Month: September 2006

Sweeping up the fairy dust

September 14, 2006


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More evidence that sprinkling private-sector fairy dust onto a public-sector project doesn’t actually work:

iSoft Plc is a software provider that’s been working on the huge NHS IT project.

Because the public sector is wasteful, the project was contracted to companies like iSoft. iSoft was to provide the software for a fixed price, so if it all went wrong that would be iSoft’s problem, not the government’s. Hooray, no more risk!

What rubbish. As soon as the contract was signed, iSoft became part of the public sector. The project had to be completed, therefore iSoft had to be able to complete it, therefore iSoft could not be allowed to fail.

Private Eye questioned iSoft’s accounts – they were accounting for payments to be paid under the contract, despite the fact that delivery was behind schedule, or something like that. iSoft’s solvency came under question.

Since the government needed the project, they had to make sure iSoft stayed in business. So they advanced some of the cash, for products not yet delivered. iSoft currently has £43.9m in advance payments.

You can’t blame the DoH for making the advance payments. They had to be made, because without them the project could not have gone ahead. The error was in ever believing that “public-private partnership” reduces risk.

There is one difference between this type of arrangement and a pure public-sector approach. If the project had gone exceptionally well, and cost less than expected, the government would not have seen the savings – the shareholders would have. To be completely fair, that’s not entirely a bad thing, because it at least creates some incentive for the job to be done efficiently. Of course, it also creates incentive for the job to be cowboyed, provided the letter of the contract is met. This is why there are two common outcomes of PFI projects:

1) Business as usual, job is done over budget and behind schedule.
2) Job is successful but a large proportion of the government expenditure goes to “windfall” profits for contractors.

The second is more common where it is easier to say what activities the contractor should perform than what end result they should deliver (because then the contractor can cut corners and deliver crap), the first where it is easier to say what should be delivered than how it should be done.

Human rights

September 14, 2006


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While blithering about human rights in the previous post, I meant to mention Dave Kopel’s piece yesterday as a case in point. Since I went on so long it’s probably good that I forgot.

Kopel quotes a United Nations report saying that protection of human rights requires that governments “keep small arms out of the hands of persons who are likely to misuse them”

Equally, the US has traditionally seen it as a human right to be free to obtain firearms, as recognised in its constitution.

Neither approach is obviously stupid – one can make a reasonable case either way. But they are totally in conflict; they cannot possibly both be universal human rights. Thus, the outcome of any attempt to “establish” human rights universally could only be conflict between the two visions – a conflict that need not occur if countries recognise each others’ sovereignty.

I don’t mean to espouse any kind of moral relativism – one society’s vision of human rights need not be as good as another’s. In fact on this issue, unlike the gambling one, I agree with the Septics. But to say “my way is right and everyone must follow it” is to say “I must be world ruler”. I say “my way is better than your way”, but you’re free to do it wrong as long as direct effects on me are kept to a minimum.

Online Gambling

September 14, 2006


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This is tricky because it’s about who has the right to be wrong about what.

I think gambling is generally a bad thing. It can be fun, but it can also be generally destructive. While I’m not sure its helpful to throw around words like “addiction”, it’s pretty clear that many people who gamble are behaving very strongly against their own interests.

Should gambling therefore be illegal? Absolutely not. The problems are threefold – you are stopping the harmless entertainment as well as the self-destructive behaviour; you are raising your (and my) judgement as to what is good for someone else over their own judgement*, and you are introducing the plagues of prohibition, including a criminal class and a corrupt enforcement bureaucracy.

However, despite these very strong arguments, the governments of the USA and many of its States have banned gambling (with various indefensible and illogical exceptions for State lotteries, etc).

One of my more eccentric beliefs is in National Sovereignty. If a foreign state (however constituted) wants to get stuff wrong, then unless it directly affects me, it’s really none of my business. They’re entitled to do stuff differently; that’s what being foreign is all about.

That proposition doesn’t flow easily from any theoretical statement of morality or justice. You could build up to it from a concept of democratic rights, but as I don’t restrict sovereign rights to democratic states, that doesn’t help me. For me, sovereignty is a pragmatic rule, a compromise which reduces the amount of conflict between countries – and conflict between countries is one of the major causes of human suffering and poverty. As such, the principle can be overridden in very extreme cases – such as the Rwandan genocide – but those familiar with this blog will be aware that I am very much more cautious than most regarding “humanitarian violence”.

