28 October 2011

Queens and Kings

It has been agreed at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting that the laws governing the succession of the British Monarchy will be changed to give older sisters priority over their younger brothers.

There are pros and cons to this decision, but on balance I think it is probably for the best.

The drawbacks: first, making any change at all weakens the authority of tradition. If this can be changed because fashion requires it, what will be changed next? I'm not too disturbed by this argument, because a couple of hundred years at least of tradition will have to be upended when we restore the monarchy as the government and get rid of parliament and elections and the rest of it.

Second, I would prefer to have a King than a Queen. I worry that a woman is more likely to be dominated by an outside establishment than a man is. Note that the considerations are quite different than when drawing up requirements for a job. When appointing someone to a position, the reasonable thing is to evaluate their qualities as an individual. If the best man for the job happens to be a woman, that's perfectly fine. But a monarch is a different matter: nobody is making the appointment, the whole point is that we get who we get, and individual qualities don't come into it. Given that, we want the best odds of getting a sufficiently strong personality, and the odds seem better with a law that disproportionately selects males. A restoration is likely to need exceptionally strong characters for at least a couple of reigns.

The conventional wisdom is that of the last four ruling queens, three at least were very successful. In the cases of Victoria and Elizabeth II, I have my doubts: I think their reputations rest more on their acquiescence towards the ruling establishment than anything else. Elizabeth I kicked serious arse, though, which goes a long way towards alleviating my worries on this score.

So much for the disadvantages. The advantages are clear. The monarch must have as strong a claim to his title as possible. If this step is not taken now, it will always be floating around as a possibility, and can be used as a weapon against any King with an older sister. If we are going to have the potential uncertainty settled for good, it can only be settled in this direction.

And, as a more minor point, it is satisfying that this is being treated as significant. We are talking about which of the Queen's great-grandchildren will become monarch; the implication is that that monarchy will be with us for another three generations. A lot will happen in that time, and through all of it, the option will be there in the background to write off the demagogues and the apparatchiks and take another path.

It is also satsfying that this has not, so far, been a matter for public consultation or debate. I'm expressing an opinion here, but I don't want the decision to be based on popular opinion — much better that it be announced by a ruling clique, even if that be our current shower of politicians.

Into the bargain, they're allowing a monarch to marry a Catholic. Again, I'm unsure. I can think of no direct problem with having a monarch who is married to a Catholic. But have I thought of everything?

23 October 2011

Nothing To Envy

I've started to take more interest in North Korea. The reason for this is an embarrassment: I have argued that a possible route to a form of government closer to what I want to see is that a one-party state comes under the control of a single strong leader who is able to convert it into a hereditary monarchy, by concentrating power to himself so strongly that he is able to leave it to his heir. It later occurred to me that the country which has come closest to doing that is North Korea, now anticipating the succession of the third generation of the Kim dynasty.

Like I said, an embarrassment. Probably the one-party-state to hereditary monarchy thing isn't such a good idea. But I'm amusing myself by studying my own reaction to this inconvenience to my theories. It's interesting to play at being rather more attached to the theory than I really am, and look for cynical ways to rebut arguments based on the evidence of North Korea.

The most fun approach would be to argue that North Korea is actually really well governed, and the problems it is perceived to have are either falsified by the media, or are the results of steps taken against it by jealous republicans abroad.

It is the sheer ludicrousness of that argument that has induced me to look at the question at this "meta" level. North Korea is pretty much the poorest and most backward country in the entire world, while the part of Korea given a different form of government by an arbitrary line of latitute has become one of the dozen or so richest and most advanced. If North Korea had been merely bad, I might have seriously attempted a defence of its system, but as things are it is impossible to do so with a straight face. That situation makes some degree of self-examination inevitable: exactly how stupid does an argument have to be for me to reject it as I have the "North Korea is actually really well governed" line. And what does that say about me?

(This interesting point from Nathan Bashaw seems relevant).

Part of the question is how easy it is to dodge the problem. And here I can really do it. For one thing, we don't really know who has the power in North Korea — for all we can tell, Kim may be an empty figurehead entirely under the control of military and party officials. In any case, the problem in North Korea is not who is in charge, it is that it is attached to a collectivist economic system. Kim is legitimate not because he is the annointed heir of Kim Il-Sung, but because he is the carrier of the flame of communism.

