31 March 2005
One finding highlighted in the press release:
67% of women, didn't know when they chose their career, about the often lower pay for work mostly done by women and of these two thirds of young women said they would have considered a wider range of career options had they known.
In the general spirit of making up "just so stories", without evidence, to explain why men and women might behave differently (not being an academic, I can participate in this diverting pastime), I have a new one:
Children are generally presented with a mass of propaganda to the effect that making money is nasty, and nice people aren't concerned about such things. (I still wince at the memory of Roger Hargreaves' "Roundy and Squarey"). My prejudice leads me to suspect that girls might be slightly more susceptible to this rubbish than boys, and that therefore boys would be more keen to identify and head for well-paid occupations than girls.
Just a thought. It would be interesting if the EOC, or whoever, were to ask a question along these lines in their next survey. My prejudices are all very well, but data would be preferable.
For the record, while I see no need to aim for exact equality of numbers of men and women in every occupation, and am suspicious of quangos like the EOC, they are clearly looking at a real problem. I am sitting here in a room with twenty-six other software developers, twenty-five of which are male, and we're struggling to fill open positions...
(comments disabled on this post as having "Work" in the title seems to particularly attract spam)
spent per week on average.
That's odd. If average income is £570, then on average we spend about £200 per week on government. That's as much as on Transport, Recreation, Food and Housing put together. Since I suspect the ONS figures quoted actually include the VAT and other taxes on what we buy, the extent to which taxation dominates our household budgets is even more dramatic.
Tax tops weekly bills.
30 March 2005
The good news: a majority express concern about voting by SMS or email. It's actually worrying that only 66% would be concerned about email-voting, but at least it's a clear majority.
The bad news: "nearly 60%" believe that identity cards would be a solution for electoral fraud.
Now, it is possible for me to vote fraudulently by turning up at polling station and claiming to be someone else. But for that one fraudulent vote, I'm taking the risk of being noticed by someone who recognises me, or by someone who would recognise the person I'm claiming to be, or that the person I'm claiming to be has already voted, or that the person will try to vote later, which I might get away with, but which would at least raise suspicion. If I'm an eligible voter myself, I would be well advised to make my legitimate vote in a different polling station, which would entail some travelling. That's a lot of work and risk for one crooked vote. I'm sure it happens, but not on any scale.
In the traditional UK system, every single step of the process is open to the public and visible, except for the voter marking the paper.
That's actually really surprising. I can watch in my local polling stations as voters ask for ballot papers, are given them, hide in a booth to mark them, come out and put them in a box. I can watch the box all day. I can see the box carried to the counting room, and stand on the balcony as counters take the papers out of the boxes and sort them into piles. I don't have to trust anyone else to oversee the process, it's all there for me (or any other voter or candidate) to check.
The manual system is vulnerable to small human errors and small opportunistic fraud. It is totally immune to large systematic fraud, because that is bound to attract attention. In Bruce Schneier's terminology, the system is resilient, despite being imperfect. The security protecting postal or electronic voting, conversely, is brittle: when it breaks, it breaks badly.
Schneier on voting
Schneier describes resilient and brittle security
Most timetables get revised regularly anyway -- train timetables, for example, usually change around the time of the clock shifts. Both at school and at one past job, we had summer timetables and winter timetables without causing any problems.
I don't know what the average number of clocks per person is these days, but I don't think it's unusual to have one in every room, plus watches, cars, microwave ovens etc. etc. BST probably costs about 30-60 minutes of leisure time per person per year. Add about one programmer-day per medium sized business unit per year dealing with errors thrown up by the time shift. Add the cost of all the human errors introduced twice every year. Add the costs of those that need their timetables to stay regular, and therefore have to adjust them to compensate. (I wouldn't like to be running an airline at this time of year). Compare to the benefits for people who would otherwise have to change their schedules to take advantage of the early mornings, but this way don't.
If I were to pluck a figure out of the air, I'd say this insanity costs the country about a billion pounds a year. It's going to get worse, not better. I don't know how many people routinely have to know the time in more than one timezone, but it makes that much more difficult. Even if we bully the whole world to do the shift at the same date, half the world is still doing it the other way.
My refusal to change my clocks is a token resistance. What's most frustrating is that most people agree it's silly to do this, but nobody cares much. I try to keep the issue visible, to remind people what they're losing.
All of the arguments in defense of the nonsense assume that people are totally incapable of noticing or adapting to the change of the seasons without the government tricking them into it. I have a higher opinion of my countrymen than that.
Update: via Stumbling and Mumbling, a study estimating the effect of clock changes on the equities market. I'm not really sure what to make of that -- the author's explanations are in terms of subjective effects on traders rather than effects on the actual companies being traded, so I wouldn't count the devaluation detected as a "loss" per se. The author also mentions in passing increased accident rates following clock changes, which I hadn't taken into consideration.
Speaking of subjective effects, I think that my habit of adjusting my timetable rather than my clocks helps me to adjust as regards sleep and so on. There's no logical reason for that, but who knows what effect our belief as to what time it is affects our minds?
Also cited, an earlier item from Village Hampden. I'd meant to refer to that, but I couldn't find it today. I see BST more as a symbol of government's inflated self-importance than its tyranny -- after all, legally everyone could do as I do and leave their clocks alone. It is worthwhile to demonstrate that the state doesn't control the stars and the planets...
Update 2: Via the Risks Digest (in full, the Association for Computing Machinery Forum on Risks to the Public in Computers and Related Systems), Barclays' cash machine network brought down for a day by the time change. Every spring and autumn brings similar news stories.
