Friday, December 17, 2010

On the origins of hobbits

Back before the Lord of the Rings movies came out, I used to enjoy arguing with Tolkien fans.

They are (or were), I discovered, among the most argumentative people on the Internet, back in the day. Far more so than the real nerds who exchanged lists of reasons why one Star Trek captain was better than another. Until you've seen a bunch of Tolkien geeks arguing, and I swear to all that's holy I'm not exaggerating this even slightly, for weeks on end about whether Balrogs had wings or whether the Rohirrim used stirrups... you don't know what vitriol is.

At one stage I tried to play peacemaker. "It's not as if anyone was going to dig up a fossilised Balrog and prove the answer either way", I said. "Why can't we each have our own image?" Which, of course, made me no friends at all, and pretty soon I learned to stay out of those threads. It was, it seemed, the most important thing in the world to be able to correctly divine the precise image that was in Tolkien's mind when he wrote the scene. To compromise in pursuit of that ultimate truth - that would be sheer apostacy.

These were the people who had gobbled up each of the interminable volumes of Trash Reconstructed From Tolkien's Litterbox & Blotter, known in the trade as the History of Middle-earth, as well as collections of the great man's letters, reminiscences by other people who knew him, and Vague Hints His Son's Housekeeper's Daughter's Boyfriend Told This Guy Who Wrote To My Local Paper.

Occasionally in these robust discussions, someone would mention Tolkien's dream of creating "a mythology for England". I think, now, that phrase is key to understanding his work.

Tolkien was a scholar of mythology. He didn't use the word lightly or randomly. He knew that it is in the nature of mythology that there is no such thing as a definitive version. The whole point of myths is to be retold.

That's why the Tolkien and his estate, for years, made no attempt to "control" his intellectual property. Everyone and his dog copied Tolkien's basic prototypes for "dwarves", "orcs", "elves" and "hobbits" from his work, and Tolkien lifted not a finger to stop them: not, as Hollywood imagines, because he was a senile old quack who didn't recognise a gold mine when he was sitting on one, but because that was what he wanted to happen.

By the time his estate fell into the hands of "competent" (read: "evil") managers, those stereotypes had made their way into thousands of imitative books, paintings, films and cartoons, games, posters, and, of course, Dungeons & Dragons.

Where there are contradictions and inconsistencies, or incompleteness, in his books - that's not just a mistake. I'm not saying it's intentional, but it is an intrinsic part of the whole. The books themselves aren't "authoritative": they are meant to be a vehicle for debate, not its subject.

This mindset is, of course, the antithesis of modern Hollywood. To Hollywood, all stories - and to the (steadily increasing) maximum extent permitted by law, all separable literary or visual elements of those stories - are by nature private property, to be exploited and monetised ruthlessly. To Hollywood, someone "giving away" his intellectual property is not a hero or a philosopher, but merely a mug to be exploited.

And that is why no film of these books made by the present-day studio system is ever going to do them justice. Movies are produced by a process based on ideals and morality that by its very nature cannot begin to understand Tolkien. In carrying Tolkien's legacy, D&D was more faithful and more effective than any movies will ever be - because D&D is based on creating new stories, not merely the messy regurgitation of old ones. To be faithful to Tolkien, you would have to donate all your scenery, sets, designs, props, models, scripts, scores and publicity to the public domain, the moment the movies were finished. And, of course, allow anyone else to sample, recut, redub, rebuild, reimage etc. as much as they liked.

Even if Peter Jackson had no problem with that (and to do the man justice, I think he might not), the studios would never allow it. It's anathema to their business model.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Open season on messengers

I heard today that the US Air Force is blocking its people from viewing the New York Times website, and those of other papers that have republished the Wikileaks cables.

The words "stable door" spring to mind. Although in this case the horse hasn't so much "bolted", it's more like it's lounging around the paddock sniggering at the stable hands and enjoying a quiet ciggie. Everyone knows exactly where it is and how it got there. We're a little vague on the "why", though. Why did a private soldier have access to all that material? Why, exactly, does a very junior soldier need to know what the US ambassador to New Zealand was writing to the State Department?

The official explanation goes something like "Blah blah, 9/11, blah, intelligence sharing, blah, join the dots, blah blah, never happen again." Which, of course, is utter bollocks. Material of the level that would be required to foresee another 9/11 is specifically excluded from the whole bundle - there is nothing "top secret" there.

And if you take the view that even low-level people might be able to glean patterns and spot warning signs in this dross - wouldn't it make more sense to publish it?

Well, they have effectively published it now. And much as I hate to think "conspiracy", I can't help but notice that it's been published in such a way as to hand maximal ammunition to several interest groups. The CIA, FBI and Pentagon have all been furiously angling for funding for "cyberwarfare" divisions; the unapologetically-fascist wings of both political parties believe that the First Amendment was frankly a mistake; the White House has been itching for an opportunity to apply some sort of "control" to the Internet. All of these groups are in full cry.

Meanwhile, USAF personnel - uniquely in the world, apparently - don't have access to this material now. So much for intelligence sharing.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Diplomatic language

A whole lot of American diplomats have spent this week fuming over the demise of a golden age, when diplomatic communications were private. Since Congress, Senate, the White House, Sarah Palin and FOX News are united in their condemnation of Wikileaks, you might think its days were numbered. And sure enough, the US is throwing a lot at Wikileaks - from character assassination and prosecution of its founder, to cyber-attacks that it would undoubtedly describe as terrorism if they were directed at a US government site, to para-legal shenanigans aimed at destroying its hosts.

And so far, the Internet has interpreted each of these attacks - correctly, I suspect - as a publicity stunt.

But even if they did bring down Wikileaks, they'd just be shooting the messenger. Leaks have always happened. If you think you can commit something to writing and share it with tens of thousands of people, but not with the world - you're kidding yourself.

When the British ruled the world, we knew this. Which is why our diplomatic communications were couched in, let's say, careful language, so that it would not cause much embarrassment even if it did leak. Apparently the blunt, plain-speaking, tell-it-like-it-is US State Department has forgotten the use of "diplomatic language" in private communication. So here, in the interests of world peace, is a quick refresher:



Don't saySay
angryconcerned
rudedirect
shoutingforceful
drunktired
pederastmentor
stinkingauthentic
screamingagitated
foaming at the mouthdistressed
demanded the immediate invasion of Iranproposed an urgent realignment of Shi'ite regional authority structures
... using nuclear weapons...... urgent siliceous realignment...
leeringly offered to buy my daughterexpressed a wish for closer familial interaction
leeringly offered to buy the president's daughter... at the highest level

Your colleagues will know exactly what you mean, but when your memo inevitably winds up on the front page of the New York Times, your interlocutor won't mind as much. With luck, they might even keep talking to you.

You're welcome.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Disasters are God's way of telling us we're not the centre of the universe

My respect for John Key just went up another notch. I knew he was a canny politician, from his performance over The Hobbit. But now I'm also inclined to respect him as a manager.

Throughout the Pike River disaster, Our Leader has kept a conspicuously low profile. (It helps that he's been out of the country most of the time.) Not for him the theatrics of Chile's President Pinera, who practically ran his administration from the site for the duration, or even President Obama during the Deepwater Horizon fiasco. No, Key was happy to let others take the heat. When the media wanted a politician, what they got was Gerry Brownlee, the charisma-less minister for energy. But most of the time, the face on our screens was a haggard-looking Peter Whittall, CEO of the company.

And Whittall did an outstanding job. His stress and distress were obvious, but his control was even more so. He fed the facts clearly and promptly and accurately to the insatiable media. He answered the obvious, frustrating questions ("What are you waiting for?") calmly and with infinite patience, and consistently refused to be drawn into the stupid questions ("Whose fault is all this?").

But after the news broke, yesterday, of a second explosion, and the story turned from drama to disaster - then Key took the limelight. He was grave, he was direct, and best of all, he continued not to discuss blame. There would be inquiries, he said - several of them - but until they had some answers, he wasn't going to start speculating.

It's probably Whittall we have to thank that the only casualties were the people trapped. There are any number of ways he could have killed more people. He could have rushed rescuers in earlier; he could have failed to explain his reasons for not doing that, which might well have prompted someone to act behind his back. Or he could have looked too calm and detached while explaining, which could have had the same effect. But he did none of these things. And the politicians let him.

Compare with President "I want to know whose ass to kick" Obama during Deepwater Horizon - he took the opportunity to stir up anti-British xenophobia, lambasted Tony Hayward for Being Unsympathetically Foreign, and prompting the company to replace him with an American. Neither helpful nor constructive.

I'm thankful, at this point, to be living in a country where politicians don't feel they have to be seen to run everydamn'thing personally. There's a time to kick arse, and a time to let people get on with it. Key has shown that he can stay out of the way when it counts. That means the Peter Whittalls of this world can do their jobs.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The population density school of lit crit

One of my favourite writers is Kazuo Ishiguro.

For a while after I read The Remains of the Day, I wondered what it was that gave a Japanese-born writer such a deep, sympathetic insight into the character of his all-too-English narrator. Okay, so Ishiguro is English by naturalisation, but still - his understanding of Stevens' mentality is infinitely more insightful than that of almost anyone I know. In just two generations, it seems, the "servant" mindset has been, pretty much, completely erased from British culture.