That gives us another data point: North Korea does not in fact convince me that hereditary government is a bad idea. Despite the problem that everywhere else in the world has dumped NK-style collectivism, with the possible exception of Cuba, which... is ruled by the brother of the previous leader. Hmmm.

I don't think I can really draw conclusions about attachment to ideology here. But the question's still open: I'm going to keep an eye on the process of my adapting judgement to ideology and vice versa. I'm well placed to do that, because I am not in a social group united by my ideology — other than a few other bloggers. Also the fact that I've recently abandoned ideological positions I held for most of my adult life gives me an extra reserve of cynicism to draw on.


I already started with yesterday's post, where I deliberately went through the motions of drawing ideological conclusions from the undercover policing scandal.

Aretae has also been writing along these lines recently. One of his most important points is that there is no basis for anyone to be certain or even nearly certain about these difficult ideological issues. When he puts forward ideas, it's all 60% this and 70% that.

That's very sound. But is that the way anyone really sees things? The reason I'm able to take this detached approach to my royalist ideology is that I genuinely do have doubts. Again, that's probably because it's fairly new to me, and it's out beyond the lunatic fringe in the public debate.

For a comparison, take the issue of climate change. I am persuaded by the evidence, and have written here, that there is considerable room for doubt of the pronouncements of the climate science experts. I claim that the evidence tends to support the position that dangerous climate change is not happening and will not happen.

That's fine. But what I haven't said in so many words is that I have a deep inner certainty that anthropogenic global warming is all rubbish. That certainty cannot be justified by a reasoned analysis of the evidence: in no way do I have sufficient knowledge or understanding of the science to achieve such confidence in any conclusion. Where does this certainty come from?

If it is simply overconfidence, that's almost the least bad possibility. At least in that case, the direction of my conclusion is based on reason. What's more worrying is the possibility that the inner certainty is totally independent of my reason, and the reasoned conclusions I have drawn are only rationalisations of my faith.

If that's the case, where did the faith come from? I would have to have made some kind of intuitive, rather than rational, judgement on one side of a very complex issue. What is the source of that intuition? I don't know, though I could take a few guesses. Is that intuition to be trusted? In general, absolutely not. There are too many cases of people reaching opposite certainty on the basis of intuition, and there is no basis for judging one person's intuition against another.

Now maybe my intuition, unlike yours, is reliable. It does have a fairly decent track record. Also, I'm not in the habit of being certain: of all the other things I have written about on this blog, I don't think there are any that I have the same inner certainty about that I have about AGW.

Freemail

In The Guardian, a journalist tells of her experience of having her email account hacked.

"The realisation dawns that the email account is the nexus of the modern world. It's connected to just about every part of our daily life, and if something goes wrong, it spreads. But the biggest effect is psychological. On some level, your identity is being held hostage.

"The company that presents itself as the friendly face of the web doesn't have a single human being to talk to in these circumstances."

I love free stuff. I use free blog services and free email services, and I see it as a double advantage that, as well as not costing me anything, these services are somewhat at arms length from my identity. Possession of a few keys and passwords are what make me "anomalyuk", nothing more than that.

My real-world identity is another matter. My personal email accounts, with which I support my personal relationships and business relationships, are provided to me — here's a novelty — as a paying customer. The providers' customer services may be good or bad, but at least they exist and I can use them. It makes no difference to a Gmail user how good Google's customer service is, because Ms Davis and other Gmail users are not Google's customers at all.

I actually pay a couple of quid a month just for my email service, but that isn't necessary. Like you, Rowena Davis has an ISP — possibly more than one, if she gets her mobile separate from her home internet. They will provide her an email address, as part of the service she is paying for. They know it belongs to her, because she pays the bill, and if, as the bill-payer, she phones up and needs it reset, they will do it for her. However, for this service which she correctly observes is the nexus of her life, she has chosen to rely instead on a handed-out-on-the-street freebie instead.

I hereby declare that to be a Bad Idea.

Davis's story links to another recent one, of a 79-year-old charity volunteer who went through the same ordeal. Twice. The police told her: don't use free email services. Her conclusion at the end of the article: the police need to devote more resources. Not her — she's sticking with free.

