. The Vatican feels it's morally unhealthy for millions of teenage girls to be lusting after soulless monsters.

The only person I know who's seen the latest movie agrees that His Holiness has a point. Vampires have always had erotic undertones, from Dracula to Buffy, but at least they had the decency to remain undertones and subplots in an Epic Tale of Heroic Resistance to Ancient Supernatural Evil. Whereas Twilight, from what I hear, has abandoned most everything but the sex.

Of course, vanishingly few teenage girls are likely to care what some decrepit crossdresser thinks of their favourite soft-porn fix. The pope still carries some influence, but not as much as he'd probably like. Which brings me to today's ramble.

There was a report on Slashdot the other day of a survey that said that more than one-third of employees surveyed (in Canary Wharf and Wall Street) would sell confidential customer data, if the price was right. Of course the penalties for that sort of thing are pretty stiff, and it's unlikely they'd ever be offered enough to offset those. But it's still preying on my mind.

It seems to me that there's been a sharp drop in trust. And with trust goes loyalty.

It's not so much that, once, we would have "trusted" bankers to be honest. Really we had no choice. Bankers - like butchers, bakers, priests, auto mechanics, lawyers, computer programmers, farmers, manufacturers of everything from airliners to zip fasteners - most everyone, in fact - did their work, or at least the important bits of it, behind firmly closed, opaque and soundproof doors. Even journalists, those apostles of openness and transparency, kept their own work to themselves.

Now all that has changed.

Take itemised billing. We got into the habit of checking our bills. And occasionally there would be a mistake - not often, but it seemed often enough to make it worth the trouble. Banks and credit cards led the way, followed by phone companies, shops, restaurants, professional services, hotels... slowly but surely, we reached the point where nobody just says "That'll be four hundred and seventeen dollars thirty-two, please" any more. We get itemised bills... and we're expected, nay, actively encouraged to check them.

The Internet has spread this 'doublecheck' attitude to all walks of life. Now you're considered a chump if you believe a news report, without cross-checking. You're supposed to check prices before shopping for anything that costs more than groceries. Check reviews of consumer goods, movies, hotels. Follow every link. What we get then is a barrel of conflicting reports. And none of them is authoritative, because what we've done now is to reject the very idea of authority. We don't trust anyone to tell us "the truth".

All of which is just the way we thought we wanted it. We're all economically rational beings in pursuit of the perfect information that will enable us to make the optimum decisions about how to use our resources. We're all smart enough to make our own decisions - aren't we?

But now we don't expect the truth, most people have given up even the pretence. Politicians and corporations openly talk about "spinning". Journalists increasingly disclaim responsibility for the truth of what they say. With the notable exception of FOX News, most media make some effort or pretence to tell "the truth" - but the best they ever manage, the best they can ever manage, is what we've learned to call "spin": a single view of "the truth", which may make perfect sense within itself, yet still look entirely different when seen from a different angle.

And so the "perfect information" that, economic theory says, we need to make our decisions, is more elusive than ever. The people qualified to make decisions are the ones who not only have, but also understand, all this information. Authority figures. The very people whose advice we no longer trust.

Even this could work, in theory. Instead of letting the professionals get on with their work, we watch them with the intensity of a child watching an ice-cream cone being filled. Unfortunately, also like the child, we have only a very superficial understanding of what the cone is being filled with. This doesn't matter to the child, because she trusts the ice-cream vendor...

What really screws us up is, as always, human nature. When someone says to you "I don't trust you, I'll be watching your every move", what's your natural reaction? Do you think of the person as a friend, one of us, someone you want to help? Or is there a part of you that starts to think: how much can I get away with, can they really tell what I'm doing anyway, damn' know-it-all prodnose...

When you treat someone as your enemy, over time, they'll start to think of themselves that way.

And yet it seems that, increasingly, that's the expectation for how we should treat one another. Employers monitor their employees' activities; and worse, that's increasingly seen as "reasonable". School-age children are told to include references and citations in their work - an undreamt-of requirement in my day, until I reached university. Parents are supposed to monitor their kids, not just outdoors, but increasingly in school, on the bus, on the Internet, you name it. In the UK now, you need to be registered on a central database if you want to work anywhere near children. In the USA, I'm told, you need to show photo ID to enter a government building.

I was listening to a BBC podcast recently, which talked about the policing of political demonstrations. Protesters complained about the practice of "kettling" - corralling people in a limited area and not letting them leave for a certain time - a practice that, not infrequently, scoops up and seriously inconveniences innocent passers-by. Then there's the practice of police systematically photographing demonstrators (try to photograph a cop, on the other hand, and you stand a good chance of being arrested on the spot).

The police superintendent wheeled out to defend the Met talked about the "small minority" of "troublemakers", whom, apparently, the police can't distinguish from the eternal "law-abiding majority". And so, he concluded, the fuzz have no choice but to treat everyone as a potential terrorist.

That officer, I thought, was missing the point in the same way I've been talking about here. By casting "police" as "us" and "protesters" as "them", the police have made their job a hundred times harder. Police are supposed to see all law-abiding people as "us"; only criminals are "them". If they didn't treat every protester as a criminal - an enemy - then maybe the protesters themselves would be more inclined to help the cops do their job.

Mistrust leads to resentment. Resentment leads to hostility. Hostility leads to enmity. The pursuit of economic rationality has led us into a deeply dysfunctional world, one in which everyone really is our enemy.

Somehow, we need to rebuild trust.

A good starting point might be to rethink what we mean by "trust".

If someone lies to us, and we know they're lying to us, does that mean we shouldn't trust them?
"What are you thinking about?"

"Oh, nothing."
There are times we choose to accept the lie, knowning full well what it is, because we trust the liar.

Catholics are familiar with this concept. They've long since accepted that the fairy-tales told in the Bible are not "true" in the strict sense of being literal descriptions of actual events as they happened. But that doesn't matter. What actually happened to a bunch of ancient Jews is not important to us, now, today: what matters is how we live our lives and bear ourselves to God, and the stories in the Bible (they believe) are the best guide to how we should do that. "Truth" is immaterial - only "faith" matters. That's what our sceptical age has forgotten.

Friday, November 20, 2009

And ye shall hear of protests, and rumours of protests...

This Saturday sees the "March for Democracy" in Queen Street.

