Democracy Fails

It’s now official. Respected political journalist John Sergeant has agreed with BBC producers that the task of selecting the best celebrity ballroom dancer of the year is too important to be left to the public. If the voters were given a free choice, they would probably choose him, despite his evident lack of ability, and therefore he has felt it necessary to pull out.

What a good job this is the only area where we let the general public decide something by vote!

Best quote: “I know a bit about voting

Second best quote: Google News

John Sergeant pulls out of Strictly Come Dancing
Times Online – all 1,017 news articles »

Using encryption

Dan Goodin at The Register has a very timely article recommending that everyone encrypt their email.

If you think that at any point in the next ten years you might want to send or receive an email message that can’t be read by your ISP, your government, the US government, or a lawyer, then the time to start using PGP-compatible encryption is now.

The reasons for this are:

  • If you suddenly start using encryption just when you need it, the fact will be obvious to whoever you are trying to hide things from.
  • Setting up encryption is a fiddly business, you should get it done when you have time, not when you need it.
  • You are helping everyone – the more people are set up to use encryption, the more useful and normal it becomes for everyone else.

I came to the conclusion a few days ago, dusted off all my old keys, found that they’d all expired (fortunately, since I’d forgotten passphrases), and created some new ones. I posted a key for sending to this blog, and if you have my personal email address, there is a key for that on the MIT keyserver.

So, if you’re using Windows, read the Register article; if you’re on Linux, install gnupg and enigmail (I’m on Debian and the packaged Thunderbird comes automatically with Enigmail to integrate with gnupg – just turn it on), even if you use webmail, there is now a firefox extension FireGPG to make it easy to send and receive encrypted messages.

So invest a couple of hours now in being ready.

Sam Mason

The Sam Mason episode is quite amusing.

There’s a strange anomaly in our laws regarding thoughtcrime as they stand today – it’s illegal for an employer to choose an employee on the basis of race, but it’s quite legal for a consumer to choose a supplier on the basis of race. We are not followed around and audited on the colour of the tradesmen we hire or the shopkeepers we buy from. I would think any such laws are probably still ten years off.

Of course, the main reason why it is still legal is simply the difficulty of detecting it. Once we have a national ID database, and requirements to provide ID when buying most goods (not just obviously terrorist ones, like phones), such audits will become much more practical.

But even today, it is possible, if one is clumsy enough, to leave a paper trail. “We should advise you that this call may be monitored for training purposes, or for the purpose of ratting you out to your employer for political incorrectness, if you’re stupid enough to boast about who your employer is in a misplaced attempt to impress us”

The other amusing aspect is that it was all about not alarming the poor little girl. When it comes to protecting our children from any appearance of a threat, mere facts are not, as a general rule, any obstacle. Be it emissions from wifi routers, artificial food colourings, or toys that could possibly be violently dismantled in such a manner as to create small parts, no evidence beyond simple prejudice is ever required to justify keeping children away from such peril. But not all irrational prejudices are good irrational prejudices.

Bad Timing

Guess I picked the wrong week to complain about the state stealing peoples children.

I stand by what I wrote. The lives being destroyed in the way I described – that is happening all the time. You don’t hear about it because, as Camilla Cavendish explained in her award-winning articles, it is illegal to report it.

Cases like “Baby P”, and Victoria Climbié are so rare as to be negligible in comparison. One could, rightly, argue that there is no number of murdered children that is “acceptable”, but there may be a number that is impossible to reduce. Until vast improvements are made to the care system, we should not be trying to push ever more children into it. One death every few years, against hundreds of lives wrecked in secret by breaking up families – there is no comparison.

Now, the one every few years that we see are in spite of the efforts of social workers. Since I am arguing for them to do less, I have to admit that the result could be more Baby Ps. Again, I think that more children would be protected by helping those already without their families than by taking more children away from their families.

Evidence? Well, it’s hard to know, isn’t it? But there’s an “eyes closed” argument here: children who are harmed by their parents in spite of social workers end up on the front of newspapers for weeks. Children wrongly taken from their families are never heard of because it is illegal to talk about it. Which of the two problems are going to happen more often?

