22 December 2007

Blair's Conversion

What's the problem with Blair becoming a Catholic?

Some people have problems with Catholicism, either with the church policies, or with doctrinal questions, or with the notion of a political leader of one country being under the authority of a religious leader in another. But only a few people; not enough to matter.

Some people have problems with religion itself. But only a few people, indeed I suspect a majority of British politicians would confess one denomination or another.

Some people have problems with the fact that Blair, as Prime Minister, apparently had some kind of informal attachment to the Catholic Church, without making it public or official. Now we are getting closer to the issue, but by political standards of hypocrisy, this is still very minor stuff.

The real problem for the British is that to take religion so seriously that one would change denomination is just icky. It's OK to have a religion, but, as with a sausage, one shouldn't care or take too much notice of what's in it. That makes people uncomfortable. Part of that is a reasoned objection to the sort of behaviour that might result from taking religion seriously, but I think mostly it's just that worrying about the details of religion is in bad taste.

Even atheism is frowned on for the same reason. I previously held that one who does not positively believe in some specific idea of God should be considered an atheist, since they are not a theist. But I was wrong. The British distrust declared atheists, because atheists take religion too seriously. It's like being vegan, only worse -- there are, arguably, immediate practical justifications for veganism, but there is no practical justification for involving oneself in the details of religion to the extent necessary to call oneself an atheist. It is much more decent to just go along with whatever public aspects of religion fit one's social activities, while utterly ignoring any inner content, like everyone else does.

I've been moving in this direction a long time, but I think now I better understand why. I will in future be vaguely non-committal about my religion, because anything else shows poor taste.

15 December 2007

Climate Controversy

I'm really worried about the possibility I'm deluding myself about climate. I see something like this, and I'm so certain that it's basically correct.

I don't think there's another case of new science shooting so rapidly into politics that scientific conventions have huge political relevance. Nor do we have new research being shoved into school syllabuses within two or three years.

This immature science is being accelerated in this unprecedented way for political reasons, and I feel justified in opposing it for political reasons.

On top of that, there's the group effects. Like Pauline Kael allegedly not knowing anyone who voted for Nixon, I don't know anyone who believes the full orthodox media view of climate change. That's not entirely true, but the exceptions are people who I wouldn't believe if they told me it was raining, never mind what the weather will be in 50 years.

I tell myself that for every one of these people, there are several equally qualified who disagree; I know that there is dishonesty on the sceptic side as well as the alarmist side, I am fully aware of my own political bias, and yet I'm still not even able to take seriously the proposition that the argument is settled.

I reckon I'm in the top 1% for intelligence, and I certainly know a thing or two about computer modelling, but what possible basis can I have for the conviction that I am right and a whole lot of experts are wrong? I don't even have a degree in a physical science.

At least this isn't some metaphysical question. The issue is likely to be resolved in my lifetime, one way or the other. I'm looking forward to it.

Democracy and Entertainment

Yesterday's bit on the greater resources of television current affairs departments compared with political parties was more of a question than an answer. I'll try to work out what it means.

There are a few caveats:

  • The money that is spent on news programming includes things like studios and cameras as well as developing the content to put on them.
  • MPs get paid by the government, which is extra resource to the parties not counted in their budgets.
  • The civil service plays a role in developing policies for the ruling party.
  • Political parties have an incentive to be vague about policy, whereas media organisations can afford to be more specific and clearer - they gain more by being provocative than by being right.

Nonetheless, I still think that Channel 4's policy on higher education is the product of more research and investment than went into the Labour party's. MPs are paid to be MPs, not to develop policy, and the civil service has its own goals and constraints and is not under the control of the Labour party.

What does this mean?

First, I should be less sceptical than I have been about the "power of the media". I have always felt that, since the media is constrained to doing what gets it audience, its independent influence on policy is small. However, if what it needs to do is to provide some alternative policy with which to challenge politicians, but it has relative freedom to choose which alternative to develop, then its independent influence is greater than I thought.

Next, why is it the case that we (as a society) invest more in reporting politics than we do in politics itself. Either something is seriously screwy, or we value politics as entertainment more than as a way of controlling government. Or both.

I think it's quite clear that the population does treat politics mostly as entertainment. The resemblance between Question Time and Never Mind the Buzzcocks is too close to ignore. If someone arrived from another planet and had to work out which of the two concerns how the country is governed, I think they might find it tricky. (I think they get similar numbers of viewers). There are even hybrids like Have I Got News For You to make it more difficult still.

Further, I think voters are correct to see politics primarily as entertainment. Since my attempt to construct an argument that voting could have a non-negligible probability of affecting an election - the infamous correlation dodge - died a logical death, I am left with the usual reasons for voting - primarily how doing it makes me feel. Those reasons apply equally well to voting for Big Brother or Strictly Come Dancing.

In conclusion, I think our system of government is one which selects leaders and policies as a byproduct of the entertainment industry. This might not be a bad thing: the traditional alternative is to select leaders and policies as a byproduct of the defense industry, which I don't think is obviously superior.

Basra Update

I'm paying close attention to how Basra develops, not because I have a particular strong opinion on it, but because I don't. I can make suggestions and interpretations, and wait and see if things turn out in a way that makes sense.

The lastest article from the BBC says that two thirds of residents of Basra city interviewed in a survey overwhelmingly think that things will improve when British troops leave the province.

"The majority of those questioned felt that once provincial control was handed over to local Iraqi security forces, the security situation would begin to improve."

The problem is that I don't know why they think this. Do they think that local security forces will have greater legitimacy when not attached to occupying foreign troops, and will therefore be able to keep order more effectively? Or do they think that the security forces will act more competently without the influence of the outsiders? Or, conversely, do they think that local security forces will become irrelevant without the British Army behind them, and that other organisations will take over responsibility for security, and do a better job of it? That wasn't asked in the survey (full pdf is linked from newsnight page here.

For what it's worth (and why should I claim to know more than the 16% of Basra residents who answered "Don't know" to the survey?) I suspect the first answer is true. I think until the troops actually leave, there will always be some doubt among the locals that they ever will. Resolving that doubt will have a beneficial effect.

The other point on the BBC yesterday was about the apparent growth of extremism in the region.

"Many residents told the BBC that militias have tightened their grip in Basra since the last British troops pulled out of the city in September, after months of relentless attacks.

"They accuse Shia militias, including the Mehdi army of Moqtada Sadr, of a campaign of intimidation and violence, particularly against women."

The key thing to remember here is that religion does not create sectarianism so much as sectarianism creates religion. The reason why extremists are shooting improperly-dressed women now, rather than ten years ago, is because, with a power struggle in the offing or in progress, religion matters now. To disdain religion today is treason in time of war.

If the power struggle goes away, so will the extremism (possibly with some lag).

13 December 2007

News and Politics and Money

I get news mostly from online newspapers, and I tend towards the barest reports. As a result, whenever I see television news, I'm shocked and put off by the heavy slant it carries.

But my shock this evening was more than usual. Watching Channel 4 news, what struck me for the first time was that Channel 4 appeared to have a more clearly defined and clearly expressed position on the issue they were reporting than did any of the politicians they were interviewing.

But why should that be surprising? Channel 4 has more resources to devote to policy than does any political party. Channel 4 spends 54 million pounds a year on news, documentary and current affairs programming. The two main parties each spend something like 10 million a year, but most of that is spent not on "content", but on content distribution - posters, leaflets, etc.

British political parties' policies are being constructed on an almost totally amateur basis, compared to the media - and I think it shows. There are think tanks, but I don't think they turn over tens of millions a year.

I'm not sure what conclusion to draw from this. In the US they spend a lot more on politics, but don't seem to get noticeably better policies. But my attitude towards politicians when I hear them is likely to change.

Reference for channel 4 finances: http://www.channel4.com/about4/annualreport/annualreports/index.html page 47

06 December 2007

Torturing Robots

Interesting piece on boingboing about some robotic toy dinosaur called a Pleo.

I'm impressed with the robot's behavior. It snuggles when you hold it. It falls asleep when you cradle it. It gets frisky when you scratch it under the chin. It's much more lifelike than Sony's discontinued Aibo.

So when I watched this video of a couple of guys from Dvice torturing the Pleo and making it whimper pathetically, I felt uncomfortable, even though I knew it was absolutely ridiculous to feel that way.

I don't think it's ridiculous. It's not rational to be upset by seeing animals or strangers suffering, but most normal people are that way, and we like to think that the people around us are normal like that. This irrational attitude is naturally quite blurry, and I would be less comfortable in the company of those who enjoyed even simulated suffering.