New Zealand has a functioning democracy. It's just been rated the least corrupt country in the world, nudging Denmark into second place. But mere democracy will never be enough for some people. The MfD, while denying that it's a single-issue pressure group, is basically concerned with repealing the "anti-smacking" law.

If only they had the honesty to admit that, I'd have no problem with them. But instead they have to make it an issue of "democracy". Seriously, grow up already.

Unfortunately, I'll be disturbingly close to the MfD idiots tomorrow. We're off to Waiheke to celebrate our wedding anniversary, and that means getting a lot closer to Queen Street than I'd like, when those unsavoury types are loose. If anyone takes me for a marcher, I'll be really very upset indeed...

In disturbingly related news, I read today that a majority of those US voters who identified themselves as Republicans, believe that Obama didn't win the presidency fairly. (I wonder how that compares with Democrats' beliefs about Bush in 2000?)

On the same day, self-styled Conservative performance artist candidate Doug Hoffman retracted his retraction of his retraction of his concession in the ludicrous NY-23 race. (That means, for those of you who can't be bothered to figure it out, that he is - for the second time - challenging the result and demanding that "every ballot be counted". He is demanding that the election not be "stolen". Apparently, he considers some other election recently, which he doesn't name explicitly, was stolen...)

That makes three stories in one day pointing to a breakdown of faith in the democratic process: one homegrown, two USAlien. All it needs is for a survey in the UK to report that most people don't believe that voting can make a difference any more - not that unlikely, I'd think, on recent trends - and we'd have a full set.

Does this mean there's something wrong with democracy? Well, obviously there is, plenty, but is the present spate anything unusual?

I'm inclined to think not. There have always been plenty of people who are upset about losing. Until they actually go out and buy guns and try to change the government the old-fashioned way, I'm going to take the bright view and say that democracy is still working. For now.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Deep Thought, shallow mind

IBM announces a computer that simulates a cat's brain.

Well, not quite. What it says it's actually built is a neural network with as many neurons as a cat's cerebral cortex. That's quite a long way short of a cat's whole brain. And it works at least a hundred times slower than the real thing. And it takes truly ridiculous amounts of computing power and memory to do it - if you could somehow chain together every computer I've ever seen in my life, including various super-computers in my journalistic career, they wouldn't even be fit to read its keyboard.

The thing must play a mean game of chess.

Why a cat? Because neurologists have been playing with cats' brains for a very long time. I still remember reading an account in Scientific American of dream research on cats, over 30 years ago, and they've remained a popular experimental subject ever since. Maybe because they're so like humans - egotistical, arrogant and lazy. Anyway, the feline brain is extremely well mapped territory.

And of course it lends itself to all the obvious jokes about lasagne and mice and sleeping and walking on keyboards...

Which brings me to my point. (Yes, I've got one.)

If you build a brain without a body to put it in - what is it going to think about?

I don't know about you, but when I wake up in the morning the very first thing I think about is generally "does it feel like I've had enough hours asleep?" - if not, I'll start looking for clues (like light and noise levels) that might indicate that it's not, in fact, morning. If it's still night, I'll try to eliminate whatever discomfort caused me to wake up and then get back to sleep. If it is morning, then I'll try to make myself as comfortable as possible while I open curtains, drink tea, dress, breakfast, etc., etc...

Basically, the driving motivation of my thoughts at this point is my bodily comfort.

And that remains true for a lot of the day. My body needs things to eat, clothes to wear, a roof over its head and a chair under its bum, all of which it will go to considerable trouble to optimise. It contains, within it, the desires for chocolate, alcohol, sex, coffee, toilet paper and other good things. Take all those desires away, and what exactly would be left?

"This intellectual being/These thoughts that wander through eternity", as Milton puts it. But would those even exist, if it weren't for the deeper physical needs that give rise to them? Even the sense of boredom is caused by physical constraints - the physical inability to do what you want to, when you want to do it. In science fiction, the archetypal Brain In A Jar is usually obsessed with the simple goal of acquiring a body for itself. (Or - which is the same thing - the delusion that it already has one.)

But if it had no concept of what a body was, then what exactly would it think about?

If anyone from IBM is reading this, maybe they can answer me.

Monday, November 16, 2009


I never used to worry about cows. Even when, aged twelve or so, I was charged - rather half-heartedly, it must be admitted - by a bull, I was more amused than scared. But now they're preying on my mind. Maybe it's my conscience, reminding me of all the steaks I've eaten and the leather shoes I'm wearing.

Or maybe the cows are getting more dangerous.

I've spent the past week driving my dear sainted grey-haired old mother about the island. It's her first visit to New Zealand, and I wanted to show her as much as possible of what I love about this country. Her admiration for the scenery is perfectly satisfying; she goes into unsolicited raptures about the trees; she enjoys the geology and the flowers.

But the cows worry her. There are too many of them, she insists. Not in absolute numbers, but each field that contains them, contains too many of them for the size of field.

You might say they're overcowded. But let's not.

Admittedly she's not a farmer, but she has lived a large part of her life in the country. She knows what a field full of cows is supposed to look like. And it may be just the power of suggestion, but I think she's right...

On Sunday, as we drove from Coromandel to Whitianga, I was privileged to see one of these bovines relieving its bladder. It was a horrific sight: not to mince words, it looked as if this particular cow had been bred more for firefighting than milking. Suddenly I became aware that I'd had a lot of coffee for breakfast, and my own bladder would be needing relief before I was much older. Which was vexing, as we were not, so to speak, conveniently located.

For the next half hour, I tried to take my mind off the spectacle. As we drove through the rolling agricultural pastures of the Coromandel peninsula, I tried not to think about cows. As we stopped at the beach, I studiously ignored the waves gently lapping the shore twenty metres from my left ear. A house across the road had what looked like an outhouse. On these occasions, one can't help looking at these things a little more speculatively than one has any strict right to.

Sometimes the scenery just won't give you a break.

By the time we reached the sanctuary of Whitianga and a civilised cafe, I was wondering: how hard can it be to drive with one's legs crossed?

But now Deadlyjelly's report has my mind going in an even more sinister direction. What if the cows themselves sense that they are being packed too tightly? What if it's affecting their (and you'll have to pardon me here, contact with my immediate family often has this effect on me) mood? What if modern farming is turning these legendarily placid animals into barely-containable barrels of raw bovine vengeance?

What if New Zealand is heading for its own Orwellian nightmare? The irony would be rich indeed.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Blood money

There's one of those sad stories on Slashdot, today, illustrating the real purpose of the Iraq war...

