Month: January 2006


Why Not?


A spokesman for Devon and Cronwall Police said: ‘We would never recommend confronting a thief but in this instance the victim may have had God on her side’ (Quoted from today’s Metro)

The story was that Reverend Bill Stuart-White broke off his sermon to pursue and apprehend thieves who had run out of the church with a parishioner’s handbag.

But this is what I was complaining about when I said:

In spite of the law of self-defence, and of the traditional principle that it is not only a right, but also a duty of the citizen to prevent crime if possible when it occurs, and indeed to apprehend criminals, the idea has been propogated that the most responsible and respectable thing to do is to leave it all to the police

I really wish the police would explain that they can’t possibly track down every petty criminal on their own, and would go on to recommend that citizens act to prevent crime and apprehend criminals whenever there is no obvious danger.

And as for the “divine intervention” jokes made by police and media alike, would it not have been more insightful to emphasise what could be done by a man in good physical condition who had the respect of the people around him?

Finally, what about the scandal that today’s teenage bag-snatchers cannot outrun a 47-year-old rector (admittedly a rugby-playing one)? I blame the selling-off of school playing fields.

Of course, where there is no obvious danger there might still be non-obvious danger. A petty thief can produce a knife and maim or kill someone. Even if someone is a police officer. No-one – including a police officer – should bite off more than they can chew, but if we are all too terrified to chase a fleeing teenage petty criminal in a small town in Cornwall, then our civilization is already lost.


Expensive metaphors

31st January 2006

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AT&T is now jumping on the misinformation bandwagon, in attempting to claim that providers of services over the internet are getting something for free:

I think the comment from AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre in the FT really shows why I said earlier that we shouldn’t consider the internet to be a place:

“I think the content providers should be paying for the use of the network – obviously not the piece for the customer to the network, which has already been paid for by the customer in internet access fees, but for accessing the so-called internet cloud.”

This is taking the piss. Whitacre admits that his company is charging and being paid for the actual physical services it is providing, but says that it should be paid extra for the metaphor – the “so-called cloud”. He’s saying the internet isn’t just the pipes (which he gets paid for), it’s also a place, and Google owes him rent.

He has no relationship with Google. He has relationships with his customers who pay him to connect them to “the internet”. He has peering agreements with other ISPs with whom he exchanges data (as a necessary part of providing his customers with the service they’ve paid for). If he feels he should be paid more for passing on the data – the “movie streaming” or whatever – he can either charge his customers more for sending the traffic to them, or he can charge his peering ISPs for accepting the traffic from them. Why he should be able to directly charge the other ISP’s customers (e.g. Google, or Apple) for the traffic which they have accepted from Google or Apple and are now passing to AT&T makes no sense at all – that transfer of data is what the peering agreement covers.

Cost of DRM

30th January 2006

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Tim Lee at Technology Liberation Front revists history to explain why copyright can actually survive without DRM:

It turns out that consumers value the convenience, legitimacy, and positive experience of purchasing legal content, even if they have the physical capacity to engage in piracy. Recording movies off the TV and editing out the commercials turned out to be too big of a headache for most Americans to bother with.

In fact, the best explanation of why legal downloading can work was given by Steve Jobs in an interview in 2003:

Well, let me give you an observation that’s really interesting. If you go to Kazaa and you try to find a song, you don’t find a single song. You find 50 versions of that song, and you have to pick which one to try to download, and usually it’s not a very good connection. You have to try another one, and by the time you finally get a clean version of the song you want, it takes about 15 minutes. If you do the math, that means that you’re spending an hour to download four songs that you could buy for under $4 from Apple, which means you’re working for under minimum wage.

The trouble is, by the time you factor in all the time spend on registering decryption keys and otherwise fighting with DRM systems to use the music you’ve paid for the way you want to, you would have saved time as well as money by finding illegal downloads. Unlike the guy selling DVDs at a car boot sale, the music pirates are offering a superior product.


On Being Evil

30th January 2006

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Yikes! Instalanche!

I’ve dealt with a couple of the anti- google.cn arguments: that they are complicit in the Chinese Government’s oppression, and that there is a clear difference between obeying a bad law and denying basic human rights.

I haven’t addressed the point that, while the behaviour I defend might be OK for your average money-grubbing nasty capitalist goliath, Google has presented itself has having a higher morality.

That’s partly because I never took that idea too seriously in the first place. I instinctively shy away from any product marketed as “fair”, “organic”, “0.01% is donated to…” or whatever. Google’s attempt to distinguish themselves from the likes of Microsoft or SCO was mild enough to be not actually off-putting, but not something that I valued particularly. In fact I believe the offenses of Microsoft etc. are not due to the “evil” of their management, but are the more-or-less inevitable result of bad legal structures.

If I thought what Google was doing was evil, then I would denounce them, whether or not they had publicly expressed an opposition to evil. But I don’t. The grey area for me starts where they start helping the government track down dissidents. Even that is grey, because, even in our own, open, societies, the distinction between criminal, terrorist and dissident is occasionally controversial (I think the Religious Hatred bill here in Britain is as clear a denial of the “human right” of free speech as one could ask for), but like the military action I considered in my previous post, if you’re unsure whether your actions are causing net harm or benefit, the best course is to leave well alone. So, once they find they are stepping into the grey area, I think they should stop. Google have so far been explicit that they believe they are bringing benefit, and, until they start being asked for access logs, I agree with them.