That drives my view of animal rights: I don't care whether any given species does or doesn't feel pain. I don't think it's an important question, and I'm not sure it's even a meaningful question. I care whether the animal appears to feel pain.

If you could miraculously prove to me that cats don't feel pain and that mushrooms do, it wouldn't change in the slightest my attitude towards those who kick cats or pick mushrooms.

Revealing bit of geek history: the ZX81 manual contains the following code example:


10 IF INKEY$ = "" THEN GOTO 10
20 PRINT AT 11.14; "OUCH"
30 IF INKEY$<>"" THEN GOTO 30
40 PRINT AT 11,14; " "
50 GOTO 10

It's introduced as "for fun"


The identical code appears in the ZX Spectrum manual, (with the typo fixed in line 20; the dot should be a comma), but with the introduction "for sadists"

(The program displays OUCH in the middle of the screen while any key is depressed).

Somewhere between 1980 and 1982, they had doubts about how much fun it was to cause simulated pain to an 8-bit computer.

29 November 2007

Health and Safety

It is becoming normal to bash the "Health and Safety" for wrecking one thing after another. The latest example is the Tate Modern work "Shibboleth 2007", which apparently is causing chaos and destruction by means of being a hole in the floor.

But it is only natural that we are more risk-averse than our predecessors: we can afford higher levels of security, so why shouldn't we have them? Health is a good thing, and safety is a good thing, so what's wrong with a "health and safety" culture.

Nothing, fundamentally. It becomes problematic is when it gets unrealistic. It gets unrealistic by becoming too formal, too rules-based.

In any organisation, there are two problems. One is that the people working in the organisation do not entirely share the organisation's purposes and priorities, and they can direct the resources of the organisation to their own purposes instead. The other is that rules and procedures cannot cover every contingency; the right decision can only be made by the right person having power to make it.

These two problems can each only be solved at the expense of making the other worse. I've written about the issues before: Deskilling and Overskilling, Microsoft Bugs, School Uniforms and thought crimes, In each case I am complaining about replacing intelligent decision-making with inadequate procedures, however, I would be the last to deny that an absence of any rules governing job performance would cause problems of its own.

We have to balance rules against discretion, but we tend to have too many rules and too little discretion. What drives this is accountability. In a particular case, we might get better outcomes by allowing more discretion, but if something does go wrong, which it can either way, it is more convincing to say "I followed the procedures, but they turned out to be bad" than to say "I made what seemed to me the best decision, but it turned out to be wrong".

The dilemma will always be with us, but I think we could get a more effective balance simply by insisting, when it comes to blame, that obviously stupid procedures are no excuse for anything. If you're trying to write down a procedure, and it clearly is not going to succesfully deal with a large number of cases, give up and say the operative in question must make the best determination they can. We will get more agency problems, more corruption, but less blind stupidity, and I think in balance we will be slightly better off.


Two digressions:

Boris Johnson took some stick for his Telegraph article blaming rule-based health & safety culture for the shooting of Charles de Menezes, but I found it quite persuasive, although slightly speculative. The rule "don't let unarmed surveillance officers arrest a possibly-armed terrorist suspect" was not a stupid one, but avoiding that "listed" risk at one point in time led to being forced to take much bigger risks later, involving probably just as much risk to the officers, as well as the unnecessary death of an innocent man.

It is not just risk where a rule-based system leads to irrational choice between small "listed" costs and larger "unlisted" costs. Part of the process of reducing waste in the civil service (and in private businesses, for that matter) is to set different budgets for different activities. That appears to have led, in one case, to deciding not to provide a specific R&C data dump for the NAO, (which would have resulted in a charge to the budget from EDS), but instead to copy an existing dump, which contained far more information than the NAO asked for. The cost incurred as a result was rather more than a few grand for a couple of days' work by a contract programmer.

Those digressions aside, I don't really have answers, except to tweak the balance in the case of health and safety by declaring that a stupid procedure is no excuse for a stupid action.

Credit and Confidence

One can get the impression that things that happen in the economy - like the recent credit difficulties - are the outcome of some strange arbitrary game played by bankers. It is worth pausing to explain the story, not in terms of ABCP issued by SIVs holding MBSs but in terms of real people and real stuff.

Credit is letting someone else use your stuff for a while. Lets say we have two farmers who each have one field, neither of which can be efficiently divided. In the long run the fields produce more if left fallow from time to time, but neither farmer can afford to do without his only field this year.

They make an agreement. Farmer B will leave his field fallow this year, and Farmer A will give him some of his output, to make it possible. Next year, they will switch; Farmer B will provide A with part of the output of his newly nitrogenated field, and A will rest.

A is giving B credit. A is running two risks: one is that he will later discover that he needs, or can make better use of, the product he's given B. The other is that B might not stick to the agreement - he might get sick, or have his crop eaten by locusts, or run away with blacksmith's daughter.

Nonetheless, if A is confident that he will get back his stuff, he will make plans based on that assumption. He may even make agreements with other parties that involve him giving some of that stuff to them after he gets it from B.

If something then happens that makes it even doubtful that B will be able to give A his stuff, there will be some immediate effects. A may have to change plans he has made, and abandon projects he has already started. He might not be able to make the deals with C that he was hoping to make, because C doubts whether he will have the stuff he is owed by B. If he has already promised stuff to D, then D will have to start revising his own plans in the same way. Thus a fall in confidence in credit can ripple through a wide network, and have large effects, even before any debts have actually defaulted.

I have deliberately left out of this explanation money and banks. In the real world they play a major role in making credit deals easier, but the fundamental situation rests on people and on stuff.

That Teddy Bear

Two claims I have heard:

1. "She ought to have known". Really? I mean, maybe she stepped over a well-known line that anyone out there ought to have known, but I'm not going to take the Sudanese authorities' word for it. There might be something quite different going on.

2. "If you go to live among barbarians, you run the risk of being treated barbarically". Normally, I would tend to agree with that, but I'm not convinced we treat teachers any better in this country. Not that we flog them, but if you combine the ever-present risk of being drummed out of your career for some political incorrectness at least as obscure as the proper naming of soft toys, with the physical risk of being killed, maimed or driven clinically insane by violent pupils that you're not allowed to defend yourself from, the overall risks may be lower in Sudan, despite the occasional flogging or lynching. It makes more sense to turn it around, and say that, just as there are various hazards associated with being a deep-sea fisherman or a coal miner, anyone choosing a career of teaching has to be aware of the occupational hazard of being unjustly had up for corrupting the morals of the young, whatever country you work in.

28 November 2007

Ingredients of Modernity

Looking at modern Western society, and comparing with the past, there are about five things we have which clearly distinguish us from past societies.

We have:
  1. Prosperity
  2. Individual Freedom
  3. Democracy
  4. Political Stability
  5. Secularism
Following Mencius Moldbug, I have been wondering, particularly, what the relationship Democracy has to Freedom and Prosperity. Is it synergistic with them, as normally assumed, or parasitic on them, as MM claims?

I've thrown the last two into the mix in case they are important. Much of Europe has been politically unstable within the last 70 years or so, but possibly that is long enough. The fifth ingredient is really the weakened influence of religion, or at least of Christianity; I'm not sure that secularism is exactly the right word for what I mean.

I'm prepared to accept without discussion the dependence of prosperity on freedom. The freedom to do business freely means the freedom to associate, to communicate, to hold private property, and so on - those freedoms can only be taken away at the cost of stifling economic development. This podcast went into detail, but the basic idea is simple enough.

I think it is at least equally obvious that prosperity depends on political stability. Revolutions are just so damned destructive.

So how does Democracy fit in? The pro-democracy argument is that democracy is the buffer that allows freedom and political stability to coexist; that a non-democratic state will generally be forced to curtail freedom in order to preserve stability.

Anti-democrats can argue that democracy is frequently corrosive of political stability, freedom, or both. But that argument is not sufficient. It may be that democracy does not guarantee either freedom or stability, and yet it may nevertheless be the case that the conjunction of freedom and stability depends on democracy.

Are there historical non-democratic states that were both free and stable? Some past European monarchies might be claimed to fit. For that matter, Victorian Britain was not democratic in the modern sense, due to property qualifications. Were these free enough to count? If attempting to change the government is an essential freedom, then no non-democracy can be considered free, but even without begging the question that way, it is still debatable.

And perhaps it is not freedom that is incompatible with stable non-democracy, but freedom plus prosperity. If the poor are poor enough, they have no power which needs to be recognised by the system. Once a modern economy gets going, they have sufficient resources to demand a share in power.