It points to a New York Times story about how the Iraqi army is using, basically, divining rods to detect explosives at checkpoints. There's a predictable slew of comments attacking unscientific methods in general and dowsing in particular, uncited studies supposedly debunking unverifiable anecdotes, all of it illustrating the boundless arrogance of random people on the Internet. But what really strikes me is the price of these divining rods.

Apparently, the Iraqis buy them for anything between US$16,500 to US$60,000.

That's a lot of money for a stick.

And they bought them - 1500 of them, so far - from a British company. That is to say, from one of the occupying powers.

I don't know how much Britain has spent on the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Billions, I presume. So it's nice that they've got $50 million or so back like this. Except, of course, that the money came from the taxpayers, but the return is going into the pockets of private investors. In other words, it's yet another redistribution of cash from (everyone) to a very select group of people.

It'd be vastly more efficient, to say nothing of costing many fewer lives, simply to let them dip their hands in the till directly. Looked at in that light, the "MPs' expenses" business looks positively enlightened.

Personally, if someone offers me a dowsing-based bomb-detection system, I'm perfectly willing to listen. If they put on a good demo, I'll even set up some tests of my own. But I also have this belief, which I can't quite shake, in the concept of a "fair price" - something that is at least vaguely related to the cost of production. Don't tell me that price was set in a free market.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

In which I tell journalists their business

I buy at least one newspaper a week. Every Thursday, the New Zealand Herald publishes a simple, easy-to-follow and mostly accurate seven-day TV guide; buying that issue relieves me of the need to buy TV Guide, with its irritating layout and pages of guff about soap stars and other people I don't ever want to know about. (The Herald's own pages of that guff are an order of magnitude less irritating.)

Some weeks I also buy The Economist. It gives me something to read in the bath. And it makes me feel as if I'm still part of the world, not completely cut off on this tiny island a thousand miles from anywhere. So that's two newspapers some weeks. Let's say an average of six per month.

On top of that, there's a couple of freebies that get dropped in my letterbox: a council newsletter of no interest (it doesn't cover anything controversial, and I haven't taken an interest in any of what it does cover), and the Howick & Pakuranga Times, a very local sheet that covers school sports, amateur dramatics, road changes and the like.

The latter is really pretty good. I read more of it than I do of the Herald, for reasons I'll come to presently.

All this dead-tree consumption probably puts me ahead of most people, nowadays. I've been hearing a lot about how newspaper circulations have dropped off a cliff. Ad revenues have dropped, and big-name players are in trouble. Back in June Richard Posner, a highly regarded US blogger on things legal, made this the basis of an argument for stronger copyright for online newspapers. Unless online newspapers are able to charge for content (Posner argued), they'd all end up out of business.

Naturally I rolled my eyes and started to dream up reasons why such a change either wouldn't or shouldn't work. But it's only more recently that I've discovered a clearer and more objective flaw in Posner's reasoning: his premise is just plain false. Not all newspapers are in trouble.

The Economist, for one, goes from strength to strength. So does the Wall Street Journal. The Financial Times has compensated for circulation falling in its home market by expanding its international subscriptions.

Apparently it's not such a bad time to be a journalist, if you're a business journalist. And that's an important clue to what's really going on in the news business.

To be sure, the Internet has changed the news-publishing game by making practically all published news available for free. Why (the conventional wisdom runs) would people buy the New Zealand Herald when they can read the whole thing online?

But conventional wisdom is severely underestimating the problem. Not only can I read the Herald online - all of it - I can also read the Guardian, Telegraph, Independent, or the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Jerusalem Post or Cape Times. Every English-language newspaper is now available in every English-language market. That's a lot of competition.

There are still things the Herald does better. (NZ TV programmes, for instance.) But those things probably aren't enough, in truth, to justify publishing and distributing a whole broadsheet paper every day.

Newspapers need to understand, not only what it is that they can deliver 'better' than anyone else, but also who their target audience is. Historically, that was clearly defined by their circulation areas, which in turn were dictated by the logistics of printing copies and distributing them to readers. Now, that's no longer the case. The Herald's target readership should include not just the northern part of New Zealand's north island, but every English-speaking person in the world who, for whatever reason, wants to know what's going on in New Zealand.

The Economist understands this. Anyone with a reasonable education in anything can pick up an issue and read it, without feeling that they're missing out on vast swathes of vital background knowledge. Try that with - ooh, any other paper you don't read regularly - there are plenty of links above. The press's central problem isn't with protecting their content, but simply with a massive global overcapacity in their business.

And that's where Posner's idea comes from. From an economic perspective, it makes sense to address that overcapacity by wider syndication of content - which would, indeed, require simpler and better ways to control unauthorised copying. Posner's problem is that he only sees a tiny part of the overall issue, and offers no way to address the rest of it. His proposal makes sense if, and only if, you trust that the big players in the market will deal fairly and honestly not only with each other, but also with every small-timer and two-bit blogger.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Fruit and nuts

Priests and prophets have never got along.

Ever since Moses came down from the mountain to find Aaron cavorting in front of an ornate bookend, every prophet has made it his business to condemn the priests of his own time. And the priests have returned the favour. A prophet is basically a heretic with a following.

Since Christ's day, the term "prophet" has been out of favour in Christendom. Instead we've had various kinds of "reformers", many of whom have also been condemned by the church of their day. The rules are reasonably clear. You can have all the private communion you want with God, but your preaching and argument has to be grounded firmly and solely in scripture. Those who want to give their personal revelations a comparable status, generally have to split completely from mainstream Christianity. (Like Islam, or Mormonism.)

Sometimes it can be hard to tell, at a glance, on which side of the dividing line a given Holy Figure stands.

Brian Tamaki - or Bishop Brian Tamaki, as he calls himself - is the founder and leader of the ominously-named Destiny Church. It's a vaguely Pentecostal organisation, with branches in New Zealand and Australia. Tamaki preaches a type of prosperity theology, and accordingly lives the high life as a demonstration of his own righteousness.

Yesterday, he was in the news for conducting a ceremony in which 700 "spiritual sons" swore personal fealty to him and subscribed to a 1300-word manifesto specifying how they must conduct themselves towards him at all times.

