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.