Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Failing the Turing test

Just when we thought politicians couldn't get any less principled, they go and pull a move like this. Alan Turing receives a royal pardon.

Well, that's very nice. But the question is: why?

Is it because the law he was convicted under is now seen as unjust? Then what of the thousands of others, some no doubt still living, who were convicted under the same law?

Or is it because he was a national hero, who contributed significantly to winning the Second World War, as well as making some significant contributions to early computing?

I hate to say it, but Gordon Brown, of all people, was better than this. His government said that the conviction was correct, even if the law wasn't. Brown's apology to Turing was both appropriate and just: it recognised Turing's contributions, but without closing its eyes to the others affected by the same law.

That's a strong argument, and four years ago it was decisive. It hasn't been forgotten, and it hasn't been answered. It's just been - ignored.

This pardon is just about how special Turing himself was. It's shameless pandering to the gay lobby. And it entrenches the power of "one law for the great, another for the rest of us". It is, I think, slightly more shameful than the original conviction. The people who passed the law under which Turing was convicted - they may have been wrong, but at least they believed in something (in fact, they were most concerned with preventing sexual slavery).

Today's politicians? Don't even pretend to believe. They're just trying to buy votes.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Artificial work

Remember the financial crisis? How many millions of people whose only real crime was "believing what they were told by the politicians they elected to lie to them" were faced with losing their homes, or worse? Yes, the fallout is still going on - but the main thwump of the collapse is, let's hope, behind us now.

And it's left in its wake stories like this. On the face of it, it's a tawdry and depressing tale of political incompetence, corporate corruption and human fallibility. But I think there's another angle here, which no media outlet is likely to spot, because they're all deeply embedded in the same demented economic system that gives rise to it.

Just in case you didn't click on the link just now: it's a story of how Bank of America outsourced some of its complaint-handling functions to a variety of private companies, and those companies proceeded to systematically screw customers by making a series of procedural "mistakes" that were, to all intents and purposes, embedded in the procedure itself. For example, they'd demand paperwork, but had no procedure in place to check whether the customer had already supplied it; so the poor sods were sending in copy after copy of the same paycheck, and all these copies would just pile up unopened somewhere. Then the customer's "failure to meet requirements" would trigger some other process, which basically meant they were booted out of their homes.

"People went through years of sending documents in," said Daniel Ellersdorfer, 37, a customer advocate who left Urban Lending after 13 months in September 2012 and is now a scuba-diving instructor. "There were people who did everything right and they would still get screwed over and have to start the modification process all over."

Like I said, it's not an edifying story. It hints - in a way that could get it into big trouble, if the publisher and targets were in the UK - at large-scale malpractice at BoA and its contractors, but it also provides plenty of ammunition for those who want to criticise President Obama and other politicians. Looking at the measures they put in place to "protect vulnerable borrowers", the phrase "half-arsed" springs irrepressibly to mind.

But more disturbing than all of this, to me, is the evidence it provides of two things that I've suspected for a while.

First is that the feudal system is alive and well in modern America. It's clear that everyone concerned takes it for granted that the only way for a pleb to have any chance at all in a difficult situation is for them to seek patronage from their betters (e.g. congresscritters); people didn't even get referred to the process unless there was a letter from Someone Important. Letters from people not of the noble class, apparently, don't even get opened.

Second is that - one faction of the Tea Party is 100% on the money. As far as the government was concerned, the plan to rescue people from the financial crash wasn't so much about "helping the helpless borrowers" as "using government patronage to create jobs". Thousands of jobs were created in these private companies that BoA hired to screw up its paperwork, and the fact that these jobs created no value and did no good for anyone except the job holders themselves (who got a paycheck out of it) doesn't seem to bother anyone.

Now, I'm all for the government giving people paychecks. Where I part company from this scheme is that these job-holders were required to turn up in an office every day and put in eight hours of grind at a task that they knew to be futile. They knew their jobs were worthless. What's worse, they knew there was valuable, useful work right under their noses that needed to be done, but they were powerless to do it - because if they did, they wouldn't be doing their paid jobs, then they'd be fired and stop getting their paychecks.

