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?