When I read An Artist of the Floating World - one of my favourite books - the mystery began to clear. Because that story is almost exactly the same, but for the teensy details that it's set in postwar Japan, rather than postwar England, and deals with a distinguished artist and patriarch, rather than a never-married butler. Those differences don't really amount to the proverbial hill of beans, compared with the similarities.

Why, I mused, did English society have so much in common with Japanese? On the face of it, it would be hard to identify two cultures that have had less opportunity to influence one another.

The answer I came up with can be boiled down to one word: population. Both Japan and England are densely populated, and they're both islands (well, technically England shares its island with a couple of other small nations, but let's gloss over that for the moment). That fact means that in both countries, it's very hard to forget that land (room, space) is a very limited commodity.

And that, I hypothesised, gave rise to two cultures in which "manners" play a very important role. You know that you're always going to be living very closely with other people. Therefore, it makes sense to follow fairly rigid social rules, even if those rules are not enforced.

Compare and contrast with grossly underpopulated countries such as the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. Wide open spaces foster the illusion of personal independence and autonomy, the belief that the individual is somehow sovereign and has the "right" (whatever the heck that means) to ignore what others think.

My theory is that if you could come up with a way of quantifying the degree to which "manners" and "formality" are valued in a society, you could then plot that value on a graph against population density, and it would show that the more people are crammed into a limited space, the more likely they are to understand the need to get along with each other.

Granted, there's plenty of counter-examples. Big-city-dwellers, from Paris to Los Angeles, are proverbially rude and unsympathetic. But they are rude, principally, to outsiders - that is, to people who are not familiar with the city's protocols. People born and raised in the city seldom make that complaint, because they understand the reasons for city manners and values.

Values such as "keeping a stiff upper lip". When you live in a community of a thousand people, and you know by sight just about everyone you meet from day to day, it makes sense to share your feelings and support one another. When you live in a city of a million, it's a different story. No-one wants to go through every day, getting drawn into the lives of another random selection of strangers who happen to be going through rough times today. Hence it's important that people learn not to show their feelings in public, out of consideration for others.

And these are the sorts of values that Ishiguro's protagonists cling to, failing to realise that the societies around them no longer understand this need. The war has mixed everything up, and now they find themselves surrounded by people from different backgrounds who no longer understand how the old ways came about, and consequently have no respect for them.

It's a haunting and tragic story, both times. Ishiguro conveys sadness and regret like no other writer I know.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

At least it's not a tabloid...

If you're not in New Zealand, chances are slim that you've heard anything about the Wellington Declaration.

But here in the middle of the sea, we're pathetically grateful when the Great and Good, in this case in the shape of Hillary Clinton, deign not merely to notice us, but to pretend for a few minutes that they give a damn' what we think about anything. (If that were true, the Fed wouldn't have announced yesterday that it was deliberately devaluing the US dollar - sorry, I mean "reinvigorating the economy" - by printing an extra $600 billion.)

The press release celebrating the Wellington Declaration is thin on detail, and the Herald's coverage does nothing to improve matters. We're treated to a description of Mrs Clinton's dress and a blow-by-blow account of her reception (which leaves me thinking someone must have mistaken her for the president); then we get to the political insights of Steven Beban - an 18 year old 'Wellington local' who has never been to the US, but he has an Obama poster.

Seriously. If you've read the above paragraph, you now know as much about 'Steven Beban' as I do. There's no suggestion of why anyone should believe a word he says.

It's nice of the Herald not to overburden our poor provincial little brains with any actual facts or analysis. Discussion of what 'co-operation' might mean, how it reconciles with our oft-reaffirmed 'nuclear free' policy, how the new relationship will differ from the existing one, what exactly New Zealand is likely to get out of so lopsided a deal - well, who knows? Not the Herald, that's for damn' sure. As far as I can tell, they haven't even tried to find anyone who might have so much as thought of these questions. They've reprinted the press release (and the text of the "declaration" itself), and called it a story.

Welcome to small-country journalism.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Exeunt. Seriously.

Big news in Kiwiland this morning: The Hobbit will be filmed here, but (says the government) Warner is insisting on a change in labour law. No longer will film industry contractors be able to claim that they are, in effect, employees, and entitled to employee protections.

"A likely tale", cry the unions. "This is just another step in the government's agenda to strip away all workers' rights and reduce us to the status of some third-world hellhole like Mississippi. What are we doing, letting these American thugs dictate our domestic employment law?"

For once, I think the unions have a good point. No matter what's at stake, when a foreign company tells you to change your employment law, the only decent answer should be to refer them to the reply in the case of Arkell v Pressdram. Moreover, treatment of contractors is one of those areas where NZ employment law really doesn't need rebalancing in favour of employers. The fact that this change is, apparently, to be specific to the film industry is probably supposed to reassure me, but I've always been against making "exclusive" laws.

But if the unions are right about this, then their leaders really need to resign. Today. Because they have royally screwed up this dispute. They literally couldn't have handled it worse if they'd been in cahoots with the government all along.

They picked a stupid fight over a high-profile issue - associated with the country's biggest international success in living memory - pitting themselves directly against the most popular person in the country. They allowed themselves to be cast as pawns of foreign interests who wanted the movies made elsewhere. They made themselves look both callous and cowardly. They say that they only "requested talks", but at this point that looks like sheer revisionism: they threatened the production, and they did it in a very high-profile way. It's been national news for a month.

In all seriousness: if you were trying to give the government an opening, what would you have done differently?

The only explanation that would make any sense at all is that they were trying to make the National government overreach itself and hand a much-needed PR boost to Labour, which has wisely remained aloof from the whole fiasco. In which case, Key's limited retaliation makes sense - it's a giant middle digit extended to the unions, at a time when almost no-one in the country, least of all their own members, is going to sympathise.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand, head of NZ Equity, and Helen Kelly, president of the Council of Trade Unions, need to go. They have let down the whole country, by putting the government in a position where it could sell out our laws to a foreign corporation. Worse, they've let down their own members - jeopardising the very livelihoods they're paid to protect. It's time for some union leaders in this country who understand something about politics.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

It's a simple question...

Dear Lazyweb,

Somewhere out there, there has to be someone who knows what the "priority" attribute does in a style definition in MS Word 2007/2010:

Google is no help. Word MVPs aren't saying.

Word Help is its usual helpless self:

But someone must know. Bonus points for an answer referencing a source published by Microsoft.

Anyone? Anyone at all?

Hate to say "I told you so..."

Ah, who am I kidding? I love to say that. Who doesn't?

According to figures released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety - an American outfit, natch - laws banning texting while driving may actually increase the rate of accidents.

The irony is strong in this one.

One suggestion is that offenders don't change their behaviour, but do start trying to conceal it, by holding their phone lower - thus taking their eyes further from where they're supposed to be.

Whatever. To me, it just highlights what I said at the time: this is a stupid law, enacted by people who were either dumb, or playing dumb, or just plain corrupt.

When a law whose purpose is to improve public safety turns out to be not merely ineffective, but actively counter-productive - what should we do about it?

If the answer turns out to be "repeal the law", I'll be amazed.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Parenthood

For those who don't know: Susan is currently expecting our first child.

(By "expecting", I mean "growing internally". A bit like a cannabis plant, but more expensive.)

It's an exciting, disturbing and costly time. There's stuff to buy, stuff to research, stuff to prepare and book and make. And Susan's appetite, always healthy, is growing positively heroic. Having spent years learning to cook smaller portions, now I find she can eat as much in one sitting as I can. The difference being that while I typically eat only a light breakfast and/or a light lunch followed by a proper dinner, she currently eats solidly for three or more meals a day. I think of myself as following the "camel" model, whereas she's closer to "cormorant".

And it seems as if there's a carefully constructed script that we're supposed to follow. No-one has given us a copy - which is fine by me - but somehow we're meant to know it.

The midwife tells us some of it. Yesterday, for instance, S had a blood test that's supposed to tell whether she may be developing diabetes - the midwife told us about that one. And the various ultrasound scan sessions. (For some reason, it's customary to refer to the image one sees on these occasions as "perfectly formed". I don't know about anyone else's experience, but what I saw on the screen would not have looked out of place on a Halloween mask.)

And we're shopping for all the hideous paraphernalia of early parenthood. Cots and bassinets and mattresses and changing tables and strollers and child seats and day-care facilities and who knows what we've forgotten? (Apart from the people trying to sell it to us, of course.)

At this point, I'm wondering through what loophole "parenthood" has slipped into the modern world as something that's still allowed to be done by amateurs. If you want to build a house, or a bridge, or a car, or open a pub, or treat a sick animal (let alone a human), or even cut down a tree in this country - there's a whole grand checklist of things you need to know and do, and even enterprising, can-do people will take time to research it. Most of us, most of the time, will just find someone who's qualified to do it for us.

But not parenting. There are plenty of books that tell you how to do it, but there's no nationally-mandated standard or test to pass. There is no compliance certificate for children.