"Everyone knew that we weren't helping people," said Erik Schnackenberg, a customer-service manager who left Urban Lending in 2011 and now runs a yoga studio in Longmont, Colorado. "They were giving us all the pressure and none of the power to change anything. It was this absurd, self-contained ecosystem of worthlessness."

That's a broken system.

I've come to the conclusion that every government benefit (or tax break, which is the same thing) that's contingent on the recipient actually having to do something - look for work, turn up at a location, go through an interview process, have babies, earn money, get married - is a misguided attempt at social engineering. Much better if the government just gives everyone a paycheck for breathing, then lets them decide for themselves what to do with their time. Then people wouldn't have to take soul-destroying, dead-end jobs like these; they'd be happier, more free, and ultimately more productive work would get done, because thousands - probably millions - of people would be free to do something useful, instead of pointless make-work.

What are we all waiting for?

Monday, September 23, 2013

The boy stood on the burning platform

When I read that Stephen Elop is to be paid $25 million for his three years architecting the downfall of Nokia, the outrage across the internet was palpable. And I must confess, I fell for it. As I considered how this once-proud brand had been brought so low, and now the architect of its downfall is to be so rewarded, I felt almost physically sick at the sheer injustice.

But, I wondered, where was the political angle? How could the government of Finland just stand by and watch this - pillaging of their national flagship? Where was the doomsaying, the demagoguery, the raging anti-Americanism that should have heralded the announcement of Microsoft's takeover?

Which led me to think that, just maybe, people who paid attention may know more about this story than random internet blowhards. Which prompted me to do a little - just a little, mind you - further research.

And looking at the record, I notice that when Elop became CEO of Nokia in September 2010, the firm was already in grim shape. Share price, market share and profitability were all dropping rapidly. True, the company still had its own distinctive platform, it still had an unrivalled reputation for quality, particularly in the low end of the market, and it still shipped more phones than anyone else on the planet. But all those positions were under strong attack, and it was rapidly running out of resources with which to defend them.

And while Elop's performance was, by the numbers, gruesome, it wasn't as bad as it's now routinely depicted on partisan blogs. The oft-quoted "87% share price decline", for instance, is based on measuring from peak (just after his arrival) to trough (July 2012), but it fails to consider that if you bought stock in July 2012, you'd be looking at a 250% return by now - the end-to-end drop is a mere 40%. Of course that's still not good - unless, that is, you compare it with the 3-year period before Elop's arrival, when that same stock dropped by an eyewatering 75%.

If Elop's job was to arrest the decline, then he failed. But if his job was to prepare Nokia for its only viable future, as part of a hideous multinational empire, then he's done it well. Rather than a "trojan horse" - the popular image right now - perhaps we should be seeing him as a port pilot - the guy who comes on board just before the ship enters a harbour, to steer her past the hidden shoals into a safe dock.

Viewed in that light, Elop's initial appointment makes a lot more sense.

Has he earned $25 million? I have conceptual problems with the thought that anyone can "earn" that sort of money in three years; but I can imagine it wasn't a fun three years. And so long as it's not my money, who am I to judge?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Another sad milestone

Bradley Manning says sorry "for hurting his country". Psychologists confirm he's a four-star fruitcake with a troubled childhood, mild autism, and most damning of all, gender-identity issues. Photos emerge of Manning dressed as a woman. Nobody seems to be asking precisely where the photos came from, or who gave them to the press.

Thus ends the first high-profile American show trial in my memory, although surely not the last. And the United States confirms its intention to follow the legacy of Stalin rather than Washington. It's already got the secret police, secret courts, secret laws, state spying apparatus, restrictions on free movement and speech, automatic arrest of all foreigners upon arrival in the country, an effective one-party system (dressed up as two parties, but so managed that the differences between them are meaningless, and all candidates are effectively vetted by the same political and commercial interests) - and a legal structure that considers "hounding a suspect to suicide" as a win.

All that was really missing was the show trials, where enemies of the state would be thoroughly discredited and smeared before expressing public contrition and repentance and begging their betters for a chance to reform. Now Manning has delivered us all of that.

It's still possible for America to come back. It recovered from the Civil War, it got over McCarthyism - in theory there's no reason why it can't recover again. If only it would try.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

A call to arms

I've been using the "frontier" metaphor to describe the encroachment of "intellectual property" into the realms of, basically, all human intellectual activity. Land grabs, gold rushes, robber barons, absentee landlords, bandits, battles and casualties - it has all of these. It even has the US cavalry, in the form of patent courts.