28 March 2005
Why the UN is to blame for the 2003 Iraq War
Responsibility for this war lies squarely with the UN, despite the last-minute chickening-out. If the UN Security Council had wanted to establish peaceful relations between Saddam Hussein and the rest of the world (which would have been a Good Thing), it wouldn't have set up the stupid "safe havens". You can't make peace with a government while you're protecting a rebel army inside that government's own territory. The only options are
1. Leave things as they were and wait for Saddam Hussein to find some way of getting revenge on us.
2. Pull right out and let Saddam Hussein take control of the Kurdish areas, thereby showing up the half-hearted assertiveness of 1991 for what it was.
3. End the whole mess by changing the government of Iraq by military means.
The UN Security Council plumped for option 1. I favour option 2, but I can see that politicians might see it as politically impossible to watch the Kurds get cut to ribbons again as a result of international dithering. Bush went for 3, which would be my second choice.
Read the rest of this post...
27 March 2005
As I roughly understand the law, in order to prove someone guilty of fraud, you have to show:
- They said or wrote something that wasn't true
- They knew it wasn't true
- They gained money or goods as a result.
The idea that generally crops up at this stage is to do away with juries, or, as suggested here, to change the composition of juries.
To my mind, a less drastic response would be to change the programme of a trial.
I, like many others, have been following the progress of SCO v IBM, via the Groklaw blog. Now that's happening in the USA, but the main difference is that it's a civil matter, and so far no jury has been involved.
As you follow the development of this genuinely complex case, what happens is that questions are answered one at a time. One side raises something they want to be decided, the other side submits arguments against, and the judge rules one way or the other.
I don't see why this can't be done in a criminal trial with a jury. The jury is there to determine the facts, why can't it be done one at a time? The prosecution allege that some detail is true, the defence deny it, both sides present evidence on that one point, and the jury decides. The prosecution, having got rulings on all their facts, make the case based on proved facts. The defence declares that there are other relevant facts that have not been covered, and those are decided in the same way. Finally, arguments are made, again based on facts that have already been considered to have been proved.
This has two advantages: First, the job is made simpler for the jury. Second, the same jury need not handle the entire case, if it takes four years or something.
Once again, I am extending my professional techniques beyond their normal scope: Earlier today I described BST as bad data modelling, now I am suggesting that the court system employ modularity. Every beginning programmer is taught that complex tasks are made simpler by separating any subtasks that can be handled independently.
It could be argued that this system would reduce the independence of juries, and would compromise our traditional liberties. Maybe so: it certainly would need very thorough study. But, as in the case of the anti-terrorist control orders, people are talking about abolishing traditional liberties, without really looking at less drastic ways they could be tweaked to achieve the same ends.
It's important to emphasise the dynamic aspect of this. When the state sets up an organisation, it can be very efficient. The NHS probably worked very well in the '40s and '50s. Stalin industrialised Russia into a superpower with efficiency equal to his ruthlessness, and indeed wartime Britain's state-controlled economy was equally effective. As late as 1960, even Western politicians of both left and right believed that the communist system was more efficient than the market.
The problem with state control is not that it makes organisations inefficient. Organisations become inefficient naturally. The problem is that under state control there is no way to reverse that. If the NHS or the Inland Revenue could be made as efficient as they were fifty years ago, the 1980s USSR could have been made as efficient as it had been fifty years previously. There's no mechanism to do the job, in either case. Unfortunately, most of the electorate believes that the clock can be turned back, to the relatively well-functioning public services of the 1960s. That model just wasn't sustainable. It can work for a time in a crisis, such as 1940-45, but in the long run it is doomed. The efficient NHS is gone forever, and cannot be recovered. This is what Howard is too chicken to tell the electorate.
Here's hoping for the next leader of the Conservative Party.
I would recommend Robert Skidelsky, The World After Communism, but it seems to be out of print.
26 March 2005
Can taxpayer money be saved by cutting out waste? Yes, it can. Without cutting services? No, it can't. The only way to cut out the waste is to cut whole organisations down to a size that can be controlled and made efficient.
Does that mean that every discussion of economic policy in the media is about as relevant to real life as Celebrity Strictly Come Dancing? Yes, it does.
Today's statement of the bleeding obvious, brought to you by Anomaly UK.
23 March 2005
It is one of those books which is superb despite being wrong. (Roger Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind is another). I will come back to it later, but there is one amusing metaphor, where the "Year 2000 problem" is described (in 1999, remember) as a code-based environmental disaster.
It's not clear, with hindsight, whether the "Y2K Problem" was (a) an over-hyped prophecy of doom, in response to which much money and effort was wasted, or (b) a genuine threat that was averted at the last moment at great cost.
My own professional experience, before Y2K and since, has been on systems that went wrong fairly frequently for all sorts of reasons, and were always fixed quickly, often by me. Of the dozens of production fixes I performed in the year 2000, only one of them was the result of a "Y2K" problem. The main (telecoms billing) system I worked on at the time was supposed to be replaced by a "Y2K compliant" one, but that project failed and the non-compliant system carried on without problems. I shouldn't really generalise from my experience to the whole industry, however, and I leave the question open.
The parallels with, say, Global Warming are numerous. It may well turn out to be a lot of fuss about nothing. Even if it's real, it might be most efficient to deal with the problems as they occur, rather than invest trillions in trying to prevent them in advance. A whole industry has emerged just to talk about it, and no organisation is allowed to omit paying lip-service, with varying degrees of insincerity, to the need to act.
Of course, analogies never prove anything. All this does is demonstrate a certain pattern of behaviour, which comes naturally to a human race raised on flood myths and the like. It doesn't mean the doom-mongers must be wrong, but at least it goes some way to refuting the "10,000 lemmings can't be wrong" part of the argument.
22 March 2005
That security was weakened by cassette tapes and destroyed by MP3 players. Now anyone can "manufacture" copies of music recordings, on a large scale or a small scale.