Another voting conundrum

Voting theory has a new mystery to explain. In what may turn out to be his greatest contribution to an understanding of electoral politics, journalist John Sergeant has made it onto week 9 of Strictly Come Dancing.

Let no one be under any illusions about this – he could end up winning the whole thing. The presenters tell us that half the contestants’ marks come from the four judges, and the other half from the phone-in vote. The final will be on phone-in votes only. Sergeant always gets the lowest votes from the judges, and yet never finishes in the bottom two once the viewers’ votes are added.

This could not have happened in the past. In years gone by, if telephone votes looked to undermine a program, the vote would simply be rigged. These practices were exposed last year, and they would certainly not be able to get away with it for Strictly this year.

An obviously similar event was the MTV Europe “Best Act Ever” award – won on Thursday by Rick Astley.

The key fact is that people cannot be assumed to vote for the “right” reason. Why vote for the best dancer, when annoying the judges is more fun? Why vote for the best Mayor of London, when Ken Livingstone or Boris Johnson will be far more entertaining?

If Sergeant does win, the TV producers will have to find a way in future to make the show workable despite perverse phone votes. The things they try may turn out to have relevance for politics.

Contacting Me

I wish I got more comments, but if readers want to contact me some other way, there is an email address on my profile.

Note the GnuPG key I published (below) has expired: here is a new one:

Version: GnuPG v1.4.9 (GNU/Linux)


As before, a little confirmation that the owner of the key is able to post here:
Version: GnuPG v1.4.6 (GNU/Linux)
What follows is the expired key:

If you prefer to use encryption, here is an openPGP key relating to that email

Version: GnuPG v1.4.6 (GNU/Linux)


That key has been used to sign the following message (as a sort of check):

Version: GnuPG v1.4.6 (GNU/Linux)


Nappies and Religion

A bit of fun here – the department of food and rural affairs commissioned a report into the environmental effects of disposable nappies, and found that they were better for the environment than washable cloth nappies.

Why, then, did they hush it up?

Partly it was because they would feel stupid, having pushed the opposite line on the basis of no facts, as, for instance, in this from Westminster Council?

But there’s not that much disgrace, surely, in changing policy in response to new information? The real problem is that the environmental movement has nothing to do with the environment. It is entirely driven by the age-old myth that being rich and happy is morally wrong and punishable. It is based on the religious belief that austerity is a virtue. If science weren’t to tell people that, of two choices, the one that was more work was better for the environment, so much the worse for science.

To be fair, if we could actually see this report there might be problems with it. The Times accounts only for kg of CO2 emissions – CO2 is not the only pollutant, nor, in my opinion, is it even the most important. Of course it is likely to correlate well with other forms of pollution.

Here we go again – now for the bit I write after finding the facts.

The report has been “hushed up” in that, according to documents The Times claims to have seen, there has been a decision not to publicise it. But it is on DEFRA’s website

The study does look at environmental impact beyond CO2 emission, and the results are similar (which is not very surprising). In fact, the Times article is surprisingly accurate, except for the claim the report was hushed up, when in fact it was published in 2007.

I also found a speech by Ben Bradshaw, from 2006, where he referred to the study, saying he “feared” that the new study (the 2007 one we’re talking about) would not be able to give any “more clarity” (meaning, the desired answer) on the nappy question. Why is one answer desired and the other not? Religion.

The speech also mentions the Great Crusade of our time – the war on carrier bags – mentioning in passing that cutting down on plastic carrier bags is bad for the environment, as anyone with a brain would expect.

An important point in the nappy report was that, in the interval since the previous study, disposable nappies had become less bad for the environment. How could this be? They were 10% lighter than before, due to manufacturers cutting costs by improving design. Exactly the same thing has happened to other hate objects of the religious environmentalists – drink cans, for example, and our friend the carrier bag.

The supermarket carrier bag is a masterpiece of environmental design. It weighs less than 10 grammes, and can be reused afterwards. But its most beneficial aspect – its lightness and flimsiness – is what so outrages the pompous snobbish environmentalists. They say they are against harming the environment, but really they are against things that are cheap and tacky. But the cheaper and tackier a piece of packaging gets, the better for the environment.