I'm not complaining. It just seems - incongruous, that's all. After all: the arguments for building codes - that it affects public safety and hygiene, makes a material difference to people's lives, that faults may not become apparent for many years after building, may be impossible or outrageously expensive to fix later - all apply a fortiori to raising a child.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

On people who are less trustworthy than politicians

It's a sad fact that journalists are lazy buggers - and if they think they can get away with not working, they will.

Witness the coverage of last week's publication, in the UK, of the Department for Transport's (whatever happened to the Department of Transport? Fed up with people asking whether they were "for" or "against" it?) latest efforts to siphon obscene amounts of public money into private investors' pockets. Oops, sorry, I should have spelled that "... periodic survey of public attitudes to traffic congestion".

There wasn't much coverage, but such as there was, was clearly based on the Department conjunction Transport's press release. The BBC's headline is "Half of UK road users support usage-based road charging". And other outlets are no better. Even the normally-cynical El Reg has swallowed this line of spin.

There is no indication that any of these journalists has read the survey itself. If they had, they might have noticed that's not what it says.

True, over half of people are against the present system, and I don't blame them, because road tax became indefensible around the time horse-drawn carts became rare. But they don't express approval of the options being pushed here. Quite the opposite: when asked "Do you think a new charging scheme is fair?" - without giving any information about what it might involve - over half of those questioned return an unequivocal and full-throated "No!". Barely one-quarter say "Yes". And this opinion has actually hardened over the past few years.

The headline figure, as far as I can tell, comes from asking whether the current system "should be changed so that the amount people pay relates more closely to how often, when and where they use the roads" - that elicits about 50% of "Ayes". But faced with the more specific suggestions that people who drive on busy roads, or at peak times, should pay more, that proportion drops to 25% or less.

If you're advocating road pricing, those answers don't add up. The public appears to be "confused". Me, I think the public understands the issue far better than the people framing the survey, and certainly better than the journalists covering it.

Fortunately, there is one group of people whose livelihood really does depend on interpreting this kind of survey correctly: politicians. Things have come to a pretty pass when I'm appealing to politicians to save us from the idleness and corruption of journalists, but that's where I find myself today. And the UK's coalition government, bless its insecure little heart, has correctly divined what its civil servants are up to here. It "has ruled out for the duration of this Parliament national road pricing on existing roads and any preparation for such schemes beyond that time".

Let's hear it for the politicians...

Friday, August 20, 2010

Prescription sugar

I read the other day that Britain's National Health Service sometimes pays for homeopathic prescriptions.

Blah blah, insert rant here about giving taxpayers' money given to snake-oil merchants, undermining the authority of the medical profession, and generally reducing western civilisation to a smoking ruin. But the fact is, I can't get terribly worked up about this.

The Department of Health says it doesn't know how much of the NHS drugs budget is spent on snake oil, but it's "a tiny fraction (approximately 0.001%)". How they can know this figure without knowing an actual figure - is a subject for reasonable suspicion, but even if they're out by a couple of orders of magnitude, it still suggests that there are more important things to worry about. Namely, the other 99.9(99)% of the budget.

I'd bet that a considerably higher fraction of that budget goes to AstraZeneca, a company with a documented record of deliberately hiding the truth about its own products. And the company is not unusual in that; what it's been caught doing is entirely standard industry procedure.

This isn't even news. We've known it anytime this past quarter-century. And yet we continue to pay these companies to poison us and lie to us about it.

I have a simple suggestion for the NHS: it should refuse to pay for any drug or treatment that is covered by a patent. Patients who want those treatments should have to find some other way to pay for them. Generic drugs are vastly cheaper, better tested (by 20 years of actual use), and more honestly marketed. Let the NHS stick to those.

(Remember, patents expire after 20 years, so that would still allow every drug and treatment that was available before 1990, and medicine wasn't exactly in the dark ages then.)

Of course, no sooner were this rule suggested, than a thousand and one "patients' groups" would form to lobby, loudly, for this or that exception. And most of them wouldn't even pause to think that they were acting as pawns of the pharmaceutical industry.

I wonder if the directors of those companies ever have nightmares of creating the perfect drug - one that actually cures a condition, with no bad side-effects? Because that would be the death of their business model.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Games and fun

Games play (heh) an important part in my life.

I blame my big brother. He introduced me to Dungeons & Dragons at the impressionable age of, ooh, about 13. It was new and exciting, a fun game in those days, before the news media and fundamentalist Christians had heard of it; a friendly, co-operative game, bringing socially inept geeks together in their common love of fantasy and fairy tales.

D&D has come a long way in the 30 years since then (mostly backwards, at least for the players, although obviously it's kept the publishers in business). But it's also given rise to an entirely new genre: the computer FRPG.

It's not widely appreciated, even by players of both, how different the computer FRPG is from the version with pencils and paper and polyhedral dice. Some people think that writing the perfect computer FRPG is just a matter of coding a big enough world, and faithfully and meticulously translating enough of the rules. But this thinking ignores the most important rule of all, which is the core of the difference.

Put simply: the pencil-and-paper game is a social event - a bunch of people get together to have fun. The computer version is a storytelling medium - the "author" draws up a plot, and the player's job is to find a way through it. There may be many different ways, some arriving at slightly different endpoints, but the basic framework and goal are not negotiable. (True, most human DMs start out with a similar "plot" in mind. But good ones will change it as they go along; only bad DMs will try to force their players to stick to a framework they planned from the start. A well-run game is not so much a story as a symposium.)

And that's why the computer FRPG is a form of art, no matter what Roger Ebert says on the subject; because it's not like the social game that is played between friends. Rather than spending so much time defining "art", I think Ebert should give more thought to his idea of a "game". Games like Neverwinter Nights, the Zelda family, Morrowind, Jade Empire - these are not about winning or losing, or even playing. They are about experiencing a story.

Some of them allow more latitude than others. Resident Evil imposes a fixed path, set out by constant short-term motivators. Neverwinter Nights - the most faithful translation of pen-and-paper rules I've seen - forces you to jump through the hoops laid out in the order required, because there's simply not much else to do. Oblivion, by contrast, gives you near-complete freedom - but there's still a single, central storyline to be completed.

The 2008 version of Prince of Persia is an extreme example. Not only do you have to follow the plot (with virtually no latitude about what order you do things in or what skills your character develops), but when you screw it up, you're immediately returned ("restored") to the point just before you did. This mechanism caused a lot of controversy at the time - some people thought it was taking the risk and the skill out of the game.

But, in truth, none of these games is about risk or skill, any more than watching a whodunnit is about your ability to outguess the fictional detective. They are about the experience.

And that, dear Mr Ebert, is art. Some of it is even, I would claim, good art.

I recently replayed Jade Empire, and I would say that, in script, acting, cinematography and (most importantly) storyline, it stands comparison with decent Hollywood action movies. Zelda: Twilight Princess is by turns engrossing, thrilling and touching, as well as beautifully visualised. Oblivion, while scriptwise a pale shadow of Morrowind, tries to make up for it with technical execution (I recall the first time, stealing through some tunnel, I saw an ogre ahead of me - I almost wet myself).

There's also, of course, plenty of bad art in the genre. Assassin's Creed has a confused and cliched storyline, with little latitude to explore and no attempt to reconcile the inconsistencies. Ditto Freelancer, and Neverwinter Nights 2. Bad writers keep you on the story railroad by putting in arbitrary, unexplained restrictions to what you can do. Whereas the better games either trap you in a storyline where there is always an obvious, immediate short-term goal (Zelda, Resident Evil), or continually nudge you towards the plot with internally consistent motivators (Morrowind).

But even bad art is still art. Good art shows what it can aspire to.

If the computer FRPG were really just a digital version of the tabletop game, then Ebert would have a point. As it is - well, he should try playing through some of these games. Then let's see if he can still maintain that he hasn't experienced some kind of art.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Two concepts of quality

Researchers from Rice University's Department of Luddite Apologetics have found experimental evidence for what many of us have long suspected: that video content is more important than quality. If you're enjoying the movie, you won't notice that it's grainy, scratchy, blocky or even black-and-white. Conversely, if the movie is in super-high-resolution, that won't make you enjoy it any more.

Not surprising, perhaps. We know the brain is very good at filling in detail and smoothing over cracks. That's the whole principle on which movies work in the first place - if you show a series of still images quickly enough, the brain stitches them together into a single "moving" picture.

But it's always nice to have one's prejudices confirmed.

This should be terrible news for Sony, which has staked pretty much its entire product line on the assumption that we'll mortgage our firstborn to get higher-resolution video. Conversely, great news for TV viewers: you don't have to buy that HD screen and Blu-Ray player, it won't improve your enjoyment: good movies are good without it, and crappy ones will still be crappy even with it.

Unfortunately, Sony wouldn't be Sony if its plans were based on anything as fickle as "what we want". The poor old consumer is routinely stitched up with products that they either didn't ask for, or actually begged not to get - cellphone cameras, rolling news, American Idol, movie sequels (and prequels, and remakes, and Jar-Jar), cover versions, deep-ocean oil rigs, wars, Windows upgrades...

And HDTV is one of these. We're already being forced to accept "digital TV", on the laughable pretext that it will simultaneously allow more channels and better quality (which is a bit like wiring up your aircon so that it will only work when your heating is on maximum). Within ten years, I confidently predict, non-HD TVs will be hard to buy, ruinously expensive to service or repair, and incapable of receiving anything other than rolling news and reality TV. Thus requiring more movies and programs to be remade, to meet our higher expectations.