I would like to see an open, democratic China. I would like to see it tomorrow. If some Chinese reckon they can have a go at organising and overthrowing the current government, I would hate to feel I was on the other side. But the Chinese people are in a better position than they’ve been since the Cultural Revolution, and it’s improving, and there is good reason to hope that the end result will be a free society obtained non-violently. To actively help the government against the people would be to work against this end, but to help the country, people and oppressive government together, by trading and providing services, is bringing it closer.

PJ on Google and China

30th January 2006

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Pamela Jones at Groklaw echoes my sentiments over google.cn Indeed, she goes further, and smells Microsoft PR at the bottom of it.

Not impossible, but there’s a substantial Google-sceptic movement which is not pro-Microsoft – people like Andrew Orlowski at The Register. Google’s size and rapid growth are sufficient to attract considerable scrutiny.

There is a line of argument that accepts Google’s claim that they are providing net benefit to the Chinese, but holds that by compromising with the Chinese government’s authoritarian demands, Google is nevertheless “dirtying” itself – making itself complicit in oppression.

This claim should not be ignored. I have made similar-sounding arguments myself when I have argued that it is usually better to allow atrocities to take place abroad than to commit them, especially if it is in some area you would not otherwise be in contact with. I base that claim on the effect of ignorance: If you drop bombs on people you can be pretty sure they are going to die, but if you stay out it is harder to predict what will happen to them. The better you understand the politics of the problem, the more confidence you can have that humanitarian violence will actually achieve its ends.

The parallel argument in this case would be that if Google participates in China, the Chinese are definitely going to get censored, but if they stay out, the human rights problems might get resolved more satisfactorily. The relative implausibility of that argument, is, I think, down to the difference between denying people certain search results and dropping high explosive on them.

In this case, I think the effect on China of becoming “complicit” in the world economy and the world media is greater than any effect on Google of involving itself with China.

There is a line which can be crossed, however. Providing intelligence on users to the Chinese Government (as it is attempting to avoid doing with the US government) would be worrying. But even there it is not clear-cut. Business everywhere is expected to co-operate with authorities in detecting crimes, even crimes that would be legal in the company’s country of origin. For example, a British company in America might face demands to provide details of users of gambling services.

There is a pretence that there are distinct “human rights” that are self-evident and should be respected around the world, but in fact that is just not the case. The fact is that there are some values that are shared by by many of the world’s most powerful societies, and which we believe would bring universal benefit if they were shared more widely still.

Not boycotting Google


I don’t see the problem with Google producing a “censored” version of its search results for the China. After all, Yahoo have a censored version for France.

If you want to do business, you have to meet the legal requirements of the countries in which you do business. Very often those requirements are stupid and evil. Nearly always they mean you can bring less benefit to your customers than otherwise. All you can do is ask whether your business is in total bringing benefit or harm.

Another example – in the USA, Wal-Mart brings a very wide range of goods at low prices to its customers. Here in Britain, it took over Asda and is doing some of the same things. However, it is restricted. It cannot use the same contracts with its workers as it does in the USA. It must obey Britain’s stupid and evil planning laws. It cannot sell firearms. All these restrictions reduce the benefits Wal-Mart can bring to me as a British customer. Should it, therefore, for the sake of morality, refuse to do business in Britain at all? Should outraged Americans boycott Wal-Mart for not stocking shotgun shells in Dunstable? If any are considering doing so, let me say, I appreciate your concern, but I would prefer you to desist.

Of course, there is an enormous difference of degree. Scum that they are, the government of Britain is vastly superior to that of China. And, farce that it always is, the democratic institutions of Britain provide a mechanism of improving the government that is not open to the Chinese. But I do not think these large differences of degree change the equation – Asda brings benefits to me, and Google brings benefits to the Chinese.

That last claim could be disputed – you could claim that in the absence of a censored Google, the Chinese would be forced to search other, uncensored sources for information, and would thereby be better off. But I doubt it.

Update: more 1 2

When politicians meet reality

28th January 2006

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Unlike those of the masses, the ignorant opinions of politicians really matter. For several years we have been suffering under bad technology law, particularly from the US, passed mainly by politicians utterly ignorant of what they are legislating.

There is a sign (via BoingBoing) that is beginning to change:

… in yesterday’s Commerce hearings, two Senators altered the course of events. First MIT grad John Sununu of New Hampshire said that government mandates “always restrict innovation” and then 82-year-old Ted Stevens of Alaska talked about the iPod he’d gotten for Christmas and put the RIAA’s Mitch Bainwol on the spot about whether his proposal would break Stevens’ ability to move digital radio programs to his iPod and listen to them in the most convenient way (it would).

There is a chance that this is the turning of the corner. Corrupt interests can get bad laws passed, but it’s very much easier if the politicians don’t know why they’re bad. The more that lawmakers are exposed to the technology of the future, the less likely they are to unwittingly ban it.

