Friday, May 29, 2009

Irony failure

So, I'm searching the web for 'free icons'. (It's a work thing.) And I come across this lovely little selection, presumably from the Al-Qaeda School of Graphic Design:

The good news is that if you look very, very closely at the top-right one, it doesn't look quite like a 9/11 reference.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Watching the watchers

There's a by-election going on here.

British readers will know what this means - fringe parties being treated by the media as if they mattered, mindless speculation about how badly the government will be thrashed, even more mindless projections about how, if these trends continue, by 2015 we'll be governed entirely by dolphins and probably a good thing too. While I'm on the subject, I'd like to be among the first to welcome our new cetacean overlords.

In New Zealand, things work a little differently. There are only 60-something MPs representing constituencies, so by-elections are a pretty rare event in themselves. And what we lack in experience, we also lack in intelligent investigative media with varied agendas. If I had to sum up our media in one word, that word would be "lazy".

I was planning to write about how the media's coverage of the by-election has now descended from trivial to virtual self-parody. But in the course of researching, I found something I wasn't expecting at all. The coverage on blogs is actually not bad.

Did (the frankly thuggish) Trevor Mallard sic Campbell Live onto Melissa Lee? Okay, so there's no actual "evidence"... but there is a plausible connection, as Mallard was formerly minister for broadcasting. Surely worth some reporter's time to at least ask the question?

Blogs range from the nakedly partisan to the tediously factual, but both these extremes are vastly better than anything I've seen in the commercial media. Better yet is the geekily specialist type that focuses on a single issue, and focuses well.

I've previously argued that blogs can never replace big media. And there are still serious issues with finding the material - if you search without knowing what to look for, you're immediately snowed by more-or-less official party hacks, apologists and thinly-veiled "professional journalists" trying to justify their own feebleness. But if you can dig through that snow, there's some decent analysis.

Hint to Google: if a search engine can find a way to distil that material, it'll wipe the floor with you guys.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Inconvenient statistics

In the exciting world of copyright politics, the buzz last week was the Business Software Alliance's annual survey of software piracy rates worldwide. It makes for fascinating reading, if you're into that kind of thing.

But I know most of you aren't, so I'll spare you the detailed study. Summarised:
  • The methodology is only vaguely described. How does the BSA arrive at these figures? It doesn't say.
  • The BSA claims that since 2004, piracy rates worldwide are up by a disturbing margin, from 35% to 41%. However, when you look at the figures for individual countries, you see that rates are down in almost every major country, and up in only 11 countries. In fact, only one country - Venezuela - shows a rise that is higher than the 6% "worldwide" figure.
    • (So, according to the BSA, the Venezuelan economy is important enough to single-handedly outweigh the entire G20. Go Chavez!)
  • The most law-abiding countries in the world are: the USA, Japan, New Zealand, Luxembourg. The most lawless are Bangladesh, Armenia, Zimbabwe and Georgia.
  • The BSA argues that the WIPO Copyright Treaty will cure what ails it. This is mystifying, since its own data shows no correlation whatever between a country's enforcement of the treaty and its piracy trends (see below).

What, you want a statistical analysis? Okeydokey. What follows is my own research, from combining the BSA's stats with the WIPO's record of countries applying its treaty. Counting only countries for whom the BSA gives data for all years from 2004 to 2008:

Number of countries that have...TotalPiracy downPiracy upNo change
Enforced the treaty since 2004 or earlier352852
Begun enforcement between 2005 and 2008131012
Signed the treaty but not yet enforced it as of 01/01/2009231931
Not signed the treaty262132

You can try other analyses if you like - the data's all public. I haven't yet come up with any approach that suggests the WCT has any effect at all.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Identity theft

I hear with sorrow that Peter Jackson is remaking The Dam Busters.

Well, actually, I'm quite glad that the project has escaped the venomous grip of Mel "England is Satan" Gibson. In fact, if Jackson wants to win me over, he only needs to make one major change: the title.

The Dam Busters (1955) follows in a long line of classic movies whose memory Hollywood has defacated on by making a modern version with the same title as the original. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951/2008), The Pink Panther (1963/2006), War of the Worlds (1953/2005), The Italian Job (1969/2003), Psycho (1960/1998), The Ladykillers (1955/2004), School for Scoundrels (1960/2006), Bedazzled (1967/2000)... Jackson himself perpetrated the similar desecration of King Kong. All of these are movies that really, seriously didn't need to be remade. In every single case, the popular vote recorded at IMDB supports my own prejudiced judgment - that the older version was better.

(I'm not counting TV movies. All of the above remakes were budgeted for, and received, major theatre releases.)