Consumerism. Gotta love it. After all, what choice do we have?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Biblical taxation

For some reason, there's been a lot of coverage lately of an American politician named Michelle Bachmann, who favours a "biblical" model of taxation. "We render to God that which is God’s and the Bible calls for ... maybe 10%", she apparently says.

Since I was brought up to believe that everyone - no matter how stupid or insane they sound at first encounter - has something to teach me, it occurred to me to wonder what a Biblical tax model might really look like.

Sadly, Bachmann has it quite wrong. When Jesus was questioned about taxation, He pointed out that money bears the image of Caesar, not God, and therefore (He implied) it is Caesar's domain (Matthew 22:21); the church has no call on it at all. What one should "give to God" is "what is God's" - a definition that, given the context, is clearly meant to exclude money. Paul, ever the pragmatist, recommends that Christians should give a fraction of their income for the upkeep of their church (1 Cor 16:1-2) - but he never mentions the 10% figure. And money donated to the church is, in any case, entirely separate from the issue of paying taxes; the donation is, very explicitly, not a tax - it is something that must be given voluntarily, "not reluctantly or under compulsion" (2 Cor 9:7). The "tithe" is an Old Testament concept, where it's levied by the Temple to support its works - again, quite separately from what the state or the king demand for their works.

Clearly, in conflating taxes with tithes, this Bachmann is on very unsound ground theologically.

I can, however, think of one example in the Bible where a righteous figure is charged with managing a secular tax regime. In Genesis 41:33-49, Pharaoh appoints Joseph as first minister of Egypt, to establish a tax rate of 20% in years of plenty; the idea being that it will be doled out in the lean years to follow (making Joseph, arguably, the first Keynesian).

This tax is raised for one purpose: to alleviate the effects of famine (recession) by feeding the hungry. It does not include any allowance for defence, law and order, education, fire safety, maintenance of public roads or buildings, the Pharaoh's majesty, or any other kind of public service - those are all extra, presumably levied by a separate, parallel set of collectors. This 20% is taken purely for the purpose of redistribution.

What could we do with a regime like that?

The UK's GDP per head, today, is around £27,000 per annum. Imagine if the government took 20% of that money (only a fraction of its actual spending, of course) and simply paid it out evenly to everyone over the age of 18. Assuming one-fifth of the population is under that age, that'd be a shade over £120 per adult per week.

That's enough to live on. Not "live well", of course - you'd probably have to share lodgings, and you couldn't support much of a family on it. But enough to take the edge off poverty. No matter what happens - employed, unemployed, self-employed, retired, on holiday, in education, in prison - every UK citizen would have a guaranteed top-up to whatever other income they could get. For life.

I think that would be a Good Thing.

It would remove the poverty trap - no more losing benefits when you gain income, because all lesser benefits are simply abolished. It would massively cut down on the government-related paperwork that afflicts ordinary people (I've been unemployed, I remember it with horror to this day - and what I had to put up with, including the 90% marginal tax rate, was only a fraction of the ordeal that's inflicted on the most vulnerable people in society when they try to claim, for instance, disability living allowance). It would establish a base level of income for everyone, tied directly to national income, thus reducing inequality. It would allow us to forget about "fully funded pensions" - pension income would be, quite transparently, paid for out of current income (which is what must happen anyway, it's the only thing that makes economic sense, and anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something). It would support rural areas and take the pressure off inner cities - honest people need not be quite so desperate for jobs. It would eliminate the state retirement age, and indeed the entire concept of "retirement" - you could stop working at whatever age you felt you could afford it, and change your mind at any time later, with no repercussions and no paperwork.

So how, specifically, would we go about paying for the Universal Benefit?

For starters, it's considerably more than the current jobseeker's allowance, or the basic state pension (even including the winter fuel allowance), or disability living allowance, carer's allowance, child benefit, maternity benefit... So we could scrap all of those - basically, reduce the Department for Work & Pensions to a rump department charged solely with keeping track of who's still alive and what bank account they want their money paid into. That would save about one-sixth of the entire government budget, or over 35% of the money needed, without levying a penny more in taxes.

Second, the Universal Benefit itself would be taxable. So while the poorest get the full £120 a week, a top-rate taxpayer would get only £72 (my tax rates may be a shade out of date, but never mind that for now). Let's call it, to a reasonable back-of-the-envelope level of precision, another 25% of the cost clawed back directly from taxpayers at present rates.

The remaining cost to be charged in a direct tax amounting to 8% on all UK incomes. Since the money we're still looking for is (40% of 20%) of national income, it follows that 8% of national income would fill the gap. Of course there's still the zero-tax band (below, say, £10k), so the actual rate for those paying would have to be a bit higher - say, 9-10%. We could call it "national insurance contributions", and no-one would even notice the difference.

Who'd've thunk? It turns out that Bachmann has a fantastic idea. All that's at fault is her reading of the Bible.

Friday, July 30, 2010

De grass is riz

Spring is - well, trying to.

The basic winter weather pattern of rain, wind and chill has given way to a more compromising rhythm, in which the rain sometimes takes whole days off. As I type this, the sun is actually looking quite friendly. Hardy European souls like me can now wander about Auckland, during the day, without even a jacket on.

The downside is, I really have to drag out the lawnmower as soon as I'm able. In this idiotic climate, the grass never really stops growing. As a result, the lawn - and even more, the communal area I take care of - are looking more than a little shaggy.

One of the neighbours was dropping heavy hints to me the other day about rats nesting in long grass. Personally, I think the local cat population should be well on top of that - we see them prowling about quite routinely. But I do want to mow it anyway, before it gets even more out of hand.

Once upon a time, my ancestors mowed the grass with a scythe - a tool that positively relished length. For the past 20 years, I've searched for such an instrument in every DIY store and garden centre I've been in. You just can't get 'em. And so I have to struggle with a powered lawnmower, which costs ten times as much, requires recharging, and can't cope with grass that's more than ankle-deep. That's progress for you.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

On officers

When I received my training, such as it was, in the law as it applies to journalism - in 1989/90 - the lesson that stuck most in my mind was the simplest:
The only special treatment you can claim, as a journalist, is the right to be treated exactly like everyone else. You have no authority to go anywhere, to do, say, photograph or talk to anything or anyone, that any member of the public couldn't do. You can flash a press card, sure, but all it does is maybe help to persuade the person you're talking to that you're not just a random prodnose. Legally, it means bugger all.
At first it didn't seem like much. But the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. It's very comforting to be just a part of the crowd. And it has a flip side: "no rights" also means "no obligations". There's no requirement, for instance, for a journalist to identify him/herself, except as a courtesy.

(There was also a very cool lesson about libel: "If you're going to libel someone, don't pussyfoot around. Lay into them properly. At least that way you'll get your money's worth." But I digress.)

Sadly, I believe this is no longer the case in Britain. I've read, for instance - with what accuracy I don't know - that journalists now enjoy the right to take photographs of some types of events and places. The implication being, of course, that ordinary people don't have that right.

It's always a mistake for a law to single out a group of people for special treatment. Show me a law containing a personal label (such as "journalist", "teacher", "police officer", "minister of religion", "foreign national"), and I'll show you a bad law. ("Bad" in the sense of unnecessary, ineffective, morally corrupt, or any combination of the above.)

For example: police officers are entitled to enter your house if they have a warrant, and that's fine - anyone can do that, although most of us would have a hard time persuading a judge to issue the warrant. They can also enter if they have a good reason to believe that it's necessary to protect someone or something from imminent harm. Again, well and good. If you hear someone yelling "Help! Rape!" from a private house, you should probably do the same, so long as you're reasonably sure you'd survive the experience.

But somewhere along the line, some fool (I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt in assuming that they were probably just stupid, not actively malicious) decided that police officers, in particular, should also force their way in where they have merely the suspicion that something illegal might have happened - for instance, if they smell cannabis smoke. And that's how we end up with stories like this one. Which leads, as inexorably as eyes follow legs, to more special rules being made, driving the wedge ever deeper between Us and Them. Until you reach the position where both parties forget that they are supposed to be on the same side.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Two concepts of fairness

Sarah, my sis-in-law, was talking about the State of Kids Today the other month. Not complaining exactly. She likes kids, and prides herself on talking to them on their own terms. But still, she sometimes gets a shade exasperated. "She kept saying 'It's not fair!' So I asked her 'Can you tell me what you mean by fair?' When she thought about it, she had to admit that basically she meant 'I don't like it!'. That's all 'fair' really means."

(Sarah is an eloquent woman. She really does talk like that, punctuation and everything.)

I thought it was a good observation, but incomplete. 'Fair' may be vague, but vague isn't the same as useless. And it doesn't only mean 'fair to me' - there is more to it than that. Kids will often invoke 'fairness' on behalf of others, not just themselves.

Last week, no less an organ than The Economist ran a leader headed 'Against fairness'. This frankly bizarre piece argues that it's a weasel word used by politicians to fudge the necessity to make hard choices.
Fairness is fudge. This newspaper will have none of it. We reject the wide, woolly notion of fairness in favour of sharper, narrower words that mean what they say, like just or cruel.
When I read that, it was my turn to be exasperated. This is pure Newspeak: limiting language, with the aim of limiting thought.