Now I'm privileged, and delighted, to be able to see, in detail, how a frontier skirmish can play out.

Joel Spolsky has rated highly in my list of personal heroes for about as long as I've been involved in the sordid world of commercial software. He's a man of many right-thinking opinions, strongly held and defended with an articulation that I can only envy. Among these is the opinion that, of the 40,000 US software patents granted every year, approximately - in round numbers - 40,000 reflect a level of innovation that "any first-year student learning Java should be able to do as a homework assignment in two hours", and should be rejected out of hand if only the patent office had access to a few relevant subject-matter-experts.

Being a great proponent of "getting things done", Joel set up a website to create precisely that access. And now he advocates swatting bad patents one by one.

40,000 a year. That's more than 100 a day.

Joel illustrates how you can demolish a particularly crap patent in just 15 minutes of work. I think that's optimistic, for a variety of reasons. And AskPatents is not that heavily trafficked, and a lot of the threads it does have are non-specific queries that are only marginally better than spam. It's a good start, but I don't think it'll scale.

But if you want to make a difference - stick your finger in the dyke, ignoring for a moment the other 39,998 holes all around you - get on over there now. Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Giving prostitutes a bad name

Good news from the homeland, for a change: it looks as if the government may be forced to recant on the madness of privatising the handling of prisoners.

It's telling, I think, that when I was a kid, if someone used the phrase "the prison service", they'd mean "service" as in "to one's country" - like military service, or - no, actually that's the only example I can think of where the meaning of the word is still reasonably close to what it was pre-Thatcher. Nowadays, it means "service" as in "service industry", as in "we may not create any actual output but we're no less commercial for that". Or to put it another way, "our business is modelled on the proud tradition of the world's oldest profession".

I was a firm believer in privatisation in the 80s. Unquestionably it was the right thing to do with manufacturing and mining industries, and with real services (defined as "things that I can be billed for personally, like telecoms or banking or travel"). But some "services" have a fundamentally different character. Policing, prisons, poor relief, public health, justice, fire and medical services, even politicians - these are "public services" that need to be paid for collectively, because any other system lends itself either to gross inequity, or the worst sort of corruption.

Of course corruption happens in non-privatised services too. However, it seems to me that it happens more, since the word "service" got divorced from "public" and shacked up with that slut "industry". That may be just a perception based on reporting/exposure, but if so it's a very widely shared perception.

The difference is that a service that is "public" can, in principle, be cleaned up. Given sufficient political will (read: outrage or scandal), you can appoint a new chief with the skills and determination to root out this sort of abuse. It doesn't happen often, and when it does, it doesn't generally last all that long.

But in a "service industry", the very concept of such "cleaning" makes no sense. When all incentives, both benefits and penalties, are expressed in terms of money, it follows that anything you can do to get more money is, by definition, not wrong. In these cases, moral bankruptcy isn't a failure or a collapse of anything - it's the baseline assumption of the system.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Can we?

I feel for Edward Snowden. I've been stuck in Sheremetyevo Airport too. I remember a sign (in English), on one door, that just about summed the place up: "NO TOILETS. NO REFRESHMENTS. NO INFORMATION. NO FLIGHTS."

What's truly shocking is how, although millions of people hail the man as a hero, the world's governments have closed ranks against him. Several governments in Europe could buy instant re-election right now just by offering him asylum - but none are. Russia said "you'd have to stop leaking". France and Portugal went so far as to deny landing rights to a plane carrying the president of Bolivia, on the basis that Snowden might have been on board. Even Ecuador and Venezuela have said "you'll have to get to our embassy first".

And the chances of that seem slim, since the Russians won't let him out of the airport.

So this is the New American Century, where no half-way civilised country dares stand up to the USA. In the old Soviet Union, at least a dissident could dream they had somewhere to run to. Now that little window of hope is closed. If you offend the USA - not with violence, or sedition, or treason (the indictment against Snowden lists none of these charges), but just with public embarrassment - there is nowhere. This can only be a measure of how much pressure the Americans are putting on - well, everyone.