It's always gone on, of course. I'm not forgetting Ben Hur (1907/1959) and King Kong (1933/1976, before the recent silliness). But it's accelerated sharply, in recent years. There's been a whole bunch of remakes of movies from the 50s and 60s that were not blockbusters, but were generally accepted as classics of their genres.

It's easy to put this down to the risk-averse, creativity-starved nature of modern Hollywood, and I'm sure that does play its part. Similarly, there's a lot of British movies in the list, and obviously Americans are too chauvinist to appreciate them, so they have to be remade with American casts and settings. If that were all that was going on here, I'd just sneer quietly and keep my opinions to those who ask for them.

But it's not. There's something bigger, something far more sinister at work. A kind of naked greed that does not hesitate to rob our culture to enrich itself.

See: when someone takes the title of a movie, and then pours a lot of money into promoting it, they attract name recognition to their new version. Result: the old version gets hidden. Walk into any video store today and ask for The Italian Job, and what you'll be offered first is that pointless drivel with Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron. You'll have to ask again, and quite possibly root around the remainder bins, to find the Michael Caine/Noel Coward classic. (It's well worth it, if you haven't seen it.)

And I think the reason for this identity theft lies in one of my most harped-on words: copyright.

Movies aren't like books, or songs, or poems, or even pictures. Copyright on movies doesn't date from the death of the author: it dates from when the movie was first shown to the public.

Hollywood's first attempt to extend this duration was "remastering". By touching up old films, it claimed, the clock gets restarted for the "new version". But that interpretation wasn't universally smiled upon by the courts. So instead they set about rewriting the law, so that now copyright on movies in the USA lasts an eye-watering 95 years from first publication. However, in backwards countries such as New Zealand, the studio has a paltry 50 years from the date of first showing to recover its investment on a movie, before it becomes free for anyone.

(Barbaric. How can anyone be expected to make a return in just 50 years?)

That means those older movies belong to all of us, and no-one can stop anyone else from doing as they please with them. That's a lot of fine movies. What Hollywood is working on, now, is a systematic effort to erase those older movies from our collective consciousness.

You can help. Whenever you hear of a movie that's been remade, nip down to your video store and ask for the old version. Borrow it from your library. Buy it, if you like it, and lend it to your friends and force it on your family. Make sure the stores keep those movies on their shelves.

Monday, May 11, 2009

When pirates were cool

I'm a shade too young to remember Radio Caroline. But I remember the memory of it. When I was at school, Caroline was a legend - gone but far from forgotten, its personalities, practices and morals co-opted by the Establishment, in the person of the BBC.

But there was a time, in Britain, when rock-'n'-roll really was considered dangerous and subversive. That time was, approximately, 1964 to 1967 - a period often seen as a golden age of rock, with the UK firmly in the lead. But no-one would legally broadcast the music in its home country. Back then, if you wanted to listen to rock music on the radio, your only option was to tune in to a ship anchored in international waters off the coast of Norfolk.

(Which is an interesting thought, when people try to argue that revenues and/or exposure from broadcasting are important to stimulate creativity. But I digress.)

The legend of pirate radio is probably unknown to most Britons under the age of, ooh, about 35, or to most foreigners of any age. And so I was delighted to see it being given new life, perpetuated for another generation, by Richard Curtis's The Boat That Rocked.

Curtis has attracted a lot of flak in the British press for reducing his subject - which, some seem to feel, deserves an epic historical rewrite worthy of Oliver Stone - to a merely average British sex-comedy, closer in its feel to Carry On Caroline than Good Morning, UK.

But for me, it works. Pirate radio was indeed a glorious, romantic rebellion against the mores of its time - but it was always and essentially trivial, and it does no service to the spirit and memory of Caroline to take it too seriously. What we are left with is a celebration of rebellion, anarchy, the sexual revolution and the healing power of tea and biscuits. Plus an astonishing soundtrack that reminds one just what was so special about the 60s.

Despite its historical roots, the film and its characters are firmly fictional. Which is a wise decision. Relieved of the need to do justice to real people or events, the cast is freed to unleash its own creativity. There are fine performances from Kenneth Branagh, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Chris O'Dowd and (particularly) Bill Nighy, who seems to be channeling the unnatural lovechild of Peter Sellers and Peter Stringfellow.