Of course, since no-one is suggesting starting a war to protect the human rights of Americans to play online video poker, I’ve gone off on a slight tangent here. Mind, we did once fight a war for the human rights of the Chinese to take opium, but even those of us who favour drug liberalisation generally give less than wholehearted approval to that project.

There is a kind of consistency to my views: just as Beryl should be free to damage herself by buying lottery tickets (but I would prefer her not to), the USA should be free to damage itself by prohibiting gambling (but I would prefer it not to).**

Now we come to the tricky stuff. What if an American flies to Britain, walks into a bookmaker’s shop in Luton, and puts a bet on a horse.

Well, that’s OK, I think obviously. The US government might choose to deal with the visitor when he gets home (but in fact, according to current law, wouldn’t).

What if the horse race doesn’t run until the visitor has gone home. Can the bookmaker pay the visitor’s winnings, by sending him a cheque or crediting his bank account? The question is whether the bookmaker is simply settling a debt (and the fact that the transaction which gave rise to the debt would have been illegal if it had taken place in the US is beside the point, because the transaction didn’t take place in the US), or whether the payment itself is a transaction with someone in the US which is in breach of US law.

I think the US government is entitled to consider it the latter. Gambling is, after all, not much other than an exchange of money; if you send a cheque to America in settlement of a gambling transaction, you are gambling with someone in America.

Since you are outside US jurisdiction, you are safe, since the US ought to respect your country’s sovereignty.

But if you later travel to the US, their government can justly claim that you have been dealing with the US in a way that is against US law.

To take a parallel but less morally confusing example, if a Nigerian scams me out of a stack of money by claiming to to be MIRIAM ABACHA, and then later comes to Britain on unrelated business, he should be arrested. Exactly what country he was in when he conned me, and what the law is in that country, is beside the point.

When we come to the actual cases that are in the news, most recently Peter Dicks, another question arises. Was he knowingly dealing with the US? I think that matters: if, as far as he knew, he was simply carrying on a legal business, and unknown to him, some of his users were actually in a jurisdiction where the business was not legal, then he hasn’t done anything wrong – it is like my very first example of a bookmaker completing a transaction in Luton with an American visitor.

On the other hand, if he is knowingly transacting business with people in America, he is like the second example of the bookmaker sending a cheque to America – the transaction is taking place between two countries and is illegal in one of them. I would think that in the concrete cases existing, this is the case.

The structure of the internet makes it possible to not know the location or nationality of your customers. This makes the question really difficult. I suppose the US government is still entitled to make its own rules about how careful those who come within its reach should be to avoid acting, while abroad, in a way that it considers illegal. But if it does act against those who as far as they know are behaving totally legally within the jurisdictions they are working in, it is stepping over a line of what is generally considered reasonable behaviour of a state. Note it has not yet done that over the gambling question, as far as I can see.

What I’m really arguing against here is the idea that the internet changes the rules – that if what the server is doing is legal in the place where it happens to be sitting, then no other government should be able to do anything about it. It would be nice if it did, but I say that only because I am generally in favour of freedom, and that would bring more freedom. I can’t defend it in terms of logic or history, though. The internet isn’t the first mechanism to allow people in different countries to deal with each other, and governments have always held that they can restrict or prohibit such dealings according to their own policies.

*It is OK to make a judgement about someone else’s interests – as I have done. It is another matter to deny that person their own (bad) judgement
**That is an analogy – I do not claim that states and individuals should always be looked at in the same way.

How good is Wikipedia?

September 13, 2006


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This has rumbled on for a long time.

I fall more in the pro than the anti camp, but with reservations.

I am not convinced by claims that Wikipedia is as accurate as Britannica, and it would be very surprising if they were true. The “latest snapshot” of Wikipedia cannot be authoritative in the way a managed encyclopedia or a textbook can be, and I am disturbed to see Wikipedia cited in scholarly articles or legal opinions.

However, to me those aren’t the main point. Wikipedia is not really in competition with premium encyclopedias or university-level textbooks – its easy availability and massive scope put it into a different category. It makes more sense to compare it with other casual ways of gathering information – conversations in the pub, the popular press, TV programmes, memories of junior school lessons.