That actually sounds very plausible to me. But perhaps there is some alternative to democracy that can square the circle between a proletariat unconstrained by either poverty or lack of personal freedom, and a government that excludes them from power.

The best answer that MM has come with is the machine gun.

Perhaps the great tragedy of democracy is that mob power became identified with political power at exactly the last point in history at which mobs were militarily relevant. In the age of the machine gun, the military is at all time sovereign whether it likes it or not. As long as it acts in a unified and disciplined way, it can do whatever it wants. As the experience of China shows, it's by no means always a mistake to fire into a mob. If the sovereigns of the Concert of Europe had realized that technology was on their side, the murderous degringolade of the 20th century might never have happened.

It might be the kool-aid, but somehow I'm just not able to find that convincing. Surely it can't be that simple? I suppose the standard objection is that at some point the army will refuse to fire.


I haven't changed my mind since July: While I accept many of the criticisms of the anti-democrats, and the proposition that democratic states preserve freedom only by restraining democracy, the costs of defending a rationally-run state seem prohibitive.

In other words, I don't really like democracy; I think it's basically a trick, but it's a necessary trick. Giving the mob enough power to pacify it is less damaging than forcing it to accept not having power.

This conclusion is significant for developing countries. I think they need individual freedom, they need political stability, they need prosperity, and, in the long run, they will need democracy in order to make the new forces created by prosperity and freedom balance. Starting with democracy is the wrong way round, as without freedom and prosperity it will be only nominal.

23 November 2007

In Brief

To put the case in my previous piece more briefly:

The good news is that the Treasury has lost 25 million personal data records. The bad news is they still have a copy.

22 November 2007

The Data Leak

I haven't got round to making a big deal of the loss of Child Benefit data. Like the Samizdatists, I see it as a hopeful development in terms of public recognition of what large-scale government data collection actually means. I'm not disturbed by it for two reasons: first, because I'm not surprised. I have years of professional experience developing and supporting systems using large amounts of data, and I know how difficult it is to keep stuff confidential. I also have a generally low opinion of the competence of government. It's more surprising that this got out than that it happened.

The other reason I'm not disturbed is that in general I'm more worried by what the government will deliberately do with the data than by what it will accidentally do with it. The copies of the data still in government hands may be used to decide, for instance, who can and cannot be allowed to learn basic science. Nothing so unpleasant is likely to develop from the copies that have gone astray.

And, to justify that point, I don't believe in identity theft. It is not that I don't believe that fraudsters use the names of other people in their frauds, but that I don't believe that the person whose name is used is the victim of that crime. The actual victim is the party that the fraudster transacts with, and I do not accept the position often taken by the real victims, that their losses are in fact to be borne by an uninvolved third party.

If, for example, a credit card issuer believes that I owe them money, they should have to prove to a very high degree of certainty that they I actually borrowed it from them. That they have at some point in the past received a piece of paper in the post with my name on should not be enough for them to even go to court on, let alone stand any chance of winning. Some kind of human witness to my being their customer should be the minimum to even start.

If this makes life too difficult for financial services providers that do without local branches, so be it. There are considerable savings made by such remote operation, which are shared with customers, but there is no justification for imposing the resulting costs and risks of fraud on uninvolved third parties. Either they find some way of reconciling their cheap business model with reasonable standards of proof, or we can all go back to visiting our local bank branch for a credit card or personal loan.

Back to the government, I do think the incompetence shown here is significant, like the case a few years ago of the non-deported released prisoners (which resulted in the whole "home office not fit for purpose" furore), because it gives me the impression that attention is not being paid to government simply doing its various jobs properly.

To expand: government departments are answerable to ministers, and through them to parliament, but both sets of politicians are obsessed with changing policy and passing laws. The actual day-to-day implementation of existing policy only ever gets any attention when it spectacularly fails. The few spectacular failures (which are not successfully covered up) are necessarily the tip of a very large iceberg of general incompetence, which will not change for as long as it does not get attention. For the electorate to give it attention is barely possible, because of the difficulty, common to all organisations, of practically measuring performance.

I have no solution to this problem. My familiar answer is "government should do less", which I stand by, but it's not really a solution, because it is a change of policy in its own right. All I can say is that it's up to those who oppose my policy to explain how their policies can be carried through competently by a government.

Control Order saves the day

In a recent piece I attacked the "attempt to ban from the internet information easily found in chemistry and history textbooks".

The UK government has taken on board this inconsistency, and is now attempting to ban a "terrorist suspect" (who has not been charged with any crime) from taking AS-level science courses. (Nature)

So that's alright then.

OK, so it's true that 50,000 people a year are studying AS-level chemistry, but this move by the government gives me confidence that no bad person will ever find out the super-secret techniques.

27 October 2007

Experiment in Basra

(A follow-up to When to Leave Iraq)

It is a couple of months since the British army withdrew from the city of Basra.

The question which I asked in March about the occupation of Iraq is to what extent the soldiers were preventing violent disorder by force, and to what extent they were provoking it by being a foreign army.

There was an early impression that the handover to Iraqi security forces had reduced violence. Iraqis say Basra quieter after British troop pullout

Looking at this month, it's not so clear:
Iraq's Basra police chief escapes assassination bid.
Gunmen clash with security forces in Iraq's Basra

I think that as long as withdrawal (partial or full) isn't catastrophic, then it's a good thing. The kind of power struggle that is going on in Basra now is inevitable, and can only be postponed, not prevented, by hanging on longer. It may reach a stalemate or equilibrium, from which peaceful politics can continue. It's the kind of conflict that exists in many countries. The presence of an occupying army, on the other hand is an irritant, perhaps minor at times, but one that can always get worse but is not likely to ever go away while the occupation persists.

What is hardest to remember is that, even if the politicians and generals want nothing but peace and prosperity for the country they occupy, it is very very hard to convince the people of that. When the subject comes round to the distrust of the occupying force, there is a temptation to dismiss the distrust, merely because it is unjustified. But that doesn't make it go away.

There will be trouble when British and American troops leave Iraq, or any part of it. But there is trouble already. Unless the trouble after leaving is very much worse, then it is better to leave, because the conflicts that happen between locals move towards a solution, and the conflicts against the occupiers don't.

More explosives manuals

As I said in my earlier piece:
.. recipes for explosives first appeared in this country 750 years ago. High explosives have been manufactured since the 1860s. Anarchists all over Europe were successfully constructing bombs around 1900. This genie isn't going back in the bottle.
The immediate context was the conviction of Ahmed Patel for the ludicrous crime of "possession of information likely to be of use to terrorists". But also in my mind was the equally asinine initiative of the European Commission to outlaw publication of explosives-making instructions on the internet, which I somehow forgot to mention.

It's easy to assume that this attempt to ban from the internet information easily found in chemistry and history textbooks is another "myth" made up to discredit the EU and spread around by those who are willing to believe anything about the EU that makes it appear stupid. But then, so much of what the EU does looks like that.


Franco Frattini
European Commissioner responsible for Justice, Freedom and Security
“EU counter-terrorism strategy”
European Parliament
Strasbourg, 5 September 2007

http://europa.eu/rapid/pressReleasesAction.do?reference=SPEECH/07/505

...

The benefits of e-learning have also not escaped the attention of terrorists – you can find detailed instructions on all kinds of terrorist tactics, including the production of explosives, on the internet.

The proposal I mentioned just now will aim at ensuring that these forms of behaviour will be made punishable across the EU.

26 October 2007

Using daylight

One aspect of my twice-yearly ranting against the insanity of changing the clocks that I haven't mentioned here before is the oddness of fiddling about one hour either way, when most people get up around 6 or 7 in the morning and stay up to getting on for midnight.

Mid-night. It's the middle of the night. If we gave a crap about daylight, we would do our sleeping around the middle of the night. We would go to bed around 8pm local time and get up around 4am. We could get our work done by 2 in the afternoon and have hours of daylight left even in winter.

John Kay raises the same point, but he's stuck in the same old rut of trying to fix things by government blundering around with the clock. The problem is that it's so hard to predict the outcome. There may even be a good reason why we do things so late in the day, that neither he nor I have thought of. I think there is an opportunity, as more work becomes more independent, for experiment in working hours. If getting up in the early hours is as good an idea as it appears to Kay and to me, then those least constrained to fit with other peoples' hours might be expected to try it and stick to it.

I haven't seen any sign. From what I read of the working lives of writers, for instance, it seems more common for them to sleep even later and stay up even later than those on fixed schedules. If that makes them happier or more effective, perhaps it's a signal that we all should go that other way.

