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.