Now, some people have been calling Destiny a cult for some time. Yesterday the Herald sat on the fence: the ludicrous Garth George broke out the c-word, but the more measured journalists and editorial writers refrained from comment. TV3 did a fine hatchet-job. Today, Destiny is complaining that TV3's anonymous commentator "misrepresented" the church.

I heard part of that report (I was cooking at the time), and it strikes me that the things TV3 is accused of misrepresenting pale in comparison to what I heard Tamaki saying in his own words.

Tamaki claims equivalence to respectable religions ("If we are a cult then the Catholics, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Baptists and the Pentecostals are all cults as well").

And I'm disappointed to see that a surprising number of supposedly intelligent atheists are willing to let him get away with that. Editing the Herald, for instance, points out that it's not in the business of criticising random nutcases (fair enough), but then goes on to grant Tamaki the equivalence he craves: "The old saying goes that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. A similar sort of thing could be said about religion: a 'valid church' is a cult with fancy robes and the favour of journalists." The lunatic-Libertarian Not PC makes the same mistake: "He's not doing anything that hasn’t been done before by other religious leaders".

Now, that's a line that could only have been written by someone who not only has no understanding of religion, but also doesn't really believe that there is anything to understand. I guess it just goes to show how un-seriously religion is taken nowadays.

Because what Tamaki claims goes far, far beyond what any of those religions claims:
"What [God] loves, I love. He loves people, he hates the world. I hate the world."
Look at that claim for a moment.

There is no wiggle-room there. No interpretation, no reference to a primary source. It's a direct, unarguable claim to know the mind of God. Even the much-mocked Doctrine of Papal Infallibility doesn't give that kind of authority to any one person.

Catholics and Presbyterians and Methodists and Baptists and Pentecostalists - all claim to communicate with God, but none identify with Him. That claim - private revelation that trumps anything you know or think you know about God - puts Tamaki beyond priesthood and firmly into the "prophet" category.

Couple that with people swearing personal loyalty to him - not to the office of the bishop, but to Brian Tamaki personally - and I'd say the difference between "church" and "cult", in this case at least, is pretty clear-cut.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


It's true that the Internet is killing imagination. Consider this question, posted to WikiAnswers 26 seconds ago: "Who lived at the same time as michelangelo?"

Who indeed? Tens of millions of people. If I, aged ten or so, had wanted to know that, I'd have asked my dad - and received a lengthy lecture on how to frame a meaningful question. (Of course I didn't understand the lectures, but they lodged in my brain for later.) Then I'd have asked a bunch of other people, getting answers of varying degrees of relevance and truth, until my mind would brew up some magical version of the Renaissance in which, very likely, the Pope was locking his daughter in a tower while he led crusades, and Dracula haunted the caves of southern Italy.

But now you just post it on the Internet and wait for an answer. What use is that?

Well, it's not the first thing to kill imagination. Video games did it; TV did it; movies did it; photos did it, and printing. Five thousand years ago, I don't doubt one Egyptian storyteller complained to another "Mark my words, this writing business is going to be the end of us."

But sometimes real information can be inspiring.

Yesterday was Labour Day in New Zealand. I had thought it was merely a contender for Most Ironically Named Holiday (although we both worked damn' hard yesterday). But looking it up online, I learned about a great New Zealander I'd never heard of.

Samuel Parnell was a carpenter from London who came to New Zealand in 1840, where he encountered a shipping agent who wanted a store built in (what is now) Wellington. Parnell agreed, on condition that he would only work eight hours a day. Eight hours of work, eight for sleep, and "the remaining eight for recreation and in which for men to do what little things they want for themselves". The agent protested, but Parnell stuck to his terms, and because carpenters were scarce he got his way.

In his spare time from that day onwards, Parnell made it his business to greet new migrants arriving and tell them about the eight-hour-day rule. He lived prosperously for another 50 years, and died a national hero.

Parnell was not a typical working-class hero. He was the son of a gentleman. The fact that he was apprenticed to a trade suggests that his family was struggling, economically - but the young Samuel was raised with the secret, middle-class knowledge that leisure is a wonderful thing. More importantly, he had an instinctive grasp of economics. He knew that you don't create value by the hours you work, but by the output you produce. That's what people will pay you for, and the amount they'll pay depends only on how badly they want it and how hard it is to get. The amount of work involved doesn't enter into it.

Workers of the world, take note.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Collaborationist philosophy

Apparently, men who voted for the losing side in an election experience a sharp drop in testosterone when the result is announced.

At least, this was the case for the last US presidential election. Among certain experimental subjects, who knew they were being monitored while they watched the whole thing. To what extent that finding can be generalised to all men watching all elections remains a mystery for future research grants.

There's a very plausible animal-behaviour theory that says: when you've just lost a pissing match, it's a good time to sit quietly and reflectively and not make any aggressive moves, lest the winners feel motivated to make an example of you. But that only accounts for half the story. How does that concept translate into a non-violent contest involving proxy champions a thousand miles away? Is it different if you're sitting quietly at home and not being monitored? Is the effect more or less marked in younger or older voters? Would it still work if they didn't hear the result at once, but some hours after the event? Would Democratic voters have been similarly affected if Obama had lost?

Most of all: are they taking the whole thing just a leetle too personally?

The president - allegedly - is the leader of the whole country, not just those who voted for him. To see one candidate's victory as a defeat suggests that your identity as an American is taking a back seat to your identity as a Republican. I know modern democratic (small-d) politics encourages this sort of tribalism, but why do we play along?

Perhaps our countries would all do better if we all took a more measured approach to politics. Whoever is in government, it is probably not a good idea to oppose them automatically in everything they do. I know you think that by making their job more difficult, you're hampering their ability to fulfil their promises and win the next election; but you're also making your own country a nastier place.

It's like pissing in your own soup to spite the cook.

By all means argue against your government when it's doing the wrong thing. But make the arguments measured and focused. Ranting and railing is very satisfying, but all it does is inspire your opponents to dig deeper into their entrenched position. If you really want to change their minds, you need to persuade them that you're on the same side.

Speaking for myself: I'd rather have a government led by a party I dislike, but can influence, than one led by a party I like, but that only listens to its own trusted apparatchiks.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


The New York Times announces it's laying off 100 newsroom staff. Oh well, at least it's still healthier than The Observer.

Our own New Zealand Herald shows what happens when a newspaper thinks that cutting its newsroom staff is a sensible answer to falling circulation. Basically, the less news-writing resource the paper has, the more news gets written by those who are willing to put money into it. Namely, those who stand to make money out of manipulating public opinion.