In my opinion, we get most of our information about most subjects from sources considerably less reliable than Wikipedia. Take the question of of early-20th century history I mentioned last week. My first source of information was a historical novel – low reliability. Next was Wikipedia – surely more reliable than a work of fiction. Thirdly I discussed it with my wife – not in general a high-reliability source, but since I happen to be married to a history teacher, the source has a certain authoratitiveness. Less detailed, accurate, information, in fact, than Wikipedia, but, while it is possible that Wikipedia might be seriously misleading or incomplete, it is less likely that a history graduate, even one rusty in the particular subject, would be so.

But authority is a niche market, though an important one. When you need an authoritative answer, nothing else will do. Most of the time, you don’t. Unless you have a good reason to find an authoritative answer, you’re not likely to find one – they don’t grow on trees.

The other question is how much better Wikipedia will get. I think the answer is not much – it has grown rapidly to the limits that its structure puts on it. The organisers will continue to tweak the rules to balance new contribution, vandalism and editing, and it will continue to expand in scope, but the basic level of quality is probably about where it will remain. As I’ve said, that quality is very high for most purposes, but not high enough to displace truly authoritative sources of information.

A couple of asides on possible derivatives of Wikipedia: It might be possible to take a snapshot of Wikipedia as a starting point for producing a truly authoritative encyclopedia – it would probably be easier to check the articles there than produce authorititave ones from scratch. Such a product would compete with “real” encyclopedias, but would not compete so much with “live” Wikipedia, which gets much of its value from its currency.

Also, I’m not up to speed with current work on A.I., but I’ve tended to the view that a missing element is the very large amount of stuff you need to know to have any kind of ordinary conversation with a human being. I can’t help wondering whether the enormous database of “general knowledge” that is wikipedia might at some stage form a key part of the first natural-language speaking A.I.

Update: Tim Bray makes the point that Wikipedia’s popularity as a reference is partly due to the fact that those who could provide authoritative information in the public domain aren’t doing so in a sufficiently organised way.


September 13, 2006


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NERON is a US project to cover the country with automatic weather stations – one every 400 square miles, measuring temperature and precipitation accumulation every 5 minutes. By my calcuations, that means about 10,000 weather stations.

Given how much we don’t know about weather and climate, and the importance, and given also how much we are spending on climate worries one way or another, this really looks like a good thing.

(H/T Climate Science Weblog)

The Long War

September 13, 2006


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I’m scrabbling around trying to get a lot of my disorganised thoughts on the War on Terror into proper relation.

The “long war” rationale for the Iraq war is essentially a return to the Heinlein theory that in a world of nuclear weapons, potential enemies cannot be tolerated. The Middle East is a threat for the indefinite future, and therefore must be reshaped politically to remove the danger.

The problem with the theory for me is the scale of its ambition. The project aims at achieving a world, in the relevant 10-30 year timescale, where no medium-sized industrial nation capable of developing nuclear weapons will be hostile enough to be a risk of passing on the weapons to terrorists, or using them.

The strategy doesn’t necessarily have to be 100% successful to be worthwhile, if a partial success would reduce the danger. But a partial success, while reducing the pool of potentially lethal enemies, might well at the same time increase the danger from those remaining in the pool, mostly by increasing their motivation to obtain nuclear weapons as a deterrent.

This is why, in the division of long-term projects I made in the previous piece, the project falls on the “hubris” side. We can be reasonably sure that having more fertile land, or having cheaper energy, 30 or 50 years in the future will be a good thing. It’s difficult to say how good, but the beneficial nature of these things are robust with respect to all sorts of unpredictable developments.

It’s not obvious in the same way that having a military presence in the Middle East will be a good thing. It might well be, but it easily might be a bad thing – there are well-known downsides to empire. The rationale for undertaking the project relies on a number of assumptions about political, technological and economic developments over several decades. They are not silly assumptions, but in combination they are not at all reliable.

Against that objection, there is a “desperation” argument. That says that the long-run prospects as they stand are so bad, that even if an attempt to remove the nuclear threat has a low chance of success, it is a chance worth pursuing, because it’s the best chance we have.

Again, I think that’s too pessimistic. I don’t know how we will deal with the increasing nuclear threat over the coming decades, but as a statement of ignorance of the future, that is not particularly interesting. Something may well turn up. I’m not saying we should assume it must, but the “desperation” argument assumes that nothing will turn up, and I think that is invalid.

A brief history of Nuclear War

September 12, 2006


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In 1945, one nation had nuclear weapons. By 1949, there were two. 1964, five. Today, probably nine.