The pharmaceutical industry resembles vinyl records. The largest costs for the drug companies are in design and testing, but the manufacturing costs are high enough to protect their patents.
Imagine that a "generic synthesiser" were developed. I have in mind a general-purpose programmable chemical plant. If you want to produce, say, asprin, you put in some basic feedstocks, feed it a program, it churns away like a bread machine, and out comes your asprin. (or cocaine, or whatever...)
Is this feasable? I would say it's inevitable, though I couldn't say whether it would be closer to 2015 or 2100. Twenty years after appearing in the laboratories, it will be in your kitchen.
Once that process gets going, pharmaceuticals becomes a "pure IP" business like software or music. Development and testing (and marketing) of new drugs will still be expensive, but once a drug is on the market, it only takes one "hacker" to write the program and I can download it and synthesise the drug in my kitchen. (Or, in earlier stages, in my University Chem lab).
Think about the effects of this device: It will revolutionise medicine. It will improve many other areas of life, opening up possibilities that are hard to imagine. But it will make drug development very difficult to fund, but technically easier to do, and it will make narcotics prohibition impossible.
Attempts will be made to restrict the distribution or capabilities of the devices, but without a mass market, it will not be developed quickly enough. It is likely to be built of components that will be used throughout manufacturing industry, and the only way to restrict capabilities will be at the "programmer" component, which can be replicated with general-purpose computing equipment.
Of course by that time, the software/music/film issues will be worked out — either with a police state like this, or with a new model of development — so we will have more clues to the solution of the new problem (which, it is to be remembered is not primarily a problem, but a new world of opportunities).
The appointment of Paul Wolfowitz to head the World Bank has attracted media attention to him, but to me, the politician who most perfectly exhibits neoconservatism is that ex-leftist Tony Blair.
He (more than his predecessor) is the man who took privatisation on from where Lady Thatcher left off (though in a Reagan/Bush way, without actually cutting government spending).
He is also the man who talked Clinton into attacking Yugoslavia in the name of human rights (and with an obvious byproduct of spreading Western politics at least into Slovenia and Croatia). For all we know, he is the man who talked George W Bush into attacking Iraq. Blair might not have needed to do much persuading, but if he had needed to, he would have given it his best shot.
And yet there are still those who seem to think that Britain is fighting this war "for America". They ask what Blair has got "in exchange for British troops in Iraq".
Tony Blair got a huge amount in exchange: he got American troops in Iraq.
Britain is also a large "producer" of IP, so I don't see a problem in dealing with the article from here on its own terms (apart from the baseball analogy; in these parts, hitting the batter with the ball is just good bowling).
Duane Freese makes points that are reasonable in themselves, but he avoids all the difficult questions.
Intellectual Property is very difficult to enforce. In a rich, orderly society like the USA or the UK, it is possible to act against sellers of unauthorised copies. It has not been possible to act against "private" breaches, such as an unauthorised public performance of a music cd at a party. Such activities have long been tolerated, despite being technical IP breaches, because the losses were low and enforcement was not practical. Another class of breach — users copying music or early computer games to tapes — was more frowned on, but still escaped legal enforcement.
Two developments have changed the situation: widespread digital hardware has made private copying easier and better, while globalisation has increased the significance of overseas jurisdictions where different enforcement policies are in use.
The domestic question is not whether authorities should attempt to enforce existing IP laws. Some people are questioning whether we should have IP at all, but that is not really a mainstream argument. The issue is that the authorities are not able to effectively enforce IP laws in all cases, and the scale of breaches that are outside the enforcable areas is growing. To reduce the volume of breaches of IP, it would be necesary to expand the reach of enforcement further into the private arena than has ever been the case in the past. This involves unprecedented police powers and loss of personal privacy, and vast government expense. This is the issue over which the "Copyfight" is being waged.
The foreign question is over countries which, through choice or necessity, take a different stance than that of the big IP producers as to what breaches of IP law can practically be acted against. Freese says should be punished for it. But for a country like Russia, where the authorities have their hands full just trying to collect taxes, imposing an IP enforcement regime like that being demanded by Freese is not remotely possible.
Finally, the breadth of IP law is such that it cannot be treated purely with generalities. The patent system is failing as patent offices and courts are unable to scale up to handle present rates of innovation. Third-world production of drugs also raises questions which deserve to be dealt with specifically. Remember that IP law has never been about absolutes (hence the time limits on copyrights and patents), but has always been subject to cost-benefit analyses that vary from one area of innovation to another.
20 March 2005
One of the most interesting arguments is that judicial punishment, in addition to its more obvious purposes, performs the useful function of restoring the self-esteem and public status of the victims, which would be damaged by their wrongs going unavenged.
What I didn't see discussed was that this also applies to the judicial system and the state itself. A state which lets crimes go unpunished or nearly so loses respect in the eyes of its people — and not only those who are considering crimes themselves.
What constitutes sufficient punishment depends on the character of the culture itself. In a culture where violent death (legal or illegal) is commonplace, a state that won't even kill people is likely to be seen as ineffectual — even if it is actually quite effective at detecting and deterring crimes. On the other hand, in a society that is free of violence, an execution penalty would make the state seem backward, rather than strong.
In some circumstances then, it might be necessary for a state to use penalties such as Iran does, just to assert its authority.
If one accepts this argument it means that he should be cautious about applying the standards of humane punishment appropriate to his society, to other countries. I am happy living in a country without the death penalty, but I'm not sure it's reasonable to attempt to insist that other countries do the same. The USA is seen, both here and there, as a more violent place. (This may well be an inaccurate view, but for these purposes the perception is probably more important than the reality). Is their retention of the death penalty a rejection of civilised standards, or a rational response to conditions?