Sadly, the film's ending lets it down badly. First, Curtis tries to invoke the Dunkirk story, to show The People standing firmly behind the pirates. It's a cheap twist, co-opting mainstream history - or at least mythology - into his rebels' story; and it seems to legitimise the wholesale identity theft that happened next. (Because if Caroline's heroes were the legitimate heirs of Dunkirk, it follows that they were also legitimate, if rebellious, children of the BBC.) Then he gives us a triumphal postscript, which notes that since 1967, pop music broadcasting and private broadcasting have both flourished across the UK.

And with that postscript, he endangers the entire story - utterly missing the point that those things are only thriving now because they're not only permitted, but actively nurtured by the same establishment that once tried to repress them.

Indeed, their grip on power today is far firmer than it was in 1967. With the growth of digital broadcasting, it's now physically impossible for a successor to Caroline to attract more than the barest handful of listeners. Most people simply wouldn't know how to receive their signals any more. Unlicensed broadcasting is dead.

Long live the unlicensed Internet.

Friday, May 8, 2009


For the past 24 hours, the news in New Zealand has been dominated by an armed standoff in which police are beseiging a lone gunman in his house in Napier. The siege began when police turned up to search a house suspected of growing cannabis, and the occupant started shooting them.

Senior Constable Len Snee - who, like most cops, was unarmed - is the 29th New Zealand police officer to be killed in the line of duty. Not the 29th in Napier, you understand, or the 29th this century - the 29th ever, in the whole country.

I'm sorry for Snee's family, and I hope the man who shot him goes to prison and dies there. At the same time, I can't help thinking that 29 is a pretty low number. In fact I'd have to conclude that policing, in New Zealand, is a considerably safer job than, say, logging or fishing.

My idiot boss, John, can't understand why the police haven't simply killed the guy already. My more measured boss, let's call him Dave, says: "Why do that, when they can simply sit outside and wait?"

I'm exceptionally proud of the police at this point. They've remembered. They've remembered that the core of their job isn't about catching crooks, or enforcing the law - those are incidental. Their job is to keep the peace - to maintain an environment in which people are normally, by default, civilised to one another.

You don't do that by killing people.

Who turned off the sky?

The brief Kiwi autumn is rapidly seguing into the sodden Kiwi winter.

This morning, like yesterday morning, was bright and treacherous. I drove to work in gentle, unwarming sunshine. But by 9:30 a.m., the clouds are lowering like the ceiling of an Inquisition cell.

I think it was Xigent who wisecracked, a month or so back, that since it's always a balmy 22 degrees in Auckland, we didn't really need a house anyway. He'd sing a different tune if he could see it now. It's wet and it's cold and it's all but dark outside, and the odds are it'll stay that way for a good ten weeks at least.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Lego syndrome

I see the British government, in the person of justly-reviled home secretary Jacqui Smith, is to offer ID cards to the people of Manchester. Giving them the priceless opportunity to be the first 'general public' in the country to get their hands on them.

Yeah, I'm sure Mancunians have been clamouring for that privilege. Manchester, I note, is a comforting 114 miles from Ms Smith's own constituency of Redditch.

This isn't going to be another libertarian rant about why ID cards are a bad thing. I'm not going to use words like 'totalitarian'. In fact, I'm hardly going to get political at all. No, this particular editorial is brought to you not by Vet the Sarcastic Liberal, but by Vet the Business Analyst.

I've never seriously imagined that the UK government sees its ID cards as something 'controlling', and nor do most of their electors. That's why neither group 'gets' those criticisms. The oft-painted picture of the UK government as some kind of Orwellian super-state simply doesn't ring true, because we all know they're just not that competent. They couldn't do it, even if they wanted to

(For instance: given all the regulations around airline passenger manifests, ten days after swine flu hit the country, this same government still couldn't get a list of who'd been on the flight that brought it in. That's our experience of the 'surveillance society'.)

That incompetence has always been a vital characteristic of the UK government. And most of the time they acknowledge the fact, with a suitably tactful coating of course. That's why Parliament was invented in the first place - to tell the government when it was going wrong. The entire political system - free press, courts, appeals, the House of Lords, elections, public inquiries, royal commissions, select committees, the whole boiling of it - is based around the central, fundamental assumption that the government will screw up.

It's an assumption that seldom lets us down.

When I look at the ID card story from that viewpoint, there seems a certain familiarity about the - shape, you could call it - of this particular screw-up. The flagrant dishonesty over costs, the eternally shifting justifications, the boneheaded refusal even to acknowledge, much less engage with, contrary arguments, and most importantly of all, the barefaced lying about popularity - oh yes, I've seen this elsewhere...

It's what Joel Spolsky calls "the single worst strategic mistake that any software company can make". Governments do just the same thing, and for just the same reason. Everything Joel says of software is equally true of legislation. It's a reason that seems to be a basic law of human nature, the reason why Lego is the most popular children's brand in the world:

Building something new is more fun than tinkering with something old.