It's most obvious in political coverage, both here and in the US. Reporters no longer make any effort to cover politics: they simply reprint, largely unchecked, the stories fed to them by professional spin doctors. (I know how that works. I've edited a magazine myself.) In the US now, "political reporting" means getting two insane people to shout at each other for three minutes, while a nominal moderator makes token efforts to drag them back on-topic. The ghost of Joseph Pulitzer forbid that they might say something that could be interpreted as critical of the talking heads. That would be "expressing an opinion".

(And that, dear Americans, is why Fox News is wiping the floor with the older networks, and why your best current-affairs programme comes from Comedy Central. Those journalists are not only allowed, they're actively encouraged, to take up a position of their own.)

In the UK, the BBC has been a layer of insulation against this effect. But even the Beeb has spread its abundant resources too thin, in pursuit of the chimerical 24-hour news cycle. And now it's under direct attack, by the likes of Murdoch Jr and his minions in the Tory party. "It is essential for the future of independent digital journalism", bleats James Murdoch, "that a fair price can be charged for news to people who value it."

Newsflash, Mr Murdoch: nobody pays for "independent digital journalism". There are some things you just can't pay for, even if you want to. If journalism is to be independent, it has to be free in both senses of the word.

Let's try to formulate a pithy observation here:
Professionals do what they're paid to do.
Okay, that seems a little... oblique. But it's actually at the heart of the problem. Let's try a corollary:
Professionals hate to work when they're not being paid.
Still not clear? Okay, try this:
A true professional will do the bare minimum amount of work required to get paid.
Really, that's implicit in the word "professional". If we want people to do better, that's the word we have to focus on.

Already, it's obvious that bloggers do a far better job than "professional" journalists of covering many stories, because they're keen. Therefore, they don't stop working the moment they've got "enough" for today.

Sadly, there's no way of getting an actual news feed from blogs, because blogs simply don't try to cover all news. If they did that they'd be newspapers, employing professional staff paid to do things they weren't particularly interested in, and we'd be back to square one.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The price of liberty is - everything

Of all the sad things about the Internet, the fourth most depressing, I've decided, is the rise of "libertarianism".

This, for those of you lucky enough to have missed it, is a political idea whose conditions seem to be ripe - though not as ripe as its conclusions, which are higher than a skunk's latrine. During the Cold War it seemed just plain silly; before the Internet it was written off as an adolescent phase one grows out of, much like Leninism; before the economic crisis it seemed to be addressing an abstract, tedious problem that few people cared about. But now it's gaining traction.

It's sad, really. "Libertarianism" started out as an extreme left-wing idea, aimed at freeing people from the shackles of arbitrary authority. Now, it's been adopted gleefully by those whose main concern is to preserve their own privileges. For that, I mostly blame Ayn Rand - the woman who made a career out of her personal bitterness that the Russian Revolution had robbed her of the wealth and privilege that, she was raised to believe, were hers by right. Rand took a deeply held personal belief - that there could be no possible justification for strangers to have taken her toys away - and turned it into what's euphemistically called the "philosophy" of Objectivism.

Now, in a reasoned debate with any real political philosopher, Rand wouldn't have lasted five minutes. In her lifetime she was, rightly, ignored by everyone. Her ideas simply don't take account of - well, pretty much anything outside her own head.

But on the Internet, that's no longer a problem. Online, it's not hard to find a clique of true believers for absolutely anything. St Patricks' Day is a global conspiracy to promote the colour green? Barack Obama is the direct male heir of Genghis Khan? The Rapture actually happened in 2002, and now we're living through the End Times? There is no belief so bizarre that some idiots won't support it.

Better yet, those who don't support you - no matter how numerous - can simply be ignored. And so you can live in a beautiful dream bubble in which yours is the mainstream opinion, and you never have to defend it. It's a curious paradox, that free speech has delivered us to exactly the opposite of the situation that John Stuart Mill, with his sunny Victorian logic, hoped for: where every idea goes unchallenged, and nobody ever needs to change their mind.

And people see these sites, and there will always be a small number of those people who imagine that there must be something to them.

Take this drivel, for example. These morons seem to think that there are people who oppose exploiting the Earth. (Of course there are such people, by the same no-niche-left-unfilled principle I've just been describing. But to characterise this belief - that we need to exploit the Earth - as a courageous, individualistic stand against repressive conformism, makes about as much sense as handing out leaflets proclaiming "The sky is UP! Don't let THEM deny it!")

The Exploit-the-Earth loons remind me of the philosophy of Franz Fanon, who held that violence has a liberating effect. To make oneself free, one must break taboos; and the greatest of these is violence, especially murder. How do you show your defiance for the eco-nazis who would subjugate human life to the interests of trees and squirrels? Set fire to a tree today!

We are free, within the law, to destroy what we own. You can, if you like, buy a field, then salt the earth with chemicals so nasty that nothing will grow there and no builder will ever want to build on it. It's your property - if you want to destroy it utterly, the libertarians would say, that's nobody's business but your own.

But does that make it right?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"Do cats have nose hair?"

There's a truly weird site that you've probably seen, if you've Googled a lot of random trivia, but I for one have seldom dwelt on. It's called "WikiAnswers". The idea is that you can log on and type in any question you like, and take a chance that some random J Bloggs, somewhere on the Internet, will take the time to answer it just for the sheer joy of showing off their knowledge.

Or maybe that they'll make up something entertaining enough to be worth sharing with your friends.

It's amazingly popular. In a random 60 second period this afternoon, 20 new questions got posted:
  • What is the name of the group made from former klymaxx members?
  • Bobs discount furniture?
  • Do apples brown faster in the fridge or on the counter?
  • How are the functions of connective tissues reflected in its structure?
  • What is the gvwr of a 1981 toyota 2wd pickup?
  • What is broken down by cells to produce energy?
  • In ancient china what did they use money for?
  • Where is the high speed relay located on a 1983 chevy el camino?
  • Is Nomex windproof?
  • Outline the role of condensation and hydrolysis?
  • What was the significance of the fall of fort sumter?
  • How many syllables has the word house how many syllables has the wordcurtain?
  • Ancient method to predict the future?
  • Do cats have nose hair?
  • What are the areas that border mexico?
  • California's largest county?
  • I had sex 3 days in a row alot of times he finished each time my period came the next day its a week early could you still get pregnant?
  • Full faith in credit clause example?
  • Is there a scary movie 5 comming out soon?
  • Why are the dim lights on a is300 blue but the bright lights and running lights are white Can i make them all blue?
Fairly obviously, about half of these are from schoolkids trying to get their homework done for them. (I do hope their teachers look in from time to time. In fact, if I were a teacher, I think I'd post the question here myself before setting it to the kids.) One is a frightening testament to the quality of sex education. Some seem to suggest that the questioner has never heard of Google (which would tell you, without waiting, that California's largest county is San Bernardino, and Scary Movie 5 is scheduled to appear in 2011).