Anyone remember Barack Obama's 2008 campaign? "Nothing can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change", he said. "Yes we can to justice and equality. Yes we can to opportunity and prosperity." Above all else, he was the candidate who would stand up to entrenched interests in Washington and do what was right.

And this is as simple a test case as it can be. One of the few things that's unambiguously, easily and directly within his personal power - is to grant Snowden a full pardon. He doesn't need congressional ratification, he doesn't need the joint chiefs or the supreme court or even his own legal or intelligence advisors. He doesn't even need to implicate his own party, or anyone who might have ambitions to succeed him. The choice is his, and his alone.

So come on, Barack. Now's the time. You can continue to shield the establishment that has flouted your laws, or you can shield the man who tried to stop it - the man who tried to live up to your rhetoric. Is the US government going to be ruled by laws, or is it just an imperial tyranny?

That's quite a choice for your second-term legacy. Please get it right.

Friday, April 5, 2013

"Don't be evil"? Yeah, about that...

OK, so moderation as a way to deal with spam - has more drawbacks than I'd realised.

First, it means I have to log in regularly to see what's awaiting moderation. But at the same time, I don't get the joy of coming to my blog and seeing the number of comments below a post has increased - so I don't get the same joy of anticipation at visiting my own page, so I don't come here so often, and I actually log in less frequently.

Second, it does nothing to reduce the actual volume of spam that gets posted. All it means is that it doesn't get published. I still have to read the stuff.

That leaves - 'word verification'. Which, thanks to Google's incredibly backward system, I can't even apply selectively - it applies to every commenter, whether logged in or not.

When did Google abandon the fight against spam? And why? - what do they get out of encouraging spam on their own blogs? I've suspected for a while now that they tacitly encourage it in e-mail, as a way of driving more people to use Gmail (with its legendary spam-filtering mojo - basically, it makes life more difficult for their rivals). But on blogs?

Is it a way of increasing activity ("more comments, more views per post")? The Google I used to know - back in 2001, when I emailed them and they actually wrote back - would never have taken such a shortsighted view.

Someday, I hope someone will write a history of Google that can pinpoint the moment, the management decision, where they actively decided that "don't be evil" was a fine motto for a startup, but impractical for a big business. It's a lesson that might tell us something about what kinds of company structure we should encourage, and which we should hunt down with pitchforks and torches.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Spammers. Again.

Six comments! Six comments, at time of writing, on my last post!

And every single one of them was spam.

I can't begin to describe how much I loathe spammers. If you were to catch one, tie it spreadeagled in the sun, spread marmalade all over it and then drop a hornets' nest on its face, I would consider that a good start. These are the scum who wrecked Usenet, who ruined e-mail, who have forced search engines to adopt a war footing, and now have turned their attention to little personal blogs like this one.

But how can I stop them?

Captchas (those stupid wonky letters you have to type in, to prove you're a human) have past their window of usefulness. I often find myself stumbling over them, and I suspect that for particularly tough ones (such as Google's), computers may now be better at reading them than humans.

Moderation? That would require me to log in pretty much every day, to check for new comments. I would consider it pretty rude to leave comments hanging around for longer than necessary. And I'm a busy person, I don't have that kind of time nowadays.

Disable anonymous commenting? That would disqualify some of the people I most like to hear from, including most of my family.

Join Facebook? That would combine the disadvantages of having a non-public blog with the drawback of never hearing from my family again, to say nothing of the downside of having to log in regularly and the nuisance of giving untold insights on my life to one of the world's most evil companies.

The suggestion box is open. Even if you don't know what to do to keep spammers out, I'm always interested in innovative and painful ways of punishing them. Let your imagination go wild.

Monday, February 11, 2013

How many wrongs does it take to make a right?

These Americans are crazy.

President Obama has discovered a new way of fighting wars, at a fraction of the cost (in blood and money) of the usual methods. There's a lot of debate to be had about drone strikes, but of all the possible arguments they could be rehearsing, the huge majority of Americans seem to be locked into the silliest one imaginable: whether it's OK to use them on American citizens.

I went to the lengths of looking up the rights attached to US citizenship. Nowhere does it mention "the right not to be killed by the US military, if it considers it necessary or expedient to do so".

