Month: January 2009


Gaza


I haven’t written about Operation Cast Lead – my main principled position on this sort of question is that we shouldn’t get too involved, although Britain has always been somewhat involved in this case, so I really don’t have anything useful to suggest.

I was particularly struck, however, by this report from the WSJ Europe, (via Neil Craig). The central claim being made is that the problem is not that Arabs and Jews are eternal enemies, or that Gaza is the front line between Civilization and Islamofascism, or that the Injustice of the creation of Israel is a wound that can never heal. The problem is that Gaza is one giant sink estate, a culture of benefit dependents who have nothing else to do with their lives than to cause trouble.

That’s a narrative that seems intrinsically more plausible to me than the others. Not that I have any, you know, evidence or anything, but it seems worth looking into.

If it’s true, I still don’t know what to do about it. This is the problem a welfare state causes. But nobody wants to cut off the aid money and watch people starve. The only palatable solution would involve turning Gaza from a sink estate into a functioning productive economy, without ethnically cleansing the Palestinians. If we knew how to do that, there would be a lot few problems all over the world.

Private Fostering

22nd January 2009

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The British Association for Adoption and Fostering has its knickers in a twist because maybe 10,000 children in Britain are being looked after by people who are doing it voluntarily without properly informing the authorities.

Can you imagine why anyone would want to avoid involving the authorities?  They’re obviously all up to no good.

When listing the many bad effects of authoritarian and nanny-state policies, we usually remember to include “alienating the public from the police”.  But I’m not sure it gets the attention it deserves.  The all-providing, all-protecting state really is becoming a parent to its citizens.  And the citizens become the sullen teenager, not involving Mum and Dad in anything he doesn’t need them to be involved in.

I went to the IEA yesterday for the launch of Dominic Raab’s book “The Assault on Liberty”.  I won’t go into detail about the book until I’ve finished reading it, but  again, I’m wondering how much of the retooling of the police and justice systems has been made necessary by the collapse in public trust.  When the state’s scope was limited, it commanded trust within that scope.  As its scope grows, the number of reasons for not getting involved with it in any way mount up.   Most people have something to hide, and that’s always been the case.  But today, most people have something to hide from the police.

Too Much Bling

22nd January 2009

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People are urged to report their suspicions about apparently wealthy people with no legitimate income.

While this immediately raises my hackles, it’s perhaps not so outrageous to ask people to try to spot suspicious activity in their neighbourhood.

The real problem is that enforcement of victimless crimes – and one assumes that drug dealing is the main target of all this – is always going to intrusive and limiting of freedom and privacy, because, duh, it doesn’t get reported by the victim.

Cross-border Crimes

21st January 2009

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The current Freeman reminds us in an article of a story from 2008 which I never covered here – the German government’s aquisition of customer data from a Luxembourg bank.  An employee of the bank sold the list to the Germans for over 4 million Euros

What I wonder is what could happen if any of the officials, or even politicians, with managerial responsibility for that action, happened to visit Luxembourg.  Because they, surely, were involved in the commission of a crime in Luxembourg.  Think how lovely it would be to see them jailed.

Not that that would be an unqualified good thing.  Because to the Germans, the bank itself was, arguably deliberately, assisting the Germans on the list in committing a crime in Germany – of evading taxes.

If either government took the approach of the US to the scope of its jurisdiction, both German tax officers and Luxembourg bankers would have to be very cautious with their travel plans.

Probably how it stands is that each holds the power in reserve, to retaliate if the other starts by arresting important people.  That would be for the best, attractive as the idea of German tax-collectors in a Luxembourg jail is.

Eric Raymond on Net Neutrality

20th January 2009

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Eric Raymond does the latest EconTalk

There wasn’t much new for me – hardly surprising since I’ve been reading what he writes for nearly 20 years now.  But he did say about the Network Neutrality campaigners that, for the phone companies, “they think they’re the best enemies they could possibly have”

It seems a particularly bizarre conspiracy theory to claim that the phone companies are behind the network neutrality movement, but, in fact, they did kick the whole debate off.  It wasn’t started as a reaction against anything the phone company/ISPs were actually doing.  It started when they themselves announced that they would quite like to charge large internet services for access to their customers.