Free Abdul Patel

BBC

Sentencing Patel, Judge Rook said that the jury had cleared the teenager on the more serious charge - but that he had "no reasonable excuse" for possessing documents that were "obviously likely to be useful to a terrorist".
If being 17 isn't a reasonable excuse for possessing explosives manuals, then the terrorists have won.

The earlier report which notoriously included "The Anarchist's Cookbook" as the "material likely to be of use to a terrorist", said there were two teenagers remanded to appear today. Perhaps more ordered facts will emerge if this second trial is concluded.

This being 2007, Patel or the mysterious friend of his father probably obtained the Anarchist's Cookbook from this sinister internet thing I keep hearing about. Back when I was a teenager, I had to actually buy it with money from Waterstones (or Dillons, I can't remember) in Charing Cross Road. Among the instructions for getting high on bananas and the photographs of 50-year-old rifles are indeed bomb-making instructions, badly drawn and widely reputed to be suicidally inaccurate.

Now of course the inaccuracy isn't really the point. There is an obvious flaw in the idea of banning only high-quality terrorist literature. However, recipes for explosives first appeared in this country 750 years ago. High explosives have been manufactured since the 1860s. Anarchists all over Europe were successfully constructing bombs around 1900. This genie isn't going back in the bottle.

One might object, that if the necessary knowledge is so widely available that there is not point restricting it, how is it that actual terrorists are so incapable of actually making working explosives?

Firstly, I think there is a strong correlation between wanting to advance the cause of radical Islam in the UK by violence, and being mind-bogglingly stupid. This is not a global phenomenon. In some parts of the world, Islamism is a serious political movement, capable of attracting intelligent and practical activists. Here, it is an exclusive club of morons that makes Fathers 4 Justice look like a serious political force.

Secondly in terror alarmism, the question of quantity or scale tends to be ignored. To shoot a lot of people, you need a lot of bullets, that weigh a lot, and take a lot of carting around. To blow up a lot of people, you need a lot of explosive, which requires a lot of raw materials, which are not easy to gather. To use chemical weapons effectively, you need tons of the stuff, which is beyond the capability of any conceivable home-grown terrorist organisation.

There are many obstacles to the would-be terrorist. The idea that all they need is "the secret" is Hollywood thinking. There is no secret, there's just a lot of hard work and risk.

But back to young Abdul. I don't directly think it is a particularly bad thing that he is in prison. But I would happily let him go in exchange for getting rid of the horrific 1980s law under which he was convicted. "Information likely to be of use to terrorists?". How about a road atlas? It's carte blanche for the state to lock up anyone they think is up to no good. In this case they may be right, but if that's a justification then we should just let them lock up whoever they want. I prefer the rule of law, and law should draw a line between the guilty and the innocent, and this law plainly fails to do anything of the sort.

25 October 2007

Virtual Worlds

Lord Puttnam says that we may be damaging children by allowing them to grow up in virtual worlds.

I agree entirely. Childhood is where children learn to be adults. Putting them in a fake environment away from real adult humans denies them the chance to adapt to the real world.

However, Puttnam seems to be hung up on something to do with computer games. I'm much more concerned about schools.

Rather than inflict my own clumsy prose on you all, here's Paul Graham:

If I could go back and give my thirteen year old self some advice, the main thing I'd tell him would be to stick his head up and look around. I didn't really grasp it at the time, but the whole world we lived in was as fake as a Twinkie. Not just school, but the entire town. Why do people move to suburbia? To have kids! So no wonder it seemed boring and sterile. The whole place was a giant nursery, an artificial town created explicitly for the purpose of breeding children.

Where I grew up, it felt as if there was nowhere to go, and nothing to do. This was no accident. Suburbs are deliberately designed to exclude the outside world, because it contains things that could endanger children.

And as for the schools, they were just holding pens within this fake world. Officially the purpose of schools is to teach kids. In fact their primary purpose is to keep kids locked up in one place for a big chunk of the day so adults can get things done. And I have no problem with this: in a specialized industrial society, it would be a disaster to have kids running around loose.

What bothers me is not that the kids are kept in prisons, but that (a) they aren't told about it, and (b) the prisons are run mostly by the inmates. Kids are sent off to spend six years memorizing meaningless facts in a world ruled by a caste of giants who run after an oblong brown ball, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. And if they balk at this surreal cocktail, they're called misfits.

Read the whole thing. I want to rant on about this, but there isn't a single thing I can say that Graham doesn't say better.

See also Robert Epstein's book, which I haven't read, but I listened to this podcast with Epstein from the Glenn & Helen show.

21 October 2007

Corporations and Governments

Lawrence Lessig praises a book "Supercapitalism" by Robert Reich:

Reich and Lessig count it a mistake that We push for "corporate social responsibility" and praise corporations who agree to do the "good" thing, imagining that this means something other than the "money making" thing.

We know a song about that, don't we children?

... government is pretty good at forcing internalization when it benefits strong special interests (again, copyright), and not when it harms strong special interests (again, carbon). Here, and in a million contexts, the government is coopted by the powerful influence of powerful interests.

Phase 2 of Lessig's journey will be when he realises that, just as a corporation exists to create profits, and cannot reasonably or usefully do anything else, a government exists to serve powerful interests, and cannot reasonably or usefully do anything else.

Lessig's article is fascinating, and I'm not doing it justice, because of the completely alien worldview it exhibits.

We've now ... Reich says, entered a period of Supercapitalism -- a time when competition has grown dramatically, and when half of us (meaning half of each of us, or at least half) more effectively demand lower prices in the product and service market place and higher returns in the investment market place.

The problem, from Reich's (and my) perspective, is that the other half of us - the part that thinks not as an actor in a market, but as a citizen - has atrophied. That is, the half of us (again, of each of us - Reich's point is that each of us has these two parts) that demands that government set sensible and efficient limits on private action has atrophied.

That division - between "market actor" and "citizen", is not one that it would have occured to me in a hundred years. "citizenship" in the sense he talks about means nothing to me but busybodying: interfering with people who have nothing to do with me. Does that mean I am half a person - a "market actor" only? I don't think so. If I help someone up the steps at the station, (or for that matter kick them down those steps for fun), I am not a "market actor", but neither am I being a citizen in the political sense that Lessig seems to mean. I am interacting with those around me. I do not draw a sharp distinction between those I work with (or "interact in the labour market with"), and my other circles of neighbours and friends.

There is a danger of treating libertarianism (in the broad sense) as being entirely about markets. This mistake can be made by supporters as well as opponents. Markets are not the point; freedom (and particularly free association) is the point. People should be free to associate and co-operate in whatever manner they wish. Often that co-operation have the structure of a market, but frequently we can do better than the market (particularly at small scales). The significance of the market is that if we are free to market, then we might do better than we would by market, but we need not do worse. If we are prevented from using a market, then there is no limit to how ineffective our co-operation can be.

At one point there I had to use "market" as a verb. Trading or "marketing" is something that people do, and markets are an emergent property of that action. Without wanting to get too hung up on parts of speech, it's a bit awkward to have to talk as if the market is primary, and people acting in a market secondary, when the opposite is the case.

In essence, then, we have three categories of interaction. There is market interaction. There is other voluntary interaction outside of markets, which I might call "citizenship" but which Lessig apparently doesn't, and there is politics, or achieving goals through government action, which Lessig considers "citizenship", and which I consider almost entirely harmful.

(As an aside, I have written previously on why we choose to clearly separate market interaction and other voluntary interaction).

The history is what I find interesting here. Lessig has long been arguing that we need government to control the excessive power of corporations. That is a reasonable argument in vacuuo, but suffers from the observation that in the real world government almost always intervenes on the side of the corporations. Having noticed this, Lessig now turns his attention to it. I am being serious when I suggest he may reach the stage where he recognises that the problems of corrupt government are not fundamentally fixable, only containable (by restricting government).

15 October 2007

Richard Brunstom

Is the North Wales Chief Constable calling for the legalisation of drugs.

While I agree with him, I have my worries about government bodies, such as police forces, campaigning for policy. The idea is that the people campaign, and the government responds. I find it idiotic when government-funded "charities" spend their money on campaigns aimed back at the government which funded them, and it is not really any less idiotic just because I agree with the campaign.

Of course, the question of whether Brunstom should express is personal views is a different one. That's really between him and his employers -- if they attempt to be too restrictive they may find it hard to get good people. It is probably best that he is allowed to speak out.