There are caveats: the influence would presumably work both ways — while a society conditioned to violence might demand violent punishments, an abandonment of those punishments might delegitimise violence within the society. Furthermore, I think our governments have more status and authority than is good for us, and reducing that might be preferable. But neither of those really apply to states where violence is deeply ingrained, and where the state is in danger of disintegrating altogether.
Assuming you're not one of the few lucky people who have a major party that
shares your policies, you have several choices:
- Ignore politics (most popular option by a long, long way)
- Vote for the party nearest your views and count that as enough
- Vote tactically against the party furthest from your views and count that as enough
- Spoil your ballot in an attempt to show disaffection
- Vote for the major party most likely to change the voting system
- Join the party nearest your views and try to move it in your direction
- Support a minor party in the hope it will become a major party
- Support a minor party in the hope it will affect the policies of the major party.
- Vote tactically against the major party you're closest to in the hope of affecting its policies
offered or attempting to change the voting system.
The next three attempt to change the political shape within the same system.
The only recent UK example of a minor party getting anywhere near becoming major is the SDP, which was formed by disaffected Labour MPs in the 1980s, won a few seats and eventually merged with the Liberal Party to form the current Liberal Democratic Party. The last new major party before that was the Labour Party.
click here for the rest of the article...
From time to time, in response to a perceived over-representation of police and hospital personnel on our screens, some creative type comes up with a drama series set among teachers, or Probation officers, or something, which is massively boring and only lasts one series. The useful thing about the police is that there is a well-understood "fictional police" setting which can be the background to a drama, which is more interesting than the same thing. If you pick some random profession, the only background you can use is the tedious real thing.
18 March 2005
See her last comment, referring to the threat to her seat from Respect candidate George Galloway:
"He can bluff and bluster as much as he wants," she says. "At the end of the day [if he is voted in] he will never persuade the Treasury to spend an extra ten pence in Tower Hamlets because he has no influence at all. And that worries many local people."We are familiar with the idea — "pork-barrel politics" as they call it in the States — that the role of an elected representative is to bring government money to their constituency (although a different term would be more suitable to King's 55,000 Bangladeshi constituents).
This goes beyond that. She is implying that a Labour Government would punish the voters of Bethnal Green for not voting Labour.
This is not a particular criticsim of Oona King, who is gaining a reputation for saying things better left unsaid. There are, after all, better reasons for voting against George Galloway than the government's blackmail. The blackmail is the effect of a centralised state controlling 40% of the economy. (In this country, even money spent by local authorities is mainly effectively controlled by Westminster).
We have only one vote for the government of this country. If we use up our vote in an attempt to influence the redistribution of wealth, we have no vote left with which to express our views about war, freedom, security, or the ever-vexed issue of school dress codes. That itself is a reason for separation of economy and state.
17 March 2005
41 sitting Labour MPs are standing down at the next election. No big deal. 14 of the 41 have made the announcements too late for their constituency Labour parties to carry out their own selection procedures — with the result that the national party gets to pick the shortlist. The implication is that most of the 14 have delayed their announcement deliberately to move this power from local parties to the national party.
I can't see how this would not be resented by Labour party branch members. For the Labour Party to repeatedly pull this stunt on them, either they must put up with it, or the national Party doesn't care whether they put up with it or not. Either way, the situation indicates a great decrease in the significance of the Labour Party's rank and file membership.
There is an inevitable, and universal, tension between party leadership and part grass-roots. The leadership want to get elected, and are willing to compromise their platform in order to gain power. The activists are also in favour of winning elections, but are likely to be much less willing to move to the political centre. A strong grass-roots organisation forcing the party away from the centre is an electoral liability.
Historically, the importance of the party membership has been in campaigning and fundraising. These tasks have been diminished by the rise of television and corporatism — if the party leadership can talk directly to the electorate, with money taken from industry (or, one day, state funds), the grass roots lose their traditional role.
The mass party is still essential in another role — one that used to be done so well that it wasn't noticed, but is becoming difficult for modern diminished parties to fulfill. The party leadership is drawn from the rank and file. The Labour Party is still just about able to lay hands on sufficient high-calibre individuals to fill the front bench, and this is now proving one of its key advantages over the Opposition. Blair, Brown, Straw, Blunkett — whatever their faults, these are intelligent people, capable of managing underlings and gaining respect.
That generation, however, joined the Labour Party in the 1970s, when selecting candidates and electing the NEC made the party membership more important, and presumably made membership of the party more fulfilling.
It may be that the old route — party member to councillor (or trade union official) to MP to senior figure — might be replaced by a career path that winds through the party headquarters: researcher, media advisor, policy advisor, whatever. It seems unlikely that this could provide as large a pool of potential candidates to draw on as did the constituency committees of old. What is the Labour leader of 2020 doing today?
16 March 2005
Electricity is sold by the kilowatt-hour. Now a researcher has proposed that computing power be sold by the computon
If a 500MW power station could only be built by putting fifty thousand small 10kW generators in racks, with expensive complicated machinery to try to keep as many as possible fueled and running at once, then I don't think the concept of an electricity grid would ever have caught on. But that's what a "computing" power station looks like.
There are some slight economies of scale to computer hardware, mainly in management overhead, but compared to the cost of putting your own computer at the other end of a wide area network, they're negligible.
The amazing thing is that this idea keeps cropping up, year after year, despite the fact that the basic technology just does not exist. Maybe it will one day, although currently it's moving in the other direction.
15 March 2005
But there is another reason. In the Good Old Days, if the police believed that particular individuals in Britain were terrorists, but didn't have the evidence to prove it, they didn't just whine to the Prime Minister for more powers. No by Jimminy they didn't.
No, like any self-respecting police throughout history, they got up off their arses and faked up some evidence. That's the traditional way.