The law that stands between me and anyone who wants to kill me is the law against murder, in whatever country I happen to be in at the time. And in every country I know of, that law says nothing about the citizenship of the victim. Murdering an American is no more, and no less, illegal than murdering a Pakistani, or a Saudi, or a Briton, or even a Frenchman. Obama may be breaking Yemeni law by launching drone strikes into Yemen, but to argue that he's violating US law by aiming them at US citizens is just wrong, on at least two very fundamental levels: by applying US law to what happens in Yemen, and by differentiating between murder victims by citizenship.

Just to put things in perspective: Abraham Lincoln ordered the killing of hundreds of thousands of US citizens. On US soil, no less. History does not generally condemn him for that.

Of all the things that Obama is (arguably) doing wrong, this simply isn't one.

Thursday, January 3, 2013


I don't know if you've ever seen a rhino peeing. It's an imposing sight, looking much as if Moses had struck the poor beast amidships with his staff. The stream is as thick as my wrist (estimate made from a respectful distance, you understand) and it goes on for as long as it takes a two-year-old to amble around one side of the beast's enclosure - must have been at least five minutes, I think.

No wonder people treat rhinos with respect. The thing must be made of bladder. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Since it's been two years, now, that Atilla has been learning how to direct our lives, we determined that he should have a birthday treat in the shape of a visit to the zoo.

Negotiations with the in-laws were delicate, when the big day dawned cloudy and drizzling. His aunt and his grandparents actually wanted to transfer the whole celebration to something - indoorsy.

I was having none of this. The forecast said there'd be maybe the occasional light shower, but nothing sustained - and if you can't stand a spot of rain here and there, I maintained, you've no business to be living in New Zealand in the first place. So I insisted we drive to the zoo, and text them when we got there that the weather was fine and if they didn't get their arses out here right now, they'd miss the whole thing.

(I was planning to send pretty much that message whatever the weather we found when we arrived. But as it happened, it was true.)

Of course, this resulted in a certain amount of heel-kicking while we waited for the family to catch up. Fortunately, the zoo features a generous entry plaza where one can hang about and buy tat before going in. Here, Atilla demonstrated the futility of the whole exercise by succumbing to instant fascination with a fledgling sparrow, just learning to fly - exactly the kind of wildlife one might find in any garden, street or playground in the country at this time of year.

I couldn't have been prouder. While kids all around were herding their parents mercilessly towards the 'official' animals, Tilly had spotted the real thing. It was more than ten minutes before the persecuted bird vanished from view, and I was able to guide my son's steps onwards.

Tilly likes animals. All animals, pretty much indiscriminately. As a rule of thumb, however, the larger the animal, the more respect it gets. Birds and cats can claim his attention if they come within a few metres; dogs are worth crossing the street for (although he still demands to be held off the ground in their presence, apparently not trusting these bouncy, waggly creatures); and anything donkey-sized or larger demands a full-length pilgrimage to inspect at length.

So it was no surprise when, on entering the premises, I found myself gravitating rapidly towards the 'Plainswalk' experience, which takes one past zebras, giraffes and ostriches.

"Bezra". "Rahsh". "Ostrish". He was delighted with these elegant creatures, until he noticed the chickens that, for some reason, Auckland Zoo houses with them. I'm not sure why chickens can trump larger animals, but he insisted on keeping a large black-and-white cockerel in view until we were past the first enclosure, and on to the rhinos and springboks.

Downstream of the incontinent rhino, we found flamingos. But these beautiful creatures claimed our attention for only minutes. As I was holding Tilly up to view them, he happened to glance ahead.

"El", he breathed, awestruck.

"Elli", he gasped.

"Elfi", he insisted breathlessly.

He'd seen Burma.

Auckland Zoo's sole remaining elephant is actually quite a small specimen - I think, if I stood beside her, I could put my hand on her back without even standing on tiptoes. But I didn't get to test that theory on this trip. And Tilly was captivated.

Here at last was a chance to pin him down in one spot while the family caught up. From that point on, I was happy for the in-laws to take their turn at guiding his experience. We'll gloss over the rest of the visit (apparently the seals were also a big hit, but I wasn't with him at that point). But the day was a success.

"Should we buy a season ticket?" Susan asked as we left. It's a discussion we had last time we went. Season tickets to the zoo are apparently quite the thing, for parents of young children.

"Only if it's transferrable between adults."