Or maybe they're just craving acknowledgment and validation, the (extremely indirect) human contact of some faceless, random stranger picking out and taking the time to answer their question.

So if you happen to know the answer to any of these, feel free to head over and show off. Make someone's day. But no-one will thank you.

Back-of-the-envelope economics

It's almost like being back home. In the 80s. Auckland is in the eighth day of a paralysing bus strike.

Well, "paralysing" might be overstating things a tad. Most people drive themselves anyway. I, swelling with ecological smugness, walk to work. Only an unlucky minority, such as Susan, are really affected.

It's also not a strike. What happened was that 875 drivers and cleaners, wanting better pay, notified their employer that they would work to rule; and their employer, NZ Bus, responded by locking them out.

To me that makes the whole issue cut and dried. Working to rule is about the mildest form of industrial action it's possible to take; if I had my way, it should be the norm for everyone everywhere. Any company that feels threatened by a work-to-rule - is exploiting its employees. To retaliate with a full lockout, completely shutting down your services for over a week - that's a huge escalation.

And most people seem to agree. The (Auckland-based) New Zealand Herald has been squarely behind the drivers. Even Auckland's city government, such as it is, has mostly aligned itself the same way, threatening to cut off $58 million in subsidies to NZ Bus unless it gets back to delivering the services it's supposed to.

Now, we're told NZ Bus normally carries approximately 80,000 passengers per day. Since Susan is one of them, I happen to know that a standard, full-price season ticket costs around $110 a month. Allowing for concessions, let's say the average passenger pays about half that much. That's a monthly income of $4.4 million from fares. Add $58 million in subsidies from the city, and we're talking about an annual income (not counting advertising) in the ballpark of $110 million.

There are 875 drivers and cleaners - let's guess that there are 400 actual buses, each costing (let's say) $25,000 per year in tax, maintenance and depreciation - that's $10 million. Fuel - maybe as much again. That leaves $90 million to pay for advertising (minimal - mostly done by the city anyway), premises, wages, parking and other running costs and overheads. Let's say 40% of that should be going to the people who actually do the work - $36 million between 875 people comes to just over $40,000 per year, or (assuming a 40-hour week) about $20 per hour.

But NZ Bus pays its drivers $14-16 per hour. Susan tells me that other bus companies are significantly more generous. (Although how she knows this, I don't know. All I know is that they're not having these problems, at least not at the moment.) Which suggests my calculations aren't too far out.

It's enough to make me want to start my own bus company. If only I knew where I could lay my hands on 400 buses and a bunch of spare subsidies...

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Translation and transformation

It's official: Jesus was a godless commie.

The Conservative Bible Project aims to "retranslate" the Bible in "conservative" terms and language. (I can't help thinking that producing a new translation is just about the least "conservative" thing it's possible to do to the Bible, but I guess that's just because I speak English.)

This "retranslation" is to use the King James Version as a "baseline", chiefly because the KJV is out of copyright. ("It could be used as the baseline for developing a conservative translation without requiring a license or any fees", explain the instigators. "Also", they neglect to continue, "it doesn't require any actual knowledge of ancient languages, so we're not reliant on a bunch of 'scholars' to do the work for us. What we're after here is ideological purity - 'accuracy' is overrated anyway.") So volunteers are being asked to "translate" the KJV into modern "conservative" English. (I don't think I've ever used so many quotation marks in one story before. That's a reflection of just how far these people have debased the language, how they have made whores of so many innocent words.)

It's been done, guys. It's called the New King James Version.

But the KJV isn't conservative enough, apparently. It contains such subversive liberal lines as Luke 23:34:
Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.
This verse is apparently "a liberal corruption of the original", "a favorite [quotation] of liberals", and "should not appear in a conservative Bible".

Since the Conservative Bible Project is so keen on "translation", let's try translating that sentiment into plain English:
We think the author is lying. It's not as if the text is divinely inspired, after all.
I don't know if they haven't thought it through, or if they're simply planning to lie through their teeth, later on, about how they arrived at their "translation".

Then they talk about the parable of the "dishonest" manager. They criticise the liberal New International Version translation of Luke 16:8: "The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly". But, they say, "being dishonestly shrewd is not an admirable trait".

Let's see how the beloved KJV renders that passage, shall we?
And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely
I don't really see how that helps. If "dishonest shrewdness" is "not admirable", is "unjust wisdom" any better?

The CBP suggests the word "resourcefully" in place of "shrewdly". Because "dishonest resourcefulness", of course, is an absolutely admirable trait.

Then it criticises "liberal" translations for using "liberal" language - words like "comrade", "labourer", "fellow", instead of good "conservative" words like "volunteer". ("Comrade"? Not used at all in the KJV, NKJV or the much-reviled NIV, but occurs a horrifying three times in the English Standard Version, apparently.)

I hate to break it to them, but "volunteer" isn't a synonym for any of those: it's a separate word with a distinct meaning. You can't just go switching it in because you like the sound of it.

Actually, scratch that. Of course you can do that, it's the work of moments with any word processor. But it's not "translation".

Part of me is struck with doubt. Part of me feels that an exercise this shameless can only be a false-flag project by liberals who have infiltrated the conservative Christian movement. But then I reflect on some of the Christian conservatives I've encountered, and I ask myself: Would I really put this past them? And the answer is "no".

So purely for experiment, let's try a passage for myself. Here's James 5:1-4 in the King James Version:
Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you.
Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten.
Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days.
Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth.
Clearly a massive liberal interpolation there. Let's try rendering it more faithfully to the spirit:
Look here, you welfare dependents, you should be crying, because you'll get yours. Your money is undeserved and you can't afford new fashions. Your income drops in real terms every year, and it serves you right, it's meant to incentivise you into showing some initiative; you thought you could scrape and save to survive. But now the debt collectors are at your door, the people who have provided services to you in good faith want to be paid, and the businessmen have the ear of the powers that be.
There, not so hard. All you have to do is let your "conservative" training rape your soul and bludgeon your conscience into a bloody pulp, and let the hatred flow through.