Modern forensic techniques and legal requirements make that more difficult these days.
So today, instead of having explosive residue planted on him, or being invited to sign a blank piece of paper on which will be written a contemporaneous account of his confession, our known terrorist will get a totally legal Control Order from Charles Clarke.
There's one thing we know now about at least some of the people fitted up in the Good Old Days by the boys in blue.
They were completely innocent.
Just one little point to bear in mind.
14 March 2005
There was a breathtaking exchange on a Radio 5 programme this week. A leader of the campaign to disrupt Jerry Springer: The Opera was interrupted by another guest in the studio who said: "But I'm also a Christian and I don't believe that Jerry Springer should be banned." The religious censor pounced: "Yes, but you can't impose your interpretation of Christianity on everyone else."
The key to understanding this exchange is that in the current media world, the most obvious way of expressing dislike for something is to try to ban it — to the point where it appears as the only way of expressing opposition. The first speaker in the passage above was expressing his opinion of Jerry Springer: The Opera by campaigning to ban it, and his opponent, by criticising that, was effectively saying the first speaker should not express himself, and thus attempting to censor him.
In an ideal world, the anti-Springerist should have been able to express his view of the work, and have that view publicised, without threatening to forcibly prevent people from seeing it. In this world, to achieve such a thing is so difficult it probably never occurred to him, and, if it did occur to him, he would rationally have been bound to discard it as a strategy. He would not have been able to get such views discussed at all, let alone on Radio 5. In our culture, it is difficult to get people to even understand the concept of opposing something without making it illegal, and if you succeed in getting the idea across, you will still lose impact and be seen as wishy-washy or over-complex. This is the problem for anti-prohibitionists in the drug debate, for example.
Again, in the ideal world, he could have taken out advertisments urging people not to go to watch the offending work, or campaigned for clergy to condemn it in the pulpit. I feel slightly silly even making these suggestions. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to demand a ban. If you don't get it, that doesn't matter so much. You will have expressed your view, and got media coverage, and you will have shown both your friends and your enemies the strength of your support.
How to get to my ideal world? I can see two approaches. One is to try to delegitimise censorship off the bat, and refuse to engage with the substantive opinion of someone demanding censorship. The second is the opposite, to treat the demand for censorship as purely formal, and have a debate only on the actual objections of the would-be censors, without taking seriously or considering the practicalities of how the censorship would actually happen.
Neither approach looks much like working to me. Does anyone have a better idea?
I suppose we should also ask how we got to this situation. I guess it's just that greater democratisation of society, and greater access to mass media, has meant that a vocal minority actually can ban things, and that has made doing so the obvious way of expressing dislike.
13 March 2005
This piece (h/t Tim Worstall) uses the McCartney murder to criticise the Northern Ireland peace process, and the British and Irish governments for supporting it.
I had an argument over at US blog Captain's Quarters with a commenter making a similar point.
The peace process obviously makes no sense if you believe that the IRA was on the verge of comprehensive military defeat anyway. While British forces had achieved a number of operational victories in the years prior to the first cease-fire, I don't think that was the case. Indeed, the current situation demonstrates that that was not the case.
The IRA could not be eliminated so long as they retained a measure of support in Catholic areas of Northern Ireland. It might be possible to contain or suppress them under those conditions, but not to finally defeat them. Furthermore while it might be theoretically possible to carry out this containment without increasing resentment of the British forces and sympathy for the IRA, in practice it is unfeasable to do so. The daily routine of army patrols, house searches, and checkpoints (Iraq is not the only country where non-terrorists get shot at checkpoints) is enough to reinforce perception of the British as an occupying force.
The McCartney affair is at once a demonstration that the Provisional IRA retains a degree of legitimacy in its community, and the greatest blow to that legitimacy in its history. The line that the PSNI can take is: "Any time you want us to police your streets instead of these murderers, we're ready to do the job". If the murder of Robert McCartney (and the Northern Bank job) are enough to win the PSNI sufficient help to solve them, then this is the beginning of the end for the IRA. If they are not yet enough, the government will have to wait.
Kevin Myers in the Telegraph article says that, in return for the police reforms, Sinn Fein have given precisely nothing. Here I disagree. The fact that the government no longer has to police nationalist areas of Northern Ireland as an occupying army, as it previously needed to in order to protect the mainland and the rest of Northern Ireland, means that it can start to establish its own legitimacy to challenge that of the IRA. The fact that the IRA no longer has an enemy to fight, but is only an organised crime syndicate, simultaneously eats at its legitimacy. Unless the government overplays its hand, there can be only one long-term outcome.
One clarification: when I say that the IRA maintains its grip over its areas by the consent of the population, that could be interpreted as saying that those populations have chosen — and therefore deserve — to have the IRA rule them. That of course is not the case. The IRA does not need 100% local support, or even 50%. It may be as low as 10% or 20%. The rest are simply its victims, and deserve sympathy — especially when they show the courage of McCartney's sisters. But it is an unfortunate fact that a liberal democracy is not able to function in a population where even a significant minority support armed resistance. There can be no quick victory, but I believe the slow victory is being won.
Update: via Slugger O'Toole, a piece from The Independent, with actual reporting, describing in detail the source of IRA's legitimacy and the decay of that legitimacy.
11 March 2005
The Law Lords ruled that this was a breach of human rights. In an attempt to reduce the threat posed by their release, the government has tried to get a new law passed that it can use to restrict their freedoms and movement after release. This law is being held up in the House of Lords.
These four are therefore now being released.
Their names are "E", "H", "Q", and "K".
Oh, we can't be told their real names. That would violate their privacy.
HAS THE WORLD GONE FUCKING MAD?