'Fair', in case anyone was in doubt, is not meant to be a synonym for 'just'. When lawyers talk about the concept of fairness - and surprisingly, they do in fact talk about it quite a lot - the word they use is 'equity'. Therein lies a clue to how the concept works.

I recalled an essay I wrote, a couple of years ago now, on the difference between 'liberty' and 'freedom'. I had always kind of assumed that the two words were synonymous; and if you look in a dictionary, the meanings are very similar. But if you look at the historical and cultural baggage they bring with them, they are very different. The bird that symbolises liberty is an eagle - an apex predator, majestic, fearless, and above all strong - liberty is something that must be asserted, defended, recognised. Whereas freedom requires no special size or strength: in the canonical representation of 'captivity', it's not an eagle that's in the cage, but a canary. I associated the two words with Isaiah Berlin's concepts of "positive and negative liberty" - freedom to, and freedom from.

Freedom - what Berlin calls 'negative liberty' - is the area within which one may act without being prevented. As such, the very word implies limits. "If I say that I am unable to jump more than ten feet in the air [...] it would be eccentric to say that I am to that degree enslaved or coerced." Whereas liberty - Berlin's 'positive liberty' - recognises no such constraints: "I wish to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were, from outside."

I think there's a similar relationship between 'fair' and 'just'. 'Free' and 'fair' are Anglo-Saxon words whose meaning is so simple that any kid can grasp them, even without being able to define them. Anglo-Saxon rhetoric flows from the soul, not the mind. Whereas Latin-derived words, like 'justice' and 'liberty' (and, of course, 'equity'), are the subject of endless debate, political demagoguery and hair-splitting sophistry.

Back to The Economist's uncharacteristically ill-thought-out rant:
To one lot of people, fairness means establishing the same rules for everybody, playing by them, and letting the best man win and the winner take all. To another, it means making sure that everybody gets equal shares.
Personally I would have no hesitation in telling anyone who expressed either of those views that their game design was deeply flawed. Good games are not 'winner take all', because that leaves the losers with nothing, and people with nothing have no way to play; nor do they guarantee 'equal shares', because that would be not so much a game as a story. Equity is 'balanced', but it does not prejudge the outcome - it is not equality.

'Playing by the rules' may be just, but 'winner take all' is clearly not equitable. 'Fairness' implies balance, in much the same way as 'freedom' implies limits. The same word 'equity', that lawyers use to describe 'fairness', in finance means 'shares'. That's not a coincidence.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Cooking tips

I'm a big fan of efficiency. My boss calls it "laziness", a virtue that he respects enormously - the ability to get results with the minimum possible investment.

Nowhere is this skill more important than in the kitchen. Despite the addition of our lovely Danske Møbler sideboard, space is still at a premium and we only have two saucepans. And when Susan starts to get hungry, her normally sunny disposition starts to cloud over, and getting calories into her becomes a time-critical exercise. I dread to think what she'd do if she were dining in Hell's Kitchen.

Thus it came about that last night, when I'd put the rice on and realised I hadn't hard-boiled the eggs as I'd intended, I came up with the bright idea of popping the eggs in with the rice. After all, I reasoned, it's all boiling water, isn't it? And rice requires ten minutes of simmering plus five to ten minutes of standing - that's surely enough time to get a nice hard-boiled result, yes?

For the record, it is. The eggs were perfect. There were only two drawbacks.

The first became apparent when the time came to hook the eggs out of the bed of quietly steaming rice. A spoon did that job nicely, but it also hooked a non-trivial amount of rice out with them, which immediately stuck like glue to the shell. I don't know why rice (Basmati, in case it makes a difference) is so adhesive to eggshell, but take it from me, there is an affinity there.

The second struck me when I contemplated the smooth, shiny whiteness of the freshly peeled eggs. Each egg showed a distinct patch of yellow to one side. Deprived of the tossing motion of the more conventional rapid boiling, the yolks had settled to one side. Not a disaster, merely a minor suboptimality.

I offer this finding in the spirit of furthering human understanding. My training as a process engineer tells me that your less brilliant ideas are just as worthy to be recorded as the best of them; that way, you (and others) will know, next time, without having to do the experiment again.

You're welcome.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Rewards and expectations

So England crashed out of the World Cup, to the surprise of no-one except those few million fans who seem to have a 44-year blind spot in their collective memory. And this is disgraceful and pathetic, and shows that England's footballers, and their coach, are a bunch of overpaid, overrated pillocks.

Well, fair enough. I can't see any way of arguing that anyone who earns that much isn't overpaid. It's not as if there were a critical shortage of applicants for their jobs.

But I can't help being struck by the contrast with the New Zealand story of the 2010 World Cup. The unfortunately named All Whites succeeded in getting draws in all three of their first-round games, failing to make it to the second round. And this is a national triumph, the best result ever for New Zealand football, and suddenly the All Whites are national heroes.

Such is the alchemy of "expectations", which can transform the same result into triumph or disaster.

And salaries, of course. We are very attached to the unfounded superstition that, if we pay more for certain jobs, we'll get better people. How's that working out?

Friday, June 4, 2010

The impulsive economy

Scott Adams has a glum view of the outlook for authors and other creative-artist types in the coming decades. He sums it up as his theory of content value: "As our ability to search for media content improves, the economic value of that content will approach zero."
I predict that the profession known as "author" will be retired to history in my lifetime, like blacksmith and cowboy. In the future, everyone will be a writer, and some will be better and more prolific than others. But no one will pay to read what anyone else creates. People might someday write entire books - and good ones - for the benefit of their own publicity, such as to promote themselves as consultants, lecturers, or the like. But no one born today is the next multi-best-selling author. That job won't exist.
Adams isn't the only one predicting the death of Old Media. There's been a bull market in such predictions anytime this past fifteen years. The argument goes: since "content" is essentially free (on the internet), the only reasons people are still paying for it all boil down to inertia, and that won't last forever.

While I have enormous respect for Adams (and other prophets who've said the same thing), I think they're working from a fundamentally flawed mental model.

The flaw dates right back to the economics we learned in school, where a consumer has $whatever to spend, and divides it up into 'budgets' - $something for necessities, $something for savings, $whatever's left for luxuries/discretionary spending. Within that "discretionary" budget - the theory goes - they make rational decisions based on what will give them the greatest satisfaction ("utility") for the $.

In that case, why would anyone spend their limited $ on something that they could get for free? It's - not rational.

And that model is well and good. But it's based on a fundamental assumption that just isn't true in real life: that the consumer is on a budget.

Oh, of course they are in a sense. Big-picture wise. They live where they can afford to live, the clothes they wear and the consumer goods they possess and the car they drive - these things are dictated, in large part, by their income. But for the small stuff - for books, magazines, movies, fast food, drinks - there is no exact limit to their spending. If they overspend one month, all that means is that they put off buying that big-screen TV for another month. It's not a decision they'll even notice making.

In general, the only time they'll set a fixed weekly budget is when they're driven to it by a crisis - unemployment, baby, divorce or whatever - and when the crisis is past, they'll abandon the budget just as soon as they think they can get away with it.

What this means is that a significant part of people's spending is not so much "discretionary" as "impulsive". And getting one's hands on that money is not about offering them the most attractive package for their money, compared with your competitors. It's about persuading them to give you some money.

Not much money. The best business models for this part of the economy, I think, are those that take small amounts, but take them frequently. A coffee shop is a good example (occupying the same niche that pubs have, by and large, been taxed out of).

Another is mobile phones. The operators have only recently realised that their market falls into this category, which is why they're now frantically marketing "packages" designed to subsidise heavy users at the expense of lighter ones - so that each individual customer only sees bills that are just small enough not to sweat about - because if the bill is small enough, then the provider can live happily in that "impulse" segment where spending isn't scrutinised at all.

In the digital economy, Apple has built the most successful business model of the past decade on this insight. Everyone knows that paying money for music, online, is entirely optional - there are lots of ways to hear that music for free, many of them entirely legal. But if you price it as an "impulse" buy, and make the process easy enough, then an awful lot of people will succumb to that impulse. In other words: you can compete with "free".

Within that impulsive proportion of their spending, people don't "spend" all their money to get the best possible "utility" for their limited resources. They spend it to feel better about themselves. From the providers' point of view, they're pretty much giving it away; the trick is to get them to give it to you rather than, say, Coca-Cola.

And this is the key to how authors are going to survive in the next couple of decades. It's not about "selling" a product. It's an exercise in persuasion. Make people want to give you money - to give a talk, shake your hand and collect your autograph, put your picture in a magazine, subscribe to your latest writings, convert you into a TV series or a range of coffee mug slogans, go to bed with you... whatever. Or even to have a small bundle of paper with your name and your words printed on it, to sit on their coffee table and lend to their friends and read wherever and whenever they like, unlike electronic devices which are too bulky, and too fragile, to use in many environments. We could call it "a book".

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

I could easily use another pun on 'tooth', here

People can get very confused when you go off-script.

Yesterday took me back to the dentist. Not for the root canal this time, but for a general 12,000 mile service. The assistant, knowing I was British, asked me how I like New Zealand.