The Muslims don't have this trouble...

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Karaoke thinking

You know how some ideas sound really good when you're three sheets to the wind? Like karaoke, or trolley racing. Many thriving businesses have been built on this simple perceptual filter. The kebab industry, slot machines, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire...

Sometimes I think the UK is increasingly being run by people who are in just that stage of inebriation. The precise, finely balanced point of the evening at which, if I were to tap them on the shoulder and say "Do you think running barefoot is an unfair advantage in professional athletics?", next thing we knew one of us would be under arrest for streaking.

For evidence, I present two stories from today's crop on El Reg.

In the first: the Tory party - an allegedly serious political organisation, a party that earnestly hopes and believes it has a good chance of forming a government within the next year or so - is introducing a new stage in the legislative process in which ordinary citizens are invited to give their views on a bill. The idea is being punted by foreign-affairs spokesman (and former party leader) William Hague, in consultation with a veteran of web-based activism, Tom Steinberg.

Now, previously, if you wanted your views to be heard, you had to make a submission to a parliamentary committee - in the bill's committee stage. This new phase - the "public reading stage" - comes before the committee stage, and invites people to rewrite the legislation online. Obviously this is a great leap forward, as it no longer requires you to sober up long enough to print out your submission and mail it to anyone - much less actually get dressed and give evidence in person. And it opens the process to hijacking by every lunatic YouTube host, cable-TV rent-a-rant, and blogger, who can now tell their faithful just what to write where.

Fortunately, the committee stage of the bill remains intact - at which point no doubt the professional lobbyists will take over again, all the changes will be reversed and the bill put back to what it was before the Great Unwashed intervened. But we'll think we've been listened to, and that's what matters.

That's an illusion that should hold right up until the first bill to go through this process makes it to its third reading. At that point, some smartass - quite possibly Tom Steinberg - will undoubtedly compare the texts of the various versions and see what changes have actually been kept. William Hague may not quite realise what he's letting himself in for.

In short: it's a gimmick, and a politically dangerous one. It might net the Tories a few headlines and/or a few votes in the short term; but it'll lose them more in the long run. But it's not all good news. Unfortunately, in the process, it has a good chance of alienating the politically-engaged citizens of a whole generation.

Against that competition: kudos to Anthony Clive Morgan, of Dawlish, Devon, for coming up with an idea that makes Mr Hague's brainwave look positively - brainy: the dumbest business idea I've seen since (the seemingly defunct)

Mr Morgan has noticed what must have been obvious to any Briton these past ten years - that there are vastly more surveillance cameras in Britain than there are people to watch them - and figured out how to make a profit from it. Charge the camera owners £20 per month to pipe their feed to volunteers on the Internet, who will text an alert if they see anything fishy going on. At the end of each month, the most successful of these volunteer curtain-twitchers gets a £1000 prize.

Presumably Mr Morgan has done his homework, and discovered that a significant proportion of the UK's unknown number of cameras is indeed connected to some kind of IP network. (Although the stats on his website don't look very convincing. He not only repeats the wild guesstimates of "4.2 million cameras" for the country as a whole, and "we are filmed 300 times a day on average" - which is just plain false, if we're using common definitions of "average" - but also states, baldly but alarmingly vaguely: "At least 90% of them are not being manned". I don't doubt it's true, but if I were starting an actual business I'd try to find some real numbers, not just pull them out of my backside.)

I won't go into the data-protection nightmare, the randomness of vigilante justice, the social corrosion of setting ordinary people to spy on each other, or the impossibility of guaranteeing that, for your £20 a month, you'd actually get a pair of human eyes fixed on your camera feed for some given proportion of the time. I'll just ask: if you'd spent tens of thousands of pounds on a camera system and found that it didn't reduce crime, how anxious would you be to spend thousands more on a service that might, or might not, provide some random people to watch them?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Damn stupid time

There's a curious need to believe that your countrymen must have invented every important thing. It's particularly strong among imperial powers. The British emphasis on their own achievements has waned noticeably, as the British empire fades into history; but America and China are both insistent and singleminded in teaching their children that their country did everydamnthing.

Take submarines, for instance. The first working submarine was built by a Dutchman living in England; the first one to be of any practical use in war was invented by an American living in France. Dutch, British, American and French schoolkids each hear about whichever invention fosters their national pride. Later in life, adults who like to think of themselves as well-rounded Renaissance Europeans point to the fanciful drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, who is sometimes claimed to have invented practically everything - despite never having built any of it. Then, inevitably, some idiot Chinese historian pops up and announces that China was developing them in the 13th century.

Or electricity. Every American schoolchild learns that Ben Franklin invented electricity by flying a kite in a thunderstorm. Britons may hear that story in passing, but it's not nearly as important as the contributions of William Gilbert (who invented the word, roundabout 1600), or Michael Faraday. Danes learn the name of Ørsted, Germans of Siemens, French of Ampere, Italians Volta, and practically everyone claims Tesla for their own.

And so I wasn't surprised to find an American website claiming, in all apparent seriousness, that Ben Franklin invented the idea of daylight savings time.

But I acquit Franklin. He thought he was joking. The fact that some people took him seriously says more about his ponderous sense of humour than any active ill-will on his part.

I am ashamed to say that this particular invention can be more convincingly laid at the door of a New Zealander. George Vernon Hudson was an entomologist, who wanted more time after his shift to go bug-hunting.

Independently, a few years later, an Englishman strolling through the streets of Croydon one summer morning was appalled at how everyone was still in bed. With the unfailing paternalistic instinct of the Victorian do-gooder, he devoted the rest of his life to campaigning to force everyone else out of their beds to enjoy the morning quiet.

It took the Great War to make people listen to him.

Of course "total war" justifies a lot of things. In terms of the impositions made at such a time, setting one's clock forward an hour seems pretty mild. But ninety years later, we still have this idiotic institution. Every year at this time, an hour gets stolen from our lives, to be returned in autumn when we will least appreciate it.

And that's why Susan is now getting up in the dark (again) and walking around like a zombie all day; that's why I'm trying to force myself to go to bed while my body is still screaming that it's wide awake.