The government is prepared to overrule basic principles of freedom in this case -- both ancient ones (Magna Carta) and modern ones (ECHR). It says it is necessary to take these extraordinary steps to protect us from these men. It has imprisoned them for over three years without trying them. So why can't it tell us who they are?
Talk about swallowing camels and straining at gnats.
If it is necessary to compromise our liberties in the face of the terrorist threat, and perhaps it is, then surely we should have some kind of scale of which rights we are more willing to lose and which we are more determined to keep.
The idea that someone subject to legal proceedings should have their identity protected is something which I would happily give away for nothing. Indeed, I think the legal process should be open and public.
The right of people anywhere in the world to stay in this country, even if they are believed to be a threat, if they would be in danger in their home country, is worth a bit more. I would quite like to keep that, or at least to require that some justification for the belief that they are a threat be presented. I am open to discussion of this matter, though.
The right of citizens of this country to be either tried for an offence or allowed to go freely about their business is incomparably more valuable. I am nowhere near being convinced that we need to compromise this at all.
So why have we jumped straight to abolishing that essential freedom, when the stated objective could be so easily attained at much less cost.
I am sure the Police and Security Services are sincere in their desire to do their very important jobs as well as possible, and are asking for the power they think they need. But the dynamics of their organisations are such that they will always be asking for the most power they have any chance of getting. I do not blame them for that, but it is the role of our elected government to make the important trade-offs, and not to hide behind "advice" of these agencies as an excuse for not making them.
10 March 2005
I've already stated my position on the law itself, but the spectacle of legislative process at full throttle raises other issues.
Parliament has a certain amount of time available to debate laws. It uses all of it. Also, at the end of every legislative session, there are usually laws that haven't been passed because there wasn't time.
Now, how many laws should be passed? Given that we get as many laws as possible, to the very limit of the time available, there is no reason to believe that the level of legislative production is exactly the ideal level. The behaviour of Parliament suggests that they think we need many, many more laws, but there just isn't time.
If this is what they think, and they are right, we should surely be looking at some constitutional reform to allow more laws to be passed than is possible currently. To some extent, the addition of extra layers of government -- regional and European -- provides this opportunity, but I've never heard them advocated in these terms.
I suspect this is because no-one really believes that what this country needs is higher legislative production. But that leads to the question: if we don't need more laws than Parliament has time for, why does Parliament pack as many as possible into the time it has?
I believe that it does so because it is in the interest of politicians and bureaucrats to personally pass as much legislation as they can, independent of the interests of the public.
What are the effects of this conflict of interest?
First, obviously, that we get more laws than we really need. We could manage without a law to make it illegal to tidy up the countryside without a license.
Second, less obviously, there is less scrutiny than there should be of laws. This gives enormous power to the government and Civil Service, as they can "scale up" their resources without limit to the level of legislative production, and Parliament can not increase its "quality control" function to match.
What applies to Parliament, applies even more strongly to the public as a whole. If Parliament considered one bill per month, we could all hear about it and form an opinion. At the rate of legislation actually in force, only a specialist can even know what laws are being considered at a given time. If you are affected by a proposed bill, it takes time to gather a grass-roots campaign to influence it. At the present hectic rate of legislation, you do not have time to do this.
The legislative sprint is anti-democratic in another way. Because Parliament as a whole is trying to pass as many laws as it can, any attempt to modify a bill is resisted, not just by those who actively support the particular bill, but by the others who have no strong opinion, but do not want to "waste time" on your objections because of the knock-on effect on the schedules of other bills.
I think this is one of the problems we are seeing in the EU legislature with the software patent situation.
But this effect reaches a whole new level in the European Parliament, because of the rules governing it. Where, as in this case, the Council adopts a proposal different from that adopted by the Parliament on first reading, Parliament is assumed to approve the changes, unless it finds time within a three-month period to disagree! This truly is a revolution in legislative productivity. Imagine if, say, the US Senate worked under this rule. Rather than have to find time to pass the laws you want to pass, all laws will automatically pass except the ones you find time to oppose.
This obviously gives even more power to whoever arranges the Parliament's business.
One other obsolete obstacle to legislative productivity is the "quorum". In most debating chambers, a minimum number of members are needed to approve a measure. Once again, the EU throws off these shackles, with another innovative rule. In the EU Parliament, a minimum number of members are needed to stop a measure! If less than half the members oppose the bill, it passes, even if nobody supports it, and even if the Parliament has already rejected it once on first reading.
Oh, and all this will stay exactly the same if the proposed constitution is passed.
(p. 117 of this document)
Update: Matthew Yglesias makes a very similar point about the US legislative process.
08 March 2005
The case against is made most eloquently by Steven Landsburg in the context of last year's US presidential election. The probability of one vote making a difference to the outcome is negligible -- comparable to winning the lottery 1000 times in a row.
There are some objections that can be made to this, most obviously that the result of the election isn't just who wins. The margin of victory has an effect on the actions of the government throughout their term. Indeed, in the US we have seen endless pontificating on what lessons parties should draw from the answers voters gave to pollsters on their way home.
There's another objection, however, which attacks Landsburg's reasoning directly:
Let's get mathematical:
Let a be the result of the election ( candidate X votes - candidate Y votes, to be simple) if I don't vote
Let b be the result of the election if I do vote (say for candidate X).
Now, b = a + 1, so the actual outcome of the election will only be different if a=0 or a=-1 (whatever the rules are for tied elections). This is Landsburg's calculation.
But what is the real justification for saying b = a + 1?
We can assume that my vote doesn't affect anyone else's vote. After all, they're not supposed to know.
But that's not sufficent. For b to equal a + 1, the votes of other people have to be statistically independent from mine. Can I assume that?