The Child Catchers

I see that this year’s Paul Foot award has gone to Camilla Cavendish, for a series of articles in The Times about the way government takes peoples’ children away from them.

I hadn’t seen the articles, and while I will probably go back and read them, I don’t need to, because I’ve seen the hideous process in operation, over five years ago.

Two things struck me. The first was the vicious cycle. As a young mother was slowly deprived of the baby son who was the only thing she cared about, she became gradually unhinged. Of course, the effect it had on her was used as a reason why she couldn’t be allowed to keep her child, as if most women wouldn’t have reacted in the same way.

But the second thing that really affected me was the sheer stupidity of the officials involved. They were people who I wouldn’t have trusted with responsibility for my cats, and they were given the job of deciding whether a baby boy should be allowed to stay with his mother. That’s one reason why I wasn’t really frightened, only horrified – like floods in Bangladesh, the events could only possibly happen to other people. Someone with an education and educated friends and money to pay lawyers could have run rings round them. However, the pauperised underclass are helpless.

It’s actually related to what I wrote this morning. When the framework and laws were being drawn up, the cost of management of the system was not considered. The civil servants and MPs knew perfectly well that their children could never be taken away by low-level council functionaries with room-temperature IQs, because Britain simply doesn’t work that way, and they didn’t understand what they were inflicting on those less privileged.

For the urban poor today, it is a constant threat. Cavendish’s articles are not news to them – they know that if they piss off the council, they can lose their kids. They are not outraged by this, because every other aspect of their lives are run by the state, too. They don’t know any other way of life.

Seizure of Intellectual Property

Tweetable link:

There have been two stories recently involving governments seizing intellectual property.

In one, the US government was seeking to take ownership of the trademark rights over certain symbols or logos used by motorcycle gangs.

The problem with this, for me, is that it’s an abuse of trademark rights, albeit a familiar one. The purpose of trademark law is to protect consumers from being deceived about goods or services they are buying. There is no welfare justification in preventing me from painting a Nike whoosh on my own T-shirt, unless I attempt to sell the T-shirt to a mug who thinks it is made by Nike.

Therefore having trademarks would not allow the government to do anything useful (i.e. stopping gang members from wearing their gang colours) without abusing the trademark rights.

The second case is the State of Kentucky seeking to seize internet domain names used by gambling operators, as “gambling devices”. Now the question of whether a domain name is a device is very debatable, but aside form that, the rights to a domain name are assets, and can be seized by government if the law permits.

That does seem rather odd, but it really isn’t. The reason it seems odd is that a domain name is essentially an entry in a directory, and it seems odd that a directory entry can be controlled in that way. But, to get all Aristotelian for a bit, while it is essentially an entry in a directory, there is also accidentally something associated with it that is an owned, tradable right – the right to specify which IP address the name in the directory will be listed against. Since the domain name owner could, voluntarily, sell or hand over his rights to the domain name to the government, then, given appropriate legal power, the government can perfectly well take it.

If the domain name system were not accidentally based on tradable rights – if names were allocated arbitrarily and finally by a central domain authority, then there would be no basis for the State of Kentucky to order the domain authority to change the use of that domain name. The system could work that way, but as a matter of fact it doesn’t (at least, not for .com domains), and the State can order a body subject to its law to hand over the contractual rights to it, as it could order it to hand over physical property or assign other assignable contractual rights.

Whee – I was wrong again.

My argument would apply if the State proceeded against the owners of the domain names themselves. It appears, looking at the details, that they went directly to the internet registries, and demanded ownership of the domains, without reference to who actually owned them or used them.

My original rationalisation of the process was that the State was effectively forcing the owner of the domain name rights to transfer the rights to the State, under some law that gave them power to do so. To simply announce that the rights now belong to it, without asserting jurisdiction over, or even identifying, the owners, is something else.