It's not really Hudson's fault, or Willett's. They lived in a very different world from ours - a world of mass employment in factories, shift working, and where artificial lighting was an expensive luxury.

Today? We have no-one to blame but our own politicians - the same people whose idea of an early start is getting out of bed before 9 a.m.

Why, oh why, can't we just forget the whole thing?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


A bunch of Kiwi politicians are pushing to turn the country into a republic.

It's not the first time the subject has come up. It's a good old standby for politicians who want to increase their own TV face-time, or who think that the current direction of news coverage isn't going well for them. The real risk is that one day, they'll succeed...

It's one of those issues - like Quebeçoise independence in Canada, or Scottish independence in the UK, or any given EU treaty - where one side just won't take "Fsck off and die, you timewasting gits" for an answer. No matter how many times it's rejected, there's nothing to stop the next generation of hacks from raising it all over again, just as soon as a reasonable number of people have forgotten about the last time.

To me the drawbacks are obvious. The queen may not be a New Zealander, but the Treaty of Waitangi was a treaty between Maori peoples and the crown. If the crown no longer has a role in New Zealand, then those 500-odd Maori chiefs who signed the Treaty, as an agreement between sovereign rulers, may or may not consider that the agreement is transferrable - we'd need to hear from the legitimate heirs, if any, of each and every one of them to be sure. So although the republican movement's website claims that "Creating a republic does not require any change to the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand's flag or Commonwealth membership" - these being the three untouchable issues in Kiwi politics - it seems to me that it's entirely mendacious here. They can't possibly know that.

It'd be a bonanza for lawyers, and for Maori politicians on the make; existential purgatory for the rest of us.

It's not clear whether these idiots (Phil Twyford, I'm looking at you) want to see a political head of state (like France, the USA, Italy), or a purely ceremonial one (like Ireland, or Germany). Please not the former. Most politicians in this country don't exactly inspire me with trust, and politicising the head-of-state job would mean far more pressure than any of them could stand. (Look at America, for pity's sake.) No, if we must have a president, let's have someone decent - not a businessman or a politician or a lawyer. Give the job to Jonah Lomu or Tim Finn. At least they wouldn't be a national embarrassment.

Seems to me there's a hidden benefit in outsourcing the head of state's job. As well as saving the trouble, the publicity, the campaigning and expense of maintaining our own president, it also removes the temptation for the head of state to claim any sort of authority. Even if some sort of constitutional crisis in the UK forces a split between the crown and country - as in 1936, for instance - that doesn't affect us here.

Effectively, we're spared an entire series of the soap opera of politics.

But bring the job in-house, and there'll be no avoiding those little upsets from time to time. It's not a big deal, but it's a distraction we don't need.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Wage slavery

My eye was drawn today to this headline: "Women spend more time at work - but less time working". Feel free to read the story if you want, but you won't learn much from it. It explains, in very sketchy terms:

OfficeMetrics claimed that its research showed that over the last nine months, UK office workers were tending to spend more time in the office, as they seek to impress their bosses and stave off the threat of redundancy.

The firm claimed that in July this year, UK workers were spending on average 15 minutes longer at their desks than they were nine months ago, but "the amount of time spent on work based activities had reduced by three per cent."

OfficeMetrics, of course, goes on to punt its own product:

Jon Mulligan, OfficeMetrics MD, claimed that, “Our research has shown that assessing time in the office to judge employees can be extremely misleading and many of those who seem to be spending longer at work are in fact spending more time on personal browsing and social networking sites." The solution, at least as far as Mulligan is concerned, is to buy his software to keep better tabs on what staff are up to.


Because while "desk time" is a very misleading indicator of work done, "time spent with certain documents open" is of course the gold standard of workplace achievement. I'm sure it would never occur to anyone to write their private blog posts inside work-related documents...

I'm reminded of a story by Mil Millington, author of the hilarious Things My Girlfriend And I Have Argued About, about one of those Things. Setup: Mil's girlfriend goes out, leaving him playing on his computer, with the instruction "Vacuum the floors". When she comes back, she asks: "Did you vacuum the floors?" To which Mil replies: "Can't you tell?"

Words ensue, but Mil sees the episode as a moral triumph - because if she can't tell, then either he's so bad at vacuuming that there's no point in his doing it, or the floors must be clean enough already that there's no point in his doing it... so the only point of his vacuuming them would be to inconvenience him.

Some employers seem to see "work" like that. The reason they pay other people to do things they don't want to is because otherwise those things wouldn't get done. From that point of view, it makes a kind of perverted sense that if you're enjoying your work, you're doing it wrong.

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, takes it a step further. He suggests that employees have their own idea of what their time is worth, and they will exact that price from their employers by whatever way is left open to them. In practice that will mean some combination of surfing the web, ransacking the supply cupboards and running up personal phone calls; and the more you try to control them, the more they resent you and will steal from you to compensate.

It's axiomatic in management science that "you get what you measure". Or, more precisely, "you get what your employees think you measure". If they think you're taking note of how much time they spend at their desks, then they'll spend more time at their desks - goofing off. If you make them sign a book every time they take a new pen from the stationery cupboard, your turnover of pens will drop - but petty theft in the workplace will rocket. If they get the idea that you're monitoring their use of certain websites, they'll find other websites - or do their socialising by other means, such as IM. In each case you're not getting what you wanted out of them, which is productive work. So most of these measures will reduce actual productivity - or at least they would, if you could just figure out some way to measure it...

See, the trouble is that it's so much easier to measure inputs - time spent on the job, or time spent with a certain file open in Word, for instance - than to measure outputs (the quality of the work done). And so managers who don't know any better - a category that includes at least two-thirds of those in Britain, and I'm currently guessing about nine-tenths of those in New Zealand - will settle for those proxy measures, rather than go to the trouble of figuring out how much work people actually do.

Because that would mean they - the managers - would have to do some real work...

Enlightened employers - they do exist, I had one once - understand that the purpose of work is to get stuff done. It doesn't matter whether or not you enjoyed it, or whether you goofed off at 2 p.m. every day - provided your allotted work is done on time, that's nobody's business but your own. Efficiency should not be penalised. (What should be penalised, of course, is making life miserable for your colleagues. If, by flaunting your idleness in their faces, you damage their morale and output, then that's an externality that should be included in the assessment of your work.)