After five and a half years, I'm used to that question. But I still don't know quite what to say to it. I equivocate.

"At least the weather is better than England, huh?"

I look out at the concrete-grey sky, the leaves carried by the bitter winter wind across the car park, the runoff from ten days of rain that has left much of the country underwater. I think of late May/early June in England.

"No," I reply firmly. "I haven't been to England in the past week, but I'm pretty sure the weather right now is better than this."

It catches her completely off-balance. The impression I get is that in all the many times she's had this conversation before, nobody has ever said British weather is better than NZ.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

, != &

Today's New Zealand Herald carries, as the subheading on its lead story, "Prison tower looming over motorway and schools offends mayor, community".

I've always hated the hideous American journalistic habit of using a comma to mean "and". In this case it's not even necessary to save space - the line, as printed, is about three characters shy. But I've always been able to comfort myself that it's only an Americanism, and civilised newspapers don't do it.

So much for comfort. Next thing I know they'll be talking about what "we reported May 27th". And the day I see the word "ouster", that's the day I stop buying this crappy paper.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Failures of imagination

I just noticed a poster for the new Robin Hood movie.

No, we're not quite that far behind the times. The poster has been there for, ooh, must be over a month already. But sometimes I'm a slow reader.

From all I've heard, I have no interest in seeing the current movie. I've often complained about the prolonged rape of British culture by America - the process by which our stories are taken without so much as an acknowledgment to a thousand years of tradition (or, in some cases, to real live heroes) - then recast in dysfunctional Hollywood molds to suit some featherbrained modern philosophy and sold back to us - and it's going to take a more appealing offering than this to sell me on such a product again. I think one per year is a reasonable limit.

But what struck me today was the tagline: "The untold story behind the legend".

Of course, every generation retells myths in its own image. That's what myths are for. What I'm wondering now is, what does it say about our generation that this version is being marketed as some kind of "true story"? (The same thing happened to King Arthur in 2004.)

Throughout the history of cinema, Robin Hood has been a fruitful vehicle for stories. You can watch virtually any version and deduce what decade it was made in by the political values it espouses. Our hero has been cast as a Saxon liberation fighter (in the 1930s), a selfless patriot (in the 1950s), an economic pragmatist (1990s), and today, from what I read, he's become a rationalist republican, chafing against taxation in general. Maid Marian's role has been steadily upgraded over the decades, from passive damsel in varying degrees of distress, to (in some cases) full-fledged bandit leader and the real brains behind the whole operation. In the 1990s it became de rigueur to include a token "Saracen" in the Merry Men. I gather the latest version was initially supposed to cast the Sheriff of Nottingham as the hero, and Robin as a sort of proto-terrorist; but then Obama's election showed a public falling out-of-love with the police state, and the Rebel-figure suddenly became glamourous again. (A shame - I might well have gone to see Nottingham.)

At the same time, films have striven for "authenticity" in sets and costumes - from Errol Flynn's tights, via Sean Connery's chainmail, to Patrick Bergin's mud. This is a fashion thing - Hollywood has long taught us to despise "stagey" settings, costumes and acting. But there's a big difference between "authenticity" and "truth". Showing something that approximates, in at least some dimensions, to the reality of medieval life, is not the same as pretending that the story you're telling is a bona-fide recreation of actual events.

Maybe it's the CSI syndrome applied to folklore: we've grown accustomed to see people using magical computers to recreate past events based on the thinnest of evidence, so why shouldn't we demand the same of historians? - that they should "know" things that no-one will ever know, short of the invention of time travel. Maybe it's the way Hollywood has infantilised its audience, to the point where we can no longer accept historical tales for what they are - an imaginative retelling of an old story.

Or maybe it's just a marketing department with a total failure of imagination, trying to make a completely redundant film seem, for a few weeks at least, like a significant contribution to our culture.

Personal faults

Last I saw, niq was trying to make this a new meme, so here's my contribution:
  1. I'm lazy. I have a chronic aversion to work (defined as "doing what I'm paid for"). In my defence, this wasn't the case when I had a job that interested me; but then, I haven't really gone out of my way to find such a job (my research suggests they are very few and far between). My present employer sees laziness as a positive character trait: "Lazy people are efficient, they're good at identifying what really needs to be done", he says.
  2. I'm arrogant. I think I earn "about enough", and I'm impatient of those who want to earn vastly more - more than about three times what I make. I think most of the economic misery in the world today can be laid at the door of ambitious people.
Phew. That was hard to do. If anyone connects my real name to this blog, this entry will probably disappear...

Friday, May 21, 2010

Interred with their servers

Usenet meant a lot to me, at one time. Specifically, the time between 1997 and approximately 2001. I spent most of my spare time there; I made a reputation, I made friends, some of whom graduated to real-life friends; I met my wife there. If that doesn't qualify me to feel nostalgic for it, I don't know what would.

So it's with some sorrow that I read about the death of Usenet. While this death has been reported many times before, this time it probably means something.

For my less-technical readers: Usenet is (I'll use the present tense for now) a worldwide network of computers, called servers, that exchange messages. The messages are written by people - ordinary people, like me for instance - who "post" them to their local server (in much the same way as one might write and "post" an e-mail), addressed to one or more "newsgroups". Once posted, a message is promptly copied ("propagated") between hundreds or thousands of other Usenet servers in the world - this process normally takes a few tens of seconds - and subsequently read by other people, anywhere, who "subscribe" to the newsgroup you addressed it to. Anyone who reads it then has the option to reply, in the same medium.

Discussions - sequences of replies stemming from an original post - commonly go on for several days, often running to scores of posts from a dozen or more participants. A long post might spin off half a dozen tangents, and people will commonly pick on just one detail to reply to; so you frequently find yourself conducting many different, distantly-related discussions with different people. And (and I think this is the aspect that appealed most to me) all of them can read what you're saying to all the others; so you have to be either consistent or clever, or at least witty. You could take as long as you liked to compose a reply, and there was always the option of not replying at all; but if and when you did reply, it had better be consistent with what you'd written before.

It's a medium that encourages both thought and honesty. So maybe it's not surprising that it's dying.

It has its problems, of course. Spam is one - although it's not nearly so intractable on Usenet as it is in e-mail, thanks to a mechanism called "cancelling". Anonymity and anarchy can be problems: it's a perfect forum for bullies, and for loons with too much time on their hands. Usenet gave us the concepts of "flame wars" - the exchange of written insults as a form of competitive performance art - and "trolling" - the art of provoking thoughtless responses from people who haven't been around long enough to know better.

Worst of all, it popularised the form of debate that has since become known as "fisking" - line-by-line dissection of an opponent's argument - which, I think, has done a lot to shape the over-cautious, content-free journalism of our time. Journalists soon realised that no well-written article can withstand fisking (it's named after Robert Fisk - possibly the greatest journalist of his generation - because he was the most popular target for the (American) right-wing political bloggers who coined the term). The only effective defence is, simply, to avoid saying anything that it's possible to disagree with.

So why am I sad that all this is gone? Is it just nostalgia?

Well, it's interesting to note that all the bad effects are still with us. Spam, cyber-bullying, trolling and flaming and fisking - all these have outlived the medium that gave birth to them. But the good effects - that open, free discussion - that's gone.

On the web, discussion is relentlessly compartmentalised and, increasingly, professionalised. If you want to make friends on the web, you find a 'social networking' site, give them your personal details, agree to their rules, submit to their censorship, and generally put yourself at their mercy. What should be a free exchange between peers has been replaced by a commercial relationship, between users (who are, at best, a commodity), and site owners (who are gods).

If you wanted to make friends on Usenet, you just joined a group that interested you and started posting; you revealed precisely as much or as little about yourself as you wanted. You could present yourself as serious or frivolous, serenely wise, icily logical, tempestuously romantic or tortuously dadaist - all in the same day, if you could manage it. You could enter a discussion about the ageing of a fictional character between books in a series, armed with nothing more than a nodding acquaintance with literary criticism, and emerge with a wife. All of it without paying a cent.

"The evil that men do lives after them." The same, it seems, is true of technologies.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The whole tooth

We call it the Medical Mile: a stretch of Remuera Road where every building is a high-powered clinic. If you can buy a medical treatment in New Zealand, this is where you come to pick it up. Just down the road is where my sister-in-law got her eyes lasered. Along this road you can buy any treatment from a glorified pedicure to hair restoration surgery. It is not a locale for the faint-of-wallet.

It's my teeth that have brought me here. I want a deep filling replaced; my high-street dentist has spent the best part of three hours excavating it with everything short of heavy mining equipment, before declaring that she's never seen such a devious and twisted root and how would I feel about going to a specialist? It's a shame, she says, because my teeth are mostly in excellent shape - I only have the one filling, but it is, as we say up north, a doozy.

Reassuringly, the consultants' surgery is not quite on the Medical Mile itself. Presumably going twenty metres down a side road makes the rents cheaper. But inside all is light and modern and airy, a far cry from the rather dingy high-street offices of my regular dentist. You can see what these guys do with their $1000 an hour.

There are four women behind the reception desk, all of them carrying the air of full-time employees, all working. Only one of them is dealing with a visitor; according to the sign in front of her desk, she's the one I need to check in with. Of course. Her visitor is telling her all about her daughter's pregnancy.