I’m not taking anybody’s word for this – I covered it myself at the time.  Three years ago, the CEO of AT&T said in an interview that he thought content providers should pay extra.  That was the start of the Net Neutrality war.

In those 3 years, neither AT&T nor anybody else has actually tried to do anything like this.  There have been some big fusses over things like interfering with bittorrent, but the net neutrality argument has been all about a hypothetical.  If regulations get passed, that will be a direct result of the interview Whitacre gave in January 2006.

As I pointed out at the time, Whitacre was taking the piss.  His cusomers have paid for access to Google.   If his successor tries to charge Google for the same thing, they will laugh and say “what will your customers say when you tell them they can’t use Google anymore?”  There is approximately no chance this will ever happen.

Given all that, the possibility that the whole Net Neutrality issue is a subtle bootleggers-and-baptists move by the telephone companies to get more regulation sounds a lot less insane.

Sainsbury’s Pricing

18th January 2009

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Presumably the calendar is stored in some database as comprising zero items. Therefore 99p for a calendar is NaNp “each”. (For many products the label will say “4.39 per kg” or whatever is appropriate).

Save 75% the simpsons his and hers 2009 calendar 99p  NaNp each

Oops


Open Systems

17th January 2009

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Tim Lee makes a good point at Freedom to Tinker – that open systems always seem to be losing until they’ve won – in part because the narrow interests that favour closed alternatives affect the reporting of the battle more than they affect the battle itself. (“The grassroots users of open platforms are far less likely to put out press releases or buy time for television ads.”) But the open systems win for the reasons I talked about the other day in the context of a “child-friendly internet” – the closed systems seem better fitted to customer demand, but they don’t adapt the way the open systems do.

Lee goes on to say that open systems will always win. I’m not so sure about that. Open systems will continue to win for as long as adaptation and innovation are crucial. When (if) the service required by users becomes stable, it seems probable that open platforms – with their complexity and vulnerability – will be supplanted by black-box single-purpose “appliances” that Just Work.

How likely is that to happen in the realm of information networks? I don’t know. Possibly we’ll always want more information. There may be subsets of networked information that can be hived off onto closed platforms, but against that, there’s always likely to be a value in combining information, either on your own systems or upstream. If some of the information you want is on open systems, the rest will need to be able to interact with it.


Defence Information Infrastructure

16th January 2009

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Tim Worstall asked for help evaluating the performance, reported by The Sun, of the Ministry of Defence’s bit IT project, the Defence Information Infrastructure.   He thought the cost, in terms of total spend divided by number of terminals, was too high by at least an order of magnitude.

The Sun was reporting on the publication of the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee’s report into the project.  I always try to avoid drawing conclusions from newspaper articles when primary sources are available. (Also including the NAO report from last July)

The short answer is that the project is expensive, but Tim is mistaken in looking at it as fundamentally a big pile of desktop PCs.

The project is intended to put all of the Ministry of Defence on a “terminal” type  IT architecture, where  applications run on central servers, and data is stored only on central servers,  and desktop PCs are used to remotely access the servers.

This architecture has two huge advantages:  First, it allows data to be controlled.  If it never escapes the servers, but is only presented on the PC, the chances of data leaking out is much reduced, and the chance of large bulk data escaping is almost eliminated.  This is a great advantage in a commercial environment, and much more obviously so in the case of the MOD.

The second advantage is robustness – since every desktop terminal is effectively identical, alternative working areas can be prepared with a high degree of confidence that users will actually be able to use them when necessary.  There remains the necessity of replicated server facilities and data, but that, while not easy, is less hard than duplicating desktop configurations in an alternative locations.

These are valuable advantages, but there are drawbacks.  The demands on network infrastructure are much heavier than when applications run locally and communicate with central resources only when necessary to share or archive data.   The project involved installing new cabling in every MOD building, right down to shabby old TA  headquarters, and the unexpected difficulties of doing that were blamed for the long delays the project has experienced so far.