With regard to actual devices physically present in the State of Kentucky, it is reasonable that the State might have the power to seize them irrespective of who owned or operated them. But without establishing jurisdiction over the owners of the domain names, it’s more difficult. It comes down to my point that the domain name itself (an entry in a register) is not the same thing as the contractual right to control that entry. Only the second is actually property, and therefore only the second can actually be seized. Even if, by a stretch, the domain name itself is classed as some kind of abstract “device” used in gambling, the rights are something else.

Courts generally try to be sensible, even when the formulation of the laws are downright weird. The 44-page PDF of the courts opinion contains justification for considering the domain names as property, and justification for proceeding against them without reference to who actually owns or controls them. It then goes very badly astray (emphasis mine):

As the evidence in the record stands, the Defendants 141 Domain Names transport the virtual premises of an Internet gambling casino inside the houses of Kentucky residents, and are not providing information or advertising only.

The reason for that conclusion is indeed the confusion between the domain name as a name, the domain name as an entry in a directory, and a domain name as a contractual right to control the entry in the directory.

The court reasonably concludes that the right to control the domain name’s entry is property. It then observes the name all over every page of the casino website, and concludes that “the presence of … the internet domain names … is continuous and systematic”. However, only the name itself has a continuous presence; the directory entry is only referenced once, by the name resolver in the user’s operating system when they first go to the site. That might be enough to justify seizing the trademark, as in the Mongols case, but not the directory entry.

Implications of a Knowledge Economy

The idea of an “information economy” is such a cliché that I’m bored of this article already, and I haven’t written it yet.

But all too often, the key implications are missed.

The central fact of the information economy is this: anything that we know exactly how to do can be done very cheaply.

The bulk of economic activity is now devoted to things that we don’t know exactly how to do – things that we have to work out as we go along.

The important implication is that management is now the largest cost. To improve efficiency from here on, the most important thing is to reduce the cost of management.

That’s an emphasis that’s never been taken before. “Measure twice, cut once” has always been seen as wisdom. But if cutting, and the stuff to be cut, are cheap, and measuring is ten times as expensive, then we need to work out how to get by without measuring twice.

There has been one long-term trend which has improved management efficiency, and that is the trend towards large scale. If a business goes from one steel foundry to ten, the steel foundries don’t become any more efficient, but you might spend less on management. It is easy to observe, that at ground level, large organisations seem to be less efficient than small ones, but this may be justified by reduced management costs. However, I think this trend has gone as far as it usefully can (if not further). A merged organisation may spend less on top management than its preexisting components did, but it has more layers of management, and the efficiencies can cancel out.

There is another trend that has to some extent concealed the increased cost of management, and that is the spread of managerial responsibility down the hierarchy. You do not need to have “manager” in your job title these days to be expected to devote a significant proportion of your time to managerial aspects of whatever process your organisation undertakes. Everyone fills in forms.

The important point is that a better managed operation is not necessarily a more efficient one – not if the cost of management outweighs the benefits. The old assumption that scrimping on planning will always cost more in the long run has to go.

This is not completely new – there is perhaps a parallel to the blitzkrieg or auftragstaktik innovations in the German army in the 1930’s. As I understand it (and military history is not my field), the old principle was that, on encountering an enemy, an advancing force would stop, gather as much intelligence as possible, make a plan, and then attempt to take on the enemy. The new doctrine was, on encountering the enemy, to immediately attempt to outflank. Sometimes the lack of planning and knowledge would leave the advancing force stranded in a blind alley, but war is a dangerous business at the best of times, and the benefits in speed and surprise of skipping the planning stage outweighed the costs.

I was triggered to write this by Simon Jenkins’ account of the 2012 Olympics (spit!). The budget for management of the Olympics has now hit £654 million, more than the cost of building the main stadium. This is partly the plain fact of the knowledge economy, and mostly the result of not recognising that doing something more efficiently, in today’s world, means managing it more efficiently.

There is a secondary point, which is that managers have greater political and social power than non-managers, and that therefore there is stronger pressure to cut non-management than to cut management. But I won’t be able to make that point better than chris dillow does, so I’ll leave it to him.