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.