The Police Authority, indeed, is his employer. It consists of 9 councillors, 3 magistrates and 5 appointed members. The councillors have other venues in which to put forward their political views. Rather than calling for change in the law, they would be better making decisions genuinely within their province as to the North Wales Police. I imagine it is beyond the scope of their discretion to decide not to enforce laws they disagree with, but priorities to a certain extent must be down to them. Let them combine their wisdom with their responsibility.

Fixed Term Parliaments

What do I think about fixed term parliaments? Since I've been recently considering whether I would prefer to continue with democracy at all, this is a slightly odd question.

I think it relates to my previous examination of the length of the term between elections.

The advantage to the incumbent of choosing the date is not necessarily a problem, if a balance is needed between stability which increases the time horizon of the government, and the opportunity for change which discourages insurrection.

Effectively shortening the campaign is an advantage. If we know now that election will be on particular date in 2008, everyone -- government and opposition -- will be organising around that date. We'll have 3-year election campaigns. And I'm coming to the conclusion that politics is bad for government.

It could be argued that the mere possibility of an early election caused extra politics in the recent past, but that's a rare occurence, and likely to become even rarer in future as a result of the points Brown lost over the whole thing.

Also, unlike, for instance, the US federal system, we have a system where the executive requires the support of the legislature. If it no longer has that support, and no other government can get support, we need to have an election. Currently, it is up to the government to resign and call an election when it no longer has support. With fixed term, it would require a formal no confidence vote, and you can get some weird games, such as a government actively seeking passage of a vote of no confidence. Something of the sort happened in Germany a year or two ago if I recall correctly.

So, I'm against fixed term parliaments (at least as a single reform in the context of the current UK system).


07 October 2007

Tax and Democracy

chris dillow is ready to give up on democracy, based on observations that cutting inheritance tax, paid only by the rich, is more popular electorally than cutting income tax, which is paid by the poor.

I'm not here to cheer for democracy, but his explanation, that the low expectations of the poor lead them to accept being victimised by the tax system, does not seem to me the most likely one.

For me, the key fact is that PAYE income tax is the ultimate stealth tax. If someone pays £100,000 in tax on inheriting a £500,000 house, that is seen as a huge blow, but I have never heard anyone ask what difference it would make to someone on £20,000 a year if they weren't paying £3,500 of it in income tax (and, while we're at it, another £1,500 or so in VAT).

Evidence for this is articles like the one I picked on in 2005 , which claimed that transport was the average household's biggest expense, ignoring the fact that taxation added up to as much as transport, food and housing put together.

Further, it is still widely believed that higher taxes help the poor. Helping the poor by cutting income taxes would generally be looked at as an absurdity. The same goes for inheritance tax, of course, but that is more likely to be seen, probably correctly, as a fringe issue. Therefore cutting inheritance tax wins votes of those who pay it, but does not lose many from the rest.

The fact is that when government took 10-20% of the economy, it could be funded mainly by taxing the rich. As the figure has grown to 40%, the tax burden has fallen far more heavily on the poor, despite the widening of the franchise. To me, the obvious explanation is that government has for a long time been extracting as much or nearly as much from the rich as it practically can. If that is correct, then the only way to achieve genuinely redistributive taxation is to drastically shrink the state.

If I'm right (and I admit I'm asserting a few controversial things here without much in the way of evidence), then the problem isn't any fundamental conflict between democracy and equality as chris fears, but a single mistaken view which might possibly be reversed.

Help the poor - cut taxes.

06 October 2007

"The computer did it"

In The Register, the story of a man who got 7 days because when he signed up for facebook, it sent an invitation to "be his friend" to every facebook member whose email address was in his address book -- including his ex-wife, whom he was under a court order not to attempt to contact.

He might of course have been lying, but if not he has been punished for what his computer, and facebook's computers, did on his behalf.

The point is that the law has to decide how much responsibility a person has for what their computer decides to do.
Up till now, the assumption has been that whatever your computer does, is done at your request, and you are wholly responsible. This despite the fact that that has never been true, and is getting further from the truth every year.
There is no legal tradition to apply here. The nearest analogy to the relationship between a person and his computer is the relationship between a man and his dog.
People have kept dogs for thousands -- most likely tens of thousands -- of years, so everyone has a rough idea what the deal is. The general legal view is that you have a duty to keep your dog from causing harm under foreseeable circumstances, but there is a distinction between what your dog does and what you do. If your dog attacks a child, you are not guilty of Grievous Bodily Harm, but you might be guilty of keeping a dangerous dog. If your dog craps on the street, that is different than if you crap on the street, but you might still be fined.
If you are found guilty of not properly controlling a dog, you can be banned from keeping one. If your dog causes harm and is considered not to be controllable, the court can order it to be destroyed.
(If you deliberately cause your dog to kill someone, that is still murder of course, but your intention is crucial)
This is the only rational legal framework for crimes committed by a computer without the intention of its owner.

Crime: responsibility of victims

In an insightful piece, "David Copperfield" discusses how much responsibility the victim of a crime has for the crime, in a number of different situations, and to what extent, if any, such responsibility should affect his actions as a police officer.

I discussed this question a couple of years ago:

There is a notion that responsibility can be "shared", which I think is fundamentally misleading. We each make our decisions in an environment that has been made mainly by other people, but to judge any decision, legally or morally, we have to take that environment as given. Many people might have responsibility for any bad outcome, but they have it separately, they do not share it. We might put ourselves at risk of all sorts of dangers, from other people or from other elements of our environment, and if we are wise we will consider our own responsibility as we do so, but if we are the victim of a criminal, his responsibility is not lessened by our risky behaviour.

In the examples Copperfield gives, there are two general categories of responsibility that some victims have: Either they can fail to take ordinary precautions to avoid or prevent crime (failing to lock doors, leaving property unattended in a public place), or else they can deliberately involve themselves in illegal activity (buying goods that are probably stolen, dealing drugs, responding to 419 communications which are generally invitations to share in a theft or fraud).

My answer to his question is that the responsibility, if any, of the victim should not be a primary consideration for him. The reason is that he is not working on behalf of the victim. He is working on behalf of us all, as we all benefit from the rule of law. His job is not to undo the effects of the crime, which in most cases is impossible, but to bring offenders to justice in order to uphold the rule of law.

So what should be important for him is not the status of the victim, but the status of the offender. It might be the case that a thief who grabs a handbag from a pub table is a lesser offender, and a lower priority, than a thief who breaks into a car. I do not think that a mugger who hangs around in a "bad part of town" is a lower priority than one on the high street. Is a drug dealer who shoots other drug dealers a lower priority than a drug dealer who shoots passers-by? Possibly, but it is very marginal.

02 October 2007

Phone Mast information

The people who worry about health effects of RF radiation from mobile telephone masts are superstitious, ignorant luddites. It is vastly implausible that there could be any effects, on top of which repeated studies have failed to find any.

The idea that they are dangerous is stupid, but there are even more stupid ideas around. Among them is the claim by the mobile phone companies and Ofcom that the existence of a tall metal mast, bearing a distinctive antenna and broadcasting a distinctive radio signal, is a trade secret. That claim takes us way beyond tinfoil hat territory and into serious alternate reality.

It is entirely reasonable for Ian Henton and his fellow tinfoil-clad loonies to demand that the location of masts be made a publicly accessible record. "Commercial sensitivity" is frequently used as a cover for political sensitivity, and this is another example.

29 September 2007

About this blog

Pressures of work mean that I'm only likely to add pieces at weekends. I've always gone more for analysis than instant response, so that shouldn't matter much.


I rarely actually look at the blog from outside. I just did, and I've noticed that blogger has eaten all my paragraphs. I tend to write in the "Edit Html" tab, becaues the WYSIWYG mode used to be rubbish, and I would use the preview view before posting. I'm sure blogger used to put actual paragraph breaks in when you used blank lines in "Edit Html", and the preview view still shows them, but blogger itself doesn't. So I'm going to be going back through adding paragraph breaks to older articles. Expect the feed to go haywire.


Note to Google. If the Preview link doesn't show what the piece is going to look like, it's useless. Get rid of it.


It's worse than that! I just wrote this in the "Compose" tab, and it's still eaten all my paragraph breaks. How am I supposed to write paragraphs?? I'm actually going to go in and add paragraphs manually to the HTML. How crap is that?


I've found a setting (under "formatting" on the settings page) which puts the paragraph breaks back. Nevertheless, I consider it broken, because (a) what is the point of having a setting which means the only way of writing paragraphs is to edit the HTML, and (b) why does the setting affect the real blog pages but not the previews in the editor?