On a related issue, I recently started reading Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture. A particularly eye-opening point made early on: Hollywood exists because film-makers went there to escape the effective reach of Edison’s film patents. Hollywood is built on weak IP law.


The Evolution Survey

28th January 2006

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BBC Horizon has produced a Mori survey showing that 39% of the British population consider either “Creationism” or “Intelligent Design” to be the best description of the origin and development of life.

I have seen some criticism of the poll on the basis that it had a sample size of 2000, but that strikes me as sufficient to give a rough idea. Unfortunately, unlike the Amnesty poll I criticised last month, there are not enough published details to say for sure. For the moment I’m prepared to accept the poll findings as probably accurate to within a few percent – that may change if and when the details are published.

What this demonstrates, again, is that the real difference between us and the USA is not what ordinary people think, but the fact that here we do not care, and very often do not know, what ordinary people think. We have an establishment in this country which will reliably unite across the political spectrum to defy the ignorant masses.

Of course, when something like this comes out, the temptation is to say “and a damn good thing”. But this might be the exception rather than the rule.

For one thing, ignoring mass opinion means not combating it. To take another example, there are several states in the US which have no death penalty because the people have voted against it – not something that Britain or many European countries can claim.

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

It seems strange to dismiss evolution as a “minor issue”, but really, to the man in the street, what does it matter? It would be catastrophic if biology departments across acadaemia started haring off after “Intelligent Design”, but that’s not on the cards. In science, the truth can look after itself – those who actually study reality won’t be affected.

You could call this situation a failure of education, but only to the extent that the ill-educated are not sufficiently engaged with advanced knowledge that they can see why they must be wrong. Simply ordering them to accept that evolution is true would achieve nothing; it would just look like – and would in fact really be – propaganda. Throughout history, attacking religion has generally just encouraged the buggers. The best way to spread knowledge of science is to use it. That’s why, while I sympathise with Richard Dawkins, I often wish he would go back to his wasps – his original research has brought more benefit than telling ignorant people how ignorant they are.


Cocaine


Carol at planningblog says that cocaine use should be “socially unacceptable” on the grounds that it supports criminals and terrorists in Afghanistan.

Leaving aside the question of whether the drug producers in Afghanistan are our allies or our enemies this year, it reminds me of the sign at King’s Cross Underground saying something like: “giving used tickets to touts helps fund drugs and other criminal activities”. That’s probably true, but then so does buying cinema tickets, CDs and Manchester United shirts.

If we really don’t want (some or all) Afghans to gain benefits from the drug trade, the best thing to do would be to compete with them.

Not that I’m recommending cocaine use – there are better reasons for abstaining than wishing to boycott the suppliers (though, as ever, see M Simon for some of the complexities involved)

Hang on a minute, I thought Afghanistan was heroin country…


Capitalism without Capital

28th January 2006

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John Kay has a very provocative new article arguing that what we have now is capitalism without capital: the businesses that make profit very often don’t actually own the capital they use – they rent it from a specialist investment vehicle.

The facia identifies the operator, not the owner, of capital. The name of the airline on the side of the plane and the company logo on the back of the truck today give no clue to the ownership of the vehicle.

What this means is that profits can not be described as return on capital:

They talk of profits as returns to capital, although they are really mostly economic rents – returns to brands, reputations, intellectual property, to corporate knowledge and organisation, and the exercise of market power.

That there is some truth in this is demonstrated by the occasional spectacle of a company being taken over, its staff leaving, and the new owner being left with nothing at all since the new subsidiary didn’t actually own anything.

However, I think Kay overstates things. The piece is a variant of the common error of privileging manufacturing over services. What, for example, is the significant difference between capital in the form of a machine, which produces a return, and capital in the form of a reputation, which produces an “economic rent”? The machine is perhaps more durable than than the reputation, but only quantitively – in fact it can catch fire and disappear overnight, in the same way a reputation can, or it can slowly rust and lose value much as a brand declines.

I think the significant fact is that today, more than in the past, most of what we as a society do, in economic terms, are things that we don’t really know for sure how to do well. If everybody knows more or less equally how to produce, say, cotton cloth, then the only scarce thing you need in order to produce it is the machinery. If the knowledge of how to build and run, say, an efficent search engine, is much more rare and valuable than a pile of computers in an office, then the “corporate knowledge and organisation” is the vital capital, and actually financing the premises and the hardware is a “non-core” activity that might reasonably by subcontracted out.

I agree with John Kay that this is a hugely significant change, but I disagree with the tone of the piece which seems to imply that it is a sinister or harmful one. It is a natural effect of automation that once we really know how to do something, it becomes cheap. The early manufacturers Kay discusses carried out mass production with machines that were expensively hand-built by craftsmen – today not only the consumer goods, but the machines that produce them, and the machines that produce those machines are all cheaply mass-produced – that is the difference. What has real economic value in today’s world are good management and technology – and some old things that have held their value: raw materials (but to a lesser extent than previously) and friendly politicians.





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