By now, any industrial nation could develop fission weapons if not actively prevented. Any advanced nation could probably develop fusion weapons.

A matter of a decade or two, it will be possible for half the countries on Earth to make nuclear weapons. A while ago, I suggested that one day a kitchen device would be able to synthesize arbitrary chemicals; if nanotechnology fulfils its promise, then uranium enrichment could become a garage activity. Twenty-five years? Fifty? I can’t see it taking a hundred.

Since 1945, various strategies have been put forward to protect against nuclear attack.

One of the first suggested was world conquest. Robert Heinlein was very insistent in the 40s that the only sane course was for the USA to conquer the entire world before any potential enemy could develop nuclear weapons.

Disarmament was another widely recommended option – stuffing the genie back into the bottle.

The two strategies that were actually pursued were deterrence and non-proliferation. Deterrence worked – and innovations such as submarine-launched missiles reduced the first-strike threat. But as the number of nuclear powers increases, the reliability of deterrence falls, as the possibility of a concealed or deniable attack increase, and there is more chance of a foreign power being desperate or crazy enough to not care about deterrence.

Non-proliferation may have slowed down the spread of nuclear weapon technology, but in the long run, it is failing.

So how bad is the long-run outlook? It is seriously worrying. If, in 2060, the likes of Mohammed Siddique Khan and his associates (or Timothy McVeigh, or David Copeland) can produce a few atomic bombs in a house, it seems inevitable that sooner or later we would see a level of destructive nuclear terrorism which could totally destabilize our society – in the way that present-day terrorism – with home-made bombs, sabotage, and assasination – simply can’t.

What about the nearer future? Say 2025 – enriched uranium is still outside the reach of the hobbyist, but there are 100 or 200 potential or actual nuclear powers in the world. Some of them are politically unstable. Some of them are our enemies. How long can such a situation endure without a society-destroying state or state-sponsored-terrorist nuclear attack?

It’s very difficult to say.

Somehow, I’m just not too worried by all this. It’s just too hard to predict politics that far into the future with any confidence. You can pick one issue – nuclear proliferation – and project and speculate as to how it will develop, which is what I’ve done. What you can’t do is take all the other areas which might change the environment, and predict how all of them will develop over decades. What countermeasures might be developed? How will the world economy change? How powerful will satellite surveillance become? What totally unexpected technological, political or economic development will change the game beyond recognition?

That’s not a conclusive reason for letting the future fend for itself. I’m trying to draw a distinction between the forseeable consequences of our actions, which we must evaluate and include in our calculations, and the attempt to predict and manipulate the state of the world in the far future, which is hubris. Projects which will bring long-term benefits are certainly worthy of consideration, whether they be irrigating the deserts, or developing new energy sources, or anything else useful – we are not sure how valuable their results will be, but if, appropriately discounted, our best estimate is that they will pay for their costs, then they are worth doing. But projects whose value depends on particular assumptions as to the state of the world in the far future – that we will be allied to certain types of government, or that the balance of state versus individual power will move in a certain way – well, given the right assumptions almost any policy can be justified, including policies of “bringing forward” future and actually quite unlikely conflicts to the present.

Update: A more alarming assesment of the current nuclear threat from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists


September 12, 2006


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Speech by Richard Stallman on GPLv3. He spells out the controversial DRM-related part of the new draft license.

The basic change is that if someone, … provides you a binary, then he must, as part of the requirement to provide the source code, give you whatever it takes to authorise your version so it will run.

Considerable thought has gone into this. Eben Moglen supplemented the explanation:

If Manufacturer A wants the software he sells in the hardware to stay one version forever, he has a simple way to do it: he can put the software in ROM. He has no power to modify it, and the user to whom he gives it has no power to modify it. That doesn’t violate GPL version two and it doesn’t violate GPL version three, in current draft.

We will not publish a draft that would be violated by that conduct. What we object to is the attempt to say “I will keep the right to modify the software, but I won’t allow you to have the same right of modification that retain” because that’s simply a technical way of evading the requirement of the licence to pass along all the rights you got.

The question here is over bundling. Tivo sell you a system comprising software, hardware, and services. If the software is derived from copylefted Free Software, recipients must be given the rights over the software specified by the copyleft – the rights to use, modify and distribute the software. What Stallman and Moglen are demanding is that the rights should extend to the hardware and services – that one should be able to use the hardware and services with modified software. They are trying to extend the rights over the software to open up the hardware and the services.