Adams on Lomberg

Scott Adams has a very interesting piece on his blog, describing Bjorn Lomberg's appearance on Bill Maher's TV show.

The Danish economist’s argument doesn't fall into the established views about global warming. He wasn't denying it is happening, or denying humans are a major cause. But he also wasn’t saying we should drive hybrid cars, since he thinks it won’t be enough to help. He thinks we need to make solar (or other alternatives) more economical. That’s the magic bullet. His views don’t map to either popular camp on this issue, and it created a fascinating cognitive dissonance in Bill Maher (a fan of hybrid cars) and his panelists.

Adams went on:
"It looks to me like a classic case of cognitive dissonance . They literally couldn’t recognize that the economist was on their side because he suggested considering both the positive and negative effects of global warming."

But the economist certainly was not on their side. For Maher and the others, the important thing is that a policy of austerity be introduced, because they consider it morally right. Global Warming is just the excuse. Global Warming is true because it justifies austerity. If Lomberg or anyone disagrees with austerity he is not on their side, whatever he says about the climate. By arguing against austerity, he is removing the reason for Global Warming to be considered true, and therefore he is anti-Global-Warming. Denier! Burn Him!


Adams is imagining a world where observations lead to judgments about facts, which lead to conclusions about policy. That is alien to politicians, and to Maher. For them, policies lead to search for observations which can be connected to possible facts that justify the policy.


I would like to describe myself as in the Adams camp, but in honesty, as I've admitted previously, I can't. The political vision of Gore, Maher and the others is so terrifying to me that it is surely colouring my assessment of the facts concerning climate. All I can do is put up the arguments as I see them, admit my bias, and make sure I don't hide from evidence that contradicts my position. I've yet to see any evidence that I've felt I need to hide from.


This is my most detailed piece on climate. This is all of them.

Falkland Island Oil

This Guardian article (via L&P) talks about national claims to mineral rights beyond territorial waters -- in particular the UK's claims around the Falkland Islands and Rockall.

My immediate response was to the claim in the article:

the value of the oil under the sea in the region [of the Falkland Islands] is understood to be immense: seismic tests suggest there could be up to 60m barrels under the ocean floor.

60 million barrels.

At $80/barrel, that is worth a bit under 5 billion dollars, or 2.5 billion pounds -- less than a third of the cost of the 2012 Olympics, and probably much less than the cost of setting up extraction infrastructure.

Either The Guardian has lost a lot of zeros, or the oil in the region is utterly insignificant.

Luckily, I didn't get where I am today by believing everything the Guardian told me. Looking at Wikipedia, it appears the Guardian is confusing millions and billions.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geology_of_the_Falkland_Islands#Petroleum_exploration_and_reserves

It is considered probable that more than 60 billion petroleum barrels (10 km³) have been generated in the North Falkland Basin

(I also learned that 60 million barrels is about two weeks' current production from the North Sea.)

Things to consider:

  • There is believed to be significant oil near the Falklands.
  • The Guardian doesn't know millions from billions.
  • Liberty and Power can't see at a glance that 60 million barrels of oil is nothing, despite the fact that the price of a barrel of oil is hardly an obscure piece of knowledge these days.
  • I was going to go on about much-maligned Wikipedia being more reliable than the Guardian, but between drafting and posting this, the Guardian has (a) corrected the error and (b) left a note explaining the correction. Perhaps I should say that Wikipedia is more reliable than today's Guardian, in that today's Guardian has had little time to be fixed. However, if the fact in question is actually new (as opposed to background, like the 6 million barrels), which is at least suggested by insisting on today's paper, then we all know Wikipedia is unreliable too. So scrub that one. Full marks to the Guardian for the promptness and manner of the correction.

In the long term, we cannot hold onto valuable mineral reserves in the South Atlantic. Defending them is justifiable, but probably not practical.

The time to negotiate is now. (Well, I've been saying this for 10+ years, so the best time has passed, but there is still an opportunity). We want:
  • A revenue-sharing agreement for mineral rights for 50 years.
  • Rights of the inhabitants guaranteed for 50 years.
  • A Northern Ireland style arrangement with oversight by the South American partner.
  • Sovereignty to devolve to the South American partner after the 50 years, Hong Kong style.
Argentina is the obvious partner for such a deal, but not the only possible one. Chile is, I believe, the closest mainland. Venezuela has the oil production infrastructure. And if none of them offer anything decent, hey, maybe the US would like a naval base or something. Let the bidding commence.

17 September 2007

Carl Hiassen, call your office

Local government attempts to shut down pool club for allowing "lewd conduct", while the vice-mayor, working at club as a DJ, is photographing said conduct.

link

h/t to Language. Log for the post title.

08 September 2007

ICI: the investment fund

John Kay mourns the decline of ICI, now taken over by Akzo Nobel.

The products, the jobs, and the profits that old ICI used to make are all still going. What has gone -- and what Kay is specifically mourning for, is the old ICI management organisation.

The heart of his argument is this:
The board of ICI accepted losses in pharmaceuticals for 20 years, in the conviction that drugs would eventually provide future sales and profits growth. Only after two decades was this belief vindicated through the commercialisation of Black's discovery. Through his subsequent work for SmithKline, and the influence of his work on Glaxo, Black was the architect of Britain's broader success in the industry.
Old ICI financed research out of its manufacturing profits. To my young mind, this seems an odd arrangement. Financing new business is the job of financiers, not manufacturers.


Kay picked one example of where the old arrangement worked well, but to me it sounds dreadfully fragile. If development of pharmaceuticals is the responsibility of the paint industry, then a bad couple of years in the paint market would mean no development. If managers of the paint industry feel themselves mainly responsible for development of other industries, they are likely to be less effective managing the paint.


Kay does not seem to be making the argument that investment in future industries is not happening - and indeed it is happening, in Britain, and elsewhere, but the investments are being made by specialist venture capitalists drawing on the broader capital markets, not by managers of other industries having a flutter with their firm's profits.


There are several reasons why such investment funds (random example from Google) would be expected to do it better -- they are specialists, they have wider access to capital. Today we see a great deal of investment into early-stage development of potential future chemistry-related industries.


The only reason why the old ICI model might be better would be if the successful managers in one industry, were, by virtue of their position and proven technical expertise, the best placed to make decisions about investment in future industries. If this were ever the case, it is by now much less so - it has been widely observed that the advance of science and technology has meant that specialisations become ever more narrow.


The story Kay tells of ICI sounds to me not so much a model to be emulated, but the rare exception to the story he has told many times, and more convincingly, of megalomaniac bosses trying to turn their companies into something else. See on Swissair, on HP, on BT -- "policy making in business requires more than slogans and visions". "Dreams are no basis for a sound corporate strategy". That one dreamer got lucky at ICI in the 1960s does not shake the wisdom in those other columns.

31 August 2007

Back to Debian

When I first used Linux, I picked the Debian distribution. I came to appreciate its combination of reliability and flexibility. However, the delays between stable releases were always an irritation, and after about ten years I moved several of my machines over to Gentoo. The big advantage of Gentoo for me was that, because it was a source distribution, the newest application packages didn't depend on the newest system packages. I could emerge, say, gnome-meeting (as it was then), without having to have the 30 exact library versions that someone else had compiled it against.


I fairly soon found that Gentoo was too high-maintenance for machines that I wasn't using myself. The older hardware I had left on Debian because compiling Gentoo on them would have taken weeks. Ubuntu was picking up by then, and the more modern hardware in the house, other than my own desktop, I moved from Gentoo to Ubuntu.


I had thought Ubuntu would be just what I wanted - the solid engineering of Debian but with frequent releases and the bells and whistles. I found it nice and smooth, but when something did go wrong, which wasn't particularly often, it turned very difficult to deal with. In particular xfce (which the rest of my family use) never quite worked right - on one release you couldn't log out without the session hanging!


In frustration, I took the advice of a colleague and went back to Debian, this time risking "testing", which at that time was Etch. I don't think I had a single problem. Etch went stable a while ago, and I had no reason to chase more recent application versions, so the family's machines are all Debian Etch.


Recently my wife got a new laptop. I'm always slightly afraid of laptops, so her old one had been left with a badly out-of-date Gentoo. I downloaded the stable Etch installer CD (other machines had been installed to either sarge or a testing snapshot of etch). I was hugely impressed by the installer. It worked so well, and the whole process was very quick. I think the Etch installer is better than any I've used for any distribution. The only manual intervention was the partition setup, where I wanted to leave part of the disk alone and set up the rest with LVM, which was very straightforward.