Now we get philosophical. The common view of me as a mind with "free will" seems to imply the independence assumption. But it isn't backed up by sociology or neurobiology. On the basis of either observation or a reductionist, mechanistic view of the human brain, my vote is likely to be significantly correlated with other peoples' votes. That, after all, is the assumption behind opinion polling.
And based on that correlation, b - a cannot be assumed to be 1. It might be 5, or 100, or 10000.
Imagine, as a thought experiment, that we are all identical robots. We process our various inputs, and reach our conclusions. In the simplest possible model, either we will all vote for the same candidate, or none of us will vote.
As one of those robots, my vote will not affect anyone else's, but if I vote for X, X will win.
We are not identical, and we will not all vote the same. But the correlation, though less than one, is surely greater than zero.
The tricky question: If I use this argument, and therefore vote, will there really be more votes for my candidate? Again, the opinion pollsters believe so. I think they're right.
Psychologically, we do not reach decisions entirely via explicit logic. In fact, we invent reasons to excuse the decisions we would have made anyway. If I am determined to vote, more other people will vote than if I am indifferent. If my candidate wins by 10 votes, I will say, "If I hadn't voted, he wouldn't have won."
Of course, if you live in a safe constituency, your vote won't alter the result. That makes the case for a better electoral system all the stronger, since it shows that many people are denied political influence in a way that other people are not.
In any case, I will vote for a fringe party, so my candidate won't win. But the same effect will amplify the secondary effects of my vote. A good percentage will have a real impact on UK politics.
Like asking why some countries are poor, this is in a sense a reversal of the real question. It is normal for people to be poor, and it is normal for governments to be corrupt, and it is the exceptions that need explanations, not the normal case. Nonetheless, there is still a discrepancy to be explained, as the EU is unusually corrupt when compared to governemnts in the developed world.
I see two major reasons. First, necessity puts a lower limit on national governments' corruption and incompentence. Even in the modern era of bloated state sectors, there is a lot which a national government does which is considered essential to the lives of its citizens. If the Italian government could not keep order in the cities, if it could not keep the state-run transport system and basic nationalised services running, it would collapse. It would be overthrown as its failure became obvious to everyone.
In contrast, absolutely nothing that the EU does is essential. Every member government is capable of running its own country, and some have done so for centuries. There is no minimum level of competence or effectiveness below which the EU cannot fall, no degree of corruption which is unsupportable.
Secondly, the EU has a huge weight of idealism supporting it. While other state enterprises are judged on their achievements and their merits, the EU project can count on a large body of support on the basis of its ideals, independently of its actual structure or behaviour. It can upset one group or another with indivdual acts of defiance of law and democracy, but there are always more people who assume, in ignorance, that it is a force for good. When it comes to a vote, the diffuse good feeling outweighs the outrage of those that have experienced the Eurocrats directly.
The weakness of these two arguments is that they apply equally to the USA. It also is a federal layer over states capable of running their own affairs, and it also commands a unionist idealism. While by no means free of corruption, it is not so mired as the EU.
It is important to recognise that the USA is unique in this. There have been a number of other superstates, but none of them have been democratically controlled except for the USA. They have all been effectively ruled, as the EU is, by nominal civil servants with control of the bureaucracy. Though an opponent of Communism, I think the problems of the USSR were as much the result of federalism as they were of Marxism.
So why has the USA succeeded? I think its exceptional status comes from a number of different elements, but here are a few:
- It was founded on a principle of strictly limited government. The founders had a clearer idea of what they were against than of what they were for.
- In particular, federal powers are much more sharply circumscribed by the Bill of Rights than by any vague doctrine of "subsidiarity" in the EU lexicon.
- Its population does not consist of distinct nations (ignoring Native Americans, which they did). Citizens see the federal institutions as being part of their own country.
- Americans have a more "legalistic" attitude than Europeans, who have a more "pragmatic" attitude to law. This pragmatism tends to dissolve separations of powers.
Software Patent article
Why did the EU ever seem a good idea?
Larry Siedentop - the argument about legalistic / pragmatic law is from him. I highly recommend his book as an insightful and non-partisan study of its subject.
I see from Sitemeter that I am getting a lot of readers, but no feedback. If you find Blogger's comments too fiddly, please email.
07 March 2005
To many Europeans with an interest in software freedom, this issue has been their first encounter with the mechanisms of the EU. They might easily assume such anti-democratic manoevering is exceptional. It isn't. It's business as usual. What the politicians at the heart of the EU want, they get, and the rules don't matter.
The EU's annual accounts have not been audited -- for ten years running
Denmark voted against the Maastricht Treaty in a referendum in 1992. A small change was made and they were asked to vote again. If it was the same treaty, they had already rejected it. If it was different, all the other signatories needed to ratify the new one. Never mind.
The stability and growth pact was agreed before the single currency was introduced, limiting members' fiscal deficits. Several member states have exceeded the deficits, and the pact has not been enforced.
Whenever a new Treaty is introduced, we are always told that if we reject it we will lose all the (alleged) benefits of EU membership, despite the fact that everyone has committed to the previous treaties, which logically would remain in force. The implication is that prior agreements are worthless. (example: see the very end of this piece from "Britain in Europe").
That's just off the top of my head. (now updated with references: I don't demand anyone take my word for this stuff).
06 March 2005
When I originally wrote my article "The Structure of Terrorist Movements", my plan was to follow it up with two sequels; First, a recent history of the IRA, and second, a piece on international terrorism. My overall intent was to challenge Eric Raymond's "Anti-Idiotarian Manifesto" on what I saw as its one flaw: the lumping together of terrorists and their supporters as one undifferentiated enemy.
What I found when I tried to write my summary of Northern Irelands terrorist war was, first, that people had spent years doing serious research on this, and I didn't have time even to read what they'd written, never mind improve on it, and second, that on many important issues, the real facts simply aren't known.