There is one drawback with using your ISP's email service, which is that you may lose it if you want to change ISPs. As it happens, two generations of free services have come and pretty much gone (remember bigfoot? rocketmail?) in the time I've been with my current ISP, but that may be a fluke. And in any case, the old addresses are still supported.

If that concerns you, then do what I do and pay for it. One leading provider charges 69p a month for email hosting, plus £2.99 a year for domain registration — giving you an address that is transferable across providers and that looks more professional than a vodaphone or gmail address. And they have 24x7 telephone support. Alternatively, Yahoo! do an email service for $19.99 a year. Bigfoot, it emerges, are still around, and charge $19.95 a quarter. Is £1 or £3 a month really not worth paying for "the nexus of the modern world"? I should emphasize: it's not just that paying for the email makes it feasible for the provider to offer you some level of support: the mere fact of there being a payment makes it enormously easier for them to identify you, and therefore to clear up these fraud issues.

The surprising thing is that they're not marketing this more aggressively. The problems Davies had have been common for a few years: everyone in her position should be paying for decent email, but the providers aren't advertising on that basis. Google don't offer a premium service like Yahoo's, Microsoft charge $9.95 a month, which is a bit steep, and the services just aren't marketed.

ISPs could offer domain and mail hosting as an extra, but the consumer-oriented ones don't, or don't push it.

Possibly the providers are worried about adverse selection: if they advertise on the basis of being able to handle hacking incidents, they're offering hostages to fortune in terms of the inevitable dissatisfied customers undermining their name with complaints.

As a disinterested (and irresponsible) third party, I will do it for them: Do not use Gmail. Do not use MSN Hotmail, unless you are paying the $9.95 a month for premium (which I don't recommend, because it's too much). Use your ISP's email account if you're not planning to move or switch in the next five years. Otherwise get a personal domain and get a basic email service from the likes of 1and1, or, if that's too complicated (and it is a bit complicated), get Yahoo! Plus for $19.95 a year. I'm not recommending these through experience, just through looking for email services that cost a little money and offer telephone support.

If you're not willing to pay, or you're not willing to give up Gmail (which, I admit, is a very nicely done service), then remember that you have nobody to whine to if your Gmail is hacked. You have other options, and you have chosen to trust your email to a company you have no commercial relationship with. I have nothing against Google, but if you want a company to have responsibilities towards you, you have to pay them.

20 October 2011

Who has the power to authorise perjury?

One of the most striking things about the last few decades is that relatively low-ranking elements of the state apparatus have arrogated power to themselves without any legal or legislative basis, and that this has been calmly accepted by the public at large.

Because these seizures of power are technically illegal, they can be challenged in the courts, and occasionally are. See for instance Neil Herron's campaign against imposition of arbitrary parking rules by local councils.

While the courts can, and technically should, rule in favour of eccentrics such as Herron, they sometimes exhibit reluctance to contradict the common assumptions of society, which are that someone who works for the council or the police or a government department can do whatever they decide within the area relevant to their job.

Because it is so accepted, it is not easy to spot, and only becomes really obvious when they overreach. What is interesting about the police decision to "authorize" an undercover officer to give false personal and identity details under oath in a criminal prosecution is not whether they will actually get away with it this time (I assume they won't), but that they ever imagined they could.

The same effect was evident with the MP expenses affair: I quoted at length Nadine Dorries' insistence that a group of party whips and civil servants had encouraged MPs to make false expenses claims, and that that actually made it OK.

A more significant example is the Foot and Mouth cull back in 2001, in which, it is widely argued, the culling of healthy cattle was done without any legal authority.

At this stage in the post, I should turn these observations into a neat argument in favour of whatever broad political position I am in favour of at the moment (formalism, monarchy, etc.) I suppose I just about could manage it: lines of authority are unclear, nobody ultimately admits to being responsible for anything, so people on the spot feel obliged to just assume responsibility, blah, blah, blah. If I thought about it and worked on it for a while, I might really come to take it seriously as an argument, but right now it feels a little dishonest, so I'd rather just put the whole thing forward as an observation and a point for further consideration.