The laptop's wireless was tricky, but it was a broadcom 4311 for which native linux drivers are very new. I grabbed the latest testing kernel and patches from the wireless-dev guys, and it works very well. The driver's been overhauled in the last couple of weeks, but I'm not in a hurry to pick up the new (b43) one.


A couple of days ago I tried to bring my Gentoo desktop up to date. I ended up in such a mess of obsolete packages, packages conflicting with non-existent versions of themselves, and general chaos, that the cleanness and lack of hassle of the various debian machines really sunk in.


Last time I replaced the hard disk I'd carefully left smallish free partitions and one huge LVM PV, so running the Etch install took about half an hour in the evening then the same again in the morning, and now I'm running a clean, coherent system where everything works together, and the package system knows exactly what's on it and where it all came from.


I still have to stick on a few non-free bits: the flash player and Sun java, and maybe realplayer, but I respect debian's ignoring those. I've got a system that's completely managed and completely free software, and if I need a couple of extras on top, I can take care of that myself.


So this is just a huge round of applause for the Debian crew, who've made the distribution just what it should be. Some credit must og to Ubuntu too -- although the distribution didn't work out for me, I suspect a lot of the smoothness and ease of setup that Debian used to lack has been supplied via their contributions.

15 July 2007

Sacrifices

I asked yesterday whether those who believed that concerted effort on an international scale was necessary to prevent climate catastrophe were really willing to countenance what I consider the only realistic approach to achieving that — a war of global conquest by the US.


It was a trick question. The fact is that almost nobody really believes in anthropogenic global warming (AGW) sufficiently to support policies they would otherwise have opposed. I am quite sure that if I miraculously convinced the "media liberals" that the neoconservative world empire was a prerequisite for significant CO2 reduction, they would decide to take their chances with the weather. The "sacrifices" they are advocating are all things they would advocate whatever the weather.


Among the vast majority of people who don't believe in AGW enough to do anything about it are everybody making investments. Office towers two miles upstream of the Thames Barrier wouldn't be worth a billion pounds each if investors thought the Isle of Dogs was going to be part of the sea. The policies which global warming alarmism is justifying are causing huge movements of capital; the threat of global warming itself — nothing.


That's because there's one thing that people are willing to do about AGW: vote for something pointless. Voting is the cheapest of responses. (Of course, if government actually does something, there may be trouble, but I'm wandering from the point).


Actually, perhaps that is the point. AGW is a good issue for politicians, not because voters agree with the policies, but because it makes the politician look like a good person. The ideal course of action for a politician is to use the issue to show how concerned they are about everyone, do enough about it to show they are genuine, but not actually achieve any policy change that causes anyone the slightest inconvenience, like raising fuel taxes or building wind turbines. As soon as anyone is asked to make real sacrifices (rather than the "sacrifice" of having the policies they've always wanted implemented), their estimate of the seriousness of AGW goes sharply down. Looked at that way, the lack of real meaningful action on AGW is not a bug, it's a feature.

14 July 2007

John Gray on progress

I spotted the latest book by John Gray in a bookshop, and was a little confused because I remembered him as a classical liberal from reading his book Liberalism when I was a student. I wondered whether there was another John Gray. Wikipedia sorted me out: there is only one John Gray (apart from this one, who isn't relevant), but his views have changed over the years.


The links from the Wikipedia article are engrossing - this attack on Blair and neoconservatism is very persuasive, and led me to the 1999 speech I referred to in my previous piece. The discussion with Laurie Taylor about the religious and utopian aspects of modern humanism chimes very closely with the cryptocalvinism theory of Unqualified Reservations blog, which I have already praised.


But one of the major thrusts of his current arguments is one that would never have struck me as being necessary to make. In the Laurie Taylor piece, particularly, he is very keen to insist that there is not really any such thing as progress. We have progressed in technology, and science is dragged forwards as a result, but morality is not on a steadily improving track.


This is so obvious: anyone can tell the difference between a machine that works and one that doesn't, so technology does not regress unless the economy producing it is destroyed. It is hard to deny the science underlying working technology, so science tends to progress along with the technology - it can on occasionally jump ahead, and even drop back level again, but it does not fall behind.


There is no equivalent incontrovertible test between good morality and bad morality, so morality can wander all over the shop, go round in circles, or go wild. In the long run, one could say that good morality works for its society and bad morality doesn't, but so many other things affect the success of a society - movements of power and technology - that it doesn't constitute an obvious experimental test.


History is one damned thing after another; there is no meaning to our lives unless we choose to pick one; humanity can probably solve most of the problems it encounters, but more will come along and there is no good reason to believe they can all be solved. It's disorienting that people I consider sensible might doubt any of these things.


Black Mass is on my paperback list, anyway.

Internationalism

I commented on a post at Tim's:


The gist is that the CiF poster he quotes does not believe that we can go on with national governments acting purely in their own countries' interests:


"Gordon Brown needs to change the course of New Labour and replace the national agenda with a new cosmopolitan realism in order to tackle the challenges of terrorism, globalisation and climate change."


The problem is that this is anything but a change of course for New Labour. As I quoted in my comment:

Today the impulse towards interdependence is immeasurably greater. We are witnessing the beginnings of a new doctrine of international community. By this I mean the explicit recognition that today more than ever before we are mutually dependent, that national interest is to a significant extent governed by international collaboration and that we need a clear and coherent debate as to the direction this doctrine takes us in each field of international endeavour. Just as within domestic politics, the notion of community - the belief that partnership and co-operation are essential to advance self-interest - is coming into its own; so it needs to find its own international echo. Global financial markets, the global environment, global security and disarmament issues: none of these can he solved without intense international co-operation.

That was Tony Blair in 1999, encouraging the US to stay the course - behind Bill Clinton - of subjugating the Balkans.


The election of the relatively anti-internationalist Bush in 2000 was a setback for New Labour's "International Community", but luckily for Blair, September 2001 brought him over into the internationalist camp.


If one truly wants a global authority to deal with global warming, or anything else, there are two things that need to be done:

  • Create a global authority.
  • Get it to agree with your policies.
It's conceivable that a global authority, once existing, could change its policies, but not that a bunch of people that agree with some policy, but have no power, could become a global authority. So the appropriate strategy would be to encourage whatever practical internationalism exists, and then to change its policy. The only internationalist movements with realistic access to power in the world today are the US neoconservatives, and the EU. I have already explained why the EU does not, and will not, have sufficient power to challenge the US, so any internationalism today must start with neconservatism.


If I believed what Ulrich claims - that only a system of global cooperation can save us from catastrophe, my political strategy would be to throw in totally with the War on Terror. If the US gained the support of the EU to make Iraq into a colony, and then conquer Iran, world government would be that much closer. A powerful military base in the Middle East would put more pressure on the other major oil producers in the region. Venezuela, Canada and Nigeria are all relatively easy to handle. The next stage would be to bring Putin to heel. I admit I can't see an easy way to do that, unless our Empire's oil production can be hugely ramped up. A carefully placed nuclear "accident" might do the job, perhaps.


Once substantially all the world's oil comes under the control of the Empire, it could rule the world. The politics of environmentalism would at that stage be very useful as a rationale for politically managing the oil supply, so it should not be too difficult to apply stage 2 of the climate change strategy, and convert the Emperor to the desired policy.


This whole political programme is, I must admit, very unpleasant. We are talking about at least two decades of continuous war of Imperial conquest. But, as Ulrich Beck says:

When taken seriously and thought through to its logical conclusions, climate change demands a political paradigm shift.
so, we must ask, are we prepared to make the necessary sacrifices, or aren't we?

06 July 2007

Hypothetical Questions

When one discusses future actions, one is making a hypothesis: If I get off the Northern Line at Moorgate, then I will be able to catch the 6.38 to Luton.


What would cause the hypothesized event to occur is skipped over. Normally this is fine, but the workings of the decision-making process are themselves in question, the hidden assumptions that are being made about them are of relevance. That is what caused my confusion over the Newcomb's Paradox / Voting question — which could only be understood by making explicit the process by which the hypothetical decision was being made.


Political questions are similar — when one says "If the UK were to reject the new EU Treaty then ...", one is skipping over the question of how the rejection is to be reached. I tend to flippantly express opinions as to policy in the form "If I were Supreme Führer, ..." which is a way of alerting listeners to the fact that realistic mechanisms are being ignored for the purposes of discussion.


As with Newcomb's paradox, but scaled up to the polity, when the mechanism of political decision-making itself is part of the question, hypotheticals which brush aside the mechanics are pretty much meaningless. "If we had PR / yearly parliaments / a 'Formalist State' — the specific changes that would make such changes possible would be as significant for the consequences as would the hypothesized changes themselves, so it is a bad idea to ignore them.