The 'something old', in this case, being countless ad-hoc systems, each devised to address a slightly different, though similar, problem. Bankers, publicans, bureaucrats, police officers, border controllers, shopkeepers - each of these has their own, more or less legitimate, reasons for wanting to know someone's identity, and they all have their own systems for doing it. Sadly, some of those systems are no longer up to the job they were designed for. And rather than just tell them to improve what already exists, the weak-minded government yielded to its first and worst impulse, which is - as always - to throw them all out and start over.

The catch being, as Joel points out: "there is absolutely no reason to believe that you are going to do a better job than you did the first time".

All those ad-hoc systems I was talking about just now - they were each 'good enough' for the purpose, and in the environment, they were meant for, but they failed to keep up with changing circumstances. People - nasty, unscrupulous, profit-driven people - looked at the systems that existed, and saw flaws and chinks and weaknesses that no-one had thought of. When that happens, the correct answer is to patch the system so that that particular weakness no longer works.

The wrong answer is to scrap the old thing and start again - in the superstitious belief that this time, it'll be perfect.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

"If you had to choose between saving a banker from drowning...

... and taking a prizewinning picture of the event, what resolution should you set your camera to?" - adapted from the classic question of Journalistic Ethics.

What put this into my mind? Extract from a conversation I just had:

"Mr Vet, you're going to need to get an independent valuation on your property before we can give you a mortgage."


"Mr Vet? Are you there?"

"Yes, I'm still here. I'm just trying to work out, on a scale of one to ten, how angry I am right now."

"Well, it's because you paid significantly more than the current valuation..."

"I told you, we bought at auction. There were other bidders there willing to pay that much."

"It's very standard practice for banks at the moment, Mr Vet."

"What's the point? That is the market. You can't get a truer valuation than that, that's why it's called 'market value'. What kind of valuer do you think is going to be able to tell you better than the market itself?"

"Well, the valuer is independent, they're trained to estimate very closely the true market value."


There are some questions that you will never hear an answer to, no matter how many times or ways you persist in asking them, because the honest answer would be "solely so that we can charge you more money".

In response to my badgering, he eventually promised that the bank would pay part of the cost of the valuation. So far, so good. Now all that remains is for me to bring the rest of my cash over from the UK, to raise the amount of our deposit as necessary so that we don't have to pay any further insurance - and the bank will be a few hundred dollars out of pocket, and they'll end up making less from us than if they'd just shut up and paid up.

I bet some genius banker earned a several-thousand-dollar bonus for working out this policy, which is about to cost his bank, probably, several thousand dollars in lost profit. I really hope that person is now dying painfully somewhere, but I don't have that much faith in karma.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


It's challenging, being a householder. We don't even complete the deal for another two months, and already I'm dropping behind in my commitments.

Local by-laws, at my place of employment, dictate that someone who makes such a major commitment as buying a house (or getting married, giving birth etc.) is required to bring in a celebratory cake for the rest of the team. Local by-laws in my own household stipulate that any such cake must be home-made, not shop-bought.

But what kind of cake? The laws are silent on that.

Anything with chocolate and/or cream is too much like hard work. Ditto anything that requires obscure or specialised ingredients, such as - well, anything I don't have in the apartment at the moment. I've never got the hang of meringue.

For my last birthday, I made Westmorland pepper cake, which went OK but not favourite. I'm thinking something sweeter, perhaps something quite unlike what you can get in any corner bakery. After dredging my childhood memory, I hit on: cardamom cake, with lemon glaze.

Hey, I never claimed to be a great cook, it doesn't have to be imaginative. But on the web, even simple recipes can become complicated...

Most cardamom cake recipes I can find involve random other ingredients - orange, pear, apple, pecan, you name it, all of which would I'm sure be delicious but they're not what I'm looking for. The closest I can find is this one, which stipulates when to use a food mixer (quite unnecessary), and actually forgets to put the cardamom in at all, and then smothers the whole thing in a thick lemon icing, rather than a thin transparent glaze. Not confidence-inspiring, but let's give it a try.

So I settle down to it, inserting spice where it seems to make most sense, doing the beating by hand Just Like Mother Taught Me, making the glaze with just lemon and sugar. The result isn't bad, but needs more cardamom.

Trying again, I suffer 'second-attempt syndrome'. This is what happens when you don't follow the recipe closely enough any more because you think you can remember it, only you can't, not in the right order anyway. We're eating through the results of that now.

I'll get it right later this week.