I approve of this. Making the clients feel relaxed is an important part of the job; if that means chatting aimlessly, then chat they should. Quite right. I just wish one of the other three could deal with me in the meantime. All they have to do is hand me one of those stupid forms asking about my medical conditions. But they're far too busy to look up from their respective spreadsheets.

Eventually I get my form ("Do you have leprosy?", and suchlike penetrating questions - I wonder if the purpose is to check that you've come to the right clinic) and take a seat. There are half a dozen people in the waiting room, mostly older than me. There are two ways to look at this: either I'm successful enough to afford The Best treatment earlier in my life than others, or I'm mug enough to be paying top dollar while my hipper contemporaries all know better options. I decide to look on the bright side.

I don't have to wait long.

Dr Peter shakes me warmly by the wallet and welcomes me into his surgery. Here, again, the evidences of Upmarket are not hard to see. The mounted binocular microscopes for peering into one's cavities; the X-ray viewer displaying on screen, rather than (as at my high-street dentist) on tiny sheets of film; the video monitor on the ceiling - I'm not stuck with staring into a lamp while he rummages. On my first visit, I got to watch Belinda Carlisle - not that I was really in the mood to appreciate it, but I was looking forward to some more eye candy to relieve the next hour and a half. But instead I'm treated to BBC coverage of the aftermath of Britain's election. I'm not sure I wouldn't be better off with the lamp.

Dr P exclaims in admiration at the quality of my teeth, even while he sets to work on the miscreant molar. There are drills, buzzsaws, sanders - it looks like Black & Decker's entire catalogue in 1/36 scale - and pretty soon I can sense the gaping hole where my temporary filling used to be. Then he attacks the remaining filling material with a collection of solvents, the least of which is chloroform. I'm wondering whatever happened to general anaesthetics.

The session lasted a little longer than the budgeted 90 minutes, so I consider myself lucky to be charged a mere $1000 for the experience. And now I have a nice even filling that looks and feels vaguely like a tooth. Bargain. The downside is that I have to go back in June for him to take out the temporary inner filling and replace it with a permanent one.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Yo ho ho

The good ol' Business Software Alliance has released its annual study of software piracy rates worldwide. And this time - after some people whinged about the lack of clarity over their methodology - they've also released a video explaining how they compile the figures.

I can't comment on the video, because whenever I try to view it my browser crashes. This is a classic obfuscation tactic: put part of the documentation in a form that we can't read, then, when we ask questions, they can just ask "Did you watch the video?" Nice work, but I'd have to deduct marks for lack of originality.

So instead let's look at the methodology section of the published report itself:
The basic method for coming up with rates and commercial value of unlicensed software in a country is as follows:
1. Determine how much PC software was deployed in 2009.
2. Determine how much PC software was paid for/legally acquired in 2009.
3. Subtract one from the other to get the amount of unlicensed software.
Which raises two rather obvious questions: how do you go about step 1? and how do you go about step 2?

The next page explains helpfully: "Total software units installed = # PCs getting SW × Units per PC"

By now I'm getting déjà vu. This is like sixth-form economics, when I learned the infamous monetarist equation "Money supply × Velocity of circulation = Price level × Number of transactions". It's true, but it tells us nothing about how to measure all these things.
To get the total number of software units installed [...] IDC determines how many computers there are in a country and how many received software in 2009. IDC tracks this information quarterly in 105 countries, either in products called ‘PC Trackers’ or as part of custom assignments.
A swift Google search suggests that the only "products" commonly called "PC trackers" are a form of software used to play music. Unless the survey is using its own variant of the language here, in which case it might (more plausibly) mean some form of spyware. Again, kudos on the obfuscation - using words to mean something other than what the rest of the world means by them, that's another good tactic to ensure that no-one can tell what the hell you're up to.

If it means "music software", then your survey will be weighted towards people who care about playing music on their PCs. If it means "spyware", then - apart from dubious legality in several countries - that means your survey will be weighted towards people who don't take their digital hygiene very seriously. If it means something else entirely, then I wish you'd say so. Whichever, it will produce results that are weighted one way or another; how do you compensate for this weighting?

It gets worse.
For countries that are not surveyed, IDC uses a methodology that relies on a correlation between the number of software units per PC and an emerging market measure published by the International Telecommunications Union, called the Information Development Index (IDI). IDC also considers other correlations such as gross domestic product
(GDP) per capita, PC penetration and various measures of institutional strength
(It's "International Telecommunication Union", by the way. Don't worry, everyone gets that wrong.) More importantly, this means that you're basing your "survey" - which you are asking governments and the like to accept as primary evidence - on secondary sources. (Arguably, tertiary sources even.) You're using "various measures of institutional strength" to estimate rates of software piracy, then using those estimates to argue for stronger institutions. Do you really see nothing wrong with this process?

There's more, but by now my readers can be divided into (a) those who agree with me already and (b) those who've stopped reading. Plus, if I'm really lucky, (c) some junior BSA analyst or press officer who's been briefed to look for blog posts on the subject.

The tone of the report seems to have changed from past years. This is welcome. There's no scaremongering here about connections between pirates, pornographers, traffickers and terrorists; instead, we have a few plausible tales about the dangers of doing business with people without some sort of enforceable contractual relationship. There's also some cajolery about the benefits of paying for your software. What bothers me here is that the best they can come up with is "support and updates". I know what that means: "support" means that if you get an address to send e-mail to (although there's absolutely no reason to believe that any kind of help will come back), and "updates" means that every time you go online your bandwidth gets crushed by a honking great patch to deal with some bug that would never have been allowed out of the door under any kind of competent QA regime.

I find it kinda sad that, after 30 years of shrinkwrapped software, the industry still can't come up with any better incentives to buy its product than these.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Twitting

Well, I've been avidly following the BBC coverage of the UK elections all night. It was either that or work. And, by way of experiment, I've recorded my impressions at intervals in bites of 140 characters or less. This is how the night has looked, from down here:

God, Jeremy Paxman hasn't half aged. I wonder if he's stopped dying his hair. Or started. Perhaps grey is the new black.

Is that the Dimbleby? At least his hair looks natural. Which is more than I can say for the studio, looks like a Quantel dream gone berserk.

"Voters angry at being turned away from polling stations." What, a 15 hour day isn't long enough to get your arse down to a polling station?

"2230 California gov Arnold Schwarzenegger phones David Cameron to congratulate him." What does the Governator know that we don't?

Pix of queues outside polling booths. Good grief. But turnout is no more than usual. Cock-up, conspiracy, or both?

Maybe ID requirements have been tightened up, to demonstrate how ID cards are Absolutely Necessary In Today's Dangerous World.

What is the BBC playing at? Cosy panel of insomniac pundits is replaced by frantic bustling room of 30-plus. Trying to impress Americans?

Good luck with that. It's hard enough to get a US television audience to watch their own elections.

"BREAKING NEWS: Next result - Sunderland Central - Labour win". Surely "Lab hold"? This is the kind of thing I'd expect from Sky News.

"2303: Another former Lib Dem leader Neil Kinnock also says the figure for the Lib Dems is "almost certainly wrong"." It's not alone.

"2346 The BNP saved their deposit in Washington and Sunderland West." Oh dear. Maybe inevitable after Gordo's little Episode.

"The prime minister will try to form a coalition government in the event of a hung parliament." NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

National result after 17 seats: 4.2% swing to Con. Not nearly enough. Good grief, how much must Cameron suck that he can't even beat GB?

"0135 Gordon Brown increases his majority." Seriously, how was "date with density" wrong?

"0150 Lib Dems fail to win Guildford, Tory majority increased." Nothing like a Lib Dem threat to galvanise the Tory vote.

More license money being well spent. Have you seen what they're playing with right now?

"0236 Speaking on the BBC election boat,..." - "Election boat"? Seriously - WTF?

Very disappointing night for the Lib Dems. That's the downside of being taken seriously - people start to look at *all* your policies.

Cameron clearly thinks he's won. His constituency victory speech is all about what he'll do as PM.

Bet he's still hoping for a razor-thin majority. He knows the next five years will be a mess, he'll want to be able to share the blame.

0308: Alex Salmond concedes defeat to Labour. Damn shame. There was one party I'd love to see come out a big winner.

0313: BBC says UKIP and BNP have gained, but Greens have lost ground. So, not just a "protest" defection to minor parties then.

0321: Stories of problems for overseas voters: ballots not delivered. What with the home voters being turned away - bit of a balls-up, then.

0416: "BBC's freelancer at Stevenage reports expected declaration time at 0330am." Even *with* all those people, BBC still can't keep up.

0618: Tories now on 268 out of 550, Labour 213, LD 42. So 27 "others". If "others" split or abstain (Sinn Fein), that's a Tory majority.

0622: Bugger this for a game of soldiers, I'm going home. No doubt I'll hear the result on the News Quiz.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Soul music

(Note: this post talks a lot about popular music. I'm not including links to each song; you can search YouTube as well as I can.)

While my mother was, on the whole, charmed beyond reason with our fair country, there was one aspect of our colonial lifestyle that drove her completely up the wall. This was the inescapability of background music.