Mencius' "magic ring" is the equivalent for political structure of my "if I were Führer" for particular policies: whatever realistic means are put forward to achieve a similar political structure, those means will have their own side-effects on the end result.

04 July 2007

Views of Democracy

What do I think of democracy? I've been contradicting myself like mad recently, so I need to take stock.


The Mencius Moldbug theory, which I referred to this morning, is that democracy is something which the ruling caste wastefully pretend to be governed by. It has no substantive effect on policy, but carrying out the rituals helps to prevent the masses from rising against the permanent government.


I don't buy that. I don't really think that democracy is the "rule of the people", but I do think its effects can be underestimated. What in many cases produces the underestimate is the observation that elections rarely change anything significant. However, that would be the case even if democracy were working perfectly. Politicians in the modern age know pretty well what will get them elected and what won't, and therefore take the positions that will get them elected. The election, provided the politicians are acting sensibly, is a non-event. Looked at that way, it is a sign of the imperfection of the democratic system that elections have any effect at all.


So, we have some democracy. Good thing or bad thing?


I am going to be boringly conventional and say it is better than the alternatives I have come across. Mencius has not really explained his alternative: Abu Dhabi, Singapore and other port city-states are not necessarily replicable across real countries, and while I get that the enlightened self-interested despot would produce an open, free, high-economic-growth society that he could extract the maximum tax revenue from, I don't see how he would prevent his subjects using their freedom to try to grab his loot. I don't think today's AR-15 vs armour comparison really covers the difficulty of holding onto power without a highly militarised police state. I stand by what I wrote here last year: The biggest cost (in the widest sense) of any political system is that which it expends in preventing its overthrow.


So if democracy is a necessary expense for a society free enough to have a really good economy, what about the story today that repressed societies are growing faster? Well, I agree with Tyler Cowen that they are not yet at the level of productivity that would be inconsistent with their lack of freedom. That is, I am claiming that repression limits productivity more than does freedom, not growth.


It still remains to decide whether - given that democracy is just part of the overhead cost of freedom - we should have lots of democracy, or just a minimum. This morning I was arguing for a minimum, but in the past I have asked for more than we actually have currently in the UK. Bryan Caplan claims that the US government follows better economic policy than it would if it actually obeyed public opinion.


I'm not sure. I suppose that despite the undemocratic features in the UK that I've complained about, the actual policies I object to are not ones that are opposed by the large mass of public opinion, and so more democracy would not actually help.

Why Five Years?

I happened to ask in a debate recently, why should we elect governments for five years? Most democracies seem to use four or five years between elections, but I've never seen a justification. One or two years would be quite practical, and ten or more years very easy.


I mentioned I'd been reading Unqualified Reservations lately. One argument made there is that all governments extract the maximum loot from the population, and the difference between governments is in the horizon they have (a government with a long horizon will try to maximize growth so as to be able to steal more in future), and in the dead-weight losses involved in holding on to power.


If one considers the value of elections to be that they prevent expensive civil wars and revolutions, by making it more tempting for rival factions to wait their turn, you can get some idea of how long an elected term should be. In order to maximise the time horizon of government, giving it an interest in shearing the sheep rather than slaughtering it, it should be as long as possible, but not so long that rivals give up waiting and try to overthrow it, necessitating wasteful countermeasures.


Given those concerns, I think we could beneficially stretch the term a bit longer than five years. Even ten might be possible, but that would be pushing it. More than ten, and I think the opposition would not be willing to wait.


It might not matter. Other features might be manipulated to advantage incumbents to a degree that compensates for overly short elected terms. I can imagine that there's a sort of equilibrium - incumbents have enough power over the system that they only ever allow just enough chance of being deposed to prevent violent revolution.

03 July 2007

Wild Speculation

I've got this story in my head and I can't get rid of it.


Evil Terrorist Mastermind: You my friends have been selected to smite the crusaders. Here is an hundred grand - go and prepare bombs as you have been trained.


NHS Suicide Squad head off to the god-forsaken wastes of Blackburn or Glasgow or somewhere.


First NHS Terrorist: Right. We are going to use car bombs, so we need some cars. Let us consult the Exchange & Mart.


Second Terrorist: Sod that - I always wanted a Mercedes-Benz. Let's go to the dealership.


Third Terrorist: I concur.


(Terrorists buy nice shiny Mercedes (2 of), and a Jeep Cherokee, and show off driving them around for several months while accustoming themselves to the Land of the Infidel.)


First NHS Terrorist: I have received word: the attack is to be when the new leader of the infidels takes over. We must make our bombs. Where is the fertilizer?


Second NHS Terrrorist: ah... about the fertilizer


Third Terrorist: We had not enough money left after buying the cars. I blame the Jews.


First Terrorist: Oh shit. Well we must do the best we can. I'm going to B&Q to look for something that might blow up.


There's absolutely no reason to believe that's what happened, but whatever the real story is, it probably isn't any less stupid.


Oh, and do bear in mind that the whole NHS thing might be a bit of a red herring: the police seem to be rounding up telephone contacts of the self-immolationists, which in itself is a perfectly sensible approach, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if most of those arrested the last couple of days were to turn out to be innocent within the next few days.

Climate Change poll

From my January 2006 entry:


... democracy really is a protection as well as a threat. On the really important issues, the people are generally better informed than on issues that have little relevance to them, and I trust them more than I trust the Establishment. If Britain was ever in danger of falling into Communism since 1945, and it may have been, the danger came from the establishment, and our best protection was the proletariat.


I think this is borne out by the story today that the public has not been convinced by Global Warming alarmists:


The public believes the effects of global warming on the climate are not as bad as politicians and scientists claim, a poll has suggested.


The Ipsos Mori poll of 2,032 adults - interviewed between 14 and 20 June - found 56% believed scientists were still questioning climate change.

There was a feeling the problem was exaggerated to make money, it found.

They may not be able to evaluate the science, but they know propaganda when they see it. It's a lot easier to see that the issue is being deliberately exaggerated than to predict the future climate. And because significant policies are being put forward on the basis of the claims, the public is giving them more attention than they do "academic" issues like evolution.


Not that I would deny that the public is capable of getting important questions seriously wrong - see Caplan etc. I think the lesson is that the public is better at estimating honesty and sincerity than science or economics, and therefore when seeking to influence the public, modesty is good and exaggeration fatal.

02 July 2007

Suicide Arsonists

There is now one reason to be worried about what Bruce Schneier has called the "Terrorist Special Olympics" going on in Great Britain.


Apparently the "mastermind" behind this shocking display of idiocy was a doctor. The idea that someone so ignorant of basic science as to be involved with these bargain basement incendiaries was actually practising medicine in this country is actually a little frightening. Let us all hope he is innocent.


There was previously just a tiny sliver of doubt in my mind. Were the two Mercedes cars left in London - the one that crashed and the one that was towed away by Westminster Council for being illegally parked - really as ill-prepared to do anyone any damage at all as news reports implied?


Possibly, as well as the "Propane, petrol and nails", there was also a stick of dynamite that the police had neglected to mention. Maybe the petrol was mixed with ammonium nitrate. I couldn't really be certain.


To set my mind at rest, there was the suicide arson attack on Glasgow Airport. This time, the car did actually "go off", to the degree we would expect of the non-explosive combination of fuels that featured in descriptions of the London contraptions.


The media, and the Home Secretary, have spoken inaccurately of a "Detonator". Propane and petrol do not detonate. They ignite. The result is something that scientists call a "fire". And therefore, these cargo-cult terrorists are not bombers, but arsonists. One could call them "Suicide Arsonists", but their equipment is not actually adequate even for suicide, so Attempted Suicide Arsonists are what they are.


The sensible response would be nothing at all. However, I cannot ignore them all by myself. I am therefore attempting to stir up some apathy. The "two minutes silence" has become a familiar ceremony to us all as we attempt to show our concern about some tragedy or another. I suggest that to mark this farcical terror campaign, we all stop what we are doing and publicly carry out a "one minute giggle". Posters showing images of burning men holding Molotov cocktails, and would-be car-bombs being towed by traffic wardens. How about noon on Friday?


Anyone?

"Krazy Klown jihadis" - The Register

"Darwinian-Award dim" - Rachel

Interesting Wall Street Journal article - noting that no evidence of actual high explosive was found in the cars, and that propane-tank bombs have been used previously in Germany, and didn't work there either.