There is at least a good reason why the facts are so unclear: It was necessary during the peace negotiations for both sides to present the settlement to their followers as a victory. Each side recognised the other's need to do this, and were therefore prepared to disguise the cold facts in places.
So, of necessity, what follows is not the factual summary I originally envisaged. It is much more an opinion piece, describing what I believe has happened in Northern Ireland since 1992. Almost every statement I will make can be challenged.
First claim: the war is over, and has been since 1998, though it was not clear at the time. Violent incidents have occurred since then, notably the Omagh bomb which killed 29 in August of 1998. They will continue, but they are no longer the acts of a coherent political movement. They should tail off over the years. The individuals involved may have links to mainstream republicanism, but that mainstream, including Sinn Fein, no longer depends on them. Sinn Fein has almost completed the movement to being a purely political, rather than terrorist, organisation.
04 March 2005
Update: URL moved
It bears out, so far as I can see, my interpretation in my previous post:
75. The decision-making structure should therefore go along the following lines:
1)Has the claimant established that she has a relevant Convention right which qualifies for protection under Article 9(1)?
2)Subject to any justification that is established under Article 9(2), has that Convention right been violated?
3)Was the interference with her Convention right prescribed by law in the Convention sense of that expression?
4)Did the interference have a legitimate arm?
5)What are the considerations that need to be balanced against each other when determining whether the interference was necessary in a democratic society for the purpose of achieving that aim?
6)Was the interference justified under Article 9(2)?
81. Nothing in this judgment should be taken as meaning that it would be impossible for the School to justify its stance if it were to reconsider its uniform policy in the light of this judgment and were to determine not to alter it in any significant respect. Matters which it (and other schools facing a similar question) would no doubt need to consider include these:
Whether the members of any further religious groups (other than very strict Muslims) might wish to be free to manifest their religion or beliefs by wearing clothing not currently permitted by the school’s uniform policy, and the effect that a larger variety of different clothes being worn by students for religious reasons would have on the School’s policy of inclusiveness;
Whether it is appropriate to override the beliefs of very strict Muslims given that liberal Muslims have been permitted the dress code of their choice and the School’s uniform policy is not entirely secular;
Whether it is appropriate to take into account any, and if so which, of the concerns expressed by the School’s three witnesses as good reasons for depriving a student like the claimant of her right to manifest her beliefs by the clothing she wears at school, and the weight which should be accorded to each of these concerns;
Whether there is any way in which the School can do more to reconcile its wish to retain something resembling its current uniform policy with the beliefs of those like
the claimant who consider that it exposes more of their bodies than they are permitted by their beliefs to show.
In other words, the school didn't write the correct arse-covering memos before deciding to apply its school uniform policy.
As the blogosphere's man in Luton, I suppose I should comment on the Shabina Begum case. The only "local colour" I can contribute is to confirm that one doesn't see many jibabs around the streets of Luton.
The other point that was made when the case was originally decided in favour of the school, but not made in the press now that the appeal has gone the other way, is that Denbigh School is 80% Muslim. Various arguments I have seen do not take this into account.
That is by the way. I'm less interested in whether religious traditions should override school uniform policies, than in the bizareness of the legal argument that the Appeal Court used.
Their finding seems to be that the School erred by not considering whether their uniform policy breached the pupils' human rights. If they had considered it, they could have decided, as the lower court did, that the uniform policy was fine, and they would have been OK. They lost because they didn't have a piece of paper on file saying that they had taken human rights into account.
(I'm open to correction on my understanding here, as I'm working very much from secondary reports, including the Council's own statement on the judgement.) UPDATE: I found the primary source; more details here.
This trend of legal and regulatory requirement is intensely stupid and irritating. It replaces restrictions on actions and policies with thought crimes. I mean that precisely; the fault of Denbigh School was not in its actions but in the way it decided its actions.
The result of this legal attitude is to drown all activity, in both the public and the private sectors, in a snowstorm of pointless arse-covering paperwork. Hypocrisy is made paramount, and the key managerial skill is, as Dogbert has it, "pretending to care".
Thought crimes produce hypocrisy, because it is impossible to tell what someone is really thinking. You can act for one reason and claim to be acting for another reason, and if your reasons rather than your actions are regulated, you can get away with anything.
Time after time: employment law, money-laundering law, accounting law, human rights law, we are being required to take various principles into account, and document that we have done so, rather than being judged on results which can be objectively assessed.
This even links with yesterday's post. I am a fanatical believer in honesty and openness. I like to tell the truth about what I'm doing and why, and prefer other people to do the same. Thought crimes mean that I am still free to act as I choose, provided that I'm prepared to lie about it. It leaves a culture of disinformation which harms everyone's decision making.
03 March 2005
The bullet points: If law enforcement had kept fewer secrets from the public, the Sept. 11 attacks would not have happened. If they had kept more secrets, the attacks would have been more successful.
Our key advantage over the terrorists in our midst is that there are more of us than there are of them -- by a factor of tens of thousands. Secrecy is a necessity for them: it evens the odds by taking nearly all of us out of the fight. If they know our secrets, there's actually not enough of them to exploit it. If we know any of their secrets, then someone, somewhere, can use that to learn more or to act against the terrorists.
In Britain, the government believes there are people against whom no legal case can be made, but who pose a huge danger if released into society. Its solution is to put them under house arrest, without legal proceedings, and a law is now before parliament to permit this. My solution would be to publish their names, addresses and photographs in the Mail on Sunday, and suggest that people might want to keep an eye on them.
There is, of course, a danger that "mob rule" might get out of hand, but I trust the people more than I trust the government. Apart from anything else, private individuals are more accountable than officials, as they do not have the Official Secrets Act to protect them from the consequences of their actions.