Just to be clear what we're talking about here: in New Zealand, practically every shop, mall, cafe, restaurant, food hall, arcade, bar and supermarket you can walk into has its own canned music playing - usually low, but very audible. It's everywhere. Even on the street you can often hear it. It is so ubiquitous that, when I find a rare case of a shop that doesn't have it, I will pause and wonder for a few moments before I figure out what's missing - then I'll enjoy the peace.

Contrast: in 1992 I visited Budapest - my first trip behind what used to be called the Iron Curtain - and there, too, I found music everywhere; but that was live music, played by real musicians. Good musicians. It seemed that dozens of concert-quality violinists, cellists, clarinetists, trios, quartets, and even (on at least one occasion) an entire symphony orchestra, were trying to supplement their livings by busking in the streets and public spaces. The result was noisy, but not unpleasant.

The music here is not like that. It's recorded, trawled from chart hits and popular oldies (occasionally dating back to the primordial days of the 70s or 80s), and played endlessly at a background level. In short, it's music at its worst. Some places have a more upmarket selection - mellow jazz, piano arrangements, whatever - but these are rare.

In my workplace, music is played over speakers all day long. This irks me on several levels. First, there's the choice of music - in an office of 20-plus people, most of them young, you can imagine how hard it is to reach a consensus on what should be included in the playlist. Then there's the volume; some people want it loud, some want it soft, I want it switched off entirely. There's the chorus of jeers and outbreaks of banter and lively discussion when certain music or artists pop up in the rotation, which varies - depending on what, if anything, I'm trying to concentrate on - from mildly entertaining to knuckle-chompingly distracting.

"Why don't we just each listen to our own music on our own headphones?", I've asked more than once. It's not as if everyone in the office didn't have an MP3 player of some description, to say nothing of their own computers. That's what we used to do back in good ol' Bristol, and the result was a happy and hardworking office with background noise kept sternly under control.

But that was in England, where personal space is a serious matter. More importantly, I think, it was among mature professionals, not the 20-somethings that dominate this workplace. Rejecting the music here is seen as rejecting your colleagues' tastes and values.

And somehow, I think, there's more to it than 'tastes and values'. Music is no longer just a matter of preferences. Increasingly, with the ubiquity of pop music, it's become a part of our very souls.

When I hear a song I've heard before, there's a part of my mind that is irresistibly drawn back to the previous times I've heard it. In most cases that's a weak or meaningless memory, but with a few songs, it's deeply embedded in my mind. If I hear Spiller's 'Groovejet', for instance, I am instantly dragged back to the late summer of 2000 - the time I quit my job and spent eight months eking out a freelancer's pittance. It was uncomfortable, but very liberating. Anything by the Cardigans recalls the mid 90s, which to me means security, boredom, loneliness and opportunity. Tears for Fears - my sixth form - a combination of naïve optimism, creative romanticism and teenage desperation. And I can't hear Shakira's 'Whenever, wherever' without being taken back to a chalet at Center Parcs, with a bunch of my oldest friends from university. ("Is that Britney?", asked Penny. "No way," I thought. "That woman has more talent in her hair clippings than Britney will ever muster." But I didn't say it out loud, just in case I was wrong.)

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that these songs are a part of my soul. Because of the way pop songs are promoted - played widely and frequently for a short time, then discarded - they will always be associated with particular phases and periods of my life. They will always evoke some kind of feelings in me - feelings that are nothing to do with the singer or the song, but are mine, arising from my life and my personal history.

And I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in feeling this way. That's why there are so many 'oldies' radio stations out there, each aiming at its own particular demographic.

This realisation comes with some uncomfortable corrollaries. First is that my emotions can be readily, though clumsily, manipulated by someone who knows what songs to play. Really I'm not worried about that, because these associations are far too personal for any stranger to guess precisely what effect any given song will have on me in any given situation.

Then there's the thought that a part of me is made up of the horribly commercialised products of an industry that is justly renowned for destroying human beings, in pursuit of fame and wealth. And that the music industry itself, increasingly, tries to manipulate my associations with their 'product' by placing it in TV shows, movies, games and elsewhere; these people are trying to write directly to my soul.

And this may be a clue to why my current colleagues can't imagine their world without constant music. It has been written to their souls. They hear the soundtrack to a movie, and their memory is of whatever excitement and pleasure they felt in watching the movie. They hear a song that was used in a TV ad when they were ten, and they remember life as a ten-year-old. It's not quite that simple, of course; but it's a lot easier to predict their responses than those of us who've reached middle age, with our wider variety of background and experience.

Finally, in the uncomfortable-reflections column: this is the music that, the industry insists, doesn't belong to me. If I want to play it, to evoke those memories - my memories, remember - I have to pay them to do it.

This, I think, is another important clue to my colleagues' attitudes. Because not one of them would dream of paying for any of this music - they simply rip it from somewhere online. The music played in our office is not paid for. And even though I don't generally condone piracy or commit it on my own behalf, and even though I hate the music, I find myself wholeheartedly approving of this attitude. The notion that you can implant something into someone else, and then claim to own it - that is just Evil. So, I think - good on my colleagues, for their subtle but ongoing 'Screw you' to the industry.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

ACTA - the fair, the bad, and the just plain silly

The full negotiating text of the long-secret 'Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement' has finally been released.

As everyone and her dog has long known, the agreement has little to do with "counterfeiting" as we English-speakers know it ("trying to pass something off as something else"), but is rather about protecting the revenue streams of the US congress by "harmonising" international copyright law. Apparently, the six existing international treaties on the subject just aren't cutting it. True counterfeiting (trademark infringement) does get a mention, but it is very much an afterthought. The real meat is all in 'copyright'.

In the Kafka-esque process of negotiating this secret treaty, there have been several rounds of "consultation" in which we, the public, have been invited - albeit very quietly - to comment on various aspects of the text that we've never been permitted to see. In the last such round, I sent in a short submission to the NZ delegation on the aspect that most bothers me, which is an area known in NZ law as "technological protection measures".

TPMs sound complicated and obscure, but in fact they're not nearly obscure enough. They are what prevents you from playing your Region 1 DVD in a Region 2 DVD player, from using your backup copy of your software CD, from copying the text from your legally-purchased e-book, from saving a streaming media file to your desktop to listen offline.

All of these actions are, at least in NZ and the UK, explicitly permitted by law - that is to say, a copyright holder has no right to prevent us from doing them, without asking permission, even if they want to. Yet TPMs are used to nullify those laws and stop us anyway. And - and here's the kick in the teeth - the publishing industry wants it to be illegal to "circumvent" a TPM, regardless of the circumventor's motives or their use of the product. That is what I'm fighting to keep out of NZ law.

In the event, the text is so convoluted that it's hard to see who's winning. Omitting footnotes, and condensing without loss of meaning (note: ellipses mark excisions for brevity; square brackets are in the original):
Effective technological measure means any technology ... that, in the normal course of its operation, [controls access to a protected work, performance, phonogram, or protects any copyright or any rights related to copyrights.][is controlled by the right holders through application of an access control or protection process such as encryption, scrambling, or other transformation of their works, performances or phonograms, or a copy control mechanism, which achieves the protection objective.]

[4. In order to provide adequate legal protection and effective legal remedies against the circumvention of effective technological measures that are used by authors, [performers or producers of phonograms] [the right holder of any copyright or related rights or owner of an exclusive license] in connection with the exercise of their rights and that restrict unauthorized acts in respect of their works... each Party shall provide for civil remedies, [or] [as well as] criminal penalties in appropriate cases of willful conduct, that apply to:

[Each Party shall provide for adequate legal protection and effective legal remedies... against the circumvention of effective technological measures that are used by authors, performers or producers or phonograms in connection with the exercise of their rights and that restrict unauthorized acts in respect of their works, performances, and phonogram. These shall apply to:]

(a) the unauthorized circumvention of an effective technological measure [that controls access to a protected work, performance, or phonogram]; and
(b) the manufacture, importation, or circulation of a [technology] ... that is: [marketed] or primarily designed or produced for the purpose of circumventing an effective technological measure; or that has only a limited commercially significant purpose or use other than...
I think I begin to see why the Americans finally agreed to let this be published. The various options and alternate clauses are so divergent, I could be headed for a famous victory or a disastrous defeat; it's literally impossible to tell.

A TPM may be something that "controls access to a protected work... protects any copyright or any rights related to copyright [name three - Ed]". Or alternatively, it may be something that "is controlled by the right holders through application of an access control or protection process". It doesn't take a Hallam or a Holmes to see that these are two very different definitions - one based on what it does, the other on who does it. Then comes a third definition, much better than either of these: measures "that restrict unauthorized acts in respect of [protected] works".

It would be tremendous vanity to see my own fingerprints here, but that last version is exactly what I'm aiming for: tying TPMs to the limited set of rights that they are allowed to protect. An act that is explicitly protected by law cannot be "unauthorized" - therefore, something that restricts it is not a TPM within the meaning of this text.

All is not lost. There is plenty of text here that, if allowed to stand, would make a decent, liberal, liveable treaty. There is also some extremely bad text that, if allowed to stand, would enforce a new world order in which you could no longer lay claim even to the contents of your own memory. Which way will it go?