The other drawback is that, while software can be written to work perfectly well from a remote terminal, most common software isn’t.  The user experience is made marginally better by making software more responsive to the user’s incomplete action – things like highlighting buttons as the mouse moves over them, suggesting completions of words as they are typed.   These features tend to become obstructive over high-latency links, as by the time the user gets the “response” to a part-completed action he has already gone past that.   Also some of the graphical optimisations in the latest desktop systems (Windows Vista’s flashy effects and Linux’s X compositing extensions) work by communicating more directly with the graphics hardware – communication which is not generally possible over the protocols used for remote desktops.  The project included provision of customised general-purpose office software for word processing, messaging etc.  This also turned out more difficult than anticipated and resulted in delays.

Those points aside, the state of the project is not outrageous.  Despite the delays, it is not vastly over budget .

The increase in announced cost, from just under 6 billion pounds to just over 7, is not an overrun, it is caused by the department not announcing the full cost of the project until all of it is contracted – the last billion is for extra work that was always intended, but which was not included in what they said they were going to spend prior to the contracts being signed to spend it.  Not incompetence, just dishonesty “in accordance with normal practice” (p.Ev14 of the PAC report).

The relationship with suppliers seems to have been managed better than in the normal public-private car crash.  Of course the MOD has longer experience with large private contracts than other government departments.  The contractor is paid for delivery, so the 18-month delay has not increased the budget significantly.

Not that everything is rosy.  The system, according to Wikipedia, is built on Windows XP.  Now much as I hate Windows, I have to admit that it has one large advantage, that everybody is familiar with it.  But, in using it as a terminal, and running applications remotely, that advantage is lost.  Even if the server applications are running on Windows servers, using a Linux-based terminal is cheaper, more reliable, easier to manage, and more efficient.

Secondly, the system is installed for some users and running, but further work is needed to make it usable for information classified as Top Secret.  Security is not usually something that can easily be added onto IT systems – you can add capability to a system, but making it secure is not adding capability but taking away capability – the capability of doing the things you don’t want it to do.  It really needs to be designed in from the start.

Having said that, I must admit I don’t really know anything about the “I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you” stuff.  There might be some subtle point that makes me wrong about it.

The most significant question was the one asked by Austin Mitchell:  given the difficulty of these very large IT projects, are they really worth doing?    Sir Bill Jeffery’s reply was “Because there is business benefit in having a single infrastructure and in particular single points of access.”   This is undoubtedly true.  But is there seven billion pounds worth of benefit?  Given the proven risk of these projects going vastly over budget, it would need to be much more.  Large private-sector organisations tend to struggle on with a multiplicity of systems.  They complain about it, and make powerpoint after powerpoint of rationalisation plans, but in revealed preference the flexibility and safety of multiple systems seems to survive against the genuine benefits of single infrastructure.


Sovereign Debt

15th January 2009

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Rad Geek is overjoyed to see Ecuador default on its bonds.

He argues, entirely correctly, that there’s no moral case for a government to pay debts – it has no moral right to contract debts on behalf of the people.  Lenders who lend to governments are in the same boat as the contractors I was talking about the other day.  They’re doing business with a government, the name for which is “politics”.  They are therefore exposed to political risk.

He also points out the absurdity of the “debt forgiveness” movement.  Governments don’t have to pay any debts they don’t feel like paying, as Ecuador demonstrates.  Therefore if they pay, they want to pay.

Why would they want to pay?  Because they want to continue to participate in the system.  Bluntly, they want to be able to borrow more.

Felix Salmon has a somewhat different take on the situation.  By his account, we are not seeing a principled attempt to detach from the global financial system, rather an almost-random blundering by a corrupt government that doesn’t know what it’s doing.

Meanwhile, Greg Ip asks in the Washington Post whether the US is likely to default on its debt.  Would that be a victory for the people?  I’m not convinced that the Ecuadorean default will be any better for the people of Ecuador.


Statutory Instruments

15th January 2009

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Henry Porter writes about the vast powers that the government has taken onto itself via statutory instruments.

Fundamentally he is right,  and right to be concerned, but there are a few points:

This is absolutely not new, it has been going on for decades.  Like most of these things, it is getting worse.

Calling for laws to actually be passed as bills, getting parliamentary scrutiny, rather than being statutory instruments, is all very well, but falls a bit flat when you see that even laws that are passed as bills by Parliament still aren’t actually read or debated.

See also

Legislative Productivity





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