I think this is a mistake. Not because I don’t think that open hardware and open service interfaces are a good thing, but because there is a tradeoff, in terms of what copyleft can achieve, between getting as much as you can and restricting what purposes the software can be used for.

Various programmers have released software with restrictions – that it can’t be used by dictatorships, or arms manufacturers, or whatever. If many people do that, and you try to build systems from a collection of such software, you will pretty soon hit a point where someone disagrees with what you’re doing.

There are many things wrong in the world, and only some of them can be improved using software licenses.

The GPL is a way of using your copyright in software to restrain others from using their copyright in software. There’s an elegant symmetry in that, an automatic kind of agreement. If you want to use GPL’d Free Software, you have to support Free Software. That symmetry isn’t there in saying if you want to use my Free Software, you have to support Free Trade, or renewable energy, or independence for Tibet.

Stallman has always recognised that:

The freedom to run the program means the freedom for any kind of person or organization to use it on any kind of computer system, for any kind of overall job and purpose, without being required to communicate about it with the developer or any other specific entity. In this freedom, it is the user’s purpose that matters, not the developer’s purpose; you as a user are free to run a program for your purposes, and if you distribute it to someone else, she is then free to run it for her purposes, but you are not entitled to impose your purposes on her.

Admittedly, the link between Free Software and open hardware is closer than between Free Software and, say, legalisation of marijuana. But I still think it’s far enough away that it’s a distraction from the core value.

I’ve always (and it’s been at least 15 years now) seen the core value of Free Software as the right to share. If it costs nobody anything for me to copy a program for some one else, and they benefit from it, I should do it, and I shouldn’t put myself in a position where I am prevented from doing that by copyright law.

The right to modify is secondary. It is important, because in the long run software you can’t modify is useless. I am not helping someone by sharing software with them if I get updates and they don’t.

Open hardware is good too. But the FSF is going further than saying that; it is saying that Free Software that runs on closed hardware, which prevents you from running modified versions of the software, is not really free.

I disagree. I can build my own PVR, and I can use GPL’d Tivo software in it, even software that was written by Tivo itself, and even with my own modifications. That’s the key freedom, even if I’m not free to run changed software on the Tivo hardware itself. If I use a GPL’d online poker client, I can use modified version on an open server, even if I can’t use it on the vendor’s server.

And these aren’t far-fetched examples. If a system vendor like Tivo is able to use Free Software in their systems, it pretty much follows that their systems employ general-purpose hardware, and that their modifications to the software would potentially be useful on general-purpose hardware.

Linus Torvalds has a slightly different objection to the Tivoisation restriction, which is also correct. He insists that there are valid uses of locked-down hardware which ought not to be prohibited. My poker example is one, I would claim. Services can be exposed by connecting them to uncontrolled clients.

Update: a number of other senior Linux kernel developers have issued a well-argued position statement expressing their reservations with GPLv3 and the Tivoisation clause.

Mark Thomas on Broken Window Fallacy

September 12, 2006


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quoted by Johann Hari

a car accident is good for economic growth. Think about all the people who are employed when you drive past a motorway pile-up: the police to investigate, the fire brigade to cut the people out, the road cleaners to wipe it up, the MOTs, the refits. And if you’re really, really lucky there’s an undertaker getting a job too. But you don’t see a car crash and say, ‘Hooray! Things are looking up!’. Not unless Jeremy Clarkson’s in it.

War on Terror – long and short term goals

September 11, 2006


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The attack on the World Trade Center had mainly long-term goals. It was intended by its planners to win supporters to the long-term project of spreading Islamic theocracy by scoring a major coup, and by dragging the US into a war where it could be beaten.

The bombings in London had mainly short-term goals. It was intended by its planners, who were probably also the bombers, to drive Britain out of Iraq.

The invasion of Afghanistan had mainly short-term goals. It was intended to destroy the organisation which had planned the WTC attack, to punish them and to prevent them repeating it.

The invasion of Iraq had mainly long-term goals. There was a long article out about a month ago spelling out that the intention was not to prevent another WTC-style medium-tech terrorist attack, it was to prevent something much bigger, perhaps ten or twenty-five years down the road, by democratizing the Middle East so as not to contain any states that might feed future terrorists with nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately I can’t now find the article – the nearest thing I’ve got to spelling it out is GWB’s May speech.

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